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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 23 New Delhi May 25, 2019

Nehru and Minorities

Sunday 26 May 2019


by S. Gopal

The following contribution from Nehru’s biographer and eminent historian, Dr S. Gopal, was published in Mainstream (November 12, 1988). It was based on the Ansari Memorial Lecture which he delivered at the Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi on February 22, 1988. It is being reproduced here because of its relevance in the present scenario. 

When Jawaharlal Nehru came to active politics in the early twenties, he had not yet moved to the personal position of religious agnosticism which was to mark him in later years. His conventional Hindu theism helped to block his mind from questioning Gandhi’s effort to strengthen the national identity by drawing up a programme which took for granted the divergence between the Hindu and Muslim communities but was acceptable to both.

Nehru was not comfortable with the Khilafat movement but justified it at a political rather than a religious level by arguing that it was an effort to thwart the division of Turkey and a part of the struggle for the freedom of India. This enabled him to square the Khilafat movement with the assertion that the Congress should not identify itself with controversial religious issues. But his position was not always logical. It is odd, for example, to find him saying that it was the duty of Hindus to help the Muslims at this time for if the British succeeded in destroying Islam they would then try to destroy the Hindu religion.1 Again, as the Mayor of Allahabad in 1923 he guided the Board to reject unanimously the suggestion to prohibit the slaughter of cattle; but his attitude was based not so much on any principle as on a feeling that this was not a matter calling for administrative intervention, for he had earlier suggested to the Hindus that they should request Muslims to stop cow-killing rather than fight them about it.

The spread across the face of India in the mid-twenties of rioting involving sections of the Hindu and Muslim communities compelled Nehru to take a more clear-cut position on the question of religion in politics. It now became obvious to him that India, caught in the whirlpool of mutual antagonism, would be dragged down into the abyss unless this so-called religion was scotched and the intelligentsia at least was secularised. Nehru used this word in 1926, not in the accepted sense of the separation of church and state—this had no immediate relevance in India if only because the state was in alien hands—but to mean the toleration of all faiths and beliefs and permissible religious practices, leading to a separation of religion from politics. For such tolerance to be not emotional generosity but coldly reasoned, Nehru looked to both industria-lisation and mass education of the type that would dissolve dogma and the dogmatic mentality. Nehru had begun to discern the mesh of political reaction, economic stagnation and religious superstition; and he himself shed the vestiges of conventional religious belief. “The less,” he told Indians on his return from Europe in December 1927, “we talk of and worry about the next world, the more good we are likely to do to our fellow countrymen and country.”

To Nehru now religion was the fountain-head of authoritarianism and the method used at all times to secure the submission of the oppressed. But getting rid of religion altogether was a long-term objective; the immediate problem was dealing with the growing communal animosity. Nehru was clearsighted about the reasons for this. The social disharmony between Hindus and Muslims had spread to other spheres with the regional imbalance in development under the East India Company, leading to the classes who gained most from British rule being predominantly Hindu. By the time the interior areas of India caught up with the rest, national awareness expressed itself increasingly in a Hindu idiom. The process of divergence between the religious communities was further aggravated by official policy symbolised by the establishment of separate electorates; and as the franchise was broadened periodically on this basis, the communal elements grew correspondingly stronger.

From this analysis Nehru drew the conclusion that the communal problem was a wasteful diversion from the main campaign against the British. The communal parties, both Hindu and Muslim, derived their support from the feudal and upper classes, defensive of vested interests, seeking office and employment from the British and pandering to myth and passion in their attempts to secure a base among the people.

So to Nehru these communal parties were giants with feet of clay, who would fade into nothingness in the light of reason once the British were pushed out. He, therefore, in accordance with his favourite strategy of indirect approach, ignored the communal problem and concentrated his energies on the national movement against foreign rule and on the need to give that movement an economic slant. The vast majority of the Indian people, whatever their religion, bore the common burdens of hunger and poverty, and when these burdens were lightened, the curse of religion in politics would be lifted. Religious minorities should be of no political significance; the minority that mattered and which had to be resisted was that of the rich exploiters.

Nehru, therefore, regarded as a waste of time all attempts at a political settlement of the communal problem. Ansari pinned his faith on mutual adjustments through formal and informal conversations with communal parties, but to Nehru this was a futile endeavour. These parties had no wish to see unity conferencs succeed; nor had the British, who could always outbid the Congress. So the Congress Muslims were always on the retreat, continuously offering concessions to which there could be no end; and Nehru, despite his personal affinity with Ansari and many other Muslims in the Congress, could not conceal his contempt for their attitude.

Even Nehru, however, especially in the years when he was the President of the Congress, could not completely turn away from trying to eliminate the communal menace. Till the time came when class conflicts set aside religious clashes, he wished the Hindus, as the majority community, to show the generosity which would remove fear and suspicion. The minorities should be given the fullest assurance, not of jobs and of seats in Assemblies, but that their culture and traditions would be safe. Provision to foster languages and education would help to nourish the rich, varied, larger, common culture of India. The existence of such a culture was also one of the points he sought to establish in his historical writings.

Nehru had not the training of a professional historian but he had the instincts of a good one. He rejected, even in the early thirties, the standard periodisation of Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British; and he stressed on his readers that Islam did not believe in religious persecution and a man like Mahmud of Ghazni, who was generally regarded as an iconoclast, was in fact no more than a successful soldier who would have looted to whichever religion he had belonged. The best of Indian culture was to Nehru a synthesis; this had badly frayed in recent times and should be rebuilt on the secular foundations of freedom and social equality and in consonance with a better world order.

To ensure that civil disobedience in 1930 was not weakened by communal forces, Nehru reasserted the commitment of the Congress to religious, cultural, linguistic and educational freedom, and promised that on communal issues the Congress would not favour any side but hold the centre impartially.2 In the resolution on Fundamental Rights at the Karachi Congress in 1931, looking forward to a free India, he incorporated clauses providing that every citizen should enjoy freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess and practise any religion, subject to public order and morality, that all citizens were equal before the law, irrespective of religion, creed, caste or sex, that no disability attached to citizens for these reasons in regard to public employment and in the exercise of any trade or calling, and that the state should observe neutrality in regard to all religions.

This was the first breakdown, in concrete terms, of the concept of secularism in the Indian context and formed the basis of the Articles in the Constitution many years later. Once the Congress, the leading political party in the country, had committed itself to these provisions, Nehru expected the ground to be removed from under communalism, for there was no logical justification left for communal demands. On the political plane, the only solution was the nationalist one, with no room for special representation.

Life, however, as Nehru himself often said, is different from and larger than logic. He might assert that communalism was a ghost but the ghost refused to vanish and continued to drink blood. So, tacitly shedding the view that the Hindu-Muslim problem did not exist because it had nothing to do with the masses, Nehru decided, during the few months at the end of 1933 when he was out of prison, to face the issue. He was still of opinion that the communal parties were basically props of political reaction, and he continued to urge the Hindus, as the majority community, to take the initiative in generosity. But he shifted from the position that communal feeling was always the artificial creation of political groups. To the extent that it existed among the Hindus and was able to disguise itself as nationalism, it was the Indian version of fascism and deserving of the severest condemnation. Muslim communal groups seemed to him at least middle class and representative in some degree of the Muslim viewpoint, while its leaders behaved with greater dignity than those of the Hindu Mahasabha, who spoke only for capitalism, landlords, and a few princes and their hangers-on.

Nehru also now conceded that it was understandable that the Muslims, as an economically and educationally backward community, might be apprehensive about the future. “Honest communalism is fear; false communalism is political reaction.”3 To distinguish between shades of communalism and to contend that it could sometimes be honest and, therefore, presumably legitimate, was to embark on a dangerous course. It at once jeopardised the position of the many Muslims in the Congress who had not hesitated to participate in the civil disobedience movement; and Nehru made this worse by stating that no other organisation could successfully challenge the claim of the communalists to speak for the Muslims and that their aggressively communal character gave them an advantage over the Muslims in the Congress.

Having yielded so much ground in argument to Muslim communalists, Nehru sought to defeat them in practice by contending that the way to deal with communal parties was not to barter with them but to appeal over their heads to the masses. Their cultural unity was enduring, the demand for political and economic freedom was the reality and the communal myth would cease to exist when put to the test of mass opinion. A Constituent Assembly elected by adult franchise, even on the basis of separate electorates, would dispose of the communal problem readily enough.

All this seemed very remote as the Congress developed no clear objectives or ideology, the government with the Communal Award divided the people into numerous religious compartments and Nehru, sitting in prison, heard of persistent communal violence. “What a disgusting savage people we are? Politics, progress, socialism, communism, science—where are they before this black religious savagery?”4

But the election campaign of 1936, with a wider franchise than before, gave Nehru his chance. He played down the communal issue, held up independence and better economic conditions as the first priorities and centred his fire on the alien rulers, the capitalists and the landlords. In the United Provinces, a clash with the Muslim League was avoided. Speaking on the same platform as Jinnah, Nehru referred to communalism as no more than a nuisance which made people petty-minded and hid from view the major problems. In his presidential address at the Faizpur Congress in December 1936 he did not refer to communalism at all.

The results of the elections confirmed Nehru in his view, gained during his tours, that the Congress had never been stronger. But it had contested few Muslim seats and of these lost most. Even so, Nehru felt that the Congress should have fielded more Muslim candidates. The Muslim masses had been too long doped with communal poision and were suspicious of the Congress; but there was a ferment among the younger Muslims and the masses and the Congress should reach out to them. The Muslim rank-and-file had a greater potentiality, perhaps because of more freedom in social relations, than the Hindu counterpart and, if convinced of a new thought, would accept it.

So, smothering Jinnah’s hopes of a resurrection of the atmosphere of the Lucknow Pact and the reaching of a political agreement at the leadership level, Nehru in 1937 initiated a Muslim mass contact campaign. This was a chance for implementing his theory that the masses had no communal problem and could be led to forget this side-issue by offering them political action and placing before them an economic programme; but the opportunity was squandered.5 In fact, it was Jinnah who, accepting what he regarded as a challenge, strengthened the position of the League among the Muslim masses by appealing to God and Koran and alleging that Islam was being threatened. Taking advantage of the acceptance of office by the Congress, he slid easily from attacking the Congress, representing majority opinion, to denouncing it as representing Hindu opinion and complained of general harassment of Muslims without specifying his charges.

Nehru had gradually and reluctantly to change his opinion that there was no real strength behind the League. Jinnah’s demand that his party be recognised as the authoritative and representative organisation of the Muslims was unacceptable; but it was no longer enough merely to go half-way to meet the minorities and allay their fears in matters of culture, language and religious observances. Nehru was willing to consider, in any scheme of provincial redistribution, the grant, to important groups and minorities, of territories within which they would have full opportunities for self-development, but the League, not being serious about non-political matters, paid no attention.

By the beginning of 1939 Nehru was forced to acknowledge that the communal problem had acquired a new and serious aspect. The fear of the Muslims that they might be swamped by the Hindu majority had widened considerably; there was, particularly in the United Provinces, more general ill-will among the Muslim masses towards the Congress than at any time before, and fascist elements were becoming stronger in both the communal parties. Even now, Nehru was hopeful that the economic issue would wither the communal problem if the provincial governments gave priority to such measures as the wiping out of old debts and the arrears of rent; but the Congress Ministries were too conservative to move in these matters. By the time war broke out and these Ministries resigned, Nehru had to accept defeat: “there is no doubt that we have been unable to check the growth of communalism and anti-Congress feeling among the Muslim masses.”6 Even civil war now seemed to him possible.

His buoyant optimism, however, soon returned to the surface. He placed hopes in the League’s commitment to independence; and even its attainment of a mass base might be helpful in bringing pressure to bear on its feudal leadership. If the Congress and the League could work together in dealing with the government in the war crisis, the communal grievances would fall into perspective. So the Congress was willing to accept the League, if not as the sole Muslim organisation, at least as an important and influential party. But joint action with the Congress had now no interest for Jinnah and he would not go beyond seeking statutory provision for coalition Ministries. With the celebration of the ‘Day of Deliverance’ and the passing of the Pakistan resolution by the Muslim League, there was no scope for negotiations with it, and Nehru became more concerned with giving assurances to the Christians and Sikhs that the Congress was committed to secularism and legitimate minority interests could be protected by a Constituent Assembly, in which such questions would be settled not by a majority vote but by common consent and differences referred, if necessary, to arbitration not by the British but preferably by the League of Nations. But during the war years such matters were not in Nehru’s hands. The League, with active British support, expanded its popular backing and moved to the climax of partition.

Nehru’s policy towards the minorities before 1947, therefore, had not been a success. He had been convinced that the communal problem was not a matter for solution by the communalists. These were political reactionaries converting religious matters into a political problem to promote their own narrow interests; and the best answer to them was religious toleration, safe-guarding of culture and languages and emphasis on political independence and economic better-ment, both of which cut across religious differences. But the British Government gave Nehru no chance to translate this flawless thesis into practice. A dissolution of the communal problem was not possible in a colonial setting.

“The day on which,” Nehru had written as far back as 1936, “India achieves her freedom, communal differences and jealousies will get solved of themselves.” Far from being this the case, in August 1947 such differences assumed national and even international proportions. The refusal to synchronise acceptance of Pakistan with recog-nition of the two-nation theory and the presence of large religious minorities in India made secularism the only possible basis of a uniform and durable national identity. Rational thinking and a civilised outlook meant the insistence on religion as a private matter for the individual with no bearing on civic rights and duties; and in a multi-religious society the state had to stay aloof from all faiths and permit diverse forms of worship provided they did not conflict with other religions.

But to provide in the Constitution for secular behaviour was only the beginning of the struggle. The circumstances of 1947 had intensified the communal mood and even the most senior of Nehru’s colleagues were not always careful in maintaining that the state should not promote any particular religion. It was suggested that secularism was a Western concept unsuited to India, where the large majority practised Hinduism as a social religion. To counter this, Nehru had, long before independence, defined secularism not according to any dictionary or historical tradition but in a way adapted to conditions in this country. The future Indian state would not be hostile to religion but would not represent any one religion and would provide freedom of conscience to all.

As before 1947, Nehru as the Prime Minister was more concerned with Hindu than with Muslim communalism. The Hindu faith, preaching hospitality to all forms of belief, was ideal on paper; but the practice was rigid and narrow. The Muslim outlook might often be worse, but it could not make much difference to the future of India. So the destruction of Hindu communalism was indispensable for India’s survival. But just as Hindu revivalism was the greatest danger, so also it was the prime responsibility of the Hindus to provide the religious minorities with a sense of security. The test of success was not what the Hindus thought but how the Muslims and other minorities felt. It was only if the Hindus were secular that the non-Hindus could become secular. They should not gain the impression that they were being treated as second-class citizens.

So Nehru assured the Christians of full freedom for evangelical work so long as it did not impinge on politics and, giving the Muslims special attention, encouraged their recruitment to the armed and civil services, particularly the police, and their employment in the private sector. Recognising that Urdu, while spoken by both Hindus and Muslims, had become a symbol of Islamic culture, he provided that its use and teaching were given priority, especially in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

Yet, just as to distinguish between Hindu and Muslim communalism was to falter in logic, so too to seem to favour the majority or to provide special treatment to minorities is to weaken secularism as the foundation of equality and democracy. The pressure of circumstances sometimes led Nehru to hesitate and not to throw his full weight on the side of secularism. In 1948 he committed the support of the government to the banning of communal political parties but did not implement the resolution. He agreed with Gandhi that the compulsory stoppage of cow-slaughter, taken as an isolated decision, would appear as a concession to Hindu bigotry and therefore to be avoided; yet he did not oppose the listing of the banning of cow-slaugher as one of the Directive Principles of State policy in the Constitution and was content to see that nothing came of it in practice. An even greater deficiency in his policy of merging religious communities in a general citizenship was the restriction of the insistence on monogamy to Hindu men and the grant of the rights of divorce and inheritance only to Hindu women. In his keenness to win the confidence of the Muslim community, he failed to ensure the equality before the law of all Indians and enact a common civil code. Religion can be separated from politics more easily if it is also separated from the law. There is no room in a secular society for differences in personal law which claim religious sanction. To deny rights to Muslim women which are available to women of other faiths is a violation of the provision in the Constitution that the state shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds of religion.

As Nehru had realised from the very start, the real answer to the mixing of religion with politics is mass education. An educated society, forward-looking and striving for development, will, even without knowing it, liquidate communalism, both of reaction and of fear. Nehru was always aware that the problem of minorities was best handled not in itself but as a part of wider issues. But he could not achieve what he hoped for during the freedom movement and he did not do what he knew should be done in an independent India. He himself suggested that the problems of the minorities were not suited to his temperament and cast of mind. “I must confess to you,” he wrote to Jinnah after some talks with him soon after the outbreak of war, “that in this matter I have lost confidence in myself, though I am not usually given that way. But the last two or three years have had a powerful effect on me. My own mind moves on a different plane and most of my interests lie in other directions. And so, though I have given much thought to the problem and understand most of its implications, I feel as if I was an outsider and alien in spirit.”7

But if Nehru did not come up with appropriate and effective actions in different contexts, he at least left us with the right answers and the correct approaches.

(Mainstream, November 12, 1988)


1. Presidential address at the Bundelkhand Conference, June 13, 1921, Selected Works, Vol. 1, p. 177 ff.

2. “The Problem of Minorities”, March 14, 1930, Selected Works, Vol. 4, pp. 259-261.

3. Interview, November 29, 1933, The Bombay Chronicle (December 2, 1933).

4. Diary entry, April 17, 1935.

5. Mushirul Hasan, ‘The Muslim Mass Contact Campaign’, Economic and Political Weekly, December 27, 1986.

6. Nehru to Rajendra Prasad, October 18, 1939.

7. October 18, 1939.

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