India’s Left, liberal and progressive intellectuals like to pin the blame for all public displays of religiosity and obscurantism on the BJP, the RSS and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That’s incorrect.
Jawaharlal Nehru’s India was no better in scientific temperament. That is just popular liberal mythology, just as the ‘idea of India’ was. In fact, I would like to assert that religiosity and superstitions in public and state life is a Nehruvian legacy.
Just this week, India’s enlightened frowned at the display of festivity on 5 April when many people celebrated a ‘mini Diwali’ and burst fire crackers, blew conch shells and chanted hymns. The same woke anger was on display on the day of Janata Curfew, when people danced on the streets and banged utensils or when the effigy of Corona-asur was burnt by people.
The common refrain was that the Hindutva forces have destroyed the scientific temperament, which was the hallmark of Indian democracy. According to them, everything went for a toss after the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014.
Echoing this sentiment, on 6 April, the Congress party tweeted: “Our nation was founded on the principles and institutions of building scientific temper… we must not lose sight of our inherent values.”
Nehru’s India wasn’t modern
No doubt that the acts of many people on these two occasions can be best described as the theatre of absurd. Columnist Sagarika Ghose tweeted: “The depths of superstition and foolishness that India is now descending into is so dark and so fetid, that it’s questionable whether we’ll ever be able to climb out again. And yet how hard our founders fought for rationality, for sanity, for escape from blind beliefs.”
The hermeneutic reading of the tweet suggests that in India, there was a time of scientific temper and reason, which is now being destroyed. It interprets that our founders had a vision to promote rational beliefs and thoughts.
But India never really went through an equivalent of the Enlightenment. There has never been any grand discontinuity with the notion that the religious past had all the answers. This is unlike Western democracies where the roots of modernity were laid centuries ago to make way for the intended scientific and industrial revolutions. This could happen only because of the separation of religion and the state. Indian modernity, on the other hand, is skin-deep, like a layer of makeup, and whenever it flakes, the true face of ‘Indian tradition’ becomes visible.
M.K. Gandhi wanted to bring back ‘Ram Rajya’. The RSS wants a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. But what about Nehru? Was he a harbinger of modernity or had he also discovered some glorious past in Indian history that he wanted to bring back?
My contention is that Nehru never intended to usher modernity in Indian society and the India we see today is not much different from the India that he most likely dreamt of. Even if he did want the scientific temper to take over the everyday superstitious mind, he never let it take form, even become known, through his actions. The Western concept of secularism was brought into Indian state with a twist: Sarva Dharma Sambhava — all religions are equal.
Birth of a religious state
Independence was one of the best opportunities for India to break itself free from the past. But our “founders”, including Nehru, decided against rupturing the established norm.
B.R. Ambedkar had rightly said at the end of the Constituent Assembly debate that “on the 26th January 1950, (India) will be entering into a life of contradictions”. That contradiction was on full display on the day India got freedom.
Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre chronicled the events of 14 August 1947 in their seminal book Freedom at Midnight . They wrote how Nehru was readied for the occasion by two south Indian priests. “They sprinkled Jawaharlal Nehru with holy water, smeared his forehead with sacred ash, laid their scepter on his arms and draped him in the cloth of God….Nehru submitted to it with almost cheerful humility. It was almost as if that proud rationalist had instinctively understood that in the awesome tasks awaiting him no possible source of aid, not even the occult that he so scornfully dismissed, was to be totally ignored.”
It seems that for Nehru, modernity and scientific temperament was like clothes he could wear and discard almost at will.
At the residence of Rajendra Prasad, the president of Constituent Assembly, a sacred fire was lit and a Brahmin priest chanted Vedic mantras. Collins and LaPierre write: “As the priest repeated his atonal chant, the learned men and women who would shortly become the first ministers of an independent India filed past the fire. A second Brahman sprinkled each with a few drops of water.”
This happened just a few minutes before they all entered the hall for the ceremony that marked India’s independence.
The authors describe how the date and time of Indian independence was debated because some astrologers believed that the morning of 15 August was ‘inauspicious’ due to the celestial positioning of ‘shani’ and ‘rahu’. Phillips Talbot, then South Asia correspondent for the Chicago Daily, also wrote about it in a letter to his friend in the US: “Astrologers had discovered that the morning of August 15-the day designated for the transfer of power was an inauspicious time. Partly for this reason and partly because they were well aware of the drama of the occasion, Congress leaders decided on a midnight session of the Indian Constituent Assembly to assume authority at the stroke of 12.”
Keeping the ‘Brahminical tradition’ alive
The events of the time clearly show that religiosity and tradition became the masonic stone of the new Indian democracy. This is how the famed ‘idea of India’ took shape and we now see innumerous footprints and fingerprints of that idea of aborted modernity in our national public life today.
– Whenever the Indian Space Research Organisation launches a satellite, it is customary for the chief to pay his (ISRO has never had a woman chief) obeisance at Tirupati or some other Hindu temple.
– Whenever a foreign acquired fighter jet is inducted into the Indian Air Force, a puja is performed. Defence minister Rajnath Singh drew a swastika with kumkum on the Rafale aircraft.
– Whenever a Navy vessel starts its maiden voyage, a coconut is broken and a puja is performed.
– Almost all government functions start with some vandana and lighting of lamps.
– In language text books, religious scriptures are taught. The religion in this case is always Hinduism. We can draw a long list of such instances.
I am not saying these acts are good or bad. My contention is that such things started at the very onset of our democratic journey. We adopted a modern system of governance but also kept our traditional, superstitious structures alive. What we proudly call ‘Indian culture’ is actually the Brahminical hegemonic tradition. We never find manifestations of other Indian cultural schools like Kabirpanth, Lingayat, Animist, Sarna, Ajivak, Siddha, Jogi and other streams in state and public structures and functions.
Four years ago, author Gauri Lankesh narrated how the first President of the Indian Republic, Rajendra Prasad, reverentially washed the feet of 201 Brahmins in Banaras and drank the water. Socialist Ram Manohar Lohia had described it at the time as a “vulgar act”.
A similar vulgarity was on display recently when people turned a global health crisis into a Diwali festival, never mind the COVID-19 related trauma, displacement and deaths. Nehru never called for a complete embrace of rationality and modernity even when he had the opportunity, pollical capital and right historical moment to do so.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.