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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 49, November 29, 2014

Two Contributions by P.N. Haksar: Relevance of Gandhi-Nehru Nexus ; Fundamentalism and Secularism

Monday 1 December 2014, by P N Haksar


November 27 this year marks P.N. Haksar’s sixteenth death anniversary. On this occasion we offer our sincere homage to one of the country’s foremost thinkers by reproducing the following contributions by the former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. Haksar’s role as an eminent administrator and distinguished diplomat would remain indelible in the history of post-independence India.

Two Contributions by P.N. Haksar

Relevance of Gandhi-Nehru Nexus

The fundamental preoccupation of our distant and ancient thinkers was with three questions: First, who am I? Second, whence have I come? And third, what is my destiny? But now, if we could only transcend ourselves and our small egos, one would ask: where is our society and our country going? What is India’s destiny? And how can we attain dignity and greatness?

It is to this set of latter questions that Gandhi, Nehru, Subramania Bharati and Rabindranath Tagore addressed themselves. And they continue to be of contemporary relevance.

It is a matter of deep and profound regret that Gandhites and Nehruites have formed separate churches. From the history of churches, one knows how the messiahs get vulgarised the moment they are entombed in churches, mosques, temples and gurudwaras. The Gandhi-Nehru nexus needs to be restored today. The life, work and thoughts of the two are indisso-lubly linked together and constitute an inter-acting and integrated system. Gandhi articu-lated the imperatives of the moral and spiritual universe. Nehru articulated the imperatives of the rational and scientific universe. But the two together constituted the entire universe of mind and spirit of our national movement dedicated to the search for a new identity for our country.

The spirituality of Gandhi and Nehru consti-tuted the finest expression of humanism. The essence of this humanism lay in the vision of a society where love and compassion transcend hatred and violence; where, as Tagore said, “the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit”; and where the only justification for acquiring wealth is that it is held in trust for the poor and the deprived.

During the seventeen years of his Prime Ministership, Jawaharlal Nehru did everything which he could personally do to uphold the principles of openness and accountability in the governance of the country; he unrelentingly lent support to the institutional bastions of our democracy; he made us all feel, whether we were scientists, bureaucrats, politicians or journalists, that we were partners in the great and exciting venture of nation-building. His greatest contribution was to resist the temp-tation to restrict democracy in our country. He never allowed spirituality to degenerate into ritualistic religious expressions.

That very perceptive historian, E.H. Carr, has said that one looks back into history because our present dilemmas and perplexities lead us to have a dialogue with our past. He has also said that history is a response to the question: how did things come to be as they are? Recalling the life and work of both Gandhi and Nehru is urgently necessary because the development process itself within India is bringing into the open the unresolved conflicts not only between the past and the future, but between the vision we had and the way it has been translated.

If the vision of Indian society informed by the concept of equality is a valid one, then the historical structuring of our society, sustained by the structured inequality of the varnashrama dharma, is in conflict with the egalitarian social order. If the vision of growth with social justice is a valid vision, then the continuing and pervasive sense of injustice and deprivation contradicts assumptions about social justice. If pride in new India is not to be treated as a dirty word, then upholding of self-reliance and informing our economic as well as technological policies constitute the very means and mechanisms through which pride and patriotism can find expression.

India today desperately needs the restoration of the vision of Gandhi and Nehru. Even more desperately we need not merely the articulation of that vision but an analysis of the constituent elements of that vision. “Love thy neighbour as thyself” remains a valid and evocative vision of Jesus. It remains valid even when we human beings engage ourselves in killing our neigh-bours or hating them. But the contemporary world of the nuclear bomb, when seen in the context of the explosion of science and technology, demands that even if we do not love our neighbour, we owe a duty to take care not to hurt him. Even under the ordinary law relating to negligence, it is legally enjoined upon all of us to ensure that our neighbour does not suffer damage by the consequences of our own action.

So, one way of looking at human history might be to see how society develops in such a manner that what was only a moral injunction uttered by Jesus or the Buddha or Mohammad now becomes a legally enforceable imperative. Viewed in this light, India—our country—is crying for movements, combining together the passionate urges which informed Reformation and Renaissance. The earlier Bengal Renaissance has petered out.

If nothing else, the sacrifice of the 18-year-old girl on the funeral pyre of her husband in the village of Deorala in Rajasthan shows, if one has eyes to see, that a new movement for reform of society and renaissance of our mental processes is urgently required. In the measure we proceed to do that, in that measure we shall have to link that movement to the essentials of the Gandhi and Nehru framework. 

[Extracts from an article in The Hindu (November 14, 1987). These appeared in Mainstream (January 26, 1988) marking the fortieth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s martrydom. These were reproduced in

Mainstream (November 29, 2008)]

Fundamentalism and Secularism

In the charmed world of Alice in Wonderland, words can be made to mean anything. Regrettably, outside the Wonderland, words have to be used with utmost care. The context in which a word arises must be understood if we are to avoid unnecessary sorrow and suffering. Ever since human beings began expressing themselves through words and then language, a measure of sacredness has been attached to a ‘word’. According to our own tradition, in the beginning there was ‘Word’ and that word was Om. Great care was taken in articulating the vibrant resonance of Om. Similar sanctity attaches to a muezzin’s call: “Allah-O-Akbar”. In the Christian system of faith and belief, the second person in the Trinity is ‘Word’. When a person makes a promise or statement to do something “upon my word”, sanctity attaches to that statement.

We have said enough to make the simple point that ‘words’ have to be used with utmost care. In order to do so, we must understand the context in which each word arose and the shades of meaning which it acquires through the passage of time. All this might sound somewhat pedantic, but the Information Revolution, which is shaking the world, makes it necessary to point out the dangers involved in our failure to be meticulous, even fussy, about the use of words. In these notes, we are particularly concerned about two words, namely, ‘Fundamentalism’ and ‘Secularism’.

Many dignitaries visiting our shores in recent months, more specially from the United States and the United Kingdom, have warned us about the rise of ‘Islamic Fundamentalism’. It is perhaps, their hope that India’s social and political climate might be receptive to their warnings. That hope is not without some basis. That is why it is necessary to examine critically the genesis of the word ‘fundamentalism’. How did this word arise in the English language? The Oxford Reference Dictionary explains it thus:

Strict maintenance of traditional orthodox religious beliefs; a religious movement which developed among various Protestant bodies in the USA after the First World War, based on strict adherence to certain tenets (e.g.. the literal inerrancy of Scripture) held to be fundamental to the Christian faith.

The Encyclopedia of Social Sciences elaborates the origin of fundamentalism as follows:

Fundamentalism is the name of an aggressive conservative movement in the Protestant churches of the United States which flourished during the decade after the World War. It manifested itself chiefly in the Baptist, Disciple and Presbyterian churches but received considerable support from other ecclesiastical groups. It was characterised not only by its aggressive efforts to impose its creed upon the churches and upon the public and denominational schools of the country. Its conservative supernaturalism was expressed in the “five points of fundamentalism”, which included the doctrines of the inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the super-natural atonement, the physical resurrection of Jesus and the authenticity of the Gospel miracles. The first of these points was interpreted by fundamentalism to apply particularly to the Biblical account of the creation of man in opposition to the theory of evolution, which became the central question of the fundamentalist controversy.

The movement was directed against liberal elements within the churches and against purely scientific or secular interests in American civilisation.

It may be noted that fundamentalism as it arose in USA allied itself to political conservatism against liberal elements within the churches and against purely scientific or secular interests. Enormous pressure was exerted on teachers and schools of a large number of States to purge the textbooks of all references to Evolution and substitute it with Creation. It may be of interest to note that

in the social sources from which it drew its strength fundamentalism was closely related to the conflict between rural and urban cultures in America... the fundamentalist attitude reflected the distrust of reason and the emphasis upon emotion, the doubt of human ability to solve ultimate problems and the reliance on divine agency which are characteristic not only of much traditional Christianity but also of those groups which have received the least profit from a rationalised culture and of pioneer and isolated rural societies which remain most conscious of dependence for their livelihood on those processes of nature which are least subject to human control. The rationalism and self-reliance of the opposing groups, on the other hand, had been fostered not only by science and education, but also by industrialised culture with its rational and artificial methods of production and its immediate urban environment, all largely subject to human control. (Encyclopedia of Social Sciences, p. 527)

One can perhaps, formulate a generalisation about causes generating fundamentalism expressed in religious terms. Whenever human beings in large or smaller aggregates in any society perceive that their physical and spiritual well-being and their future cannot be achieved through reason in politics, and thus become assailed by a sense of fear and uncertainty, they would tend to fall back upon fundamentalism as the only emotionally stabilising factor. Insofar as there is a growing potentiality of the rise of fundamentalism in countries where people profess Islam, it is directly relatable to massive frustration of hopes and aspirations of the peoples concerned for both bread and liberty. Historically speaking, these frustrations are the direct result of policies pursued by the West, including the United States, in the entire arena which embraces Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the entire Arab world. Naturally, these frustrations might also grip those areas of the former Soviet Union in which people have Islamic faith.

One cannot meet the challenge posed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism by the application of military force. It can only be met if the faith of these people in the possibility of improving their sense of human dignity, their identity and promise of a better life is seen to be understood and translated into diplomacy practised by the Western powers. The other scenario is too horrendous to contemplate. Surely those who warn India against the rise fundamentalism are not contemplating the revival of the crusades or of religious wars. One should learn from history that neither the crusades nor the religious wars fought in Europe between the 15th and 17th centuries yielded decisive results in the victory of one religion over the other or the victory of Protestantism over Catholicism. It is indeed ironic that fundamentalism should have resurrected itself in the United states amongst the Protestant sects.

In our own country, religious fundamentalism gains adherence only in the measure that reason retreats in politics, money and muscle power suffocates democracy, cultural and ideological pluralism is sought to be snuffed out by fundamentalism expressed in religious terms, whether in the name of Hinduism or Islam.

Our country has, for several centuries, interacted both with the Arab world and Persia. We have interacted with Islam. And if India had remained undivided we would have, in the Republic of United India, more than 300 million citizens of the Republic professing Islamic faith. We respectfully ask how Hindutva would have coped with Akhand Bharat containing 30 crores of Muslims? That is why we began by expressing serious anxiety about improper use of words.

It would be erroneous to assume that the mindset which is labelled by the word ‘funda-mentalism’ is invariably connected with religion. Any rigid dogma can degenerate into a funda-mentalist mindset crushing liberty and demo-cracy. Fundamentalism can equally express itself in racist terms. The apartheid system in South Africa, in this view of the matter, must be regarded as an expression of the fundamentalist mindset of White racists there. Hitlor’s Nazism was also fundamentalist, as it combined racist dogmas with retreat from reason and rationality. In pre-war Japan, Japanese fundamentalism was based on enforcing the Bushido Code; dissidents were persecuted for the crime of advocating ‘dangerous thoughts’. The Stalinist persecution equally belongs to the fundamentalist species.

Our own social, political, economic, cultural and moral order is gripped with crisis. The centuries-old tradition, reinforced by a variety of oral traditions, helps our people in maintaining some sort of faith in their future. But this must not be overestimated. Fear and uncertainly is seeping through millions upon millions of people. Our political leadership faces a great challenge to replace fear with hope and this can only be done by combining together the moral, spiritual and scientific universe with which the names of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are associated.

At this stage one must consider the meaning of the word ‘Secularism’. Both fundamentalism and secularism are interacting attitudes of mind in human societies bounded by specificities of their own respective cultures and civilisations. They are not independent variables. In the English language, the word ‘secular’ means “concerned with the affairs of this world, not spiritual or sacred” and ‘secularism’ means “the belief that morality or education should not be based on religion”.

Both the words secular and secularism arose as a result of the operation of a universal process which has been in operation in all societies from the dawn of human consciousness. In this connection we would like to draw the attention of our readers to the same column in the September 1991 issue of Man & Development entitled, “Men, Events and Processes”. By this process, the human mind is able to discern what constitutes the affairs of this world, as distinct from spiritual or sacred. Naturally, the outward expression of the operation of this process of secularisation of the human mind takes a variety of shapes and forms depending upon the cultural specificities of each society. The humankind began this process of secularisation from the very moment they began asking questions like How and Why instead of Who.

In the history of our own civilisation, we began drawing a distinction between matters relating to Ih-lok as distinct from Parlok. There is a similar distinction between matters relating to Deen and Dunia. The process of secularisation is fed by the search for knowledge which grows into science-based knowledge. By this process, human beings endeavour, on the basis of knowledge, to grapple with the problems of political, economic, social and cultural, structu-ring of societies. In Europe, the secularisation process produced in time Renaissance, Enlighten-ment and Juristic humanitarian universalism. We can easily discern similar process at work in the story of our own civilisation.

It is important to remember that the process of secularisation was powerfully helped by the elaboration of natural laws instead of laws derived from sanctity of religion. When, in the midst of this process, there emerged the Modern Nation-State, the question arose, and certainly arises in our country with a particular sense of legitimacy, about the nature and character of our State: Is State an instrument for enforcing divine laws? Alternatively, is State an instrument for the enlargement and protection of totality of national interest transcending religious or denominational divisions? It is from these considerations that there arose the need for the State confining itself to the affairs of this world, and thus being secular rather than being an instrument of any particular faith or dogma.

It may be noted that the process of seculari-sation is accelerated in the measure that a State, citizens and society are governed by laws enacted through the democratic processes. There then emerges a “law-governing State” and “law-abiding citizens”. In our country, we have laws and procedures relating to crime; we have laws relating to evidence; we have laws governing transfer of property and about taxation. All these are secular laws concerning the affairs of our world in India. In this view of the matter, it is normal and natural to have uniform laws governing all citizens of the Republic of India.

If the words secular, secularism and secula-risation are to be understood as part and parcel of a universal process of secularisation of the human mind, then we have inflicted enormous damage on the nation-building process in India, by a totally unacceptable and false translation of the word secular and secularism by equating them to the doctrine of religious tolerance expressed in the words like Dharmanirpekshta and Sarwa Dharma Sambhava. These translations have produced great schizophrenia in our politics which, in time, has produced the situation with which we are now actually confronted in Punjab and Kashmir. And not merely in Punjab and Kashmir, but elsewhere too, when our politicians of all political parties make their electoral calculations in terms of ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’, ‘Christian’, etc.

There is one more question which needs to be answered: What is the relationship between religion, howsoever defined, and processes of secularisation? Is the relationship inherently antagonistic? The answer is no. The process of secularisation merely leads to finding the domain of each, both at the level of individual and society and State. That is why the word ‘Secular’ as we have stated means “concerned with the affairs of this world, not spiritual or sacred”. It is to be hoped that if the Republic of India is not to degenerate into a state of anarchy, the time has come for coming to grips with the real meaning of such words as ‘secularism’ and ‘fundamentalism’.

[The above article appeared in Man and Development (Vol. XIII, No. 4, December 1991) the journal Haksar edited. It was reproduced in Mainstream (November 24, 2012)]