“Social progress can be measured by the social position of the female sex” - Karl Marx


Jawaharlal Nehru and Organised Religion

Nehru understood how religious leaders collaborate with political leaders

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 in challenging socioeconomic inequalities.

However, Nehru was unequivocal in his aversion to organised religion, in which he 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.

Having grown up imbibing scientific values, it was almost natural for Nehru to strive relentlessly against this divisive force. He was convinced that incorporating religion into public affairs would undermine his idea of the democratic India likely to emerge after independence.

It is no wonder, therefore, that much of Nehru's thought would be devoted to analysing and denouncing religious communalism - Hindu, Muslim and Sikh - which posed a serious threat to a unified India.

Nehru's India

Nehru's public inquiry into the past and present was in tune with his idea of nationalism. In his sweeping work The Discovery of India, written from 1942-45 at the Ahmadnagar Fort Prison Camp, past and present mingle in a perspective confirming his inclusive vision.

But it would be wrong to think of Nehru as a mere idolator of the past. In fact he never failed to point out "backwardness" wherever he found it, whether in the oppressive Hindu caste system that strangled the free development of individuals, or the system of secluding women (purdah, practised among Muslims and Hindus) that severely curbed their freedom.

Of course, Nehru's mission in the Discovery of India was to trace the progressive tradition that survives through the ages. He emphasised the secular aspect of the Indus Valley civilisation, pointing out its primary focus on conveniences for citizens - rather than magnificent temples for the gods or palaces and tombs for kings, as was the case in other ancient civilisations.

Besides, Hinduism for Nehru appeared to be "a faith which 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."

Nehru 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, he felt, that non-Hindu (ie non-Brahminical) philosophies like Buddhism and Jainism had been assimilated into Indian thought and culture.

The same phenomenon held true for Islam (like Vedicism a religion of non-Indian origin) which was introduced to the Indian masses long before the subcontinent 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 the course of its 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 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 - he thought it wrong to periodise Indian history in terms of religion - the rulers and the ruled did not remain in watertight compartments. Hindus were regularly appointed to 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 for this was that these rulers settled down and made India their home. Further, the Hindus in large numbers (and mostly poor) were attracted towards Islam to get respite from the bane of caste and untouchability. But they continued to live their lives as before, according to Nehru, since the basic socioeconomic 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 socioeconomic structure that had prevailed in India for ages. As a result of loot (a Hindustani word that found its way into English) and the subsequent drain of capital and wealth, India became increasingly ruralised and degenerated, whereas England made unprecedented progress culminating in its Industrial Revolution.

The Indian 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 upper and middle classes in particular into contact with "the 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, he felt, that eventually gave birth to the bourgeois nationalist movement spearheaded by the Congress. Nehru came to lead the most progressive wing of that organisation.

Unaffected for long by revolutionary ideas, a section of upper-middle class Muslims, in order to satisfy their vested political and economic interests, chose recompense by government support. 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."

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.

On Communalism

Nehru fought on multiple fronts. Besides oppressive British colonialism he had to continually oppose reactionary elements within and outside 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 realising this vision.

Keen observer that he was, Nehru provided a thorough analysis of religious communalism, complete with its origin, development and direction. He was able to detect and examine changes in the outlook of Hindu and Muslim communal leaders with the passage of time.

Both Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) and, much later, the Aga Khan (1877-1957) were primarily worried about the backwardness of upper and middle class Muslims as compared to their Hindu counterparts, in availing English education and securing positions in legislatures and services.

Nehru, taking a longer view of history, asserted that their eagerness to create a bourgeois class among Muslims in collaboration with the British was, in fact, a revolutionary step in the right direction.

He further stated that, whether Muslim League or Hindu Mahasabha, such leaders were more eager to maintain the reactionary political status quo than to advance even communal interests.

He cites 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 radical nationalist tendencies in India.

However, Nehru found a change in the modus operandi of the Muslim communal leaders after they failed to do well in the 1937 provincial elections. Realising their lack of popularity with Muslims, 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 leadership could not think of any better means to secure power. It certainly paid off, and the 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 he felt was evident in his revulsion to the concept of Western democracy.

As regards Hindu communalism Nehru was equally perceptive. Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861-1946), an early leader of the HIndu Mahasabha and four times president of the Indian National Congress, was a nationalist with feudal leanings, and Nehru therefore differentiates him from the later aggressive communal leaders who were political reactionaries.

Thus the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS (formed 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 socioeconomic upliftment of the people of their community.

The only difference was that the Hindu communalists were able to conceal their intentions behind a façade of nationalism. But their mask invariably came off in moments of crisis.

The Two-Nation Theory

Nehru was outright critical of the two-culture or two-nation theory prevalent for quite some time and propagated by communal leaders, whether Hindu or 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 the uniqueness of culture (if it ever existed) by any community (religious or no) in the modern age, when interaction with foreign culture was inevitable.

The concept of nations within a nation was also untenable, both politically and economically. Nehru pointed out its absurdity:

"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 communal leaders' mask. He believed 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 people irrespective of their religious identity. Nehru's stance against narrow nationalism is manifest in the following visionary passage of his An Autobiography written in 1934-35:

"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."

Subhendu Sarkar is Associate Professor of English at Ranaghat College, West Bengal.


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