The Relevance of Nehruvian ideals of Secularism, Socialism and Minority Rights in the contemporary Political Scenario

independence day nehru

 Barring the Hindu Right, the Left-liberals and secular oriented academics and civil society groups have time and again emphasized that Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s secular legacy needs to be remembered in the current political scenario. While remembering the contributions of Nehru on the occasion of his 130th birth anniversary, at New Delhi, the Congress President Sonia Gandhi vividly reminded us that his progressive vision such as secularism, democratic institutions, socialistic pattern of economy, pluralism and diversity and non- alignment etc., (the Nehruvian  vision is often called the ‘National philosophy’ of India, the point will be discussed in details by citing the essay of noted social scientist, Bhikhu Parekh) are under severe attack ever since the present political dispensation came into centre stage of Indian politics. On this occasion, while commenting on the present government which has put Pt. Nehru contributions in bad light, Gandhi said,

 “Today, when we take our democracy and pluralists social fabric for granted, it is easy to forget the magnitude of contributions made by titans such Nehru and other of his time.” (See, “Nehruvian values of Democratic institutions, secularism under attack”, The Indian Express, November 15, 2019, p-9)

It would not be wrong to say that today baring the Left minded academicians; no one is actually interested to defend the Nehru’s secular legacy. Even the Congress party and its workers who claim to be the inheritors of Nehru legacy hardly seem to be standing and taking unflinching stand to defend his secular and inclusive legacy which had taken shape and emerged during the anti-colonial struggle. The Congress’ Soft-Hindutva stand on the various issues (the temple visit of Rahul Gandhi and the Party stand on defending minority rights as done by Nehru during his tenure) could be cited as cases in point here.

Why do we remember the contributions and relevance of Nehru’s idea of secular democratic India? In this context, opinions are sharply divided, on the one hand, unlike in the case of Mahatma Gandhi (to note that this time, the BJP-RSS combined have emphatically celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi and claim to represent him as real inheritor, in spite of the active member of RSS, Nathu Ram Godse had assassinated Gandhiji in the broad day-light), the present government-led PM Modi always attack on Nehru for doing everything bad for India. However, progressive intellectuals attack both the BJP and Congress for using Gandhi and Nehru as ‘political ploy’ to capture vote of the gullible subaltern masses rather than genuinely implementing their progressive ideas envisioned by them during the formative times of nation-building.

The purpose of this piece of work is not to indulge in the claims and the counter-claims with regards to Nehru vs. Gandhi rather the serious attempt has been made here to understand the larger vision of Nehru and recent public discourse around his contributions. And more importantly, why do we need to defend the secular legacy of our founding fathers like Gandhi, Nehru, Azad and Baba Saheb Ambedkar in today’s Indian politics?  To note that the essay will be confined to discuss the ‘national philosophy’ put forth by our first Prime Minister Nehru during the formative period of nation-building on the special occasion of his 130th birth anniversary. Before coming to discuss these questions, we need to look into the problems as indicated by one of the India’s leading political scientist and public intellectual, late Rajni Kothari, at the time when the goons of the VHP-RSS-BJP combined had raged and ruthlessly demolished the age old Babri Masjid in 1992.While highlighting the threat posed by communal forces to the democratic and diverse society like India, Kothari writes,

“To meet the challenges posed by communalism, national chauvinism and religious fundamentalism which constitutes not a mere erosion of democratic and pluralist spaces but a total negation thereof in the name of a declared framework of ideas that seeks to change the very basis of the state” (see Pioneer, 8 January 1993, this Para is cited by, the late Prof. Mushirul Hasan, in his book ‘Legacy of Divided Nation’, OUP, 2001, p-299).

To note that few days back on 9th November 2019, the Supreme Court has delivered a judgment in favor of the Hindu nationalist forces by allotting major portions of lands to construct the Ram Temple. In doing so, the Court had tried to resolve the long-standing and much contentious disputes between the Hindus and the Muslims. After the judgment of the apex Court, opinions in civil society, academics and even within Muslim community have been sharply divided.  However, a major section of our liberal intelligentsias including liberal minded community think tanks are still reluctant to accept the Court verdict which has given primacy to faith (read here Hindu majoritarian sentiments) rather than relied on historical evidences as put forward earlier by renounced historians of our country  such as Prof.  Romila Thapar, Prof. Irfan Habib and others. Having stated the present predicaments of the Indian society and our polity is confronting now, let me critically discuss and examine the relevance of Nehru’s vision of inclusive idea of India in today’s political scenario.

To put it briefly, one cannot underestimate even today the Nehru’s ‘National Philosophy’ or National ideology, or national goals, (these terms have been used by Parekh in his essay, “Nehru and National Philosophy of India” EPW, 1991) emphasis on values and principles like secularism, socialism, scientific temperament, rational education, socialist vision of development, and defense of minority etc., are under serious threat ever since the current ruling dispensation came into power. While commenting on Nehru’s ‘National philosophy’, an eminent political scientist Bhikhu Parkeh observes,

“for Nehru Modernisation was India’s national philosophy and involved seven ‘national goals’, namely, national unity, parliamentary democracy, industrialization, socialism, development of the scientific temper, secularism and non-alignment’’ (See Parekh, “Nehru and the National Philosophy of India”, EPW, January 5-11, 1991, p-35).

Furthermore, Prof. Parekh pointed out that Nehru’s core national philosophy was based on socialism; however, it was different from the orthodox Marxian approaches which emphasised the crude economic determinism and dictatorship of the proletariat. While explaining the Nehru’s socialism in the context of India, Prof. Parkeh writes,

For him [Nehru] socialism was not just an economic doctrine, nor just a form of social organisation, but a ‘new civilisation’ based on a radically transformed ‘humanity’. It was classless, democratic, provided the material and moral conditions necessary for the fullest development of the human potential, and encouraged co-operative and non-acquisitive impulses. His [Nehru] socialism was basically aesthetic and liberal, concentrating on the individual rather than the community and stressing self-expression, individuality, social justice and human creativity”. (See Parekh op-cit, p- 37-38)

While commenting on the next important vision of Nehru’s national philosophy, which is based on secularism,  Parekh says, “unlike Islam[ including other Semitic religion like Christianity]it prided itself on its pluralism, tolerance and respect for all religions, and that rendered the idea of the Hindu state even more problematic” (See Parekh op-cit, p-39). However, the Hindu right-wing (including, well-known academics like Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan) often put blame on Nehru for implanting the western/ modern notion of secularism on the religiously grounded society like India. For Parekh and other leading political theorist like Prof. Rajeev Bhargava, Nehru’s secularism is also deeply grounded and sensitive to the plural and diverse cultures of India.  To elucidate points further Parekh himself puts it briefly,

“Nehru vigorously pleaded for a secular state, but his view of secularism was complex and vague. He distinguished between the spiritual and ideological-cum-institutional dimensions of religion, He was in-tensely hostile to the latter (religion as institutionalized ideology) but deeply sympathetic to the former (which refers to religion as a form of spiritual life, emphasis mine), especially during the pre-independence days”.(see Parekh op-cit, p-39).

While defending the national ideology based on progressive ideas like secularism, socialism, scientific temper, non-alignment as mentioned above, Parekh says that it is not holistically true that Nehru was wholly  guided by the Western notion of secularism and scientific rationality and undermined our ‘Golden Past’( read here an Ancient glorious past as often said by the Hindu Right). Hence, for the RSS-BJP combine Nehru had undermined India’s history and culture and accepted uncritically the Western modernity and its values. Contrary to the blames and popular perceptions, put forward by the Hindu Right-wing, Nehru had reminded us that these ideas are deeply rooted in India’s diverse history and old-age civilization. In this respect, Prof. Parekh rightly observes,

  “He [Nehru] argued that it was grounded in Indian civilisation, and an Integral part of our history and culture. Our philosophy and ideology are not some private fads or creations of mine. They belong to the ethos of our nation and people.  And again, our ideology springs from the very sources of our history and civilisation” (See Parekh, op-cit, p-45).

In concluding section of his essay, Parekh had maintained that religious minorities under Nehru’s secularism were well protected. However, subaltern masses and more importantly the Hindu nationalist forces were extremely unhappy with Nehruvian project of nation-building and his national ideology as discussed above. To elucidates point briefly, Parekh puts it succinctly,

“The industrial working class in the private sector welcomed industrialisation, socialism and the progressive industrial legislation. The minorities felt safe with Nehru’s secularism. The urban and rural poor, the unemployed and the Hindu fundamentalists benefited the least from Nehru’s ideology and remained its critics”   (See op, cit. P-47)

Finally commenting in the concluding section, Parekh problematised Nehru’s national goals on the range of issues as discussed above were for Nehru rooted in the India’s rich history and culture. To demonstrate these views, Parekh says,

“Like secularism such other national goals as parliamentary democracy, socialism, industrialisation and non-alignment too had no or only a limited basis in Indian civilisation. Neither the modern concept of democracy nor its representative and individualistically structured parliamentary articulation has a parallel in Indian thought and practice” (Parekh, op, cit. p-45).

The fact must be noted that Parekh while underlining the importance of Nehru national philosophy, in his concluding remarks, he is in favor of not wholly accepting and abandoning all his arguments uncritically. In this respect, he writes,

“Even if one accepted Nehru’s national ideology, one could still disagree with his definitions of its constituent goals. There was no obvious reason why secularism should be understood to mean exclusion of religion from political life rather than equal public status for all religions as Gandhi and some modernists had argued” (Ibid. Parekh, p-46).

To sum up the discussion so far, it could be argued that contrary to the Hindu Right, Nehru’s national goals as pointed out above were based on historically informed understanding of India’s culture and history. The point has been well articulated by Nehru himself in his widely cited and well written book, The Discovery of India, also endorsed by Prof. Parekh in his thoughtful essay. However, one cannot deny the fact that most of the Nehru’s ideas focused mainly on secularism, socialism and industrialization, scientific temper etc., were to some extent ‘derivative’ in nature (this point has been brought out by noted social scientist such as Partha Chatterjee in his several writings who is also active member of the subaltern studies collective) and also influenced by the Western and the European enlightenment philosophy (including high modernism). In the case of Indian secularism, Gandhian views (Sarva dhram Sambhav, refers to equal respect of all religion in the public domain) have more of an Indian flavor and rooted in the history and culture of India. However, Nehruvian secularism (based on idea of the Dhram Nirpekshta, non-intervention of state in realm of religion or separation of religion and state in the public sphere) as Parekh himself admits that influenced by the Western and European history and traditions rather than the India’s history and its civilizations as hinted earlier. Despite of certain differences between Gandhi and Nehru’s views on secularism, however, broadly speaking both shared similar views on the range of issues and stressed the need for Indian version of secularism which must be sensitive to religious communities and rooted in our rich ancient traditions of history and culture, the point is  also recently underlined by Prof. Rajeev Bhargava in his several writings (See for instance, R. Bhargava,  “what we owe to Gandhi”, The Hindu, dated 13 November 2019.) and broadly accepted by Parekh also in his concluding section of essay on Nehru’s national philosophy. Having discussed the normative stand of Indian secularism and democracy and socialistic economy, let me come to discuss the current challenge posed by the Hindu Right-wing, ever since they captured the political power at the Centre.

Since the present ruling dispensation came into power, concept like ‘secularism’( mainly Nehruvian version of secularism) in India has now become one of  the worst abused lexicon and became untouchable for the mainstream political parties who were in the fray of 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Even the Congress Party which has been considered itself as the inheritor of the both Nehruvian and Gandhian legacy claim to alone representing the ‘Idea of India’ based on the secular democracy hardly uttered and emphasized the word ‘secular’ during the Lok Sabha elections campaign.

In short, contrary to the Nehru and Gandhi’s secular and inclusive nationalism, the Congress Party and its senior leaders had adopted the ‘Soft-Hindutva’ approach to counter the onslaught of the cultural nationalism. More recently in both issues such as on Article 370 ( related to Jammu & Kashmir, which has been amended by the BJP to end special autonomy of the region) including on the verdict of  the Supreme Court ruling  in case of the Babri Masjid, the Congress Party stand is not vindicated clearly and in favor of Indian secularism. Hence, on the basis of the historian’s arguments, one could argue that the Congress Party stand is not based on the ‘Constitutional morality’ and progressive ideas of Nehru and Gandhiji.

To be precise, just delivered Supreme Court verdict has precipitated mixed responses amongst the Muslim community, secular parties and social justice parties. Only, the Left inclined academics and parties like CPM, CPI and ML (Liberation) have taken firm stand and said that the apex Court verdict on Babri Masjid is contradictory in nature because of the Court has given primacy to majoritarian sentiments/faith rather than relied on historical facts and constitutional morality while delivering judgment on the said contentious issues.

To note that in the case  of the Sabarimala,  the Supreme Court had in its verdict said that any religious places, gender discriminations is not allowed  and women can entre in the temple without any gender constrains. However, see the hypocrisy of the Hindu Right, (who argued that Muslim must follow the Supreme Court verdict in the case of Babri Masjid) but they had consistently opposed the apex Court verdict in the case of the Sabarimala.

Let me comeback to discuss the Nehru’s legacy; while analyzing the role of Nehruvian state with respect to minority rights, in this piece the attempt has been made to analyze his views critically. Nehru took uncompromising stand against the onslaught of majority communalism and committed to protect the minorities and their rights as an equal citizen of India. It was Nehru’s along with Dr. Ambedkar’s commitment of secularism and minority rights who advocated some rights to minorities in the Indian Constitution.

Despite the incidences of inhuman tragedies like fear, simmering tensions and violence caused by India’s partition, Nehru’s influence in taking minorities into the confidence cannot be denied and underestimated. To put it differently, Nehru’s unflinching commitment to secularism and ethos of India’s pluralism, religious minorities had not felt so insecure and humiliated, the manner in which today Indian Muslims are experiencing fear, insecurity, and everyday communalism in form of mob-violence, ghar wapsi, the bogy of love-jihad, terrorism including Islamophobia etc.

It is inexcusable to say that under the Nehru regime, minorities especially Indian Muslims were being appeased and made prosperous in comparison to the majority community especially with the Hindus. Nehru had often been accused by the Hindutva forces for his stance on the Muslim community and his defense of minority rights, which is still seen by them as an appeasement policy. A noted historian, S. Gopal explained Nehru’s positions on minority rights in following words,

“the minorities should be given the fullest assurance, not of jobs and seats in assemblies, but that their culture and traditions would be safe. Provision to foster the language and education would help to nourish the rich, varied, larger, common culture of India”. (Cited by S. Gopal, ‘Nehru and Minorities’,   Economic & Political Weekly, Nov, 1988, p.2463).

However, on the issues of caste and social justice, during Nehru tenure, when he was the first Prime Minister of India, the Scheduled castes (SCs) status of Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians had been ironically taken away through the Presidential order of 1950. The fact must be noted that both extremely oppressed social groups had enjoyed the fruits of SCs status in the colonial India.  Despite Nehru’s progressive legacy, it is startling to note that why Nehru himself had not taken any concrete steps to reverse the unconstitutional ‘Presidential order’ which debarred the SCs status of the Muslims and Christians.

Under Nehru regime, in 1956 the Sikh who belongs to SCs community had got the status and included in the fold of SCs reservations. In short, not considering the Dalit Muslims and Dalit Christians under the category of SCs, actually contradicts the Nehru’s commitment to secularism itself.

Besides, Nehru did not consider seriously and addressed the issues of caste discrimination among the Muslims. That was the reason why Nehru did not accept recommendations of Kaka-kaelkar Commission (1955) regarding inclusion of certain caste among the Muslims into OBCs category.  In short, we can conclude that Nehru’s secularism had granted the formal citizenship rights along with safety &security to minorities. However, it had sadly failed to address the socio-economic rights of the subaltern Muslim masses. In doing so, Neruvian state had given a setback to the agenda of social justice and secularism enshrined in our democratic Constitution.

Therefore, the claim of the Hindu Right and corporate-owned media that Nehruvian state and later the left-liberal political forces in their public policies had favored Muslims more than the Hindus is far from truth. Contrary to Hindutva forces, the fact cannot deny that Nehruvian secularism had ensured to the great extent the formal citizenship rights but not implemented the agenda of social justice properly as seen in cases of Dalit Christians, Dalit and OBCs Muslims. It is astonishing to note that still after 69 years have been passed why the Supreme Court has not intervened and has taken any legal steps to provide reservation to Dalit Muslims who are compelled to live inhuman life is in matter of great concern, the point is also endorsed by Sachar Committee Report (2006).

Despite the limitations of Nehruvian ideals as discussed above, in the extremely depressing situations and strange political scenario, where religious minorities especially Indian Muslims are treated as a second-class citizen. Keeping the current political state of affairs, there is a need to deeply reflect and revisit Nehru’s ‘National ideology’ based on progressive values as mentioned above on the occasions of his 130th birth anniversary in years to come.

 The author is a research scholar at University of Delhi.




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