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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 46-47 November 11 & November 18, 2023

Remembering the Titans of secular India | Sukumaran CV

Saturday 11 November 2023, by Sukumaran C.V.


November 11 is the birthday of Maulana Azad, the first Education Minister of Independent India. It is National Education Day and every year the National Education Day goes unnoticed. November 14, Nehru’s birthday used not to go unnoticed till India was not ruled by religious politics which can be rightly called communal politics.

[Jawaharlal] Nehru and [Maulana Abul Kalam] Azad are the Titans of Indian freedom struggle and independent India because of their strong commitment to secular democracy. Exactly on account of being the staunchest secular democrats, Nehru and Azad are hated by those who rule India now in the name of gods and religions, and are pushed to oblivion.

If Nehru and his legacy are pushed to oblivion by the Hindutva politics, Azad and his legacy were pushed aside by the so-called secular democrats themselves. Azad has never been given the recognition he deserves. As religions are the fountains of unequal social hierarchy and patriarchal oppression, critique of religions is the driving force of democracy if we want a democracy that is truly democratic. Nehru and Azad were the only ones among the freedom fighters who criticised religions in order to make India truly democratic. Azad says in his autobiography India Wins Freedom: “I could not reconcile myself with the prevailing customs and beliefs and my heart was full of a new sense of revolt....The first thing which troubled me was the exhibition of differences among the different sects of Muslims. I could not understand why they should be so opposed to one another when all of them claim to derive their inspiration from the same source. Nor could I reconcile myself with the dogmatic assurance with which each sect branded the others as mistaken and heretical. These differences among the orthodox schools began to raise doubts in my mind concerning religion itself. If religion expresses a universal truth, why should there be differences and conflicts among men professing different religions? Why should each religion claim to be the sole repository of truth and condemn all others as false?” (Prospectus).

He further says: “Mr. Jinnah and his followers didn’t seem to realise that geography was against them. Indian Muslims were distributed in a way which made it impossible to form a separate State in a consolidated area...It is one of the greatest frauds on the people to suggest that religious affinity can unite areas which are geographically, economically, linguistically and culturally different. It is true that Islam sought to establish a society which transcends racial, linguistic, economic and political frontiers. History has however proved that after the first few decades or at the most after the first century, Islam was not able to unite Muslim countries on the basis of Islam alone. This was the position in the past and this is the position today.” (Epilogue).

Likewise, Nehru says in his autobiography (An Autobiography): “India is supposed to be a religious country above everything else, and Hindu and Moslem and Sikh and others take pride in their faiths and testify to their truth by breaking heads. The spectacle of what is called religion, or at any rate organized religion, in India and elsewhere has filled me with horror, and I have frequently condemned it and wished to make a clean sweep of it. Almost always it seems to stand for blind belief and reaction, dogma and bigotry, superstition and exploitation, and the preservation of vested interests.” (Chapter 47—What is Religion?).

Indians have failed to inculcate the critical spirit Azad and Nehru represented and that was why the Indian political space was systematically occupied by religiosity that is anathema to real democracy. In his speech delivered at the Constituent Assembly on April 3, 1948 Nehru said: “We talk about democracy and unity and all that and I hope we shall rapidly have more and more democracy and more and more unity in this country. Democracy is not purely a political affair. The nineteenth century conception of democracy, that is, each person having a vote, was a good enough conception in those days, but it was incomplete and people think in terms of a larger and deeper democracy today. After all there is no equality between the pauper who has a vote and the millionaire who has a vote. There are a hundred ways of exercising influence for the millionaire which the pauper has not got. After all there is no equality between a person who has tremendous educational advantages and a person who has had none.”

Instead of thinking in terms of a larger and deeper democracy, we have corrupted our democracy with feudal mindset, patriarchal outlook and religious obscurantism. The politicians and political parties obsessed with power have degraded secular democratic ideals paving the way to communal politics and now Indian democracy seems to be irrecoverably mangled. Religious rituals are paraded as national symbols; priests and rituals take the centre stage in democratic events. Seeing the yaga ceremony and the sceptre-bearing PM in relation to the inauguration of the new parliament building of democratic India; seeing the PM of democratic India laying the foundation stone of a temple at the disputed site of Ayodhya and to see him inaugurating the temple in the coming January is quite deplorable.

It seems the India of Nehru and Azad, the India of critical spirit, the India of scientific temper, the India of secular co-existence, the India of diversity has completely been crippled.

Indian history shows that India has always crushed the ideas that questioned its orthodox beliefs. In The Discovery of India, Nehru says: "Among the books that have been lost is the entire literature on materialism which followed the period of the early Upanishads. The only references to this, now found, are in criticisms of it and in elaborate attempts to disprove the materialist theories. There can be no doubt, however, that the materialist philosophy was professed in India for centuries and had, at the time, a powerful influence on the people...The materialists attacked authority and all vested interests in thought, religion and theology. They denounced the Vedas and priestcraft...They inveighed against all forms of magic and superstition. Their general spirit was comparable in many ways to the modern materialistic approach....Only that could be presumed to exist which could be directly perceived, every other inference or presumption was equally likely to be true or false. Hence matter in its various forms and this world could only be considered as really existing. There was no other world, no heaven or hell, no soul seperate from the body. Mind and intelligence and everything else developed from the basic elements...." (See the subtitle Materialism in Chapter 4).

In the present day India, which is dragged back towards the times of kings and sceptres; priests and yagas; temples and idols, great Indians like Azad and Nehru have no place. Let’s hope that India won’t allow Nehru and Azad to have the fate of the materialist philosophy in ancient India and the nation will soon recapture the legacy of its great sons, the Titans.


I think this article will be an incomplete one if I don’t mention a narrative that depicts Nehru as an atrocious ruler. The narrative doesn’t come from the intolerant Rightwing sources, nor does it come from the dogmatic Left sources. I have read no first person account of oppression in the princely states in India during the British rule and immediately after independence. Sujatha Gidla’s autobiographical narrative Ants among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India gives a vivid picture of the oppression the subaltern societies of Andhra and Telengana have suffered which is really shockingly unbelievable.

We have plenty of graphic narratives that tell us of the atrocities of the British police; but scarcely have detailed accounts of the torture forces like the Razakars of the Nizam of Hyderabad. Ants among Elephants says: "Even the wealthy middle classes in Telangana were oppressed under the Nizam’s regime. There were systems of servitude in every part of India, but none was as ruthless as the vetti system in Telengana, the heartland of the Nizam’s kingdom of the Deccan. Under the vetti system, every untouchable family in every village had to give up their first male child as soon as he learned to talk and walk. They would bring him to the dora (landlord) to work in his household as a slave until death. Just as the mention of the castle of Dracula made the villagers of Transylvania tremble, the dora’s gadi (fortress) struck terror in the hearts of Telengana peasants. It was a symbol of tyranny, slavery, and cruelty, a place of torture, rape, and murder....

"By the time the Communists came around, it wasn’t only the police and the army they had to fight. The Nizam had let loose an even dirtier force—the genocidal Razakars. The Razakars were a Muslim-chauvinist, pro-Nizam militia. With India’s independence on the agenda, the Nizam feared that the new goverment would invade and hold a referendum to force him to cede power. Hindus made up 90 percent of his subjects. The purpose of the Razakars was to slaughter and terrorise as many Hindus as possible before a vote was taken. They were recruited from the poorest Muslims under the slogan "We are the rulers."

"Trained as paramilitary shock troops, these Razakars, or "volunteers" unleashed systematic violence upon Hindus as well as secular-minded Muslims, subjecting whole villages to orgies of murder, torture, looting, arson, and rape. They specially liked to stab a man in the rectum with a long sword, twist it around inside him, and pull it out with such force that his guts fell out in a heap. They wrapped people in dry hay and set fire to them watching them roast alive. They spread-eagled babies and nailed them to walls.

"And so the Deccan came under the spell of demons. Under the three-pronged attack of the police, the army, and the Razakars, Telengana became a death camp, a cemetery, a ghost land.

"But the poor peasants kept fighting." (Chapter 1).

I have quoted in detail from Ants among Elephants to show that the democratic Nehru, after independence, not only didn’t try to help the Telengana people, but also aggravated their misery. When I read that the Nehru government’s atrocities in Telengana were even worse than that of the Razakars, I wondered how such things could happen when Nehru the democrat, who talked about a larger and deeper democracy, was in power!!

The brutal suppression of the Telengana peasants’ struggle for land by independent India under Jawaharlal Nehru is of course an indelible blot in the image of Nehru the democrat. The army in the following paragraph is not of the British, but of the Nehru government: "The army then occupied the area and carried out what the goverment called its "pacification program." This meant that whole villages were razed and Communist sympathisers there rounded up and sent off to concentration camps. Where roads had been dug up to aid the guerillas, Indian soldiers buried peasants alive in the trenches and forced the survivors to build new roads over these mass graves. The Nehru government’s atrocities in Telengana were even worse than the Razakars’." (Ants among Elephants, Chapter 2).

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