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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 48

Remembering Nehru when Communalism is at its Peak

Sunday 16 November 2008, by B N Arora


The communal virus has of late again assumed frightening proportions and degenerated into communal fascism. At this critical juncture, the Nehru era comes to mind spontaneously.

As we know, communalism was there even before independence. The colonial rulers, who were on the look-out for a suitable moment, quickly grasped the opportunity and adopting the divide-and-rule policy fanned the flames of communalism till it grew into a full-blown malaise in Indian society. The ugliest face of communalism was then seen during the partition days when thousands of Hindus and Muslims were butchered. After independence, though communal riots occured at regular intervals, yet the most virulent phase started in the early 1990s following the rath yatra undertaken by L.K. Advani, climaxing in the state-aided genocide in Gujarat in February-March 2002.

While the communal feelings remained in some check after World War I during the agitation against the Rowlatt Act and the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation Movements, revival of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1923 gave a fresh thrust to anti-Muslim sentiments. It was during those years that Sangathan and Shuddhi movements among the Hindus and Tanzeem and Tabligh movements among the Muslims, working for communal consolidation and religious conversion, came up.1

Nehru was a true fighter against communalism, despite a few periods of deviation. He diagnosed the real implications of the communal problem at an early stage and wrote about it in ample detail in his famous works, Glimpses of World History, An Autobiography, and Discovery of India, and also in his speeches. He wrote that fundamentally and inevitably the British policy since the Rising of 1857 has been one of preventing the Hindus and Muslims from acting together. He argued that one of the important reasons for communal tension between the two communities was economic disparity. Moreover, the communal leaders on both sides represented a small upper class reactionary group and exploited the religious passions of the masses for their own ends.2 He stressed the point again in Glimpses of World History, saying that the unemployed middle-class Muslims felt that the Hindus monopolised all the jobs and stood in their way. They demanded, therefore, separate treatment and separate shares in everything. Politically, the Hindu-Muslim question was essentially a middle-class affair and a quarrel over jobs.3

In a statement to the Press as early as in January 1934 in Allahabad, he analysed commu-nalism and the forces behind it. He asserted that the communal organisations exploited the name of religion, that while bravely talking of culture, they did nothing for culture, and that though claiming to be non-political, they functioned politically. He emphasised that the communal leaders knew little about economic issues facing the masses and, avoiding the real issues which may affect their own interests, they diverted people‘s attention to unreal and trivial matters. They thus, he added, strengthened the forces of reaction and of British imperialism.4

MANY of the communal leaders of the far Right accused him of partiality and appeasement of the Muslims. This was baseless as he never spared Muslim communal leaders and condemned them mercilessly. He wrote:

Muslim communal leaders said amazing things and seemed to care not at all for Indian nationalism or Indian freedom; Hindu communal leaders, though always speaking apparently in the name of nationalism, had little to do with it in practice and, incapable of any real action, sought to humble themselves before the Government, and did that too in vain.5

He asserted that the demands of the Muslim communal leaders were such as to knock the bottom out of all hope of true national unity in India.6
Nehru once said:

Communalism thus becomes another name for political and social reaction and the British Govern-ment being the citadel of this reaction in India, naturally throws its sheltering wings over a useful ally... But behind all this lies political and social reaction, and communalism must therefore be fought on all fronts and given no quarter.7

A writer has recorded that Nehru had waged a relentless war against forces of communalism by establishing institutions and creating public opinion to checkmate the nefarious attempts of communal leaders and thus strove to establish a secular Indian polity.8 The famous author, Michael Brecher, who had the fortune to spend a lot of time with Nehru, has written:

Unlike many of his colleagues and Pakistani leaders, Nehru never succumbed to the communal mentality, throughout he was the symbol of tolerance and reason.9

Nehru was extremely disturbed to see the communal carnage at the time of the partition. He did his utmost to alleviate the suffering of the people affected by these mindless killings. After independence, he began his onslaught on the communal forces with renewed vigour. As Michael Brecher has pointed out,

It was Nehru almost single-handed who held the extremist Hindu communalists at bay.

Not surprisingly, he quotes from Sir Ismail Mirza’s My Public Life (pp. 130-1) to the effect that

Except the Prime Minister, Mr Nehru, who enjoys the confidence and affection of Muslims in a remarkable degree, and one or two is difficult to think of leading Hindus whose attitude towards the Muslims remaining in India can be said to be very friendly.
With each passing year of Nehru’s tenure as the Prime Minister the forces of communalism were weakened. It was likely to be his most enduring contribution to India, and it is the one of which he was most proud.10

However, notwithstanding his great contribution in curbing communalism, Nehru had his share of occasional foibles in this respect. His electoral alliance in Kerala with the Muslim League, whom he had described as a “dead horse” earlier, has left a scar on his fair name. The great CPM leader and ideologue, E.M.S. Namboodripad, had the occasion to write in this connection that

Nehru was thus transformed from an adherent to the principles of secularism and national unity to an ordinary political opportunist for whom “everything is fair in electoral war’’.11

Nehru unnecessarily earned such opprobrium.

In any case, he had been undoubtedly a committed secularist. He waged a dogged war against provincialism, communalism, and casteism, which threatened the unity and integrity of the nation. He created institutions and a climate of opinion which weakened the communal forces. Both before and after partition he was the most eloquent and articulate exponent of the credo of secularism adopted by the Indian National Congress in the 19th century. In every public speech and at every public forum he used to criticise communalist forces and warned people against its dangerous consequences. As P.N. Haksar has pointed out, “Nehru had the vision, the wisdom and the perception to see that a country like India with its linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversities could not survive unless its polity rested on the principle of secularism.” He added if “democratic processes continue to survive in India” despite “extraordinary diffi-culties through which we pass from time to time”, it was “because of Nehru’s insistence on secula-rism as a guiding principle”.12

AFTER Nehru’s death, the forces of communalism got a new lease of life. Under his successors, it was found to play an increasingly ominous role, mainly owing to the narrow political interests now dominating governance. The highest in the government played vote-bank politics, pitching one community against the other. For instance, immediately after the Army action in Punjab, Mrs Indira Gandhi said openly and directly in Garhwal that Dharma was under attack and made an impassioned appeal to save Hindu sanskriti from attacks coming from the Sikhs, Muslims and others. Rajiv Gandhi too t tried to use a religious idiom, as he promoted both minority communa-lism through the Shah Bano case and Muslim Women’s Bill and majority communalism by opening the gates of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya.13 These actions greately jeopardised the work done by Nehru to build an anti-commu-nal structure.

Vote-bank politics has given further impetus to escalating communal politics. The number of communal riots that have taken place after independence is legion. These have not only occurred repeatedly in the Hindu belt but engulfed other parts of the country too. Of course, the various Commissions of Inquiry appointed from time to time and enquiries by different independent bodies held the Sangh Parivar responsible for engineering most of the riots. It is no use going into the details in this respect here.

We cannot, therefore, escape the conclusion that communal conflagations that happened in recent years, especially after the ill-famed rath yatra undertaken by the BJP supremo, L.K. Advani, culminating in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, had ominous implications. This was followed by severe bomb blasts in Bombay in 1993 and the communal riots on a large scale, undoubtedly resulting in killings of more Muslims as usual. The most brutal communal event—not a communal riot as such—took place in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat with the connivance and active support of the state machinery in 2002, in which hundreds of Muslims were killed and their properties and livelihoods destroyed in the most inhuman manner. Most recently, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal activists have been attacking Christians and their institutions in Orissa follo-wing the assassination of Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati, a controversial figure against whom many criminal cases had been pending. Although Maoists immediately claimed responsibility for this killing, yet Christians were targeted and the mayhem spread to Karnataka and some other places as well.

Be that as it may, the existing rulers lack the moral courage and credentials to fight the menace of surging communalism. In this hour of crises, we need another Nehru to save the nation from destruction of its pluralist and liberal ethos.


1. India’s Struggle for Independence by Bipan Chandra and others, Penguin Books, 1989, p. 422.
- 2. An Autobiography by J.L. Nehru, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989, pp. 460, 467 and 468.
- 3. Glimpses of World History by J.L. Nehru, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1989, p. 721.
- 4. Nehru: An Anthology For Young Readers, (ed.) P.L. Malhotra, NCERT, New Delhi, 1984, pp. 159-62.
- 5. An Autobiography, op. cit., p. 138.
- 6. Glimpses of World History, op. cit, p. 721.
- 7. Nehru: An Anthology, op.cit., p. 160.
- 8. Indian Political Tradition From Manu to Ambedkar by D.K. Mohanty, Anmol Publications. Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1997, p. 308.
- 9. Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Brecher, Oxford University Press, London, 1959, p. 365.
- 10. Ibid., pp. 625-26.
- 11. Nehru: Ideology and Practice by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, National Book Centre, New Delhi, 1988, p. 264.
- 12. “Relevance of Jawaharlal Nehru” by P.N. Haksar, Mainstream, May 24, 1986, p. 24.
- 13. Communalism in Indian Politics by Rajni Kothari, Rainbow Publications, Delhi, 1998, pp. 27 and 118.

The author was an Under Secretary (now retired) in the Union Public Service Commission.

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