Print edition : December 06, 2019

The Supreme Court of India. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

The sociopolitical churning that British rule triggered in India in the late 19th century led to the emergence of a few movements in the early part of the following century. It was then that the nationalist movement led by the Indian National Congress acquired a mass character; the struggles of peasants, tribal people and workers adversely affected by the drain of wealth from the country crystallised into a movement inspired by and drawing theoretical sustenance from the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; and the aspirations of depressed classes for self-respect and dignity in a caste-ridden society found expression in the social justice movement.

Embedded at the core of the world outlook of these movements were the French Revolution’s ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality—values that could be traced to the tectonic shift in human affairs brought about by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, which centre-staged humanism as opposed to theologism. Humanism struck at the roots of religious orthodoxy and the shackles imposed by it on the human mind and inspired it to freely inquire into and criticise everything under the sun, and above the sun.

The age of reason, immensely aided by the growth of science and the Industrial Revolution, has taken humanity far away from the darkness of medieval times and has given birth to modernist ideas like secularism, democracy, socialism, sovereignty—the cornerstones of the Indian Constitution. The adoption of the Constitution in 1950 was a watershed in Indian history after which the rule of law largely took precedence over the rule of faith.

Yet, reason’s struggle with ideas that seek to turn back the hands of time was not yet over. A fact starkly brought to mind by the political philosophy called Hindutva, which, in the words of its arch atheist-proponent V.D. Savarkar himself, should not be confused with “vaguely defined” Hinduism. Admittedly inspired by Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s Nazism, Savarkar and his ideological descendants left only two options before the “foreign elements” (read Muslims and Christians): “Either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy as long as the national race [Hindu] may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. This is the only sound view on the minorities problem….They must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, that is, of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence....”

Not for Savarkar and his ilk the ideas of composite culture, territorial nationalism, secularism, democracy and social justice which galvanised the nationalist, socialist and social justice movements of the time. For them, communism, Islam and Christianity were the internal threats to their Hindu utopia. This, even while the other political movements were in the thick of what they perceived as the immediate threat—British rule. Savarkar, as A.G. Noorani points out elsewhere, “perverted history for use in the service of his politics, a politics based on manufactured ancient wrongs for the spread of hatred and the spirit of revenge”.

About six decades later, after a prolonged period of political wilderness following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, the political arm of Hindutva led by L.K. Advani resurrected Savarkar with the launch of a “chariot of fire”. Here it is, Advani echoing Savarkar: “The choice of Somnath as the starting point of the yatra had a powerful symbolic value, made evident by repeated references to it as the target of Muslim tyranny against the Hindus.... The intention was to contextualise Ayodhya in the historical lineage of Muslim aggression and then to seek legitimacy for Mandir movement by drawing a parallel” (My Country My Life—Advani’s autobiography).

With the rath yatra, he sought to breathe new life into the idea of a Hindu Rashtra. Nearly a century after it was propounded, the inheritors of Hindutva are apparently in a hurry to see its realisation.

In a perceptive article titled “Secularism and the Indian Constitution”, Justice V.M. Tharkunde says: “A secular state realises that the process of secularisation of society will continue after its establishment; and that the state will not intervene in that process except when it is quite necessary.”

Secularisation of society is a work in progress. And the three arms of the state—the legislature, the executive and the judiciary—are Constitution-bound to help in the process. The Babri Masjid demolition case was a key moment in history when the judiciary’s intervention was necessary to strengthen the process of secularising society. For the highest judiciary, unfortunately, it is now an opportunity lost.

The battle of ideas continues.