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Colloquium: Secularism and Nation Building

As The Hindu Centre has emphasised in its mission statement, we see ourselves not just as a discourse enabler or a marketplace of ideas but do intend to make vigorous contributions to the public discourse that will examine political concepts, ethics and approaches that are seen as key elements of India’s democratic national vision. Some of these fundamental norms as understood in practice over decades of Indian political life have now come under severe challenge, as India’s growth trajectory has taken different turns and taken on varying ideological hues. Since the ‘90s, battles over secularism and indeed challenges to the composite and civic orientation of Indian nationalism have polarised the political landscape. The Hindu Centre recognises that it is imperative that if public faith in these basic national values is to be sustained, it is important that issues and approaches that are matters of contestation be explored and examined.
We launch our exploration of the concept of secularism, situating it in the context of nation-building. We are linking the two concepts because in the Indian political discourse, secularism has been viewed as critical to the nation-building project, given India’s diverse and heterogeneous base of communities and cultures. We offer here below two perspectives on this important issue from two high-profile representatives of the major parties that stand on different sides of this crucial debate. We have chosen Seshadri Chari, prominent thinker and ideologue of the BJP whose subtle and nuanced critique of secular Indian nationalism and Digvijaya Singh, senior Congress leader who has been an eloquent defender of the Congress view of secularism to launch our series of explorations of this critical question. These two high-profile interlocutors who respond to The Hindu Centre’s Chief Political Coordinator M.R. Venkatesh’s pointed questions, provide competing perspectives of Indian nationalism. We present below this Colloquium to the public as a starting point in our exploration of this critical issue and its complexities.

THC: Secularism in the western context – as separation of state from religion – and in the modern Indian context – as equal respect for all faiths – continues to be a problematic concept. Is a more inclusive notion of secularism, rather than a simple nationalist construct more relevant today in order to keep India’s pluralistic democracy intact?

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Seshadri Chari

Seshadri-Charijpg We commonly use certain terminology like secularism and democracy so it becomes difficult to discuss secularism unless we define it. Secularism began as a political discourse in the West during the British experiment with monarchy and democracy from the time of Oliver Cromwell. In British history, secularism is basically distancing the state dispensation from the church. The first separation between politics and religion began with the separation of the Church of England from the Vatican. Thus, the split in the Christian theological approach to politics generated a political debate resulting in a political order divorced from the Church of England. But in order to accommodate the views of the Church, they created a House of Lords and invited a section of the laity into it. That is how the British Parliament became a bicameral system – the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The Commons did not have entry into the affairs of the Church, showing this separation has its origin in Christian theology. But India’s social, religious and political history is very different. While the nerve of society in the West is basically the state, in India, the state was never considered to be the supreme authority. Therefore, we never envisaged a situation where we would have to separate state and theology. Also when we talk of secularism, we mix up the meanings of ‘religion’ as understood in the West and East. What we call ‘ darshan ’ in Sanskrit should not be confused with religion. So, when we separate state and religion, we are at best separating the state and certain methods of worship in different religions. Hinduism itself has immense methods of worship. But unfortunately, in public discussions, we are caught in the trap of certain irreversible connotations. For any meaningful discussion of secularism, unless we go to its etymological and historic roots, justice will not be done.

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Digvijaya Singh

Digvijaya-Singhjpg I would put it like this. In India, we respect all religions and every citizen has a right to adopt and follow a religion of his choice. The Government of India neither interferes in any religion, nor promotes any religion. But it protects every religious group to ensure that every citizen follows his/her religion without any hindrance or prejudice. This, what we believe is the Indian ethos, was practiced by Mahatma Gandhi in totality. Well, even in India, the state had no religion historically. Even under Hindu kingdoms, the people had the opportunity and the freedom to practice their own religion. You see, we as a nation have been highly accommodative to religions other than ‘ sanatana dharma ’, to the extent we accepted people from the Christian religion who came as early as the year 60 AD to Kerala. Similarly, the Hindu kingdoms also never sort of stopped the Muslims from following their own religion. So, it is basically the Indian ethos and the ‘ sanatana dharma ’ to accommodate people to have their religion, to practice their religion, without interfering in their religion as such. In India, we hardly have had any of the religious wars that Europe has seen. That is it. There is no vagueness or ambiguity [despite semantic abuses in public discourse] on the basic conceptual issues [resulting from a conflation of meanings of words like religion, secularism and democracy as understood in the West and East]. You see the BJP’s agenda is quite clear. They want to use religion as an instrument to sort of persecute the ‘non- sanatana dharmis ’. Even the ‘Sangh’ (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) if you see, most of the ‘Sangh’ people were ‘Arya Samajists’ who did not believe in ‘ moorthy pooja ’. Therefore, again if you see, Mr. Veer Savarkar was an atheist who coined the word ‘Hindutva’, which the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) / the Sangh has as one of its major political agendas.

THC: The Nehruvian legacy of secularism has often been criticised as appeasing the minorities – your views?

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Seshadri Chari

Seshadri-Charijpg I don’t necessarily look at the Government of India’s views on secularism as a Nehruvian legacy, because the country as a whole adopted the Westminster System and almost everything that was in it – including multi-party democracy, first-past-the-post system and secularism. But if you carefully analyse the period 1947-50, we had a very tragic partition on the basis of religion, on the basis that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together, which was a very flawed basis. Notwithstanding that flaw and the partition, when we adopted the Constitution in 1950, it is very strange that its framers wrote a preamble that did not contain two words – secularism and socialism. Does it mean that in 1950, we were not a secular country? Does it also mean we became secular only in 1976 when the Constitution was amended to include the two words? Does it also mean that the economic policies, which we are pursuing today has anything to do with socialism? So, strangely, the words ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ have not been defined in the Constitution even today. We should think about why our Constitution’s framers did not think it necessary to include the word ‘secularism’. That is because they had a vision and a view of the history of the country. In the 5,000-10,000 years of our history, we never had a theocratic state. Our statecraft had no place for theology. That is why, in 1950, nobody thought of introducing the word ‘secularism’ [when the Constitution was adopted]. The state as well as society was considered to be secular enough and it was taken for granted. Although Pakistan declared itself as an Islamic Republic, we never thought in terms of declaring ourselves as a Hindu Republic. Hinduism is not one religious practice. It is a conglomeration of various values/ways of life. The best definition of Hinduism was given by none other than Mahatma Gandhi, who called it a ‘relentless pursuit of truth’. If we expand his definition, anywhere in the world, whoever pursues the ‘truth’ is a Hindu. So, where is the question of differentiating between state and religion? If tolerance towards all religions is secularism, we have gone a step further to respect all religions and philosophies. The whole idea of secularism and democracy, and the state being separated from religion, will all have to be revisited with a fresh and clear outlook, not with the coloured vision of western ideas or some other colour.

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Digvijaya Singh

Digvijaya-Singhjpg It is an absolute propaganda of the Hindu fundamentalists. Hinduism cannot be a fundamentalist religion. We believe in the principle of ‘vasudeva kudumbhakam’, that the whole universe is one family. Therefore, this criticism comes only from the followers of the ‘Sangh’. In fact, to quote Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, majority fundamentalism or fanaticism is more dangerous than a minority fundamentalism or fanaticism, because the majority fundamentalism hides under the pretext of nationalism that creates doubt in the minds of the majority community that following fundamentalist, fanatic thought is indeed Indian nationalism. The Congress has always fought the ideology of fanatics, religious fanatics, whether they were from the Hindu Maha Sabha or the Sangh or the Muslim League. Even in recent years, the fanatics of the Sikh religion. There is absolutely no substance in that allegation at all. In every developed society, special protection is always provided to the minorities. Aren’t African Americans given a minority status in the US? Aren’t minorities given a special status in Britain? It is absolutely misleading to say that the Congress party under Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru followed a policy of appeasement of Muslims. Second, secularism is properly defined (in the Indian context) even if our Constitution framers initially did not think of including the word ‘secularism’ in the Preamble to the Indian Constitution. It (secularism) is like ‘ sarva dharma samabhav ’, every religion is equal. The state has no religion but it allows every religion to be practised without there being any interference and intervention by the state. So, this is the basic definition of ‘secularism’. As far as the Constitution goes, you are right. Initially, the word ‘secularism’ was not there. But later it was added (by a Constitutional amendment). There is no such thing as western colour (in taking a perceptual view). Secularism is engrained in the Indian ethos. It is not, I would say, a foreign ideology, and certainly not something seen through the prism of western culture. What does ‘ vasudeva kudumbakam ’ mean? The world is one family. So, what does the ideal of ‘ sarva dharma samabhav ’ mean? Therefore, this approach marked by equanimity to all religions is very much engrained in our Indian ethos, Indian culture and ‘ sanatana dharma ’.

THC: With the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi elevated as the BJP’s Election Campaign Committee Chairman for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, how do you see the issue of secularism playing out among the voters in particular?

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Seshadri Chari

Seshadri-Charijpg Of course, it is a political issue. I don’t see any direct relationship between a discussion on secularism and Modi’s elevation. I see these things as very separate issues. Modi’s elevation is more or less a political strategy to say the least. So I don’t think the larger issue of secularism can be discussed in the context of what a political party in the country does. But it is very strange that when Rahul Gandhi is elevated as Congress Vice-President, nobody discusses it in terms of secularism and communalism. These are all part of pigeonhole thinking that inter-alia saying that the Congress is secular and the BJP is communal. This entire discourse of secular versus communal has assumed political proportions. As long as you view it through the political prism, you will never arrive at a proper conclusion. So, I don’t look at Modi’s elevation as a debate between secularism and communalism. I look at it purely as the BJP’s political strategy strictly with the 2014 polls in view.

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Digvijaya Singh

Digvijaya-Singhjpg First of all, the BJP has been sort of oscillating between extreme right-wing Hindu fundamentalism and the other extreme, Gandhian socialism. It is not for the first time. Ideologically, the BJP is one of the most confused parties, which cannot decide which way to go. And it is now reflected in the speech of Narendra Modi, when he calls Shyama Prasad Mukerji (founder of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh), as the first Indian martyr after Independence, forgetting the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi. And that too coming from a Chief Minister of Gujarat, it is absolutely shameful. It is this ideology of hate that killed Mahatma Gandhi and it is this ideology of hate and violence that the Congress has been fighting from the very beginning and it has never compromised politically with this ideology. But other political parties, who can be grouped as secular parties, have at one time or the other aligned themselves to form a government with the erstwhile Jan Sangh or the BJP.

THC: Why do you think this perception has arisen? Just as the Ayodhya issue was seen as a polarising factor in the Indian polity in the recent past, now Narendra Modi’s emergence is being seen as ushering in another hard-line “Hindutva’’ phase.

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Seshadri Chari

Seshadri-Charijpg Neither the BJP nor Narendra Modi are talking about ‘Hindutva’. If you very closely look at the issues, in 2004 (Lok Sabha polls), the BJP raised the issue of economic development. The issue at that time was ‘India Shining’, not ‘Hindutva’. In 2009 again, it was not ‘Hindutva’. The NDA (National Democratic Alliance), especially the BJP, spoke about mis-governance and also the holiday the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government gave for the economic programmes of the NDA under Left parties’ pressure. So, these issues were mainly in focus. So, I mean the issue of Ayodhya, of the Ram Temple, the issue of ‘Hindutva’, has never been used in the same, similar political fashion, as they were used before. Again, it is very ironical if you look at it in hindsight. The Ram Temple issue was drummed up, the BJP got attached to that issue and the result was that a person who did not have a so-called communal tag and who had a very large secular tag, became the Prime Minister of that entire movement, a moderate [reference to A. B. Vajpayee] gaining the most from the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi Movement’, not the ‘Hindutva’ hardliners. So, it is not necessary that another ‘Hindutva Movement’ or a ‘Hindutva Agenda’ will give you the same result. Because, the political agenda which is set by a political party and the understanding of the political situation (at a particular juncture) by the people, the voters, are totally different in this country. So, if people will vote for the BJP, especially under the leadership of Narendra Modi, I think it will be for governance, rather than ‘Hindutva’. I think the BJP is smart enough to realise this. That is why neither the BJP, nor Narendra Modi is mentioning ‘Hindutva’, Ayodhya, these issues anywhere. They are talking only about the economic development of Gujarat, governance and a corruption-free administration. And if you see that, to a very large extent, Modi is attached to these three issues.

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Digvijaya Singh

Digvijaya-Singhjpg We have seen how the BJP has used Hindu sentiments towards Bhagawan Ram for their own political ends and, therefore, the Indian people now know the machinations or the efforts of the BJP to use religious sentiments of the people of this country for their own political ends, without delivering what they have promised. We never gave a holiday to economic reforms. But yes, people may differ on the pace of the economic reforms. The Congress party is a political party that is extremely sensitive to the issue of what is good for the nation and what is not good for the nation. We adopted economic liberalisation since Mr. Rajiv Gandhi began the process of economic reforms. And it was later pursued by Mr. Narasimha Rao and Dr. Manmohan Singh. In the earlier phase (the path of socialism as a developmental strategy), when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru brought in heavy industry, big infrastructure projects in the public sector, and also the land reform and land ceiling he brought in by the ‘Zamindari Abolition Act’, all these steps were opposed by the BJP, the then Jan Sangh. Therefore, we have been following policies that are good for the nation, like the development of the public sector when it was most needed. Later, when Mr. Rajiv Gandhi brought in the super computer, it is the BJP and this sort of thinking that again opposed saying that the use of computer would make a number of people jobless. Now what has happened? The IT industry has flourished and provided millions of jobs. Therefore the BJP is basically trained to oppose everything that the Congress does. And it is not yet very clear as to what the BJP means by economic liberalisation because the ‘Sangh’ talks of the ‘swadeshi movement’. We do believe in the Gandhian philosophy of the khadi and village industry, the small and medium units, but at the same time, we have to change with the times. How can you leave alone the use of machines, the use of computers as part of a different development strategy?

THC: After the BJP’s recent Goa meeting, with the JD(U)’s (Janata Dal-United) unequivocal rejection of a ‘new authoritarian cult’ that Narendra Modi might come to symbolise in the run-up to the 2014 elections and L. K. Advani’s own reflections in his blog, do you think it has set the stage for another polarisation of forces on the secularism plank?

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Seshadri Chari

Seshadri-Charijpg As far as the issue of decisions taken in Goa [at the BJP’s national executive committee meeting] are concerned, I don’t think the JD(U) [under Nitish Kumar’s leadership] and Mr. Advani can be brought into one single bracket. They are not on the same page on this. The JD(U)‘s decision is a political one. The JD (U)’s decision to distance itself from the NDA is a calculated, political decision. Whether it was right or wrong, only time will tell. Whereas, Advaniji’s stand is more or less like a warning to us. it is more or less like raising, so to say, certain apprehensions. So what Advaniji has done is he has just cautioned us, it is like a red signal to a train, to say that ‘look, there is danger ahead, go slow’. So, I think Advaniji’s suggestions [in his blogs], should be taken in that light. All that Advaniji is asking is, why put all eggs in one basket? So his remarks suggesting that we exercise caution [in his thoughts on collective leadership] should therefore be seen in this light. So, I would rather differentiate between the JD(U)’s position and Advaniji’s views. They are two very different things.

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Digvijaya Singh

Digvijaya-Singhjpg The ‘Sangh’ has modelled its structure, its ideology, on the basis of the Nazi party and Mussolini’s party. In fact, Dr. B. S. Moonje, [who quit the Congress to join Hindu Maha Sabha and was its all-India President from 1927-37], had gone to Europe in the early 1930s to meet Hitler and Mussolini, and the ‘Sangh’ has been structured as an organisation based on an authoritarian cult. That is why they don’t have elections in the ‘Sangh’. They have contempt towards democracy. They don’t believe in democracy. Mr. Narendra Modi is a trained ‘pracharak’ of the ‘Sangh’, who makes no bones about it. He is a symbol of the authoritarian behaviour of the ‘Sangh’. The way he has steamrolled the opposition in Gujarat, even the BJP leaders and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) is an example. He has allegedly used the Gujarat Police to do fake encounters of innocent people, on the basis of false intelligence inputs that they had come to kill Narendra Modi. This was to create an aura of heroism around Mr. Modi. This is how Hitler became the dictator in Germany. If you see the parallel, the way the ‘Sangh’ and the Nazi party functioned, you will see a remarkable similarity between the two. ;;

THC: In recent years, there is a definitive minority focus in several of the Central Government’s welfare programmes, both under targets and outlays. Will it strengthen secularism by reducing distrust among various communities?

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Seshadri Chari

Seshadri-Charijpg No, I believe that the recent actions of the UPA-II, especially in bending over backwards to appease minorities, will only create a greater distance between the so-called minority community and the so-called majority community. I see a definite change in the attitude of the minorities also. It would be very wrong to think that by announcing some meagre programmes for minorities, it is going to consolidate the votes of the minorities for the Congress. Had it been so, the Congress should have swept the polls in Uttar Pradesh and drawn the Muslim votes towards itself. Similarly, on an earlier occasion, even an overwhelming majority of the Hindu community voted for the BSP [Bahujan Samaj Party headed by Ms. Mayawati] in order to throw out the SP [Samajwadi Party led by Mr. Mulayam Singh Yadav]. So, people, especially when it comes to voting, are looking at a very different aspect, rather than falling for sloganeering or these small-time mercies being doled out by the political parties.

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Digvijaya Singh

Digvijaya-Singhjpg In the findings of the Sachar Committee, the socio-educational and economic structure of Muslims among the minorities is unfortunately quite low, compared to other social groups among different religious groups. So, there is a need to look into the socio-educational and economic backwardness of the Muslims to enable them come to a level-playing field. The UPA government, which has been extremely sensitive to their cause, has made provision for higher allocation of funds to provide them education and skill development. As for its fallout, we are not worried about it. We are more concerned about the well-being of the people than political results. To us, what is most important is to give a fair deal to every citizen of this country. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru abolished ‘zamindari’, brought in land ceiling, incurred the wrath of the big landlords and distributed land to the poor. It was opposed by these very same ‘Jan Sanghis’. When Nehru built Bhakra Nangal dam, it was opposed by them. When Nehru built the public sector undertakings like BHEL, SAIL, it was opposed by them. When Mrs. Indira Gandhi brought in bank nationalisation, it was opposed by them, but it later saved us from a collapse when the global recession took place in 2008. When Rajiv Gandhi brought in computers, it was opposed by them. When Mr. Narasimha Rao took forward economic liberalisation, it was opposed by them. When Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, at her initiative, brought the ‘Right to Information Act’, it was opposed by them. When we [UPA] brought in the MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) for the poor, it was opposed by these very ‘Sanghis’. So we don’t mind about that.

Mr. Seshadri Chari, member of the BJP’s national executive committee and a member of its foreign affairs committee, was interviewed recently by The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy in New Delhi.

Mr. Digvijaya Singh, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh and a general secretary of the All India Congress Committee was interviewed in New Delhi and Bangalore.

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