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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 47 New Delhi, November 14, 2015

Growing Relevance of Nehru’s Secularism

Monday 16 November 2015

by Mohd Yousuf Dar

Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, always tried his best for building a secular India. Nehru was in the core of his heart secular and rationalist. India emerged as a secular state in the mid-20th century mainly due to the efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru, because he played a heroic role in the development of a secular outlook during the freedom movement itself. That is because he was convinced that in a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, plural and democratic society like India, the secular frame-work was imperative.

But nowadays, India is facing the growth of intolerance, religious fanaticism and funda-mentalism. This rising intolerance and religious fundamentalism have been seen in India since the BJP came to power at the Centre and can easily be drawn from incidents like hate-speeches, ink attacks on Sudheendra Kulkarni, legislator Engineer Abdul Rasheed, lynching of Mohha-mmad Ikhlaq at Dadri, killing of Zahid Rasool Bhat at Udhampur etc. Hardly a day passes without an incident or a statement being made that may rake up communal tension in the country. These incidents triggered massive protests by writers and artists who returned their awards.

Nehru regarded secularism as the basic law of Indian nationhood. It grew as an integrative process. He believed that the territorial integrity, political stability and national identity in a country like India with multi-faceted diversity can be achieved only through secularism. According to Nehru, secularism does not mean indifference to religion. It only means that the state as such is not identified with any particular religion but tolerates every religion, appreciates every religion, respects all religions —Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, etc. He used every single opportunity to impress upon the people the danger of mixing religion and politics. He was a vehement critic of communalism and fundamentalism of both Hindus and Muslims. Communalism, he believed, could not only weaken the very fabric of a society but also threaten its very existence. He was of the view that for proper functioning of democracy and growth of national unity and solidarity, communalism must be eliminated from India’s life. On one occasion he stated, “We have said repeatedly that we will not tolerate any communalism in this country and that we are building a free secular state, where every religion and belief has full freedom and equal honour.”

Jawaharlal Nehru, throughout his long and distinguished career, was loved by the minorities who put their faith and trust in him. Nehru’s concern for the minorities was reflected often in his speeches. He said in one of his speeches in the early fifties: “We have in India 40 million Muslims, as big a number as any other Muslim country excepting Pakistan and Indonesia. Any propaganda, that gives these people a sense of insecurity or makes them feel that they do not have the same opportunities for development and progress as everybody else, is an anti-national thing and communal.” Nehru constantly strove to find ways to root out the fear and distress of the minorities. He wanted the majority to be generous.

The spirit of tolerance has been the landmark of our secular attitude and outlook. This tolerance arises from our attitudes, our past conditioning and mental outlook. In his Autobiography Nehru writes: “The spectacle of what is called religion or, at any rate organised religion, in India and elsewhere, has filled me with horror, and I have frequently, condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seemed to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition, and exploitation, and preservation of vested interests.’’ Thus Nehru visualised a secular state as one in which every group and every individual had the full freedom to function according to his own way either culturally or in matters of religion. It was Nehru’s vision that shaped the Constitution of India in such a manner that it should provide for a secular state. Nehru emphasised four different aspects of secularism.

In the first place he insisted that secularism meant grant of equal status to all religions in India and opposed grant of special privileges to any religion. He said: “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.” Thus, according to Nehru, a caste-ridden society could not be secular and he laid emphasis on the elimination of such distinctions.

Secondly, Nehru’s secularism implied neutrality of the state in religious matters. He wrote: “I am convinced that the future government of free India must be secular in the sense that the government will not associate itself directly with any religious faith.” He was opposed to the association of the state with any particular religion because it divided the citizens into two classes—some having more opportu-nities and others having less.

Thirdly, Nehru viewed secularism as a mental attitude on the part of various communities which could bring about harmony and feeling of fraternity towards one another. He fully realised that the success of secularism in India would depend on the attitude of the majority community towards the minorities. He, therefore, exhorted the Hindus, who constituted the majority, to “remember that the interest and well-being of the minorities are their sacred trust. If they fail in their trust, then they injure not only the country but themselves.” He also expected the minorities to be tolerant and advised them not to adopt an attitude which could be detrimental to the integrity and unity of India.

Finally, Nehru’s concept of secularism implied the existence of a uniform civil code for the people of India. He considered the existence of different sets of laws governing different communities as inconsistent with his ideal of a secular society.

Today, the secular ethos for which Nehru strived hard throughout his life is facing a multi-prolonged challenge from the hydra-headed monster of communalism. A spark is enough to ignite a communal flare-up; people slit each other’s throat. Thus in the light of our experience, particularly during last two years, a fresh reappraisal or the correctness of what Nehru stood for and tried to achieve, is the need of the hour.

The author is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Political Science, University of Kashmir. He can be contacted at e-mail: myousufdar082@gmail.com