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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 48 November 19, 2022

Nehru Warned that Majoritarianism Masquerading as Nationalism Would Endanger Democracy and Secularism in India | S N Sahu

Saturday 19 November 2022, by S N Sahu


On the occasion of birth anniversary of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru the nation while paying rich tributes to him gratefully recalls his many splendoured roles as a towering freedom fighter, architect of modern India, brilliant writer and above all a statesman of planetary significance. His legacy anchored in science,scientific temper, secularism and inclusive nationalism. He creatively adopted modern technology by blending it with our rich civilisational and cultural values and greatly shaped the destiny of India during post independence period. In fact the emergence of India as a major player in the global affairs right from Nehru’s time with its impeccable democratic and secular credentials owes a lot to Nehru’s architecture of transforming India from a country devastated by colonial rule to a modern and progressive nation incessantly engaged in addressing its chronic social and economic problems and empowering its people. While celebrating his birth anniversary it is of critical significance to flag his overriding concerns centered around upsurge of communal forces threatening India.

This article is based on his articulations and anxieties expressed in his several letters to Chief Ministers which he used to write as Prime Minister every fortnight. In one such letter of 31st December 1949, he wrote,

“…narrow communal bias often hides itself under high sounding phrases appealing to nationalism and patriotism and thus it attracts some people”. He then proceeded to add “It must be remembered however that, this is in its essence, a reactionary and disruptive cry, not a unifying one, however it may be called so”.

Nehru consistently warned, right from the days of freedom struggle, that conflating communalism and nationalism constituted the real danger to India. Therefore, he used to remind the nation about the impending threat which he described as latent. It was clearly brought to focus by him in another letter to Chief Ministers on 18th May 1959 when he referred to communal disturbances in some parts of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh and very sensitively observed

“What is very distressing is the realization that below the surface there are these deep passions which can be roused so easily. If those fears continue, our foundations are weak. For this reason probably there is nothing more dangerous for the future of India than communal approach.”

Those words of Nehru articulated in 1959 sounds so deeply poignant in India of 2022 when we are celebrating his birth anniversary and confronting the danger of polarisation and divisiveness in a more intense and calculated manner.

The whole country knows who is behind the incessant stoking of divisiveness based on majoritarianism and exclusive nationalism. In the aforementioned letter Nehru further wrote, “ Communalism and nationalism are wholly opposed to each other, even though some form of communalism adopt the garb of nationalism.

It is worthwhile to delve into a special letter he sent to the Chief Ministers on 26th March 1958. Therein he wrote,

“We have many hangovers from the past which it is difficult to forget or get over. We have also, let us be frank about it, communalism not only in the minority but very much so in the majority. The chief difference is that in the majority it puts on the garb of nationalism and democracy.”

“But that is a false democracy”, Nehru wrote and proceeded to add, “The fact is that the minorities have a sense of grievance and that is enough to put us on our guard and to induce us to meet these grievances. I am not thinking in terms of elections and the like, but of much more basic issues.”

More than six decades after Nehru made those incisive observations India is confronting catastrophic consequences because of the leaders who are while being at the helms of governance in India are aggressively combining polarisation process with nationalism and democracy specifically when elections are round the corner.

The countries of the gulf region and other parts of the world strongly reacted, boycotted Indian goods and demanded apology from our country when a spokesperson of the ruling party at the Centre made disparaging remarks on prophet Mohammed. It is tragic that no action was taken to arrest or detain that person in contrast to strong punitive measures taken against those from minority communities who get incarcerated on flimsy grounds.

In fact Nehru had presciently written that assault on communal harmony by entities from within India would not only cause unacceptable domestic turmoil but also invite international opprobrium and irreversibly tarnish India’s image.

“We must, at all costs, and with all our strength,” he wrote on 9th September 1948 in a special letter to Chief Ministers, “prevent any communal deterioration in any province”. Observing that “The consequence of this will be harmful to us in many ways”, he added, “Nationally, this will impede our effort and produce complications. Internationally, it will not only injure our good name but may have even more serious consequences”. “Therefore,” he urged, “we have to be prepared as much as possible to prevent this.”

How far sighted Nehru was in seeing through the times and alerting the nation to prevent deterioration of our communal amity and solidarity. In fact the prevention of such disruptive situations can be made possible by adhering to our secular values and upholding secularism enshrined in the Constitution and declared by the Supreme Court, in the Bommai judgement, as the basic structure of the Constitution itself.

So what is required is the constitutional vision of India rooted in inclusive democracy and robust secularism which encompasses in its scope all Indians regardless of their religious, caste, linguistic or ethnic identities. In fact Nehru in another special letter to Cheif Ministers on 26th March 1958 wrote,

“Democracy means rule by the majority, but it means something more, that is, full play and opportunity for the minorities. It means also that the minorities should have the sensation of having this full play and opportunity.”

Unfortunately such notions of inclusive democracy has been negated by aggressive push for majoritarianism. The effective counter to it would be both inclusive democracy and secularism.

Our freedom struggle and centuries old tradition of safeguarding cultural liberties of people without in any way negating their religions or other attributes defining their multiple identities, laid the foundation of our parliamentary democracy and secularism. Nehru made immense contributions to consolidate and strengthen that invaluable tradition. Answering the question of the great French philosopher Andre Malaraux as to what he would find the most difficult thing to do in India Nehru with his characteristic genius replied “To create a just society by employing just means and create a secular State in a religious society”. The secular State that we have today has withstood the test of time and now come under pressure due to upsurge of communal entities blending their communal outlook with nationalism. The secular State is nothing new to our country. Nehru himself while addressing a public meeting in Goa in 1963 very perceptively stated “India has always been noted for religious tolerance and so it was quite natural for us, when we became independent, to decide to be what is called a secular State. A secular State does not mean an irreligious State, it only means that we respect and honour all religions, giving them freedom to function. This has been the basic attitude of India throughout the ages”. This basic attitude has to be carried forward in defense of the secular State facing relentless attack from majoritarianism. Therefore, Nehru’s vision is of enduring significance to defend the idea of India and salvage it This is the valuable lesson we learn from his life and work on his birth anniversary.

(S N Sahu served as Officer on Special Duty to President of India K R Narayanan)

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