Navigating Secularism in India: Nehru as its superego

Posted: September 8, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Hai ajab majmooa-e-izdaad, Ai Iqbal tu

Rauna-e-hangama-e-mehfil bhi hai, tanha bhi hai[1]

 

In the month of November 2014, one leading newsweekly published from Delhi had a black and white cover with the title-‘Can Nehru Survive Modi?’ Thankfully the question mark used by the magazine cover left scope for those voices which earnestly believe that the loss in the 2014 general election was in no way attributable to Nehru and his ideas. On the other hand, the truth probably lay in the fact that grand old party was probably punished for drifting miles away from what Nehru stood for.

It is by no means a hidden fact that the last couple of years have seen the ascendency of an unfortunate vilification campaign about and around Nehru and his ideas. The campaign managers have gone to the extent of juxtaposing Nehru and Patel in order to induce the nation to believe that the misfortune of this nation tragically began with the choice of Gandhi to pitch Nehru as his political heir. What followed was the most methodical and structured campaign to belittle the Nehru legacy and to replace it with the more ‘organically patriotic’ legacy of Sardar Patel. This, without doubt is the most dangerous design created to manipulate the collective memory of this nation.

As a child growing up with an ‘inherited’ memory derived from a lineage of well-read and politically informed family members, and having been a recipient of historical reminisces derived from factual text books in the mid and late 1970s, it was indeed a matter of good fortune that the counterfactual did not befall me and many people within my generation. Probably, the idea of ‘what-might-have-been’, was an indulgence that was not accessible to those of us who sailed through government run schools, and were nurtured with a pedagogy aiming to cultivate the ‘seeds of unity in diversity’ in us. Perhaps, and more fortunately so, the ones who configured the contours and content of history to be transmitted to us at that time, believed that the brutalization of collective memory based on speculation can only mar the possibility of a diverse yet inclusive India. We were always given to understand that there were significant differences over the nature and direction of the freedom movement as also with regard to the strategic positioning at any given point of time, but there was nothing unduly unnatural or unwarranted in this. Even popular memory informed us that there were unpretentious differences of opinion between Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, between Patel and Gandhi, between Nehru and Gandhi, between Subhash Bose and Gandhi and so on and so forth. This list is exhaustive enough to include more or less the entire galaxy of leaders, together with their divergence of opinion and stance with others in the spectrum. However, what was of immense academic delight was that we in our generation and creed were groomed to acknowledge and appreciate the conspicuous presence of differences of Gandhi with Gandhi himself, or Nehru with Nehru himself and even Patel with Patel himself. The annals of history revealed to us that the palpable differences between Gandhi of 1916-17 and Gandhi of 1931, or between Patel of the Bardoli Satyagrah days to Patel of the Dandi March realm, and Nehru of the Lahore Congress 1929 context and Nehru of the Quit India Movement frame. Suffice it to say, we learnt that such ‘differences’ did not agitate either history or the historians. They certainly did not rake up even a microcosm of quarrel with the historical data. We were encouraged to believe that history is not constituted by mono-causality, and that even great people within the folds of history had the freedom and the prerogative to appear less consistent.

Thus, while the history(and the memory) of the freedom movement appeared to us as a beautiful drapery of different colours and designs, at the same time it was able to showcase the unsullied commitment of our leaders, particularly Pandit Nehru, for the ‘Idea of India’; irrespective of the factual and perceived differences with self and others. In spite of their differences, they certainly were not ailing with what Erik Erikson(1968) terms as pseudospeciation, the belief that only one’s in-group i.e. clan, religion or nation is the whole of humanity. They were much more cosmopolitan in their outlook and thus, were impeccably committed towards translating India into a haven ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.’

We were gratified to discern that the Indian National Congress during the freedom movement was essentially an umbrella organisation with members drawn from all shades of political belief and opinion, which could be seen and imagined in India. It bespeaks of the tall stature of our stalwarts that even within their supposed standoffs, say between Gandhi and Subhash or between Nehru and Patel, the divergence of their views did not dilute their unwavering fervour for a shared vision for India. It did not undermine their collective and synchronised endeavour to build an India that should to be known to the world for its unstinting commitment to secular democracy. These were indeed remarkable people, who took annus mirabilis as well as annus horribilis in their stride; without ill-will, regrets and grudges. Articulated differences on the trajectory of the national movement or the choice of a particular strategy in a roundtable conference only helped them to learn to value and respect equipoise early in their careers. And it is this that has enabled each of us, as inheritors of their legacy, to look fondly at each one of them, individually and collectively, in sepia tone and in colour. In such a context, what could be more regrettable than the counterfactual inferences, of the nature and kind that we see emanating out of the ‘what ifs’, for they can be weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those politicians who love to have sporadic brushes with history. And if the counterfactual posed is distant from the data at hand, it can cause irreparable damage to memory as also history…..for let us not forget that the human civilisation has not yet been able to develop either an instrument or a technology that could rebuild and reconfigure shattered memories and wounded histories.

JawaharLal Nehru occupies a central position in the cognitive framework of a huge majority of Indians, not only as an exceptional writer, a profound thinker, and an exemplary statesman, but also as one who was a youthful dreamer who strove to integrate the ideas of liberalism onto a nation deeply divided on all possible parameters of birth and belonging. Even his ardent critics seldom deny that modern India and some of its most revered and vibrant institutions have been able to withstand the most regressive contestations and challenges only because of the steadfast ideological foundation laid by Nehru and his vision of secular, socialist and democratic India. An agnostic by training and temperament, Nehru had great faith in democracy. He solemnly believed that the Parliament, the Judiciary, the press and the civil society need to work in tandem to enrich each other in the process. He firmly believed that the secular political democracy would not sustain itself unless there was a simultaneous process of democratization of the economy and society. Further, if the economy and the society remained aloof, or were kept insulated from the democratic processes, it shall invariably fail to win a decisive battle against poverty, hunger and inequality. To Nehru, democracy did not merely constitute a political doctrine; it translated into a committed and continuous engagement in the shape of lived reality.

Among the nations which attained independence during the fourth and the fifth decade of the last century, Indian saga emerges as the most notable. This was mainly on account of its pronounced commitment to the secular values, which were deemed as non-negotiable instruments for the state’s engagements in every realm. It goes to the credit of leaders like Gandhi and Nehru who ensured that the concept of Indian secularism moved beyond their limited connotation of an intellectual construct and became the creed shaping the lived reality of this vast and diverse nation. It goes to their credit that we learnt, as an unacquainted and an even reluctant nation, that if the idea of India could exist and sustain, it could only do so within the confines of a secular democratic ethos.

It was Nehru who also strongly advocated the idea of ‘multi-religious’ and went ahead with the professed philosophy of ‘sarva dharma sambhav’ and composite culture. He believed that in a modern plural India, the concept of personal faith and personal conduct must be respected. It is in this context that he famously declared, ‘we are building a free Secular State, where every religion and belief has full freedom and equal honour, whose every citizen has equal liberty and equal opportunity’

 

Scientific Temper and Nehru

A journey into Nehruvian secularism has to be necessarily seen through the lens of a scientific temperament, for it was this temperament which Nehru meticulously tried to inculcate in himself, before making an argument for it to be integrated in the national creed. He wrote:

My early approach to life’s problems had been more or less scientific, with something of the easy optimism of the science of the nineteenth and twentieth century. A secure and comfortable existence, and the energy and the self-confidence I possessed increased that feeling of optimism.  A kind of vague optimism appealed to me. (Nehru, 2002:25)

Nehru’s agnosticism also emanated out of his very personal encounter with the manner in which he saw the practiced reality of religion to which even the thinking and the rational minds submitted without offering any critique. To him, the images of religion (and he meant all the religions of India) were in proximate alliance with credulous practices and rigid beliefs. Nehru believed that ‘there was an element of magic about it, an uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.’   ((Nehru, 2002:26)

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Nehru regarded science as a method guiding rational behaviour in public as well as private sphere. His faith in the scientific method was unwavering and unrelenting. Though he never denied that modern science had brought its own share of miseries for humanity, yet he remained committed to the belief that the most vivacious change that it had brought about was the much requisite expansion in the scientific outlook in human beings across continents. He goes on to reiterate: 

Essentially, I am interested in this world, in this life, not in some other world or a future life. ………. The environment in which I have grown up takes the soul (or rather the atma) and a future life, the karma theory of cause and effect, and reincarnation for granted. I have been affected by this and so, in a sense, I am favourably disposed towards these assumptions.  (Nehru, 2002:27)

Through a reading based on reason and scientific temper, Nehru knew the social and economic contours of his nation and her people, and thus had no qualms in declaring that science alone could address the problems of hunger and poverty. A Socialist and a republican by conscious choice, he was truly instrumental in drawing the margins of the society into the mainstream, the latter being hitherto a citadel of a privileged few. He held that the state had to have a ‘maximalist’ role in bridging the gaps between rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged.  As an extension to this impeccable premise, he was vociferously opposed to all forms of oppression and remnants of colonialism.

Nehru was equally aware of the images of superstition and the numbing customs and traditions which could bridle the path of a newly evolving democracy, and therefore he repeatedly articulated that for any society to ignore the charm of science and scientific temper was to do so at its own peril. Nehru was also one of the greatest public intellectuals of his time, for way he thought; and the way he reflected and engaged with his fellow citizens at a very comprehensive level. It was through scientific and methodological tools that he was able to continuously engage in open dialogue and share new insights. He had a tremendous ability to speak with reason even during those times when reason and passion could be easily pitted against each other. Despite having had the misfortune of witnessing some the most barbaric forms of violence and conflict under the garb of religion during his life time, it was his affirmation in reason that made him iterate that the key to a humane, civilised and just society lay within the possibility of a vibrant inter-faith connect and engagement. The agnostic in him did not deter him in envisioning the growing scope of continuous dialogue between faiths so that challenges of a diverse nature could be collectively withstood.

Yes I am convinced that the methods and approach of science have revolutionized human life more than anything else in the long course of history, and have opened doors and avenues of further and even more radical change, leading up to the very portals of what has long been considered the unknown. (Nehru, 2002:31)

His was one voice, and at times a lonely one, which stood for reason and reasonable outcome, even if it led to the shaking of the foundation of a popular belief or a venerated tradition. While proud of the rich heritage of India, he was conscious of the ills prevalent in its society. He lamented the widespread deterioration in public life and inter-community engagement, attributing it to a preference for irrationality over reason.

A rational spirit of inquiry, so evident in earlier times, which might well have led to the further growth of science, is replaced by irrationalism and a blind idolatry of the past. Indian life becomes a sluggish stream, living in the past, moving slowly through the accumulations of dead centuries. (Nehru, 2002:54)

In true sense, Nehru was madly in love with science and believed that it was scientific temperament alone that could create the contours of a diverse, yet inclusive and dynamic India. Many of his critiques misinterpreted his deep regard for science when they trivialised science as being hugely costly research labs or big dams, but for Nehru science was much more than all this….it was a fundamental idea which India needed to imbibe and use, to reboot itself in the newer context in which she found herself. This scientific thinking remained integral to his persona and was instrumental in shaping the policy framework of the government of independent India. It is in this regard that Sarvepalli Gopal, one of the finest biographers of Nehru writes,

‘This fair chance of raising a rational, educated and forward looking society based on modernisation, industrialisation and a scientific temper was made possible by a government that accepted the task, planned for it and informed the people that they had been sentenced to hard labour striving for it (Gopal, 2015, Volume 2, p-306).

 A Tryst with Secularism

Secularism as a political idea undoubtedly had its origins in the West, and it acquired a robust structure through the processes and stages of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the yearning for democracy on the Western shores. It is believed that though certain spiritual and cultural elements of secularism were visible within the annals of Indian history, yet, it was the freedom movement which initiated a discussion and a subsequent articulation on secularism in the Indian context. This version of secularism was not a copy of the text, but an adaptation coursed through our own history and experiences, and who could understand or exposition this better than Nehru?  Indeed it was his unwavering belief that the solution to the problems of India and the world lay in ‘socialism’, perceived not only as a scientific economic doctrine, but accepted as the very guiding philosophy of life.

Nehru’s articulation and subsequent position on secularism indicates a near perfect synergy of scientific temper and his attraction towards Advaita (non-dualist) philosophy of Vedanta. And it is in this context that Nehruvian secularism did not take an adversarial position vis-à-vis religion and traditional belief. Through thousands of letters and public speeches, his impassioned and recurrent appeal to his colleagues and fellow citizens was to keep matters of faith and belief in the personal realm, while keeping matters of governance in the public realm. Nehru envisioned an Indian persona, which could be religious in personal faith and secular in public sphere, in dealing with public institutions as well as with others, who may not share in faith and belief. This could only come from the mind of one who found himself ‘incapable of thinking of a deity or of any unknown supreme power in anthropomorphic terms…..’(Nehru, 2002:28)

It was essentially this scientific temper that Pandit Nehru wanted Indians to nurture in themselves, while encouraging others to imbibe and work on it, which necessitated a submission to science, logic and reasoning, and principled circumvention to preconceived notions and prejudices with respect to others. The Nehruvian ideals of secularism cannot be understood without appreciating its unflinching commitment to justice, equality and democracy. Nehru was acutely aware that the roots of Western secularism had emerged as a reaction against the prevalent religious orthodoxy in that context. While his open and liberal mind appreciated the historical trajectory of the western secularism as an outcome of the prolonged conflict between religion, society and politics, he reckoned that the Indian version of secularism would have to negotiate its structure and position in the context of the specificities of religion, politics and culture in India. For Nehru, secularism was not simply a political philosophy, but a comprehensive normative framework aiming to embrace all faiths, beliefs and communities. It also meant creating a state which should not accord preference on the basis of one’s faith and religion. Nehru’s continuous endeavour was to prepare the instruments and institutions of governance and the state in a frame that considered the practice and profession of religion to be invariably considered in the personal domain of the citizen. As far as the State was concerned, it was premised to remain engaged and committed to the equal opportunity for all against all odds. The desire to draw the shape of a very Hindustani secularism could be traced in one of his early writings:

Whatever the word we may use, Indian or Hindi or Hindustani, for our cultural tradition, we see in the past that some inner urge towards synthesis, derived essentially from the Indian philosophical outlook, was the dominant feature of Indian cultural and even racial development. Each incursion of foreign elements was a challenge to this culture, but it was met successfully by a new synthesis and a process of absorption. This was also a process of rejuvenation and new blooms of culture arose out of it, the background and essential basis, however, remaining the same. (Nehru, 2002:76)

Nehru took his ideas on secularism to the platform of the freedom struggle, and to be fair to him and his contemporaries, it was not an easy expedition.  In the initial years, the great leaders of the movement were not on the same page as far as secularism was concerned. Yet, he carried on with his relentless struggle to bring in the issues and concerns of democratic practices and liberal-secular principles onto centre stage. Several leaders considered the Nehruvian position on Secularism as antithetical to religion, and Nehru had to go through the ordeal of having to repeatedly convince each one of them about his uncompromised respect for religion, with a caveat that religion should not result in decimating the vibrant strands of diversity, which had remained the bedrock of the Indian civilisation. He was in favour of building a political climate wherein religious and cultural aspirations of each citizen were accorded equal respect and recognition. Any violation from this intrinsic principle angered Nehru and he minced no words in denouncing the same openly. On one such occasion, he said:

Friends! you receive me with cries of Bande Mataram , Jai Hind and Jawaharlal ki Jai. These very lusty shouts do not please me anymore. The sturdy peasants, those indefatigable fighters of freedom, those sacrificing millions of Bihar, who toiled and tilled and bore a heavy burden, have gone astray, gone mad with communal frenzy, which I cannot conceive of even. I heard that some want to avenge wrong done in East Bengal districts. Governmental machinery is being accelerated to bring evil doers to proper justice and relief and succour were being made available to sufferers. It is all the mire astonishing and astounding, I consider it to be bad enough, that such things which made the common foe of all communities-British Imperialism-laugh in unholy glee, should have at all happened. This frenzy has delayed the whole scheme of Swaraj. (Selected works, Vol-1, p-59)

While traversing the length and breadth of the country, Nehru kept on sharing with people that in a country like India, with its rich diversity of faith and religions, no other political alternative was either feasible or desirable than carving out a nation on the basis of a secular and democratic framework. To him, anything else would eject India onto a disastrous path, wherein Nationalism itself would become the reason for the breaking up of the country. Nehruvian secularism was therefore a prodigious amalgamation of his  definitive critique of religion posing as an orthodox belief system, as well as a profound appreciation and respect for religion the way it had shaped the Indian civilisation and the psyche of its people. And it was not long when Gandhi expressed the same sentiment. He did not expect India of his dreams to develop one religion that is to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but desired it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.

Right through the freedom movement, even when many of his ideas appeared far ahead of the times, and did not always find favour with his colleagues, Nehru remained committed to his dream of working for an India, which would be a happy home to everyone as equals. Beginning with the late 1920s, he could see the impact of religious and communal divide on national life, and as a result he kept on cautioning everyone against the dangers of a politics which thrived on demonising and dehumanising the people and communities of different faiths. With Gandhi on his side, Nehru symbolised a glimmer of hope for people and forces which wished to see India as a secular, socialist and democratic republic. Of all the leaders of the Indian freedom movement, he was the first one (and probably the only one) to see through the design and the inherent dangers of Fascism and Nazism as they were emerging in Europe. It would be in the fitness of things if we look at the Indian political situation of 1940s, wherein the Muslim League was carrying forward a version of nationalism, which was antithetical to what the Indian National Congress had been positioning with. With each passing day there was not enough space available for the articulation and consolidation of that stated position, which Gandhi and Nehru represented, and which was in sync with the thousands of years of historical stream of India. It was this constriction of space, which witnessed a consolidation of rabid communal elements resulting in frequent instances of violence in different parts of India. Bengal in particular was emerging as the hotbed of communal polarisation and following the call by the Muslim League for direct action on 16th August 1946, there were large scale violence. Calcutta symbolised the rot that had set in our political system and thus the Great Calcutta killing which followed witnessed more than ten thousand people dying in just a few days. This indeed was one of those most unfortunate episodes which led to a vicious cycle of violence elsewhere, under the cover of reaction and revenge. Such episodes of violence disturbed the rhythm of the leaders who dreamt of composite nationalism as the foundation stone of independent India and saddened people like Nehru, who had to admonish his fellow citizens quite frequently during the period. He was of the firm belief that in spite of provocation of any magnitude, if people make active and sincere efforts based on reason and rationality, a politics based on the hate and distrust could not succeed. To one such groups in Monghyr (Bihar) on 5th November 1946, he had to use harsh words to convey that the idea of India was far more powerful and far more emotionally unifying than the ones which positioned themselves against.

Twelve years back I visited Monghyr when a great natural calamity in the shape of a great earthquake devastated your district. Today I am again here to witness the distressing effects of another calamity brought about by human beings by their actions against fellow brethren. In case of natural calamities everyone comes to the help of his fellow beings but what is the result when brothers run at each other’s throat. Do you propose to repeat the unfortunate happenings in Bengal by killing the Muslims in Bihar? Is this the way in which you are showing your culture and civilization of what you are so proud? I am sorry to think that those who will suffer for their misdeeds will be the simple minded, unsophisticated kisans who have been hoodwinked and misguided by their leaders who incite them at the cost of their country’s cause. You should be ashamed of your acts of lawlessness. (Selected Works, Volume-1, p-61)

He argued convincingly both within the Congress meetings as also in his public speeches that by itself religion did not have the capacity or the strength to mobilise and lead people to what was communal assertion. He knew and wanted his people to believe that the images of communal polarisation had put fundamental and more urgent questions of equality and justice to the margin of the prevalent discourse. He could see a design in which some people from within the Congress too dreamt of India becoming a majoritarian (communal) state as a natural response to the votaries of Pakistan. Even during the nightmarish years before partition, Nehru remained committed to his imagination of India which shall be run with the spirit of true republicanism, and where there shall be no space for any exclusive brand of nationalism. He was aghast to see some of his political co-travellers putting forward the idea of a Hindu state and had to tell them that such ideologies may hold some charm in the beginning but an entire civilisation would eventually be led to a catastrophe. He articulated his position to his fellow citizens as:

All of you are shouting Jai Hind and ‘Long Live Revolution. But what sort of country do you want to build up? What kind of revolution are you trying to herald by all these communal disturbances that are prevailing in Bihar? It is shameful that Hindus should try to kill a handful of Muslims who are living as their neighbours in the province. I appreciate courage and strength and want people to be courageous and strong. But this courage and strength has to be directed to proper channels and not fritted away in outbursts of communal frenzy. (Selected Works,Vol.1 P-55)

With partition and the creation of a separate state of Pakistan, unlike others in his company, Nehru realised that the issues of communal concerns per se could not be left in the domain of those who raised these issues and thrived on them. After the birth of Pakistan, he had to make sure that the struggle went on to ensure that his nation did not become the Hindu Pakistan. He knew that the best safeguard to counter such reactionary sentiment lay in vigorously promoting tolerance, and committing the state to safeguarding of the uniqueness of each religious group and its culture, apart from promising equality in every sphere. Though deeply aggrieved, he knew his responsibility of explaining the circumstances leading to unavoidable imageries of partition.

India’s heart has been broken but her essential unity has not been destroyed. How will you repair the broken heart? It can be only on the basis of programme. The horrible riots in the Punjab, Bengal and elsewhere were no isolated riots. ……..Our first task should be the establishment of strong central government to rule the country firmly and to assure the individual’s liberty and life. All other questions are of secondary importance.(Selected works, Vol-3, p-110)

Here was a leader whose politics did not believe in propagating a nationalism based on religious identity, yet had to accept the same in view of the restoration of peace and order in a country which was suffering one of the worst spate of communal violence. Throughout his political career he kept on condemning and opposing Jinnah and his Muslim league for rigidly adhering to the two nation theory. However, he was more anguished to witness the echo of the same divisive theory amongst a section of Hindus and the Sikh populace and an unmistakable sympathy for the same in some of his colleagues, with whom he had shared years of struggle to have an India based on composite nationalism.

He exhorted his people to unite to gain strength. But he iterated that this strength must be channelized for constructive purposes and not for killing and looting. A sense of unease was obviously seen during this period when as the prime minister of a just born nation he had to attend to multiple tasks including dealing with some of his colleagues who were keen to make India, the mirror image of Pakistan. His biographer, S. Gopal writes, ‘this disappointment with the general mood gradually extended into a sense of his own isolation from the rank and file of the party. To Nehru the issue of secularism was always one on which no compromise was possible.’(Gopal, 2015:82). The sense of despair notwithstanding, Nehru was not going to give up his position and thus he relentlessly continued to speak of the dangers of majoritarian nationalism, which according to him was akin to fascism. He knew that the battle against communalism had to be fought at many levels, including a persistent struggle in the sphere of culture and psyche. To him, communalism as a narrowing creed could never usher India as a free democratic and liberal society. ‘The only thing communalism can give rise is fascism. This may seem a surprising statement but both fascism and communalism are products of narrow attitude of mind. Both ultimately lead to authoritarianism.’(Selected Works,Volume-4, P-493).

The instantaneous response to the scale of slaughter that Nehru witnessed was one of disbelief. He was horrified but still saw the images of violence as essentially between humanity and inhumanity, between normal decent interaction and brutish behaviour. He wanted his colleagues and the ordinary citizens of India to calm things down and to cooperate with each other so that the tryst with destiny could be saved from going berserk. During all the months of disturbing images of communal polarisation, Nehru grabbed every opportunity to draw Gandhi and his pervading influence on people in order to bring normalcy in the country, as also to contain his colleagues who were swayed to an extent by the politics of communal polarisation. While addressing the students of Allahabad University on 13th December 1947, he echoed the indebtedness of an entire nation to what Gandhiji had done in the riot torn Noakholi and other places.

 

How many of you realise what it has meant to India to have the presence of Mahatma Gandhi these months? We all know of his magnificent services to India and to freedom during the past half century and more. But no service could have been greater than what he has performed during the past four months when in a dissolving world he has been like a rock of purpose and a lighthouse of truth, and his firm low voice has risen above the clamours of the multitude pointing out the path of rightful endeavour.(Gopal, 2015:17)

Speaking at Allahabad, Nehru would not have imagined that the fanatic Hindu right wing design was planning to shut the ‘lighthouse’ Nehru really needed, more than ever before.  A spate of tremors were thus in the offing for the entire nation while communal polarisation was engulfing new areas and hitherto unaffected people. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathu Ram Godse, a flag bearer of the Hindu right wing organisation. That inauspicious day when the Mahatma was killed for standing up for an inclusive and secular India, marked not only the tragedy of having lost the ‘light’, it also indicated the abysmal  level of the ‘rot of intolerance’ which had set its foothold in  society. Nehru was emotionally shattered and dejected for having lost a ‘father figure’ with whom he disagreed quite often, but also adored and regarded as a beacon of hope when despair was the order of the day. Reaching Birla House on listening to the tragedy, he ‘sobbed like a child’ and his devastated first reaction was, ‘The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more’. But the pragmatic in him made him immediately revise his first emotional reaction for he knew that the rising tide of communal conflagration would not be satiated even by the sacrifice of the most precious of Indian lives.

The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate past, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom. (Gopal, 2015:25)

He wanted an entire nation which was in mourning to see what the spectre of communalism had done and wanted each one of the citizens to feel responsible for this unprecedented tragedy. He wanted the nation to see through the loss of world’s greatest man as a collective national shame. He exhorted his people that this mourning should give them the conviction to say a bold ‘No’ to continued bloodshed and intolerance towards the demonised others.

The past three days have changed the entire face of the country. A mad man has shot Gandhiji. But what is the use of being angry with an individual? He will be tried under the law and punished. What we have to see is that how and why even one man among 40 crores of Indians dared to inflict this terrible wound on our country. How was an atmosphere created in which people like him dared call themselves Indians? (Selected Works, Volume-5, p-42)

Nehru was acutely aware of the dimensions that communal politics had acquired, and thus just two days before the assassination of Bapu he wrote to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, sharing his concerns regarding the nefarious activities of the Hindu Mahasabha. While sharing his anguish over the Hindu Mahasabha, he also shared with him that he was also aware of the objectionable posturing of the RSS and its involvement in riots and disorder in different parts of India.

…..what pains me most is the extreme vulgarity and indecency of speeches being made from Hindu Mahasabha platforms. Gandhi Murdabad is one of their special slogans. Recently a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha stated that an objective to aim at was the hanging of Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad. Normally one does not like to interfere with any political activities however much one may dislike them. But there is a limit to this kind of thing, and I fear that the limit is being reached if it has not already been crossed. I write to you especially because of your own close association with the Hindu Mahasabha. (Selected Works,Volume-5, pp-30-31)

Since the beginning of the 1950s, there was a phenomenal increase in the migration of Hindus from East Bengal, creating a panic amongst the Muslims of Calcutta.  During this tumultuous phase, Nehru contemplated resigning from the position of Prime Minister as he was getting an appalling feeling that the party and the people he had worked for so far were drifting away to the politics of communal polarisation. S. Gopal (2015:82) cites an excerpt out of his letter to Mehar Chand Khanna in this context:

So far as I am concerned, my own mind is perfectly clear in these matters and I have viewed with dismay and sorrow the narrow and communal outlook that has progressively grown in this country and which shows itself in a variety of ways. I shall cease to be the Prime Minister the moment I realise that this outlook has come to stay and that I cannot my duty as I conceive it.

On the issue of continuous migration from Bengal and the conflicting views of some of the Congress ministers and functionaries, Nehru wanted to urgently provide a sense of security to the Hindus of East Bengal. According to S. Gopal, for this to happen, Nehru would have to don the mantle of Gandhi. Writing to Sardar Patel, he was indisputably clear in his mind that in order to reach out and provide healing touch to the suffering humanity, he would have to give up the position of Prime Minister. Contemplating this, he wrote to Sardar Patel:

I think I could make a difference there and it is of the highest importance that we should not allow ourselves to be submerged by the Bengal problem. Hence I come to the conclusion that I should get out of office……….I cannot do this as Prime Minister, more especially because the views of the party are not in line with my own…… … I wish to repeat that, constituted as I am, I find it more and more difficult not to take some such action. (Gopal, 2015:83).

Despite all of these traumatic events, coupled with the uncomfortable and adversarial political posturing by some of his colleagues, Nehru was not willing to compromise his position on the liberal and secular tenets governing the state and public life. Several of his colleagues accepted his advocacy of secular creed for the nation, albeit reluctantly, but were keen that the Indian Muslims should provide their proof of loyalty. While they agreed with Nehru that attacks against the Muslims were cowardly, they also believed that Muslims would have to be faithful to India, and if not, they would have to go to Pakistan. But to Nehru, it was patently wrong to seek any guarantees of loyalty; that could not be produced to order or by fear, but could only come as a natural product of circumstances, and it was for the majority, in India or Pakistan, to create such circumstances. (Gopal, 2015-86)

…….But you will appreciate that the history of the last few years especially of last year has increased communal suspicion and bitterness. Is it surprising that those Muslims who till yesterday were champions of Pakistan should be viewed with suspicion when they talk of loyalty to India? It is a little absurd of some of our people to speak incessantly about demanding loyalty from the Muslims or any others. Loyalty does not come by compulsion. I have little doubt that the Muslims in India have undergone a big sea change as soon as the partition came and after they have seen the consequences of this partition.( Selected Works, volume-7, pp-4-9)

Taking the issue further, Nehru continued to write to his Chief Ministers about the dangers of parochial and partisan approaches in matters of governance. He was absolutely clear in his mind that as Prime Minister and as leader of the Congress party, he would not sanction communal polarisation to dictate matters of statecraft and would do everything under his command not to tolerate any uncivilised and barbarous behaviour.

Even amidst the spate of frequent discordant notes with some of his most valuable colleagues, Nehru was deeply traumatised by the developments in a rather non-descript town called Faizabad (Ayodhya) in UP. It was this locale that saw the manufacturing of a very serious challenge to the Nehruvian commitment to Secularism. At midnight of 22nd December 1949, an idol of Lord Rama surreptitiously appeared within the precincts of the Babri Masjid. This event vitiated the already charged up communal atmosphere. This was a huge jolt to Nehru, for during most part of his early political career, he had spent time in every nook and corner of this state, which had developed such a communal hotbed. A visibly shaken, but not deterred Nehru, continued his battle against the communal elements both within his party and outside. He kept appealing to his colleagues to understand and develop respect for each other, which essentially was the core of any meaningful human relationship. In the backdrop to the developments in Ayodhya, some of the Congress leaders were demanding that the Muslims adopt the ‘Hindu culture’, thereby leading the town to become a veritable tinderbox (Jha and Jha, 2012:85). In such a temporal context, Nehru wrote to Mohanlal Saxena, the Union minister for rehabilitation:

 

…. what does upset one is the complete degradation of human nature and even more, the attempt to find justification for this…. Indeed the U.P is becoming almost a foreign land for me. I do not fit in there. The U.P Congress committee, with which I have been associated for thirty-five years, now functions in a manner which amazes me. Its voice is not the voice of the Congress I have known, but something which I have opposed for the greater part of my life…….communalism has invaded the minds and hearts of those who were pillars of the congress in the past. It is a creeping paralysis and the patient does not even realise it…(Gopal, 2015: 92)

Even amidst the seemingly dark clouds of communalism hovering around, Nehru wanted his colleagues and his fellow citizens to see that communal polarisation and separatist tendencies would only push the important issues of fight against poverty and unemployment to the side-lines of public concern and priority. It was also likely to weaken the institutions and structures which were created to lead India on the path to being a vibrant democracy. He wanted the rank and file of the Congress to acknowledge that the success of communalism would also indicate the failure of the party in developing a counter strategy to the politics of polarisation. He declared that ‘..nothing was worse in a democracy than complacency on the part of a government or of the people.(Gopal, 2015:156). Even on the eve of the first general election, Nehru was more worried about the democratic practices and processes rather than the outcome; for he believed that he had bigger things in mind such as democratising the organisation of the Congress; and making institutions attend to the needs and concerns of everyone without bias and prejudice. Yet, he was more than instrumental in ensuring the accomplishment of the first ever election in a free and fair manner. This indeed was the first seed sown to ‘strengthen and deepen the spirit of democracy’. On issues relating to the means and ends in such an important election, Nehru was lovingly candid in speaking his mind when he said:

 ‘I would like to repeat that it is better to lose elections than to give up something which has been the basis of our national movement and that is the foundation of all progress in India’.(Khosla, 2014:56).His biographer S. Gopal writes, ‘the decision to hold elections on the basis of adult suffrage in a vast country with a large and mostly illiterate population had been a pure act of faith on Nehru’s part; and he was vindicated by the result’.(Gopal, 2015:162).

In this open season, when Nehru is being fervently disparaged by those who probably have no sense of history, and who lack both the conviction and the courage to look at the finer details of the making of India in those turbulent years, do they not see that it well-nigh impossible to weave a historical narrative on the way the Indian state and society have worked for strengthening communal relations without acknowledging the significant part played by Nehru? It was indeed Nehru who continued to speak a language of peace and togetherness, even when some of his dearest colleagues wanted him to make India take on the mantle of a Hindu Pakistan. It was Nehru who believed that a politics which tells its people to situate themselves in a self-perpetuating image of their own faith or in a dominant way of thinking and doing things that may appear to be the natural course or just common sense. He had to warn his people and his colleagues that, it was potently dangerous in the longer run for the same people. Can we deny that the Nehru’s warnings are coming so spot-on, in view of harangues being undertaken by the diseased body of the right wing Organisations? In spite of the Ayodhyas and the Godhras, and even the Gharwapsis, if the moral community from amongst the Indian citizens stands up to question, it shall only reinforce the sentiment that the Nehruvian ideas on secularism can never be crushed, and least of all in a general election which comes after every five years. Notwithstanding a climate which aims to threaten the liberal democratic ethos of the Indian people, one must realise what Bauman (1986), articulated so meaningfully when he said, ‘the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions, and that is the essence of remaining committed to ideas like secularism, even when they at times appear not to be in vogue.

Even for the most ardent of his admirers, wrapping up a discussion on Nehruvian secularism is undoubtedly an exceedingly difficult proposition, and being one in this creed, I can only follow and reproduce what Inder Malhotra(2006-7), the veteran journalist wrote of the man that Nehru was and remains:

India is a better place to live in because Nehru lived, and no matter how long the babies born on the diamond jubilee of Independence live, they will never see the like of him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

Erikson, E. H.(1968). Identity, Youth and Crisis, New York, W. W. Norton

Gopal, Sarvepalli (Ed.)  (1988). Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. Second Series, volume-1 to 11. Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund..

Gopal, Sarvepalli (2015).  Jawharlal Nehru-A Biography (Vol.1-3). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Jha, Krishna and Jha, Dhirendra K. (2012).  Ayodhya : The Dark Night. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India.

Khosla,  Madhav (Ed.). (2014). Letters for a Nation. New Delhi: Allen Lane.

Malhotra, Inder  (2007). Nehru’s Luminous Legacy. India International Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 60 (WINTER 2006-SPRING 2007):33

Nehru,  Jawaharlal (2002). The Discovery of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

[1] O Iqbal, you really are something else!

You can be the life of the party,

Yet be alone all the while.

 

Hai ajab majmooa-e-izdaad, Ai Iqbal tu

Rauna-e-hangama-e-mehfil bhi hai, tanha bhi hai[1]

 

In the month of November 2014, one leading newsweekly published from Delhi had a black and white cover with the title-‘Can Nehru Survive Modi?’ Thankfully the question mark used by the magazine cover left scope for those voices which earnestly believe that the loss in the 2014 general election was in no way attributable to Nehru and his ideas. On the other hand, the truth probably lay in the fact that grand old party was probably punished for drifting miles away from what Nehru stood for.

It is by no means a hidden fact that the last couple of years have seen the ascendency of an unfortunate vilification campaign about and around Nehru and his ideas. The campaign managers have gone to the extent of juxtaposing Nehru and Patel in order to induce the nation to believe that the misfortune of this nation tragically began with the choice of Gandhi to pitch Nehru as his political heir. What followed was the most methodical and structured campaign to belittle the Nehru legacy and to replace it with the more ‘organically patriotic’ legacy of Sardar Patel. This, without doubt is the most dangerous design created to manipulate the collective memory of this nation.

 

As a child growing up with an ‘inherited’ memory derived from a lineage of well-read and politically informed family members, and having been a recipient of historical reminisces derived from factual text books in the mid and late 1970s, it was indeed a matter of good fortune that the counterfactual did not befall me and many people within my generation. Probably, the idea of ‘what-might-have-been’, was an indulgence that was not accessible to those of us who sailed through government run schools, and were nurtured with a pedagogy aiming to cultivate the ‘seeds of unity in diversity’ in us. Perhaps, and more fortunately so, the ones who configured the contours and content of history to be transmitted to us at that time, believed that the brutalization of collective memory based on speculation can only mar the possibility of a diverse yet inclusive India. We were always given to understand that there were significant differences over the nature and direction of the freedom movement as also with regard to the strategic positioning at any given point of time, but there was nothing unduly unnatural or unwarranted in this. Even popular memory informed us that there were unpretentious differences of opinion between Gandhi and Bhagat Singh, between Patel and Gandhi, between Nehru and Gandhi, between Subhash Bose and Gandhi and so on and so forth. This list is exhaustive enough to include more or less the entire galaxy of leaders, together with their divergence of opinion and stance with others in the spectrum. However, what was of immense academic delight was that we in our generation and creed were groomed to acknowledge and appreciate the conspicuous presence of differences of Gandhi with Gandhi himself, or Nehru with Nehru himself and even Patel with Patel himself. The annals of history revealed to us that the palpable differences between Gandhi of 1916-17 and Gandhi of 1931, or between Patel of the Bardoli Satyagrah days to Patel of the Dandi March realm, and Nehru of the Lahore Congress 1929 context and Nehru of the Quit India Movement frame. Suffice it to say, we learnt that such ‘differences’ did not agitate either history or the historians. They certainly did not rake up even a microcosm of quarrel with the historical data. We were encouraged to believe that history is not constituted by mono-causality, and that even great people within the folds of history had the freedom and the prerogative to appear less consistent.

Thus, while the history(and the memory) of the freedom movement appeared to us as a beautiful drapery of different colours and designs, at the same time it was able to showcase the unsullied commitment of our leaders, particularly Pandit Nehru, for the ‘Idea of India’; irrespective of the factual and perceived differences with self and others. In spite of their differences, they certainly were not ailing with what Erik Erikson(1968) terms as pseudospeciation, the belief that only one’s in-group i.e. clan, religion or nation is the whole of humanity. They were much more cosmopolitan in their outlook and thus, were impeccably committed towards translating India into a haven ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.’

We were gratified to discern that the Indian National Congress during the freedom movement was essentially an umbrella organisation with members drawn from all shades of political belief and opinion, which could be seen and imagined in India. It bespeaks of the tall stature of our stalwarts that even within their supposed standoffs, say between Gandhi and Subhash or between Nehru and Patel, the divergence of their views did not dilute their unwavering fervour for a shared vision for India. It did not undermine their collective and synchronised endeavour to build an India that should to be known to the world for its unstinting commitment to secular democracy. These were indeed remarkable people, who took annus mirabilis as well as annus horribilis in their stride; without ill-will, regrets and grudges. Articulated differences on the trajectory of the national movement or the choice of a particular strategy in a roundtable conference only helped them to learn to value and respect equipoise early in their careers. And it is this that has enabled each of us, as inheritors of their legacy, to look fondly at each one of them, individually and collectively, in sepia tone and in colour. In such a context, what could be more regrettable than the counterfactual inferences, of the nature and kind that we see emanating out of the ‘what ifs’, for they can be weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those politicians who love to have sporadic brushes with history. And if the counterfactual posed is distant from the data at hand, it can cause irreparable damage to memory as also history…..for let us not forget that the human civilisation has not yet been able to develop either an instrument or a technology that could rebuild and reconfigure shattered memories and wounded histories.

JawaharLal Nehru occupies a central position in the cognitive framework of a huge majority of Indians, not only as an exceptional writer, a profound thinker, and an exemplary statesman, but also as one who was a youthful dreamer who strove to integrate the ideas of liberalism onto a nation deeply divided on all possible parameters of birth and belonging. Even his ardent critics seldom deny that modern India and some of its most revered and vibrant institutions have been able to withstand the most regressive contestations and challenges only because of the steadfast ideological foundation laid by Nehru and his vision of secular, socialist and democratic India. An agnostic by training and temperament, Nehru had great faith in democracy. He solemnly believed that the Parliament, the Judiciary, the press and the civil society need to work in tandem to enrich each other in the process. He firmly believed that the secular political democracy would not sustain itself unless there was a simultaneous process of democratization of the economy and society. Further, if the economy and the society remained aloof, or were kept insulated from the democratic processes, it shall invariably fail to win a decisive battle against poverty, hunger and inequality. To Nehru, democracy did not merely constitute a political doctrine; it translated into a committed and continuous engagement in the shape of lived reality.

Among the nations which attained independence during the fourth and the fifth decade of the last century, Indian saga emerges as the most notable. This was mainly on account of its pronounced commitment to the secular values, which were deemed as non-negotiable instruments for the state’s engagements in every realm. It goes to the credit of leaders like Gandhi and Nehru who ensured that the concept of Indian secularism moved beyond their limited connotation of an intellectual construct and became the creed shaping the lived reality of this vast and diverse nation. It goes to their credit that we learnt, as an unacquainted and an even reluctant nation, that if the idea of India could exist and sustain, it could only do so within the confines of a secular democratic ethos.

It was Nehru who also strongly advocated the idea of ‘multi-religious’ and went ahead with the professed philosophy of ‘sarva dharma sambhav’ and composite culture. He believed that in a modern plural India, the concept of personal faith and personal conduct must be respected. It is in this context that he famously declared, ‘we are building a free Secular State, where every religion and belief has full freedom and equal honour, whose every citizen has equal liberty and equal opportunity’

 

Scientific Temper and Nehru

A journey into Nehruvian secularism has to be necessarily seen through the lens of a scientific temperament, for it was this temperament which Nehru meticulously tried to inculcate in himself, before making an argument for it to be integrated in the national creed. He wrote:

My early approach to life’s problems had been more or less scientific, with something of the easy optimism of the science of the nineteenth and twentieth century. A secure and comfortable existence, and the energy and the self-confidence I possessed increased that feeling of optimism.  A kind of vague optimism appealed to me. (Nehru, 2002:25)

Nehru’s agnosticism also emanated out of his very personal encounter with the manner in which he saw the practiced reality of religion to which even the thinking and the rational minds submitted without offering any critique. To him, the images of religion (and he meant all the religions of India) were in proximate alliance with credulous practices and rigid beliefs. Nehru believed that ‘there was an element of magic about it, an uncritical credulousness, a reliance on the supernatural.’   ((Nehru, 2002:26)

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Nehru regarded science as a method guiding rational behaviour in public as well as private sphere. His faith in the scientific method was unwavering and unrelenting. Though he never denied that modern science had brought its own share of miseries for humanity, yet he remained committed to the belief that the most vivacious change that it had brought about was the much requisite expansion in the scientific outlook in human beings across continents. He goes on to reiterate: 

Essentially, I am interested in this world, in this life, not in some other world or a future life. ………. The environment in which I have grown up takes the soul (or rather the atma) and a future life, the karma theory of cause and effect, and reincarnation for granted. I have been affected by this and so, in a sense, I am favourably disposed towards these assumptions.  (Nehru, 2002:27)

 

Through a reading based on reason and scientific temper, Nehru knew the social and economic contours of his nation and her people, and thus had no qualms in declaring that science alone could address the problems of hunger and poverty. A Socialist and a republican by conscious choice, he was truly instrumental in drawing the margins of the society into the mainstream, the latter being hitherto a citadel of a privileged few. He held that the state had to have a ‘maximalist’ role in bridging the gaps between rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged.  As an extension to this impeccable premise, he was vociferously opposed to all forms of oppression and remnants of colonialism.

Nehru was equally aware of the images of superstition and the numbing customs and traditions which could bridle the path of a newly evolving democracy, and therefore he repeatedly articulated that for any society to ignore the charm of science and scientific temper was to do so at its own peril. Nehru was also one of the greatest public intellectuals of his time, for way he thought; and the way he reflected and engaged with his fellow citizens at a very comprehensive level. It was through scientific and methodological tools that he was able to continuously engage in open dialogue and share new insights. He had a tremendous ability to speak with reason even during those times when reason and passion could be easily pitted against each other. Despite having had the misfortune of witnessing some the most barbaric forms of violence and conflict under the garb of religion during his life time, it was his affirmation in reason that made him iterate that the key to a humane, civilised and just society lay within the possibility of a vibrant inter-faith connect and engagement. The agnostic in him did not deter him in envisioning the growing scope of continuous dialogue between faiths so that challenges of a diverse nature could be collectively withstood.

Yes I am convinced that the methods and approach of science have revolutionized human life more than anything else in the long course of history, and have opened doors and avenues of further and even more radical change, leading up to the very portals of what has long been considered the unknown. (Nehru, 2002:31)

His was one voice, and at times a lonely one, which stood for reason and reasonable outcome, even if it led to the shaking of the foundation of a popular belief or a venerated tradition. While proud of the rich heritage of India, he was conscious of the ills prevalent in its society. He lamented the widespread deterioration in public life and inter-community engagement, attributing it to a preference for irrationality over reason.

 

A rational spirit of inquiry, so evident in earlier times, which might well have led to the further growth of science, is replaced by irrationalism and a blind idolatry of the past. Indian life becomes a sluggish stream, living in the past, moving slowly through the accumulations of dead centuries. (Nehru, 2002:54)

 

In true sense, Nehru was madly in love with science and believed that it was scientific temperament alone that could create the contours of a diverse, yet inclusive and dynamic India. Many of his critiques misinterpreted his deep regard for science when they trivialised science as being hugely costly research labs or big dams, but for Nehru science was much more than all this….it was a fundamental idea which India needed to imbibe and use, to reboot itself in the newer context in which she found herself. This scientific thinking remained integral to his persona and was instrumental in shaping the policy framework of the government of independent India. It is in this regard that Sarvepalli Gopal, one of the finest biographers of Nehru writes,

 

‘This fair chance of raising a rational, educated and forward looking society based on modernisation, industrialisation and a scientific temper was made possible by a government that accepted the task, planned for it and informed the people that they had been sentenced to hard labour striving for it (Gopal, 2015, Volume 2, p-306).

 

A Tryst with Secularism

 

Secularism as a political idea undoubtedly had its origins in the West, and it acquired a robust structure through the processes and stages of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the yearning for democracy on the Western shores. It is believed that though certain spiritual and cultural elements of secularism were visible within the annals of Indian history, yet, it was the freedom movement which initiated a discussion and a subsequent articulation on secularism in the Indian context. This version of secularism was not a copy of the text, but an adaptation coursed through our own history and experiences, and who could understand or exposition this better than Nehru?  Indeed it was his unwavering belief that the solution to the problems of India and the world lay in ‘socialism’, perceived not only as a scientific economic doctrine, but accepted as the very guiding philosophy of life.

Nehru’s articulation and subsequent position on secularism indicates a near perfect synergy of scientific temper and his attraction towards Advaita (non-dualist) philosophy of Vedanta. And it is in this context that Nehruvian secularism did not take an adversarial position vis-à-vis religion and traditional belief. Through thousands of letters and public speeches, his impassioned and recurrent appeal to his colleagues and fellow citizens was to keep matters of faith and belief in the personal realm, while keeping matters of governance in the public realm. Nehru envisioned an Indian persona, which could be religious in personal faith and secular in public sphere, in dealing with public institutions as well as with others, who may not share in faith and belief. This could only come from the mind of one who found himself ‘incapable of thinking of a deity or of any unknown supreme power in anthropomorphic terms…..’(Nehru, 2002:28)

It was essentially this scientific temper that Pandit Nehru wanted Indians to nurture in themselves, while encouraging others to imbibe and work on it, which necessitated a submission to science, logic and reasoning, and principled circumvention to preconceived notions and prejudices with respect to others. The Nehruvian ideals of secularism cannot be understood without appreciating its unflinching commitment to justice, equality and democracy. Nehru was acutely aware that the roots of Western secularism had emerged as a reaction against the prevalent religious orthodoxy in that context. While his open and liberal mind appreciated the historical trajectory of the western secularism as an outcome of the prolonged conflict between religion, society and politics, he reckoned that the Indian version of secularism would have to negotiate its structure and position in the context of the specificities of religion, politics and culture in India. For Nehru, secularism was not simply a political philosophy, but a comprehensive normative framework aiming to embrace all faiths, beliefs and communities. It also meant creating a state which should not accord preference on the basis of one’s faith and religion. Nehru’s continuous endeavour was to prepare the instruments and institutions of governance and the state in a frame that considered the practice and profession of religion to be invariably considered in the personal domain of the citizen. As far as the State was concerned, it was premised to remain engaged and committed to the equal opportunity for all against all odds. The desire to draw the shape of a very Hindustani secularism could be traced in one of his early writings:

 

Whatever the word we may use, Indian or Hindi or Hindustani, for our cultural tradition, we see in the past that some inner urge towards synthesis, derived essentially from the Indian philosophical outlook, was the dominant feature of Indian cultural and even racial development. Each incursion of foreign elements was a challenge to this culture, but it was met successfully by a new synthesis and a process of absorption. This was also a process of rejuvenation and new blooms of culture arose out of it, the background and essential basis, however, remaining the same. (Nehru, 2002:76)

Nehru took his ideas on secularism to the platform of the freedom struggle, and to be fair to him and his contemporaries, it was not an easy expedition.  In the initial years, the great leaders of the movement were not on the same page as far as secularism was concerned. Yet, he carried on with his relentless struggle to bring in the issues and concerns of democratic practices and liberal-secular principles onto centre stage. Several leaders considered the Nehruvian position on Secularism as antithetical to religion, and Nehru had to go through the ordeal of having to repeatedly convince each one of them about his uncompromised respect for religion, with a caveat that religion should not result in decimating the vibrant strands of diversity, which had remained the bedrock of the Indian civilisation. He was in favour of building a political climate wherein religious and cultural aspirations of each citizen were accorded equal respect and recognition. Any violation from this intrinsic principle angered Nehru and he minced no words in denouncing the same openly. On one such occasion, he said:

 

Friends! you receive me with cries of Bande Mataram , Jai Hind and Jawaharlal ki Jai. These very lusty shouts do not please me anymore. The sturdy peasants, those indefatigable fighters of freedom, those sacrificing millions of Bihar, who toiled and tilled and bore a heavy burden, have gone astray, gone mad with communal frenzy, which I cannot conceive of even. I heard that some want to avenge wrong done in East Bengal districts. Governmental machinery is being accelerated to bring evil doers to proper justice and relief and succour were being made available to sufferers. It is all the mire astonishing and astounding, I consider it to be bad enough, that such things which made the common foe of all communities-British Imperialism-laugh in unholy glee, should have at all happened. This frenzy has delayed the whole scheme of Swaraj. (Selected works, Vol-1, p-59)

While traversing the length and breadth of the country, Nehru kept on sharing with people that in a country like India, with its rich diversity of faith and religions, no other political alternative was either feasible or desirable than carving out a nation on the basis of a secular and democratic framework. To him, anything else would eject India onto a disastrous path, wherein Nationalism itself would become the reason for the breaking up of the country. Nehruvian secularism was therefore a prodigious amalgamation of his  definitive critique of religion posing as an orthodox belief system, as well as a profound appreciation and respect for religion the way it had shaped the Indian civilisation and the psyche of its people. And it was not long when Gandhi expressed the same sentiment. He did not expect India of his dreams to develop one religion that is to be wholly Hindu or wholly Christian or wholly Mussalman, but desired it to be wholly tolerant, with its religions working side by side with one another.

Right through the freedom movement, even when many of his ideas appeared far ahead of the times, and did not always find favour with his colleagues, Nehru remained committed to his dream of working for an India, which would be a happy home to everyone as equals. Beginning with the late 1920s, he could see the impact of religious and communal divide on national life, and as a result he kept on cautioning everyone against the dangers of a politics which thrived on demonising and dehumanising the people and communities of different faiths. With Gandhi on his side, Nehru symbolised a glimmer of hope for people and forces which wished to see India as a secular, socialist and democratic republic. Of all the leaders of the Indian freedom movement, he was the first one (and probably the only one) to see through the design and the inherent dangers of Fascism and Nazism as they were emerging in Europe. It would be in the fitness of things if we look at the Indian political situation of 1940s, wherein the Muslim League was carrying forward a version of nationalism, which was antithetical to what the Indian National Congress had been positioning with. With each passing day there was not enough space available for the articulation and consolidation of that stated position, which Gandhi and Nehru represented, and which was in sync with the thousands of years of historical stream of India. It was this constriction of space, which witnessed a consolidation of rabid communal elements resulting in frequent instances of violence in different parts of India. Bengal in particular was emerging as the hotbed of communal polarisation and following the call by the Muslim League for direct action on 16th August 1946, there were large scale violence. Calcutta symbolised the rot that had set in our political system and thus the Great Calcutta killing which followed witnessed more than ten thousand people dying in just a few days. This indeed was one of those most unfortunate episodes which led to a vicious cycle of violence elsewhere, under the cover of reaction and revenge. Such episodes of violence disturbed the rhythm of the leaders who dreamt of composite nationalism as the foundation stone of independent India and saddened people like Nehru, who had to admonish his fellow citizens quite frequently during the period. He was of the firm belief that in spite of provocation of any magnitude, if people make active and sincere efforts based on reason and rationality, a politics based on the hate and distrust could not succeed. To one such groups in Monghyr (Bihar) on 5th November 1946, he had to use harsh words to convey that the idea of India was far more powerful and far more emotionally unifying than the ones which positioned themselves against.

Twelve years back I visited Monghyr when a great natural calamity in the shape of a great earthquake devastated your district. Today I am again here to witness the distressing effects of another calamity brought about by human beings by their actions against fellow brethren. In case of natural calamities everyone comes to the help of his fellow beings but what is the result when brothers run at each other’s throat. Do you propose to repeat the unfortunate happenings in Bengal by killing the Muslims in Bihar? Is this the way in which you are showing your culture and civilization of what you are so proud? I am sorry to think that those who will suffer for their misdeeds will be the simple minded, unsophisticated kisans who have been hoodwinked and misguided by their leaders who incite them at the cost of their country’s cause. You should be ashamed of your acts of lawlessness. (Selected Works, Volume-1, p-61)

 

He argued convincingly both within the Congress meetings as also in his public speeches that by itself religion did not have the capacity or the strength to mobilise and lead people to what was communal assertion. He knew and wanted his people to believe that the images of communal polarisation had put fundamental and more urgent questions of equality and justice to the margin of the prevalent discourse. He could see a design in which some people from within the Congress too dreamt of India becoming a majoritarian (communal) state as a natural response to the votaries of Pakistan. Even during the nightmarish years before partition, Nehru remained committed to his imagination of India which shall be run with the spirit of true republicanism, and where there shall be no space for any exclusive brand of nationalism. He was aghast to see some of his political co-travellers putting forward the idea of a Hindu state and had to tell them that such ideologies may hold some charm in the beginning but an entire civilisation would eventually be led to a catastrophe. He articulated his position to his fellow citizens as:

All of you are shouting Jai Hind and ‘Long Live Revolution. But what sort of country do you want to build up? What kind of revolution are you trying to herald by all these communal disturbances that are prevailing in Bihar? It is shameful that Hindus should try to kill a handful of Muslims who are living as their neighbours in the province. I appreciate courage and strength and want people to be courageous and strong. But this courage and strength has to be directed to proper channels and not fritted away in outbursts of communal frenzy. (Selected Works,Vol.1 P-55)

With partition and the creation of a separate state of Pakistan, unlike others in his company, Nehru realised that the issues of communal concerns per se could not be left in the domain of those who raised these issues and thrived on them. After the birth of Pakistan, he had to make sure that the struggle went on to ensure that his nation did not become the Hindu Pakistan. He knew that the best safeguard to counter such reactionary sentiment lay in vigorously promoting tolerance, and committing the state to safeguarding of the uniqueness of each religious group and its culture, apart from promising equality in every sphere. Though deeply aggrieved, he knew his responsibility of explaining the circumstances leading to unavoidable imageries of partition.

India’s heart has been broken but her essential unity has not been destroyed. How will you repair the broken heart? It can be only on the basis of programme. The horrible riots in the Punjab, Bengal and elsewhere were no isolated riots. ……..Our first task should be the establishment of strong central government to rule the country firmly and to assure the individual’s liberty and life. All other questions are of secondary importance.(Selected works, Vol-3, p-110)

Here was a leader whose politics did not believe in propagating a nationalism based on religious identity, yet had to accept the same in view of the restoration of peace and order in a country which was suffering one of the worst spate of communal violence. Throughout his political career he kept on condemning and opposing Jinnah and his Muslim league for rigidly adhering to the two nation theory. However, he was more anguished to witness the echo of the same divisive theory amongst a section of Hindus and the Sikh populace and an unmistakable sympathy for the same in some of his colleagues, with whom he had shared years of struggle to have an India based on composite nationalism.

He exhorted his people to unite to gain strength. But he iterated that this strength must be channelized for constructive purposes and not for killing and looting. A sense of unease was obviously seen during this period when as the prime minister of a just born nation he had to attend to multiple tasks including dealing with some of his colleagues who were keen to make India, the mirror image of Pakistan. His biographer, S. Gopal writes, ‘this disappointment with the general mood gradually extended into a sense of his own isolation from the rank and file of the party. To Nehru the issue of secularism was always one on which no compromise was possible.’(Gopal, 2015:82). The sense of despair notwithstanding, Nehru was not going to give up his position and thus he relentlessly continued to speak of the dangers of majoritarian nationalism, which according to him was akin to fascism. He knew that the battle against communalism had to be fought at many levels, including a persistent struggle in the sphere of culture and psyche. To him, communalism as a narrowing creed could never usher India as a free democratic and liberal society. ‘The only thing communalism can give rise is fascism. This may seem a surprising statement but both fascism and communalism are products of narrow attitude of mind. Both ultimately lead to authoritarianism.’(Selected Works,Volume-4, P-493).

The instantaneous response to the scale of slaughter that Nehru witnessed was one of disbelief. He was horrified but still saw the images of violence as essentially between humanity and inhumanity, between normal decent interaction and brutish behaviour. He wanted his colleagues and the ordinary citizens of India to calm things down and to cooperate with each other so that the tryst with destiny could be saved from going berserk. During all the months of disturbing images of communal polarisation, Nehru grabbed every opportunity to draw Gandhi and his pervading influence on people in order to bring normalcy in the country, as also to contain his colleagues who were swayed to an extent by the politics of communal polarisation. While addressing the students of Allahabad University on 13th December 1947, he echoed the indebtedness of an entire nation to what Gandhiji had done in the riot torn Noakholi and other places.

 

How many of you realise what it has meant to India to have the presence of Mahatma Gandhi these months? We all know of his magnificent services to India and to freedom during the past half century and more. But no service could have been greater than what he has performed during the past four months when in a dissolving world he has been like a rock of purpose and a lighthouse of truth, and his firm low voice has risen above the clamours of the multitude pointing out the path of rightful endeavour.(Gopal, 2015:17)

Speaking at Allahabad, Nehru would not have imagined that the fanatic Hindu right wing design was planning to shut the ‘lighthouse’ Nehru really needed, more than ever before.  A spate of tremors were thus in the offing for the entire nation while communal polarisation was engulfing new areas and hitherto unaffected people. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathu Ram Godse, a flag bearer of the Hindu right wing organisation. That inauspicious day when the Mahatma was killed for standing up for an inclusive and secular India, marked not only the tragedy of having lost the ‘light’, it also indicated the abysmal  level of the ‘rot of intolerance’ which had set its foothold in  society. Nehru was emotionally shattered and dejected for having lost a ‘father figure’ with whom he disagreed quite often, but also adored and regarded as a beacon of hope when despair was the order of the day. Reaching Birla House on listening to the tragedy, he ‘sobbed like a child’ and his devastated first reaction was, ‘The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more’. But the pragmatic in him made him immediately revise his first emotional reaction for he knew that the rising tide of communal conflagration would not be satiated even by the sacrifice of the most precious of Indian lives.

 

The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years, and a thousand years later, that light will be seen in this country and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts. For that light represented something more than the immediate past, it represented the living, the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom. (Gopal, 2015:25)

He wanted an entire nation which was in mourning to see what the spectre of communalism had done and wanted each one of the citizens to feel responsible for this unprecedented tragedy. He wanted the nation to see through the loss of world’s greatest man as a collective national shame. He exhorted his people that this mourning should give them the conviction to say a bold ‘No’ to continued bloodshed and intolerance towards the demonised others.

The past three days have changed the entire face of the country. A mad man has shot Gandhiji. But what is the use of being angry with an individual? He will be tried under the law and punished. What we have to see is that how and why even one man among 40 crores of Indians dared to inflict this terrible wound on our country. How was an atmosphere created in which people like him dared call themselves Indians? (Selected Works, Volume-5, p-42)

Nehru was acutely aware of the dimensions that communal politics had acquired, and thus just two days before the assassination of Bapu he wrote to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, sharing his concerns regarding the nefarious activities of the Hindu Mahasabha. While sharing his anguish over the Hindu Mahasabha, he also shared with him that he was also aware of the objectionable posturing of the RSS and its involvement in riots and disorder in different parts of India.

…..what pains me most is the extreme vulgarity and indecency of speeches being made from Hindu Mahasabha platforms. Gandhi Murdabad is one of their special slogans. Recently a prominent leader of the Hindu Mahasabha stated that an objective to aim at was the hanging of Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Azad. Normally one does not like to interfere with any political activities however much one may dislike them. But there is a limit to this kind of thing, and I fear that the limit is being reached if it has not already been crossed. I write to you especially because of your own close association with the Hindu Mahasabha. (Selected Works,Volume-5, pp-30-31)

Since the beginning of the 1950s, there was a phenomenal increase in the migration of Hindus from East Bengal, creating a panic amongst the Muslims of Calcutta.  During this tumultuous phase, Nehru contemplated resigning from the position of Prime Minister as he was getting an appalling feeling that the party and the people he had worked for so far were drifting away to the politics of communal polarisation. S. Gopal (2015:82) cites an excerpt out of his letter to Mehar Chand Khanna in this context:

So far as I am concerned, my own mind is perfectly clear in these matters and I have viewed with dismay and sorrow the narrow and communal outlook that has progressively grown in this country and which shows itself in a variety of ways. I shall cease to be the Prime Minister the moment I realise that this outlook has come to stay and that I cannot my duty as I conceive it.

On the issue of continuous migration from Bengal and the conflicting views of some of the Congress ministers and functionaries, Nehru wanted to urgently provide a sense of security to the Hindus of East Bengal. According to S. Gopal, for this to happen, Nehru would have to don the mantle of Gandhi. Writing to Sardar Patel, he was indisputably clear in his mind that in order to reach out and provide healing touch to the suffering humanity, he would have to give up the position of Prime Minister. Contemplating this, he wrote to Sardar Patel:

I think I could make a difference there and it is of the highest importance that we should not allow ourselves to be submerged by the Bengal problem. Hence I come to the conclusion that I should get out of office……….I cannot do this as Prime Minister, more especially because the views of the party are not in line with my own…… … I wish to repeat that, constituted as I am, I find it more and more difficult not to take some such action. (Gopal, 2015:83).

Despite all of these traumatic events, coupled with the uncomfortable and adversarial political posturing by some of his colleagues, Nehru was not willing to compromise his position on the liberal and secular tenets governing the state and public life. Several of his colleagues accepted his advocacy of secular creed for the nation, albeit reluctantly, but were keen that the Indian Muslims should provide their proof of loyalty. While they agreed with Nehru that attacks against the Muslims were cowardly, they also believed that Muslims would have to be faithful to India, and if not, they would have to go to Pakistan. But to Nehru, it was patently wrong to seek any guarantees of loyalty; that could not be produced to order or by fear, but could only come as a natural product of circumstances, and it was for the majority, in India or Pakistan, to create such circumstances. (Gopal, 2015-86)

…….But you will appreciate that the history of the last few years especially of last year has increased communal suspicion and bitterness. Is it surprising that those Muslims who till yesterday were champions of Pakistan should be viewed with suspicion when they talk of loyalty to India? It is a little absurd of some of our people to speak incessantly about demanding loyalty from the Muslims or any others. Loyalty does not come by compulsion. I have little doubt that the Muslims in India have undergone a big sea change as soon as the partition came and after they have seen the consequences of this partition.( Selected Works, volume-7, pp-4-9)

 

Taking the issue further, Nehru continued to write to his Chief Ministers about the dangers of parochial and partisan approaches in matters of governance. He was absolutely clear in his mind that as Prime Minister and as leader of the Congress party, he would not sanction communal polarisation to dictate matters of statecraft and would do everything under his command not to tolerate any uncivilised and barbarous behaviour.

Even amidst the spate of frequent discordant notes with some of his most valuable colleagues, Nehru was deeply traumatised by the developments in a rather non-descript town called Faizabad (Ayodhya) in UP. It was this locale that saw the manufacturing of a very serious challenge to the Nehruvian commitment to Secularism. At midnight of 22nd December 1949, an idol of Lord Rama surreptitiously appeared within the precincts of the Babri Masjid. This event vitiated the already charged up communal atmosphere. This was a huge jolt to Nehru, for during most part of his early political career, he had spent time in every nook and corner of this state, which had developed such a communal hotbed. A visibly shaken, but not deterred Nehru, continued his battle against the communal elements both within his party and outside. He kept appealing to his colleagues to understand and develop respect for each other, which essentially was the core of any meaningful human relationship. In the backdrop to the developments in Ayodhya, some of the Congress leaders were demanding that the Muslims adopt the ‘Hindu culture’, thereby leading the town to become a veritable tinderbox (Jha and Jha, 2012:85). In such a temporal context, Nehru wrote to Mohanlal Saxena, the Union minister for rehabilitation:

 

…. what does upset one is the complete degradation of human nature and even more, the attempt to find justification for this…. Indeed the U.P is becoming almost a foreign land for me. I do not fit in there. The U.P Congress committee, with which I have been associated for thirty-five years, now functions in a manner which amazes me. Its voice is not the voice of the Congress I have known, but something which I have opposed for the greater part of my life…….communalism has invaded the minds and hearts of those who were pillars of the congress in the past. It is a creeping paralysis and the patient does not even realise it…(Gopal, 2015: 92)

Even amidst the seemingly dark clouds of communalism hovering around, Nehru wanted his colleagues and his fellow citizens to see that communal polarisation and separatist tendencies would only push the important issues of fight against poverty and unemployment to the side-lines of public concern and priority. It was also likely to weaken the institutions and structures which were created to lead India on the path to being a vibrant democracy. He wanted the rank and file of the Congress to acknowledge that the success of communalism would also indicate the failure of the party in developing a counter strategy to the politics of polarisation. He declared that ‘..nothing was worse in a democracy than complacency on the part of a government or of the people.(Gopal, 2015:156). Even on the eve of the first general election, Nehru was more worried about the democratic practices and processes rather than the outcome; for he believed that he had bigger things in mind such as democratising the organisation of the Congress; and making institutions attend to the needs and concerns of everyone without bias and prejudice. Yet, he was more than instrumental in ensuring the accomplishment of the first ever election in a free and fair manner. This indeed was the first seed sown to ‘strengthen and deepen the spirit of democracy’. On issues relating to the means and ends in such an important election, Nehru was lovingly candid in speaking his mind when he said:

 ‘I would like to repeat that it is better to lose elections than to give up something which has been the basis of our national movement and that is the foundation of all progress in India’.(Khosla, 2014:56).His biographer S. Gopal writes, ‘the decision to hold elections on the basis of adult suffrage in a vast country with a large and mostly illiterate population had been a pure act of faith on Nehru’s part; and he was vindicated by the result’.(Gopal, 2015:162).

 

In this open season, when Nehru is being fervently disparaged by those who probably have no sense of history, and who lack both the conviction and the courage to look at the finer details of the making of India in those turbulent years, do they not see that it well-nigh impossible to weave a historical narrative on the way the Indian state and society have worked for strengthening communal relations without acknowledging the significant part played by Nehru? It was indeed Nehru who continued to speak a language of peace and togetherness, even when some of his dearest colleagues wanted him to make India take on the mantle of a Hindu Pakistan. It was Nehru who believed that a politics which tells its people to situate themselves in a self-perpetuating image of their own faith or in a dominant way of thinking and doing things that may appear to be the natural course or just common sense. He had to warn his people and his colleagues that, it was potently dangerous in the longer run for the same people. Can we deny that the Nehru’s warnings are coming so spot-on, in view of harangues being undertaken by the diseased body of the right wing

 

 

Organisations? In spite of the Ayodhyas and the Godhras, and even the Gharwapsis, if the moral community from amongst the Indian citizens stands up to question, it shall only reinforce the sentiment that the Nehruvian ideas on secularism can never be crushed, and least of all in a general election which comes after every five years. Notwithstanding a climate which aims to threaten the liberal democratic ethos of the Indian people, one must realise what Bauman (1986), articulated so meaningfully when he said, ‘the hardest of struggles is to remain human in inhuman conditions, and that is the essence of remaining committed to ideas like secularism, even when they at times appear not to be in vogue.

Even for the most ardent of his admirers, wrapping up a discussion on Nehruvian secularism is undoubtedly an exceedingly difficult proposition, and being one in this creed, I can only follow and reproduce what Inder Malhotra(2006-7), the veteran journalist wrote of the man that Nehru was and remains:

 

India is a better place to live in because Nehru lived, and no matter how long the babies born on the diamond jubilee of Independence live, they will never see the like of him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References

 

Erikson, E. H.(1968). Identity, Youth and Crisis, New York, W. W. Norton

Gopal, Sarvepalli (Ed.)  (1988). Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru. Second Series, volume-1 to 11. Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund..

Gopal, Sarvepalli (2015).  Jawharlal Nehru-A Biography (Vol.1-3). New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Jha, Krishna and Jha, Dhirendra K. (2012).  Ayodhya : The Dark Night. New Delhi: HarperCollins Publishers India.

Khosla,  Madhav (Ed.). (2014). Letters for a Nation. New Delhi: Allen Lane.

Malhotra, Inder  (2007). Nehru’s Luminous Legacy. India International Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 60 (WINTER 2006-SPRING 2007):33

Nehru,  Jawaharlal (2002). The Discovery of India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

 

[1] O Iqbal, you really are something else!

You can be the life of the party,

Yet be alone all the while.

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