I met Ashis Nandy the other day to find out if the message I got from his writings on secularism was correct. What I understood, I told him, was that he did not believe that secularism was suited to the genius of India. He replied: "You are more or less correct." He's not the only one. In fact, there's a growing breed of intellectuals which has arrived at similar conclusions. They think the secularism agenda has flawed the Indian state right from the beginning. According to some of them, secularism, by virtue of being a western concept, is alien to India. For others, it is anti-religion and, therefore, in contradiction with the bedrock of our society's beliefs.
I wonder why scholars like Nandy have lost faith in the pluralistic ethos of the country. I can imagine their disgust over the contamination of the educated Hindu middle class. But I hope this is not their dialectical materialism that builds political theory on political 'fact'. According to me, they should have fought against prejudice and bias instead of rationalising them, conferring credibility on them in the process. When they claim that in India tradition and religion are synonymous, they mock at the synthesis the country has managed over the years, enabling respect for the sanctity of individual entities.
I have no quarrel with those who equate religion with tradition so long as they realise that the Indian tradition does not have the stamp of any particular religion. My difference arises when this tradition is mistaken for Hinduism. Our tradition is that of accommodating different religions and separate faiths. Secularism is a product of that process. It has gone through the crucible of tolerance and understanding. So, secularism is about not mixing religion with the state or politics.
I recall my short stint at London as India's high commissioner. Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister then and the Soviet Union was crumbling. After her return from Moscow, Thatcher met me at a party. I asked her how she found Mikhail Gorbachev, then the boss at Moscow. She said Gorbachev told her that the country was slipping away from his grip and that he could not hold it together. She said she had advised him to go to "your friend" India and see how people there had lived together for centuries despite their different religions, castes, languages and standards of living.
Thatcher then asked me what I attributed this to. It took me sometime to put my thoughts together. I told her that we in India did not think that things were either black or white. We believed there was a fuzzy area of overlap which we went on expanding. That was secularism. And the sense of tolerance and the spirit of accommodation that grew out of it was the glue that held us together.
True, the proponents of Hindutva are chipping away at it. They are making secularism look anti-Hindu and are equating it with 'minorityism'. And intellectuals like Nandy fail to realise precisely this. Religions, as Jawaharlal Nehru said, have laid down values and have pointed out principles for the guidance of human life. They should not be mistaken for attributes of a completely formed and closed culture that we have inherited.
The fight between secularism and chauvinism is nothing new. In Europe, all experiments with religions, holy wars, theocratic concepts of states have been discussed. After fighting wars for hundreds of years, the continent has come to the conclusion that religion and state should be separated. Even Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the exponent of the two-nation theory, said after Partition that religion shouldn't be mixed with politics.
What I hear in support of Hindutva today is nothing new. In fact, it was worse following Partition in August 1947 because after the struggle for independence, something that was conducted keeping the secular ideals in mind, the division of India on the basis of religion was a staggering blow. At that time, the Hindutva forces were up in arms to drive out the Muslims who were told that they had their 'share' in the shape of Pakistan.
The Gandhian thoughts of pluralism and peace were pooh-poohed. It was considered a cowardly response to 'Islamic jingoism'. There were many intellectuals who argued that India was culturally and traditionally Hindu and must reflect the same thinking in the Constitution it was framing. Still, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Sardar Patel stood their ground and rejected the outmoded, unscientific way of thinking in the name of tradition. So, India, Partition's aftermath notwithstanding, adopted the most liberal Constitution which gave the minorities the right to even preach and propagate their religion.
The country continued to face political religiosity or what is now sold in the name of culture. But its standard-bearer, the Jana Sangh, a forerunner of the BJP, never went beyond the one-digit figure in the Lok Sabha till the mid-'70s. I believe that Mahatma Gandhi's assassination saved the nation from the hot wind of communalism, which blew fiercely at that time. The pro-Hindutva intellectuals and the pro-BJP think-tanks did not relish secular thoughts but dared not open their mouths.
What is now accepted as the lure of cultural or traditional impulses was then considered an expression of communalism. But such confusion can't be an excuse for righting a wrong. It only shows that intellectuals like Nandy are faltering in their commitment.
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