(Written in 2002 in the aftermath and anguish of the Gujarat riots)
How would Gandhiji and Nehru see today’s India – the modern India of their dreams at the time of Independence? We have created a great deal in the last 63 years that they would be proud of. Among these would be an extremely persevering and energetic corporate sector, the skills and dynamism of the small scale entrepreneur, an admirably vigorous and independent media, the brilliance of the Indian mind, notable by our astonishing success in information technology, and the sheer resilience of the common man to cope - and bounce back – from one crisis after another.
On the flip side, there is also much that we can despair of. For a start, the Mahatma's idealistic values and vision are nearly an embarrassment for today's India and Indians. He is now considered an anachronism with limited relevance, by a vast majority of Indians. We are becoming a nation of men and women who believe in a value system which simply translates into "grab whatever you can!" As a community, we have often forgotten social values and social responsibilities. Secular ideals of tolerance and respect of each other’s religion is conspicuous by its absence, especially when a crisis develops – as we have seen on four different occasions in our recent past.
History has witnessed the paralyzing effect on our leaders in the aftermath of Mrs. Gandhi's assassination; the anti-Sikh riots were the first serious affront to our secular ideals and seriously question our ability to imbibe Gandhiji and Nehrus ideals of nationhood. The wonton murder, loot and plunder of our own countrymen, by other Indians, shamed us as a civil society. Was this the secular India of our dreams – an India which discounted the two nation theory at Partition – where people of all religious beliefs could co-exist?
Less than ten years later we witnessed thousands of our countrymen lending barbaric support to the demolishing of an obscure Babri Masjid. A motley group of no-hopers, used, not the cleverest, but the oldest political trick to garner votes and win elections- religion - which Karl Marx equated to "the opium of the masses". For every tumbling stone they found a thousand gullible Hindu voter who rejoiced stupidly at the “historical correction" made by this brave new political alignment. We struck an arrow straight into the heart of our Constitution on that one day. The event cast a shadow on our nation in the eyes of the western world and Islamic society. Our own Muslims wondered whether they chose wisely during partition. Somewhere during the evolution of this sinister drama, a laughable phrase was coined - pseudo-secularists, to beat into lonely hiding places those who dared raise their voice in protest. It was used with alarming regularity for a decade thereafter.
Soon we had several groups, led and supported by goons who masqueraded as protectors of Hindu nationalism. With such support, it was inevitable that a third incident would soon followed, involving the cold-blooded and senseless murder of a harmless Christian priest from Australia along with his two little children. With this the third of our four major religious communities, was targeted by religious zealots within a decade and half of each other. For those who still had hope in the Indian nation’s secular beliefs, Gujarat 2002 drove the final nail in the coffin of our secularism. With a series of heinous crimes, we tore to shreds our claims as a truly secular, socialist, democratic republic as enshrined in our Constitution.
It has been the norm over the last many years to blame our political leaders for each of these events. The larger question remains how the common man has been open to devious exploitation at each of these vulnerable moments in our history. Why didn’t we, the lay Indians exhibit greater responsibility and concern for our neighbors, our friends across the street, and why couldn’t we prevent these tragic events from occurring? Couldn’t we see that we would be the biggest losers in the long run?
It the context of these events, it is worth considering what secularism means to India and Indians and what it would take for us to be practicing secularists. Was the word, secular, included into our constitution as just another integral concept of nationhood to suit the western definition of a modern state, rather than an idea embedded in the deep cultural and social bonds of our people? Where we, foisted with this concept by a generation of Indian leaders who were influenced by modern western views and ethics?
In the three possible elucidation of the secular ideal-the philosophical, social and constitutional, we can now safely conclude that it is only in the third definition that we have managed some success - avoiding the entanglement of government and religion, ensuring non-discrimination on religious grounds and guaranteeing human rights to all citizens, regardless of creed.
Much of the dilemma of Indians in becoming practicing secularists have resulted due to the inherent conflict with our own beliefs and the social character of our society. The philosophical definition of secularism that life can be best lived by applying ethics, and the universe is best understood, by a processes of reasoning, without reference to a God, is in direct conflict to our age old religious beliefs. A community steeped in its own interpretation of Dharma or Jehad is torn apart in moments like the Babri Masjid demolition, when the lay Indian abandons his Constitutional bonds for what he considers are his greater obligations towards his religious duty.
When you look at our recent history, it is easy to blame our leaders for exploiting the natural, underlying, latent urge of Indians to be communal and anti–secular when faced with a perceived threat to their religion. We are, one may conclude, not naturally, historically or culturally, inclined to be secular and therefore open to abuse by the clever politician.
An India which is home to the largest Hindu population in the world, the third largest Muslim population, and the largest Sikh population has little option but to build a truly multi-cultural and multi-religious society. We have to deliberately separate the threats within our society and polity to move ahead to match our economic growth with our growth as a civil society. The rising foreign exchange reserves, the constant upward march of the Sensex will have limited relevance, if it is interspersed with a barbaric Babri Masjid or a State aided Gujarat riots.
We will need to reconsider our own duty as citizens and our role in strengthening the foundations of the nation. Building the secular ideal and tolerance and respect for all faiths may well hold the key to the future of India as a great nation in the 21st century. Very few nations have the multicultural, multi-religious diversity of India – it may well prove our strength - or our fatal flaw. How well we amalgamate and synthesize as a people will determine how well we succeed as a nation in the years to come. The concept of Indian nationhood will take strength from our strong secular bonds.
We will undoubtedly have the economic and military strength to be amongst the leading nations of the world in the next fifty years. What we need is to rediscover the soul as a great nation; a reiteration of the belief that all faiths teach us the same ideals of goodness, inner and social transformation. The modern temples of India and its builders, the corporate leaders: the Tatas, the Infosys, and the others will all have to assume greater responsibility towards building this India. The many leaders in every walk of life, the movie star, the cricket icon shall need to chip in to shape this view among the masses. We must also believe that the responsibility is with each one of us, in our ability to look beyond our everyday lives, and the confines of our profession to become practicing secularists. We have on our side the wisdom and culture of a great civilization. We have great spiritual gurus of every faith who transcend narrow religious dogmas and rituals and spread the message and the wisdom of mans eternal quest to seek inner and external harmony. In a nation where we have Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, we have an opportunity to show the world the true culture of Indianness, of tolerance, faith and belief in a truly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. The youth today have the opportunity to lead the way. The trappings of intolerance must not be given space in this India. To reject it is a choice our democratic traditions have given us. We must exercise the power to do so, with the power of the ballot.
We also need to rediscover Gandhi whose beliefs and his concept of nationhood and secularism have as much relevance today as they had more than half a century ago. Many people have forgotten where Gandhiji was when we were celebrating our first day as an independent nation; why was he not there when Nehru spoke of our tryst with destiny in our capital on the midnight of 15th of Aug 1947? He was in Calcutta, alleviating the sufferings of the poor from the horrific Hindu – Muslim riots that had already put a scar on the new nation. He foresaw the necessity to protect this grave threat to his vision of the new India – a greater need than to be part of the celebrations in New Delhi.
If Indians need a role model of a practicing secularist we need to look only as far as our simple Indian soldier. As he climbs up on to the highest battlefield in the world - the Siachen Glacier- from the Base Camp, one would observe a poignant sight. With dead and wounded soldiers coming down by helicopters from icy peaks almost a daily feature - new inductees trudge up into the unknown, quietly contemplating their fate over the next six months. They begin the four day trek to their posts at altitudes of over 18,000ft, in heavy winter clothing carrying their 30 kg rucksacks on their backs, and pause and kneel, one after another, for a few moments in silent prayer at a little igloo dug into the snow. Inside that little space is kept the Bhagwad- Gita, the Koran, the Guru Granth Sahib and the Holy Bible. Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian soldiers alike, ask his maker to deliver him through the tough times ahead and to help him do his nation proud.
Once at his post, with temperatures around minus 30oC, get him to converse on the tough conditions, with the enemy firing and shelling around him a daily feature, and his answers sound like the words of a little frail, bald, old man with horn rimmed glasses whom we have all but forgotten. He will talk about Desh ki Seva, Kartavya, Hamara Karam - just as embarrassing as the uttering of that man called Gandhi! The Mahatma and his vision of India, truly lives through him.