Secularism, Democracy & Political Morality

Dr. Zakir Husain Memorial Lecture

Organised by
Madina Education & Welfare Society
Sunday, 25th March, 2001

  By Sitaram Yechury
I consider  it an honour  and a privilege  to deliver this Dr. Zakir Husain Memorial Lecture.  The relevance of Dr. Zakir ‘s life and work  appear more enlarged in the troubled times in which we live today. 
Dr. Zakir Husain represented the mainstream vision of India’s freedom movement which saw the future of independent India as being secured only  on the foundations of secular democracy and economic  and intellectual self-reliance.  In his Pledge to the Nation on assuming office as the President of India, he encapsulates this vision. India, he says, is a “young state of an ancient people who, through the long millennia and through the cooperation of diverse ethnic elements, have striven to realise timeless, absolute values in their  own peculiar way……I, therefore, pledge myself to the totality of our past culture from wheresoever it may have come and by whomsoever it may  have been contributed. I pledge myself, to the service of the totality of my country’s culture, I pledge my loyalty to my country, irrespective of region or language; I pledge myself to work for its strength and progress and for the welfare of its people  without distinction of caste, colour or creed.  The whole  of  Bharat is  my Home and its people are my family.  The people have chosen to make me the Head of this family for a certain time. It shall be my earnest endeavour to seek to make this Home strong  and beautiful, a worthy Home for a great people engaged in the  fascinating tasks of building up a just and prosperous and graceful life………..The situation demands of us work, work and more work, silent and sincere work, solid and steady reconstruction of the whole material and cultural life of our people.
This work, as I see it, has two aspects: work on one’s self and work for the society around.  They are mutually fruitful aspects of work.  The work on one’s self is to follow the urge towards moral development as free persons under self-imposed discipline, which alone can render that development possible. Its end-product is a free moral personality.  We can neglect this end-product only at our peril.”
It is with great pain that we must realise that over this half century since independence, it is this `end-product’ that has not only been neglected but has seen a steady degeneration. The recent Tehelka exposures have shocked the country baring the depths to which moral degeneration has sunk. We shall return to this later.
Dr. Zakir Husain had quoted  Rabindranath Tagore to buttress his vision. I would only like to recollect what Firaq Gorakhpuri had once said:
Haasil-e-Husn-o-Ishq Bas Itna,
Admi Admi Ko Pahechane”
(The ultimate objective of beauty and love is merely that man should understand man).
Alas! In the society all around us, it is precisely this which appears missing!  The most unfortunate aspect is that this is happening in the name of religion!
This vision represented by Dr. Zakir Husain was, in fact, an integral part of the ideological battle that continued through the freedom struggle and, in a way, continues even today between three distinct vision of what should constitute  the character of independent India. Opposed to the mainstream vision of the freedom movement which created the Indian Republic on the  foundations of secular democracy was the myopic inward looking vision of converting independent India into a rabidly intolerant “Hindu Rashtra”.   This vision originates with the formation of the RSS in 1925.  This was best articulated by M.S. Golwalkar, RSS Sarsanghchalak, in 1939; in his, by now infamous book, “We or our Nationhood defined”.
The conclusion is unquestionably forced upon us that… Hindusthan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu nation and nought else but the Hindu Nation.  All those not belonging to the national, ie, Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and Language naturally fall out of the pale of real `National’ life.
We repeat: in Hindusthan, the land of the Hindus, lives and should live the Hindu Nation – satisfying all the five essential requirements of the scientific nation concept of the modern world.   Consequently only those movements are truly `National’ as aim at re-building, re-vitalising and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation.  Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the  aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal. All others are either traitors and enemies to the National cause, or, to take a  charitable view, idiots” (Golwalkar, 1939, pp. 43-44). He continues: “We must bear in mind that so far as `nation’ is concerned, all those, who fall outside the five-fold limits of that idea, can have no place in the national life, unless they abandon their differences, adopt the religion, culture and language of the Nation and completely merge themselves in the National Race. So long, however,  as they maintain their racial, religious and cultural differences, they cannot but be only foreigners”(Golwalkar, 1939, p. 45).
And further: “There are only two courses open to the foreign elements, either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow  them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race …..From this standpoint, sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the foreign races in Hindusthan must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but those of the glorification of the Hindu race and culture, ie,  of the Hindu nation and must lose their separate existence to merge in the Hindu race, or may stay in the country, wholly subordinated to the Hindu Nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen’s rights.  There is, at least should be, no other course for them to adopt.  We are an old nation; let us  deal, as old nations ought to and do deal, with the foreign races, who have chosen to live in our country.” (Golwalkar, 1939, pp. 47-48)
In contrast to the mainstream vision and uncompromisingly opposed to the vision of “Hindu Rashtra” was the Left vision which sought to build on the mainstream vision and transform the political content of the Republic into the economic empowerment of the Indian people.  The socialist vision, therefore, while not opposing the mainstream vision was critical of its limitations and continues till today to convert the political independence of our country into the economic independence of our people.
The conflicts that we see in present-day politics is essentially an expression of this battle of ideas in contemporary conditions. 
In pursuance of its narrow exclusivist  intolerant  communal agenda, the proponents of “Hindu Rashtra” had not only distanced themselves from the united struggle of the Indian people (belonging to all religions and nationalities), but objectively acted as agents of the British rule.
What is little known is the fact that the uncontested hero of the Saffron brigade today, V.D. Savarkar, known as “Veer” Savarkar in RSS folklore, gave a mercy petition to the British on November 14, 1913 seeking his release from the cellular jail in the Andamans.  This surrender made him a public ally of the British policy of divide and rule. It must be recalled that the term `Hindutva’ was coined by Savarkar.
In his petition, he assures the British: ``Now no man having the good of India and humanity at heart will blindly step on the thorny paths which in the excited and hopeless situation of India in 1906-1907 beguiled us from the path of peace and progress. Therefore if the Government in their manifold beneficence and mercy, release me I for one cannot but be the staunchest advocate of constitutional progress and loyalty to the English government which is the foremost condition of that progress.” (R.C.Majumdar, `Penal Settlement in Andamans’, pp 211-213) 
Further in a letter to British authorities, he wrote:  "I hereby acknowledge that I had a fair trial and just sentence. I heartily abhor methods of violence resorted to in days gone by and I feel myself duty bound to uphold law and constitution   to the best of my powers and am willing to make the reform a success insofar as I may be allowed to do so in future". (A facsimile of this letter was published in Frontline, April 7, 1995, p. 94)
He proudly subscribed to the two-nation theory in its fullest sense. In his presidential address to the Hindu Mahasabha in December 1939, Savarkar declared: "We Hindus are a nation by ourselves ... we Hindus are marked out as an abiding Nation by ourselves'' (see Indian Annual Register, 1939, Vol II). Again later he reiterated, “I have no quarrel
with Mr Jinnah's two-nation theory. We, Hindus, are a nation by ourselves and it is a historical fact that Hindus and Muslims are two nations'' (Indian Annual Register, 1943, Vol II).
For the major portion of his life after making peace with the British his politics was oppositional to the Congress and the Left led movements rather than the British. As leader of the Hindu Mahasabha, he made sure that movements like the Quit India movement of 1942 passed without any participation from members of the Hindu Mahasabha or the Sanghathanists. He categorically called on the Hindus to give no support to the movement' (see Amba Prasad, The Indian Revolt of 1942).
"I issue this definite instruction that all Hindu Sanghathanists in general holding any post or position of vantage in the government services should stick to them and continue to perform their regular duties" (Quoted in Noorani, Frontline, December 1, 1995).
Overcoming the assault of such forces, the Indian people at the time of independence embraced secular democracy as the foundations of the new Indian Republic. It was for this very reason that the tallest of Indian leaders, Mahatma Gandhi, was assassinated by these elements.
Secular democracy is the only political basis for keeping a country of such diversity and plurality united. This was accepted once  as a statement of fact. Today it is coming under severe attack. In that sense, the battle of  visions that took place during the freedom struggle continues even today.
Secularism is not a western concept, as alleged by the RSS, embraced by independent India. Its foundations can be  traced back to the Ashokan inscriptions  on his famous pillars  that continue to exist all over the country.  In fact, in one of them, it is precisely stated that it shall be State’s responsibility to protect the  choice of faith of every individual.  This was in third century B.C. Tolerance as State policy was necessary in India not only because of religious diversity. It is necessary also because of the vast array of diversity that exists in terms of language,  cultures, traditions etc. A definition of secularism, which is the most appropriate in the Indian context, is, thus, not confined only to the issue of separation of religion from the State and politics.  While this is important in itself, secularism in the Indian context also should mean the right of equality and opportunity to all languages, cultures, traditions to co-exist and thrive without the fear of domination of any one by the other.
Looking at the issue in this manner would immediately suggest  that secularism and democracy in India are inseparable.  The protection of the rights of minorities of all variety (religious, linguistic etc) is an integral part of democracy. Religious or linguistic intolerance impinges, therefore, upon not only secularism but also democracy.
Hence, any attack on secularism in India is also simultaneously an attack on democracy and democratic institutions. It is, therefore, no coincidence that rabid Hindu communalism that today, albeit  temporarily, controls the reins of power, targets not only the secular foundations by spreading the hatred of religious intolerance but also attacks democratic institutions.  The efforts to re-write the Indian Constitution, the strident cries for a presidential form of government – all are part of the larger jigsaw puzzle to facilitate the establishment of a “Hindu Rashtra”.
The attempts to re-write Indian history  and to doctor the educational system on communal lines must also be seen in the same light.  Much of Dr. Zakir Husain’s life and work related to this field.  He would have been aghast at the travesty of history  that is currently being undertaken by the communal forces.
It is, indeed, unfortunate that this assault on India’s secular democracy comes in the name of religion. By now, it is clear that religious fundamentalism of all variety, Taliban or Saffron, has very little to do with religion or religiosity.  It is purely an attempt to consolidate political power by misusing religion. 
Seeking your indulgence, I think it necessary to digress  and put at rest a great deal of controversy that has always existed regarding the Marxist understanding of religion. The popular perception is the normally out of context quotation that “religion is the opium of the people”. In fact, deliberately, the passage in which this statement finds place is never quoted in the full. Marx had stated: “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of the heartless world, just as it is the spirit of the spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people.”(Introduction to the critique of Hegel’s philosophy of Right, 1844).
Religion, is the opium in the sense that it is as potent as opium is in creating an illusory world. For a human being who is oppressed, religion provides the escape for  relief, it provides  a “heart in a heartless world, a spirit in a spiritless situation.” For this precise reason, it is the opium that the people require, to lull themselves into submission  so long as they continue to remain in conditions which appear outside of both their comprehension and control.
The Marxist understanding of religion is essentially integrated with its entire philosophic foundations. In pursuit of the simple question of what constitutes the real freedom of a human being and his consequent liberation, Marx proceeded to reject the Hegelian idea of the revolution of the mind as represented by Feuerbach, during his time, to come to a conclusion of seminal importance.  That was: consciousness of a human being is determined by the social conditions and not vice a versa. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness”(Introduction to the critique of Political economy). The recent discoveries and conclusions of the “Genome Project” resoundingly vindicate this understanding.
Religion, therefore, for Marx and Marxists is a product of the social conditions in which man existed and continues to exist. The history of religion, in one sense, is also a reflection of the history of human evolution. Hence, religion, like any other form of consciousness is not a thing in itself but a reflection of the real world. In so far as human beings are unable to comprehend the forces of nature or of society that appear to determine their day to day existence and guide their destinies, the need for creating a extraterrestrial supernatural force remains. Religion therefore, provides for the human being a sense of comfort, beauty and solace that he cannot find in the real life. At the same time, religion, also being the dominant form of ideology, is an expression of the class struggle that is taking place in society at a point of time.
This then is the Marxist materialist understanding and appreciation of religion.  Its humanist content and at the same time its utilisation as a instrument of class rule have to be understood in its totality. A communist works to change the conditions that continues to give rise to the hold of religion and not attack religion per se because it is not and can never be a thing in itself independent of the social organisation of human civilisation.
Let us return to the main theme.  The use or the misuse of religion and religious sentiments for  consolidating the political rule was perfected by the British in the Indian sub-continent.   Following the 1857 First War of independence, where Rani  Lakshmi Bai and Begum Hazrat Mahal fought shoulder to shoulder with Maulavi Ahmadullah and Rao Tula Ram rattled the British.  Bahadur Shah Zafar , the Mughal Monarch was the symbol of this struggle.  The most important lesson that the British learned from this was  that they could not continue to rule India allowing the Hindus, Muslims and feudal Princes to find common cause.  As a contemporary chronicler, Thomas Lowe, exclaimed: “the infanticide  Rajput, the begoted brahmin, the fanatic mussalman join together in the cause; cow killer and the cow worshiper, the pig-hater and the pig eater had revolted together”! Any recurrence of such an event had to be prevented.  The British therefore forged their notorious policy of `divide and rule’. Thus began the fomenting of venomous hatred between the Hindus and Muslims, in which process, they were admirably aided by the communal forces on both sides.  This policy made such inroads into the fabric of Indian society, so flamed the unity and amity among its people that till date, we continue to pay the price.
It is, therefore,  clear that the struggle to safeguard secular democracy in India, the struggle against Hindu communalism cannot be met by other forms of minority  religious fundamentalisms.  In fact, fundamentalisms of all variety – Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh – only feed each other.  The only way to preserve and strengthen India’s secular democracy will have to be  through forging  strong   common bonds amongst  peoples cutting across religions and other diversities.
Such a common struggle is the only way in which the fascistic  agenda of the RSS and its tentacles can be countered.  Apart from adopting Goebbelsian propaganda techniques (Goebbels was Hitler’s propaganda minister, whose  famous dictum was to tell a big enough  lie, frequently enough to make it the truth).  Such forces also invoke nationalism and morality as a potent weapon. In reality, however,  their policies are precisely the opposite.  While invoking national jingoism, at the drop of the hat, these forces have no compunction whatsoever in bartering our country’s security interests for personal profit. The depths of political immorality to which they can sink has been exposed by the tehelka scandal.
Georgi Dimitrov, the indomitable hero of the struggle against Nazi fascism, had noted: “Fascism puts the people at the mercy of the most corrupt and venal elements but comes before them with the demand for `an honest and incorruptible government'’ speculating on the profound disillusionment of the masses ...fascism adapts its demagogy to the peculiarities of each country.  And the mass of petty bourgeois and even a section of the workers, reduced to despair by want, unemployment and insecurity of their existence fall victim to the social and chauvinist demagogy of fascism”.  (Dimitrov, Selected Works, Vol. 2, 1972, p. 12).  It is precisely this feature of fascism that defines the demagogy and  campaigns of the Saffron Brigade today.
Hence, what we find today is a situation where fascistic communalism is mounting an unprecedented attack on secular democracy and, in the process, it is redefining the meaning of nationalism and political morality. Having mustered votes in the name of `swadeshi’ they are implementing `videshi’ economic policies. Their brand of nationalism mortgages India, on the one hand, and imposes unprecedented burdens on the people, on the other. They are acting as the best agents of US Imperialism, which seeks the economic recolonisation of India.
What is required is not an inward looking insulated exclusivist minority response to meet this challenge.  What is required is the  broad based unity of all forces willing to defend India’s secular democracy and economic sovereignty.  This is the real meaning of patriotism in the present context.
It was Golwalkar who had once said that the three internal  enemies of concept of  “Hindu Rashtra” are the Muslims, Christians and the Communists. I would only like to add that it is the majority of the Indian people irrespective of being religious or atheist, who are opposed to the conversion of a secular democratic Indian Republic into the RSS version of “Hindu Rashtra”.  India’s unity and integrity can only be maintained by strengthening the bonds of commonality that exists within our large diversity. Any attempt to impose a uniformity upon this diversity as communalism and fundamentalism seek today can only lead to the disintegration of the country. Let us unite to save India today so that we can change India for the better tomorrow.