Gandhi on secular law and state
Gandhi and Nehru had differences. But they had strong mutual synergies on vital issues.
by Anil Nauriya
The Motilal Nehru Committee Report on the Principles of the Constitution of India in 1928 makes no reference to the word itself though the spirit of the Report is entirely secular. The Karachi Resolution in March 1931, to which Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Azad were party, stipulates religious neutrality of the state. Secularism is writ large on the resolution. But the word is absent.
A repeated usage of the term occurs early in Gandhi’s writings and speeches in 1933. Two Bills were then before the Central Legislature. One of these related to untouchability. Gandhi supported the Bill, arguing that it properly sought to withdraw the sanction of "secular law" from a "custom that is repugnant to the moral sense of mankind". Such a practice, he said on May 6, 1933, "cannot and ought not to have the sanction of the law of a secular state". In November 1933 he defended the Bill against the charge that it was an undue interference in religion, saying that there were many situations in which it was necessary for the state to interfere even with religion. Only "undue" interference ought to be avoided.
Later, on January 27, 1935, Gandhi addressed some members of the Central Legislature. He told them that "(e)ven if the whole body of Hindu opinion were to be against the removal of untouchability, still he would advise a secular legislature like the Assembly not to tolerate that attitude."(The Collected works of Mahatma Gandhi.)
On January 20, 1942 Gandhi remarked while discussing the Pakistan scheme: "What conflict of interest can there be between Hindus and Muslims in the matter of revenue, sanitation, police, justice, or the use of public conveniences? The difference can only be in religious usage and observance with which a secular state has no concern."
Significantly, Gandhi’s use of the term secular in relation to the state is such as may, in contemporary political discourse, be described as "Nehruvian". That is, Gandhi does not attach any meaning to the term secular that would have been unacceptable to or unintelligible to Nehru.
This point is repeated as freedom dawns and Constitution-making begins.
In September 1946, Gandhi told a Christian missionary: "If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate. I swear by my religion. I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare, health, communications, foreign relations, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!"
Gandhi’ s talk with Rev. Kellas of the Scottish Church College, Calcutta on August 16, 1947, the day after Independence, was reported in Harijan on August 24: "Gandhiji expressed the opinion that the state should undoubtedly be secular. It could never promote denominational education out of public funds. Everyone living in it should be entitled to profess his religion without let or hindrance, so long as the citizen obeyed the common law of the land. There should be no interference with missionary effort, but no mission could enjoy the patronage of the state as it did during the foreign regime." This understanding came subsequently to be reflected in Articles 25, 26 and 27 of the Constitution.
On the next day, August 17, Gandhi elaborated publicly on the same point in his speech at Narkeldanga, which Harijan reported thus: "In the India for whose fashioning he had worked all his life every man enjoyed equality of status, whatever his religion was. The state was bound to be wholly secular. He went so far as to say that no denominational institution in it should enjoy state patronage. All subjects would thus be equal in the eye of the law." Five days later, Gandhi observed in a speech at Deshbandhu Park in Calcutta on August 22, 1947: "Religion was a personal matter and if we succeeded in confining it to the personal plane, all would be well in our political life... If officers of Government as well as members of the public undertook the responsibility and worked wholeheartedly for the creation of a secular state, we could build a new India that would be the glory of the world."
On November 15, 1947 the AICC adopted various resolutions on the rights of the minorities, repatriation of refugees and other issues. The aim of the Congress was defined as a "democratic secular state where all citizens enjoy full rights". Gandhi warmly welcomed these resolutions, saying at a prayer meeting that they were so important that he wanted to explain the various resolutions "one by one".
Speaking on Guru Nanak’s birthday on November 28, 1947, Gandhi opposed any possibility of state funds being spent for the renovation of the Somnath temple. His reasoning was: "After all, we have formed the Government for all. It is a `secular’ government, that is, it is not a theocratic government, rather, it does not belong to any particular religion. Hence it cannot spend money on the basis of communities."
In supporting a secular state, Gandhi understood that such a state would have to be backed by society. Instinctively he saw the historical and social relation between a secular state and elements of humanism in society. The relation was later neglected, especially post-1969, and this left the field free for Hindutva forces to grow in society. Six days before Gandhi was shot dead in January 1948, he wrote: "A well-organised body of constructive workers will be needed. Their service to the people will be their sanction and the merit of their work will be their charter. The ministers will draw their inspiration from such a body which will advise and guide the secular government."
There was a creative tension in the Gandhi-Nehru relationship. They had differences. Gandhi’s religiosity was not shared by Nehru. Both often gave expression to differences publicly, in private letters to one another, and, in the case of an incarcerated Nehru, in his diary. Some writers have magnified these or focussed primarily on these. But they had strong mutual synergies on vital issues when the two would spring to each other’s side. Gandhi ‘s positions on the secular state are Nehruvian in character. Likewise, Nehru’s positions on the definition of the Indian nation are the same as Gandhi’s. Both stand for territorial nationalism, thus clearly demarcating themselves from those in the Hindu Mahasabha, the Muslim League and the pre-independence CPI of the 1940s which would define nation or nationality on the basis of religion. It is difficult to work together even for a while if differences overshadow commonalities. Gandhi and Nehru pulled together for decades. Gandhi as Congress president in 1924 retained Nehru as general secretary. He suggested Nehru’s name for Congress presidentship on at least four occasions - 1929, 1935 (for 1936), 1938-39 (on this occasion along with the Marxist Socialist Narendra Deva’s name) and finally in 1946.
Nevertheless, a Gandhi-Nehru divide was projected from
various ideological platforms, some of them seeking to widen it into a
chasm. The Hindutva forces, already stained with Gandhi’s blood, projected
the divide because, separated from Gandhi, Nehru made for them an isolated
and therefore easier ideological target. The dichotomy was further
emphasised within the post-1969 Congress because of a perceived need to
assert specific loyalties. This perhaps enabled even leaders like, for
instance, Vasant Sathe, who had been in the RSS in 1939-41, to present
themselves as Nehruvian. Those tied to the pre-Independence CPI tradition of
the 1940s, (not necessarily or always identical with the contemporary Left),
also `theoremised’ the Gandhi-Nehru divide. Some of them styled themselves
as Nehruvians in relation to Gandhi; but not all of them held to the
Nehruvian position where the choice was between the Gandhi-Nehru view of the
nation and the Muslim League notions of nation or nationality. Some of the
Gandhians too promoted the separation of Gandhi from Nehru. They picked on
specific differences between Gandhi and Nehru and converted them into their
own defining characteristic. For several years this enabled many of them to
wash their hands of contemporary developments. But the hour of reckoning now
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