Our secularism : lonely or lost ?

Indian secularism is the most lonely child of our times.Nobody’s baby, it wanders without the hope for a shelter.Once adored and pampered, now it find itself banished to a wilderness where its cries do not even return to it.

The rise of majoritarian politics in India has led to a deepening of doubt about the efficacy of the notion that we thought was the living principle of Indian nationhood. There is a strong view that it was in fact the adoption of secularism as the founding principle which helped communal politics to gain ground. Even those who firmly believe in it seem to have developed a kind of guilt about it and there is a call to revisit the idea. It has faced several attacks in the past and fought back but this time the blow seems to be existential. A Prime Minister can mock it on the foreign shores and a home minister can brush it aside calling it redundant  and the voices of protest are barely heard.

The erstwhile ‘secularists’ believe that the more we speak about it,the more hatred  it generates in the society. Let us talk about real issues of the lives instead and gain the confidence of our people first. This diffidence is typically Indian when we compare it with the brave resistance that the seemingly unassailable monster of  nationalism had to face in Germany, Holland, Austria, France and even in a country closer to us,South Koria. With Brexit and Trump, we have entered a new era of nationalism, we were told. But the fight back has been spectacular. Leaders after leaders warned their people of the evil that nationalism was. We need to ask this question that why did not they leave their posts when the tide was high, why did they not give in to the nationalist populism and from where they got the courage to plead and argue with their people that outsiders are not enemies and nationalism was a limiting idea which would diminish their collective identity.

Secularism has often been accused of being foreign to Indian ethos, an import from the “enlightened” Europe. It is interesting that the blame  of imposing this alien way of thinking or living is put on the head of a single individual Jawaharlal Nehru. It is said that Nehru, a western educated man, who did not understand the traditional Indian society drove the sword of secularism in the soul of India, creating a deep schism in it. Scholars like Ashis Nandy and T N Madan argue that Nehru, an irreligious man, did not have the Gandhian wisdom to not separate religion from politics, a view writers like Nirmal Verma also hold. It is interesting that the scholars who have used categories of thought originating in the west to understand and analyse Indian society would hold the foreignness of this concept as a reason for its unsuitability for the soil of India.

Gandhi knew his English well. On more than one occasion, when asked to define what kind of state India would be, he unequivocally said that it had to be secular. Nehru, the able disciple and friend of Gandhi was well aware that secularism was a problem  translation. But what was India to be if it shunned the task of constant translation. A good translator lives with the agony of a lack, a distance she would never be able to cover. But this gap is important because it is this that tells us about the toil and the striving that the act of translation involved.

Writing  the preface of a book in Hindi, “Dharm Nirpeksh Rashtra” by Raghunath Singh, Nehru talks about the difficulty of translating Secularism in an Indian language, “It is perhaps not very easy to even to find a good word in Hindi for ‘secular’. Some people think that it means something opposed to religion. That obviously is not correct. What it means that it is a state which honours all faiths equally and gives them equal opportunities; that as a state, it does not allow itself to be attached to one faith or religion, which then becomes the state religion.”

Nehru does not discard the role of religion in people’s life, but he, like Lala Lajpat Rai underscores the need to go beyond ‘Hindu nationalism,Muslim nationalism, Sikh nationalism or Christian nationalism’. Writing in the early years of the freedom struggle, Lajpat Rai, talking about the Benaras Hindu University and the Aligarh Muslim universities, called them expressions of sectarian nationalism and felt that India needed to have a notion of national education which is not dictated by any one of the sectarian ideology.

Secularism is a constitutional value. Nehru like Ambedkar felt that the fact that the constitution of India was more advanced than its mass living and thinking.  It was incumbent on us to live up  to the constitutional ideal. The challenge before the Indian masses was whether they would be able to be of equal measure to the intellectual genius which could imagine secularism as the first national principle. This courage behind this imagination should also be acknowledged. India was coming into being as a secular country in the geo-political neighborhood of  religious nationalism. It was difficult but Indian leaders did not waver.

Nehru quoted “an intensely religious man’ Vinoba Bhave to that in place of narrow religion or debased politics, the world needs science and spirituality. Secularism ,in this sense was a ‘broadening and uniting’ factor. It was good simply because by broadening our vision it increased ‘our stature’ and made us ‘creative’.

One must say that secularism got clarity and  sharpness in the bloody and noisy days of creation of India and Pakistan. Gandhi ,an avowed Sanatani and devotee of cow, by rejecting the plea of his pious Hindu friend Rajendra Prasad to leagally prohibit cow-slaughter, made it very clear that the rule of law in India was not to influenced by the way of living of the Hindus , which formed the majority of the Indian population.

Nehru echoed Gandhi when he, disagreeing with the demand of ban on cow slaughter to honour Hindu sentiments, wrote to Rajendra Prasad, “ It should be remembered that the stoppage of cow slaughter means stopping non-Hindus from doing something thye might do. For economic reasons steps can always be taken because they are justified on economic grounds. But if any such step is taken purely on grounds of Hindu sentiments , it means that the  governance of India is going to be carried on in a particular way…”

Gandhi, calling for protection and dignity for the Muslims sat on his last fast in January,    . He was immediately charged with siding with the Muslims. He confessed of the crime by making it even more clear that his fast was for the Muslims in India and therefore against its Hindus and Sikhs, similarly it was taken on behalf of the Hindus of Pakistan and against the Muslims of that country. Gandhi, in his  typical style, resolved the incommunicability of  the very complex  concept of secularism by saying that all you have to do is to stand guard against majoritarianism.  This could be the beginning of deciphering this symbol.

Nehru interpreting Gandhi, alerted the chief ministers of the states about the insidious form of nationalism which is a “narrowness of mind …within in a country , when a majority thinks itself as the entire nation and in its attempt to absorb the minority actually separates them. We, in India, have to be careful of this because of our tradition of caste and separatism.”

Religious and cultural diversity and a degree of tolerance are parts of Indian tradition but secularism, being a modern concept is much more than all this put together. Secularism should ultimately lead us to a cosmopolitan state of mind, it should act as the launching pad for us to leap into “real internationalism”. Secularism  is neither spontaneous, nor natural. It is a disruption of tradition, an innovation ,a discovery. But unlike electricity or Railways, it is something which needs constant renewal, constant support and defense. Its usefulness is not obvious. It requires repeated human intervention on its  behalf.  The leadership of Europe has shown its mettle by taking nationalism head on. Before aksing about the fate of secularism in India we need to ask whether we have a leadership at all.


  • National Herald, Commemorative Edition

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