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The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2014

The Gandhi Foundation’s Multifaith Celebration took place on Thursday 30th January 2014 at the House of Lords, London

Dr Rex Andrews gave a lecture on Gandhi related aspects of his new book “God in a Nutshell“. Our President, Lord Parekh, hosted and Chaired the event with Q&A with a multifaith audience.

Thank you to all who attended

Mark Hoda addressing The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2012

Mark Hoda addressing The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2012

Father Alec Reid – 2008 Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award recipient

Father Alec Reid

Father Alec Reid

Sadly Father Alec Reid, who received The Gandhi Foundation International Peace Award in 2008 along with Rev. Harold Good, died on 22nd November 2013 aged 82 years. His role in the disarmament process in Northern Ireland, the victory of non-violence over violence, and the bringing together of the Catholic and Protestant communities with Rev. Harold Good were significant milestones on the road to peace. You can read an account of the 2008 award and speeches by clicking:

http://gandhifoundation.org/2008/10/30/2008-peace-award-annual-lecture-harold-good-alec-reid/

The Daily Telegraph obituary can be read here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10468267/Father-Alec-Reid-Obituary.html

A World of Limited Resources – The Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering 2013 by Natasha Lewis

The Abbey, in the little village of Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, was again the setting for this year’s Gathering, a week of attempting to live in the style of one of Gandhi’s ashrams whilst allowing a space for discussion into applying his principles to issues faced in the modern world. The building itself is a perfect facilitator for this event, providing several cosy sitting rooms, a kitchen and dining room dating to the 13th century, and a large Great Hall which has windows that open out into the main garden. The grounds give ample space for camping and sports including badminton, as well as a large kitchen garden which provides much of the delicious food for the week! The surrounding countryside also provides several beautiful walks along the river Thames.

GF SG 1

The Gandhi Foundation Summer Gathering 2013

Although some rooms are available in the Abbey itself, most Gatherers stay in the guest house annexe, which has the advantage of 20th rather than 13th century plumbing and heating! The braver amongst us, mostly families, camped and this year a camper van was also used for accommodation. Thirty Seven people attended over the first weekend, with people coming and going over the next week.

The premise of Gandhi’s ashram means that a great communal spirit is built up throughout the week, with teams taking turns to help prepare meals and keep communal spaces clean. The kitchen is usually the focal point, where children’s (and adult’s!) baking and craft takes place, as well as some of the most interesting discussions about the year’s theme.

After a help-yourself breakfast, the morning session begins with a brief meditation and sharing of information, then continues into the main discussion topic for the day. There is normally a short introductory presentation followed by discussion in small groups and then feedback. This leads into Shramdana, meaning ‘sharing of one’s time, thought and energy for the welfare of all’ in accordance with the way Gandhi’s ashrams were run. Lunch is eaten and, after a digestion break, craft activities begin later in the afternoon. It was Gandhi’s belief that time should be spent on useful tasks, and this period is used to follow his guidance. Crafts available this year were varied, including collage making, art using dried flowers, crochet and watercolour painting. One particularly interesting activity was spinning thread from a sheep’s fleece: we set up a production line including carding the wool, using the spinning wheel to turn the wool into thread and winding the finished wool into balls (and untangling it!). The spinning wheel was a bit trickier to use than I expected and unfortunately my wool alternated between being much too thick and snapping because it was too thin! After supper Gatherers are invited to contribute to the evening’s entertainment which included animal noises, poetry readings, slideshows and circle dancing. Then meditation and time for sleep before it all begins again in the morning!

The topic for this year’s Gathering was “A World of Limited Resources: Inspirations and Challenges in Sharing the Planet” which attracted many external speakers as well as new participants. This meant that there was often a talk in the afternoon in addition to the morning session. The first of these was given by an architect, Sandra Piesik, who is running a project reviewing renewable resources as construction materials, involving over 120 scientists and professionals. Her talk mainly focussed on developing architecture using palm leaves in the United Arab Emirates, and her efforts to rescue indigenous technology from the extinction imposed by the advent of globalisation and modern building practices. She highlighted the fact that concrete is not always the most suitable building material in every environment on Earth, and that there is a huge untapped source of building materials from the palm leaves from plants used for date production, which are currently wasted in the UAE.

GF SG 3

The theme of the first morning session (Sunday) was Sarvodaya. This is a term coined by Gandhi to mean ‘universal uplift’ or ‘progress of all’ and was a fundamental principle of his political philosophy. We discussed some of Gandhi’s other main principles: Swaraj, self-rule;  Swadeshi, self-sufficiency; and Satyagraha, “truth force”, Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance strategy.

Monday’s theme was resource depletion: examining the effects of diminishing stocks of non-renewable gas, oil, coal and minerals on the world. We discussed particular industries’ impacts on the earth and its people, and possible substitutes.

Tuesday focussed on climate change and population from a biological perspective, as the talk was given by an ecologist. Human culture has gradually evolved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle through small scale agriculture to the globalised economy we see today. However, this has occurred in a period of relatively stable climatic conditions for the past 5000 years, which has lulled us into a sense of false security. We were divided into three groups and attempted to answer three questions. The question for my group was: What attributes from our hunter gatherer and agricultural ancestors should we cultivate and which should we reject? We were also asked to talk about steps we could take to reduce our energy usage both on a personal and national/global scale. 
Ruth gave a presentation originally aimed at actuaries to show that in the economic world it is vital to take into account risks of climate change and resource depletion.

The World Economic System was Wednesday’s subject. Alan Sloan presented us with a thought-provoking presentation on a potential new economic system based on ecological footprints. Conventional money is not directly related to the material world, and he suggested that if the new currency were based on the resources available from the earth then this would help to solve the resource depletion crises we are currently facing, as well as relieving poverty in the developing world.

GF SG 2

Four participants gave presentations on four ‘prophets’ on Thursday. John Muir was an American naturalist whose activism helped to preserve national parks such as Sequoia National Park and the Yosemite Valley. Ishpriya is a Catholic nun who founded the International Satsang Organisation. The Reverend Horace Dammers was the founder of the Lifestyle Movement. Frances Moore Lappé is the author of the bestseller Diet for a Small Planet, which advocated a plant-based diet as being much more conducive to food security.

On Friday we welcomed another guest speaker, a representative of Traidcraft. He gave a presentation on the organisation and their efforts to ensure that workers are paid a fair price for their products.

On the last evening we held a party, which was a sort of variety show with everyone offering their best party pieces. We had old home videos, games, singing, jokes, poetry, a small flute recital and some improvised circle dancing. The evening ended with a small tribute to the victims of the atom bomb in 1945, as it was Nagasaki Day. We went out into the garden and floated tea lights in little paper boats in a large baking tray filled with water, as incense smoke floated up into the night sky. It was a lovely way to end the week, which has been one of the most thought-provoking I have attended.

What Happened at The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2012

The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration Review

at St Ethelburga’s on 30th January 2012

By Mark Hoda, Chair & Trustee of The Gandhi Foundation

Mark Hoda addressing The Gandhi Foundation Multifaith Celebration 2012

It was really heartening to see such a large audience gather at St Ethelberga’s on a cold January evening. They heard  though provoking reflections on the environment and sustainability from a range of faith perspectives as well as on Gandhi’s influence on the green movement today, which continues to draw inspiration from his philosophy and satyagraha strategies.

Anglican Priest Father Ivor opened proceedings with a quote often attributed to Gandhi that “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need buy not anyone’s greed”. He also quoted from Tagore and the Upanishads before offering the Prayer of St Francis of Assisi, who he said had much in common with Gandhi.

Gandhi Foundation Trustee, Graham Davey, set out how the Quaker Testimonies of simplicity, truth, equality and peace relate to care for the environment by espousing the values of moderation, sustainability and non violence and concern for the depletion of non renewable resources. The Quaker Book of Discipline calls for us to rejoice in God’s world but to appreciate that we are not its owners but its custodians.

Gandhi Foundation and Environmental Law foundation founder, Martin Polden, offered observations on the teachings of Judaism. He quoted the Old Testament’s injunction to “Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the sky and everything that moves on the Earth”. He said this should be read in conjunction  with chapter 2 verses 7-8, where Adam first appears, and is expressed to be ‘planted’ in the Garden of Eden, with a duty to ‘cultivate and keep it’, i.e. serve it and conserve it. Throughout the Torah, there is the injunction to take account of cultivation and obey good husbandry, said Polden.

He explained how Gandhi was influenced by the Jewish community in South Africa and how the 12th century philosopher Maimonides influenced E.F. Schumacher’s ‘Guide for the Perplexed’. As a lawyer, Polden has worked with Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian environmentalists “on issues that concern the region and where each marks the other with respect and recognition of each as human beings, with the key of living together, as distinct from stereotypes”.

Martin Polden also said that our prayers with GF President Lord Attenborough, who is unwell. Trustee John Rowley also collected messages from the audience to send to him.

Reverend Nagase from the London Peace Pagoda, said that in Buddhism, there are two paths open to attain  Buddhahood; creating the  pure land, and to lead the people to the teachings of Buddhism. “When people become peaceful and affectionate, the land in which they live is also bound to become peaceful and affectionate in accordance…It may seem as if the path is separated into two: the land and the people, yet originally both are the realisations of a single truth”.

Reflecting on the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year, Rev Nagase said “If the minds of the people are impure, their land is also impure, but  if their minds are pure, so is their land. There are not two lands, pure or impure, in themselves. The difference lies solely in the good or evil of people’s minds. It is the same with a Buddha and a common  mortal. While deluded, one is called a ‘common mortal’, but once  enlightened, is called a ‘Buddha’. Even a tarnished mirror will shine like a jewel if it is polished”.

Madhava Turumella from the Hindu Forum explained how he stayed at Gandhi’s Sevagram ashram after graduating from university. He said he found serenity there and appreciated the many faiths that influenced Gandhi. This religious pluralism in Turumella’s branch of Hinduism which believes in the universality of humanity and harmony with other belief systems. He echoed previous speakers when he said that the earth does not belong to anyone. He said all life is interconnected and we must not covet or steal its resources. He said that this is precisely what is happening today, however, and it is causing great damage to our world.

Gandhi Foundation Trustee, Omar Hayat, speaking about Islam, also echoed much of what previous speakers and highlighted the great commonality between faiths. Muslims are guided by the Koran and the teachings and conduct of the Prophet and Hayat gave examples of both to explain the faith’s environmental perspective. The Koran states that man is not at the centre of the world, but just one part of the environment. Islam emphasises the unity of creation and equality of all creation and the role of man as a trustee of the earth and its resources and calls for humility. The current environmental crisis reflects mankind’s spiritual crisis.

The teachings of the Prophet, emphasise that the earth must not be exploited or abused and flora, fauna and animals have equal rights to man as God’s dependants. Hayat concluded with a quote from Prophet Mohammed “Act in your life as though you are living forever and act for the Hereafter as if you are dying tomorrow”.

Green London Assembly Member, Darren Johnson, explained the impact that Gandhi has had on modern environmentalists. Johnson said Gandhi was one of the first public figures to warn of environmental damage, warning of the consequences of pollution of air water and grain, and he described him as “A patron saint of the green movement”.

He said that Gandhi’s contemporary influence was based on his emphasis on sustainability, social justice, democratic participation and non-violence.  Johnson felt that Gandhi would approve of modern London’s multi-ethnic society but not the massive gap between rich and poor. Gandhi would understand the reason behind the current Occupy movement in the capital.

Gandhi’s non-violent methods have inspired civil rights movements across the world and are fundamental to the green movement today. Johnson said that we have a long way to go to realise Gandhi’s vision but his philosophy is as relevant as ever.

John Dal Din, representing the Catholic faith, like Father Ivor, offered a Franciscan prayer – the Canticle of Creation. He talked of the deep links between St Francis and Gandhi.

Ajit Singh explained the influence of the Sikh faith on Gandhi. He posed the question what is the world and our place within it. Quoting Guru Nanak and Sikh morning prayers, he said that God creates and sustains the earth but mankind is responsible for it and all its life forms. All life is interconnected and any damage done to the earth is damage to me, said Singh.

David Fazey from Village Action India talked about a month-long Ekta Parishad (an indian grassroots movement) Satyagraha march in October in India in which 100,000 people will participate. It is inspired by Gandhi and is being staged to highlight the plight of Indian rural communities who are being denied rights to their land, water and forests. This march builds on the Janadesh march in 2007.

Fazey said that if the March is to be successful, it must be witnessed and he called on all those present to raise awareness of the event. A leaflet on the march was circulated and further details are available at www.marchforjustice2012.org

There were further impromptu contributions at the end of the event; Margaret Waterward highlighted a march of 450 slum children dressed in Khadi in Kolkata the previous day, calling for education and a future free of poverty; a from a representative of the Jain faith, Sagar Sumaria, highlighting the environmental damage created by our demand for consumer electronics, such as mobile phones. A peace petition was also circulated on behalf of Newham Mosque.

Mark Hoda concluded the event by thanking Omar Hayat and GF Friend Jane Sill for all their help in organising this year’s Multifaith Celebration.

Speech given by Martin Polden at the Multifaith Celebration 2012

Speech given by Madhava Turumella at the Multifaith Celebration 2012

Speech given by Omar Hayat at the Multifaith Celebration 2012


Liberating Choices

Sheikh Amadou Bamba wall-painting, Senegal

How can we distinguish between fatal and liberating choices? That was the question posed by Sheikh Aly N’Daw, head of the International Sufi School. He was speaking at his book launch in Westminster, hosted by Ian Stewart MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Friends of Islam group. Aly N’Daw is from the Mouride school of Sufism founded by the Senegalese saint Amadou Bamba (1850-1927) who emphasised service to others as the path to God. Sheikh Aly encourages his students to study the lives of great men and women who have bridged the gap between politics and spirituality, and have demonstrated how peace within leads to peace in the world.

Sheikh Aly asked us to consider the choice that Martin Luther King made when he decided not to opt for a comfortable lifestyle in Chicago, but to take his ministry to the Deep South and confront the spectre of racial discrimination. On the surface, it appears that Dr. King made a fatal choice, because his ministry ended with his assassination. However, in reality he made a liberating choice, because he could have suffered spiritual death by taking the easy option of remaining in Chicago, but instead his self-sacrifice contributed to the political and social liberation of millions of African-Americans.

Next we were asked to consider Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of micro-credit and founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. A professor of economics, he became disillusioned with academic life and went to live with a group of peasants. Many people would consider this a fatal choice, at least professionally, but for Muhammad Yunus it was liberating because it showed him how small sums of money loaned on trust could yield massive results if targetted at the right people, particularly women. By 2008 the Grameen Bank had loaned US$7.8 billion to the poor.

Ian Stewart MP talked about his own difficult choice, to vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He explained that his motivation had been to help the Kurds and the Marsh Arabs, but now that hundreds of thousands of people had died as a result of the war, he could not be sure if he had been right. He described the whirl of conventional political life and how politicians, caught in the maelstrom, are on auto-pilot, without time or space to connect with the spiritual dimension of life. As he is not standing in the forthcoming general election, he expressed the hope that he would now have time to learn more about what Sufism describes as the ‘spiritual heart’.

The first two books in Sheikh Aly N’Daw’s series are ‘The Initiatory Way To Peace’ and ‘Liberation Therapy’. If you would like to buy any copies, please email: contact_uk@international-sufi-school.org

East Meets West Through Rokeya – by Shaheen Choudhury Westcombe

 

The Centenary Parade Begins – Shaheen Chaudhhury Westcombe (holding flag) and teachers of the Sakhawat Memorial School

 

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossein has inspired and changed the lives of many women. A muslim feminist writer and educationalist, she campaigned for equality, peace, social justice, harmony and an eco-friendly world. Born in 1880, in colonial Victorian India in Rangpur, now in Bangladesh, she fought a lonely battle to create a better society and improve the lives of women. She was brought up under very strict purdah and denied the opportunity of education. It was sheer determination and commitment that kept her going despite all the difficulties, barriers, abuse and opposition.

For the past five years I have been trying to raise awareness and promote Rokeya in the West. Following the success of a play Rokeya’s Dream (based on Rokeya’s satire Sultana’s Dream) staged in London last year, there was an invitation to visit West Bengal this spring. The production, a joint venture was initiated by Mahila Sangha, a Bangladeshi women’s group (that I Chair) with Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance and Tara Arts as partners.

A group of three Bruford graduates (Rae Leaver, Claudia Jazz Haley and Alia Wilson) who had worked on the play, the choreographer (Showmi Das) and I went to India in response to the invitation from three Universities and Sakhawat Memorial Government Girls’ High School. The trip was possible because of the untiring efforts of a Rokeya scholar and peace activist, Mr. Prantosh Bandyopadhyay. The warm welcome with beautiful bouquets of flowers everywhere and the love, affection, hospitality and kindness of everyone touched our hearts deeply. It reflected the true spirit of Rokeya. We had travelled 6000 miles and had taken from Britain a message of goodwill, love and peace.

We attended the centenary of Sakhawat Memorial School established by Rokeya in 1911 to educate young muslim women. At the time Muslim women did not have access to education and purdah was a barrier. Today, the school boasts as one of the top institutions in Kolkata and is open to students of all faiths and denominations. The march through the streets of rush hour central Kolkata with placards displaying Rokeya’s slogans and the rally and cultural performances by the students were breathtaking. The chief minister of West Bengal and several other ministers were present. So were their alumni from all parts of the globe. It was quite an emotional experience for me as my mother (Anwara Bahar Choudhury) was a student of Rokeya and a former Headteacher of the school. My siblings (Iqbal Bahar Choudhury and Nasreen Shams) had also been invited and they joined me from the US and Bangladesh to attend the event. Our team did a workshop at the school on Rokeya’s messages through dance and movements. The students enjoyed every moment of it. There are plans to link the school with Plumstead Manor School in London.

We were indeed very honoured to have the opportunity of working with the students of the Department of Drama, University of Rabindra Bharati and Visva Bharati. The latter was created by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and is situated in rural Bolpur. The ethos of Visva Bharati is based on Tagore’s philosophy of learning in a natural environment and also linking up globally. It is part of Santiniketan, a unique educational centre for all age groups. The peace and tranquility of rural Bengal can be experienced here amidst the natural surroundings. Rabindra Bharati was established in Tagore’s family estate in the outskirts of Kolkata by the Government of India in his honour on his birth centenary.

Our aim at the workshops was to tell the participants about Rokeya’s life and messages, share our experiences of producing the play, Rokeya’s Dream and presenting the western interpretation of her story. At the end of the workshops, and after exploring the ideas, the students had to present their interpretation of the messages in short group performances. Their creativity and innovative talents were stunning. Most of them had never heard of Rokeya and the media picked this up by quoting in the headlines of The Indian Express ‘Britons help Bengal students rediscover one of the early feminist icons of South Asia’.

Tagore and Rokeya had many common messages. In some of the performances the students had incorporated Tagore’s work alongside. Rokeya had touched them all. Many of them said that they could relate with her messages when they looked at their own life experiences. The themes are all very pertinent in today’s world. They were deeply moved and inspired and pledged to continue to work on Rokeya.

We left the two Universities with the request from the students and teachers to organise further collaborative work and exchange programmes between them and Bruford. With Tagore’s 150 birth anniversary next year, there could not be a better opportunity. Promoting friendship, exchanging ideas and understanding different cultures through theatre can be very powerful and enriching. Theatre as an art form is visual and universal, there is no language barrier.

Our final destination was Burdwan University. We were speakers at an international conference on Women and Folk Culture. Rokeya featured in our presentations. Rae Leaver who spoke on behalf of the Bruford graduates said that ‘Rokeya is a role model for British women’. Rokeya has no boundaries.

We left Kolkata with tears. They were probably tears of joy. We had experienced so much in such a short time and had been greatly enriched. We had even seen the final resting place of Rokeya and visited a children’s home in Panihati that she had initiated. We had made numerous friends, shared our ideas, raised awareness about Rokeya and her messages; established a link for future communication between the centres of learning. East had met West. There is now global interest in the work of our group – The Rokeya Project. These small steps could be the beginning of a wider peace movement that Rokeya dreamt. Salaam Rokeya.

Shaheen Westcombe is a member of the GF Executive. Her heritage country is Bangladesh where she trained as an architect. After working as an architect in the UK for about 10 years she moved to community development and worked in management positions in local government in London for 25 years. She was awarded the MBE in 2001 for contributions to community relations.

Indian Secularism Revisited – by Antony Copley

Justice Aftab Alam of the Indian Supreme Court giving the Annual Lecture

A very distinctive Indian version of secularism has underpinned India since independence and is the critical guarantee in the continuing existence of its multi-cultural pluralist society. Were it to weaken then terrifying forces of communal violence are always at risk of breaking out. These thoughts are prompted by the Olympian lecture on this theme by Justice Aftan Alam, the 2009 Annual Gandhi lecture, The Idea of Secularism and the Supreme Court of India, delivered in the Temple Church of The Inner Temple, 14 October, and a short text by the Jawarharlal Nehru University historians, Aditya Mukherjee, Mridula Mookerjee and Sucheta Mahajan, RSS, School Texts and the Murder of Mahatma Gandhi (Sage: 2008). It is a theme I have myself looked at in the past, in a long article in Contemporary South Asia Volume 2 Number 1 1993, entitled Indian Secularism Reconsidered: from Gandhi to Ayodha, and as Editor of a collection of essays connecting Hindutva (Indianness or Hinduness) to the story of the religious reform movements, Hinduism in Public and Private (OUP India: 2003). I like to think that in those publications I raised the uncomfortable ambiguities of this debate though probably at the expense of clarity. There is a certain virtue in oversimplification. How do the lecture and the text by the JNU historians reopen the debate on Indian secularism?

The event that put this issue at the centre of Indian politics was the truly shocking vandalism 6 December 1992 of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodha. As my article tracking this outrage was long in the making, (in fact I wrote my piece some months before the final outrage), and it has left uncomfortable questions about who was responsible. Justice Alam refers to a decision of the Supreme Court which validated the dismissal of the popularly elected governments of Rajasthan, Madya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh for aiding and abetting the demolition of the mosque. The presidential decree has been seen as an attack on democracy. But on this occasion the Court was certain that the dictates of secularism justified their dismissal. Interestingly, it is only now that a commission on the event headed by Manmohan Singh Liberhan has published its findings and they are pretty explosive. For the first time the former prime-minister, Vajpayee, together with the other leading politician of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Advani, are seen as “culpable of taking the country to the brink of communal discord”. According to the report the demolition was “neither spontaneous nor unpreventable” and was the “zenith of a concerted and well laid out plan”. Responsibility ultimately lay with the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological source of the Hindutva programme (See The Guardian 25 November 2009). How the current Congress government will now react is just as provocative a question as to how any future government here will react to the findings of the Chilcot Commission.

Varieties of Secularism

Secularism is not self-defining and comes in several versions. In post-revolutionary France it took the from of an aggressive rationalism, hostile to all clerical power and to religion itself, inspired in the 19th century by the republican ideology of positivism, and it led in time to the separation of church and state in 1905. In all state schools children were inculcated with a doctrine of laicite. A similar anti-clerical version of secularism briefly dominated Germany in Bismarck’s so-called kulturkampf and Italy has always been subject to strong anti-clerical, anti-papal protest. If here we have been spared a similar political expression of anti-clericalism, for we still have an established church, in the writing of Richard Dawkins and his like we are now exposed to an equally aggressive rationalism and atheism. Probably Indians were more aware of the draconian assault on all things religious in the Soviet Union. But in India secularism took a very different shape. It was not anti-religious but driven instead by seeking a way of securing a mutual tolerance of faiths. Both sources under view try to exemplify what Gandhi and Nehru meant by secularism. The JNU historians who see Gandhi as “perhaps the greatest person to walk the earth in the 20th century” (p43), come at it largely in terms of how Gandhi challenged communalism in the name of a secular nationalism, Justice Alam by reference to Gandhi’s concept of sarma dharma samabhav, an equal treatment and respect for all religions. However, his quotation from Gandhi in 1939 disputing the idea of a separate Muslim nation and a speech days before his death on how all religious faiths have an equal claim on India’s capital Delhi, although it reveals Gandhi’s deep belief that all Indians were children of Mother India, does open up a certain ambiguity as to how different cultural communities are all subsumed by an Indian identity. I prefer a quotation I used in my article:

It is not the Hindu religion which I certainly prize above all other religions but the religion which transcends Hinduism, which changes one’s very nature, which bonds one indissolubly to the truth within and which even purifies. It is the permanent element in human nature which counts no cost too great in order to find full expression and which leaves the soul utterly restless until it has found itself, known its Maker and appreciated the true correspondence between the Maker and itself. (Quoted in S Gopal Anatomy of a Confrontation Viking: 1991, pp14-15)

Nehru as an agnostic was closer to a European version of secularism but he saw the vital importance of building into the constitution safeguards for the protection of religious minorities, a means of staunching the communal bloodshed that has stained India up to and during the partition. The whole debate on Indian secularism goes in two overlapping directions: there is the debate as to the nature of a secular nationalism and there is an ongoing tension between the protection of the personal laws of Indian religions and the search, one Nehru himself supported, for some personal code more in line with human rights worldwide.

Responses to Indian Pluralism

Secular nationalism was one solution to Indian pluralism. It both guaranteed multi-culturalism whilst guarding against separatism. Justice Alam wittily points out at the beginning of his lecture that there are six different ways of getting married in India. The JNU historians provide a lucid account of how a Congress secular nationalism differs from a Hindu nationalism though my instinct is that they do so by a degree of simplification and an avoidance of the inherent ambiguities in the Congress Party’s attitudes. I try in my introduction to Hinduism in Public and Private to point to an approach to nationalism of the likes of Lajpat Rai that converge with a Hindu, and Congress were of course right to deny membership of both Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha. The Congress Right continued to be a barrier to the rise of a distinctive party of Hindu nationalism. That only takes off in the late 1980s. We need to be reminded of that atmosphere of hatred towards Muslims that led to Gandhi’s assassination by followers of the RSS and it is chilling to learn that at a meeting in Bombay 19 November 1995 Gopal Godse, brother of Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, still justified the murder in terms of ridding India of a “demon” and pre-empting the risk of a second partition with the breakaway of Hyderabad.

The most intriguing section of the book by the JNU historians is on the way school textbooks are being doctored to promote a Hindutva version of Indian history. With the BJP in power at the centre their education minister, Manohar Joshi, set about fashioning a communalised version as opposed to a secular one and in 2002 there was a wholesale introduction of a new set of textbooks. Initially the one on contemporary India did not even mention Gandhi’s assassination though, after a public outcry, just a sentence was added. The India History Congress drew up a list of errors in the new textbooks. If it remains somewhat mysterious why self-proclaimed representatives of the Hindu majority should be so afraid of minority communities, the JNU historians make the good point that theirs is not so much a fear of ‘the other’ as a determination to mould Hindus to their own ideal of a correct way; they are even more hostile to liberal-minded Hindus than they are to Muslims. They also suggest it was their very isolation in 1948 that drove them out of desperation and cowardice to murder Gandhi.

And it is impossible to overlook the tension between protecting the rights of minority communities and the emergence of a progressive legal code. The thrust of Justice Alam’s lecture is the slippage from a rigid adherence to the terms of India’s Constitution by the Supreme Court towards both a prioritisation of individual rights and freedoms over community based rights and, more worryingly, a tendency “to take a mono-culturalist view rather than a pluralist view of secularism”. He has much to say on the way in the 1950s the Supreme Court defended the rights of Christian and Muslim schools in Kerala to remain free from state intervention but in its decision of 2003 the prestigious Christian St Stephen’s College would have to limit its Christian admissions to 50%. There is much here of relevance to our current debates on faith schools. Justice Alam summarises: “for about forty or forty-five years, the Supreme Court held that the Constitution did not permit community specific political rights, it recognised community specific social rights. But in the last fifteen years the court seems to have come to the view that under the Constitution there cannot be any community specific rights either political or social.” (p15)

But is this necessarily a mono-culturalist agenda and by implication a Hindutva one? One of the hugely controversial decisions taken by the Supreme Court was in the Shah Bano case in 1986. Here I’ll quote my own account in my article.

Implications of the Shah Bano case

In 1976 one Shah Bano after 43 years of marriage to a prosperous lawyer was divorced in traditional Muslim fashion. She was to fight a case for maintenance all the way to the Supreme Court and win: in 1986 she was awarded Rs 500 a month. In the Islamic Shariat law, once the husband has returned the wife’s mehr, or dowry, responsibility for the wife’s maintenance falls on her family, so this decision was in clear breach of Muslim personal law. This was hailed as a victory for secularism and a feminist triumph to boot. Muslim women were now to enjoy the same rights as those of other religions under Indian personal law. Belatedly it looked as if the Constitution was going to fulfil its directive principle, Article 44, and introduce a uniform personal law. But Rajiv Gandhi’s government, alarmed at Muslim anger, lost its nerve and in the Muslim’s Women’s act was to reverse the decision of the Supreme Court. Here was a betrayal of secularism and of the equality of women before the law. Congress could once again be blamed for unscrupulous politics, its courting of Muslim conservative interests as a way of securing the Muslim vote-bank.

I add, more dubiously:

Significantly, progressive Muslims now see the wisdom of abandoning Muslim personal law and an assimilationist approach to independent India. After all, theirs is a population largely born after 1947 and they know no other loyalty.

Justice Alam is not hostile to the Supreme Court’s decision and points out that in a subsequent appeal against the new act the Court claimed nothing had in fact been lost: “it may look ironical that the enactment intended to reverse the decision in the Shah Bano’s case, actually codifies the very rationale contained therein.” What Justice Alam is looking for is a more culturally tolerant approach. In his interpretation of the Court’s new ruling, “it effectively held that the Act would be unconstitutional if interpreted to give Muslim women less than other own by way of maintenance” but did so in his view by “a different and more acceptable route”. Clearly Justice Alam sees the conflict between the possibilities of a universal code and the particular demands of community and argues that the Court “will have to find a middle ground between its two extreme positions, one where the right was held to be absolute and not subject to any reasonable restrictions even in public interest or national interest and the other where the right stands emasculated”. There is a danger, he recognises, of insulating minorities from the national mainstream and one has also to recognise that minorities anyway are divided and “that an over protection of the community specific rights was of little if hardly any use to weaker sections within the minority groups”. But minorities nevertheless remain fearful of being subsumed within the majority. And in the end Justice Alam comes down I think on the conservative side: “In India secularism cannot be seen or used as a means for doing away with all the differences of creed or caste and region and language and for developing a more homogenised society laying stress on ‘Indianness’. All this is of profound relevance to European states which are having to come to terms with Muslim minorities. Just recall the public uproar that greeted Archbishop Rowan Williams when he suggested that English courts would at least have to be aware of the claims of shariat law. The recent referendum in Switzerland over minarets points to the profound fears of European majority communities. In India it seems that the move for a more progressive personal code has been seriously distorted by the intrusion of the Hindutva campaign for a uniform personal code.

And what of the future? With the BJP led National Democratic Alliance defeated in the two recent general elections the Hindutva movement is in some disarray. The rather shadowy relationship between the RSS and the BJP, the former a socio-religious grouping, the latter, political, is once again being played out and the RSS leader Mohan Bhagwat has directly intervened in the political process and is trying to shape the BJP party leadership, marginalising the old guard under Vajpayee, though he has a soft spot for both Advani and Manohar Joshi, but his preference is for a younger leadership. There is to be no let up in the RSS ideological commitment to Hindutva. Interestingly the debate on Hindutva still goes back to the events around Gandhi’s assassination and a continuing insistence on the responsibility of the RSS. However a recognised interpreter of the RSS, D R Goyal, forecasts: “I don’t see any future for the party for the next ten years, at least until 2014”. (See Frontline September 25 2009) In the meanwhile it is Congress that has to justify its own claims to a secular nationalism by being sure its reach embraces the tribal and forest populations of India, put so grotesquely at risk by India’s industrialisation programme, as Arundhati Roy has recently so bitterly portrayed. (See her essay Into the Inferno, New Statesman 20 July 2009)

Antony Copley is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Kent and a member of the Gandhi Foundation’s Executive Committee.

Justice Alam’s Lecture can be downloaded here

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