‘To be secular is to belong fearlessly’: Review of ‘Hurt Sentiments’ by Neeti Nair

The book explores how secularism impacted state ideology in the decades after Partition in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Published : Jun 19, 2023 19:40 IST - 38 MINS READ

The Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India, in New Delhi in February 1948. Sitting, from left to right: N. Madhava Rao; Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar; Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and Sir B.N. Rao. Standing from left: S.N. Mukerjee, Jugal Kishore Khanna and Kewal Krishan.

The Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly of India, in New Delhi in February 1948. Sitting, from left to right: N. Madhava Rao; Saiyid Muhammad Saadulla; Dr. B.R. Ambedkar; Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar and Sir B.N. Rao. Standing from left: S.N. Mukerjee, Jugal Kishore Khanna and Kewal Krishan. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In the Introduction to her brilliant book, Hurt Sentiments, Professor Neeti Nair of the University of Virginia recalls that, at the instance of Mahatma Gandhi, the All-India Congress Committee passed a resolution in December 1947 affirming that independent India would be “a secular state where all citizens enjoy full rights and are equally entitled to the protection of the State, irrespective of the religion to which they belong”. Straightforward and simple, it was based on two fundamental principles: equality of rights for majority or minority; and “protection of the state” to all communities, but especially to the more vulnerable minorities.

Hurt Sentiments: Secularism and Belonging In South Asia
Neeti Nair
Harvard University Press (2023)
Pages: 352
Price: Rs.699

But once it came to debating the place of the minorities in the Constituent Assembly, it became clear that there was no consensus on what special steps, if any, needed to be taken to afford the minorities adequate representation to secure their due place in running the affairs of the Indian state. Back in March 1947, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar had argued in his publication States and Minorities, that: “Indian Nationalism has developed a new doctrine called the Divine Right of the Majority to rule the minorities according to the wishes of the majority. Any claim for sharing power by the minority is called communalism while the monopolizing of the whole power by the majority is called Nationalism.” Hence, he held, it was necessary to ensure “effective representation” through “weightage”.

Encouraged perhaps by this robust defence of the right of minorities to share power, their representatives in the Constituent Assembly—particularly Z.H. Lari of the United Provinces; Kazi Syed Karimuddin of the Central Provinces; Syed Hasan Imam of Bihar; and Chaudhry Khaliquzzaman (until he moved to Pakistan)—put forward a number of suggestions on how to ensure such adequate representation through “separate electorates”; “proportional representation by a single transferable vote”; “cumulative voting”; “proportional voting with multi-member constituencies and plural voting”; “multiple constituencies with cumulative voting”. There was, however, little traction for these proposals in the House. So, as the author shows, when the issue was remitted to the Minorities Sub-committee that convened in Simla on May 11, 1949, no minutes were kept (or, at any rate, revealed) and it was announced that proposals for “reserved seats for the minorities” had been dropped.

Reporting this to the Constituent Assembly a fortnight later, Sardar Patel affirmed that there was “nothing better for the minorities than to trust the good sense and sense of fair play of the majority and to place confidence in them”.

And what of Nehru? Nehru had lauded “the glory of India” as combining “infinite variety” with “unity in that variety” and sought reliance on that, instead of “creating barriers” that “permanently isolate” the minorities while “giving full opportunity to every minority.” He and Patel added, as an earnest of their intention, that “special efforts” would be made “to put up good Muslim candidates … We should try to give them representation in accordance with their numbers”. They urged the minorities, says the author, to “trust us and see what happens”.

Dr Ambedkar, after arguing on the floor of the House that “it is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of minorities. It is equally wrong for the minorities to perpetuate themselves,” held out against “separate electorates” but favoured “reservations”.

Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated; so, he was not there to remind the Constitution-makers that: “Minorities have rights for which they must fight unto death. They must not adopt an attitude of giving up rights or (be) made to purchase the good will of the majority.”

In consequence, Nair notes, the Muslim members “were unanimous, with varying emphases, in affirming their faith in the goodwill of the majority community”.

Under-represented minorities

The eventual outcome of reposing their “trust” in the majority is that at the end of the day, Muslims have never had anything like representation in the legislatures in proportion to their share of the population and the share has now, alas, sunk in the Lok Sabha to an abysmal 4 per cent, under a third of their ratio to India’s population. The Sikhs have fared marginally better largely because Punjab has been reconstituted and Sikhs are the dominant political force there. And if the Christians have done somewhat better than the Muslims, it is largely owing to their geographic concentration in parts of Kerala, some central Indian tribal communities, and the north-eastern hill States. Yet, the hard and sad fact is that the minorities are hopelessly under-represented in our electoral system.

In the services too, as well as in corporate ownership and governance, non-governmental organisations, academia, or journalism, Muslim representation has been far below their share of the population. Perhaps the one exception is top places in Bollywood and the arts generally. Some (but not all of this) is deliberate; principally the cause, except in legislatures, is that in education and general living standards, the Muslims have tended to fare worse than even the Scheduled Castes, as the Justice Sachar report of 2006 revealed. This, in turn, is explained by the leadership of the Muslim community, particularly in northern and western India, having decamped to Pakistan, leaving behind to India’s tender mercies the Pasmanda Muslims, that is, the economically, educationally, and culturally deprived elements of the Muslim community.

While the minorities were being urged to “trust” the “good sense and good will” of the majority, the argument over what is the definition of “secularism” and how it is to be implemented continued to be played out inside but mainly outside the Constituent Assembly. It was mainly outside because the Hindu Right was virtually unrepresented in the House, with the notable exception of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Minister for Industry. He was constrained by being a member of the Cabinet.

So K.R. Malkani, displaced from Sindh where the Hindu population of Karachi shrank from 51 per cent on the eve of Independence to 2 per cent by the first Pakistani census in 1951, took up cudgels against any “appeasement” of the Muslim minority. He thundered in the Organiser, which he edited, with reference to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh which was then in the offing: “[T]he new party must adopt Hindu ideals and Hindu festivals, Hindu shrines and Hindu sacred cities, Hindu philosophy and Hindu culture, Hindu ceremonies and Hindu pujas, Hindu history and Hindu race experience—as its root foundations” (5/6/1950).

That injunction appears now in 2023 to have reached its zenith.

In another article, under his pseudonym “Kamal” (lotus), Malkani proclaimed: “[T]he story of Islam is the story of violence, hate, murder, loot and rape.”

Meanwhile, the Hindu Mahasabha, condemning the “unscrupulous zealots of western secularism” asserted that: “Hindus have not only learnt it (secularism), but actually practiced it with success for centuries.”

However, another contributor to the Organiser demurred (while implicitly accepting that Hinduism was secular): “[E]qual respect for all religions has been the bane of Hinduism.”

What the Hindu Mahasabha aimed for was the “welding of conflicting elements in the state population into one homogenous nationalistic state based on the ancient culture of the land” (emphasis added).

Thus, Indian secularism, according to this school of thought, was to be secured through adherence to Hindu culture which was deemed to be essentially “secular” and aimed eventually at making the nation “homogenous” and founded in the “ancient culture” of the land.

This, shows Nair, led V.D. Savarkar to write letters to his followers to eschew “the mumbo-jumbo of Gandhian morals” and instead “take up the cause of Hindus for a Hindu India”. It also led Godse to argue in court that “because Gandhi appeased Muslims, Godse had to kill Gandhi” and that “retaliatory action” by Hindus was “at times also as spiritual and natural as kindness”.

But apart from some dissenting voices such as these, there was general agreement across the board that India would have to be “secular”—although there were wide and seemingly irreconcilable differences on the meaning and implications of secularism. Thus “secularism” as a word became, says Nair, “a means of papering over differences of opinion”. These differences were by no means confined to the ideological battle between the RSS/Hindu Mahasabha, on the one hand, and the “secular forces”, on the other. The word also “papered over” the numerous differences, sharp and subtle, in the secular camp on the meaning or definition and implications of “secularism”, and how it was to be implemented over the process of nation-building in Independent India.

“For Mahatma Gandhi, secularism meant inalienable “rights” for the minorities for which they must “fight unto death”.”

The most clear-eyed in the secular camp was Mahatma Gandhi. We have already seen that for him, secularism meant inalienable “rights” for the minorities for which they must “fight unto death”. For him, this meant “India would be a land where the people of every religion would live with equality, practice their religion fearlessly, and fully belong” (emphases added). Till date, the three key requirements for minorities to live in India is with their identity intact, their dignity unimpaired, their security assured. Without these three requirements being so much part of our composite nationhood that they may be taken for granted, the minorities, especially the large Muslim minority, will not feel they “belong” as they sense they are “not wanted”. That is the dilemma facing minorities everywhere in South Asia. Hence this book.

Gandhiji reinforced his perception with the injunction: “I would not allow the Mussalmans to crawl on the streets in India. They must walk with self-respect.”

In contrast to the wholesale denigration of Islam that characterised his ideological opponents on the Hindu Right, he held that “Islam stands for the unity and brotherhood of mankind, not for disrupting the oneness of the human family” (Harijan, 6/10/1946). While, therefore, emphasising “equal regard for all religions” (Ishwar Allah Tero Naam) as the definition of secularism, and holding that “the preservation of pluralism was a public good” (Rochona Bajpai), Gandhiji elaborated that it ”entailed the freedom to practice religion, all religions, publicly”. The makers of the Constitution, on the other hand, while accepting this, stressed the right to freely practice religion, all religions, “privately”—as the State had no business to involve itself in religion. In opposition, others (even many within the ruling party) held that secularism “did mean the separation of religion from politics”, even if it was only the saffronites who went further to assert that “it most certainly did not mean equal respect for all religions”.

In consequence, both in theory and in practice, the author finds, there was a “steady chipping away at minority rights in the course of the drafting of the Indian constitution…political safeguards were whittled down and removed from the final draft of the Constitution”. It leads her to the somewhat exaggerated conclusion that in the end “little” remained to “distinguish between the Congress and the Hindu Right on their attitudes towards the Muslim minority problem”—somewhat exaggerated because while the Hindu Right sought to “nationalise” the minority in the name of “integration”, the Congress sought to reassure the minorities that the innate secularism of Indians, and particularly the Congress party, guaranteed an honourable and equitable place for the minorities in the life of the nation—an assurance that has often been breached and increasingly so since 2014.

The “minority problem” in Pakistan

Nair then moves, fascinatingly, to comparing and contrasting the process of dealing with the non-Muslim “minority problem” in united Pakistan (and, subsequently, in Bangladesh, after the secession of East Pakistan in 1971).

It was Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah himself who kicked off the debate with his inaugural address to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, with a speech that might have been written by Nehru: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed—that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Muhammad Ali Jinnah replying to the Address by Lord Mountbatten in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah replying to the Address by Lord Mountbatten in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on August 14, 1947.

Had Pakistan lived up to that proclamation, it would have become the poster boy of secularism in South Asia. Instead, over the last 75 years, the Quaid’s words have been ignored, denied, censored, perverted. It only ignited a controversy that remains alive to this day: should Pakistan be an Islamic state with only a Muslim as head of state; if so, where do the non-Muslim minorities fit in? And now that the bulk of Pakistan’s Hindu community is Bangladeshi, how has Bangladesh dealt with its minorities?

In a word, the minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been treated in their respective Constitutions and laws much as in India: few specific, clear, concise, and justiciable Constitutional safeguards, especially with respect to representation in State/provincial and national legislatures proportionate in some measure to their population; some Constitutional measures such as protection to community personal laws and the running of minority educational institutions; some pro-minority legislative and administrative steps but offset by others blatantly aimed at the minorities; some backing to the minorities from the courts, especially when the legislative branch flinches from taking an unambiguous stand, preferring to hide behind the skirts of court judgements; and much discrimination in practice. In India, in a generalised sense, however, Chief Justice Gajendragadkar “and others…pointed out that the spirit of secularism permeated every page of the Constitution”.

Few of us Indians remember now, if we ever did note it at the time, that, as Nair shows, East Pakistan returned a number of Hindus to the Pakistan Constituent Assembly and West Pakistan returned some very important members of the Christian community, including the Deputy Speaker of the House, C. E. Gibbon.

They fought a valiant rearguard action in the debate on the Objectives Resolution (the equivalent of our Preamble), tabled in March 1949, against the labelling of Pakistan as an “Islamic state” in which only a Muslim could be “President”. The debate went on until the short-lived adoption of the 1956 Constitution—and has continued almost uninterrupted since then.

In the first phase, the most articulate of the minority representatives were the two Dattas, Bhupendra Kumar and Dhirendra Nath, and Basanta Kumar Das, ably supported by a host of others—Raj Kumar Chakravarty, Kamini Kumar Dutta, Sris Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bhabesh Chandra Nandy, Manoranjan Dhar and, from the Scheduled Caste Federation, Gour Chandra Bala, Rasa Raja Mandal, and Akshat Kumar Das.

The non-Muslim members were not so easily taken in about the validity of the essential philosophy of the idea of Pakistan as set out in the Objectives Resolution. Bhupendra Kumar Dutta argued that “if Pakistan is declared an Islamic republic”, it would “assign the near about a crore of non-Muslims in the State to a subordinate position to the limit of obliteration…To the common people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, ‘Islamic State’ has only one meaning. It has no place for non-Muslims”.

P.P. Gomez, a Christian representative from East Pakistan, poignantly asked: “Am I not a child of this soil?” Basant Kumar Das bemoaned that the Quaid-e-Azam’s inaugural address of August 11, 1947, was a “forgotten document”. He continued, “Is not Pakistan also the homeland of the persons who follow other religions? Do not the Muslims of India claim India as their homeland?” Dr. S.K. Sen asked, “tartly perhaps”, says the author, whether “the President would perform the duties of the imam of a mosque”; else what was the need to reserve the post only for a certified Muslim?

More to the point, it was underlined that the Basic Principles Committee set up by the Constituent Assembly had thoroughly examined the two related issues of Pakistan as an “Islamic state” and the President necessarily being Muslim and come to the conclusion that none of this was desirable.

Perhaps the most impassioned opposition came from the West Pakistan Christian member, C.E. Gibbon, whose intervention lasted several hours. He began by denouncing the “betrayal” of the “contract” between Jinnah and the Christian community, underlining that non-Muslim minorities could enjoy their rights in Pakistan only if in separate electorates they could elect representatives “who can reflect their deepest thoughts and feelings in their entirety and with the utmost sublimity, without let or hindrance from any quarter.” Poignantly describing the Christians as “a community within a nation”—an expression that we might appreciate applied equally to India’s minority communities—he conceded that while Pakistan might not be a theocratic state, it was an “experimental state” that should be “brought in line with the conception of political representation in an ordinary secular state”.

Significantly, virtually all East Pakistan non-Muslim League members, led by A.K.M. Fazlul Huq of the Krishak Sramik Party, H.S. Suhrawardy, who became Prime Minister in 1957, and, notably, Sheikh Mujib-ur-Rahman, the future Bangabandhu, were supportive, albeit initially subdued in the first phase of the debate but subsequently vocal, especially after the Awami (Muslim) League trounced the Muslim League in East Pakistan in the provincial elections of 1954.  “It is their habit,” said Mujib in 1956 of Muslim League majoritarianism, “to give bluff to the people in the name of Islam”.

Another Awami League member, Ataur Rahman, raised a pertinent point while requesting the House “not to fall into the trap laid by the mullahs”. He pointed out “that there were seventy-two sects in Pakistan, and each called the others non-Muslim and kafir.” (A glancing reference to the anti-Ahmedia riots of 1953 that had rocked West Pakistan and the persisting Sunni-Shia differences.) He further argued that “the ideology of Pakistan was not the creation of an Islamic State… nor intended to make it impossible for the others to live in this State”. He held “the great ideology of a State” to be “the improvement of the lot of the common people”.

Some West Pakistan members like Shaukat Hayat Khan of Punjab presciently warned that if these East Pakistan voices were not listened to, Pakistan’s leaders might have to “preside over the funeral” of their country. Sardar Asadullah Khan of North West Frontier Province was also supportive of the Bengali view.

The government and Muslim League leaders argued that as the ideals of Pakistan “represent the very core of fair play and tolerance…adequate provision shall be made for the minorities to freely profess and practice their religion and develop their culture”. (Significantly, the Zia regime subsequently dropped the word “freely” from this formulation. It was restored by the 18th amendment in 2010.)

Mian Abdul Bari, who led the debate from the Muslim League, described as “terrible allegations” the claim “that we want to get rid of non-Muslims in the Muslim State of Pakistan”. Nur Ahmed of the Muslim League added that Pakistan was not going to be a “theocratic state” for “there is no priesthood, no Pope in Islam, and there is no mediator between God and Man in Islam”. A Minister, Pir Ali Mohammad Rashdi, supported Bari and Nur Ahmed in arguing that Islam was not being invoked “to worry them (the minorities) or to put them in a lower position”.

He added: “If the name of Islam is taken away then there will be nothing common between East Pakistan and West Pakistan…we have put that word in to keep the whole fabric together”. Yet the fabric was to be ripped apart a few years later.

Maulana Mufti Mahmood of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam quoted from the Quran “to show how fairly non-Muslims had been treated during the time of the Prophet”. Therefore, if Pakistani Hindus were assured of similar treatment, “they would be content to live in Pakistan”. Hence, precisely because Islam as a religion ordained the fair and just treatment of the minorities, Pakistan needed to be declared an “Islamic State that belongs to the Muslims”. The tenets of Islam would ensure that the country “is also the homeland of Hindus and Christians”.

The argument paralleled the Indian saffron argument that Hinduism was the best guarantee of the place of the minorities in a tolerant and compassionate Hindu Rashtra, more than the secularism of the “western zealots”.

The counterarguments to the Objectives Resolution made little impression on the overwhelmingly Muslim League-dominated Pakistan Constituent Assembly. The Prime Minister, Chaudhri Mohammad Ali, closing the debate, emphasised that “it would be un-Islamic to ignore the rights of non-Muslims”. He held that “the cardinal values of Islam were justice and brotherhood”; hence, Muslims are “tolerant and good”. Therefore, fear of “obscurantism” and “bigotry” was misplaced. He went on to affirm that non-Muslims are “an integral part of life in Pakistan” who would “judge us not by our professions but by our conduct.” He added: “If as a people we fail to live up to the highest teachings of Islam, we shall have failed utterly.”

Unimpressed, the entire Opposition walked out and in their absence, the 1956 Constitution was adopted, declaring Pakistan an “Islamic state” in which the head of state (president) would necessarily have to be a Muslim, but the minorities would be assured their rights.

In other words, as in India where the minorities were being urged to rely on the essential secularism of the Hindu religion and the Nehruvian “idea of India” to place their “trust” in the “goodwill” of the majority, so in Pakistan were the religious minorities being urged to place their faith in the Islamic tenets of “justice”, “brotherhood”, and “tolerance” of the Muslim majority. And as in India, the minorities were betrayed, but on a far worse scale.

Also, as in India so in Pakistan, much of the debate took place outside the formal chamber of the Constituent Assembly, as the author underlines.

Maulana Maudoodi of the Jama’at-e-Islami had initially opposed Jinnah and his Muslim League as Westernised secularists incapable of creating a genuine Islamic state. However, once Pakistan had come into existence, Maudoodi moved his headquarters from Pathankot (that had remained in India) to Lahore, the capital of Pakistani Punjab. Once there, he fought with increasing tenacity for an Islamic state.

He prevailed when the Basic Objectives resolution was placed before the Constituent Assembly. He then asserted his belief that as, in making the Constitution, Muslim members should remember that “sovereign in Islam” means God, “not man” as possessing “the real power of legislation”, the Objectives Resolution as drafted “assumes the complexion and characteristics of an lslamic state”. That is why he endorsed it.

For Altaf Husain, the editor of Dawn, however, it was “the (Muslim) League’s enemies (i.e., Maudoodi and his ilk) who had raised “the bogey of a theocratic state”. He went on to categorically affirm that “the application of Quranic principles does not mean the theocratisation of a state”. A joint editorial published simultaneously in several newspapers at the instance of the establishment argued that “the danger of a theocracy has been eliminated because no priesthood had been entrusted with any special authority”. At the same time, the Resolution reflected the “basic ideals which are common ground between all schools of Islamic thought”, thus ensuring that “Pakistan will develop an Islamic society free from dissensions and controversies”. That proved no more than a pious hope.

Javed Iqbal, son of the great litterateur, Allama Iqbal, president of the seminal session of the Muslim League in 1930, shone a quite different light on the 1956 Constitution and its Basic Objectives Resolution. He held that the position of Islam in the 1956 Constitution “reflected the attitude of hypocrisy and vagueness of the Muslim framers of that Constitution”. Pakistan, he stated, “came into being because the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent sought for a State in which to implement the social order of Islam”. And as the “ultimate aim of Islam” was to establish “a spiritual democracy…the modern Islamic State should offer more security to believers in other faiths than a secular state”. He concluded, “Only if minorities are preserved can the true ideal of the Islamic State be attained”. He believed it be “obligatory” for true Muslims “not only to tolerate non-Muslims but also to protect them and to defend their places of worship”.

For his part, Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan, on a state visit to the US, held that the Objectives Resolution made it “unequivocally clear” that there is no room for “theocracy” in Pakistan because “Islam stands for freedom of conscience, condemns coercion, has no priesthood and”, in a swipe at India, “abhors the caste system”. While Pakistan had “delivered millions of Muslims” from “the perpetual fear of the majority”, it had also “solemnly pledged” that “our minorities shall enjoy full rights of citizenship and shall freely profess and practice their religions and develop their cultures” while adequately safeguarding the interests of “the backward and depressed classes”.

This rather complacent explanation of the purport of the Objectives Resolution was challenged by a well-known Christian intellectual, Joshua Fazl-ud-Din, in The Civil and Military Gazette, published from Lahore. He faulted the Objectives Resolution for “according (to) non-Muslims a second-class status”. He demanded that the Muslim League “formally withdraw the ‘two-nation theory’” by “amending the Objectives Resolution”. After he became a member of the West Pakistan legislature in 1974, Joshua stressed that Christians, as the largest minority in West Pakistan, “required separate electorates to safeguard rights that only elected Christian representatives could be trusted to protect”— a reprisal of Gibbon’s argument—as “mere concessions” would always remain “subject to the personal discretion of the majority.”

He talked of a social contract under which “the Muslims were bound to respect the culture of the non-Muslim minorities, grant them religious freedom and give full economic rights”. If that happened, then, in return, the non-Muslims could accept that the Muslims (please note he excludes non-Muslims) could continue to have their ideology (that is, a Pakistani Muslim ideology, not an all-Pakistan ideology) in respect of the two-nation theory”. This was a more nuanced suggestion than his earlier demand that the two-nation theory be withdrawn by amending the Constitution.

Ayub Khan went further. He finessed the entire 1956 Constitution through a military coup two years later, but the arguments in the Constituent Assembly were not effaced. They re-emerged in the debates of 1962 on the unresolved issues of Pakistani nationhood, particularly the vexed question of separate or joint electorates. While Ayub’s Law Minister, Muhammad Munir, Pakistan’s leading jurist, had pointed to the “slipperiness” of the word “Muslim” in his report on the anti-Ahmadi riots of 1953, he trimmed his sails in accordance with the prevailing winds to argue that inserting the word “Islamic” before “ideology” would not affect the religious freedom of the minorities.

This gave the opening for the more Islamist members like Maulana Mufti Mahmood of the Jamiat-i-ulema-i-Islam to declare “in unequivocal terms” that the official religion of the State would be Islam. He would never agree to “turn the State into a secular State”, but the minorities need have no fear since the Prophet himself had set the example of how minorities were to be treated. Mohammed Abdul Haque of East Pakistan retorted that the word “ideology” was “vague” and there was no assurance that those in power would interpret the word “in a progressive way”, to which Z.A. Bhutto, by then a Minister in Ayub’s cabinet, held that the Preamble meant Pakistan would be a “democratic state based on Islamic principles of social justice”.

Syed Abdus Sultan of East Pakistan then brought up a further consideration. He enquired whether the expression “Islamic ideology” would not bar non-Muslim citizens from joining any political party. Bhutto’s response was that Pakistan had to be an “ideological state” as it could not be a “territorial state”. The argument went on and was never resolved to the satisfaction of either the minorities or the eastern Bengali wing of the country. Shaukat Hayat Khan’s prediction that this would lead to Pakistan’s leaders “presiding over the funeral of their country” was fulfilled.

Secularism versus Indianisation

 In India, the outbreak of widespread communal rioting in 1969—the most widespread since Independence and that too while the country was celebrating Mahatma Gandhi’s birth centenary—led to wordy duels in Parliament between the Prime Minister and Atal Behari Vajpayee, who pitted the Jana Sangh’s “Indianisation” against the Congress’ “secularism”. If mainstream secularism was vague in meaning and diffuse in interpretation, Vajpayee’s “Indianisation” was just as much of an oxymoron: “Indianisation means only one thing,” he declared, “those who live in India must love India.”

Interestingly, in a reverse image of the maulanas of Pakistan arguing that Islam was inherently “fair and just” in its treatment of non-Muslim minorities, Vajpayee declared that if India desisted from becoming a “Hindu state” after Independence, it was not because secularists wanted it so but because the Hindus opted for a “secular” India. Our “culture/traditions”, he held, had forestalled India becoming a sectarian state. “Secularism,” he insisted, was not “a slogan or innovation of the Congress party; this is a mantram (a divine verse) created out of the culture of this country”. Unfortunately, he lamented, “to be secular these days meant to be anti-Hindu”. Indira Gandhi’s rebuttal of this line of argument was succinct: “Who will judge the quantum or the quality of Indianness in any individual?”

The debate, as summarised by Nair, expanded in concentric circle to include all other parties. S.K. Patil of the Congress (Syndicate) said Nehru had brought in the word “secularism” to enable all communities “to live together as brothers” and to not bring religion into their everyday activities. He also invoked Acharya Vinoba Bhave to plead for extending the “same respect for every religion” (sarva dharma samanta). Sushila Nayyar of the same party (and Gandhiji’s close associate as his personal physician) remarked that it mattered little who had started the riots; the pertinent question to ask was, why would the Muslims start communal riots knowing that “if they provoke the majority, nothing but death awaits them”.

S.A. Dange of the CPI likened Vajpayee’s speech to “a manifesto calling for a civil war of the Hindus against the Muslims”. Dange sought to isolate the RSS and the Jana Sangh “by ideological, political, social and moral propaganda”. The socialists—Nath Pai, George Fernandes, and Acharya Kripalani—attacked both the Congress and the BJP. Regretting that the “communal problem” had been reduced to a “quarrel between the prime minister and Vajpayee”, Kripalani demanded that the government rise to its responsibility of “seeing that the flag on which we have emblazoned secularism is respected, is upheld”.

George Fernandes criticised the Congress party’s attempt to claim a monopoly on secularism and asked Vajpayee, on the other hand, to “examine the vitriolic speeches” of the BJP leaders of riot-struck Bhiwandi. Kripalani went so far as to describe Vajpayee as a bevakoof (fool) while, at the same time, being “scathing” at the Congress’ failure to see the hand of the Shiv Sena behind the riots because the Congress were “afraid” of the new party. (Does that ring a bell today?)

Muslim Congressmen were among the most vocal and articulate. Bakar Ali Mirza of Secunderabad asked why “Hindus of India are more loyal to the Hindus of Pakistan than they are to the Muslims of India”. Chaudhri Randhir Singh of Rohtak decreed “Indianisation” as a “form of casteism” and warned that that such slogans were “more dangerous than China or Pakistan”.

In other words, all were agreed on the imperative of “secularism” but differed on how it applied to the current situation in Bhiwandi and, more generally, in the country as a whole.

Bangladeshi secularism

The 1971 War of Liberation was a turning point in the lives of minorities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

Perhaps the most profound change was in East Pakistan, now in the throes of becoming Bangladesh. It is as well to remind ourselves that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s party was named the Awami Muslim League before its nomenclature was changed to Awami League. But as Mujib himself had pointed out in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly, Hindus and Muslims had voted together in local body elections for over a hundred years. In Mujib’s absence, under arrest in Rawalpindi, the interim leader, and future Prime Minister, Tajuddin, surrounded by an overwhelming majority of Hindus among the 10 million Bangladeshi refugees milling around him in Mujibnagar and elsewhere in India, decided that it was time to remove all ambiguity and declare the Bangladesh that was still to come into real existence as an explicitly “secular” state.

Thus, “secularism” came to be formulated as one of the founding principles of the new state. Later, Kabir Choudhry, the education secretary of Bangladesh post-liberation, was to claim at a seminar in Kolkata that the ”seed of secularism is inherent in the soil of Bangladesh”.

But it could not be ignored that the emerging nation was deeply religious; that before the armed struggle got under way with the brutal Pakistan army crackdown on March 25, 1971, another basic principle had been adumbrated: obeisance to the “fundamental principles of the Holy Quran and the Sunna”; and that the proceedings of a meeting of newly elected Awami League MPs as well as the new National Assembly after the elections of December 1970 which swept Mujib and his party to power in Pakistan as a whole, began “In the name of Allah”. Indeed, even Yahya’s Legal Framework Order, the “mini-Constitution” under which the 1970 elections were held, required every political party to adhere to “Islamic ideology, which is the basis for the creation of Pakistan”. There were also religious parties allied to the Awami League. And all this was despite fury in East Pakistan at the “misuse” of the name of the “Islamic state” and “Islamic socialism” that characterised the quarter century of united Pakistan and the propaganda that “Bengali Islam” was not “real Islam”.

Thus, the challenge was to reconcile in substance that “secularism” in practice would be compatible with Islam in Bangladesh in contrast to what had happened in united Pakistan. Mujib had articulated this challenge in his famous speech on March 7, 1971, when he desisted from declaring independence although that was expected by many in his audience and apprehended by the West Pakistan authorities. Instead, Mujib emphasised that “the seventy-five million people—Hindu, Muslim, Bengalee or non-Bengalee—all are our brothers”. That sentiment reflected the inclusion of “Fraternity” as a founding principle of the Indian Republic in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution.

Soon after the crackdown began, Maulana Bhashani, political rival but ideological partner of the Sheikh, described the Pakistani action as “un-Islamic”, “anti-humanity” and “abominable”. He wrote to Muslim leaders around the world that “all these acts have been perpetrated by a Muslim army on an overwhelmingly Muslim population”. But once that “Muslim army” had been defeated, the question resurfaced as to whether “secularism” was feasible in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation. As the feminist scholar, Sultana Kamal, wrote: “Islam as the religion of the majority has always been in a place of natural prominence and dominance in Bangladesh. Even in its secular days, Islam has been the dominant religion in state functions”. She did not add that in India too Hindu rituals, such as lighting the lamp, had been showcased as the dominant religion in state functions.

In practice, whatever the avowed nature of the state, in all South Asian countries, the inherent religiosity of the people, made it inevitable that there would be a dominant religion and subordinate minority religions. Secularism had to navigate a careful course between the Scylla of religious identity and the Charybdis of reconciling this with a non-discriminatory place for the religious minorities.

To begin with, there was little doubt in the mind of the Bangladesh leadership that it could. Even before the war ended, the putative Prime Minister, Tajuddin, had announced that “religion-based politics” would be “prohibited”. The acting President, Syed Nazrul Islam, defined the secularism that would be practiced in the new state to mean that “all religions would have full freedom”; henceforth, “a gurudwara, a church, a mandir and a pagoda” would be treated as respectfully as a mosque; and “imams, purohits, and (Christian) fathers will respect each other and respect each other’s religions”. This removed all ambiguity from the expression “secularism”, from defining which successive Indian governments have baulked.

This clarity on the meaning and implications of “secularism” was carried forward in the Bangladesh Constitution which included “secularism” in the fundamental principles of State policy and went all the way in Article 12 to define “secularism” as comprising the “absence” of “communalism in all its forms”; no grant of “political status” to “any religion”; no “abuse of religion for political purposes”; and no “discrimination against, or persecution of, persons practicing a particular religion”. Moreover, Bangladesh was not described as an “Islamic state” and the post of head of state was not reserved for a Muslim. It was the boldest and clearest effort to define and elaborate the meaning and implications of “secularism” in any South Asian constitution—way ahead of India.

Mujib crowned this by declaring at the non-aligned summit in 1973 that “the Quran described Allah as Rabbu’l-alamin, the head of all creation, and not as Rabb’ul Muslimin, the head of only Muslims. This is the spirit which underlies our secularism”.

This period of enlightened, explicit secularism did not last—and perhaps could not have lasted. After the army coup of August 1975, in which Mujib and almost all his family were ruthlessly butchered, and the heroes of the Liberation struggle were gunned down in jail, “secularism” in the Constitution was replaced by “absolute faith and trust in the almighty Allah”. 

For some reason I am unable to fathom, Neeti Nair has chosen not to deal in any detail with the derailment of Bangladeshi secularism in the quarter century of the years of Zia-ur-Rahman, H.M. Ershad and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), when there was a resurgence of religion-based Islamic politics and an outflow of the minority Hindu population, legally and illegally.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. | Photo Credit: CHRISTOPHER PIKE/Bloomberg

It was only in 2011 that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s daughter, Hasina, as Prime Minister, restored the word “secularism” to the Bangladesh Constitution. But, in practice, there has been and continues to be a dominant strain of religion-based political activity although Hasina has thus far (in the Golden Jubilee year of Liberation) succeeded in placing a lid on Islamist politics despite the rise of religion-based politics in India since 2014 that has aggravated the dilemmas of secular Bangladeshis.

In Pakistan, the vivisection of the country in December 1971 was traumatic. Initial confusion was assuaged by several Pakistani intellectuals (particularly Javed Jabbar, who is not mentioned by Nair) claiming that as Bangladesh had not merged with Hindu-majority India, the “two-nation theory” stood vindicated. In any case, the defection of Bangladesh had converted the “nearly one crore” Hindus of Pakistan into a tiny minority of Hindus, isolated in pockets of Upper Sindh; in villages along the Thar desert that divides India from Pakistan territorially in Rajasthan/Sindh; and in some parts of Balochistan. The minorities to be accommodated were the Christians and, to a smaller extent, the Parsis. For the representation of all religious minorities, the eventual solution found was to nominate them (and women) to reserved places in the National and provincial assemblies. While the post-war leader of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, averred that “secularism, in the sense of tolerance and the rejection of theocracy, is inherent in Islamic political culture”, when he was overthrown by Zia-ul-Huq, who had no time for such niceties, “Islamisation” became the drumbeat to which Zia’s “Nizam-e-Mustafa” (The Rule of the Prophet) marched.

Bhutto’s chief problem with secularism was not so much what to do with the self-declared non-Muslims as to what to do with the Ahmadias who claimed to be Muslim and how the Sunni majority would treat the Shia and other minority sects of Islam who were deeply embedded in Pakistan’s nationhood. Bhutto went along with the Islamist demand that the Ahmadias be described as “non-Muslim” and subjected to severe discrimination despite the high position some of them held in Pakistan’s polity, civil service, and armed forces.

The other major religious issue that Bhutto and rump Pakistan faced was related to the contentious and continuing Sunni-Shia differences (which peaked into murderous terrorism as the war in Afghanistan spilled over to Pakistan). It was not resolved by Bhutto’s 1973 Constitution, or the numerous fundamental amendments and counter-amendments made to that Constitution in the last 50 years. Instead, “blasphemy” laws have become the Sword of Damocles under which all Pakistanis, but non-Muslim Pakistanis in particular, now live. “Hurt (Islamic) sentiment” is the justification.

In short, after the breakaway of East Pakistan, “secularism” became in Pakistan principally an intra-Islamic affair. It remains far from resolved.

In India, the Partition of Pakistan was seen as the definitive proof of the burial of the two-nation theory. This, in turn, as the author underlines, “changed the balance of sentiment in favour of secularism within India”. Indira Gandhi and her government, she points out, “played a significant part in renewing faith in secularism”. As proof, the author points to amendments to Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code and a new law, Section 153B, which aimed at curbing “speeches and activities of RSS shakhas that sought to intimidate Muslims”. That, of course, had the counter effect of the saffron brigade redoubling its efforts to take India in the reverse direction.

The most vicious was the publication of A Bunch of Thoughts by the long-serving chief (sarsanghchalak) of the RSS, M.S. “Guruji” Golwalkar, whose arguments were reprised in the aftermath of the crackdown on the RSS following India’s dramatic military victory over Pakistan in 1971.

One does not know what would have been the final outcome of what appeared in 1971-72 to be a fight to the finish between secularists and the communalists because the proclamation of the Emergency in June 1975 pushed everything else into the background while an imprisoned Opposition (and a beleaguered people) fought against the undermining of democracy itself during the dreadful 18 months of the Emergency, June 1975-January 1977 (formally ended in March 1977 after Indira Gandhi’s defeat). It was during the Emergency that Sanjay Gandhi’s sterilisation drive aroused fury in the Indian Muslim community at their being, in their view, specially targeted. This view was sharply aggravated after Sanjay Gandhi ordered the demolition of largely Muslim houses in the Turkman Gate area of the capital.

Indira Gandhi appeared (perhaps unfairly) to be softening her hard line on secularism after she was re-elected in January 1980. Not only did she convey the impression of personal religiosity in her dress and general behaviour, the Prime Minister, in her Second Coming, also seemed inclined politically towards emphasising that Congress secularism was not pro-Muslim or anti-Hindu. Ever since, critics like the seasoned journalist Saeed Naqvi, have asserted that “at least since Indira Gandhi’s 1983 Jammu election, the Congress has learned the lesson of shepherding Hindu votes with care and ignoring Muslim votes proportionately”.

Notwithstanding the massive defeat suffered by the BJP in the December 1984 election, which reduced their presence in the Lok Sabha to just two seats, responding to “hurt Hindu sentiment” has since been the leitmotif of Indian politics. This extends to the entire spectrum of “secularists”. Non-Congress secularists joined hands with the BJP in opposing Rajiv Gandhi’s Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986, legislation that has stood the test of time over decades of non-Congress governments but has also secured full and complete endorsement by the Supreme Court in 2001. Worse, the “secularists” entered into an unholy, if unstated, alliance with the BJP to defeat Rajiv Gandhi in the elections held in November-December 1989, the principal issue being the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute (besides the Bofors affair in which too Rajiv Gandhi was vindicated by the Delhi High Court in 2004 and 2005, and the Supreme Court in 2018).

The unspoken alliance of the “secular” National Front with the BJP in 1989 lubricated the way to the BJP extending “outside support” to the minority V.P. Singh government—before withdrawing this support on the Mandal-Kamandal issue and launching Advani’s Rath Yatra that brought down the V.P. Singh government in just eleven months.

After the wanton destruction of the Babri Masjid on Black Sunday, December 6, 1992, the leaning away from hard secularism was underscored by actions of the Rao government, whose Minister of State for Home Affairs, Rajesh Pilot (otherwise among the most secular of Congress ministers), categorically refused, as Nair shows, to define Indian “secularism” on the floor of the House. The political battlelines were being drawn by opposing “Muslim appeasement” with “Hindu appeasement”, both with a view to accommodating “hurt sentiment”. It explains how perceptive and prescient Law Member Thomas Babington Macaulay was in underlining in 1837 that “Indians’ propensity to be easily offended” requires the government “to allow fair latitude for religious discussion” but not extending to “intentional insults” or “wounding with deliberate intention the religious feelings of his neighbours by words, gesture or exhibition”.

That is what has led to nine years of Narendra Modi rule during which Hindu majoritarianism has overtaken traditional non-denominational secularism, leaving the Indian Muslim minority feeling unwanted in their own country despite seventy-five years of proven patriotism.

Mahatma Gandhi had anticipated this when he stressed that Indian secularism must make the Indian Muslim believe that he “fully belongs”. For, as Neeti Nair pointedly concludes her book: “To be secular is to belong fearlessly.”

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a politician and former diplomat.

[This story was corrected to replace the name of Justice Sarkaria with that of Justice Sachar.]

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