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Mainstream, VOL LV No 23 New Delhi May 27, 2017

Secular Outlook

Saturday 27 May 2017


by Rafiq Zakaria

The following is a tribute to Nehru offered by the author as a member of the Nationl Committee set up for Nehru’s birth centenary. This contribution was included in a book published on November 14, 1989 following yearlong commemoration of Nehru’s birth centenary.

Jawaharlal Nehru while in power, it must be conceded, could not implement many of his ideas which he so passionately advocated when fighting against the British during our freedom struggle. He himself admitted: “Some years earlier I would not have been so hesitant. There was a definiteness about my thinking and objectives then, which has faded away since and events of the past few years in India, China, Europe and all over the world have been confusing, upsetting and distressing, and the future has become vague and shadowy and has lost its clearness of outline which it once possessed in my mind.”

Though power made him circumspect and cautious, on principles Nehru stood firm; one of the fundamental articles of his faith was secularism. Today, if India is not a Hindu state, it is mainly due to the efforts of her first Prime Minister. Today, if Muslims and other minorities have a certain sense of security in this Republic, it is mainly due to his approach. During the seventeen years that he ruled this country, he never wavered in his antagonism against the dark forces of communalism. Nothing ever shook him, neither attacks nor abuse. In fact, there are few instances in history where a prophet, in the face of heavy odds, remained so loyal to his creed. Secularism was not only the sheet-anchor of Nehru’s politics; it was in a sense the life-blood of his patriotism.

The severest test that Nehru faced was soon after the partition of the subcontinent when communal fury on either side of the border resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Hindus and Muslims and the worst migration in recent times. Enough has been written and said about it, but the role of Nehru in safeguarding the values of secularism can never be forgotton. Some instances come to my mind to show the agony he felt and the manner in which he met the most unexpected challenges. For instance, in Bihar, when Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in the wake of Partition he rushed like a wounded tiger to the rescue of the unfortunate victims; unguarded, he went to the scene of rioting and told the mob in Patna: “Kill me before you kill a Muslim.” It was not an empty declaration; he meant it. It had the desired effect on the rioters and the situation soon came under control. His action in other riot-stricken areas was as effective as in Bihar. In Delhi, he gave refuge to hundreds of Muslims in the Prime Minister’s house; dozens of them he saved just by sheer personal intervention.

Those who had seen Nehru during those grim days, just after August 15, 1947, still worship him; according to them, they had not come across a better human being. One instance is worth mentioning; it was so typical of the man.

One night after a strenuous tour of the riot-stricken areas, the Prime Minister returned home. It was pretty late. However, just as he was sitting for his dinner, he was informed that the rioters had decided to burn the whole of the Jamia Millia—the National Muslim University, founded in 1920 by the Ali Brothers and the Mahatma, as counterpoise to the Aligarh Muslim University, and then presided over by the famous educationist, Dr. Zakir Hussain, who later became the President of India. Nehru could not bear the thought of any damage to such an institution, which symbolised so much of good in our anti-British nationalism; he, therefore, rushed to the spot, again unaided and un-guarded, and without any warning to the security staff. The moment the rioters saw him with anger writ large on his face, they became calm. The Prime Minister squatted on the ground, opposite the Jamia Millia and remained there for hours lecturing to them on the values of communal harmony and non-violence. Finally, the crowd dispersed peacefully.

Then there was a Muslim restaurant-keeper in Delhi who saw a fellow Muslim being slaughtered in front of his shop. Agitated, he took the phone and rang up the Prime Minister. “Is that so?” cried Nehru, “I will come there right away.” Within minutes he arrived on the scene with the police. Standing in the middle of the street, he directed the clean-up operations.

His action in the Punjab, then the most violently and badly affected province during the communal disturbances, was no less heroic. He toured the bloody areas in a jeep, sometimes at considerable risk to his life. In one town he was told that the Sikhs were plotting a wholesale massacre of the Muslims. Without fear he went to the Sikh quarters, rounded up their leaders and warned them: “If you harm one single hair of a Muslim, I will send in a tank and blast you to bits.”

However, Nehru’s anti-communalism was not one-sided, as the Hindu communalists, especially the RSS, would like us to believe; he had fought Muslim communalism no less valiantly in the past. Mr Jinnah had no greater opponent, his politics, no greater enemy. It is not true that Nehru had any particular preference for the Muslims; but he believed that majority commu-nalism was another form of fascism which breeds hatred and violence. In one of his letters to the Chief Ministers he told them that there are some among the Hindus who “rather foolishly think in terms of having communal riots and thus gaining two objectives. The first is to frighten and drive away the Muslims and the second is to make Hindus anti-government.” Though more than two decades have passed since Nehru’s passing away, the situation does not seem to have changed.

Partition made many Hindus bitter; but it only saddened Nehru. To him, India represented an amalgam of the best in every community; but he was proud of his Hindu heritage. He was fond of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata epics and went into ecstasy while visiting the Ajanta and Ellora caves. He once said: “Those Indians, who have not visited the Ellora and Ajanta caves, are, to my mind, not civilised.”

To Nehru, India was as much the centre of Hinduism as an unique expression of a “cultural multiplicity which lasted for thousands of years”. In a reminiscent mood he wrote: “Hundreds of vivid pictures of this past filled my mind, and they would stand out as soon as I visited a particular place associated with them. At Sarnath, near Benaras, I would almost see the Buddha preaching his first sermon, and some of his recorded words would come like a distant echo to me through two thousand five hundred years. Ashoka’s pillars of stone with their inscriptions would speak to me in their magnificient language and tell me of a man, who though an emperor, was greater than any king or emperor. At Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar, forgetful of his empire, was seated holding converse and debate with the learned of all faiths, curious to learn something new and seeking an answer to the eternal problem of man.”

That is the India he discovered and loved; it was the same India he tried to rebuild on modern lines with the aid of all that science could offer. In that India, non-Hindus were to have the same rights and privileges as the Hindus; religious affiliations made no difference. This was in accordance with the Indian traditions. As Nehru told Norman Cousins, “The whole conception of India was built up, if you look at Indian history, on the conception of non-proselytisation. Our religion is so based. We do not go out of the way to ask anybody to change his religion and belong to us.” Nor did Nehru accept that “political or economic rights should depend on the membership of a religious group or community”. He explained to the teachers and students of the Aligarh Muslim University on January 24, 1948: “For my part I wish to say that in spite of everything, I have a firm faith in India’s future. Indeed, if I did not have it, it would not have been possible for me to work effectively. Although many of my old dreams have been shattered by recent events, yet the basic objective still holds and I see no reason to change it. That objective is to build up a free India of high ideals, and noble endea-vours where there is equality of opportunity for all and where many variegated steams of thought and culture meet together to form a mighty river of progress and advancement for her people.”

Elaborating it, he declared: “You are Muslims and I am a Hindu. We may adhere to different religious faiths or even to none, but that does not take away from that cultural inheritance that is yours as well as mine. The past holds us together; why should the present or the future divide us in spirit?”

It is in that spirit that Nehru worked all through his public life; he had to encounter innumerable difficulties, but he never gave up. Sometimes he compromised; but he never lost sight of the goal. He chided those who wondered what would happen to India with the sceptre of communalism haunting it:

“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, but of one national outlook, not, I hope, a narrow nationalism living in its own shell, but rather the tolerant creative nationalism, which believing in itself and the genius of its people, takes full part in the establishment of an international order.”

I have quoted Nehru at length in order to show the depth of his convictions about secularism. Sometimes he adjusted to political pressures but his basic approach remained unalterable. He abhorred the whole concept of “a religious or theocratic state” and said “it has no place in the mind of the modern man”. India, he repeatedly emphasised, had always been a secular state: the more recent change in the thinking of some Indians was “a reversal of the historic process”; or rather “a perversion of the course of history”. He opposed separate electo-rates for Muslims because he felt that this weakened the groups that were already weak or backward and encouraged ghetto tendencies among them and prevented the growth of national unity. He always looked upon such measures as a negation of democracy which created vested interests of the most reactionary kind, thus diverting the people’s attention from the real economic problems which were common to all. “Possibly,” he remarked, ”they may have done some good but undoubtedly the injury they have caused to every department of life has been prodigious.” He encouraged their abolition, even the reservation of seats for minorities.

He had, however, no answer on how to provide the minorities their legitimate, propor-tionate share of representation under an electo-rate that continued to respond to communal appeal and wherever the government itself was unable to shed its religious prejudices, especially against the Muslims. He often felt helpless; he wanted Azad to be the first President but was unable to make it happen. He tried to push Muslims into important positions; but his colleagues often thwarted his moves. He openly admitted that even the Congress was not free of communal elements, who came in the way of building a proper secular base. He chided them: “Even in the past those of us who accepted any measure of communalism erred and acted unwisely and we have suffered greatly for our unwisdom.” He, therefore, warned them that in all our future conduct “we must have it clearly in our minds and in the mind of the country that the alliance of religion and politics in the shape of communalism is a most dangerous alliance and it yields the most abnormal kind of illegitimate brood.” And still he was not able to prevent the alliance of the Congress with the Muslim League in Kerala, which even the Comm-unists unashamedly copied.

In his anti-communalism, Nehru had been considerably influenced by Gandhi on the one hand and Azad on the other. The Mahatma taught him to place politics on an ethical level; to preserve the spiritual unity of the people which was based on broad humanism; to live by truth; and to practise cleanliness in public life. From the Maulana he learnt “that there was no conflict between Islam and Indian nationa-lism”; that the two were complementary to each other; and should help to bring about an amalgam, which could prove of lasting benefit to all. From these two giants Nehru received all the confirmation that he needed of the fact. “Indian culture,” to quote Gandhiji’s words, “is neither Hindu, nor Islamic, nor any other wholly. It is a fusion of all.” He asked Muslims not to despair and be despondent; they must learn “to be sharers, in common with others, in the triumphs and setbacks alike that may come our way. The present with all its unhappiness and misery will pass. It is the future that counts...”

That was said more than thirty years ago. How long will the deprived and the neglected have to wait for that “unhappiness and misery” to pass and when will India of Nehru’s dream, of a genuine secular state, where the followers of each religion will get what they must in every walk of life, be realised!

(Mainstream, May 25, 2013)

The author, a leading figure in the Congress and reputed Islamic scholar, was a renowned parliamentarian.

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