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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 23 New Delhi May 28, 2016

Remembering Nehru in Critical Times

Sunday 29 May 2016, by Barun Das Gupta


The fiftysecond death anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the architect of modern India, will be observed this month at a time when the present dispensation is bent on rubbing out his name from the annals of history. Also, one of the principles Nehru stood and fought for, a principle which he thought was essential for the very survival of the plural polity that is India, namely, secularism, is being openly denigrated and denounced by those who have assumed office by swearing in the name of the Constitution that enshrines secularism as one of the three pillars of Indian democracy.

Nehru had to fight communalism from the very dawn of independence. There is no denying that there was a soft Hindutva school within the Congress itself. For instance, when the Somnath temple was reopened in May, 1951, the then President, Babu Rajendra Prasad, was invited to inaugurate it. Rajen Babu accepted the invitation but Nehru objected on the ground that as the President of the secular republic, he should not be associated with a religious function and that, if he insisted on attending the ceremony, he should do so in his personal capacity and not as the President of India. In the event, Rajen Babu did go to Somnath but I do not remember whether he went as a citizen or as the President.

According to one Congress leader, secularism in the Indian context is “not about pitting the State against the religious authority but about keeping matters of faith in the personal realm and matters of State in the public realm”. In fact the concept of secularism developed in Europe in course of the struggle between the Church and the State for authority. Ultimately it was decided that the Church would concern itself with matters spiritual and the State with matters temporal.

Nehru was not a Hindu secularist as he is sometimes sought to be made out to be. He was against all forms of communalism. In December, 1955, he denounced the Indian Union Muslim League by asserting emphatically that it was not necessary to form a political party to safeguard the rights of the Muslims because our Constitution itself is committed to protecting those rights.

The late Dr Rafiq Zakaria observed in his book The Widening Divide:

Because of the charismatic and generally enlightened stewardship of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) and later of his daughter Indira Gandhi (1917-84), the first few decades after Independence saw communal tensions simmer but these were never allowed to get out of control. Since then two factors have contributed to the deterioration of the Hindu-Muslim relationship. First, the Central leadership has weakened, especially after Mrs Gandhi’s tragic assassination. Her successors, much less powerful persons, have failed grievously to control the fissiparous tendencies. Second, with the rising tide of Hindu fundamentalism, the very validity of Indian multiculturalism has been challenged and the wisdom of tolerance of smaller communal groups, particularly Muslims, has been questioned. In the result, the minorities instead of being assimilated in the national mainstream, have begun to be more defiant than before. (pp. xx-xxi)

This is the crux of the problem: Muslim comm-unalism feeds on Hindu communalism and Hindu communalism feeds on Muslim communalism. They strengthen each other. The aggressive rise of the Hindutva forces under the BJP dispensation will only harden the stand of the Muslims. They will increasingly feel threatened and start asserting their identity as Muslims. The atmosphere created will make India a fertile ground for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism and draw more and more Muslim youth to extremist bodies like the ISIS. When a Muslim is murdered on the mere suspicion that he has eaten or stored beef, the reaction of the common Muslims can be easily imagined.

Elaborating on secularism, Nehru wrote, it does not mean something opposed to religion.

What it means is that it is a state which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportu-nities, that, as a state, it does not allow itself to be attached to one faith or religion, which then becomes the state religion.

He went on to add:

The majority is strong enough to crush the minority, which might not be protected. Therefore, whenever such a question arises, I am always in favour of the minority. Talking about religion, ours greatly outnumber the others. Nobody is going to push them from that position: they are strong enough. Therefore, it is their special responsibility to see that people following the other religions in India feel satisfied that they have full freedom and opportunity. If this principle is applied, most of these troubles and grievances will disappear.

In fact secularism is not for preaching from the pulpit or the public platform. It is something to be imbibed and made a part of one’s ethos and practised in everyday life without even being conscious of it.

At a public meeting at Pathankot on August 6, 1954, Nehru said:

Parties like the Jan Sangh, Hindu Mahasabha, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which do nothing but foment trouble in the name of religion, have made Pathankot their base to spread unrest in the Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir..... [They have] no constructive political and economic programme... Have you ever hard them talk about the poor in India or anything else except communal issues which foment disunity?

How true these words ring, even after the passage of sixtytwo years!

But Nehru did not stop here: He came very hard on the stand of the Hindu communalists with regard to the minority community.

The Muslims who live in India, belong here. We cannot talk of a Hindu State in India because that would mean that the people of other religions who live here do not belong here; which is wrong. Everyone who lives in India, irrespective of his religion and caste, belongs here with equal rights. This is what is known as nationalism.

Giving the example of neighbouring Pakistan ‘which is an Islamic State’, Nehru said:

But we have been opposed to this principle right from the beginning because, if we were to adopt it, there could be no true equality in the country. Some sections of society would be considered full citizens and others would lack that status. It would once again bring to the fore the divisive tendencies which have always existed in Hindu society. If we accepted the principle of domination of one religion, India would be divided into a thousand fragments and become weak..... We are free to follow our own religion. But in national tasks, we are all one. The moment we bring in religion and caste into political matters we become weak. The world does not respect a nation which is weak.

The oracles at Nagpur would never accept that making India a Hindu Rashtra will weaken India, will stall its progress in ‘national tasks’ and India will lose the respect of the world as a weak nation—the catchy slogan of ‘Make in India’ notwithstanding.

Pakistan chose to be an Islamic State. It promoted and instigated terrorism against its neighbours as a State policy. In the process it created a Frankenstein’s monster. Today it has itself become a target of terrorism. It finds itself isolated in the comity of nations for its promotion of terrorism. For the first time, even its best friend, the United States, is taking a hard stand on it.

Here is an interesting piece of information culled from D. C. Jha’s book Mahatma Gandhi, the Congress and the Partition of India. Jha writes:

In his book The Shadow of the Great Game Narendra Singh quoted Col. Elahi Baksh, the physician who attended on Jinnah during his last illness in August-September of 1948, that he had heard Jinnah saying: ‘I have made it (Pakistan) but I am convinced that I have committed the greatest blunder of my life.’ And around the same period, after meeting Jinnah on his sick-bed. the Pakistan Prime Minister, Liaquat Ali Khan, was heard to have muttered: ‘The old man has now discovered his mistake.’ (Jha, p. 105)

If the account given is not apocryphal, the protagonists of Hindutva have much to ponder over. If India becomes a Hindu Rashtra, will the same fate befall her as has befallen Pakistan? Will India be heading for another partition or disintegration into many small States? Pakistan is a living refutation of the two-nation theory, first propounded by Sir Syed Ahmad as far back as 1888. In less than a quarter of a century after its creation, Pakistan fell apart. The Bengalis of East Pakistan broke away to form Bangladesh. It proved that religion could not be the basis of a State.

Those who are trying to obliterate the name of Nehru from the annals of history will not succeed. But their narrow, bigoted worldview, their majoritarian politics and their targeting of a large section of the Indian people on account of religion will do great harm to India’s polity. Nehru’s death anniversary should be the occasion to renew the pledge that we will not let India give up the values and ideals which evolved out of our freedom struggle, the values and ideals which form the bedrock of our nationhood, the values and ideals which some anti-national elements are trying to destroy. If they succeed, India will cease to exist as it does today.

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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