July 24, 2018

Sandwiched Nehru: Religious Minorities and Indian Secularism | M Christhu Doss

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53, Issue No. 29, 21 Jul, 2018 

Sandwiched Nehru

Religious Minorities and Indian Secularism
M Christhu Doss (dossjnu[at]gmail.com) teaches history at the University of Delhi, New Delhi.

Jawaharlal Nehru’s tryst with secularism and communal politics may be enumerated through a critical rereading of the religious apprehensions expressed by the Christian community over the question of their right to propagation. Was Indian secularism an effective ideological substitute to communal politics or merely a tactical tool for achieving political gains during Nehru’s times? Nehru’s vision of secularism, in having to negotiate the politics of Hindu fundamentalism as well as Congress majoritarianism, was forced to accommodate the flavours of a majoritarian cultural climate with some preferential treatment to Hindu rights.
The politics of communalism and secularism has gone through a turbulent and tumultuous history in postcolonial India (Chatterjee 2007: 143). While some scholars attempted to understand secularism as a sociopolitical oddity in the religion-oriented Indian society, others interpret it as a “political trick” to attract the attention of minorities, facilitating vote bank politics (Suroor 2014). The conditions for a democratic politics of secularism cannot be created unless historians grapple with these contradictions (Chatterjee 2007: 143). This article explores the complex connections between two related but distinct discourses—Indian secularism and communalism.
Despite the fact that there has been substantial historical research on nationalism and communalism in India, scholarly research on secularism is inadequate. Shabnum Tejani (2008: 1–24) maintains that the debate on secularism has been dominated by sociologists and political theorists who attempt to locate it largely in the postcolonial context. She argues that secularism within a liberal democracy played a key role when India became independent. This, according to her, had been designed for a specific reason—to create a democratic majority through the appropriation of “untouchables” (Dalits) into a caste Hindu identity. She appends that secularism was made one of the pillars of the Indian nationalist thought, predominantly by upper-caste Hindu men. Therefore, Indian secularism was not about the separation of politics from religion or creating a particular “Indian” ethics of tolerance. Rather, it was and is a nexus between caste, community, nationalism, communalism, liberalism, and democracy.
The historical roots of Indian secularism cannot be appositely understood without adopting a critical and empirical approach to studies in the history of Hindutva politics and of majoritarianism in contemporary Indian politics. This is largely due to the fact that the Indian polity contains a majority–minority structure and therefore, the very basis of secularism is jeopardised by dominant forces such as religion. In recent times, religion is made to be closely associated with community, nation and civilisation (Sunder Rajan and Dingwaney Needham 2007: 1–5). In the face of this challenge and contradiction, this article re-examines the idea of Nehruvian secularism, not through the lens of state orientation but through the minority discourse. Recently, particularly since the rise of Hindutva forces, labels such as “anti-nationals,” “pseudo-secularists,” and “Macaulayites” among others, have come to be readily associated with discussions on politics and religion or secularism and communalism (Tejani 2007). “The standard diagnosis,” as Ashis Nandy (2007) puts it, preferred by the Hindu nationalists is that secularism—as practised by the Gandhians and the leftists—has failed, as it has become synonymous to merely being a tool to appease religious minorities. This, according to him, is the “clever political ploy” designed to discourage political opponents, including Jawaharlal Nehru (Nandy 2007: 107–09).
Against the array of scholars who have affirmed a secularist perspective, Rajeev Bhargava’s The Promise of India’s Secular Democracy (2010: 63–105) throws some light on the different strands of secularism in India, drawing up a critical perspective. While agreeing with the views of T N Madan (1999), Nandy (1999) and Partha Chatterjee (1999), Bhargava holds the view that one of the internal threats to secularism is the failure to realise the distinctive character of Indian secularism. Nevertheless, Bhargava (2010: 63–67) contests the postulation made by those scholars who assert that the conceptual and normative structure of secularism is flawed. He states that the discussion of secularism in India should move beyond the conventional approach—separation of religion and state. He anticipates that there should be a drastic change in the perspective itself with a view to take the spiritual and ethical elements common to all religious practices, and transpose them into a secular, non-doctrinal framework for behaviour under the broader umbrella called spiritualised, humanist secularism (Bhargava 1995: 341).
As an active political player who perhaps made a significant contribution to the idea of religious egalitarianism, Nehru has become a more pertinent anti-colonial crusader than any other leader in contemporary India. In fact, he was the first Indian liberal democrat to view communalism as an Indian form of fascism, to write a great deal on communal politics and to emphasise the social relevance of secularism in multicultural Indian society (Chandra et al 2008: 86–99). As a sharply intuitive and keenly perceptive politician who did not commonly wear his faith on his sleeves, he tried to develop a sense of political morality without scaffolding it with traditionally practised Indian religion and did not discern secularisation as the “ineluctable dynamo” of Indian politics (Khilnani 2007: 89–106). Although he had a discernible desire to separate the domains of religion and politics, he had no alternative but to involve the state in the regulation, funding and administration of various religious institutions (Chatterjee 1999: 141–53).
Communalism, as an ideology for political mobilisation, was persistently resonating in the sentiments of the religiously conscious communities (Engineer 1995: xiii–xiv). This is evident from the fact that to date, almost every discourse on communalism and secularism operates with preconceived notions about culture, religion, civilisation and their interrelationships (Vanaik 1997: 130). Indian secularism, as this article suggests, is a comprehensive package of Nehruvian discovery, ideas, politics, and strategies, designed to grapple with the communal politics of his times. Secularism in India has mostly implied anti-communalism rather than any positive discourse from a rationalist position (Sarkar 2007: 356–66). As a rationalist and believer of scientific humanism, Nehru reasoned that religion should be divorced from politics, hoping that communalism would eventually wane with modernisation and development (Gopal 1996: 195–215).
Christians and Communal Politics
Though significant strides have been taken to study Hindu–Muslim communal politics, the Christian community’s tryst with communal politics in postcolonial India still remains a virgin terrain. The ways in which the British rule “facilitated” missionaries and disseminated the influence of Christians in colonial India (Seth 2007: 27) could likely have sequestered the community from mainstream politics in large numbers in postcolonial India. The available historical literature suggests that missionaries and colonial officials were not two separate watertight compartments, instead they helped each other in their respective fields of knowledge, including language, literature, art, and education (Trautmann 2009: 189–207). No discussion on how Christians emerged from the margins of Indian history to the centre stage of Indian modernity is possible without addressing their significant but disproportionally represented role in shaping the idea of Indian secularism, particularly under Nehru (Chatterjee 2011: 2–5).
Despite their patriotic sentiments, the followers of Christianity were portrayed by the Hindutva forces as “anti-national” and a threat to the integrity of India. It was alleged by the Hindu fundamentalists that Christians and missionaries were fostering “anti-national” tendencies in Nagaland, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala and other regions of the country (Mukherjee et al 2008: 26–27). It is a historical distortion to argue that Christians, as a religious minority, were anti-nationals in postcolonial India. The empirical evidence suggests that the Christians in India neither demanded a separate communal identity solely on the basis of religion, culture, history, and/or tradition (except in some pockets in the North East), nor did the community construct an exclusive identity on territorial, genealogical and religious foundations (Chakrabarty 2003: 10–11). The proponents of majoritarian ethics and the Hindu rashtra made painstaking efforts to paint the community with a different cultural pattern, implying it to be incompatible with mainstream Indian culture. They also claimed that Christianity was purely a colonial product (Robinson 2003: 287–305).
Though the colonial administration and missionary societies often worked on mutual cooperation and support, colonial officials often viewed missionaries suspiciously, as a hindrance to “religious neutrality” in India. In fact, the question of keeping “undesirable missionaries” out of India did arise in the 1930s.1 The colonial administration also developed hostility towards missionaries as they were seen as “active propagandists” against the colonial rule.2 Admittedly, some missionaries appeared to have played active politics against the colonial government with the support of the Indian National Congress.3 Similarly, the attitude of the British Indian government towards missionaries, in a few instances, endorsed missionary presence in India.4 Even after India’s independence, the dominant narrative on colonial religious discourse continued to historicise the very idea of Christianity as a Western import.
The revival of majoritarian communalism within the Congress and its depressing implications on government policies forced Nehru to define secularism in unambiguous terms (Guha 2007: 129–30). When religious rhetoric became increasingly intertwined in the political process (Nandy 2002: 73–74), it created conflicting ideas of secularism, and divided various political parties into two antithetical ideological groups—inclusive Indian secularism and exclusive majoritarian communalism. When the former constituted a microscopic minority, the latter were overflowing in numerical strength (Thapar 2004: 198–99).
Similarly, the members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the All India Hindu Mahasabha (hereafter Hindu Mahasabha), often described as a pressure group within the Congress in the initial period, persevered to reckon with the pioneering secular ideals of Congressmen like Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and B R Ambedkar. They interpreted Nehruvian secularism to be built predominantly on Western concepts and therefore, naturally alien to the Indian ethos (Huda 1947).
In fact, they defined Nehruvian secularism as an unusual combination of Anglo–Muslim Indianism, as depicted in Figure 1. While the social vision of Nehru encompassed a secular state and plural society, the proponents of majoritarian ethics and Hindu rashtra narrowed down the scope of secularism to merely a political tool to insulate minorities, including Christians (Chandra 2004: 72–75). Nehru’s secularism, in contrast, seemed to have advocated equality of religions, neutrality towards all religions, disassociation of religion from the state, equal opportunity for the followers of all religions, and free play for all religions (Chandra 2004: 6–7). While Nehru attempted to delink secularism from majoritarianism, most of his fellow Congressmen tried to find fault lines in his ideology (Rajagopalan 2005: 244–46).
Hindu Rashtra:’ Secularism Debate
When India was passing through a turbulent period of transfer of power, maintaining peace and order, and suppressing communal riots became the immediate challenges of Nehru.5 He believed that secularism could be achieved only through a socialist democracy that promises every citizen equal opportunities, irrespective of caste, creed, and gender. He assured that as long as he was at the helm, the country would never become a Hindu nation.6 He deplored the demand for a Hindu nation made by the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. He criticised the idea of the Hindu rashtra vehemently, for he believed that doing so would make the international community look down upon India as a narrow-minded country with strong leanings towards fascism. He argued that such a demand was a reaction to the Muslim League’s success in partitioning the country on religious lines and establishing the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Although he did not have any antagonism towards Hinduism and its culture,7 Nehru objected to the demand for a Hindu state for the simple reason that it would lead to a communal state,8 which, in turn, would be a death blow to the hard-earned freedom.
Convinced of the potentially irreversible harm it might cause to the nation, Nehru denounced mixing religion and politics, insisting that such a move would silence the very life of secular politics that is based on the principles of freedom and equality for all regardless of one’s faith.9 In his letters to the leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, Nehru expressed his distress at their activities and their association with communal tensions and social disorder. In 1956, Nehru categorically stated that the cry from a certain section of the Hindu leadership for a Hindu nation was a regressive postulation. He believed that the communal sentiments disseminated by these fringe elements was an attempt to revive the supremacist poison of a particular religion—Hinduism. He condemned the fact that the Hindus who raised the issue of Hindu rashtra had even subjugated a section of their own community and kept them in serfdom.10
There is an element of reality in validating the argument that the majoritarian community, by itsall-pervading dominant Hindu culture, naturally overshadowed “other” cultural shades. Purushottam Das Tandon, an orthodox Hindu who admirably represented the extreme communalist wing of the Congress, was seen by Nehru as a threat to Congress and government policy. He even issued a public statement to the press on 13 September 1950, deploring the fact that both communalist and reactionary forces had expressed their joy at Tandon’s victory in the elections of August 1950. Nehru’s home minister Vallabhbhai Patel, a senior Congressman, had never seen Nehru eye to eye on the minority question. As pointed out by Sarvepalli Gopal, the biographer of Nehru, even Rajendra Prasad was “prominent in the ranks of medievalism,” who differed with Nehru on a range of subjects, including the place of religion in public life (Guha 2007: 127–35; Gopal 1979: 309). Patel’s personal and official visit to the controversial Somnath temple in September 1947, K M Munshi’s active participation in rebuilding the temple, and Rajendra Prasad’s official participation in its “spectacular opening,” pushed Nehru to deal with the question of communalism and secularism with even greater urgency than before (Guha 2007: 127–35).
While addressing the nation after the gunning down of Mahatma Gandhi on 30 January 1948, Nehru equated communalism to poison and appealed to the people to root out that venom. Resolutions were passed to the effect that there was no place in the country for any organisation preaching violence and communal hatred. Similarly, at the governors’ conference held a few days later on 2 February 1948, several suggestions regarding the need to ban communal organisations, including the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS were made. As a result, for the first time in independent India, contesting communalism through secularism became a historical necessity, to ensure that communalism did not grow its roots deeper in the country.11
This provided Nehru the much-needed ideological buttress that pushed his onslaught on communalism to the next level, whereby hedeclared that the day for communal organisations in politics was a closed chapter in history12 and asserted that the best way to pay homage to Gandhi was to reject communalism.13 Nehruvian secularism gained much more currency when Nehru himself drafted and passed a resolution in December 1948. It pronounced:
India has been and is a land of many religions and many races and must remain so. The freedom of India can only be based on a recognition of this richly varied life bound together by an overriding unity, and by full opportunities being given to every section of the people for professing and practicing their religion and culture… as a democratic secular state which neither favours nor discriminates any particular religion.14
In October 1951, the Congress party also passed a similar resolution and condemned casteism and communalism as practices that are contrary to the “true spirit” of religious and cultural traditions of the nation.15 Nehru kept reminding the chief ministers of Indian states that he would not allow communalism to malign the secular principles of the government (Ghose 1993: 173). His critical approach against communalism with special reference to the Hindu Mahasabha became a national drive when in 1951 he wrote identical letters to all the chief ministers concerning the issue.16
Christians and Nationalism
When anti-colonial crusaders were resisting imperial rule in India, a significant number of Christian leaders pledged their adherence to the Congress and Gandhi. This is evident from the fact that the national movement was followed up in its earliest stage by Indian Christians like W C Bonnerjee (Banerjee 1982: 248). At a time when the Hindu Mahasabha expressed no faith in the Congress and Gandhi with regard to the communal question, the Christian leaders seemed to have endorsed and even promoted Gandhi’s ideas.
The unabated support that the Christians lend to Gandhi’s ideology reached its peak in the 1940s when the community expressed its resolute confidence in the freedom struggle headed by him.17 The community believed in the ideal of a strong and indivisible India. D S Ramachandra Rao, the president of the All India Christian Council (AICC), appealed to every Christian to uphold the daring adventure of Gandhi’s non-violence. He also asserted that the betterment of the world and the preservation of human civilisation ultimately rested on Gandhi’s principle of non-violence.18 Commenting on Gandhi’s fast-unto-death and his arrest in 1943, Maharaja Singh, the president of the New Delhi session of the AICC, criticised the colonial government and demanded for his immediate and unconditional release.19
The Christian community’s protests against the arrests of Congress leaders, dedication for the achievement of swaraj, commitment for an indivisible and strong India, and its continued support to Gandhi’s ideology—except his non-cooperation movement—were publicly commended by Congress leaders. H N Kunzru, a Congress leader and member, council of state, while addressing the 1943 session of the AICC in Delhi observed that “it was heartening to find that the Indian Christian community is struggling for unity, when threats of division were overwhelming.” Applauding the community’s anti-communal approach throughout the Indian freedom struggle, he strongly refuted M K Gandhi’s observation that the contribution of Christians to India was “negative” in character. Kunzru declared that Christians had played their part in the national movement for securing a self-governing and self-reliant India by placing their country above communal considerations.20
The Christians had a range of discussions in 1943 on the political situation of India, where they opposed the very idea of partition. They condemned the widespread communal violence that erupted in August 1942. The AICC called upon the British government to make an unambiguous declaration that India should attain full freedom within two years. It appealed to the leaders of the principal political parties and communities in India to come to an agreed solution on communalism. It observed that the communal question should be referred to an international tribunal’s decision, if a solution could not be reached in India. In its 1945 conference of Indian Christians, the community demanded that the future Constitution of India must have the provision of right to profess, propagate and practice religion, and suggested that the change of religion should not involve any civil or political disability.21
Essentially, these three demands—the immediate grant of swaraj for India, unconditional release of Congress leaders, and opposition to partition—became the prime patriotic objectives of the Christian community in 1945.22 In fact, on 5 December 1946, the Christian leaders determined that they must strive to bring about communal harmony in the country, pledging that religion should never cast a shadow between the country and its freedom. The ways in which the community rejected the idea of separate electorates and reservation of seats with joint electorates resonated strongly with the Indian public throughout the freedom struggle.23
As a result of their “commitment for national cause,” the members of the Constituent Assembly contended with the demands made by the Christians with regard to the right to propagation. An advisory committee on minority and fundamental rights was set up by the Constituent Assembly in January 1947. It consisted of A Dharam Das from Uttar Pradesh, A Wilson and Jerome D’Souza from Madras, J Alban de Souza from Bombay, B Kakra from Bihar, N C Mukherjee and Frank Anthony from Bengal, J M Nicholas from Assam, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur from the Central Provinces and Berar. The “fair attitude” and “sacrifices” made by the Christians were publicly acknowledged and applauded by K M Munshi, legal pilot of the advisory committee, and Vallabhbhai Patel, chairman of the advisory committee, who was considered to be a “champion” of the Christian cause (Albuquerque 2005: 57).
In the course of the debates on the fundamental right to religious freedom in May 1947, many members of the Constituent Assembly objected to the inclusion of the right to propagation as a constituent of the freedom of religion, though few expressed their sympathy towards the community. Tandon, one of the members who opposed the right to propagation later justified it, saying “… we agreed to keep the word ‘propagate’ out of regard for our own Christian friends” (Sarkar 2004: 237).Consequently, decisions were made to the effect that the right to religion would be given to every religious community in India, including the Christians. Postcolonial scholarship indicates that the Christians did not lag behind any section of India in celebrating the freedom gained from British rule on 15 August 1947 (Lightfoot Cordell 2008: 228).
Christians and Anti-national Discourse
Despite the fact that the community had demonstrated its patriotic sentiments forcefully, Christians in postcolonial India were identified by the proponents of the Hindu rashtra as anti-nationals. The trauma of the centuries-long colonialism and consequent anti-British sentiment could likely have instilled a suspicious approach towards the missionaries and Christians. The proselytising activities of colonial missionaries prompted the Hindu fundamentalists to label all missionaries and Christians as “anti-nationals.” Christians were targeted and accused of having offended Hindu sentiments or of being in allegiance to a foreign power (Guha 2007: 649–50).
As Neera Chandhoke (1999: 74) argues, the ways in which the Hindutva and majoritarian politics made its claims and assertions, it subverted the dream of flourishing plural cultures after Indian independence.Both Hindu fundamentalism and Congress majoritarianism began to view the right to propagation with cynicism. The issue of “discriminatory treatment” to the Christians was first raised by Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, the first health minister in Nehru’s cabinet, in November 1952. Consequently, on 28 November 1952, Nehru wrote a letter to the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Ravishankar Shukla, directing him to undertake all efforts to give equal treatment to the Christians and to avoid any feelings of “unfair treatment.”24
Nehru held the view that the Hindu Mahasabha and RSS were primarily responsible for most attacks on the Christians and missionaries in India. Congress leaders viewed these organisations as the most precarious threat to the Constitution and secularism. This concoction of controversies compelled Nehru to take up the issue of the Christian minority with more urgency and purposefulness in the 1950s than ever before.25 Hindu fundamentalists and majoritarian Congress leaders expressed their apprehensions about the misuse of the right to religious freedom by the missionaries (Ahmed 2011: 60–61). The Christians and their religious propagation became contentious when majoritarian and fundamentalist forces began questioning the right to propagation, anticipating a possible threat to the existence and practice of Hinduism in Indian society (Robinson and Kujur 2010: 129–30).
It should be noted here that proselytisation during the colonial period and the right to propagation as guaranteed in the Constitution of the independent and democratic India were perceived as substitutes for each other. Some members in Nehru’s cabinet even set up a motion to interrogate the right to religion, which generated far-reaching ramifications among diplomats outside India. The Indian high commissioner to Canada, R R Saxena, raised doubts about the religious neutrality of the government when the union home minister K N Katju interpreted propagation as proselytisation. On 21 April 1953, Saxena explained that the propagation activities in the country would be curtailed if their activities are restricted only to proselytisation. Consequently, Saxena sought a clarification from the foreign secretary on whether there were any changes in the government’s policy on religious freedom and neutrality. It was in the midst of this scenario of mistrust that Nehru intervened and replied to Saxena on 8 May 1953, assuring him that there were no changes in the secular approach of the government. Nehru even advised Katju not to confuse the right to propagation with the question of proselytisation.26
The Christian community denounced Katju’s assertion, claiming that it was equivalent to the restriction of fundamental rights in general and the right to propagation in particular.27 Nehru noted in September 1953 that there was a feeling of consternation among the Christians and many of them felt their future to be precarious in their own country. He warned his party men against the imposition of majoritarian views on the Christians as it would aggravate inner conflicts, which he felt was more dangerous than physical violence.28 He appealed to all “narrow-minded” Congressmen to not manufacture, provoke or foster sentiments of Hindu majoritarianism, as it was opposed to the secular and democratic principles advocated by Nehru’s government (Gopal 1984: 171).
When Nehru supported Amrit Kaur in her rights to represent the grievances of Christians, the home minister Katju not only accused her of being supportive of the missionaries, but even branded her as an advocate of the missionaries and Christians. Kaur in turn asserted that Katju’s views on the Christian question were not in accordance with the government’s policy and appealed to Nehru to entrust the issues of Christians to the Ministry of External Affairs, as she had no faith in the home ministry’s willingness to address the issue fairly.29
Nehru’s intention of treating Christianity and the missionaries as one among other religions, with an equal right to propagate, distanced him ideologically from his cabinet colleagues.30 The paucity of tangible regulations to deal with foreign missionaries led to a series of political speculations. In November 1954, the cabinet formulated a policy that mandated that foreign missionaries should be sponsored by specified local churches in India. It also announced restrictions on the entry of missionaries without prior government permission, leaving it to the state governments to withdraw or extend their recognition under the Foreigners Act of 1946.31
Sandwiched Nehru
Despite the deeply embedded north–south ideological divide on the question of religious propagation, the marginalisation of Christians in the Indian national body politic suggests that the Indian secularism, as envisaged by Nehru, failed to provide an adequate basis for building a tolerant polity (Prakash 2007: 180–81). When the Congress was in power during Nehru’s times, discrimination on the basis of religion was widely prevalent and the right to follow the religion of one’s choice, guaranteed by the Constitution, was blatantly disregarded in some areas. This is evident from the fact that when the freedom of conscience and the right to profess, practice and propagate religion, subject to public order, morality and health, were implemented, the missionaries and Christians in India were asked to engage only in “humanitarian” works and instructed not to exploit such activities for “proselytisation” (Hardiman 2003: 103).
The Hindu nationalist organisations like Hindu Mahasabha and RSS continued to be hostile to the Christians and Western missionaries in India throughout the 1950s (Hauss and Haussman 2012: 349). There were anti-missionary agitations and reconversions (popularly known as ghar wapsi) by the Arya Samajists in Uttar Pradesh, and anti-Christian activities in Madhya Pradesh orchestrated by the RSS, Jana Sangh and Hindu Mahasabha. These organisations advocated that a change of religion essentially amounted to a change in nationality. Consequently, Nehru—sandwiched between majoritarianism and the Hindu rashtra—had to intervene to categorically denounce their ideology, for he considered it a dangerous proposition.32 Expressing his distress over the attacks on Christians and missionaries, Nehru in a press conference on 31 May 1955 said that Christianity in India was the third biggest religion and had sufficiently deep roots and that the whole question should be looked at from a political point of view, not through religious perspective. He declared that the idea of a Hindu nation was fundamentally against the Constitution and against a secular outlook.33
Hindu-centric movements like the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) viewed missionary presence in India as a threat to the Hindu religion and alleged that with the help of huge resources at their command, missionaries and Christians were taking “unwarranted advantage” of the vulnerable sections for unfair religious conversions (Dogra 2005: 141). The BJS claimed that there were potential threats from American–British missionary activities, particularly in the tribal areas of Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Bihar and Orissa (Baxter 1969: 144). Initiating protests over the alleged anti-national activities of the Christians and missionaries in the 1950s, the Congress government of Madhya Pradesh and the BJS made every effort to identify Hinduism with nationalism and Christians, thereby, as anti-nationals. The party even campaigned for the deferment of government aid to educational institutions run by the Christians and missionaries (Jaffrelot 1999: 164–65).
Debunking the right to propagation became a reality when Madhya Pradesh succumbed to the pressure tactics of the BJS. The state government took an exceptional interest in looking into the “anti-national” activities of the Christians and missionaries in the state. The BJS had organised an anti-missionary week inMadhya Pradesh, which led to the appointment of an inquiry committee in April 1954 under M B Niyogi, a former chief justice of the Nagpur High Court. The committee submitted its report on 17 July 1956 (Jaffrelot 1999: 164).
Nehru was quite critical of the contentious attitude of the committee and its consequent prejudiced proceedings, stating that he was not in favour of the visits by government officials with police escorts to schools, to seize school registers for the inquiry. Even before the committee submitted its report, Nehru in his letter dated 14 July 1955, addressed to Shukla, directed the chief minister to take steps to counter the general impression that Christians were being prosecuted in Madhya Pradesh.34 In a note to G B Pant, the union home minister, on 14 March 1955, Nehru criticised the Madhya Pradesh government for denying the right to propagation to the missionaries and Christians. He observed that the inquiry committee had created a great deal of consternation among the Christian population. He insisted that Pant make every effort to erase the feeling of tension and apprehension.35
The committee that enquired about the activities of the missionaries and converts in Madhya Pradesh found that there was a sharp increase in the numerical strength of missionaries, from 4,377 to 4,877 between 1951 and 1955 and of them, 480 were in Madhya Pradesh with nearly half from the United States (US). It also noted that the foreign missionaries in India received ₹2.9 million between 1950 and 1954, two-thirds of which was contributed by the US. According to the report, the amount was used for building hospitals, schools and orphanages where “fraudulent conversions” were attempted and achieved.36
The report recommended that the government must withdraw support from proselytisation-oriented missionaries; amend the Constitution to rule out religious propagation by foreigners; prohibit circulation of religious literature without the permission of the state government; transfer foreign missionary properties to national churches, and formulate legal measures to control illegal conversions. The ways in which the committee conducted its inquiries were seen by the proponents of Hindutva politics as an “eye-opener” for it indicted that the foreign missionaries were misusing their position.37 Similarly, there were a series of reactionary responses from Christians all over India. Although the report was not implemented by the government, it created the feeling that the entire community was on trial, as if they were stigmatised, intimidated and threatened (Jaffrelot 1999: 11–79).
Nehru, Pant, Amrit Kaur, the chief ministers of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other leaders had a series of discussions on this report. Nehru was hesitant to act on the recommendations partly because of his reluctance to interfere with the discretion of a state government and partly due to his attempt to avoid tension and apprehension among the Christians. Meanwhile, he expressed strong disapproval of the ways in which the missionaries used religion to meet political ends.38
The report was contested by the leaders of the Christian communities, including the archbishops of Bombay and Nagpur, for its “sweeping generalisation.” They challenged the claims of the report by insisting that no foreign Christian missions—or Christians in general—had any political purpose, and demanded that the findings of the committee be substantiated.39 In its remark, the High Court of Madhya Pradesh noted that the attempt made by the committee was like a fishing expedition, based on the supposition that something discreditable could be discovered.40 It is largely on the basis of the recommendations of the committee that the state governments passed bills against the so-called “forcible” and “fraudulent” conversions. As a result of which, anti-conversion laws were enacted. Orissa became the first state in India to enact a legislation restricting religious conversion—the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, 1967 (Osuri 2013: 57). Evidently, the right to propagation was often (mis)interpreted to suit the agenda of the dominant political ideology.
A Crisis of Secularism and Nehru’s Intervention
The available literature suggests that Christians expressed their conviction and support in the idea of secularism advanced by Nehru—as propounded in the Constitution, guaranteeing the right to profess, propagate and practice their religion. When change of religion, especially to Christianity, was considered as a process of denationalisation, the right to propagation was seen by the proponents of the Hindu rashtra and majoritarian Congress members as dangerous because they apprehended that it would lead to the complete annihilation of Hinduism. Eventually, propagating Christianity was identified with Western supremacy and was interpreted as a threat to the Indian state and its security (Jaffrelot 2010: 156–57). The religious conversion of the Pariahs of South India and a few tribal communities in Madhya Pradesh, as Chad Bauman (2008: 1–2) argues, entailed a process of “deculturisation”’ and “denationalisation.”
Nehru was cautious of the growing anti-Christian sentiment in Manipur, Bombay, Madhya Pradesh, and other states, where there were many tribal Christians. The manner in which the proponents of Hindu fundamentalism and Congress majoritarianism carried out the anti-Christian propaganda provoked Nehru to label their activities as a “politics of misguided nationalism.”41 Yet, the politics of minority exclusion became politically vibrant and religiously repugnant.
Nehru vehemently criticised the Niyogi Committee and said that the members with their partisan approach wilfully distorted a few incidents of religious conversion.42 The committee moved from its remit of religious aspect with renewed focus on the political implications.43 When the missionaries and Christians repudiated the allegations that they were converting illiterates, either forcibly or through fraudulent means, with monetary temptations and other inducements, the Madhya Pradesh government reacted with the claim that propagations were being used for political and religious objectives.44 Despite the fact that the government was anxious to have men of unbiased and impartial outlook to function as judges, the committee members appeared to have functioned as advocates reflecting majoritarian sentiments. The way in which the committee interpreted missionary propagation as a danger to the progress of national unity and the coexistence of different religious traditions, only reflected the essentially unconstitutional approach of the committee. The view expressed by the committee that the Christians and missionaries took advantage of the religious freedom to create a Christian political party in the country on the lines of the Muslim League to eventually demand a separate state and become militant minority, completely sabotaged and disregarded the community’s crucial contribution to the formation of Indian nationalism.45
A range of criticism questioned the very nature and scope of the inquiry committee. The Nagpur High Court condemned the terms of reference of the committee, saying that there was nothing immoral in persuading a person to change their religion for worldly gains. The court indicated that an inquiry should not be opened merely to be indignant or for being an object of suspicion.46 Scathingly attacking the controversial 99-point questionnaire of the panel, the court noted that there was no doubt that certain questions were outside the scope of the resolution of the government order. Making note of the constitution of the commission, the court asked the committee to answer the government citing the reasons for transgressing the terms of reference.47
In fact, it is debatable whether it was ever a fact-finding committee at all, as it had interrogated the constitutionally guaranteed right to propagation premeditatedly. Though the committee members asked both Christians and non-Christians to respond to their questions without any preconceived approach, the manner in which the committee asked questions showed that there was something tendentiously political in its tone and content. Some of the questions were as follows: What is the population of Christians in your area? What are the methods used for conversion? Do you think that conversion to Christianity adversely affects national loyalty? Do you think that different religions can coexist peacefully? Do you think that if other religions showed the same zeal and enthusiasm as the missionaries, there would be unpleasant consequences? Does change of religion necessarily imply change of culture? Such questions demonstrated that the committee was perturbed with the growing Christian demography, fearing that it might legitimise a religious monopoly in the country.48
Moreover, the committee’s recommendations to proscribe missionaries; inspect missionary schools with constabulary chaperone; treat Christian hospitals as sites of conversion; amend constitutional provisions with regard to the right to religion; authorise state administrations to enact anti-conversion laws to interdict the so-called forceful, fraudulent and induced conversions, and to restrain all kinds of religious tracts circulated without government permission, among others, created a scenario whereby some of the Indian states enacted anti-conversion acts, consciously turning a blind eye to secular values and the right to propagation.49
A delegation of seven Catholic bishops led by Valerian Gracias of Bombay met Nehru in March 1955 and submitted a memorandum arguing that the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar had registered scores of fallacious criminal cases against Christians and that the police were intentionally refusing to take action against “Hindu persecutors.” The representatives explained to Nehru that the condition of Christians in North India was quickly worsening. Acting swiftly, Nehru wrote to the home minister, directing him to make every effort to eliminate the sense of fear and apprehension, and to create a sense of safety amongst Christians. He asserted that any unfair treatment towards them would not be tolerated and even stated that the enquiry committee had done more harm than good by creating a great deal of consternation among Christians.50
To a large extent, Nehru could be seen as a sandwiched man, sidelined by his fellow Congressmen and those who advocated Hindutva politics. While Nehru maintained religious neutrality in festivals, his colleagues trampled the very same principles. Flabbergasted by this recalcitrance, he told his cabinet colleagues and senior party men that the best way to observe a religious festival was to work hard in the service of the nation.51 Nevertheless, a sandwiched Nehru could not efface the deeply penetrated Hindu religious fervour of his cabinet colleagues.
Nehru and the first president of independent India, Rajendra Prasad, had completely opposing principles on religion. While the former took a neutral path in public speeches during religious festivals, the latter, with his religious avidity, preferred to explicitly foist majoritarian Hinduism. Expressing prejudiced attitudes towards the missionaries and Christians on one hand and dissimulating to safeguard the principle of religious equality on the other, uncovered the “other” side of secular India.52 When Nehru emphasised the need of social and economic revolution in religious gatherings,53 other leaders reflected the “majoritarian sentiments.”
In the post-Nehruvian phase, when there were debates over whether Congress leaders could accept invitations from religious bodies, there were discordant views on religious neutrality, which further incapacitated the core idea of Nehruvian secularism. The microscopic minority among Congress leaders, who attempted to keep Nehruvian secularism alive, blatantly condemned “other” Congressmen for their close association with Hindu festivals to consciously ruin the party’s secular credentials.54
Nehruvian secularism faced a series of challenges and confrontations both from the Congress members and the proponents of Hindutva politics. The Congress leaders’ nostalgic espousal of Hindu religious activities and rituals, and the manner in which they justified the belief that secularism did not mean being anti-Hindu, generated scholarly debates on communalism and secularism. The great Delhi debate on communalism in May 1970 further divided Congress leaders ideologically into two rival groups—under Kamlapati Tripathi and Chandra Shekhar. Where the former advocated sentiment-oriented majoritarian ethics questioning Nehru’s idea of religious diversities and pluralities, the latter made every effort to uphold the constitutionally guaranteed equal respect to all religions.55 The question, asked by the secular academia there, was: “Can secularism in India survive the functioning of democracy?” (Menon 2007: 118–20). When the liberal Indian leadership under Nehru crafted secularism to assure equal play of all religions, Hindutva, a non-Nehruvian and non-modernist strand within the broader nationalist framework, was made a substitute for secularism by the proponents of majoritarian politics (Chandhoke 1999: 74).
Concluding Remarks
Indian secularism, as Nehru envisioned it, can be better discerned as a legitimised panacea for the government’s conceptualisation of religious egalitarianism in the multicultural society than merely as a political apparatus to fight communal politics. The empirical evidence presented in this study explicitly suggests that the idea of secularism that gained legitimacy largely after Gandhi’s assassination underwent a series of revamps and distortions over a period of time. Nehru’s idea of fair treatment to all religions on the one hand and the combative political approach towards Indian Christians on the other, created a consistent but complex theoretical framework for Indian secularism.
Nehru’s idea of Indian secularism, which centred largely on the premise of religious egalitarianism, interrogated the anti-national label applied to Indian Christians. It asserted the constitutionally guaranteed right to propagation by rejecting reports of forced religious conversions, meticulously devised by the proponents of Hindu rashtra and majoritarian ideology. As a revolutionary egalitarian thinker, Nehru played a crucial role in the postcolonial period, articulating a radical political vision that uncapped the limits and possibilities for a truly secular India with equal rights to all religions.
Nevertheless, when the Congress considered the communally sensitive Muslim League as a political ally in some Congress-ruled Indian states like Madras, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh, a compromise with communal forces became inevitable (Mishra 2007: 51–82). We can also understand the plasticity of Nehru’s thought on this question in terms of his biographer Sarvepalli Gopal’s (1984: 73) critical observation on Nehru’s decision to enter into a political alliance with the Muslim League for power in Kerala in the 1960s, as having “tarnished his reputation for secularism” and weakened his position politically.
Nehru, who was sandwiched between majoritarianism and Hindutva politics, was forced to negotiate his secular ideals with both his own Congressmen and his political opponents—the Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and BJS. Yet, Nehru’s secular credibility can be interpreted as the bulwark of religious egalitarianism, partly because it attempted to reduce the yawning majority–minority religious gap and partly due to its deep commitment to the idea of equal right to all religions.
1 From W Le B Egerton, Assistant Secretary to the Viceroy, to the Hon’ble H G Haig, CIE, ICS, Government of India, 7 February 1929, Letter No 1559 G M, Home Department, 15 February 1929, File No 2-VI-Jais, 1929, National Archives of India.
2 See note 1.
3 See note 1.
4 Note by K R Menon, 16 March 1929, File
No 2-VI-Jais, Home Department, Government of India, National Archives of India.
5 Hindustan Times, 17 August 1947.
6 Hindu, 2 October 1947.
7 Hindustan Times, 7 October 1947.
8 Hindu, 13 October 1947.
9 Hindustan Times, 17 October 1947.
10 Hindustan Times, 10 April 1956.
11 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol 5, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1987, pp 35–41.
12 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol 5, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1987, pp 46–47.
13 Nehru’s speech at Wardha on 13 March 1948 from the Tribune, 15 March 1948.
14 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 8, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1987, pp 136–37.
15 G Parthasarathi (ed), Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers 1947–1964, Vol 2, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1986,
pp 519–77.
16 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 15, part II, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund,
New Delhi, 1994, pp 126–28.
17 Tribune, 20 April 1941. Cited in Towards Freedom, Documents on the Movement for Freedom for Independence in India, 1941, Part 1, Amit K Gupta and Arjun Dev (eds), Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2010, pp 17–18.
18 H N Mitra and N N Mitra, The Indian Annual Register, 1919–1947 (in 58 volumes), Vol 45 (1940), republished by Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 2000, pp 318–322.
19 H N Mitra and N N Mitra, Indian Annual Register, 1919–1947 (in 58 volumes), Vol 50 (1943), republished by Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 2000, pp 309–10.
20 See note 19.
21 Report of the XXX Annual Session of the All India Conference of Indian Christians, 1943; National Christian Council Review, Vol 65, No 12, 1945,
p 240.
22 H N Mitra and N N Mitra, Indian Annual Register, 1919–1947 (in 58 volumes), Vol 54 (1945), republished by Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, 2000, pp 305–06.
23 Hindu, 5 December 1946.
24 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 20, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1997, pp 201–03.
25 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 19, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1996, p 554.
26 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, Vol 22, 1998, pp 237–39; and 1999, Vol 24, p 322.
27 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 19, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1996, p 326.
28 G Parthasarathi (ed), Jawaharlal Nehru: Letters to Chief Ministers 1947–1964, Vol 3, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1989,
pp 375–81.
29 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 25, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1999, p 225.
30 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 24, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1999, pp 321–26.
31 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 27, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2000, p 439.
32 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 26, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2000, pp 252–53.
33 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 28, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2001, pp 482–505.
34 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 29, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2001, p 161.
35 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 28, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2001, pp 494–96.
36 Report of the Christian Missionaries Activities Enquiry Committee, chaired by M Bhawani Shankar Niyogi, Government Press, Madhya Pradesh, 1956, p 108.
37 Report of the Christian Missionaries Activities Enquiry Committee, Government Press, Madhya Pradesh, 1956, pp 99–135.
38 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 37, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2005, p 290.
39 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 34, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2005, pp 181–82.
40 Hindustan Times, 14 April 1956.
41 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 25, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1999, p 225.
42 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 25, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 1999, pp 225–29.
43 Pioneer, 19 April 1956.
44 The Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Inquiry Committee, Vol 1, Government Printing Office, Nagpur, 1956, p 167.
45 The Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Inquiry Committee, Vol 1, Government Printing Office, Nagpur, 1956, pp 59–60.
46 Hindustan Times, 14 April 1956.
47 Hindustan Times, 14 April 1956.
48 The Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Inquiry Committee, Vol 1, Government Printing Office, Nagpur, 1956, pp 182–88.
49 The Report of the Christian Missionary Activities Inquiry Committee, Vol 1, Government Printing Office, Nagpur, 1956, pp 163–64.
50 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 28, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2001, pp 494–97.
51 Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol 37, Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, New Delhi, 2005, p 760.
52 National Herald, 29 April 1956.
53 Hindustan Times, 24 April 1956.
54 Times of India, 27 May 1970.
55 Hindu, 27 May 1970.
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