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Redefining secularism

By Subramanian Swamy

The real reason secularism as propounded by Nehru has floundered is that it lacked the positive content of providing a process for assimilation of the lower castes into the elite.

WITH THE countdown to the General Elections on, secularism will be a much-bandied-about subject during the campaign. Unfortunately, those political parties who have been swearing by it all these years have failed to persuade the masses that secularism is good for country. In fact, secularism as defined and propagated today has lost its relevance. The concept as understood by the masses of India stands thoroughly discredited. Hence the question is whether we should redefine secularism to make it acceptable to the masses in the polls, or capitulate to the rising fundamentalism in the country.

When Martin Luther had defined secularism in Europe, it simply meant that the power of the state would be exercised independently of the directions of the Church. Thus, a secular government would act to safeguard the nation-state, even if such action was without Church sanction. Later Marx, calling religion the `opium of the masses,' defined secularism to completely eschew religion, in fact to debunk the very idea of any religious adherence.

In India, Jawaharlal Nehru and his followers subscribed to the later Marxist re-definition of the concept by which even in public function cultural symbolism such as lighting a lamp to inaugurate a conference or breaking a coconut to launch a project was regarded as against secularism. This orthodoxy induced a reaction in the Indian masses for whom religion was a way of life. Nehru had also failed to define what historical roots ought to be a part of the modem Indian, and what was to be rejected. Instead in the name of `scientific temper', he rejected most of our past as `obscurantism' although in his later years especially after the 1962 debacle he came under the influence of at least one mystic. His orthodox secularism sought to alienate the Indian from his hoary past.

Since nearly 85 per cent of Indians are pan-Hindu in beliefs, and Hindu religion from its inception has been without a `Church', `Pope' or `Book' (in contra-distinction to Christianity or Islam), therefore neither Martin Luther nor Marx made any sense to the Indian masses. Since there was little political challenge to Nehru after the untimely death of Gandhiji and Patel, the Marxian secularism concept superficially prevailed in the Indian milieu till his demise in 1964. The masses therefore had humoured Nehru out of respect for him without imbibing his concept of secularism. A conceptual void of what secularism means for India, and what part of history was to be owned however remained to be filled.

The Congress Party continued thereafter even after Nehru to fail to provide a political concept of secularism by which an Indian citizen could comprehend how he should bond "secularly" with another citizen of a different religion or language, or region and yet feel equally Indian. The Hindu instinctively could not accept the idea that India was what the British had put together, and that the country was just an area incorporated by the imperialists. Such a ridiculous idea, fostered quixotically by Jawaharlal Nehru University historians, found just no takers amongst the Indian people. The void remained thus, but the yearning in the masses to be Indian grew over the years with the growth of the mass media. This void had therefore to be filled and the yearning of national identity required to be articulated for the masses.

As nature abhors a vacuum, this void is now being increasingly filled, using religious symbols, by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. India being 85 per cent Hindu, and furthermore since the folklore in this religion has been pan-Indian, it was easy for the masses to understand the religious bonding. For example, the Ramayana narration traverses from the Himalayas to the Punjab to Sri Lanka. Mahabharata covers incidents from Assam to Gujarat. Adi Shankara connected Kerala to Kashmir. The RSS therefore produced a heady mixture of facts, half-truth and blatant lies and served it to the people through a vast network of propagandists (called Pracharaks). The mutilation of Indian history by the British and later by the JNU camp came in very handy for these RSS pracharaks, because the absurd Aryan-Dravidian two-nation two-race theory for example, propounded by the British had been rejected by all Indian seers and patriots whether it was Swami Vivekananda, or Subramania Bharati, or Dr. Ambedkar. Yet till recently, the Nehru acolytes had assiduously propagated it and incorporated it into school curriculum. To reject it did not mean that one was an RSS adherent, but that was what the Nehru secularists precisely alleged. The RSS made most of this. Now it is pathetic to see these very secularists capitulating in the new power dispensation when revision of history has become official state policy. For example, for decades Professor Romila Thapar of the JNU propagated the Aryan-Dravidian two-race theory. But in 2002, in her book Penguin History of Early India she has disowned the Aryan-Dravidian race/nation theory altogether. She states now that: "To refer to `the Aryan' as a race is therefore inaccurate." Better late than never, but it is a pity that she has done it after the RSS has found power at the Centre and launched revision of textbooks.

Under cover of correcting the distorted history of India, which history had hurt the sentiments of not only the masses but of all non-anglicised intellectuals of India, the RSS has very nearly destroyed the natural appeal of secularism in the country. The RSS pracharaks have also re-defined secularism and painted it as appeasement of the minorities. This unfortunately because of the historical context has struck a responsive chord in the hearts of the Hindu masses.

Hence if we are to reject the Martin Luther, Marxist, Nehruvian and the RSS version of secularism, then it is imperative to define how we are to positively structure a new concept that has appeal for the Indian masses.

To do that we have to recognise the process that the doyen of sociologists, Dr. M.N. Srinivas, had termed Sanskritisation. This term has nothing to do with the ancient language. Instead it comes from the word Sanskriti, which means culture. This learned scholar had told me years ago that the Indian masses first ape, then digest, and finally assimilate elite behaviour. He had decades of published research to prove this. The final co-option of the upward mobile sections of the masses for assimilation as elites, happens with religions sanction. To see this in reality, one has to study how the Nadars in Tamil Nadu, Ezhavas in Kerala, and Jats in Uttar Pradesh became elites in society. The Thevars may be the next caste to be so assimilated. The great Ramanuja had even assimilated well-educated Scheduled Castes into the socially prestigious priestly class.

It is my view that the real reason secularism as propounded by Nehru has floundered is that it became an obstacle to this process of Sanskritisation. That is, secularism as defined by Nehru in fact froze the Hindu social order by either nonchalance to religion or by its implied negative rebuke. It lacked the positive content of providing a process for assimilation of the lower castes into the elite.

It is interesting to observe that the Hindutva propounded by the RSS has attracted more of the lower and deprived castes that the so-called upper castes. In Uttar Pradesh, the Yadavas, Kurmis, and Lodhs were the most enthusiastic adherents of Hindutva since it enabled Sanskritisation through political empowerment. The Babri Masjid was demolished by mobs of the backward castes. Uma Bharti or Sadhvi Ritambara are from these castes.

Hence, today Yadava leaders like Mulayam Singh, Kurmi leaders like Nitish Kumar and Lodh leaders like Kalyan Singh are feeling the heat of Hindutva and the pressure to conform. The RSS may be Brahmin-dominated at the leadership level, but its storm troopers like the Bajrang Dal are mostly of the Hindu "proletariat."

Hence, rather than surrender or capitulate to this Hindutva blitzkrieg, and thus cause a frightening re-run of 1930s Germany in our country, secular patriotic forces now ought to and should redefine secularism as a neo-Gandhi-Patel concept rejecting the Nehruvian variety.

For this Sanskritisation should be promoted by a call declaring the caste system as anti-Hindu. Not that it will abolish the caste system, but it will begin the ferment for it. There is sufficient theological basis for such a call. Dr. M.V. Nadkarni has written a masterpiece on this in Economic and Political Weekly (November 8, 2003) titled "Is Caste System Intrinsic to Hinduism — Demolishing a Myth." He has made out a convincing case that birth-based caste system is actually against the tenets of Hindu religion. Incidentally, Dr. Ambedkar, himself a scholar of Hindu religion and history, has all along held this view in his numerous and now buried writings. Dalit writers of today have totally distorted his concepts, and hence contributed to the obscuring of his writings.

Only an approach of incorporating Sankritisation in a concept of secularism can insulate the Indian mind from communal pollution and halt fascism. Indian culture needs modernisation, but not westernisation. In other words, we have to set religion to curb religious fanaticism in India much as Vivekananda, Subramania Bharati and Gandhiji had tried to do. The task is incomplete and in fact interrupted by the Nehru interlude and the RSS vulgarisation. It needs to be boldly rectified today.

(The writer is president, Janata Party.)

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