Mainstream, VOL LIV No 47 New Delhi November 12, 2016
Secularism: A Heritage to Defend
Wednesday 16 November 2016, by
You do not have to be an idol-worshipper to remember Nehru today. Every day something happens that compels your mind to recall a man exerting every nerve to pull his countrymen out of the morass of superstition, to debunk the ‘bullock-cart mentality’ and to instil in them the confidence that they could shape their own destiny. He was a man far above his peers, loved and adored by the millions, respected and honoured the world over as the passionate voice of peace and freedom; a man who could claim willing suspension of all disbelief and scepticism from his people. But he was a man who struggled and fought out of his system the temptation of becoming a Caesar because he believed that would spell disaster for the India to the building of which the best men of his generation had dedicated themselves. Thus he came to be known as the maker of modern India, the promoter of the scientific temper and a secular outlook, the builder of democratic traditions and structure, the single-minded campaigner for peace and social justice.
And what kind of tribute is being paid to him now? Nehru is fast being relegated to the position of a god in the pantheon, good enough for incense-burning but not for emulation. His guide and mentor, Gandhi, had earlier been pushed into that crowd—ironically during the life-time of Jawaharlal himself. The self-styled Gandhians had drained the life out of the Mahatma’s thought and kept it as a memento. Nehru allowed it to happen. Now it seems Nehru’s memory is being overtaken by a kind of nemesis. Those who claim copyright over his thought and legacy are making no better use of it than do school-boys of stray quotations for competition essays or elocution contest speeches.
How would Nehru feel in the midst of the thick fragrant smoke of the numerous havans and
yagnas and poojas that fill the Indian air today? These practises are not new to this country. For centuries have we wallowed in superstition and allowed our destiny to be a plaything in the hands of astrologers, sooth-sayers and charlatans. Nehru seemed to be India’s leap out of that darkness and the whole country appeared to rejoice in joining his great adventure of shaping the future through human endeavour. With Nehru gone we have fallen back into the old pit of darkness. No more are the stream of history, the clash of world forces, the factors of socio-economic development, etc., subjects of discussion in high quarters, among the decision-makers and wielders of power. The country has yet to hear a strong voice raised against this conspiracy of antedilu-vianism while every ounce of credibility that the high and mighty possess is being pressed into its service.
One is reminded of Jawaharlal’s speeches during the 1962 election campaign. It had been declared by the pundits and priests that the eight-planet conjunction was a malevolent sign and that yagnas should be performed to avert the impending calamity. People all over the country, gripped by fear created by such propaganda, were being persuaded to join what were called Ashtagraha yagnas. Nehru made it a point to debunk it in all his election speeches, so that the campaign became, simultaneously with winning votes, education of the common man to be free from superstition. The attitude might have cost the Congress a few seats—at least one defeated candidate did mention it as a factor—but the people were given a protective dose against the onslaught of obscuran-tism. Even when the highly emotive question of ban on cow-slaughter was thrust into the election arena in the very first general election after independence, he did not quail before it but placed it squarely in perspective. “The agitation for the ban on cow slaughter is based on sentiment,” he said and added, “The question is whether India is a political or a religious nation.” How many self-styled inheritors of the Nehru legacy have the courage to adopt that attitude?
Nehru’s unreserved repudiation of ritual and superstition did not succeed in curing society of these weaknesses, but it did have a salutary effect: people dared not flaunt them as virtues—as they do now. To preach atheism was none of his business; he was no philosophical crusader. He was only doing his duty as a secular leader to keep a multicultural, multi-religious nation free from unncessary and unwarranted tension. Under his influence political leaders and members of the administration generally refrained from flaunting their distinctive religious marks and people generally tended to come closer to each other as Indians and as human beings. When ritualism gets encouragement by association with it of powerful politicians, it no longer remains a private affair confined to the holy precincts of shrines; it goes ahead and enters police stations and even courts of justice. Inevitably the defenders of civic peace and dispensers of justice begin to be identified with religion and the spirit of secularism takes flight. And we come across situations where one community feels closer to the administration while another feels alienated. That is not the kind of free India which Tagore or Gandhi or Nehru had visualised.
It was Nehru’s way, in fighting communalism, to catch the bull by the horns. Communalism, he kew from experience, was the creed of cowards. When challenged in the open it could not stand up. Those who today talk of the difficulties on account of an interim regime’s softness to communal elements and seek to use it as an alibi for failure to tackle the problem, would do well to contemplate in what circumstances Nehru had to lead the country.
He had inherited an administrative machine from the British which had become used to looking upon the country’s population as blocks of religious communities rather than as a nation. The bloodshed which accompanied Partition had warped the thinking of large masses of people besides creating the gigantic problem of rehabilitating the uprooted. His own colleagues had lost their Gandhian moorings and started toying with the idea of providing a Hindu chauvinist base to nationalism.
Encouraged by all these developments, the RSS was dreaming of a takeover. Golwalkar’s speech at the Ramlila grounds in December 1947 had the ring of Hitler on the eve of his last putsch. In the upper echelons of the Sangh there were serious discussions on plans for a takeover. It was no idle dream. There were active links between the RSS top brass and a section of the Congress leadership and bureaucracy. The latter had been led to believe, through subtle suggestions and innuendos, that the Muslims had hatched a conspiracy to blow up the Capital and continue aggression till they established control over the whole of India. It was a fantastic cock-and-bull story but many important Cabinet colleagues of Nehru believed it and went to the extent of recommending that the RSS be allowed to become part of the Congress.
While his colleagues were thus planning to meet the communal challenge through compromise, Nehru put his foot down. Earlier to that he had personally rushed into the midst of a frenzied mob which was looting and burning shops in Connaught Place. He did it in disregard of security advice and in the teeth of opposition by the bureaucrats. What he did gave a new orientation to many in the police and the administration generally. If the Prime Minister of the country risks his very life to protect the minorities, those who hoped and wished to work with him had to take secularism seriously.
While there was Jawaharlal at the head of the administration, there was Gandhi among the people fighting furiously against mass anger and frustration. Gandhi actually fell victim to the poison which he was struggling to purge out of the system. The victim could as well have been Jawaharlal. There were many attempts on his life.
The martyrdom of the Mahatma shocked the nation into sanity. Nehru’s voice began to be heard with greater attention as realisation dawned of the kind of disaster communal thinking could bring in its train. People changed because Nehru stood firm and faced the calamity with courage. He said: “Great as this man of God was in his life, he has been great in his death, and I have not the shadow of a doubt that by his death he has served the great cause as he served it throughout his life... He would chide us if we merely mourn. That is a poor way of doing homage to him. The only way is to express our determination, to pledge ourselves anew, to conduct ourselves in a befitting manner and to dedicate ourselves to the great task which he undertook and which he accomplished to such a large extent.”
He declared the resolve to root out the evil: “It is clear... that this happening, this tragedy, is not merely the isolated act of a mad man. This comes out of a certain atmosphere of violence and hatred that has prevailed in this country for many months and years and more especially in the past few months. That atmosphere envelopes us and surrounds us and if we are to serve the cause he put before us we have to face this atmosphere, to combat it, to struggle against it and root out hatred and violence.”
What the present-day leadership has to face are tragedies of much smaller magnitude but call for the same measure of courage and clarity. The slow-motion response to Moradabad reminds us that our leaders have moved far from Gandhi and Nehru. This is what we are up against.
(Mainstream, November 15, 1980)
The author, who was an editor of this journal for a few years in the 1960s, was a noted writer, journalist and crusader against communalism.