Idea of secularism

Secular, above all

Print edition : December 12, 2014

March 1947: Jawaharlal Nehru, Vice-President of the Interim Government of India, visiting the riot affected city of Multan, in undivided Punjab along with Dr Gopichand Bhargava, the Chief Minister of Punjab. Photo: The Hindu archives

December 1936: Nehru, president of the Indian National Congress, addressing 500 farmers who came on foot from various places to attend the Congress meeting at Tilaknagar in Faizpur, Maharashtra. Photo: THE HINDU archives

January 23, 1955: At the 60th session of the Indian National Congress at Avadi. The "socialist pattern of society" adopted at the Avadi session of the AICC became a weapon to fight both the rightist forces and the communists. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

P.C. Joshi, G. Adhikari and B.T. Ranadive at a meeting of the Polit Bureau of the Communist Party of India. Ranadive was an implacable opponent of the Nehru government. Photo: The Hindu Archives

April 24, 1958: At the Trivandrum airport with Chief Minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad, centre, at teh beginning of a four-day tour of Kerala. Photo: THE HINDU archives

No other Congress leader had such clarity of vision and determination to combat communalism and establish a secularist state as Nehru. And this legacy is now under serious attack from his old foes—the Hindutvavadis.

THE 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru has brought back the discussion on the Nehruvian path and Nehru’s legacy and what it means in the present-day period. This question has acquired a sharp edge given the contrast provided by the Narendra Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the ruling party, which stands for much that is antithetical to the vision and principles that Nehru stood for.

For the Left and the communists in particular, Nehru’s vision and work is something interwoven with their own history and ideological development. There were greater affinities between the Left and Nehru during the national movement for independence and more discontinuities and conflicts in the years Nehru headed the government of independent India.

Fifty years after Nehru’s death, the Left’s understanding of the Nehruvian era has acquired a more balanced and nuanced hue.

Nehru was the most enlightened leader of the bourgeoisie, the class which led the freedom struggle. As such he transcended most of the conservative and antediluvian views of many Congress leaders of his generation. Nehru stood for secularism, democracy and the scientific temperament, which was in conflict with the views of many of the traditionalist and revivalist leaders who gathered around Mahatma Gandhiji. This modern bourgeois democratic approach of Nehru made him a distinct personality in the national movement. It was Nehru who struggled to get the Congress to accept the slogan of complete independence. which was finally piloted by him at the 1927 Madras session of the Congress; a demand which was raised by the communists at the 1921 session but rejected by Gandhiji. Nehru wanted that the mass organisations of workers and peasants should be directly affiliated to the Congress, though he failed to get the leadership to accept it. In 1936, under the presidentship of Nehru, the Lucknow session of the Congress stood for socialism and it was Nehru who saw the threat of fascism looming ahead in Europe and the world and the dangers it entailed. It was in this period that the Left both within the Congress and outside closely cooperated with Nehru.

But Nehru was a faithful disciple of Gandhiji and at every stage subordinated his conflicting views to preserve the unity of the class leadership of the national movement. Next to Gandhi, Nehru was the leader adored by the masses and he was acknowledged as Gandhiji’s heir and successor. The communists understood early on that the socialism of Nehru was mainly anti-feudal in content and was for him a means to draw the masses into the national movement. After becoming Prime Minister, Nehru drifted away from socialism to social democracy. Nevertheless, the “socialistic pattern of society” adopted at the Avadi session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 1955 became a weapon to fight both the rightist forces and the communists. Both in the 1955 elections in Andhra Pradesh and in the 1957 elections in Kerala, the Nehruvian platform of “socialism” was used to counter the Communist Party.

Capitalist development

After the initial phase of looking to the West for assistance for economic development, Nehru realised that the Western powers would not help India evolve an autonomous model of development. Thus, Nehru embarked on planning and building the public sector which was required by the capitalist class to lay the basis for capitalist development. For developing the public sector, help from the Soviet Union was taken. This meant a degree of autonomy from metropolitan capital and state-directed capitalist development. This was in the interests of the capitalist class as a whole though some sections were opposed to it. The Nehruvian path thus laid the foundation for a kind of capitalist development that did not have to totally subordinate itself to international capital. At the same time, building capitalism without land reforms and compromising with landlordism, along with the fostering of monopoly capital, led to the development of contradictions, which in the following period undermined any scope for independent development and opened the way for integration with international finance capital with all its resultant consequences. A great betrayal of the Nehruvian era was the going back on the promise of land reforms. The communists were opposed to this type of capitalist development sponsored by the Nehru government and rejected its claim to being a socialist path.

Foreign policy

But during the mid-1950s, the Nehru government seemed to have taken a leftward shift. The Avadi session of the AICC proclaimed a socialistic pattern of society. The Second Five Year Plan (1956-61) gave a big thrust to industrialisation and the public sector. After the early years of dependence on the West, Nehru steered foreign policy towards a new course, the policy of non-alignment, which worked actively for international peace and in support of national liberation struggles. There were deviations from this policy, but by and large the interests of the Indian state to have greater manoeuvrability and a degree of autonomy were served by the Nehruvian foreign policy until the border-conflict with China.

All these measures led to divided opinion within the Communist Party of India and the Left. A section in the CPI extrapolated the progressive foreign policy to domestic policies and called for a united front with the Congress. Underlying this was an uncritical acceptance of the Nehruvian path. This issue was debated in the 4th Congress of the CPI at Palakkad in 1956. The united front with the Congress was rejected though one-third of the delegates supported this line. It sowed the seeds of the split that took place in the Communist Party in 1964.

Nehru, who expounded on socialism in the 1930s, moved closer to a social democratic approach towards capitalism. This pattern of state-sponsored capitalism spawned the concentration of capital and the rise of big business houses. Nehru moved more and more away from “scientific socialism”, which he saw as a dogma, and decried the violence and coercion which he saw as inherent in a socialist system like the one in the Soviet Union.

The Nehru government in the later phase manifested all the limitations inherent in the bourgeois-landlord system. The ruling Congress became increasingly corrupt and devoid of the social and political ideals of the freedom struggle. The Left became more and more critical of the performance of the Nehru government. After Nehru, the degeneration in the Congress accelerated and the positives of the Nehruvian era were jettisoned. The slide into the neoliberal path became inevitable.

Notwithstanding the Left critique of the Nehruvian path of development, there are two vital contributions of Nehru in the making of modern India. No other leader of the national movement had such a deep and passionate commitment to secularism. Nehru becoming the first Prime Minister of independent India was crucial in establishing the secular direction of the Indian state. After Partition, when riots took place and attacks on Muslims in Delhi were occurring, Nehru rushed to these places to stop the rioters and ensure protection for Muslims. This was resented and disapproved by Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, and other Congress leaders who felt that no such protection or special measures should be taken.

Nehru had presciently warned that majority communalism “can masquerade itself as nationalism, whereas, the minorities’ communalism would always be identified for what it was”. Nehru had to struggle relentlessly within the Congress in the early years after Independence to establish the secular principle in the state and polity. Some of these struggles with the Hindu traditionalists within the Congress came to a head when Purushottam Das Tandon was elected president of the Congress in 1950. No other Congress leader had such clarity of vision and determination to combat communalism and establish a secularist state as Nehru.

B.T. Ranadive, who became the general secretary of the CPI in 1948 and who was an implacable opponent of the Nehru government, made a brilliant appraisal of Nehru on his birth centenary in 1989. He wrote: “If anyone except Nehru with his deep secular outlook and commitment to the modern concept of democracy had been in charge of the government, the independence of the country could have been jeoparadised.” He pointed out that “Nehru’s singular contribution in rejecting the revivalist tradition and appealing to the people on the basis of secular and modern democratic values should not be underestimated.” (B.T. Ranadive; “Jawaharlal Nehru: A Centenary Appraisal”; The Marxist; July-December, 1989)

Nehru was singularly responsible for ensuring that parliamentary democracy, despite all its imperfections, took root in the country. Along with Dr B.R. Ambedkar, he was instrumental in creating the democratic framework of the Indian Constitution. There is, of course, one major blemish in Nehru’s democratic record. Faced with the political threat of an elected communist government in Kerala, he succumbed to the pressure of his party to dismiss the E.M.S. Namboodiripad Ministry in 1959. Here again class interests overruled his sense of democratic proprieties.

The present ruling establishment at the Centre represented by the BJP-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) combine represents much that is alien to his legacy. The contrast with Nehru cannot be greater. While the first Prime Minister of India strove to build a nationalism based on secular foundations, the current Prime Minister is proud to call himself a Hindu nationalist. While Nehru worked hard to inculcate the scientific temper among the people, Narendra Modi is purveying the RSS mythology that science was evolved and developed in the Vedic times; that genetic science existed in the time of the Mahabharata; and that Ganesha was a product of plastic surgery. What is happening is a full-scale assault on all secular values and social and cultural ideas that are inimical to the narrow sectarian Hindutva ideology.

Nehru’s vision of a secular state and his endeavours to create one through democratic means will remain an enduring legacy. This is now under serious attack from the old foes of Nehru—the Hindutvavadis. It is this legacy of Nehru that needs to be defended and nurtured.

Prakash Karat is the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

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