Essay

Roots of Indian secularism

Print edition : August 08, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to address the joint session of Parliament on June 9. Modi spoke of "1,200 years of servitude" in his speech. Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

M.S. Golwalkar, former RSS chief. He, too, spoke of the "1,200" years of foreign rule. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

M.S. Golwalkar's predecessor and RSS founder K.B. Hedgewar said "once upon a time" the Muslims of India were "all Hindus". Photo: aS ADas aS

Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrating the birth anniversary of V.D. Savarkar on May 28 in Parliament. Hindu nationalism seems to be the officially recognised brand of nationalism now. Photo: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrating the birth anniversary of S.P. Mookerjee on July 6 in Parliament. Hindu nationalism seems to be the officially recognised brand of nationalism now. Photo: PTI

1939, New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru with Gandhi. Photo: The Hindu Archives

S. Srinivasa Aiyangar. His was the most comprehensive exposition of secularism by any Congress president before Independence. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Savarkar at the Hindu Mahasabha's 1939 session in Calcutta, where he rejected the notion that the Mahasabha was a reaction to the Muslim League. S.P. Mookerji (extreme left) was also present. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The battle between Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism must continue to be fought, and not by politicians alone. The roots of Indian secularism lie in the 19th century, as an inseparable part of Indian nationalism.

IT is most amusing to watch the Sangh Parivar select its enemy at one time and drop him to pick on another when circumstances change. Until Independence, Gandhi was the prime enemy whom its ideologue, V.D. Savarkar, successfully conspired to murder. Even after his assassination, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and the Jana Sangh poured scorn over him; so much so that as late as on October 17, 1989, The Times of India editorially noted, “Mr. (L.K.) Advani while holding forth on ‘Bharat Mata’ now goes so far as to deny that Mahatma Gandhi was the Father of the Nation.” This is perfectly understandable. Advani’s Sangh Parivar was never a part of the freedom movement. Its leaders had collaborated with the British. Witness the umpteen apologies and undertakings their “heroic” icon Savarkar gave to the British from 1911 to 1925 and to the Nehru government in 1948 and 1950 (see A.G. Noorani; Savarkar and Hindutva; Leftword, pages 140-147).

When the Quit India Movement was in full swing, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Jana Sangh, parent to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was a member of a coalition with the Muslim League in Bengal as Finance Minister. He offered unsolicited advice to the Governor Sir John Herbert, twice, on July 26, 1942, and on August 9, the day after the Quit India resolution: “The question is how to combat this movement in Bengal?” (See Noorani; The RSS and the BJP; Leftword; chapter 4, on the Parivar’s relations with the British and its hatred of Gandhi.) In October 1997, the Congress president, Sitaram Kesri, noted with dismay the BJP’s bid to “hijack” Gandhi.

Hindu revivalism and the nationalist movement

The Hindu revivalist movement ran parallel to the nationalist movement, as did Muslim revivalism. But Muslim leaders such as Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Maulana Azad, the Ali Brothers, Mazharul Haq and others joined the Congress. The Hindu re v ivalist movement was not a reaction to the partition of India , although it exploited it fully and continues still to do so. The roots of Hindu nationalism lay in the 19th century. Sample this from Bankimchandra Chattopadhyaya’s Anand a math (1882). Satyananda says: “The Muslim power has indeed been destroyed, but the dominion of the Hindus has not yet been established.” Contrast this with the Congress’ pronouncements.

The Sangh Parivar hated Gandhi because he advocated Hindu-Muslim unity. It has loathed, and continues still to loathe, Jawaharlal Nehru because he stood like a rock against the Parivar and its allies in the Congress’ attempts to exploit the partition to instal a Hindu state in all but name. Nehru articulated the nuances of India’s secularism; but he did not impart that ideology to the nation. Its roots lay in the 19th century and was in fact an inseparable part of Indian nationalism itself.

Of the first three presidents of the Indian National Congress, only one was a Hindu, W.C. Bonnerjee of the First Congress held at Bombay in 1885. Dadabhai Naoroji presided over the Second in Calcutta (1886) and Badruddin Tyabji over the Third (1887) in Madras. He said: “I must honestly confess to you that one great motive, which has induced me in the present state of my health to undertake the grave responsibilities of presiding over your deliberations, has been an earnest desire, on my part, to prove, as far as in my power lies, that I, at least, not merely in my individual capacity, but as representing the Anjuman-i-Islam of Bombay (loud applause), do not consider that there is anything whatever in position or the relations of the different communities of India—be they Hindus, Mussulmans, Parsees, or Christians —which should induce the leaders of any one community to stand aloof from the others in their efforts to obtain those great general reforms, those great general rights which are for the common benefit of us all.” ( The Indian National Congress (1885-1910), containing the full texts of Presidential Addresses and Resolutions; G.A. Natesan & Co. Esplanade, Madras, Rs.8). Not a little credit is due to this devoted chronicler of the freedom movement.

Article XXVI of the Congress constitution read: “(a) No subject shall be passed for discussion by the Subjects Committee or allowed to be discussed at any Congress by the President thereof to the introduction of which the Hindu or Mahomedan Delegates, as a body, objected by a majority of 3/4th of their number; and if, after the discussion of any subject, which has been admitted for discussion, it shall appear that the Hindu or Mahomedan Delegates, as a body, are, by a majority of 3/4th of their number, opposed to the resolution which it is proposed to pass thereon, such resolution shall be dropped. (b) The President of the Congress for the year may nominate 5 Delegates to the Subjects Committee to represent minorities or to make up such deficiencies as he may think necessary. (c) In any representations which the Congress may make or in any demands which it may put forward for the larger association of the people of India with the administration of the country, the interests of minorities shall be duly safeguarded.” The elders of the freedom movement did not consider that to be “appeasement” or “pseudo-secularism”. That was left to the Sangh Parivar to declaim.

The report of the Second Indian National Congress, held in Calcutta in 1886, just a year after it was founded, explicitly declared: “The Congress is a community of temporal interests and not of spiritual convictions that qualify men to represent each other in the discussion of political questions; we hold their general interests in the country being identical. Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Parsis may fitly as members of their respective communities represent each other in the discussion of public secular affairs.” In plain words, a member of any community was fit enough to represent other communities in the nation at large “in the discussion of public secular affairs” (emphasis added throughout).

Communalism vs nationalism

The most comprehensive exposition of secularism by any Congress president before Independence was made by S. Srinivasa Aiyangar, president of the 41st Congress at Gauhati in 1926. It is quoted in extenso. He said: “I have reserved, to the last, my remarks on the struggle between communalism and nationalism. The critical phase of the struggle is over and the issue is no longer in doubt. The riots and disturbances have drawn forth nearly all that is bad in communalism. The forces of nationalism are steadily and visibly triumphing over the forces of communalism.

“We must not only reach, but hold fast to the conviction that we are Indians first and last and right through. National representation and national leadership must be our aim and not communal leadership and communal representation. A patriotic Hindu or Mussalman should, at all times and at all costs, desire to represent and lead not only his own community but the other community as well.…

“Religious doctrines and institutions and such social images and personal laws as have historically been due to a distinctive culture are alone peculiar to any religious community. There should therefore be a fundamental law of Swaraj to guard against the making of laws by any legislature in India that may affect liberty of conscience, freedom of religious observance or association, the right to religious education and, at the option of the community concerned, the right to personal laws. Another safeguard has been devised by the Working Committee of the Congress to prevent communal hatred and strife and to protect the legitimate interests of minorities. The rule is to the following effect: [he quoted the rule].

“Moreover, no community can, in these days, really progress in secular affairs unless the nation as a whole advances, unless, in other words, the other communities either acquiesce in the rise of one community or make equal progress. The best way of advancing politically one’s own community is, therefore, to raise the status of all the communities as a whole. For, if you seek to advance your own community, all the other communities bind themselves together against yours. Communalism is not so much a positive idea of benefiting one’s community as a destructive desire to obtain advantages at the expense of the other communities.

“The Congress stands for equal rights and opportunities for all classes, castes and communities. And Indian nationalists are developing a high sense of justice; they are even sensitively just. Let us realise clearly that to uphold justice between man and man is to uphold justice between community and community. As a safeguard, a negative rule against members of any community or caste monopolising offices in all that is required. There are so many communities and there is so much of competition in these days in India that it is impossible for any community to create such a monopoly. Again, neither a Hindu nor a Muslim member can at all represent his religion in a Legislative Council on any question except where his religion is sought to be affected.

“The intrusion into politics of religion, and very often of dogmatic religion, must be resisted as a primitive or mediaeval idea, born of theocracies, and disastrous alike to religion and to politics. Hinduism and Islam will gain immeasurably in strength and purity if they are not mixed up with secular politics.… Lastly, let us clearly grasp the truth that neither Hinduism nor Islam stands in danger of being destroyed by the other. Both are great religions, ages old; and both have an abiding hold on vast populations. They have again and again come into severe conflict with each other and have survived it, as they have survived the shocks of foreign invasions and foreign civilisations and all other catastrophic changes.… A Hindu state that attempts with all its authority to destroy Islam will be subverted in a minute and a similar fate will befall a Muslim state that attempts to destroy Hinduism.… In the transaction of public affairs, in all matters of secular advancement, in all aspects of the administration and on all public, political and national questions, they easily can and would think and feel and act as Indians.” ( Congress Presidential Addresses 1911 - 1934; G.A. Natesan & Co., Rs. 4; pages 813-819).

Vallabhbhai Patel’s presidential address at the 45th Congress in Karachi in 1931 is highly significant. For, it was this Congress which adopted a Charter of Fundamental Rights and Duties. It declared: “The state shall observe neutrality in regard to all religions”. Patel said: “The continued exploitation of India for close on two centuries renders it necessary for us to seek assistance in several respects from external sources. This we would gladly take from Britain, if she is willing to give. Thus we would need military skill and there is no reason why we may not receive English assistance in this direction.

“But before all else comes the question of Hindu-Muslim or rather communal unity. The position of the Congress was defined at Lahore. Let me recite the resolution here: ‘In view of the lapse of the Nehru Report it is unnecessary to declare the policy of the Congress regarding communal questions, the Congress believing that in an independent India, communal questions can only be solved on strictly national lines. But as the Sikhs in particular and Muslims and other minorities in general had expressed dissatisfaction over the solution of the communal question proposed in the Nehru Report, this Congress assures the Sikhs, Muslims and other minorities that no solution thereof in any future C onstitution can be acceptable to the Congress that does not give full satisfaction to the parties concerned.

“Therefore the Congress can be no party to any Constitution which does not contain a solution of the communal question that is not designed to satisfy the respective parties. As a Hindu I would adopt my predecessor’s formula and present the minorities with a Swadeshi fountain-pen and paper and let them write out their demands. And I should endorse them. I know that it is the quickest method. But it requires courage on the part of the Hindus. What we want is a heart unity, not patched up paper-unity that will break under the slightest strain. That unity can only come when the majority takes courage in both the hands and is prepared to change places with the minority. This would be the highest wisdom. Whether the unity is reached that way or any other, it is becoming plainer day after day that it is useless to attend any conference unless that unity is achieved. The Conference can give us an agreement between the British and us, it can perhaps help us to come nearer to the Princes; but it can never enable us to achieve unity. That must be hammered into shape by ourselves. The Congress must leave no stone unturned to realise this much-desired end.” ( ibid; pages 905 and 908).

Appeasement? Pseudo-secularism? Note, that Vallabhbhai Patel spoke of “ two centuries” of foreign rule. Only Narendra Modi could have spoken of “1,200 years of slavery”, and this in his capacity as Prime Minister of India delivering his maiden speech in the Lok Sabha. Modi’s reference to rule by the Muslim rulers, the Mughals and their predecessors, did not go unnoticed.

Fundamental divide

This is a fundamental divide between the Parivar and Indian nationalism. For, this is what M.S. Golwalkar told an RSS camp at Vidharbha on January 10, 1971: “During the last 1200 years, because of their invasion of the country, the believers of Islam have converted a large number of Hindus to Islam, sometimes through force and sometimes by the use of incentives. With the help of such people they ruled the country. Hindus felt miserable on account of the loss of their freedom and the establishment of rule of the people belonging to an alien dharma. This led to their continuous struggle to root out the invaders. Their power was destroyed just before the English arrived. Those who had accepted the alien dharma remained and their separate existence was established in the country.”

His predecessor and founder of the RSS, K.B. Hedgewar, said: “Is it not a matter for anxiety for Hindus that Muslims in Bharat have a population of ten crores? Once upon a time they [the Muslims] were all Hindus. They have left us because of our indifference and inaction.”

In truth, the Sangh Parivar has been at war with India’s history and its nationalism. Dr. Lanka Sundaram’s book A Secular S tate for India (Rajkamal Publications, Delhi) had a different understanding of history. “I am definitely concerned here, however, with the essence of history as known to the people the world over, which only goes to show that religion had better be the cherished equation between man and his Maker and not be mixed up with politics, if politics, as I have said, is to ennoble a people and to preserve unto them as an inheritance the Mother Earth in the defined territories which goes to make up the world system. Four or five thousand years of the history of man have given us instances by the hundred in which religion as a motive force for political organisation has been admitted to have come to grief” (page 3). His strong plea for secularism was shared by all, except the Parivar. To Golwalkar’s successor, M.D. Deoras, Hindu predominance was the only guarantee of India’s integrity ( Organi s er; January 22, 1984).

Savarkar rightly rejected suggestions that the Hindu Mahasabha was a reaction to the Muslim League. He had propounded the two-nation theory in 1925 before Jinnah did in 1939. He told the Mahasabha’s session in Calcutta in December 1939: “Many a superficial critic seems to fancy that the Maha Sabha was only contrived to serve as a make-weight, as a reaction checkmating the Moslem League or the anti-Hindu policy of the present leaders of the Congress and will be out of court or cease automatically to function as soon as it is shorne of this spurious excuse to exist. But if the aims and object of the Maha Sabha mean anything it is clear that it was not the outcome of any frothy effusion, any fussy agitation to remove a grievance here or oppose a seasonal party there. The fact is that every organism, whether individual or social, which is living and deserves to survive throws out offensive and defensive organs as soon as it is brought to face adversely changing environments. The Hindu n ation too, as soon as it recovered and freed itself from the suffocating grip of the pseudo- n ationalistic ideology of the Congress brand, developed a new organ to battle in the struggle for existence under the changed conditions of modern age. This was the Hindu Maha Sabha. It grew up of a fundamental necessity of the National life and not of any ephemeral incident.”

Dr. B.R. Purohit accurately described the clash between Indian nationalism and Hindu nationalism. “With the growth of the Mahasabha and RSS ideologies, a new current of nationalism—the Hindu Nationalism—grew powerful in the country. Hindu nationalism, instead of supplementing the forces of Indian nationalism, tried even to supplant it. The opposition of Indian nationalism by ‘Hindu Rashtravad’ was detrimental to the steady growth of the former.…

“A general spirit of revivalism was already in the air ever since Dayananda propounded his ideas. Then followed the emphasis on the exclusive organisation of the Hindus, on Shuddhi, on the spiritual and cultural superiority of the Hindus, on the great and the golden past of the Hindus, on the undying spirit of the Hindu race, and on the need of conquering the world by the spirituality of the Hindus. All these particular ideas were woven by the Mahasabha leaders into an ideology of ‘One Religion, Race, Culture and Country’, or that of ‘Hindutva’. The RSS readily accepted the ideas propounded by the Mahasabha. The ideological differences between the Mahasabha and the RSS were only those between tweedledum and tweedledee; of course, they differed in their approach to political questions, and over methods of organising their parties. But both were in agreement in declaring Hindusthan as the ‘Hindu Rashtra’, Hindus as the only true nationals of the Hindu Rashtra, and the supremacy of Hindu religion and culture over other religions and cultures. Such ideas culminated in the growth of a new nationalism—‘Hindu Nationalism’—side by side with Indian nationalism. This is the stage when Hindu revivalism, instead of becoming a contributory force to Indian nationalism, becomes an opposing force.

The two nationalisms—the Hindu and the Indian—were fundamentally in opposition to each other with respect to their ideals. The former was exclusive, narrowly-based, mixed with religion and partial: it considered the Hindus the only nationals of Hindusthan and did not include other communities living in India within its scope; it had grown even militant and aggressive towards other religions. The latter believed in a composite culture of India, and viewed India as a national composed of all the communities living therein. It was broad-based, pacifist, secular, democratic and liberal in temperament. One exalted a community over other communities while the other emphasised unity in the diversity of various communities. The one had great belief in centralised leadership and in militancy; the other was wedded to liberal and democratic traditions. Hindu nationalism looked back to the ancient and glorious period of the Hindus and commended Hindu heroes and nation-builders; Indian nationalism looked forward to an all-round national progress, irrespective of considerations of caste or creed….

“Thus the forces of Hindu nationalism defended by the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh presented a formidable challenge to the growing forces of Indian nationalism during the thirties and the forties of the twentieth century. It was, so to say, a struggle for existence between two ideologies, and as such there could be little room for cooperation between the rival ideologies. Its positive qualities apart, in so far as Hindu nationalism clung to its limited ideal and lost sight of the comprehensive national ideal, it did hinder the steady growth of the Indian national movement.” ( Hindu Revivalism and Indian Nationalism; Madhupriya; 86 Hamidia Road; Bhopal 462 001; pages 173-175.)

That clash, which began as far back as in the 19th century, acquired a virulent form aggravated by Advani’s fierce ambition to become Prime Minister by espousing Hindutva. He failed to become Prime Minister, but the clash continues in very many ways. The secularists are tragically divided as ever for reasons best left unsaid.

Nehru is hated because he actively fought the RSS. He called the Jana Sangh the “illegitimate child of the RSS” ( The Hindu; January 6, 1952). Prof. Donald Smith summed up the reasons for the loathing admirably. “Nehru once remarked that Hindu communalism was the Indian version of fascism, and, in the case of the RSS, it is not difficult to perceive certain similarities. The leader principle, the stress on militarism, the doctrine of racial-cultural superiority, ultra-nationalism infused with religious idealism, the use of symbols of past greatness, the emphasis on national solidarity, the exclusion of religious or ethnic minorities from the nation-concept—all of these features of the RSS are highly reminiscent of fascist movements in Europe. Fascism, however, is associated with a concept of state-worship, the state as the all-absorbing reality in which the individual loses himself and in so doing finds ultimate meaning. This conception has no counterpart in RSS ideology; in fact, the Sangh explicitly rejects the notion that its objectives could be attained through the power of the state. Its aim is the regeneration of Hindu society, which must come from within. However, it is impossible to say how the RSS would respond if political power ever came within reach, either directly or through the Jana Sangh. The implementation of certain aspects of its ideology (the policy toward Muslims and other minorities, for example) presupposes extensive use of the machinery of the State” (D. E. Smith; India as a Secular State; page 468).

That battle must be continued and fought, and not by politicians alone. Men besotted with “growth” should be left free to worship false gods and extract such gains for themselves as they can. All secularists must join in the good fight. For, “ if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians; xiv, 8).

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