An undiminished legacy
The ruling regime’s obsessive campaign to erase Nehru’s legacy is a violation of the essence of the Indian Constitution and is bound to boomerang
SN Sahu Delhi
It is not possible to erase the political and intellectual legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru from Indian and world history. It is foolish to think that his legacy of service and sacrifice as a freedom fighter and architect of modern India can be consigned to oblivion by any government, political party or agency. The antagonism towards Nehru from some quarters has become transparently vicious in recent times because of many factors, especially because of his unflinching adherence to secularism, and the idea of modern, enlightened India. It was because of Nehru that we have a State structure which is secular, pluralist and wedded to the ideals of Constitutional rule. As early as 1945, he wrote: “I am convinced that the future government of free India must be secular in the sense that government will not associate itself directly with any religious faith but will give freedom to all religious functions.”
His notion of secularism was broad, non-dogmatic and open-ended. It included in its scope the idea of fraternity and equality irrespective of the choice of the citizen to pursue a faith, or, not to pursue any faith and remain an atheist. It is worthwhile to quote his ringing words from a circular issued to the Pradesh Committees on August 5, 1954. He wrote, “Secularism does not mean a State where religion as such is discouraged. It means freedom of religion and conscience, including freedom for those who have no religion. It means free play for all religions, subject only to their not interfering with each other or with the basic conceptions of our State.” Currently, the biggest danger to our nationhood has sprung from those forces which rely on fanatic majoritarianism and the one-dimensional concept of ‘one nation, one culture, and one religion’; they are now using the instrument of the State to negate India’s secularism, thereby defying the very essence of the Indian Constitution. The repeated attacks on Nehru originate from this fundamentalist mindset.
The narrative of secularism for Nehru had a much broader connotation, beyond the neutrality of the State towards religion. It meant for him the ideals of equality and equal opportunity. In fact, in our age of mounting inequality and the manufactured theory of a ‘clash of civilisations’, we need to invoke Nehru’s ideas of secularism to restore the sanity and reason of our civilized society, rooted in our ancient ideals of coexistence, acceptance and toleration. His insightful words (“The word ‘secular’ …conveys the idea of social and political equality”) are of immense significance for our time, marked as it is by a social order assailed by inequality of opportunity and religious and caste discriminations. His observations that “... a caste-ridden society is not properly secular” take us to a higher plane of thinking in understanding the significance of secularism and assess its critical importance for our society which often faces challenges arising out of caste-based conflicts and clashes. He asserted that beliefs petrified by caste divisions would negatively affect the social structure of the nation and prevent us from realizing the idea of equality.
He added: “They interfere in political matters, just as communalism interferes. We have opposed communalism and continue to be stoutly opposed to it. It is, in fact, a negation of nationalism and of the national State. Communalism means the dominance of one religious community… But, I have no doubt that castes as dangerous as communalism and both are effective barriers, if they are strong enough, to the development of true democracy and equality.”
In thus equating the danger of communalism with the danger of castes, Nehru was locating the twin threats to the secular fabric of India in the formative stages of our nation building. Today, when so much is being said about ‘nationalism’ and the religion of the majority, and one particular slogan is being invoked to determine nationalism and patriotism, it is instructive to note that Nehru had linked real nationalism to secular values. In 1961, he wrote a foreword to a publication, Dharam Nirpeksh, in which he stated that religious tolerance is one aspect of a secular State and in a country like India which has many faiths and religions, no nationalism can be built except on the basis of secularism. He added: “Any narrower approach must necessarily exclude a section of the population and then nationalism itself will have a much more restricted meaning than it should possess. In India, we would then have to consider Hindu nationalism, Muslim nationalism, Sikh nationalism or Christian nationalism and not Indian nationalism.”
At the present juncture, when cultural nationalism is being emphasised to exclude citizens based on religion, we need to restore secularism and secular values to uphold Indian nationalism. It is in this context that the legacy of Nehru has to be invoked repeatedly and people should be sensitised to his worldview to defend our inclusive, creative and constructive nationalism.
It is worthwhile to mention here the Bommai judgment of the Supreme Court in 1994 which mandated a floor test to determine the strength of the government of a state. The apex court very categorically stated in that judgment that secularism is part of the basic structure of the Constitution and is the soul of the Constitution: “It was with the weapons of secularism and non-violence that Mahatma Gandhi fought the battle for independence against the mighty colonial rulers…Gandhiji was ably assisted by leaders like Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and others in the task of fighting a peaceful battle for securing independence by uniting the people of India against separatist forces.”
It is noteworthy that the Supreme Court referred to the debates in the Constituent Assembly of April 3, 1948 on the resolution to ban communal organizations and quoted from Nehru’s reply to the said debates wherein he very thoughtfully stated, “Secularism was an ideal to be achieved and that establishment of a Secular State was an act of faith, an act of faith above all for the majority community because they will have to show that they can behave towards others in a generous, fair and just way.”It is unfortunate that the majoritarian tendencies in present-day India constitute a negation of the secularism envisioned by Nehru, enshrined in the Constitution and embedded in constitutional philosophy.
The Court further observed that, “Religious tolerance and equal treatment of all religious groups and protection of their life and property and of the places of their worship are an essential part of secularism enshrined in our Constitution. We have accepted the said goal not only because it is our historical legacy and a need of our national unity and integrity but also as a creed of universal brotherhood and humanism. It is our cardinal faith. Any profession and action which go counter to the aforesaid creed are a prima facie proof of the conduct in defiance of the provisions of our Constitution.”
Going by the above observations of the Supreme Court all the attempts made to negate the legacy of Nehru, particularly his legacy of secularism are a negation of the Constitution and constitutional philosophy. It is tragic that such an attempt is being made at a time when the nation, is celebrating the 125th birth anniversary of Dr BR Ambedkar, the principal architect of the Constitution.
The observations of the Supreme Court in the Bommai judgment that “[s]ecularism…is part of the fundamental law and basic structure of the Indian political system to secure to all its people socio-economic needs essential for man’s excellence and of his moral wellbeing, fulfillment of material and prosperity and political justice” outline the centrality of idea of secularism as envisioned by Nehru for freedom, equality and empowerment of the people of India. At a time when India is being seen as a major player in the world affairs we need to uphold his secular vision. Any measure in defence of that vision is a measure in defence of the Constitution and the idea of India.
The writer has served President KR Narayanan as Press Secretary and is currently serving as Joint Secretary, Rajya Sabha Secretariat. Views expressed are personal.