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Why Jawaharlal Nehru Wanted India to Embrace 'Tolerant and Creative Nationalism'

File photo of India's first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

File photo of India's first prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru said, whatever confusion the present may contain, in the future, India will be a land, as in the past, of many faiths equally honoured and respected, within a tolerant, creative nationalism, not a narrow nationalism living in its own shell.

As the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru had a slew of difficult decisions to make. Only a few months in, India had already witnessed several incidents of communal violence, incited by the colonial rulers, including the bloody Partition riots. Therefore, despite being a secularist in the Western mode, Nehru knew that the ideals of Western secularism wouldn't work for India.

As debates over secularism in India are once again raging in Parliament, the streets and social media, an essay titled Secularism: Central to a Democratic Nation by academician Neera Chandhoke, published in the book Vision For A Nation: Paths and Perspective, that was launched this week, offers insight into how Nehru, who was personally rather 'impatient with religion', changed his stance on religion and its place in politics, after the Partition riots. In the essay, Chandhoke writes:

One would have expected Nehru, a secularist in the Western mode, to banish religion from the public sphere of politics as Kemal Atatürk had done in Turkey, and force the notion of religion as private faith upon his people. But that would have been bad history as well as bad politics. Religion in India was not simply faith. An entire brand of politics that ranged from awareness of religious identity and consequent politicisation to competitive nationalism and to Partition had been constructed around religion. Since both the pervasiveness as well as the political potency of religion had caught hold of the public mind, Nehru could hardly ignore the command of religious politics in the public sphere. Nor could he abdicate his responsibility, that of calming down religious passions. What he could do was to oversee that the future of India was civilized, civil, secure, democratic and secular.

And Nehru did try to do that. On 24 January 1948, Nehru clarified his ideas about Indian secularism in a convocation address at Aligarh Mulsim University. Chandhoke writes:

... Do we, he (Nehru) asked, believe in a national state, which includes people of all religions and shades of opinion and is essentially secular as a state, or do we believe in the religious, theocratic conception of a state that considers people of other faiths as beyond the pale? The idea of a theocratic state was given up some time ago by the world and it has no place in the mind of a modern person. And yet the question has to be put in India, for some of us have tried to jump to a bygone age. Whatever confusion, he said, the present may contain, in the future, India will be a land, as in the past, of many faiths equally honoured and respected, within a tolerant, creative nationalism, not a narrow nationalism living in its own shell.

In 1961, in a preface to a work on secularism, Dharam Nirpeksh Raj by Raghunath Singh, Prime Minister Nehru further elaborated the concept of secularism. We, he said, call our state a secular state. There is no good Hindi word for secular. Some people think it means opposed to religion. But this, he wrote, is not the correct notion of secularism. It means a state that 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. This is a modern conception. In India, we have a long history of toleration, but this not all that secularism is about.

Strictly speaking we do not need to proclaim secularism in order to grant religious freedom. This freedom can emerge from, and form part of, Article 19 guaranteeing the fundamental right to liberty that is assured to every citizen. But a secular state cannot stop at granting the right to religious freedom. The principle of secularism goes further and establishes equality between all religious groups. But then the generic right to equality granted by Article 14 of the Fundamental Rights Chapter can protect equality among religious communities. If we were to stop at this, secularism would be rendered unnecessary, it could well be collapsed into democracy.

Secularism extends beyond equality and freedom in two ways. As a companion concept of democracy, secularism extends individual rights to equality to religious communities and guarantees equality among them. Two, the state is not aligned to any religion. These commitments establish the credentials of a secular state. Or secularism, we can say, promises that the state would neither align itself with any one religion—especially the majority religion—nor pursue any religious tasks of its own, and ensures that religious minorities are treated equally by the state.

The second and the third component of secularism—equality of all religions, and the distancing of the state from all religious groups—was specifically meant to assure the minorities that they had a legitimate place as citizens in the country, and that they would not be discriminated against. Correspondingly, secularism established that the majority group would not be privileged in any manner. The creed simply discouraged any pretension that a demographically numerous religious group had any right to stamp the body politic with its ethos.

The essay states that although Congress leaders used the term ‘secularism’ in the pre-Independence period, oddly enough the concept was never spelt out or elaborated as a principle of state policy. Nor did it form part of the preamble to the Constitution until 1976, through the forty-second amendment. However, Chandhoke writes:

...But the seeds of secularism were present throughout the debates in the Constituent Assembly. For instance, most members agreed that the preamble to the Constitution should not contain any reference to God. On 17 October 1949, during discussions on the wording of the preamble, H.V. Kamath moved an amendment that the preamble should begin with the phrase ‘In the name of God’. Similar amendments were moved by Shibban Lal Saxena and Pandit Mohan Malaviya. Other members objected, and a majority of the members expressed their conviction that religion was a matter of individual choice and not the signpost of a collective.

Pandit HN Kunzru stated with regret that a matter concerning our innermost and sacred feelings had been brought into the arena of discussion. It would be far more consistent with our beliefs that we should not impose our feelings on others, and that the collective view should not be forced on others. ‘We invoke the name of God, but I make bold to say that while we do so, we are showing a narrow sectarian spirit, which is contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.’ The amendment moved by Kamath was defeated.

Vision For A Nation: Paths and Perspective a collection of essays like A Land of Belonging, written by Shashi Tharoor, Indian Nationalism vs Hindutva nationalism by Sitaram Yehchury, From Largest Democracy to Greatest Democracy by SY Quraishi and many more. It has been edited by Aakash Singh Rathore and Ashis Nandy. It is the first book, in a fourteen-volume series on Rethinking India, that Penguin is going to publish.

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