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Mainstream, VOL LV No 23 New Delhi May 27, 2017

Jawaharlal Nehru and the Strength of our Secular Democracy

Saturday 27 May 2017

by Sukumaran C. V.

“Nehru Dead! Nehru Dead!! Nehru Dead!!!” The teleprinter message was hammering away in my brain. At 2 pm on Wednesday, May 27, 1964, each one of us, four hundred and fifty million Indians, died, as the great-hearted Jawaharlal Nehru, who was the heart of the nation, breathed his last. A solemn hush of silence descended on the nation. The farmer in the field, the worker in the factory, the clerk in the office, the housewives at their hearths, the children in schools—each and everyone felt the sudden chilly spasm of death. "Who Lives If Nehru Dies?” —Khwaja Ahmad Abbas.

The Hindutva politics has successfully appro-priated Sardar Patel, Gandhiji and even Ambedkar who had nothing in common with the divisive politics the Hindutva forces subscribe to. There is only one man whose image can’t be saffronised by the Hindutva forces—Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was unequivocal in his stand against communalism of all the hues including the saffron one. At a time when Indian secular democracy virtually faces a grave existential threat, it is pertinent to remember and draw inspiration from Nehru’s uncompromising stand against the communal forces vis-a-vis secular democracy.

 Hardly four months after Independence, on December 7, 1947, Nehru wrote to the provincial governments: “Reports have reached me of big demonstrations organised by the RSS in some provinces. Often these demonstrations have been held in spite of prohibitory orders like Section 144. Some provincial authorities have taken no action in this matter and apparently accepted this defiance of orders. I don’t wish to interfere with your discretion in this matter. But I would like to draw your attention to the fact that this acquiescence in defiance is likely to have grave consequences.

 “We have a great deal of evidence to show that the RSS is an organisation which is in the nature of a private army and which is definitely proceeding on the strictest Nazi lines, even following the technique of organisation. It is not our desire to interfere with civil liberties. But training in arms of large numbers of persons with the obvious intention of using them is not something that can be encouraged. The fact that the RSS is definitely and deliberately against the central and provincial governments need not be taken against them and any legitimate propaganda might certainly be allowed. But their activity more and more goes beyond these limits and it is desirable for provincial govern-ments to keep a watchful eye and to take such action as they may deem necessary.

 “Some provincial governments have taken action against periodicals for promoting hatred between communities. Probably the newspapers of the RSS are more to blame in this matter than any other newspapers or periodicals outside Pakistan. It is amazing how they carry on this communal propaganda in its extremist form.

 “I have some knowledge of the way the Nazi movement developed in Germany. It attracted by its superficial trappings and strict discipline considerable numbers of lower middle class young men and women who are normally not too intelligent and for whom life appeared to offer little to attract them. And so they drifted towards the Nazi party because its policy and programme, such as they were, were simple, negative and did not require active effort of the mind. The Nazi party brought Germany to ruin and I have little doubt that if these tendencies are allowed to spread and increase in India, they would do enormous injury to India. No doubt India will survive. But the country would be grievously wounded and would take a long time to recover.” (Letters for a Nation from Jawaharlal Nehru to his Chief Ministers 1947-1963, edited by Madhav Khosla)

 I have quoted in detail to show that we can see today how prophetic Nehru’s words turned out to be. If India still survives as the largest democracy in the world, it is because of the inherent strength of our democracy and for that strength we owe greatly to Jawaharlal Nehru. But we have never been able to fully understand our first and only visionary PM and therefore we failed to emulate and strengthen the secular democracy we have inherited from him. India ‘seemed a strange and bewildering land’ to Nehru. And if he happens to see the India today, it will seem to him a stranger and more bewildering land with his secularism falling apart and democracy controlled by the corporate giants. Nehru wrote in An Autobiography:

 “I felt lonely and homeless, and India, to whom I had given my love and for whom I had laboured, seemed a strange and bewildering land to me. Even with my closest associates I felt that an invisible barrier came between us. The old world seemed to envelop them, the old world of past ideologies, hopes and desires. India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads. 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 seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests.” (Chapter 47, ‘What is Religion‘)

Nehru knew full well that ‘nationalism covers many sins and includes many conflicting elements’ and believed that ‘nothing is more absurd than to imagine that all the interests in the nation can be fitted in (it) without injury to any.’ He saw the ‘vital conflict between the possessing classes as a whole and the others; between the haves and have-nots’ and his sympathies were always with the have-nots. He wrote in his Autobiography (first published in 1936): “Our final aim can only be a classless society with equal economic justice and oppor-tunity for all, a society organised on a planned basis for the raising of mankind to higher material and cultured levels, to a cultivation of spiritual values, of co-operation, unselfishness, the spirit of service, the desire to do right, good-will and love—ultimately a world order. Everything that comes in the way will have to be removed, gently if possible, forcibly if necessary.” (Chapter 63, ‘Conversion or Compulsion’)

What we have to stress in our collective consciousness is the fact that Islam came to India not as a religious force but as a political power. As Jawaharlal Nehru says in TheDiscovery of India, “it is wrong and misleading to talk of a Moslem invasion of India or of the Moslem period in India, just as it would be wrong to refer to the coming of the British to India as a Christian invasion, or to call the British period in India a Christian period. Islam did not invade India.”

 In his small book titled The Historical Role of Islam, M.N. Roy, another great secular democrat who has been forgotten by the Indians, says: “As regards the spread of Islam in India, an ardent admirer of ancient Hindu culture like Havell, who cannot be suspected of any sympathy or even fairness to the Muslims, gives the following testimony: ‘Those who embraced Islam acquired all the rights of a Mussalman citizen in the law courts. This method of proselytism was very effective among the lower castes of Hindus, especially among those who suffered from the severity of Brahminical law with regard to the ‘impure’ classes.’ Havell is a famous eulogist of Indo-European culture which he considers to be the noblest product of the creative genius of man. On the other hand, he has bitter antipathy for the Muslims. So, if even a historian like him found distasteful things happening in India in the past, conditions were very deplorable indeed. He writes: ‘But the victorious progress of Islam in India is not to be accounted for by external reasons. It was mainly due to the political degeneration of Aryavarta ...The social programme of the Prophet gave every true believer an equal spiritual status...made Islam a political and social synthesis and gave it an imperial mission. Islam was a rule of life sufficient for the happiness of average humanity content to take the world as it is...Islam reached the zenith of its political strength at the critical period when the conflict between Buddhist philosophy and that of orthodox Brahminism was a potent cause of political dissension in northern India.’”

 I think that both the Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists and fanatics in India should read The Historical Role of Islam which may help them to discard their narrow-mindedness that destroys the secular culture, and disrupts the social peace and harmony, of the nation. It seems that the concluding paragraph of the book is more relevant today than when it was published in 1939: “In view of this realistic reading of history, Hindu superciliousness towards the religion and culture of Muslims is absurd. It insults history and injures the political future of our country. Learning from the Muslims, Europe became the leader of modern civilisation. ...Unfortunately, India could not fully benefit by the heritage of Islamic culture...Knowledge of Islam’s contribution to human culture and proper appreciation of the historical value of that contribution would shock the Hindus out of their arrogant self-satisfaction, and cure the narrow-mindedness of the Muslims of our day by bringing them face to face with the true spirit of the faith they profess.”

 I have started the article by quoting Khwaja Ahmad Abbas from his autobiography, I Am Not An Island: An Experiment in Autobiography. To remind those who have been trying to make India an intolerant nation of bigots and vigilantes, what Nehru meant to India and what Nehru means to India, let me quote the succeeding three more paragraphs too from the same chapter:

 “When Nehru died, we died—for Nehru was us, the soul and spirit of India. If it was Gandhiji who raised us out of dust, it was Jawaharlal Nehru who gave us life, who gave us courage and the will to struggle for a better tomorrow. And when Nehru died, we died—each one of us felt the fatal breath of death. Life came to a stop at 2 pm on Wednesday, May 27, 1964.”

 “And it was literally so for the sixty-year-old film director and producer, Mehboob Khan, whose devotion to Nehru and his ideals was so great that as he heard the fatal news he felt a stab of pain in his already diseased heart and saying, Ab is mulk mein rahney se faida? He collapsed never to rise again.”

 “But the late Mehboob Khan did not know the miracle of resurrection. Nehru is not dead. Nehru Lives.” (Chapter 38, ‘My Long Love Affair’)

The author is a former JNU student now working as a clerk in the Kerala State Government service.

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