How Secular is the Indian State ? – Teesta Setalwad


Just as the darkness, and challenges of the past ten days have set in, hasty and ill-informed pieces by “intellectuals” on “secularism” easily debunking a well-formed principle when faced with the crude onsalught of a designer jacketed Modi at Varanasi have been doing the rounds. These self styled “seculartists” have tried hastily to re-position themselves within a new reality, the Indian regime under the 16th Lok Sabha.

No deep or profound thought has laced their thinking, more a toadying to jockey for a protection of their own existences and realities. In the midst of this jostling comes this piece, re-circulated on Sunday, writing full of clarity and genuine historical understanding, by Anil Nauriya (The Hindu, 2003, Gandhi Law and the Secular State).The evolution of historical concepts like India’s Constitution making, or the Evolution of the term Secular itself, needs first and foremost to be grounded in Historical facts and interpretations. It cannot and must not be dictated by the insecurities generated by an authoritarian and clearly majoritarian regime, especially related to the rather obvious spectacle we were made to witness at Benares. A young writer who is a proud participant in Banares especial culture of syncretism was appalled that television cameras kept focusing on that part of the Kashi Viswanath temple that has been aggressively claimed by the sangh parivar, and is under Indian law disputed today even as echoes of the call of Ayodhya bas ek Jhaanki Hai, Kashi Mathura Baaki hai have today burst their way into mainstream political music. It is noteworthy that those who saw the Benares spectacle as a re-invention of the word “secular” failed to notice what a young writer in Hindi appalled at the assault on his city last Friday, did.

The term secularism has indeed been abused by some of the mainstream user beneficiaries of the term many of whom have cynically equated it with token symbolisms of the kind that immediately feed into a self confident majoritarianism (politicians using the Shahi Imam of Jama Masjid as a representative of the Muslim community be it VP Singh or Sonia Gandhi is one such example). For the rest of us, truly concerned with the evolution of India after 200 years of the national movement — a syncretic and inclusive one — need to introspect how we reclaim the term as Anil Nauriya has done. This will involve first and foremost our ability to distinguish between religion based (sectarian/communal) nationalisms of the Hindu Mahasabha/RSS/Muslim League kind) and others. Or next we will have intellectuals trying to spin another one, that the RSS is actually patriotic and nationalistic.

Salaams to you, historian  Anil Nauriya for lifting my gloom  

Much of the information below is from Nauriya’s piece in The Hindu last Sunday

Nauriya asks:  On May 27, 2014 it will be 50 years since the passing of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Can one ever imagine him instigating or conniving in  a pogrom?
Or becoming a plaything in the hands of  corporate capital?

Or spending on a general election amounts bearing comparison with American Presidential elections?

Gandhi and Nehru had difference says Nauriya but they had strong mutual synergies on vital issues.

The Motilal Nehru Committee Report on the Principles of the Constitution of India in 1928 makes no reference to the word itself though the spirit of the Report is entirely secular. The Karachi Resolution in March 1931, to which Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were party, stipulates religious neutrality of the state. Secularism is writ large on the resolution. But the word is absent.

A repeated usage of the term occurs early in Gandhi’s writings and speeches in 1933. Two Bills were then before the Central Legislature. One of these related to untouchability. Gandhi supported the Bill, arguing that it properly sought to withdraw the sanction of “secular law” from a “custom that is repugnant to the moral sense of mankind”. Such a practice, he said on May 6, 1933, “cannot and ought not to have the sanction of the law of a secular state”. In November 1933 he defended the Bill against the charge that it was an undue interference in religion, saying that there were many situations in which it was necessary for the state to interfere even with religion. Only “undue” interference ought to be avoided.  Later, on January 27, 1935, Gandhi addressed some members of the Central Legislature. He told them that “(e)ven if the whole body of Hindu opinion were to be against the removal of untouchability, still he would advise a secular legislature like the Assembly not to tolerate that attitude.”(The Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi.)

On January 20, 1942 Gandhi remarked while discussing the Pakistan scheme: “What conflict of interest can there be between Hindus and Muslims in the matter of revenue, sanitation, police, justice, or the use of public conveniences? The difference can only be in religious usage and observance with which a secular state has no concern.” Significantly, Gandhi’s use of the term secular in relation to the state is such as may, in contemporary political discourse, be described as “Nehruvian”. That is, Gandhi does not attach any meaning to the term secular that would have been unacceptable to or unintelligible to Nehru.

This point is repeated as freedom dawns and Constitution-making begins. In September 1946, Gandhi told a Christian missionary: “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!”

Gandhi’ s talk with Rev. Kellas of the Scottish Church College, Calcutta on August 16, 1947, the day after Independence, was reported in Harijan on August 24: “Gandhiji expressed the opinion that the state should undoubtedly be secular. It could never promote denominational education out of public funds. Everyone living in it should be entitled to profess his religion without let or hindrance, so long as the citizen obeyed the common law of the land. There should be no interference with missionary effort, but no mission could enjoy the patronage of the state as it did during the foreign regime.” This understanding came subsequently to be reflected in Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution.

On the next day, August 17, Gandhi elaborated publicly on the same point in his speech at Narkeldanga, which Harijan reported thus: “In the India for whose fashioning he had worked all his life every man enjoyed equality of status, whatever his religion was. The state was bound to be wholly secular. He went so far as to say that no denominational institution in it should enjoy state patronage. All subjects would thus be equal in the eye of the law.” Five days later, Gandhi observed in a speech at Deshbandhu Park in Calcutta on August 22, 1947: “Religion was a personal matter and if we succeeded in confining it to the personal plane, all would be well in our political life… If officers of Government as well as members of the public undertook the responsibility and worked wholeheartedly for the creation of a secular state, we could build a new India that would be the glory of the world.”  Will those in majority now abide by this view?

On November 15, 1947 the AICC adopted various resolutions on the rights of the minorities, repatriation of refugees and other issues. The aim of the Congress was defined as a “democratic secular state where all citizens enjoy full rights”. Gandhi warmly welcomed these resolutions, saying at a prayer meeting that they were so important that he wanted to explain the various resolutions “one by one”. Speaking on Guru Nanak’s birthday on November 28, 1947, Gandhi opposed any possibility of state funds being spent for the renovation of the Somnath temple. His reasoning was: “After all, we have formed the Government for all. It is a `secular’ government, that is, it is not a theocratic government, rather, it does not belong to any particular religion. Hence it cannot spend money on the basis of communities.”

In supporting a secular state, Gandhi understood that such a state would have to be backed by society. Instinctively he saw the historical and social relation between a secular state and elements of humanism in society. The relation was later neglected, especially post-1969, and this left the field free for Hindutva forces to grow in society. Six days before Gandhi was shot dead in January 1948, he wrote: “A well-organised body of constructive workers will be needed. Their service to the people will be their sanction and the merit of their work will be their charter. The ministers will draw their inspiration from such a body which will advise and guide the secular government.”

There was a creative tension in the Gandhi-Nehru relationship. They had differences. Gandhi’s religiosity was not shared by Nehru. Both often gave expression to differences publicly, in private letters to one another, and, in the case of an incarcerated Nehru, in his diary. Some writers have magnified these or focussed primarily on these. But they had strong mutual synergies on vital issues when the two would spring to each other’s side. Gandhi ‘s positions on the secular state are Nehruvian in character. Likewise, Nehru’s positions on the definition of the Indian nation are the same as Gandhi’s. Both stand for territorial nationalism, thus clearly demarcating themselves from those in the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the pre-independence CPI (Communist Party) of the 1940s which would define nation or nationality on the basis of religion. It is difficult to work together even for a while if differences overshadow commonalities. Gandhi and Nehru pulled together for decades. Gandhi as Congress president in 1924 retained Nehru as general secretary. He suggested Nehru’s name for Congress presidentship on at least four occasions — 1929, 1935 (for 1936), 1938-39 (on this occasion along with the Marxist Socialist Narendra Deva’s name) and finally in 1946.

Nevertheless, a Gandhi-Nehru divide was projected from various ideological platforms, some of them seeking to widen it into a chasm. The Hindutva forces, already stained with Gandhi’s blood, (do we not know who killed Gandhi in the first act of brute terror post-Indepedence?) projected the divide because, separated from Gandhi, Nehru made for them an isolated and therefore easier ideological target. The dichotomy was further emphasised within the post-1969 Congress because of a perceived need to assert specific loyalties. This perhaps enabled even leaders like, for instance, Vasant Sathe, who had been in the RSS in 1939-41, to present themselves as Nehruvian. Those tied to the pre-Independence CPI tradition of the 1940s, (not necessarily or always identical with the contemporary Left), also `theoremised’ the Gandhi-Nehru divide. Some of them styled themselves as Nehruvians in relation to Gandhi; but not all of them held to the Nehruvian position where the choice was between the Gandhi-Nehru view of the nation and the Muslim League notions of nation or nationality. Some of the Gandhians too promoted the separation of Gandhi from Nehru. They picked on specific differences between Gandhi and Nehru and converted them into their own defining characteristic. For several years this enabled many of them to wash their hands of contemporary developments. But the hour of reckoning now approaches.

Thank you Anil Nauriya….

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