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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 23, May 30, 2015

Nehru’s Struggle for Secularism

Saturday 30 May 2015, by Sumit Chakravartty

The French writer, André Malraux, had once asked Jawaharlal Nehru what had been his “greatest difficulty since independence”. Nehru’s instant reply was: “Creating a just state by just means.” Soon he added as an afterthought: “Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country.” [André Malraux, Antimemoirs, translated by Terence Kilmartin (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1968), p. 145; the conversation took place sometime in 1958—cited in Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Picador, p. 226]

Nehru was quite appalled by the “savagery” accompanying communal clashes. As S. Gopal notes in his Ansari Memorial Lecture he delivered at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi on February 22, 1988,

... the Government with the Communal Award divided the people into numerous religious compartments and Nehru, sitting in prison, heard of persistent communal violence, ‘What a disgusting people we are? Politics, progress, socialism, communism, science—where are they before this black religious savagery?’ (Diary entry, April 17, 1935)

It was thus natural that the idea of secularism was rooted in what was called the Gandhi-Nehru nexus that guided the nation for a large part of our post-colonial history. Ramachandra Guha put it succinctly:

Secularism was, indeed, an idea that underlay the very foundations of free India. The Indian national movement refused to define itself in religious terms. Gandhi insisted that the multiple faiths of India can and must co-exist peaceably in a free nation. This was a belief shared by Gandhi’s most prominent follower, Nehru, and by his acknowledged mentor, Gopal Krishna Gokhale. (Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, p. 226)

And yet, Nehru was faced with the communal challenge soon after independence, a challenge that succeeded in snatching away the Father of the Nation from our midst within six months of our having attained freedom.

According to Aditya Mukherjee,

Nehru’s commitment to the secular ideal and his prescient understanding of the grave nature of the threat from the communal fascist forces is evident from the manner in which he converted the first general elections of 1951-52 into a virtual referendum on what was to be the nature of the Indian state. He made the fight against the communal political groups his central objective and campaigned relentlessly for realising the secular vision of the Indian national movement. ‘He travelled nearly 40,000 kilometers and addressed an estimated thirty-five million people or one-tenth India’s population. The result was that in a peaceful fair election held within years of the holocaust like situation and extreme arousal of communal frenzy, the communal parties, the Hindu Mahasabha, the newly formed Jana Sangh, and the Ram Rajya Parishad, won between them only 10 Lok Sabha seats in a House of 489, and polled less than six per ent of the vote.’ [Mridula Mukherjee, “Jawaharlal Nehru’s Finest Hour: The Struggle for a Secular India”, Studies in People’s History, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2014, and Mridula Mukherjee, “Communal Threat and Secular Resistance: From Noakhali to Gujarat”, Presidential Address (Modern India), Indian History Congress, Malda, February 2011] It was a stunning achievement and a fitting tribute to the Indian national movement.

The communal threat was pushed back for decades to come.

It was unfortunately not extinguished. [Aditya Mukherjee’s paper at the International Conference on Nehru’s Worldview and his Legacy: Democracy, Inclusion and Empowerment (New Delhi, November 17-18, 2014)]

There is no gainsaying that the communal challenge was quite powerful. In his letter to the Chief Ministers on February 5, 1948, Nehru himself disclosed:

It would appear that a deliberate coup d’etat was planned involving the killing of several persons and the promotion of general disorder to enable the particular group concerned (RSS) to seize power. The conspiracy appears to have been a fairly widespread one, spreading to some of the states. (Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers, February 5, 1948, Vol. 1, p. 57)

Aditya Mukherjee explains:

It was a threat to the very ‘idea of India’ as a secular country and Nehru was not about to let it succeed. With the full support of his Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel, he banned the RSS and put 25,000 of its activists in jail. Even when the ban on the RSS was removed in July 1949, after it gave written assurances that henceforth it would function only as a cultural organisation and have nothing to do with politics, he warned the Chief Ministers of the fascist nature of the RSS and the threat of their renewing their activities. [(Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers, July 20, 1949 and August 1, 1949, vol. 1, pp. 412-13, 428) in Aditya Mukherjee, op. cit.]

One question, however, remains: why was the ban on the RSS lifted within six months of its promulgation?

At the conceptual level the indissoluble link between nationalism and secularism was brought into focus by the eminent social scientist, P.C. Joshi. In an article “Gandhi-Nehru Tradition and Indian Secularism”, he explained this in Nehru’s own words on a ‘secular state’:

In a country like India, which has many faiths and religions, no real nationalism can be built up except on the basis of secularity. Any narrower approach must exclude a section of the population and then nationalism itself will have a much more restricted meaning than it should possess...

We have not only to live upto the ideals proclaimed in our Constitution, but make them a part of our thinking and living and thus build up a really integrated nation. That... does not mean absence of religion, but putting religion on a different plane from that of normal political and social life. Any other approach in India would mean the breaking up of India. (Nehru’s foreword to Dharam Nirpeksh Raj by Raghunath Singh, 1961) (S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru: An Anthology, pp. 330-331)

In a highly objective analysis of Nehru’s approach to communalism and minorities, S. Gopal pointed out in his Ansari Memorial Lecture (February 22, 1988) that Nehru continued to hold the view that communal parties were props of political reaction, but he eventually came to the comprehension that “to the extent that it existed among the Hindus and was able to disguise itself as nationalism, it was the Indian version of fascism and deserving of the severest condemnation”. “Muslim communal groups seemed to him at least middle class and representative in some degree of the Muslim viewpoint, while its leaders behaved with greater dignity than those of the Hindu Mahasabha, who spoke only for capitalists, landlords and a few princes and their hangers-on,” Gopal added.

That was in the 1930s. After independence he was quite clear as to the real danger that India faced. Thus S. Gopal in his “Legacy of Nehru” (lecture delivered at the Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, Chandigarh in 1984) states the following:

In 1950, somebody asked him: ‘Which is the greater danger—communism or communalism?’ And in 1950, Nehru’s answer was: ‘What a stupid question! It is like asking a man whether he wished to be drowned or fall over a precipice.’ That was, mind you, in 1950. The same question was put to him in 1958 and Nehru’s answer was: ‘What a stupid question! Of course, communalism is a greater danger. The communists—they might be wedded to violence, but they have certain economic ideas which I am prepared to accept. But, communalism will be the ruin of the Indian people.’

If I may touch on a matter nearer home: it was because he thought that Kairon was standing upto Hindu and Sikh communalism that he supported Kairon even though he was well aware of the frailties of that Chief Minister. As you know, neither secularism has come to be taken for granted nor communalism has ceased to be a live danger.

And in his autobiography, Outside the Archives, Y.D. Gundevia, who was the Indian Foreign Secretary in the last years of Nehru, has presented this delightful anecdote which needs to be carried in full:

Friday morning, 11 o’clock, I walked the Prime Minister to the jam-packed Conference Room. He sat down, smiled all round and said, ‘Well, what’s your agenda today?’

‘We have no agenda, Sir, but maybe some of them would like to ask you some questions,’ I said.

‘Not very difficult questions, I hope,’ he said, and everybody laughed.

There was silence, I heard one pin drop. Then I heard another pin drop. Was that Muthu’s hairpin? She was religiously looking at the ceiling. Had someone told my favourite female firebrand deputy to keep mum that morning? Not I. Was everybody scared of the fire-eating Nehru, I wondered. Then I ventured: ‘Well, sir, if these people don’t want to ask you any questions, maybe I could suggest one of my themes. The Indian National Congress has been the only political party in power from the point of Independence, unlike so many countries where there is a change of government after one or another election. The Civil Servant in India is, as a result, turned only to the Congress policies. You lay down the policy and we carry out your policies...’

‘You carry out the policies, do you!’ interrupted the Prime Minister with obvious sarcasm.

‘Of course, we do,’ I said with emphasis. ‘If we don’t, then who does?’ I asked pertinently.

‘All right, all right, carry on,’ said Nehru.

‘Well, sir, this being the case, what happens if tomorrow, shall we say, the communists come into power. We have had a Communist Government in Kerala. But what happens to the Services if the Communists are elected to power, tomorrow, at the Centre, here in New Delhi?’

He pondered over my long drawn out question and then said, looking across the room, ‘Communists, communists, communists! Why are all of you so obsessed with communists and communism: What is it that communists can do that we cannot do and have not done for the country: why do you imagine the communists will ever be voted into power at the Centre!’ There was a long pause after this and then he said, spelling it out slowly and very deliberately: ‘The danger to India, mark you is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism.’

There was some discussion after this. Someone said something about the communist government in Kerala. Someone said something about the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. The Prime Minister answered the questions, seriously sometimes and quite jovially, here and there. The questions and the discussion are not important. Towards the end he repeated his thesis. ’The danger to India is not communism. It is Hindu right-wing communalism.’ The meeting was over and as I took the Prime Minister back to his room, I could hear the hum of excited voices that he had left behind in the Conference Room.

Call it obiter dicta, call it famous last words.

I have always looked upon what Jawaharlal said at this officers’ meeting that day as not only his famous last words, but one of the most prophetic pronouncements that he ever made. This was a little before the All-India Congress Conference at Bhubaneshwar, therefore December, 1963....

These words indeed appear prophetic in today’s context.

Nehru left no stone unturned to conduct the battle against Hindu Right-wing communalism with all the strength at his command. And his efforts did bear fruit. On his sixtieth birthday on November 14, 1949, Nehru was in Bombay. On that day he addressed six-lakh crowd in Shivaji Park where he defended democracy and secularism against Hindu chauvinism. Only a week earlier RSS supremo M.S. Golwalkar (he himself was free even if certain restrictions were there on the organisation he led) had addressed a 100,000-strong crowd at the same venue waxing eloquent on the virtues of Hindu culture. The reporter of Current weekly wrote: “He (Golwalkar) had a cure-all for the ills of the nation: Make Golwalkar the Further of All India.” (Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi, p. 100) Ramachandra Guha writes: 

A hundred thousand people had come to hear Golwalkar espouse the idea of a Hindu theocratic state for India. But in this Maharashtrian stronghold, six times as many came to cheer the Prime Minister’s defence of democracy against absolutism, and secularism against Hindu chauvinism. In this contest between competing ideas of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was winning hands down; for the time being, at any rate. (Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi, p. 100)

One can learn a lot from this episode. Communalism has to be confronted head-on, and that is precisely what Nehru did at that time. This is what historian Mridula Mukherjee has called Jawaharlal Nehru’s “finest hour”—the struggle for a secular India.

The concern that Nehru showed for adopting the Hindu Code Bill had its genesis in this communal challenge. And he faced considerable opposition even within his own party, the ruling Congress Party, in this regard. He had to fight every inch to move forward. One need not go into the details of this issue but it is fact that the Hindu Code Bill was opposed in particular by orthodox Hindus of the communal variety, including and most notably the RSS. As Ramachandra Guha discloses: “The reservations of the orthodox, as expressed in Parliament, were carried forward in the streets by the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They brought batches of volunteers into New Delhi, to shout slogans against the Hindu Code Bill and court arrest. Among their larger aims were the dismemberment of Pakistan and the unseating of Jawaharlal Nehru—as they shouted, ‘Pakistan tod do’, ‘Nehru hukumat Chhod Do’.” (Ramachandra Guha, op. cit., p. 233)

Yet despite opposition in Parliament and outside (and discordant voices in the ruling establishment) there were Congress activists who wholeheartedly supported the legislation.

As (new Law Minister S.V.) Pataskar observed, the new laws were based on the constitutional recognition of ‘the dignity of person, irrespective of any distinction of sex’.

Another member of the Congress Party put it more eloquently. Women must have the right to choose (and discard) their husbands, he said, because ‘we (Indians) were fighting for freedom. After liberating our country, our motherland, it is our responsibility to liberate our mothers, our sisters, and our wives. That will be the greatest culmination of the freedom that we have attained.’ (Ramachandra Guha, op. cit., pp. 239-40)