Mainstream, VOL LIV No 1 New Delhi December 26, 2015
Pandit Nehru’s Vision of a Tolerant Society
Saturday 26 December 2015, by
Religious tolerance and liberal acceptance of diverse faiths within an accommodative fold have always been the central concern of India’s social character since ancient days. It can be said that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on how to build a strong and secular India were mostly an extension of that inclusive philosophic legacy. Through his speeches and writings runs the urge to revive that spirit of tolerance which suffered grievously under the post-1857 British policies, for he made it clear that any attempt to rob the country of its heterogeneous character would severely weaken its foundations, and dry the country’s sources of life. Growing instances of intolerance in today’s society which put a question-mark on the BJP rulers’ real intentions strongly remind us of the broad base of the liberal, tolerant framework of Gandhian-Nehruvian philosophy that took shape in the testing times of the British Raj.
An avid student of history, Pandit Nehru had imbibed strict scientific discipline of approach to contemporary problems that ruled out the element of emotion in dealing with them. While the world was going through the horrors of a brutal warfare unleashed by the leading figure of intolerance and blind racial fury, Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru showed us that no society can hope to survive by resorting to passionate violence against the minority faiths and their ways of life. Partition riots had shaken the conscience of the country. Nehru was anxious to set things right in a proper rational manner. In a wave of slanderous denunciation of Nehru’s ideas released by the Hindutva reactionaries, the basic tenets of democratic ideology have been deliberately ignored and vile attempts to denigrate the concept of secular India is being made.
Pandit Nehru was not against any religion; in an address made to the university students of Allahabad immediately after independence and later on published under the title of “Universities Have Much to Teach Us”, he affirmed that followers of different faiths should have the right to practice their religion but no religion should be permitted to interfere in the politics of the country. He was against reducing religion to banal tokenism and ritualistic chores which is what is being done under the saffron regime. Nehru’s vision of religion shares the profound notion of spiritual quest for truth beyond the domain of the known. In an essay, entitled “Life’s Philosophy” Pandit Nehru admits that he felt a strange mystical wonderment when he gazed at the vast night sky studded with countless stars, marvelling at the enormous invisible power that seems to drive life in the smallest particles and the gigantic galaxies. Sages and scholars of yore attempted to understand the human urge to explore the inner and outer sources of that power through the means and methods available to them.
Nehru felt strangely disturbed when in the name of religion obscurantist ideas were sought to be imposed. In his words, “... always we must hold to our anchor of precise objective knowledge tested by reason, and even more by experiment and practice, and always we must beware of losing ourselves in a sea of speculation unconnected with day-to-day problems of life and the needs of men and women.” (“Life’s Philosophy”) The mere speculation cannot be allowed to form the basis of political projects and must not be permitted to rule over the reasoned, rationalistic approach. He was aware of the dangerous path of rousing religious passions being followed by certain fanatical believers whose game was to downplay the crucial role of secular politics. “The real problems for me,” he says, “remain problems of individual and social life, of harmonious living, a proper balancing of an individual’s inner and outer life, of an adjustment of relations between individuals and between groups, of a continuous becoming something better and higher, of social development, of the ceaseless adventure of man. In solution of these problems the way of observation and precise knowledge and deliberate reasoning according to the methods of science, must be followed.”(“Life’s Philosophy”) In a way these utterances appear to carry the force of intellectual awakening that stirred the air of Bengal, Maharashtra and other places of the country in the wake of the remarkable work of social reformation pioneered by such great leaders as Raja Rammohan Roy, Jyotirao Phule, Gopal Ganesh Agarkar and others.
Revival of intolerance in the critical days preceding independence was regarded by both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as posing serious threat to the essential character of Indian society. Though Pandit Nehru was frank enough to admit that he felt confused by the vague metaphysical explanations based on mere flights of imagination, he possessed a childlike curiosity about the expansive approach of many a spiritual enquiry. ”I do not believe any of these or other theories and assumptions as a matter of religious faith. They are just intellectual speculations in an unknown region about which we know next to nothing.” He was impatient with the conservative view many proponents of religious dogmatism advocated. His critics today propagate it as evidence of his being anti-Hindu and non-believer! There is no doubt, he considered it madness to allow questions of one’s faith to guide the direction of social development.
Possessing a thorough knowledge of history, Pandit Nehru knew how often stark social evils grew out of dogmatic and institutional religion’s narrow-minded interpretations of its world view and received support from fanatical leaders. Intolerance is one strong element which proves to be the main tool with which these fanatics fight against liberal, democratic and secular ideas. In The Discovery of India the author says: “What a nation is it is difficult to define. Possibly the essential characteristics of national conscio-usness is a sense of belonging together and of together facing the rest of mankind.”(p. 401) Repeatedly in that book it has been asserted by Nehru that too much reliance on religious dogma robs a society of its dynamism and checks “the tendency to change and progress that is inherent in human society”. His observations about the importance of religion in society appear to give answers to the confused and absurd discussions initiated by the Hindutva supporters today: “With all the good they (religions) have done, they have also tried to imprison truth in set forms and dogmas, and encouraged ceremonials and practices which soon lose all their original meaning and become mere routine.” These words reflect Nehruji’s anxiety about giving undue importance to matters of faith in political and social life.
There are two things involved here: one, Pandit Nehru was mystified by the profound questions that a spiritual exploration seeks to answer, wondering at the power that governs the cosmos and nature; and two, he found it foolish and dangerous to equate true religion with ritualistic pomposity and encouragement given to superstitious ways of thinking. “The diversity and the fullness of nature stir me and produce a harmony of the spirit, and I can imagine myself feeling at home in the old Indian or Greek pagan and pantheistic atmosphere.” (“Life’s Philosophy”) But he did not agree with the whole paraphernalia of images and symbols overriding the spiritual messages: “....God has come to mean much that I do not believe in. I find myself incapable of thinking of a deity or of any unknown supreme power in anthro-pomorphic terms.... Any idea of a personal God seems very odd to me.” In a sense true spiritual quest is always at war with its naïve inter-pretations.
Nehru’s feelings appear to find a poetic voice in Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s famous lines from verse 11 of Gitanjali, “Leave this chanting and singing and telling of beads! Whom dost thou worship in this lonely dark corner/ of a temple with doors all shut? Open thine eyes and see thy God is not before thee!” If Tagore appears to articulate the same breadth of vision, both he and Nehru can be seen to share the humanistic-tolerant catholicity of old Sufi poets like Rumi, Hafiz, Saa’di, Attar, and Sultan Bahu who openly mocked at the stupidity of mullahs and their degenerate religiosity. They propaga-ted the concept of Love which embraces all humanity in one larger fold and repudiated such things as segregation and mutual hostility. Pandit Nehru found kindred wisdom guiding the ancient Indian visionaries: “We can never forget the ideals that have moved our race, the dreams of the Indian people through the ages, the wisdom of the ancients, the buoyant energy and love of life and nature of our forefathers, their spirit of curiosity and mental adventure, the daring of their thought, their love of truth and beauty and freedom, the basic values that they set up, their understanding of life’s mysterious ways, their toleration of other ways than theirs, their capacity to absorb other peoples and their accomplishments, to synthesize them and develop a varied and mixed culture; nor can we forget the myriad experiences which have built up our ancient race and life embedded in our sub-conscious minds. We will never forget them nor cease to take pride in that heritage of ours. If India forgets them she will no longer remain India and much that has made her joy and pride will cease to be.”(The Discovery of India: p. 509)
There is more need of understanding these aspects of Indian culture today than at any other time, when the destroyers of our culture have found it convenient to subvert the rich legacy Nehru refers to in order to foment communal hatred. In An Autobiography he writes: “I must say that those Hindus and Muslims who are always looking backwards, always clutching at things which are slipping away from their grasp, are a singularly pathetic sight. I do not wish to damn the past or to respect it, for there is so much that is singularly beautiful in our past. That will endure I have no doubt. But it is not the beautiful that these people clutch at but something that is seldom worthwhile and is harmful.”(p. 471)
In an advanced democratic society tolerance and not coercion should be the strength of the rulers. When we look at the way today’s saffron rulers openly or covertly use violent methods to force people of other faiths to follow the practices of the majority, make attempts to harm or eliminate those who do not toe the line of the dominant voice and seek to create an air of general intolerance, we are reminded of Pandit Nehru’s severe criticism of such a rule. Intolerance, in his opinion, is the growth of a dogmatic, unaccomodative position. He denounced it because “in it there is no room for argument. It reduces itself to the narrow creed of a sect which people may or may not accept. It loses vitality and application to present day problems.” (An Autobiography : p. 550) He envisaged a much larger role for the rulers than indulging in such things as putting ban on cow slaughter and beef-eating.
Great culture and society are neither built nor preserved on such absurdities, whatever the RSS-BJP bigwigs might think about the glorious past. “Any activity on a mass scale, and especially any activity aiming at radical and revolutionary changes, is affected not only by what the leaders think of it, but by existing conditions and, still more, by what the human material they work with thinks about it.” (AnAutobiography : p. 550) Warning us against those who never tire of fomenting communal sentiments, he in one of his speeches exhorts the youth, “A vast responsibility, therefore, rests on our universities and educational institutions and those who guide their destinies. They have to keep the lights burning and must not stray from the right path even when passion convulses the multitude and blinds many amongst those whose duty it is to set an example to others. We are not going to reach our goal through crookedness or flirting with evil in the hope that it may lead to good. The right end can never be achieved through wrong means.” (“The Universities Have Much to Teach Us”)
It is not just a coincidence that in recklessly pushing forward the Hindutva agenda without so much as giving room for consensual debate, the present-day rulers have shoved educational programmes way down their priority. In contrast Pandit Nehru’s ideas reflect the anxiety of a socialist thinker who is genuinely concerned about making education the bulwark of the country, capable of preserving the old culture of India and consolidating its resilient spirit. They are more relevant today than ever before.
1. Nehru, Jawaharlal, The Discovery of India New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1986.
2. Nehru, Jawaharlal, An Autobiography, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1986.
3. Ramakrishnan, D., ed., Indian English Prose, New Delhi, Arnold Heinemann, 1980.
The author is a retired Professor of English, Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur. He is the author of 25 books on literature and language and a translator.