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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 47, November 15, 2014

Nehru’s Vision Must Guide us in these Troubled Times

Sunday 16 November 2014

by Mushirul Hasan

My vision is the same as that of Nehru, even though the old certitudes of Indian politics have crumbled. Fifty years later, Nehru’s idea of India and his conception of tolerant, inclusive, and common Indianness have given way to exclusivist ideas of India and its political community. From the 1990s, in particular, the definition of Indianess has been assailed by the Hindu Rightwing. “Keep your windows and doors of your mind always open,” Nehru had told a group of students in 1950, “let all winds from the four corners of the earth blow in to refresh your mind, to give you ideas, to strengthen you.“ Today, this vision appears all the more relevant since India’s plural and multicultural self-definition is being vigorously questioned. Citizenship and equality is being defined not by universalist but majoritarian criteria.

“While you are in India,” V.S. Naipaul had admonished his sister in 1949, “you should keep your eyes open.” We need to do the same at the beginning of this millennium. We need to recognise, for example, the gap between what our present rulers claim to represent and what they practice. Love of power, in various limited forms, is almost universal. There is, however, a great difference between power desired as a means and power desired as an end in itself. Only in myth does Shiva drive a straight path through the opposition with his trident. What moves this regime, including its so-called socialist partners, are not ideological commit-ments and the socialist ideas but electoral needs, and these demand enormous compromises with adversaries, extravagant concessions to vested interests, and a hard line against dissent. What they share is not the people’s good, but the urge to control the levers of power through family, caste and factional networks. They are indeed the gold-diggers of free India.

Then, India’s agony over religion is not yet over. Our sacred rivers flow from their source up in the Himalayas, but the bodies killed in caste and Hindu-Muslim violence contaminate them. The road to sacred sites is wide open, but caste and communal publicists foul the path-ways. The ghanta rings in temples and the muezzin’s call for prayers goes out loud and clear, but the politics of hate has defiled the masjid and the butkhana. Somebody must build Iqbal’s Naya Shivala or New Temple to attract devotees who seek spiritual solace and not fall a prey to impious and unholy exhortations.

Already, the threat to peace is compounded by sadhus and sants, who periodically threaten to defy the rule of law in order to pursue their pet project, while the party in power turns a blind eye to their activism, busy as it has been scuttling constitutional processes, selling off the family silver, grabbing land and petrol pumps, or, for that matter, shuffling Ministers at the behest of an extra-constitutional authority in Mumbai. Starting with his ill-fated plea for a nationwide debate on conversion and culminating in his raising the spectre of a green menace at Panaji, the Prime Minister’s own strenuous efforts to project himself as a liberal has not carried conviction. And his deputy’s commitment to Hindutva as indeed to his ideolgoical ally, Narendra Modi, raises widesp-read concerns over the future of our secular arrangement. He must know that the Hindutva version is exclusive because it imposes a singular monolithic identity and seeks to establish an unbroken Hindu, as opposed to a heterogeneous nationalist, tradition. He must know that the impulse for homogenisation itself, arising out of the tendency to stereotype or stigmatise other religious minorities, rests on misplaced assumptions about the histories of inter-community relations.

The persistence of Hindu-Muslim violence against the Muslims isn’t unusual. What’s new is its rapid spread aimed at their intimidation, the destruction of their properties, and their portrayal as the aggressors. Social and economic explanations exist, but, in addition, something is fundamentally amiss in Gujarat’s history and contemporary polity that makes it prone to such brutal and one-sided violence. At the heart of the explanation, past and present, is that the Sangh Parivar has ensured the virtual disappearance of the Gujarati pride that has traditionally been based on language and region, destroyed social and cultural ties, and weakened cross-communal networks.

We know that those proven guilty survive and flourish under the present dispensation. But, who could have imagined that even a politician like Narendra Modi can survive the massive media expose of the Gujarat carnage? He continues in office totally unfazed principally because Opposition politicians, both in New Delhi and the States, lack the Gandhi-like moral fibre and courage to confront him. The Mahatma used the non-cooperation and civil disobedience methods to sap the moral foundations of the raj. Now, fiftyfive years down the line when the enemy from our own ranks has surfaced wearing a different garb with the intention to tear apart our pluralist fabric, can Satyagraha not be deployed as an effective moral and political weapon? The Mahatma had launched a campaign against a “Satanic” government. What makes the Gujarat Government less satanic? Today, the British Government appears benign compared with the actions of our rulers in the land of Gandhi. The nation remembers the martyrs of the Jallianwala Bagh, and pours scorn of General Dyer. The least we can do is to build a memorial for the dead on the banks of the Sabarmati river so that we are constantly reminded of the epic tragedy enacted in the land of the apostle of non-violence. Let this be a part of my memory, your memory, and everybody else’s collective memory.

God alone knows whether Modi is guilty or not, only an international trial will set the record straight. Yet, if the trends in Gujarat are not immediately checked, the threats to secularism and democracy will extend far beyond its regional boundaries. There will be more intellectual scepticism and more and more of Sham-e-Ghariban, the night of the oppressed and bereaved, for the victims of pogroms.

We must not let that happen. Recovering the secular ground is a compelling necessity. To see India, the world’s third largest Muslim country, as a Hindu country is bizarre in the face of this singular fact, not to speak of the vast religious plurality that extends far beyond the Hindu-Muslim divide.

Turning to Muslims, the task of the liberal Muslim is even harder. Even the fuzzy liberal agenda is lost amidst the cries for food and shelter. How can we ask such people to change family laws, send their children to schools, and reside in mixed localities? Jo log ghar se beghar ho gaye unko secularism ki kya paigham diya jae? Today’s Muslim feels uneasy, insecure and bewildered by the hostile climate around him. He does not even protest in public, for fear of inviting the wrath of his tormentors. Gradually, he is moving from mixed localities to the so-called safer Muslim havens. This is bad news. Yet, it is worth telling the beleaguered minority that, when the battle-lines are drawn, it is imperative to champion liberal ideas and defend secular institutions, as Azad, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, and Zakir Husain had done after independence. As the inheritors of the great Indo-Muslim civilisation, they must surge ahead and not be intimidated by the Milosevics of this world. I am reminded of what Azad had once said:

I am proud of being an Indian. I am part of the indivisible unity that is Indian nationality. I am indispensable to this noble edifice and without me this splendid structure of India is incomplete. I am an essential element, which has gone to build India. I can never surrender this claim.

Seeking refuge in mosques and madaris is a recipe for disaster; the way out of the contemporary Muslim dilemmas and predica-ments is for them to assert their moral and constitutional rights as co-citizens, rekindle their spirits in the tradition of the great Muslim reformers and intellectual and reject the fundamentalist rhetoric. Gandhi had said to the Muslims: “They must not be irritated by the acts of irresponsible or ignorant but fanatical Hindus. He who exercises restraint under provocation wins the battle. Let them know and feel sure that responsible Hindus are not on their side in their trial in any bargaining spirit.” And Azad had prefaced his wonderfully crafted essay on Sarmad, the Martyr, with the following Persian verse:

All who have chosen your love

Rest in the lane of martyrdom.

In the battle between the two worlds love is victorious,

Even if all its army is slain in martyrdom.

Let me conclude this brief review, the first part of my lecture, by quoting a poet who had written at “Freedom’s Dawn”:

Kahan se aae nigare saba, kidhar ko gayi

Abhi chiraghe sare-raah ko kuch khabar he nahi

Abhi graniye sab mein kami nahi aayi

Najate dide-o-dil ki ghari nahi aayi

Chale chalo ke wo manzil abhi nahi aayi

Where did that fine breeze, that the wayside lamp

Has not once felt, blow from, where has it fled?

Night’s heaviness is unlessened still, the hour

Of mind and spirit’s ransom has not struck;

Let us go on, our goal is not yet reached yet.


The Indian edifice rests on three interconnected pillars: nationalism, secularism and pluralism. Take one away and you’ll see the house crumbling like a pack of cards.

Nationalism lends itself to several different meanings, and the ideology flowing from it is often fuzzy, shifting and ambiguous. Yet, this is not something to frown upon. The point to remember is that the nationalist discourses were, after all, located and expounded within the anti-colonial paradigm. That is why they fired popular imagination at several defining moments in the twentieth century. Second, the evolution of institutional pluralism, democracy and political stability was not contingent upon a unified or monolithic interpretation of nationalism. Nehru had underlined in 1951 that India had infinite variety and there was absolutely no reason why anybody should regiment it after a single pattern.

Finally, the urge to clear the debris of the raj and to rebuild a new and dynamic nation-state was central to the post-colonial project. These urges and the initial moves towards their fulfilment captured the spirit and essence of nationalism not just in India but also in Ireland and Egypt. Hence A.J. Hosbswam talks of “The Age of Nationalism”, and Edward Said refers to the pantheon of Bandung flourishing, in all its suffering and greatness, because of the nationlist dynamic, which was culturally embodied in the inspirational autobiographies, instructional manuals, and philosophical mediations of great leaders like Nehru and Nasser.

The broadly secular character of Indian nationalism stemmed from the belief that our syncretistic ethos has been a pervasive notion as well as a real historical experience shared by many Indians, which was carried in different forms and meanings across time and space. To them, India’s genius expresses itself in a unique way of accepting, assimilating and synthe-sising—rather than rejecting—diverse patterns of beliefs, thoughts and actual living of an infinite variety of people and cultures into an inclusive, variegated and complex tapestry of life and culture. This is traditionally epitomised as India’s “unity in diversity”. The story of Inida’s culture does, in fact, unravel the secret of that vitality and that wisdom. It is a story of unity and synthesis, of reconciliation and development, of a perfect fusion of old traditions and new values.

My own researchers have been influenced by the secular and composite values that have been at the heart of the great Indian project of nation building. I had written in 1997: ”It would be intellectually satisfying if, in some ways, this book is regarded as a personal manifesto, a statement through the history of partition and its aftermath, of the values which India’s Muslims should cherish, of the nationalist priorities they should promote.”

My conclusions were, then, based on the delineation of secular ideologies, the cross-communal networks and the social and cultural values shared by urban India’s Urdu-speaking elites. I had therefore argued that the secular ground, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, had narrowed but not disappeared, and that religious minorities should occupy that territory along with other democratic and secular forces (Legacy of a Divided Nation: India’s Muslims Since Independence). In the words of Vandana Shiva, who had delivered the Borker Memorial Lecture this day last year, my vision was of an India where all peoples and all cultures are connected in a vibrant, rich and diverse web of life and united in circles of compassion, justice and humanity. Indeed, it was anchored in the belief that India’s survival four decades from now or thereafter will eventually rest on plurality and not uniformity, on secularism and not majori-tariansim, on heterodoxy and not orthodoxy.

A society in transition—and a large country like India will always remain in a transitory stage—is always pregnant with new possibilities. And yet history and contemporary politics, though mired in various controversies, rekindles the hope that this vast subcontinent will retain its multicultural character.

Legacy of a Divided Nation, I repeat, was a personal manifesto of an individual born in free India, brought up in a liberal household where one read Mirza Ghalib rather than religious scriptures, heard Faiz, Majrooh and Firaq and received lessons in history from the best Marxist historians. Personally, I did not require a neat historical construct to put in place the working of different ideas and movements after Indepenence. To my generation, if not to Ashish Nandy’s generation, it was abundantly clear that secularism was a typically Indian goal; hence, its legitimisation during the nationalist struggle and in the political processes thereafter.

Yes, we read Faiz and Firaq and revelled in the poetry of Sahir, Sardar Jafri and Kaifi. Today, many turn to Iqbal, the poet whose populism in the 1940s provided a grand ideology, in which some Muslims could find their image. Moved by the images from Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, and Gujarat, many now read his ‘Shikwa’ or Complaint to God, or Hali’s “The Ebb and Flow of Islam”. Comparing the tragedy in Gujarat with Hulagu’s invasion of Baghdad centuries ago, there is even talk of closing ranks shunning ijtehad or interpretation, and following both in letter and spirit, the Koranic injunctions.

Nursing such defeatist ideas, as I indicated earlier, will not do. Secularism is by no means a defeated idea in civil society; in fact, it commands widespread acceptance. The same fire of mutual hatred leading to the country’s partition is ablaze after Gujarat. It has to be extinguished by us. We know who lighted the fire, how it was lighted. The fire is blazing; it has to be put out. When that happens, we may not have to burn candles to mourn our dead, or bemoan the demise of secularism.

I realise the obstacles, as indeed all of you do. I also realise that many of the ideals and institutions that had made India different from the newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa are viewed with increasing scepticism by the younger generation. For one, the historical experience of resistance against colonialism has been more or less forgotten. The ideological edifice of natiionalism stands weakened by the aspirations of ‘new’ groups trying to assert their identities, and by the persistent failure of the state to reduce social and economic inequalities. This has given rise to ethnic and untutored religious consciousness, and the resurgence of sub-nationalisms in Kashmir and the North-East.

Ethnic nationalism, though objectified by perceptions of relative economic deprivation, has so easily coalesced with religious funda-mentalism. This is exemplified by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwala’s murky career and the ill-advised policies of several militant outfits in Kashmir, including the brutal expulsion of large numbers of Kashmiri Pandits from their own homeland. So that much as one bemoans the absence of nationalism—in terms of a countrywide vision anchored in conceptions of social justice, minority rights and gender equality—one is wary of the societal division into diverse ethnic communities ultimately constituting a complicating factor in ‘nation-building’.

This is not all. The earlier nationalist dynamic has been dissipated by a nationalism that is exclusive, insular and narrow in conception. Such natioinalism, orchestrated by the print and electronic media, comes into play only when a nuclear explosion takes place, or when the country is at war with Pakistan. Otherwise, our nationalism remains dormant. In actual fact, what is flaunted as nationalism or patriotism on such occasions is nothing but militarism. Yet it is this and not secular nationalism that is saleable in the political marketplace. That is why it is allowed to run amok by political managers and propagandists.


As a concept and as a state policy, secularism is also under critical scrutiny. It is argued that secularism, as a general shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for State action imprac-ticable, and as a blueprint for the future—impotent. It is also pointed out that both the ideology and politics of secularism have largely exhausted their possibilities, and that it was necessary to play around with a different conceptual frame.

To the Constitution-makers, the issue was not the European origin of the secular idea but its rightful appropriation in a diverse and plural society. They were not held back, as is the social science fraternity today, by the finer issues of definition, categorisation and application of secularism. Instead, they wanted to ensure that its essence—the impartiality and neutrality of the State in its relations with the religious institutions and practices of different communities—was not lost on the people. A secular state as a political solution for modern India was based on the contention that it afforded the optimum freedom for the citizens to develop into fully integrated beings. This, according to me, was a modern goal, rational and scientific, and in addition, I would emphasise, a specifically Indian goal. This is probably why what began as a mere experiment in the riot-ravaged and communally polarised India of 1947 acquired legitimisation in the political, cultural and intllectual discourses of the time.

The idea of the syncretistic tradition has also been challenged and undermined at various times by various contesting ideologies. Orientalist scholarship, almost exclusively based on Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic religious and other texts, constructed and helped to perpetuate exclusive and competing, if not conflicting, models of religious-cultural traditions, ignoring the intricate and fascinating processes of interaction of living religions and cultures, specially at the level of masses. The second serious challenge came, at a later stage, from the Islamic essentialists. The proponents of Hindu nationalism represent the third, which emerged and almost ran parallel to that of the Muslim separatists. Subdued in the late colonial and early post-colonial decades, Hindu essentialism has, as we have seen, gathered momentum over the last two decades.

The concept of the composite culture has been politicised all around. The liberal and Marxist critique has found it expedient to use it politically to combat communalism and other forms of sectarian strife, while the champions of political Islam as well as their saffron-robed counterparts have targeted it to undermine this notion for their own political reasons. To sap the foundations of a multi-cultural state, they have employed the argument of pseudo-secularism. They have, furthermore, appropriated the British divide-and-rule paradigm of Hindus and Muslims as separate civilisational entities that cannot survive together in peace. Doubts have already been expressed in these circles concerning the historical legitimacy of the syncretistic process in the making of India’s composite culture, with the corresponding claim made for a reconstructed Hindutva and a purified Islam.

The issue at stake is the role and impact of ‘dominance’ and intervention in relation to culture and its reformulation. What we need to consider are the following questions. Does the syncretistic culure have a basis in history? Or is it a convenient product of India’s nationalist aspiration? Imagined or real, does or can this tradition sustain our cultural continuum through the new millennium? What are the cultural as well as the political fallouts of the possible demise of the syncretistic or composite values? How essential is it for India’s viability and survival? Never before has there been so much of urgency in re-examining the historical basis of this culture.


I realise that the dice is loaded against secularism and multiculturalism, not just in India but also in many other societies. Yet, one mustn’t brush aside the many bright spots in our progress towards achieving these goals. Instead, it is worth restoring the democratic and secular consensus of the fifties and sixties, for it provides a rationale for a rapprochement between diverse and at times conflicting goals. Perhaps the agenda bears the imprint of ambiguity, and, therefore, needs to be redefined in parts. Perhaps, it needs tailoring and trimming to suit the rapidly ever-changing political currents. Still, the ideological underpinnings of the consensus envisaged by the Constitution-makers and assiduously cultivated by the country’s first Prime Minister are, I believe, as relevant today as they were during his lifetime. His vision must guide us in these troubled times. I know that the debunkers are busy with him. Yet, as Toynbee had written, after the vultures have finished their scavenging work, Nehru, too, will be the great man that he was—great, though human; human, so loveable.

Notwithstanding the unlovely consequences of the Hindutva campaign, and the state’s passivity in allowing anti-secular forces to run amok, a glimmer of hope lies in the coalition of democratic forces, in the political revulsion against the excesses of the religious Right, and in the sheer diversity of this society. If such a coalition receives the electorate’s mandate, we can begin to argue confidently that secularism, as a general credo of life is possible, as a basis of state action practicable, and as a blueprint for the future desirable.

Politicians fashion, so they claim, the future. Wise men and women envisage a future for their community and nation. Not being a politician has certain disadvantages. Wisdom, too, has eluded me. How, then, can I spell out my vision of 2047, a task assigned to me? I can merely discern existing trends, and define my ideological preferences. My intellectual and political vision, and I hope everybody’s vision, will depend on how best we can challenge the Sangh Parivar’s discordant and disruptive agenda.

I realise that the trishul is out in the open, but I also know that there are millions ready to defend Hinduism’s eclectic and humanistic values and the nation’s composite heritage. Ultimately, they are the one’s who would ensure that the stories of death, demolition, and desecration will be over, the Hindi writer Rahi Masoom Reza would have said, and the stories of life will begin, because the stories of life never end. In ending this lecture, I will echo the sentiments of Tagore:

Let us announce to the world that the light of the morning has come, not for entrenching ourselves behind barriers, but for meeting in mutual understanding and trust on the common field of co-operation, never for nourishing a spirit of rejection, but for that glad acceptance which constantly carries in itself the giving out of the best that we have.

 [Excerpts from the Fourth D.S. Borker Memorial Lecture on “May Vision of India: 2047AD”, delivered in New Delhi, August 24, 2002]

The author, a professor of Modern Indian History, is a noted historian.