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Secularism, Diversity, And Peace Are The Bulletproof Legacies of  Mahatma Gandhi

Those who invoke his name now must remember that Secular India, was, and is for everyone.

03/10/2017 7:26 PM IST | Updated 03/10/2017 7:30 PM IST
Babu Babu / Reuters

From the recently launched Mahatma Gandhi Pravasi Suraksha Yojana to the repeated invocation of the Gandhian dedication to cleanliness as a pioneering thought for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government has time and again found ways to incorporate Mahatma Gandhi's name into their agenda and programs. But just how strong this loyalty to the Mahatma's core values and legacy by the cultural organisation behind the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has historically been, merits a little more investigation.

The one term synonymous to Gandhi, globally, is that of peace or 'ahimsa', that he dedicated his life to propagating, and sustained, even in the face of immense political volatility and conflict. At the helm of Independence, and at the peak of violence, Gandhi displaying his characteristic fearlessness moved into a deserted Muslim home in one of the worst affected quarters of Calcutta, and decided to start a fast in response to the violent. This sort of political resistance is precisely what Gandhi's legacy stands for, and is, in fact, a far cry from what the RSS and all its adherent organisations have ever subscribed to. One doesn't even need to dig too deep into the archives of history to locate this fundamental difference, for, even today, the Sangh's mission statement emphasizes how Dr Hedgewar, one of the founders of the organisation, spent "every ounce of his energy for the realisation of one all-consuming dream of seeing the Hindu Nation become invincibly powerful."

Needlessly to say this statement exemplifies the fundamental difference between the political attitude and ideology between the two ideologies. Understanding the inevitably of conflict during Partition, Gandhi chose to unambiguously focus on the importance of Hindu-Muslim unity within India, instead of focusing on the Partition. While addressing a political rally in Delhi in 1947, Gandhi said, "this culture of Delhi, belongs to the Hindus and Muslims and not exclusively to either."

Keeping in mind the rich complexity of Indian culture and its demographic, Gandhi derived his ideals of what sort of secularism could exist in India.

It is important to mention, however, that religion by itself was not unimportant to Gandhi. On the contrary, it was vital to his identity as an intellectual, thinker and a leader. Yet, as much as he valued religion, and his own identity as a Hindu, Gandhi understood and emphasized that the only way India could survive and progress as one nation was if it based itself on secular principles, and embraced its diversity as a whole. In a discourse at his ashram in 1938, before the violence of the Partition descended, Gandhi saw it important to make this distinction, foreseeing the potential for chaos that religious discrimination bore. He clarified his own distinction between the idea of the role Religion could play in State affairs,

"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, currency and so on, but not your or my religion. That is everybody's personal affair."

Keeping in mind the rich complexity of Indian culture and its demographic, Gandhi derived his ideals of what sort of secularism could exist in India. In contrast to the Western conceptualisation of secularism, where in some ways the word 'secular' is used as a contrast to the word 'religious', Gandhi was of the view that the religiosity of our society was its greatest strength and strongest part of our value system. It was with these very ideals that he led the nation to freedom, combining the seemingly theoretical concepts of Ahimsa and Satyagraha, Gandhi mobilised the population of pre-Independence India to claim their freedom.

Gandhi's opinions of keeping religion separate from the State were vehemently opposed by RSS leaders of the time, who criticised the Constitution for not emulating any ideas from the Manusmriti.

He channelised the potency of these concepts and made the simplest of acts radical and impactful. The Dandi March initiated by Gandhi is one of the greatest examples in history of how tyranny can be resisted in the most intelligent and peaceful ways.

It was almost as if Gandhi knew that the freedom struggle was just a sign of all the turbulence that was to follow during the actual process of nation-building. After Independence, India was not only facing the duress of Partition but also found itself at the most defining moment a nation can find itself in, the framing of the Constitution.

During this time, Gandhi's stand on religious incorporation of any kind into the Constitution was unflinching. In sharp contrast to this, existed the RSS's views on what the Indian Constitution should be. While the final draft of the Constitution effectively resisted all attempts to outlaw conversions, Gandhi's opinions of keeping religion separate from the State were vehemently opposed by RSS leaders of the time, who criticised the Constitution for not emulating any ideas from the Manusmriti.

There is a grammar of non-violence written into our Constitution today which is an echo of the Gandhian legacy of Ahimsa that shaped not just the Independence movement but also the democratic character of our nation. It finds itself in an increasingly precarious position today.

Article 25 of the Indian Constitution granting us, 'Freedom of conscience, free profession, practise and propagation of religion' is a result of the resolve of the leaders of the time who agreed with this idea of disallowing religious interference.

The debate over citizenship rights, an issue that has sparked much debate recently, had incidentally come up between Gandhi and RSS leader Savarkar back in 1923, when Savarkar in a pamphlet defining the RSS ideology of Hindutva announced that India only belongs to the people who were born here and can call it their 'pitrabhoomi (fatherland)'. Gandhi had then categorically stated that "If Hindus felt that in India there was no place for anyone to live but Hindus, they would be destroying the very principles of Hinduism," reiterating how crucial it was to assume a secular character. The widely debated Citizenship Amendment Bill which at first glance seems like a noble humanitarian effort to help persecuted minorities is limited strictly to Hindus and excludes all minorities. The idea of India offering citizenship based on religious predilections is unconstitutional in its very demand today, but if the RSS leaders were to have their way, it could have found its way into our constitution.

The RSS in its core began as a unit to defend Hindu culture from what it identified as 'threats'.

The birth of RSS, if we were to historically trace it, was a form of cultural reorganisation launched largely in response to perceived threats by external agents like Christian missionaries, Muslim minorities, and Communist movements. In his book, while introducing the new concept of Hindutva, Savarkar defined 'three pillars' of a 'Hindu Nation: a common holy ground, a common blood and a common culture'. Inspired by this, K.B Hedgewar created the RSS with initial motives to serve as a volunteer force for the Hindus of the British India. The RSS in its core began as a unit to defend Hindu culture from what it identified as 'threats'. This is also a key reason for the sharply militant character of the RSS as an organisation.

While the archives of history are rife with testimonies and articles chronicling the triumphs as well as failures of Gandhi, there are lesser published guidelines and pieces of evidence of the RSS' thoughts and politics. The 100-page pamphlet titled We our Nationhood Defined and Bunch of Thoughts both written by prominent RSS leader Golwalkar are two of the most defining books for subscribers to the Hindutva ideology. In Bunch of Thoughts, essentially a collection of his speeches, Golwalkar openly referred to Gandhi as an enemy of the Hindu state: "those who declare 'no Swaraj without Hindu-Muslim unity' have perpetrated the greatest treason in our society."

The root of the difference between the two ideologists went way back in history and not, as is widely propagated, as a result of the violent assassination of Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, who was an adherent to the same Hindutva ideology.

B.R Ambedkar in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly had insightfully pointed out that India is entering an age of great contradictions.

Gandhi's unflinching stand on maintaining a secular character, his dedication to the principles and practises of satyagraha, that chose rational debated and political processes over violence and military means, could also have led to his assassination. During his fast in 1924, to protect Hindu-Muslim unity after the first Non-Cooperation Movement, Gandhi demonstrated the power of ahimsa and the immense possibilities true leadership could inspire. Unfortunately, it was this very dynamism that Gandhi displayed across his life that triggered his murder. In his final public speech during his court verdict, Godse, without mixing words, said: "The accumulating provocation of thirty-two years, culminating in his [Gandhi's] last pro-Muslim fast, at last, goaded me to the conclusion that the existence of Gandhi should be brought to an end immediately."

As history has repeatedly proven, ideas are bulletproof, and Gandhi's ideals have endured the test of time. His beliefs, shared by Nehru and other defining leaders and policymakers of the time, found their way into shaping India's foreign policy including its decision to be a part of the Non-Aligned Movement. Savarkar, quite predictably, was critical of Nehru's decision to be a part of the movement.

B.R Ambedkar in his final speech to the Constituent Assembly had insightfully pointed out that India is entering an age of great contradictions because while there is political equality guaranteed by the constitution, there still existed social inequality. While social inequality is far from obliterated, in today's environment it seems that even politically guaranteed rights and structural safeguards that the leaders of yesterday had fought so hard to retain are subject to change.

Pandit Nehru had once remarked that "one can't change the course of history by turning portraits to the wall." This holds true for all the claimants to the legacy of Gandhi who want to absorb his personage but not his principles and are in denial of the most fundamental differences with his legacy. Mahatma Gandhi said, "intolerance itself is a form of violence and an obstacle to growth," this is a reminder of how any idea that doesn't allow space for tolerance and inclusion is automatically antithetical to all that Gandhi aspired to achieve.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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