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

Secularism and the State: Categorising the Nehru Model

Saturday 27 May 2017, by Anil Nauriya

I. The “Nehru Models”: The Historical Nehru Model and the Posthumous Nehru Model

In most circles where opinion-making on behalf of minorities takes place, one of the reasons for appreciation of Jawaharlal Nehru’s approach towards the minorities generally is his statement that majority communalism, that is, sectarianism, is more dangerous than minority communalism. He said that “the communalism of a majority community must of necessity bear a closer resemblance to nationalism than the communalism of a minority group”. (The Tribune, November 30, 1933) This statement must, however, be understood along with his insight expressed on the same occasion that majority and minority communalisms feed off each other. (Idem) His approach is not therefore a blank cheque to minority communities to nurture and nurse their own respective communalisms as some of his majoritarian detractors allege.

One consequence of the focus on this aspect of Nehru’s approach has been that other features of the Nehruvian secular state have not received as much analysis as these deserved. It was hardly ever noticed therefore that there are in fact at least two models that contend for recognition as the Nehru model.

The notion of the secular state that was implemented after independence emerged from the Congress-led freedom struggle. Nehru invariably emphasised the connection between the establishment of a secular state and the “whole growth of our national movement”. (The Statesman, Delhi, July 8, 1951) It is intrinsic to the Gandhi-Nehru framework. It is a model of equality and equal citizenship.

A secular state was thus established and it went beyond the usual European notion of a denominational state whose secularism consisted merely in the separation from the very church to which that state was simultaneously committed. We understood, and rightly understood, a secular state to be a non-denominational state and a state, that was religiously neutral as specified in the Karachi Resolution of 1931. Gandhi, in speaking of a secular state, had also defined it in clear terms in what would now be depicted as a Nehruvian manner, that is, in terms of separation of the state from denominational religion (May 6, 1933; January 27, 1935; January 20, 1942; September 1946; August 16, 1947; August 17, 1947; August 22, 1947; November 15, 1947; November 28, 1947; all cited in my article Gandhi on Secular law and State in The Hindu, October 22, 2003)1

Similarly, when it came to society, as distinct from the state, both Gandhi and Nehru emphasised the concept of equal respect and protection of all religions, thus reconciling the concept of a religiously neutral state with a concept of equal respect for the humanist values that may be located in each religion. For Nehru, “A secular state means a state in which the State protects all religions, but does not favour one at the expense of others and does not itself adopt any religion as State religion.” (The Statesman, July 7, 1951)

And then there is a constructed Nehru model or a quasi-Nehruvian model which is actually a posthumous Nehru model constructed largely after the split in the Congress in 1969. This model resembled but was somewhat different from the actual Nehruvian model. It could not last for more than six or seven years and ended dramatically with the firing at Turkman Gate, Delhi during the tenure of the Emergency regime in 1976.

Let me begin to speak about the first Nehru model.

II. Has the Nehru Model failed?

It would be fallacious to say so.

It will be my contention that the actual Nehru model in fact succeeded. It contained and managed a very serious situation that had developed after the partition of India. It built a state based on equal rights for the citizen and a consensus behind such a state. It provided for regional expressions of linguistic aspirations as well.

The problem was essentially not here but with what emerged as a posthumous Nehru model.There was, I would say, a cut-off point in 1969. After 1969 what might be called a gloss on secularism came to be projected upon the New Congress. The post-1969 Left-of-Centre circle around the then Prime Minister was well-intentioned in wishing to initiate a break from the old guard in the Indian National Congress which, it believed, was holding up further economic reform. In the process the 1969 split in the Congress which this group helped bring about also, however, cut the Congress off from its roots.2

In fact, the quasi-Nehru model became more contentious in public discourse when it began to be presented as cut-off from the country’s struggle for freedom and as a sort of immaculate conception. More than the model itself, it is this projection that not only became problematic but actually helped the forces of majority communalism in particular to present the Nehruvian vision as an artificial imposition upon Indian society rather than as a natural culmination from its social character and political struggle.

As I have said, the quasi-Nehruvian, or posthumous Nehruvian, model was different essentially in the historical provenance that it sought to project. It sought to delink Nehru from the mainstream national struggle, pluck him out of the Gandhi-Nehru framework and to establish an isolated posthumous quasi-Nehru model whose definition could be subsumed under what currently passed for academically acceptable progressive ideas. This happened in the context of the Indira Gandhi—CPI alliance post-1969. The alliance itself was unexceptionable; the problem arose in the unhistorical attempt to extrapolate it backwards and seek to diminish or exclude the Congress’ own struggles, as it were, from its own history.3

Perhaps because the post-1969 model did not have a strong foundation in historical fact and was an unhistorical attempt to extrapolate backward the post-1969 alliance between Indira Gandhi’s Congress and the CPI, it was easily toppled first by a callow youth and his organised hoodlums, and then after 1980 by a succession of Non-Resident Indian lobbies.

The posthumous Nehruvian model could hegemonise the state but could not take the society with it. This quasi-Nehruvian model lacked Nehru’s democratic temper.

It disregarded society though claiming to speak in the name of the people

In the end in the 1990s, remnants of this model, far from defending themselves against the onslaught from Hindutva, could not defend even the gains from the Gandhi-Nehru frame-work.

III. Why did this projection become problematic? 

The answer to this is a complex one.

To some extent an essential and necessary accompaniment had been absent even in the years of the actual Nehru model but this feature came more prominently to the fore after the 1969 events.

K.R. Narayanan (1920-2005), who would serve as the President of India between 1997 and 2002, saw the point perspicaciously as early as in 1970. In a paper, presented at a seminar on Nehru and Nation-building (December 21-23, 1970) at the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur, K.R. Narayanan observed: “In his passion for legislative revolution Nehru and the Indian National Congress did not, after independence, place sufficient emphasis on the aspect of a social reform movement in the country.” (K.R. Narayanan, Nehru and His Vision, DC Books, Kottayam, 1999, p. 34)

This defect or shortcoming came to the fore especially after 1969 because the split in the Congress and the lines on which it occurred had the effect of cutting the Congress off from the constructive work movements, that is, the very civil society organisations which were its roots and which had provided it sustenance.

It is necessary to dwell on this point a little further. In the 1930s the Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, made a tour of Bengal. On coming back he spoke at the Bombay session of the AICC in 1934. And the point that he made was to underline the link between the constructive work programmes of the Congress and its political programmes. He said he noticed in the course of his tour that people were willing to come forward and listen to the Congress wherever the constructive work programme had reached. For example, he noticed, that where the khadi (handspun and handwoven cloth) programme had reached and had been able to help generate some income, people would flock to the Congress meetings to hear their message.

The vital link that the Frontier Gandhi observed in 1934 was over time lost sight of in independent India and especially in the post-1969 phase of the Congress and Indian politics. The flaw which K.R. Narayanan noticed in 1970 was over-reliance, or rather near-exclusive reliance, on state action, legislation and state policies. The prevailing logic appeared to be : Now that we are in power we do not need to build up civil society institutions for social reform and action because we have the state to do this for us.

The wages of this neglect were not immediately obvious because, for one thing, the Congress was historically associated with a network of ground level constructive work institutions on whose support it could implicitly rely in the first 22 years after independence. The 1969 split in the Congress gave a rude shock to this arrangement. The implications were not immediately obvious in the short term. This was for other reasons, primarily the short term electoral victories that the posthumous Nehru model secured in the General Elections of 1971 and the nationwide elections to the state assemblies which followed in 1972. In the General Elections of 1971 it was the freshness of Indira Gandhi’s faction, which had emerged from the Congress split of 1969, that swayed the electorate. In the State Assembly elections in the following year there was the added factor of victory in the Bangladesh War.

Yet the overall impact of the 1969 split in the Congress did not take long to make itself felt and it was soon obvious that the Congress, or what remained of it, was on a declining curve.

Meanwhile, the Hindutva organisations, on the other hand, had been working ceaselessly in society and the rise of these organisations was, in this scenario, like a time-bomb waiting to explode.

A more recent recognition, especially in the wake of the findings of the Sachar Committee, has been that neither the Nehru model nor the posthumous Nehru model, nor indeed the models of development in force in other Opposition-ruled States in their action on the ground placed adequate special emphasis on policies to ensure the welfare and human development of the minority communities. [This was although Nehru himself recognised as early as in 1951 that such special emphasis would be required especially in the case of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and others. (See The Statesman, Delhi, July 8, 1951)] And that more specific steps are required for their education and development.4

IV. What Now?

The shortcoming or defect, to which K.R. Narayanan drew attention in 1970, remains. Until this is remedied, the outlook would remain grim. Even if the present ruling dispensation returns to power and confines its focus to re-adjustment of state policies, it is unlikely to remedy the flaw that K.R. Narayanan under-lined. Similarly, whatever combination of political parties comes to power in the near future, it is unlikely to be able to provide the durable alternative that is required if it merely follows a statist approach. A long-term alter-native can come about only with the emergence of a secular party which has the backing of grassroots civil society organisations with roots in the community life of the Indian people.

Merely taking control of the state will not suffice.

[Lecture delivered at the Dr K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies and Centre for Zakir Husain Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia on March 3, 2009. The endnotes are subsequent additions.]


1. https://www.academia.edu/19387056/Gandhi_on_Secular_law_and_State

2. For a development of this point see my article “1969 in Retrospect”, The Hindu, March 17, 2000.

3. That is, for example, the extensive pre-freedom struggles conducted by the Congress and such peasant organisations as were non-antagonistically associated with it, the various Congress-associated institutions’ constructive work programmes, and their strivings for the social rights of the underprivileged and for a linguistically accommodative and non-sectarian understanding of nationalism inclusive of the minorities.

4. Whether this should be achieved through programmes directed at minorities specifically or through programmes aimed at the underprivileged irrespective of religion, caste and creed is a matter for consideration. In my opinion, a mix of the two approaches would be more likely to succeed than the one or the other.

The author is a writer and lawyer in the Supreme Court. For some time he was a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62