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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 51, New Delhi, December 4, 2021

Nehruvian Secularism: A Critical Appraisal | Shubham Sharma

Friday 3 December 2021

by Shubham Sharma *

Jawaharlal Nehru was the first prime minister of independent India. A romantic at heart he was a puissant anti-colonial nationalist who saw British colonialism as the chief contradiction plaguing India. It was deliverance from it that mattered to him the most. And it was to fulfil this goal that he dedicated his life to without much fanfaronade.

Nehru’s era was that of the twilight of colonialism wherein the colonial empires were on the wane and the anti-colonial movements were on the rise. The leaders of almost all national movements broke from the colonial episteme. The break allowed them to re-evaluate their country’s past and through this imagine a bright, independent, and inclusive future.

In doing so, Nehru drew a picture of the country’s past wherein ‘she (India) was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously’. It is very clear that for him the different layers palimpsest represented the composite nature of the country with each phase representing a qualitative addition rather than a negative negation.

It was this imagination that makes him different from the Hindutva zealots’ imagination of Indian history. For Nehru, the aspect of continuity of Indian history was not national but civilizational. This is a crucial distinction because the socio-political pre-condition of imagining a nation in hindsight is to locate the ‘other’. The ‘other’ who is imagined either as an invader or a traitor serves to give a sense of purpose and unity to that group who is on the cusp of imagining the new nation. This dubious unity is not forward-looking since it is premised on imaginary fissures and aims to incriminate the ‘other’ social group for all the existing wrongs. Nehru wrote,

India must break with much of her past and not allow it to dominate the present. Our lives are encumbered with the deadwood of this past; all that is dead and has served its purpose has to go. But that does not mean a break with, or a forgetting of, the vital and life-giving in that past. [1]

Nehru’s imagination of India was that of a nation forged in the crucible of the anti-colonial struggle against British colonialism. And since it was entire India along with its people who were under the throes of imperialism, the anti-colonial struggle de facto represented a conjugated attempt to break free from the chains of servitude. He called this ‘the unity of common subjection’.

It is this national imagination that formed the core of Nehru’s notion of secularism. For him, the question of Muslims and separatism did not arise out of antipathy and longing for a glorious past but rather in the social dynamics of the post-Khilafat movement phase in India. In his magisterial book Discovery of India, Nehru identifies two causal factors: firstly, the sweeping away of the feudal leadership during the Khilafat mass movement and the rise of the middle-class among the Muslims who rode on the mass wave and imagined a new nation whose poetic foundations were Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry; secondly, Nehru was brave enough to admit that it was because of the ‘Hinduised nature’ and the chiefly ‘Hindu leadership’ of the national movement ‘‘that a conflict arose in the Moslem mind; many accepted that nationalism, trying to influence it in the direction of their choice; many sympathised with it and yet remained aloof, uncertain; and yet many others began to drift in a separatist direction’’ and made the British policy of divide and rule much more amenable. [2]

Therefore, the communal-religious schism was artificial.

Nehru’s version of secularism contrasted with those of his mentor, M.K Gandhi. For the latter, secularism meant a strict separation between religion and politics. Gandhi emphasised that ‘‘religion is the personal affair of each individual. It must not be mixed up with politics or national affairs’’. His was a position determined by Protestant reformism wherein each individual could make his own judgment of religious truth through a study of scriptures. The modernist Nehru, on the other hand, concentrated on the inherent weaknesses of religion and blamed it for acting as a brake on social progress. He wrote, ‘‘religion, though it has undoubtedly brought comfort to innumerable human beings and stabilized society by its values, has checked the tendency to change and progress inherent in human society’’. In his scheme of things, neither orthodox Catholicism nor the solely unmediated religiosity of the individual was the path to progress. Rather it was the cultivation of the scientific temper and application of the scientific method wherein lay the road to progress.

After Gandhi, it warrants that Nehru’s idea of secularism and a secular state is contrasted with his bête noire in politics, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Given his taste for board room politics, distaste for mass politics, and a very high sense of self that often-bordered haughtiness, Jinnah never felt the need to have clear ideas for the future. While he led the demand for partition of India on religious lines and declared that ‘‘Islam and Hinduism are not religions in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders. It is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality’’, he also urged that in the new Pakistan,

Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians, as well as Muslims, to forget the past and work together in a spirit that every one of you, no matter to what community he belongs, no matter what relations he had with you in the past, no matter what is his colour, caste or creed, is first second and last a citizen of this State with equal rights, privileges, obligations, there will be no end to the progress you will make. [3]

Nehru, by contrast, was clear and uncompromising on the question of a composite and conjugated notion of nationalism and secularism which included all religions. Unlike Jinnah, there was never a compulsion that arose out of wrong a political decision that would force Nehru to make claims that were fundamentally contradictory to his erstwhile positions. There was a sense of steadfastness and unity of thought that was missing in Jinnah.

The confusions of Jinnah allowed for the hijacking of the idea of Pakistan by radical clerics and seminaries who were earlier opposed to a separate Muslim nation-state, such as Maulana Maududi and his Jamat-E-Islami. Whereas secular steadfastness of Nehru did not allow for the hijacking of the Indian state by the communalists in toto. Nehru fought the Hindu right both, albeit with limited success, both within and outside Congress. For instance, when the newly elected assembly of the United Provinces mulled over Hindu names for the state, such as Braj-Kashi, Ram Pradesh, Ram-Krishna Bhoomi, Aryavarta, etc., Nehru ruled that that the new province would be simply called Uttar Pradesh from its geographical position. [4]

Because of this the Indian Constitution, despite the communal carnage caused by partition, was able to give itself a solid secular basis. It embodied the principles of non-discrimination on grounds of religion among the fundamental rights via articles 14, 15, 16 and 19. Furthermore, Article 25 guaranteed that all persons were ‘equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion’. Pakistan struggled with the religious problem since its creation and ended up making constitution(s) with religion at its core: the fundamental internal causa belli. 

The chief claim bandied about by the Hindutva gang that secularism was artificially inserted into the Indian constitution by the 42nd amendment of 1976 stands discredited in the light of the above discussion. Had it been the case, Nehru along with the makers of the Indian constitution would have inserted the phrase of ‘Hindu Rashtra in response to an Islamic Pakistan. Instead, to them, the secular nature of the Indian state was so self-evident that there was no need to define India vis-à-vis an Islamic Pakistan.

Notwithstanding all that is good about Nehruvian secularism, it suffered from its own blind spots.

Chief among them is the failure to employ secularism as a ruse to affect reform within a religious community. Nehru’s version of secularism represented a minimalism which, according to the Marxist political scientist Achin Vanaik, included ‘a commitment (despite variant interpretations of secularism) to preserving a nondenominational and a religiously non-affiliated state’. [5]

Nehru, unlike Ambedkar, never took the road of social reforms within Hinduism, chiefly the caste system. He wrote against untouchability and the rigidities of the caste system but succumbed to the temptation of a broader reading of the caste system that included the enumeration of its benefits to society. For instance, he wrote,

the caste system, with all its evils, which progressively increased, was infinitely better than slavery even for those lowest in the scale. Within each caste there was equality and a measure of freedom; each caste was occupational and applied itself to its own particular work. This led to a high degree of specialization and skill in handicrafts and craftsmanship. [6]

It was non-sensical on Nehru’s part to even think that the graded system of inequality and hereditary division of both labour and the labourers could possibly lead to economic specialization. If this was the case, India should have ideally developed capitalism along with a specialised division of labour in manufacturing much before Western Europe!

Nehru also erred gravely while attributing cleanliness to the Hindu religion! He wrote,

the idea of ceremonial purity has been extraordinarily strong among the Hindus. This has led to one good consequence and many bad ones. The good one is bodily cleanliness. A daily bath has always been an essential feature of a Hindu’s life, including most of the depressed classes. It was from India that this habit spread to England and elsewhere. [7]

All this cumulatively led Nehru to sweep the dirt within Hinduism under the rug of a socially monochromatic anti-colonial nationalism. It was from these neglected crevices that luminaries like Dr. B.R Ambedkar arose.

Such neglect led Nehru to rule with a constitution that outlawed untouchability but failed to outlaw the caste system, the source of untouchability among Hindus. As a result of which the fiend of untouchability stills looms large over India. A study by Amit Thorat and Omkar Joshi in the Economic and Political Weekly provides us a depressing picture. Their findings are expressed in Figure 1 and 2, respectively. [8]


Ambedkar had suggested a provision that read: ‘Any privilege or disability arising out of rank, birth, person, family, religion or religious usage and custom is abolished’. This was a more radical way of containing the manifestation of caste in daily life. Unfortunately, it was not carried into the constitution because the makers, including Nehru, thought that caste cannot be abolished in toto, so the practice of caste was sought to be confined to the private realm but without any real success.

Another major failure of Nehruvian secularism was concessions to the Hindu right-wing, both within and outside the Congress. Achin Vanaik notes that the very first Article of the Constitution refers to ‘India, that is Bharat’ was an explicit demand of Hindu nationalist members of the Constituent Assembly, reflecting as it did a pre-Muslim past of presumed Hindu glory when the whole peninsula was ‘Bharat-Varsha’ or the land of the legendary King Bharata. [9] Pritam Singh believes that ‘‘the symbolic significance of ’Bharat’ in the opening article was meant to suggest a sense of Hindu ownership of the new India—the India which was perceived to have achieved self-rule after many centuries of foreign rule’’. [10]

Furthermore, under the guise of animal husbandry, the Directive Principles of State Policy called for ‘the prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves and other milch and draught cattle’. This was a clear concession to upper-caste Hindu members of the Assembly, directed against Muslims and Dalits in a form of a spiritual imposition.

Out of all the languages, only Hindi has been given the status of the National Official Language. The Brahman-dominated Devanagari script was given preference over Kaithi which was seen by the upper-caste Hindus as being closer to Hindustani than Sanskrit. Granville Austin records that in August 1949 a Hindu sanyasin (female monk) went on a fast which she threatened to continue till her death unless her demand that Hindi should be adopted as a national language was fulfilled. Nehru, among others, visited her. She broke her fast on 12 August, claiming that Nehru and other Congress leaders had assured her that Hindi would be adopted. [11] Nehru’s approach was in stark contrast to Subhash Chandra Bose who as the President of the Congress had favoured Hindustani over Hindi and called for the usage of the Roman script instead of Devanagari or any other Indian script. [12]

Nehru also betrayed Ambedkar when the Hindu Code Bill was brought by the latter. The bill aimed to reform Hindu society by giving women the right to inherit and own property. As Congress prepared for India’s first general election in 1951, Nehru came under pressure from the Hindu right to drop the controversial bill, with President Rajendra Prasad threatening to veto the bill even if it was accepted by the legislature. On 25 September, it was announced that the bill would be postponed indefinitely. Ambedkar resigned two days later. In his resignation speech, delivered on the steps of the Legislative Assembly rather than inside the chamber, he criticised the government’s failure to push the bill’s passage harder and blamed Nehru personally for allowing party politics to take precedence over the Code. ‘‘After a life of four years,’’ Ambedkar mourned, the bill ‘‘was killed and died unwept and unsung’’.

Despite a chequered legacy, Nehru’s secularism must be remembered and celebrated and defended in times when his name is being served to become an anathema for the average Indian. But in doing so the secular-progressive forces must keep in mind that the time has come to graduate from a Nehruvian minimalist to a maximalist notion of secularism in India.

* (Author: Shubham Sharma, Research Scholar, Dept. of World History, University of Cambridge)


[1Nehru, J.L. (1985). The Discovery of India. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. p 509

[2Ibid, 350-352

[3Cohen, S.P (2006). The Idea of Pakistan. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. Ch-II

[4Pai, S & Kumar, S. (2018). Everyday Communalism: Riots in Contemporary Uttar Pradesh. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. p 49

[5Vanaik, A (2017). Hindutva Rising: Secular Claims and Communal Realities. Tulika. New Delhi. p 57

[6Nehru, J.L. (1985). The Discovery of India. Oxford University Press. New Delhi. p 216

[7Ibid, p 254

[8Thorat, A & Joshi, O. (2020). The Continuing Practice of Untouchability in India: Patterns and Mitigating Influences. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol-55, Issue-2.

[9Vanaik, A (2017). Hindutva Rising: Secular Claims and Communal Realities. Tulika. New Delhi. p 205. See also Vanaik’s latest collection of essays Nationalist Dangers and Secularist Failings: A Compass for an Indian Left. Aakar Publications. Ch-II

[10Singh, P. (2005). Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: Probing Flaws in the Instruments of Governance. Third. Third World Quarterly. Vol-26, Issue-6. pp-909-926. For a most recent and illuminating discussion on the topic see Saumya Saxena’s (2018) Courting Hindu Nationalism: Law and the Rise of Modern Hindutva. Contemporary South Asia. Vol-26, Issue-4

[11Singh, P. (2005). Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: Probing Flaws in the Instruments of Governance. Third. Third World Quarterly. Vol-26, Issue-6.

[12Bose, Sugata. (2011). His Majesty’s Opposition: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle Against Empire. Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA. p 95, 140

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