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India: Inventing history to inculcate hatred

Monday 21 August 2017, by siawi3


August 19, 2017

Inventing history to inculcate hatred

Irfan Habib

Print edition: Frontline - 1 September 2017

Inventing history to inculcate hatred

As secularism and reason are driven out, prejudice and ignorance extend their sway with disconcerting rapidity. A serious task awaits parties that are committed to a different future for the country, envisaging a truly secular democratic India, where reason and science might serve to sustain a welfare state.


When 70 years ago India obtained freedom it also got divided on religious grounds. It was a momentous decision on the part of the leadership of the major political party in India at that time—the Congress “High Command”—to keep the Indian Union free of any religious or sectarian colour. The phrase “democratic and secular” was commonly used for the state that was now envisaged. (I find it used, for example, in the Presidential Address at the Indian History Congress, Bombay, on December 26, 1947.) It is true that the word “secular” did not occur in connection with the nature of the prospective republic either in the Objectives Resolution passed by the Constituent Assembly in December 1946 or in the Constitution that came into effect on January 26, 1950. Yet, one finds Jawaharlal Nehru specifically saying in 1961 (and possibly also on earlier occasions) that “our Constitution lays down that we are a secular state”. It was, however, only in 1976 that the words “Socialist, Secular” were inserted in the Preamble to the Constitution so as to define India as a “Sovereign, Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic”. In formal terms, too, therefore, “secularism” obtained the status of a principle which should exercise a determining influence on interpretations of the detailed provisions of the Constitution.

Now, the word “secular” has a specific meaning, which needs to be carefully preserved. The word comes from the Late Latin word speculum, meaning “world”; and so “secular” literally means “worldly”, and, therefore, something that is non-spiritual or non-religious. Its more specific sense of a system of ethics is due to the ideas of J. Holyoake (1817-1906), who is supposed to have brought the word into the English language in 1851. In the words of the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary, the word now referred to “the doctrine that morality should be based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life to the exclusion of all consideration drawn from belief in God or in a future state”, the words “future state” here doing duty for “afterlife”. The total exclusion of religion—no particular religion, but all religions—was emphasised by Holyoake himself when, in 1854, he said that he had chosen the word “secularism” as “expressing a certain positive and ethical element which the terms ‘Infidel’, ‘Sceptic’, ‘Atheist’ do not express”. When the term “secular” began to be applied also to the mode of education and then to a particular form of the state, it carried the same strict sense of totally excluding the influence of any religious belief or ritual in determining the content of a state’s laws or the nature of its executive action. It may here be mentioned that much before the term “secularism” came into use, the United States Constitution of 1787 and, particularly, the French Revolution of 1789-94, by barring religious influences from all conduct of state affairs, had already produced fair models of a secular state, the French being clearly the more radical one than the American.

Whenever the word “secular” is today used outside India in respect of the state it does not, therefore, mean just the pursuit of neutrality among religions, or dharm-nirpekshitaas secularism is officially rendered in Hindi, but invokes a more positive notion of rational conduct, uninfluenced by the requirements of any religion or set of religions.
Yet, what is taken as the meaning of secularism worldwide was expressly rejected by Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, philosopher and India’s second President, in his book Recovery of Faith (1956), page 202, in a passage that is now apparently a standard quotation in Indian legal commentaries:
“When India is said to be a secular state, it does not mean that we reject the reality of an Unseen Spirit or the relevance of religion to life or that we exalt irreligion…. We hold that not one religion should be given preferential status or unique distinction.”
It is clear that Radhakrishnan here offers a definition of secularism which has no sanction and divests it of all significance. As we have seen, secularism all over the world is invoked to ensure that religious beliefs are excluded from affecting the policies and laws of the state, while Radhakrishnan insists that “religion” still remains a “relevant” source.

Supreme Court judgment on ‘religious instruction’

It is not the international sense of secularism but the one asserted by Radhakrishnan that has been accepted by the Indian judiciary to the extent that even explicit provisions of the Constitution have been set aside in its light, while his warning that not one religion should be given a unique position has been increasingly overlooked. This is illustrated by the Supreme Court’s judgment of 2003 in respect of the imparting of “religious instruction”, on which the Constitution in its Article 28 imposes clear restrictions. Educational institutions maintained by state funds are, by this article, absolutely barred from providing any “religious instruction” and even state-recognised or aided institutions cannot make such instruction compulsory for students. Yet, despite the clear language of the constitutional provisions, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court in 2003 claimed (quite unhistorically!) that most of our essential values have come from the mouths of “sanths and saints” and so held as if it was the duty of the state to provide “instruction in religion” in its schools. From the court’s own specific references it could be assumed that Hinduism was the main faith to turn to, with some space given half-heartedly to other religions. The judgment has sounded the death knell of secular education wherever the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has come to hold the reins of power.

Radhakrishnan’s redefinition of “secularism” thus opened the way to its increasing subversion which has taken place with the growth in the power of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and its political front, the Jana Sangh, now renamed the BJP. From its foundation in 1925 until 1947, the RSS worked as a Hindu communal organisation with an openly fascist ideology, with no intention to take part in the national movement. Before and after Independence it conducted bitter propaganda against Muslims and against Gandhiji, with its slogans of “Hindu Rashtra” and “Hindutva”, the latter term borrowed from V.D. Savarkar. Its hand in the communal massacres of 1947-48 was officially recognised as well as the fact that its members celebrated Gandhiji’s murder on January 30, 1948. At the elections of 1952 and afterwards it bitterly opposed the proposal for the Hindu Code, which was finally legislated in 1955-56, giving women rights that had been denied to them for millennia. To this body Radhakrishnan’s definition of secularism is probably quite acceptable, and for the past 20 years, if not more, we have heard spokesmen of the RSS and the BJP loudly denouncing “pseudo-secularism” by which they obviously mean secularism in the proper sense of the word.

It will, however, be inaccurate to attribute the growth of communalism in India solely to the work of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha. After Independence there was much bitterness within Congress ranks (which by 1947 had few Muslims left in them) over Partition and the subsequent treatment of Hindus in Pakistan (especially East Pakistan, now Bangladesh). Not only were riots frequent, but there was much official discrimination practised against Muslims in recruitment and promotions to official posts. Nehru himself in a letter to the United Provinces Chief Minister, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant, in April 1950 recognised the seriousness of the situation prevailing there, but his acute expression of distress had little immediate consequence. Credit should be given to the Communists, the main opposition party at the time, for their stout opposition to the communal forces. In actual fact, however, the bulk of the defenders, as well as opponents, of secularism were still to be found within the Congress itself.

Winds of change

It has been argued by Professor Bipan Chandra and his colleagues that it was the Jayaprakash Narayan-led mass movement of 1975, the subsequent Emergency (1975-77) and the opposition it aroused that made the RSS a respectable part of India’s political establishment. The Congress, however, recovered, though the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 in Delhi under its stewardship greatly tarnished its own anti-communal image. It is yet possible that the real change in the RSS’s favour came still later. We ought to remind ourselves of the transformation that took place all over the world in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Congress had, since its Avadi resolution of 1955, adopted “socialism” as its ultimate objective, and the construction of the public sector and, later, the nationalisation of a large part of the financial sector (banks, insurance) and coal mines under Indira Gandhi were seen as measures leading to socialism. As we have seen, words expressing the aspiration to make India a socialist republic were inserted into the Preamble of the Constitution in 1976. In 1980, even the new incarnation of the RSS-led Jana Sangh, the BJP, declared its adherence to the cause of “Gandhian socialism”. But the wind sharply changed direction in the closing years of the ensuing decade.

Around 1989-90, socialist regimes in Eastern Europe began to collapse, and in 1991 the Soviet Union itself was dissolved and the socialist system rapidly demolished there. The Indian economy received a great jolt through India’s loss of ties with the Soviet bloc, and there was therefore a total shift (“liberalisation”) in India’s economic policy. “Socialism”, of whatever kind, was now off the table for all parties, even those named “Samajvadi”, except for the two Communist parties. This sudden destruction of a widely held ideal provided rich ground for the spread of the RSS’s communal ideology posing as ultra-nationalism. The shift was marked by the destruction of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya in December 1992, loudly proclaimed as a great national achievement. The synchronisation of this event with the worldwide shift to the Right is surely remarkable.

That event also established the sheer electoral value of communalism. Without any economic programme worth the name, except for the dismantling of the public sector and removal of constraints on Big Business, the BJP governed India from 1999 to 2004. The Gujarat massacre of Muslims in 2002 established Narendra Modi’s credentials as Chief Minister to govern Gujarat and then to become India’s Prime Minister 12 years later. Unburdened by the legacy of any ideological “socialist” baggage, the BJP can give all the possible concessions that Big Business may seek. The bland slogan “Make in India” is a happy replacement of the work of the Planning Commission whose demolition was one of the first acts of Modi’s government in 2014. In return, the BJP’s coffers, one supposes, are being duly filled. Devices such as “electoral bonds” are surely directed towards easing the process of corporate donations. The combination of communalism and collaboration from Big Business imparts to the present regime a seeming invincibility.

Elimination of reasoned thought in education

That invincibility is being further strengthened by the steady elimination of secular and reasoned thought in our educational system. The Prime Minister’s seat was once occupied by Jawaharlal Nehru, who argued constantly in favour of science and the scientific spirit and who laid the foundations of India’s large apparatus of scientific research. Modi, who has occupied Nehru’s seat fully 50 years after Nehru passed away, invokes the god Ganesha to sustain a claim of ancient Indians’ knowledge of plastic surgery and puts forth Karna as proof of Indians’ knowledge of genetic engineering in some distant age! To the shame of this country not a single eminent scientist in India took him to task for such claims, which may now well enter our textbooks in Central schools and the schools in most States. Already schemes are afoot to invent a new kind of mythical history to inculcate hatred of Muslims along with a virulent form of racial chauvinism.
Needless to say, India, except in some corners here and there, can now hardly be called a secular state. As I pick up the Sunday edition of a leading newspaper, I read in a piece by a supporter of the regime that there are leaders who look forward to the next lynching of Muslims after the hue and cry on the present one dies down. Perhaps, such acts will soon turn into cold statistics, so frequent that details would hardly bear reporting. All possible positions in governmental organisations and all the administrative and academic posts that the Central government can fill are being occupied by the RSS’s nominees, often with laughable qualifications. Even right-wing professionals and academics are not considered reliable enough (though an element of personal favouritism may also be involved here). By controlling grants and favours the BJP regime is manifestly enforcing silence and consent to a degree undreamt of under previous regimes, including even the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)-I.

As secularism and reason are driven out, prejudice and ignorance extend their sway with disconcerting rapidity. At one level, we appear to be following in Pakistan’s footsteps, what we had refused to do in 1947. But we are not simply a country of four provinces like Pakistan, we are the second most populous country in the world. What happens here will be a disaster on a corresponding scale. One cannot help thinking of Germany, a country with such advanced culture, at the time the Nazis took possession of it 84 years ago. The same claims for the “Aryan” race, the same bitter prejudice against a minority (in Germany, the Jews), and the same collaboration with Big Business. The Nazis were successful not because they ever obtained support from the majority of the German people in elections, but because their opponents were divided, with some being won over by the Nazis, to be suppressed later. That process, too, we can now see coming to pass in India, the Bihar example being the latest instance, immediately celebrated by the beating up of three men because they were allegedly transporting meat: “We are in power now,” the mobsters are reported to have said.

A serious task awaits parties that are committed to a different future for the country, envisaging a truly secular democratic India, where reason and science might serve to sustain a welfare state. Perhaps the conflict over whether such a state would be socialist or a free market one can be postponed until the present crisis is over. Those in the Congress and other liberal parties may remember how Gandhiji, a firm opponent of socialism, could combine with Nehru, an avowed socialist, to fight British imperialism. The Left parties may recall how Popular Fronts were formed in Europe in the mid-1930s to block the path of Fascism. Surely, anyone with any foresight can see that unless a broad unity of all secular forces is now forged in India, the country’s present slide into darkness will doubtless continue.