Secularism is a term which is easily misunderstood, and perhaps nowhere does this have worse consequences than in India. The comparison is often made between India, described as a secular state, and Pakistan, founded as a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. India’s secularism is ascribed in part to Gandhi, and it is certainly true that Gandhi wanted the Indian state to be the homeland for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians alike. But Mark Tully has pointed out that, far from wanting a state in which religion is stripped from public life – most peoples’ concept of secularism – Gandhi’s hope was for a state in which truly religious values permeate all aspects of life, including the political sphere.
After his success in South Africa, Gandhi’s first public speech in India, at the opening of the Hindu University in Benares, demonstrates how his political discourse was saturated with religious vocabulary:
“Truth is the end; love a means thereto . . . The Golden Rule is to dare to do the right at any cost. No amount of speeches will make us fit for self-government, it is only our conduct that will fit us for it . . . If we trust and fear God, we shall have to fear no-one, not maharajahs, not viceroys, not the detectives, not even King George.”
Gandhi’s concept of religion was a pluralistic one:
“I believe in the fundamental Truth of all great religions of the world. I believe they are all God-given and I believe they were necessary for the people to whom these religions were revealed. And I believe that if only we could all of us read the scriptures of the different faiths from the standpoint of the followers of these faiths, we should find that they were at the bottom all one and were all helpful to one another.”
Gandhi’s vision of the secular state is a place where religious values and discourse are cherished and respected in all spheres of life, the public as well as the private, but in which no single religion is allowed to dominate the others. This latter clause prevented Gandhi from supporting the Hindu nationalist (Hindutva) movement which is now so prominent on the Indian political scene. The Hindutva groups see secularism as an enemy because it is a barrier to Hindu hegemony.
Opponents of secularism also include Islamic revivalist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan. According to their ideology:
“Secularism was equated with godlessness, an absence or denial of religious values, rather than a separation of church and state in order to guarantee religious freedom in pluralistic societies.” (John Esposito, Islam – The Straight Path OUP 1998)
Unfortunately modern atheists too have misunderstood secularism, believing it means that no one should be allowed to employ religious language in their political discourse, which would have prevented Gandhi from speaking! Admittedly there is much to dislike about certain forms of religious discourse in politics, writing as I do from the standpoint of a European observing the US presidential elections. It shows me the merit of Alistair Campbell’s famous caveat to Tony Blair: “We don’t do God”.
Gandhi’s religious discourse was accepted by his audience, and was effective in motivating them politically because they were, by-and-large, religious people. The deployment of religious language in modern British political life would be doomed to failure, because it would alienate the atheists, it wouldn’t satisfy the fundamentalists, and it would fail to motivate the masses. Perhaps all we are left with is our own private faith to motivate our actions in the political sphere, and a recognition of Wittgenstein’s deep spiritual truth:
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”.