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Jawaharlal Nehru and the Communal Problem

Subhendu Sarkar

Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) never denied the progressive role of religion in human history, particularly in building the foundation of morality and ethics and sometimes challenging socio-economic inequalities. However, he was unequivocal in his aversion to organized religion. In it Nehru detected a reactionary force at work thriving on narrow mysticism and superstitious beliefs, on the one hand, and ever-ready, on the other, to preserve vested political interests. He was conscious of the ways in which religious institutions collaborated with political rulers to maintain their sway. Grown up imbibing scientific values, it was almost natural for Nehru to strive relentlessly against this divisive force.  He was convinced that incorporating religion in public affairs could undermine his idea of democratic India that was likely to emerge in the post-independence era.  It is no wonder, therefore, that much of Nehru’s thoughts would be devoted to analyzing and denouncing religious communalism —Hindu, Muslim and Sikh— that posed a serious threat to a unified India.

Nehru’s India
It must be noted that Nehru’s inquiry into the past and present was in tune with his idea of nationalism. In his sweeping work, The Discovery of India, written in 1942-45 in Ahmadnagar Fort Prison Camp, past and present mingle in a perspective to confirm his inclusive vision. But it would be wrong to think of Nehru as a mere idolator of the past. In fact, Nehru never failed to point out the backwardness wherever he found it, whether it was the oppressive Hindu caste system that strangled the free development of individuals or the system of seclusion of women (purdah) that became associated with the Muslim rule and severely curbed the freedom of women.

Of course, Nehru’s mission in Discovery of India was to trace the progressive tradition that survived through the ages. Therefore, he emphasized the secular aspect of the Indus Valley civilization pointing out its primary focus on the conveniences of the citizens rather on building magnificent temples for the gods and palaces and tombs of kings, as had been the case in other ancient civilizations. Besides, Hinduism, for Nehru, appeared to be “a faith [that] is vague, amorphous, many-sided, all things to all men. . . . In its present form, even in the past, it embraces many beliefs and practices, from the highest to the lowest, often opposed to or contradicting each other. Its essential spirit seems to be to live and let live.” In fact, he discovered “a dream of unity” occupying “the mind of India since the dawn of civilization” which absorbed diverse and sometimes even contrary elements to produce a synthesis of cultures. That was the reason why non-Hindu (non-Brahminical) philosophies like Buddhism and Jainism were assimilated into Indian thought and culture. The same phenomenon held true for Islam (a religion of non-Indian origin) which was introduced to the Indian masses even before India was attacked by any invader who was Muslim by faith. India had also absorbed diverse racial elements ranging from the ancient Greeks, Arabs and Persians to the Turks and Mughals in its course of long history. India was for Nehru an “ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.” The result of such synthesis became evident in all the aspects of Indian life, from food, dress and language to architecture, music and religion.

What seemed significant to Nehru was that even during Turkish, Afghan and Mughal rule (Nehru thought it wrong to periodize Indian history in terms of religion) the rulers and the ruled did not remain in watertight compartments. In fact, Hindus were regularly appointed in important positions, inter-religious marriages took place even in royal families and the synthetic philosophies of Ramanand, Kabir and Nanak flowered. One of the most important reasons of mixing of cultures might have been possible because these rulers settled down and made India their home. Further, the Hindus in large numbers (mostly poor) were attracted towards Islam to get respite from the bane of caste and untouchability but continued to live their lives as before since the basic socio-economic structure did not alter.

Nehru believed that the process of synthesis which reached its peak during Akbar’s rule suffered a setback when Aurangzeb began to “function more as a Muslim than an Indian ruler.” As a consequence, a revivalist Hindu nationalism arose predominantly under the leadership of Shivaji which was equally feudal in terms of outlook and loyalties.   

British Occupation Disrupts Harmony
The British occupation brought about fundamental changes in the socio-economic structure that had prevailed in India for ages. As a result of ‘loot’ (an Indian word that found its way into English vocabulary) and subsequent economic drainage, India became increasingly ruralized and degenerated whereas England made unprecedented progress that culminated in Industrial Revolution. The English ruling class maintained racial discrimination, perpetuated coercion and encouraged reactionary forces in India.

However, access to progressive ideas could not be checked as English education which was introduced to produce Macaulay’s children also brought the Hindu middle classes in particular into contact with what Nehru asserted “[t]he England of Shakespeare and Milton, of noble speech and writing and brave deed, of political revolution and the struggle for freedom, of science and technical progress.”  It was this tradition that eventually gave birth to the bourgeois nationalist movement spearheaded by the Congress. Nehru came to lead the most progressive wing of that organization.

Unaffected for long by the revolutionary ideas a section of the upper-middle class Muslims, in order to satisfy their vested political and economic interests, chose to recompense by government support. And for the imperialists it was an opportunity to follow the age-old method of divide and rule. Thus they encouraged the Muslim League (1906) and the demand for separate electorates and other special privileges. Nehru claimed, “It created divisions and ill-feeling where there had been none previously.”

In response, Hindu communalism too raised its head with the formation of the Hindu Mahasabha (1915). The British government went on playing off one community against another thereby weakening, to a certain extent, the national struggle for political democracy. It is well to remember here that though the Indian nationalist movement had exploited Hindu religious feelings to inspire the people since the early decades of the twentieth century it was far from being communal. Never did the extremist leaders think of advancing the interests of the Hindu community alone. 

On Communalism 
Nehru fought on multiple fronts. Besides the oppressive British colonialism he had to continually oppose the reactionary elements in and out of the Congress to consolidate among the masses the idea of a unified constitutional and democratic India. Nationalism for Nehru was not limited to gaining independence from the British; it also included his socialistic programme to make India a modern state. Communalism was certainly a major obstacle in realizing his vision.

A keen observer that he was, Nehru provided a thorough analysis of religious communalism, complete with its origin, development and direction. Nehru was able to detect and examine the changes in the outlook of communal leaders that had come about with the passage of time.

Both Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and the Aga Khan (1877-1957) were primarily worried about the backwardness of the upper and middle-class Muslims compared to their Hindu counterparts in availing English education and securing positions in legislatures and services. Their thought was perhaps prompted by anxiety common to the people of a minority community. Nehru, taking a longer view of history, asserted that their eagerness to create a bourgeois class among the Muslims in collaboration with the British was, in fact, a revolutionary step in the right direction. Further, Nehru stated that they were eager to maintain the reactionary political status quo than to advance communal interests. To substantiate his claim, he cited the fact that the Aga Khan, in 1914, urged the government to abandon the policy of separating Hindus from Muslims, and to merge the moderates of both creeds in a common camp to oppose the radical nationalist tendencies in India.   

However, Nehru found a change in modus operandi of the Muslim communal leaders after failing to do well in the 1937 provincial elections. Realizing their lack of popularity with the Muslim population they began to blatantly appeal to religious sentiments whereas earlier it was enough for them to side with the British. In the era of mass politics the Muslim League leaders could not think of any better means to secure power. It certainly paid off and the Muslim League subsequently became a force to reckon with under the leadership of M. A. Jinnah (1876-1948) towards whom Nehru was outright unsympathetic for his reactionary outlook which was evident in his revulsion to the concept of Western democracy. Jinnah’s ideology was diametrically opposed to that of Nehru’s.

As regards the Hindu communalism Nehru was equally perceptive. Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946), an early leader of the HIndu Mahasabha and a nationalist (four times President of the Indian National Congress) with feudal leanings, was therefore differentiated by him from the later aggressive communal leaders who were political reactionaries. Thus the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS (1925) chose not to fight against the British for freedom. Nehru found the Hindu communal leaders, like their Muslim counterparts, interested in pursuing their middle-class ambitions while remaining loyal to the imperialists. They were not even concerned with the socio-economic upliftment of all the people of their community. The only difference was that the Hindu communalists preferred to conceal their intentions behind the façade of nationalism. But their mask invariably came off at moments of crises.

 Nehru was outright critical of the two-culture or two-nation theory prevalent for quite some time and propagated by communal leaders, both Hindu and Muslim. Hindu and Muslim ‘cultures’ and ‘nations’ appeared to Nehru as both fantastic and backward-looking ideas. India had always adopted diverse cultural elements. Therefore, it was absurd to think of exclusivity. Years of cohabitation resulted in Hindus and Muslims having many things in common. Not only that, it would be impossible to retain uniqueness of culture (even if it existed) by any community (religious or otherwise) in the modern age when interaction with foreign culture was inevitable. The concept of nation within a nation was also untenable, both politically and economically. Nehru pointed out its absurdity when he wrote, “Of two brothers one may be a Hindu, another a Muslim; they would belong to two different nations. These two nations existed in varying proportions in most of the villages in India. They were nations which had no boundaries; they overlapped. A Bengali Muslim and a Bengali Hindu living together, speaking the same language, and having much the same traditions and customs, belonged to different nations.”

Nehru was able to see through the mask the communal leaders wore.  He realized that the real conflict had nothing to do with religion; rather it was against the feudal and conservative elements that stood in the way of modern democracy. Nehru was in favour of a radical change in agrarian, social and economic spheres taking into consideration the well-being and free development of the people irrespective of their religious identity. Nehru’s stance against narrow nationalism is manifest in the following visionary passage of his An Autobiography written from 1934 to 1935:
The day of even national cultures is rapidly passing and the world is becoming one cultural unit. Nations may retain, and will retain for a long time much that is peculiar to them — language, habits, ways of thought, etc. — but the machine age and science, with swift travel, constant supply of world news, radio, cinema, etc., will make them more and more uniform. No one can fight against this inevitable tendency, and only a world catastrophe which shatters modern civilization can really check it.    

Frontier
May 9, 2019


Subhendu Sarkar send2subhendu@gmail.com

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