Destruction of Babri Masjid and phantom of Nehruvian Secularism

As 6 December 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the illegal, state-mediated destruction of the Babri Masjid, it is high time to examine the prevalent myth of “Nehruvian secularism” for two reasons. First, the movement launched by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and led by Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), to destroy the masjid militantly opposed what it called “Muslim appeasement” by the “secular” government of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime Minister of independent India. Secular here meant favouring Muslims as well as opposing Hindu interests, the latter expressed by filmmaker Vivek Agnihotri as follows: “The grassroots reality is that the moment you say secular, people [Hindus] think you are anti-Hindu.”    

Second, many opponents of Hindutva termed the destruction of the masjid as a departure or deviation from “secularism.” In some accounts, recorded notably by popular historian William Dalrymple, in destroying the mosque, “India’s traditions of tolerance, democracy and secularism” symbolized respectively by each dome “were smashed to rubble.” Though seemingly rival to each other, both BJP-VHP and their opponents, however, agree on the descriptor: secularism. Thus, we have “Anti-Secular Manifesto” by political psychologist Ashis Nandy on one hand and calls by the likes of historian Irfan Habib to defend “secularism” on the other.

My argument in this essay, in contrast, is that secularism has been non-existent. Or, a phantom at best!

Nearly naturalized in political debates, everyday journalism and academic discourses, how accurate is the idea of Nehruvian secularism, however?  Understandably, attack on or defence of secularism recognizes the prior existence of an entity called secularism. My argument in this essay, in contrast, is that secularism has been non-existent. Or, a phantom at best! I substantiate this argument by empirically demonstrating the fallacy of the idea of Nehruvian secularism. To this end, I deconstruct three myths about the Nehruvian secularism.

Nearly naturalized in political debates, everyday journalism and academic discourses, how accurate is the idea of Nehruvian secularism, however?

Myth 1 – Independent India has always been secular

The first myth is that due mainly to the role of Nehru, India has been constitutionally secular from the moment of its birth as a republic. The truth, however, is that the word “secular” was inserted into the Constitution long after the death of Nehru, who made no endeavour to place it into the Constitution. One may counter argue that what matters is not the word itself but its ethos, which the state under Nehru practiced. Following this logic, one may respond: if the secular ethos can flourish without putting the word secular into the Constitution, so can the democratic ethos thrive without inserting “democratic” in the Constitution. Why, then, was it deemed essential to put “democratic” but not “secular” in the Constitution?

If the presence of the word democratic in the Constitution was not coincidental, so was the absence of secular.

It is logical to conclude, then, that if the presence of the word democratic was not coincidental, so was the absence of secular.

Some informed commentators do say that it was the Indira Gandhi government during the Emergency, which put “secular” into the Constitution. However, they don’t ask: why only at that time and not earlier?

A possible answer is this: after the dismemberment of Pakistan into two nation-states or independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, Indian/Hindu nationalism and its power elites no longer felt any apprehension from the historical constitutive other: Pakistani nationalism. Creation of Pakistan as what Vallabh Bhai Patel had termed “the diseased limb” to be cut off to keep the body of Indian/Hindu nationalism healthy stood further cut off into two.

Remarkably, for Indira Gandhi’s role in creating Bangladesh Atal Behari Vajpayee, her opponent, had described her as the goddess Durga. India as a body, mystical as well as corporeal, was believed to be headed by the divinized figure of Gandhi. The issue is not so much if Vajpayee indeed described Gandhi in those terms or not but the myth thereof which her party, the Congress party, proudly adheres to. So does the “liberal” commentator Karan Thapar.     

Myth 2 – “Secular” Nehru’s appeasement of Muslims

As for Nehru’s secularism as appeasement of Muslims, it is wrong and misleading. Nehru indeed appeased Hindus, not Muslims. With Nehru as Prime Minister and active role of the RSS, “the holocaust in Jammu” took place in October 1947, in which “2,37,000 Muslims” were exterminated. In what is called the “police action” of 1948 in Hyderabad, around 40,000 or more Muslims were killed. Nehru’s secularism helped those who had illegally installed in 1949 Hindu idols inside the Babri Masjid. Nehru’s administration took no action against those criminal acts – acts which later paved the way to plunge the whole country into an orgy of violence in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  And, in 1950, the “secular” Nehru aided, indirectly or otherwise, building of the Somanth temple. In his landmark book, Religious Nationalism, Dutch anthropologist Peter van der Veer who had done anthropological fieldwork in Ayodhya in 1980s, recorded such facts.

Nehru’s appeasement of Hindus did not stop there. It extended to criminalizing cow-slaughter, a term that is anything but neutral because it authorizes the Brahmanical Hindu viewpoint. From a non-Hindu perspective, the issue is of dietary freedom. Challenging the tenet of religious freedom in the Constitution, in November 1949 the Constituent Assembly resolved to “prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves” by including it in the Directive Principles of State Policy. At that time, Nehru was not only the Prime Minister but also the most popular, “charismatic” leader, after Mohandas Gandhi’s murder, of the country. According to historian Ian Copland, “no traces of any Nehruvian intervention aimed at disrupting the cow lobby’s plans exist in his published writings or in the official record of the Assembly’s proceedings.”

According to historian Ian Copland, “no traces of any Nehruvian intervention aimed at disrupting the cow lobby’s plans exist in his published writings or in the official record of the Assembly’s proceedings.

Before anyone rushes to conclude that Nehru’s approval of the denial of right to dietary freedom to Muslims and others was because of pressure from non-Congress members of the Assembly, let’s note that 80% of its members were actually from the Congress.

Equally important is the fact that with Nehru in full command of power, the 1950 Presidential Ordinance denied reservation benefits to the Scheduled Castes if they converted to Christianity or Islam. This order amply demonstrates that Nehru was hardly a lover of religious freedom. Like his opponents, he too took India primarily as Hindu.

Consider the elation with which Nehru congratulated Patel for getting the resolution, which exterminated the provision of representation of religious minorities to elected bodies, passed in the Assembly. Twice in a span of a minute, Nehru remarked: in a democracy “the will of the majority … will prevail.” Nehru’s usage of majority was not procedural (as liberalism wishfully prescribes it) but starkly religious.        

Myth 3 – Nehru as an agnostic enlightened with scientific temperament

As it is evident, in examining the myth of Nehruvian secularism, my focus has been on his policy as a politician, prime minister and his direct and indirect role in law-making, which impact citizens in that they make as well as unmake lives. From this framework, the insistence by some defenders of Nehru that as a person he was nonetheless secular because he was agnostic, rational and radiant with scientific temperament is mostly irrelevant.

Against such a position, this essay instead underlines the need to examine the myth of secular Nehru as it bears on political life and public policy. At any rate, what worth is that agnosticism or scientific temperament in private which does not translate into public life? 

Even in the personal realm, however, there seems some tension, which secularists shy away from mentioning. In Freedom at Midnight (p. 307), Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre record what occurred in the night of 14 August 1947:  Two sannyasins (Brahmin ascetics) “sprinkled Nehru with holy water, smeared his forehead with sacred ash, laid their sceptre on his arms and draped him in the cloth of God…Nehru submitted to it with almost cheerful humility.”

Clearly, my point is not about Nehru practicing his religious tradition. Rather, it is the erasure or suppression of such facts to keep the phantom of Nehruvian secularism float.

This essay is drawn from the text of a talk written for the virtual symposium, “Afterlives of Babri Masjid: Thirty Years Later,” organized by South Asia Institute, Columbia University and to be held on 9-10 December 2022.

Irfan Ahmad is professor of Anthropology-Sociology at Ibn Haldun University, Istanbul, Turkey. Until early 2022, he was senior research fellow at Max Planck Institute, Gottingen, Germany. He is the author of two monographs, most recently, Religion as Critique and (co)editor of four volumes, most recently, The Nation Form in the Global Age: Ethnographic Perspectives. He tweets @IrfanHindustan