Monday, February 9, 2004
Paying homage to Mahatma Gandhi at his birthplace in Porbandar, Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani recently said that Gandhi's notion of secularism was more akin to the BJP's than to Nehru's. Implicit in this assertion is a well-founded critique of received wisdom on India's secular 'norm', regarded as Gandhi's bequest to Nehru when he chose the latter as his political heir. The Congress will perhaps dub Mr Advani's statement as an attempt to appropriate Gandhi's legacy. That would be to cling to what certain scholars describe as the falsity of the Gandhi-Nehru hyphenation, and to project the same as denoting some sort of Congress-monopolised secular 'brand'.
The fact is, the approaches of the two men in question toward secularism were diametrically opposed. Gandhi held all faiths as valid-"sarva dharma sambhav"-and religion as the 'soul' of India, providing the moral underpinnings of society and serving as the guiding principle of all political action. Mr Advani confesses to having been inspired by this perception of faith as a force of socio-political mobilisation, when he himself had led the Ram temple movement.
In this context, he exposes the fundamental dichotomy between Gandhi's vision and that of Nehru, from which other perceptional differences flowed. Gandhi viewed religiosity as a virtue, and religious truth as the moral yardstick by which to measure human activity. He wrote: "I cannot conceive politics as divorced from religion." His political philosophy privileged the idea of dharma in action: "Ram Rajya", its socio-political ideal, was not theocracy but "ordered moral government". This notion shows the extent to which he regarded inclusivist Hinduism as a cultural expression, even as he strove to secularise it for the political purpose of creating a shared sense of nationhood. A political edifice without spiritual content could only be built on a moral void, running counter to India's civilisational ethos.
It is clear why Mr Advani posits the Nehruvian model as the antithesis of the Gandhian schema, which he suggests resembles the BJP's "cultural nationalism"-with its percep-tion of Indian secularism as drawing force from Hinduism as an all-embracing way of life. Seeking to impose his agnosticism on a society imbued with religious feeling, Nehru failed to see Gandhi's astuteness in recognising the passion intrinsic to belief and in seeking to direct this energy towards nation-building.
Instead, Gandhi's successor equated religion with bigotry and superstition.
Even when conceding it to be a source of spiritual succour, his attitude oscillated between bafflement and patronising Superciliousness.
Intellectually indebted to Western rationalism and Marx's materialist concept of history, he erred in trying to implant alien doctrines in Indian soil. Insisting on the banishment of the sacred from the public domain, he turned blind to the social and cultural specificities of his own nation and its people.
Inspired by Enlightenment philosophy, he strained After 'neutrality' vis-a-vis all religions. Such equidistance was easier professed than upheld: The very man with lofty disdain for religious identity as grounds for lobbying would accord state patronage to select social groups due to their faith.
The leap from Nehru-vian secularism to "pseudo-secularism" was easily made when Nehru failed to translate his own secular beliefs into practice. His successors built on this flawed inheritance, with what came to be known as 'minority-appeasing' votebank politics. Gandhi, as Judith Brown noted, had critiqued "secular materialism" as a moral catastrophe, because it robbed ruler and ruled of their spiritual kinship. The crisis in which Nehruvian secularism finds itself today, reduced as it is to empty sloganeering, proves how prescient the great soul was.
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