Jawaharlal Nehru, as an individual, was a genuine secularist: Nalini Rajan

Nalini Rajan has written about and taught democracy, secularism and identity issues. She is the dean of studies at the Asian College Of Journalism. Here she talks about secularism, Nehru and the complexities that have in the past proven that it is not as easily implementable as it may be definable. Her book, The Story of Secularism: 15th-21st Century, has recently been published.

Nalini Rajan

Nalini Rajan

Has the idea of ‘Indian secularism’ succumbed to the very characteristics it has boasted of keeping together – pluralism? Is that one of the biggest challenges facing the idea, one that struggles between a proportional approach (Hindu dominated population) or a flat-denomination approach (where even a one-man religion may sustain)?

Has secularism succumbed to pluralism?  I wouldn't put it that way, because I believe that almost all states and societies are pluralistic today, in one way or the other — and that's a positive thing.  Pluralism [though], then, poses challenges to secularism. But as I have shown in my book, it does so almost everywhere — in the USA, in France, and in India.

France’s struggle and near capitulation over the past few centuries is indicative of something. But is a ‘Laïcité-like’ secularism not possible in India?  When there are entirely too many elements to consider, wouldn’t an evasive politics work or can at least be tried? What do you think?

France faces challenges to secularism or ‘Laïcité’ because of its inability to deal with its Maghrebian population, the majority of whom belong to the Islamic faith. Laïcité worked in France till the 1950s, as long as it had a largely Judaeo-Christian population.  The problem with Laïcité is that it does not easily lend itself to adaptability over time. As far as India is concerned, I would call for a principled, contextual, negotiated position of secularism, rather than for 'evasive politics' as you call it. In fact, evasive politics is what has been followed in India since the Nehruvian epoch.

Nehru is remembered, and now re-eulogised for his secular ideas. What were his successes and failures according to you?

I believe that as an individual, Jawaharlal Nehru was a genuine secularist. As a Prime Minister, however, he did little beyond calling for 'a scientific temper' among the citizenry, or promoting films that criticised religious superstition like Satyajit Ray's Devi. By adopting a policy of benign neglect, a government can hardly expect people to miraculously become secular on their own!  But even so, Nehru had far more integrity as a secularist as compared to his daughter or his grandson, or indeed any other Indian Prime Minister.

One of the more elaborate ideas put forth in the book is that of the secular triangle with the State, Religion and the Individual as its vertices. You say that it is important to keep the triangle in whatever shape or form. While the French have tried to distance religion from the state, over the years in India, the two have come closer. Is that why we exist in a religion-as-ideology, or the nation-state era? Are those two vertices now too close for comfort, perhaps even inseparable? What are the risks then?


In the book, I talk about the 'secular triangle', with its three axes of state neutrality, freedom of religion, and equal citizenship. The problem today is that all three axes are in jeopardy.  Democracy itself is in danger, when we do not treat all our citizens equally.  If people cannot eat what they want, or dress the way they want, or pray the way they want, or even love whom they want, we cannot exist as a modern secular democracy. We are at risk of becoming a communally violent state and society.

If secularism treats all religions as equal, how does it address the issue of practice (some are different than the other)? Most religions, as you mention are patriarchal in nature, and therefore is a uniform civil code more of a necessity (to flatten the landscape) to establish humanism before it establishes a person’s religion?

Yes, I do believe that practice can be different.  At the same time, I believe that — even within one religion — there can be a huge variation in terms of practices.  For the sake of expediency, we say 'Hinduism', 'Islam', or 'Christianity', as if all these labels are mutually exclusive.  Yet a lot of people have seen themselves (and some continue to do so) as 'Hindu-Muslims' or 'Hindu-Christians'.  I will concede, however, that almost all religious practice is patriarchal, and bringing in gender justice (perhaps in the form of a uniform civil code that would be acceptable to women) would be a way of re-appropriating our humanity.

A question that most people with secular ideas or theories fail to answer is that of atheism. How do you fit atheists in any of the secular triangles which no longer even look like a triangle? Is that also indicative of how religion grants privilege (by way of having the extra vertex and thereby a way to engage the state)?

If you look closely at the images of the secular triangle in the book, you will notice that the axis, 'Freedom of Religion', has 'Religion' at one end, and 'Individual/Group' at the other.  What this demonstrates is the following:  Freedom of Religion implies the group's freedom to believe in any religion or cult and the individual's freedom not to believe in any religion or cult.  That is how the atheist or agnostic is included in the secular triangle.  Of course the other part of the triangle is about the relationship between Religion and the State.  State Neutrality is admittedly a tricky question in India, because of Constitutional provisions like Articles 17, 25(2), and 30(2) that call for active state intervention in religious affairs. Here is where the state should take a contextual and principled stance (to which I refer in one of your earlier questions, with respect to judicial cases concerning state neutrality.

8th February 1947: Indian statesman Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889 - 1964, facing camera) attends a meeting of the Constituent Assembly in the Council House Library, New Delhi, to decide on the constitution of the newly independent India. Nehru was to serve as prime minister of India from this time until his death in 1964. Original Publication: Picture Post - 4325 - India: The Last Chance - pub. 1947 (Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images)

Says Nalini Rajan, "I believe that as an individual, Jawaharlal Nehru was a genuine secularist. As a Prime Minister, however, he did little beyond calling for 'a scientific temper' among the citizenry." Photo by Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Getty Images

The school years and childhood are when most people get inducted into religion by instruction and do not necessarily arrive by choice. Can we perhaps address that in some way? Does our discourse even allow that? What has your experience been as a teacher?

This is a tricky question, because it refers to the differentiation between 'freedom of conscience' and 'freedom of choice' as delineated by the American philosopher, Michael Sandel.  As far as most people are concerned, religious faith is not a matter of choice.  They are born into one or other faith, and they conduct their worship and other rites, accordingly. These people demand that the state give them the freedom to follow the religious dictates of their conscience. But there are others who want the freedom to change their faith or religion, and therefore want the state to allow them the freedom of choice for religious conversion. As a teacher, I can only say that both these freedoms are important and the state should honour them.

Finally, you say in the book that Dalits and people belonging to lower castes will carry the baton of secularism, and stand to gain from modern secularism in India. Could we then say that instances like Una, now Maharashtra etc are the face of modern secularism in India? Are we inching closer to whatever the idea of ‘Indian secularism’ is?

In a hierarchical society guided by the dogmas of caste, it is very hard to achieve the ideal of equal citizenship.  As long as the upper castes practise endogamous marriages, and believe in their own superiority, and refuse to acknowledge the fact that their privileges have a long lineage, it would be difficult to see them as the guardians of a secular democracy.  Dalits and other lower castes and tribes have a far greater stake in equality and in secular modernity.  After all, these are the values they are fighting for in Una and elsewhere.  Thanks to their struggles, are we inching closer to the idea of secularism?  I very much hope so!

Updated Date: Oct 08, 2016 09:26 AM

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