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Indian secularism still has a future if followers stop blame game with RSS: Rajmohan Gandhi

Yogendra Yadav's understanding of Abhay Dubey's book on Indian secularism is indisputable. But let's not forget that secularism forced even RSS to accept lower-caste Hindus.

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This piece has been sparked by Yogendra Yadav’s important article in ThePrint, “This Hindi book on Indian secularism could have exposed liberals, but it was ignored.” I have not yet read Abhay Dubey’s Hindu-Ekta banam Gyan ki Rajniti, but the remarks that follow have been stimulated by Yogendra’s summary of the book’s conclusions.

Read Yogendra’s article here, in which he lists several of Dubey’s crucial assessments: the defeat of secular politics is a defeat of secular ideology; the harsh truth that this defeat is well earned; the arrogance of the secular ideologues that made them overlook basic facts about the Sangh Parivar; and a quick reminder of the weaknesses of the secular politics — from exclusively focusing on minority rights to glossing over the Congress’ inconsistencies.

Many of the points that Abhay Dubey raises, and Yogendra Yadav summarises, are indisputable. Defenders of secularism have often refused to look objectively at the Sangh Parivar, its diverse components, its strengths, weaknesses, achievements and failures. The failure of the Congress to stand up to minority communalism over Shah Bano was an egregious blunder. But I am not so sure about the verdict that the secular ideology has been defeated.

Also read: This Hindi book on Indian secularism could have exposed liberals, but it was ignored

Election can’t defeat what’s in Constitution

Some would argue, and I would join them, that the momentous defeats of secular politics during the last 20-plus years — first the Lok Sabha election results of 1998-99 and then, after the 10-year spell of UPA rule, the chain of defeats that began in 2014 — do not translate so readily into a defeat of secular ideology.

Without attempting a definition of “secular ideology”, it may be suggested here that the Preamble to our Constitution “conveys” this ideology pretty well, and also that the rights to liberty and equality assured in the Constitution give that ideology a solid grounding. Today, we know, these rights are hardly secure. The wish to abrogate them may be seen all around us, and a climate may indeed be reached or created for an open attempt at abrogation.

However, as long as “justice”, “liberty”, “equality”, “fraternity” and “the dignity of the individual” remain in the Preamble, and are protected by our Constitution’s Articles, we need not concede the secular ideology’s defeat, and we must continue our protests against the steady flouting of the Articles.

India’s secular political parties suffer from a number of major weaknesses for which they have been duly punished by our people, the ultimate rulers. But let us not forget that the latter — our crores of ranis (queens) and rajas (kings) — repeatedly gave secular political parties the right to govern India. They did this, decade after decade, from 1947 onwards. Even after the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, secular parties have received the popular mandate in several parts of India.

Also read: Hate is hot in India. Colder ideas like constitutional patriotism must work harder to win

Accepting secularism despite deficiencies

I will be the first to agree that India’s governance was flawed from day one of Swaraj. Yet the Congress Party, holding aloft a much-reviled banner of secular ideology, was elected again and again by our people, who knew that perfection does not exist on our soiled, if also sacred, dharti (land).

The reviling of secular ideology had started before 15 August 1947. From the summer of 1946, this condemnation was in violent flow. From much earlier, at least from the 1920s, a few Muslim and Hindu ideologues argued that Hindus and Muslims were two nations. The violence of 1946-47, which was linked to the convulsing demand for Partition, seemed to validate that belief.

That’s when a miracle happened. Between 1947 and 1950, even as Pakistan began its journey to an Islamic state, and even while wounds of the 1947 carnage were still fresh, India’s leaders and Constitution-makers rejected the two-nation ideology. Thereafter, in elections held every five years, the people kept rejecting the two-nation ideology even as they faced deficiencies in Congress ministries at the Centre and in the states.

This is not the place to offer my understanding of how that miracle of 1947-50 happened, but it seems undeniable that crucial to what unfolded was the clarity of several exceptional persons including M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, J.P. Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia. All of them insisted that India belonged equally to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, everyone. That was the heart of their secular ideology.

Thanks to their uncompromising, publicly expressed and repeated stand against the two-nation theory, and the backing they received from political and non-political associates in the Constituent Assembly, the government, political parties and elsewhere, not only was our secular Constitution put in place. Secularism and pluralism seemed to enter India’s bloodstream.

That India belonged to all was accepted – it would appear – by the Indian mind, which also seemed to recall that poets and saints had underlined that truth over the centuries in different parts of the land.

Also read: Hindutva rise must be pinned on historians who told us Hindus, Muslims lived peacefully once

The RSS’ control

If today, seven decades later, India’s bloodstream shows angrier and less tolerant platelets, much of the blame doubtless falls on the Congress and other secular parties. But the story is not as simple as that. Credit, or responsibility, should also be assigned to the assiduous work for 95 continuous years of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose members would call these platelets virile rather than virulent, and to the toxic nationwide campaigns for demolishing the Babri Masjid and installing a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

In more recent years, the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the spread of the Hindu nationalist ideology has also been aided by the skills and stamina of men such as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, by a flow of massive funds to the BJP, and by the Sangh’s mounting influence, if not control, in TV channels, social media, and institutions of the State.

I accept that parts of the RSS have drawn upon the social reformist tradition within Hinduism. I agree that its exclusion of Muslims has been successfully complemented by a campaign to include lower-caste Hindus. But let us recognise that steady pressure on public opinion from proponents of the secular ideology compelled the Sangh Parivar’s reluctant deference to social reform and its eventual readiness to accord a few influential positions to lower-caste Hindus.

We can welcome these tardy steps while renewing our opposition to the two-nation ideology. If the Sangh Parivar can now move radically forward in its thinking, embrace Muslims as equal partners in building India’s future, and jettison the two-nation theory, that would be a welcome culmination as the RSS approaches its centenary.

Such a climax is unlikely. As is true of Muslim nationalist movements in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey, and as was true for the Pakistan demand, India’s Hindu nationalist campaign needs the “enemy other”.

Also read: What Gandhi thought of Muslims and why that makes him our contemporary

India’s secularism withheld majoriatian rise

I don’t know whether Abhay Dubey’s book examines the global rise of the belief that a particular race or religion owns a nation, and that others must accept a junior status. But it is not hard to see that the Sangh Parivar’s vision of a Hindu India coincides with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s picture of an Islamic Turkey (where the historic Hagia Sophia has now been decreed to become a mosque), with the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s view of a Sunni Muslim Egypt, with the vision of Iran’s Ayatollahs of a pure, Shiite Iran, and with the dream of a White America passionately nursed by sections in the US under Donald Trump.

For all their mistakes and failures, India’s advocates of secularism are not the chief architects of the Sangh Parivar’s rise. In fact, but for some of these champions, that rise would have come about much earlier. Jawaharlal Nehru was seeing into the future, not appeasing a minority, when in 1958 he declared that the “communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority” – because, as Nehru added, it “wears the garb of nationalism.” His assessment has been confirmed in India, Turkey and elsewhere.

Any discussion of the rise in India of Hindu nationalism must frankly acknowledge two crucial weaknesses on the secular side. One has been the letting down of Dalits and Adivasis. The partnership when Ambedkar worked with Nehru, Patel and company to produce our Constitution of equality, was not reproduced in India’s villages, in our cities’ crammed bastis, or in our forest lands.

All of us know that the contemporary lynching of Muslims was preceded by, and is today accompanied by, the lynching of Dalits and the uprooting of Adivasis. The claim of “a nation for all” becomes a mere taunt when the cries of victims go unheard.

Great leaders bringing their egos to the battlefront, or to a leadership team, has been a second crucial weakness. After the Emergency, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram were unable to stick together even for two years. In 1989-90, it took less than a year for V.P. Singh, Devi Lal and Chandra Shekhar to split up. More recently, Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh fell out, and now there is the Sachin Pilot eruption in Rajasthan.

Also read: Legal autocrats are on the rise. They use constitution and democracy to destroy both

We just need to stick together against hate

The long-suffering people of India, the women and men who cook and scrub, and weave and plough, and guard and drive, and trudge, and put on masks so that they and others may live, don’t ask for perfection. The ability to rein in personal ambitions, which is easier said than done, and stick it out is enough for them.

Abhay Dubey is right to say that most critics of the Sangh Parivar do not look straightforwardly at it. All Hindu nationalists are not identical. Nor are they personally flawed, except in the sense that all humans have shortcomings.

What should be my attitude to them? I unreservedly reject their doctrine that Hindus must rule over or absorb Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other non-Hindus. But as fellow humans and fellow Indians, members of the Sangh Parivar are entitled to my attention and goodwill.

Those who believe in equality and in an India for all, also have my goodwill. In their case I would, in addition, endorse their ideology. I would not focus on their human imperfections. As long as they stand up to exclusion, disdain and hate, as long as they oppose ideologies of domination and hierarchy, they are my partners. They may belong to a political party, a caste, a religion, a tribe, or a state different from mine, but if they subscribe to liberty, equality and fraternity, they have my solidarity.

If enough of India’s countless lovers of liberty, equality and fraternity stick together, refusing to waste energy in the blame game, not only secular ideology but even secular politics may have a future in India.

Rajmohan Gandhi teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Views are personal.

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  1. Secularism seeks to ensure freedom of religious belief practice and traditional values for all and respect to others religious beliefs. Which means
    • No religious conversion by preaching or forcing others
    • No demolition, deface and disrespect for religious places, idols or symbols
    • No religious interference in affairs of state.
    Why Hinduism is the purest form of secularism without any Conflict with religious faith belief and culture unlike others who believe in destruction of others faiths and culture
    • Believes that God is everywhere in everything, freedom to worship from idol to infinite universe (brahma) to a point or in any other form, hence respect to other beliefs.
    • No historic evidence of mass forced conversion, no global preaching unlike missionaries or Islamic organisations
    • No historic evidence of mass destruction, deface or disregard to other religious places or beliefs. Unlike enormous historical incidents of mass destruction, deface, disrespect of Idols, Temples, Gurudwaras, Churches and Mosques by other religious groups.
    • No religious interference unlike 26 Bishops in House of Lords, Halakha and Sharia Law in affairs of state
    Hinduism, a true secular culture because it is not confined to any book but a culture practiced by generations for thousands of years.

  2. Such a one sided view! First thing: Why are Muslims considered minority at almost 20% of the population? When does a minority stops being a minority? At 50.1%? The author harps on secularism without knowing its meaning. India’s constitution is not secular – it gives right to a particular minority (Muslim) because of religion, and takes away rights from another (Hindus) in the name of religion. He has not read Ambedkar and Sardar – who unequivocally said if the Muslims decided that they do not want to coexist with Hindus (in undivided India) and demanded a separate nation, then all the Muslims should move to their nation. The author does not realize that Islam does not want to co-exist with any religion – take the example of the same Islamic countries he himself has quoted. He forgets that it was the already awakened Hindu that voted the current government in and not the other way around. He forgets that even though Babari Masjid was demolished by a small group of people, it was the unimaginable cruel burning of the innocent Hindu pilgrims at Godhra station that was the alarm that woke Hindu spirit. The Muslim thinks giving an inch is a sign of weakness, not generosity, yet demand miles from the Hindus in terms of privileges. Also, do not forget the influx of Wahhabi Petro-dollars into India that distorted even the ‘moderate’ Indian Muslim minds during the years preceding the current government. Let’s also not forget that the first response of Muslims – all over the world, including India, for anything that displeases them, is to be violent (and create fear among the masses) and then preach Secular values as a response from the rest of the nations. Their fierce adherence to the tenets of their religion – no rights to other religions when in majority and claiming humane considerations from other religions when in minority – is hardly the behavior of a world citizen. I move that the World Citizenship be revoked from the Muslims. They have had their cakes (Nations) and eaten (in other countries) without sharing for too long.

  3. Very well and poignantly said. The point about how the many decades of neglect and oppression of Dalits and Adivasis without any concern from mainstream India is an important one. The subjugation of these communities is the foundation on which all other forms of constitutional or human rights violations build upon. Unfortunately in Hindu religious mythology itself there is a racist hatred towards Adivasis in particular, described as they are often as the villainous demons being vanquished by lighter skinned ‘devas’. It is this deep seated racism that has corroded the soul of Hindu society and diverted people from some of greatest wisdom and philosophy propounded by various seers and saints in our ancient land, which can easily make everyone understand that nobody is superior or inferior or even different from one’s own self.

    • Dalits and Adivasis were cared for and provided for for the ~ seventy years of Congress and achieved great accomplishments. Congress was so good for them. Only in the last five years all of their accomplishments have been reduced to rubble and discrimination started.

  4. Mr. Gandhi constantly refers to the constitution and claims that secular values cannot be changed. Well, the nation he lives in has similar statements in its declaration of independence as well as constitution. However, that comes to naught when colored people are killed on the streets by cops. Documents are really irrelevant, when majority of the population does not believe in it. When majority of the population qualifies the statements as referring to them and not the other.

    India has never been a secular nation. When we constitutionally grant privileges and make laws based on religion we are not secular. Till the day we do not have UCC we are not a secular nation. Secularism is not a mere statement of the constitution. It has to be followed by a uniform law and legislation that applies to all citizens equally. When such a thing is missing, we are not secular. So Mr. Gandhi would be ill advised to call India secular.

    As for Nehru’s statements on “Majority/Minority communalism”. He was wrong, Communalism is communalism. This is why Secular individual in India find it so hard to call Kasab a terrorist. They find it difficult to call Islamic terror from the neighbor terrorism. They like to refer to it as Militancy.

    The Congress was never a Secular party. India does not have a secular party. If secular parties appeasing Muslims is does not disqualify them for the title, then BJP is more secular in appeasing the Hindus. The so called secular parties are appeasing their vote back at the expense of the rest of the nation.

    Who are these intellectuals to label themselves secular anyway? Should we let Mr. Gandhi tell us who is or who is and who is not secular?

  5. If only congress had stuck to secularism in it’s TRUE sense the BJP rss would not have gained prominence
    Bcas secularism meant demeaning Hindus poking fun of their gods etc
    The hindu right grew in stature
    And hindu temples are under other people as govt bodies the real hindu will get angry
    So learn to respect the majority
    Otherwise the consequences wont be nice

  6. The problem with those peddling secularism is that they insist that there is something called ‘minorities’ in India. Then they go ahead to create special privileges for these minorities. Then they allow the communals like Shiv Sena to benefit from their communal behaviour. Then they unfairly chastise Hindus for being communal. They refuse to speak out against those Muslims who openly demean the national flag and vande mataram.

    if India belongs to everyone then why is there an insistence on giving privileges to various minorities? Why is this constant desire to say that there is nothing called Hindu? Why allow the religious types to occupy public spaces at will? As the BJP has demonstrated again and again, the people of India like good governance. No one protested the demolition of illegal temples that were allowed to exist by previous Congress regimes.

  7. Mohandas Gandhi’s ideology of appeasing Muslims to the detriment of Hindus has been buried, rightly so. His heirs, like this author, might do well to take their pseudo-secular policies to the Muslims first, instead of browbeating Hindus.

  8. Rajmohan Gandhi ignores one cardinal feature.The Muslim whether in India or elsewhere can never be Secular.They are first Muslim and then only admit to a national identity.On the contrary the Hindu is inherently secular since the Vedas proclaim that there are several ways of attaining the ultimate God.Hence a Hindu can pray to Jesus,Allah,or the umpteen Hindu pantheon of Gods to attain salvation.A Hindu can remain an Atheist and still be a member of Hinduism.Afterall the famous passage in the Hindu Scripture stipulates ^ just as the droplets from the Sky ultimately reach the mighty Ocean ,Prayers to any God in any form will finally reach the one and only one universal Lord.

    • Yes sir
      I agree
      Please add missionaries too to this hall of infamy
      The Muslim will do violence openly while these missionaries will do behind your back
      One is dog another is a hyena

  9. There are phases in national and international politics. In the current phase muscular nationalism, othering of minorities, strong-man politics, disparaging of previous ruling dispensation is the norm. Conversely minority rights, constitutional propriety, protection of institutions, international co-operation are on the downswing. We have seen (or heard) of such periods before in world history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That did not end well and hence national leaders of that time chose not to deliberately fan hatred. If the current leaders (and their voters) choose to ignore those lessons, secularism can hardly be faulted. It is just a natural course of human stupidity followed by corrective measures followed by rinse and repeat cycle.

  10. The last time I saw Mr. Gandhi was in mid 60s, when he used to go round with his group of white Australian ladies singing ” WHEN YOU POINT A FINGER AT YOUR NEIGHBOR THERE ARE THREE MORE POINTING BACK AT YOU” It is nice to read now that like the RSS he too has kept up with the changing times and detailed out the what those THREE FINGERS ARE in stead of getting trapped in the cocoon of the secularism of LEFT, LIBERAL, INTELLECTUAL THINKERS

  11. secularism can survive only where people have a certain level of education and the ability for rational thinking. secularism has survived in India not because we are secular but because it was supported by some seemingly good people and a party that got India independence. Today, the situation has changed. people who knew about the struggle of independence are very few in number. the narrative is changed to project who is a nationalist.

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