Tag Archives: secularism

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

Gandhi in the 21st Century – by Prof. Bhikhu Parekh

The Second Fred Blum Memorial Lecture

If  I were to sum up Gandhi in just one phrase (his phrase) I would say he committed his life, as he called it,

“to grow from truth to truth”.

In other words, as a human being he said he only had partial perceptions of ultimate reality, or what is truth about anything, and life consists in our constantly rising above our limitations, our prejudices, exposing ourselves to others, and – in the process – growing “from truth to truth”.  In fact, I think that sums up the Mahatma’s life, and in my view it also sums up the life of Fred Blum.

Now, what about Mahatma in the 21st century?  I think the best way to approach the topic would be to ask what are the important questions with which the 20th century began, and which will haunt us for the next hundred years, if not more?  And of the many issues I have thought about, I would say four are critically important:

  1. Clash of cultures and civilisations
  2. The role of religion in public life
  3. Is there an alternative to violence ?
  4. Is there a place for personal integrity ?

Clash of cultures and civilisations

Let’s take the first one: clash of civilisations. Thanks to globalisation, different cultures and civilisations come together.  As they do so they encounter incomprehension and misunderstanding.  What do we do about it ?  Although many say a clash is inevitable, Gandhi had a different kind of answer.  When “9/11” happened in 2001, a lot of people said this was due to a clash of civilisations, and what has happened since has gone on to confirm this.  And therefore – they say – all we can hope to do is to manage the world as well as we can, hold on to our values, keep enemies at bay, and try to make sure that the world remains reasonably stable but be prepared for the clashes to occur from time to time.  Gandhi’s arguments were: (a) no kind of clash is inevitable; (b) by believing they are, you are demonising your opponent, turning them into inhuman monsters.  Therefore you put them outside the pale of human community and, because you have dehumanised them, you feel you can do anything with them because they “are not human beings”.  Therefore you can hunt them down.  Many Middle Eastern countries acquire “plus points” for every individual they can lock up or kill, so long as they are described as “terrorist Al Qaida supporters”.  In other words, once you dehumanise people you begin to dehumanise yourself, because that is the only way you think you can deal with them.  Therefore the moral inhibitions and scruples, which normally govern your life, seem to disappear.

I think this kind of Gandhian analysis has come true because if you look at the way, for example, that President Bush talks about Al Qaida, and the way in which Osama bin Laden talks about the Americans, there’s a complete symmetry.  Osama will say “Your capitalist American society in the West is an axis of evil, you are a degenerate society”.  Bush says the same in reverse.  Osama will say: “None of you are innocent because you are all complicit in the guilt and the harm that you are inflicting on us.”  Bush says the same: “You are either for us or against us”.

Gandhi said again and again – in his fights against racism in South Africa, the under-privileged in India or against the British – that he discovered increasingly how you become the “mirror-image” of your enemy.  So that is a no-win situation.  In trying to defeat an enemy, you defeat something very vital within yourself.  So Gandhi’s answer was that what we need is dialogue between cultures, trying to understand each other and in the process recognise that other human beings are not “others” or strangers or enemies – they are “us” in a different form – and we share a common community.

But that’s easy to say, and I want to explore the specificity of the kind of dialogue that is taking place in this and other forums – where you simply talk in a mainly gentle, courteous kind of way: I listen to you, you listen to me – and we go home exactly the same as before !  Mahatma says that that is dishonest.  That is not a dialogue – it’s simply a series of monologues.  We think each other “a nice chap or girl” and we never critically engage with each other’s beliefs.  The Mahatma’s concern was what I talked about earlier – “going from truth to truth”.  Gandhi said true dialogue is important because (a) I want to understand “what makes you tick” – what is the world of thought from within you from which you look at the world ?  and (b) what can I learn from you ?  True dialogue grows out of the desire to grow, to expand one’s universe, to enrich oneself.  Which leads to a further question: Why do you want to enrich yourself ?  Where did that desire come from ?  And Gandhi says it comes from the fact that you recognise your own limitations.  In other words, self-criticism is the foundation of a dialogue.  I, reflecting upon myself, find certain limitations in my own culture, in myself.  I want therefore to open up myself to others and see what they have to tell me; to incorporate those things into my ways of thinking and, in the process, to grow.

Let me give an example of this kind of creative and critical engagement the Mahatma was talking about.  All his life he looked at his own civilisation and was enormously impressed with the fact that of all the civilisations, the Hindus, Buddhists and Jains had been the greatest votaries of nonviolence, ahimsa.  So from his own civilisation he took some of the ideas of nonviolence.  But, as he reflected, he realised that this idea is negative because it is passive.  Nonviolence for the Indian means not doing harm to anybody.  It doesn’t mean going out and helping and, therefore, is passive.  It does not have the active spirit of social service and love. So Gandhi turns to Christianity.  In the 21-odd years he was in South Africa that was one religion that was extremely close to him.  From Christianity he gathers the idea of caritas or love.  Active love.  So he takes over the Hindu idea of nonviolence, combines it with the Christian idea of caritas and arrives at the idea of “active service for the love of human beings”.  But then – as he reflects further – he is slightly unhappy with the Christian idea of love on the grounds that it is emotional, and he was looking for a kind of love which leads to no internal emotional disturbance.  So he turns again to the Hindu idea of “non-attachment” – and arrives at the idea of “detached but active engagement in the world, in the spirit of love for your fellow human beings”.  So what you see here is a man who plays with ideas drawn from different religions.   Added to this are his fasts, which can only be born out of a creative tension between the two traditions.  So this is the kind of thing Gandhi was talking about when he talks about a dialogue between civilisations.

“And this means,” says Gandhi, “that because other civilisations are my interlocutors they are the sources of my inspiration.  I wish them well.  I want them to flourish.”  So this dialogue results in universal sympathy for different points of view and a desire to see them grow and flourish.

The role of religion in public life

The second question – what is the role of religion in public life? Now, many of us are scared when religion is brought into public life ! We know what happens – it can either lead to Ayatollah Khomenei, or to the BJP in India, or to evangelicals in the USA when they tried to persuade Reagan to take on the so-called evil Soviet Union, etc. Religion is frightening. Therefore the liberal impulse is to say “please keep it out of politics”, every time they see a religious figure or hear a religious statement: “You are welcome to live by it but don’t bring it into the political circle Because you will raise atavistic passions, you will be making absolutist demands because religion talks in the language of absolute emotions, like the evangelicals. Which is not like politics. Because politics is about compromise, about what is negotiable, what can be talked through”. Now the difficulty here is that for religious people, religion simply cannot be privatised. It is not simply meant to ensure contemplation between you and the Almighty – religion is a matter of fundamentally held values. You want to live by those values – these values inform you, and therefore they inform the public life. Therefore religion simply cannot be excluded from public life. But at the same time, religion can cross a limit when it becomes a ‘state religion’: then the state begins to enforce certain religious values – as happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and many other places. So the question for us – and the answer I look for from the Mahatma – is, how is it possible to recognise religion as a significant factor in the public and personal life of the religious person, but at the same time prevent it from taking over the state and becoming authoritarian and illiberal?

Here I think Gandhi had some important things to say. First, he says religion has a central place in public life, but should have nothing to do with the state. In other words, central to Gandhi’s religious thought is the distinction between the public realm and institutions of the state. So, religion has a legitimate place in public life, but the institutions of the state should have nothing to do with religion. They should be secular. Gandhi, for example, surprised many people by being opposed to the state funding religious schools or religious organisations, as it is not the state’s business. Any form of religious organisation that cannot be kept going by their own members, is dead. If you are really committed to religion, you raise the funds to keep it going. So his first important argument was that we need a secular state, with religion playing an important part in public life.

The second important thing he was saying is that one must recognise that no religion is perfect – in the same way that no country is perfect. Now, there are highly complex arguments, not to be gone into here, when religions claim to be ‘revelations’, direct from the Almighty – e.g. Allah dictating the Qur’an, Jesus being the Son of God. These religions would claim to be ‘perfect’, so they would have a big bone to pick with the Mahatma when he said that by definition, no religion can be perfect. His argument went something like this: God is infinite: the finite human mind cannot capture the infinite: therefore all our perceptions are inherently limited. Even if there is a direct revelation, that revelation is in a human language, with all its limitations to a human being, a particular human being, a prophet or whatever, who have their own limitations and therefore Gandhi says that every religion captures a particular vision of human life. That is its strength. But, in so far as it excludes other visions of human life, these are its limitations. Therefore every religion benefits from systematic and critical dialogue with God and with other religions. This is because your understanding of other religions, your understanding of the ultimate reality of God, deepens as you engage with other religions in trying to see how they perceive the infinite.

Gandhi would often cite the famous example from the Jain tradition where you have seven blind men trying to describe an elephant. One gets hold of the trunk and says God is this kind of thing, another takes hold of his foot and says an elephant is like a castle – and so on. Gandhi would say each of them captures something, but each of them is limited. Even if you are describing a scene that all of us have seen, we would each describe it differently from our own perspectives – how could it be otherwise in relation to the infinite and in relation to God?

Therefore the proper attitude of one religion to another is not to try and convert people, but rather to engage in a critical dialogue, so that each can benefit from the other. In this way you make a fraternity – a solidarity of different religious believers – rather than hostilities.

The alternative to violence

My third question – does the Mahatma have an alternative to violence? Of course he was totally opposed to violence in principle – although in practice he condoned acts of violence from time to time on the grounds that when human beings were desperate and pressed beyond a certain point, they might react, and that is understandable, although it might be unjustified. We must fight against injustice – of that there can be no compromise. So you can’t be a pacifist in the sense that you are not bothered about the state of the world. Injustices address you, and you must do something about them. But is violence the answer ? Gandhi says no, because violence itself is a form of injustice. It also involves hatred and it can create nothing lasting because its legacy is always going to be of ill-will. Therefore, while violence is not the answer, justice must be fought for.

The only answer is rational discussion. But Gandhi said there is one important lesson he learnt in life and that is that reason has its limits. Reason can take us up to a point, but as he kept saying, when the heart is hard and rigid, reason doesn’t work. What you need is the unity of head and heart. Reason can only appeal to the head – you must find ways of activating somebody’s heart, conscience, his moral universe, so that he is prepared to recognise you as a human being and then a rational discourse can begin to proceed. Reason has its limits and Gandhi says sometimes you can find a strong rationalist becoming a strong advocate for violence. For example: if I am unable to persuade someone then the rationalist would say: “these guys are morally obtuse, no use talking to them, they are not being reasonable, they are not human” – and therefore it is found rationally legitimate to engage in violence against them. And Gandhi’s argument was that the relation between reason and violence is much closer than we realise.

So – what are the alternatives ? You will know about satyagraha – the ‘surgery of the soul’, reason connected with the head and nonviolent resistance connected with the heart. In other words, in the moment, the perpetrator of injustice does not recognise the victim as a human being and the questions are “How can we activate his/her conscience? How can we get him/her to recognise that both are human beings and therefore both have certain rights?” Gandhi’s answer is for you to take upon yourself the burden of other people’s sins and nonviolent suffering. If you look at satyagraha, or the way of engaging in nonviolence, it consisted mainly of three methods or ways of acting, evolved over time:

  1. Non-cooperation. People would see an evil regime, realise their own complicity in keeping it in being, and refuse to cooperate with it.
  2. Boycott. For example, the boycott of British cloth in favour of Indian homespun.
  3. Civil disobedience, where you break the law because your conscience would not allow you to comply, and you would accept punishment but not give in.

It is amazing how this kind of civil disobedience and form of noncooperation is coming back into the 21st century in a big way. I have been involved – not directly, but by passive participation – in many discussions when people have been asking about the Iraq War: over a million people protested in Britain, scores of millions protested all over the world, religious people were against it … and yet the war went on. What could we have done to stop it? And if something like this were to occur again, what should we be doing to stop it? Increasingly people are beginning to say civil disobedience might be the answer: we will not pay our taxes; we will not co-operate with you. And if a million people, instead of marching, had done this, what would have happened?

The same thing is beginning to happen in the States. A fine Gandhian scholar and friend of mine, Professor Douglas Allen, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Maine, a few months ago, together with academic colleagues and students, staged a peaceful demonstration outside the office of their Senator. They were arrested, tried and have been sentenced to community service. Douglas was telling me that many people in the US are beginning to feel increasingly that if something like Iraq were again to loom on the horizon, the level of practical action will have to be raised to the next gear – and that’s the sort of thing Gandhi was doing. I think the question for us to ask is are these methods which Gandhi employed the only ones or are there other ways in which we can try to activate the conscience of the opponent, or put pressure on the Government when it is trying to do something which is unjust? What other methods can be added to the Gandhian part of it?

When I was in Israel not long ago I asked several Arab hosts of mine about the possibility of their using nonviolence against Israelis, because they will always react against violence. But what if, I suggested, you were to engage in nonviolent resistance of the Gandhian type – civil disobedience, non-cooperation – telling the Israelis you will not harm them but want injustices remedied: If you want to shoot us, do so. Do you think the Israeli Government would have shot down a thousand people or more? If such a nonviolent movement had been mounted, with the world watching, I wonder what its success would have been? The Gandhian method can be tried in complex intractable situations, which is not to say it would always succeed. For instance, against Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany, nonviolence would probably not have worked because there were no witnesses capable of reporting to the world. But the point is, this is not the case in the 21st century. Given the fact of the internet with access to almost any part of the world, I think the Gandhian method has a considerable chance of working.

The place for personal integrity

Let’s look at my fourth main question, Is there a place for personal integrity ? We have seen that our values are constantly being revised in the light of what we come across. But once they are revised and you are reasonably satisfied, then you say in the language of the theologian Martin Luther,

“I can do nothing else. This is my life, the values on which my life is constructed, I want to live by it”.

And Gandhi’s point was – and this I think is an unusual way of looking at it – that these values define you. They constitute your truth: the truth of my life is the truth of the values I want to live by. And therefore integrity for him basically means: How can I live by my truth? By the truth as I see it, recognising that I will constantly be going ‘from truth to truth’. Gandhi would say, for example, that both capitalism and communism are evil but there is no use in just campaigning against it – if it is evil does it show in your own life or not? So, for example, he considered the evil of capitalism was the idea of possessiveness, buying property and so on. So he had no private property and when he died all he left behind were his sandals, spittoon and his three monkeys – no insurance policy, writings, royalty or copyright – nothing. Another example was untouchability in India. Gandhi complained about it, fought against it but then asked himself whether he was also living it? So he went and lived among the untouchables and adopted an untouchable daughter.

Being a deeply religious person, Gandhi believed he must ultimately be able to trust God. And therefore he refused to have security of any kind, and no bodyguards. And when there were several attacks on his life, and the Government of India insisted he had physical protection, Gandhi said,

“The day I seek physical protection, I would rather not live”.

At a prayer meeting, when a bomb was thrown and the crowd began to disperse, Gandhi sat unmovingly and said to the crowd,

“Frightened of a mere bomb?”

and carried on with his prayer. This was the integrity of the man. It was such a profound integrity that when India became independent this man was to be seen nowhere near New Delhi. When the Prime Minister of India said that Gandhi should be the President of India in a position of power, he thought it was a joke! He said:

“My place is among the victims of Muslim/Hindu violence”.

This, I think, is the lesson that can be learnt from his life: personal integrity and when he said,

“My life is my message”

I think his life ultimately was the message of absolute, uncompromising personal integrity:

“This is where I stand. This is how I shall live. And unless I am convinced that it is wrong (and I could be convinced that it is wrong), then this is how I shall live”.

I think the different ways I have tried to take you through these four questions, go to show that the Mahatma is not ready to disappear in the 21st century!

A translated version of this lecture is available in Bengali by clicking on the link below. Copyright for this translation is strictly the property of Prof. Anwarullah Bhuiyan, Associate Professor, Dept of Philosophy, Jahangirnagar University, Dhaka, 1342.

Bengali translation of  ‘Gandhi in the 21st century’

Gandhi and Secularism – by Matthew Bain

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”.

2005 Annual Lecture: Mark Tully

Sir Mark Tully had a very distinguished career as BBC Correspondent for South Asia for 25 years. He has a vast knowledge of and respect for Indian culture and has written a number of books on the subject. This is a summary of the Lecture delivered on 1 September 2005 in City Hall, London.

Was the Mahatma too Great a Soul? Pulling Gandhi off his Pedestal

It has been said that it is dangerous to be too good. To illustrate this by two stories: I once heard a sermon on the Bible story about selling everything and giving it to the poor, and this was being interpreted literally ­ I was left with the feeling that this teaching was impossible and so irrelevant; the other is a cartoon of two Indian Congressmen leaving a cinema after seeing the film ‘Gandhi’ and one asks: “Did such a man ever exist?” In other words there is a danger when great people get put on pedestals that their lives and teaching seem so far from the reality of us ordinary people and our lives that we dismiss them as impractical.

If Gandhi is so impressive, for example in his austerity, one may say to oneself: “This is wonderful but I can’t be like that”. One effect of this is that Gandhi is not greatly followed in India today. Tagore thought that the West would support Gandhian ideas before the East because the East had not gone through a materialist phase and become disillusioned, but in the West also Gandhi is put on a pedestal. And the danger is that
he will lack influence because he is seen as too removed from the real world. In fact he always insisted that he was not a saint and he was sometimes justifiably criticised in his lifetime and has been since.

Even now he is questioned by some about his rejection of all sexual relationships, and also his sometimes harsh treatment of his family. Moreover, nonviolence and trusteeship of wealth are both often seen as unrealistic. If we put Gandhi on a pedestal it makes it difficult for us to question him when we should. Gandhi once said

“I do not believe industrialisation is needed in any country”,

but it could be argued that India was under-industrialised at independence. While aspects of industrialisation are to be criticised, complete rejection is unwise. Also the growth of cities is attacked by Gandhi, but not everything about cities is bad; nor in contrast are villages ideal: for example in India today the panchayat system being promoted is breeding corruption at the village level showing that villages are not ideal republics. Taking some of Gandhi’s sayings literally would mean rejecting sex, taking a luddite economic position, and being absolutely nonviolent.

But we should remember the humanity ­ and humour ­ of Gandhi and see him as belonging to the Indian tradition of dialogue, argument, discussion, as a means to the search for truth, which involves the courage to compromise. He saw himself as a pilgrim, journeying on the path of truth. He said:

“Insistence on truth has taught me to appreciate the beauty of compromise”.

Politics and the media need to learn from this today.

If we understand Gandhi’s meaning but do not take the message too literally we will find he is still highly relevant today. I would like to look at three fields in which that is true. They are nonviolence, the economy and religion.

War is no answer to anything as we can see from its use by the mightiest power of our time in Vietnam, and the first and second Iraq wars. The military might of the USA was unable to resolve the issues in these places to its satisfaction. Declaring a war on terrorism does not eliminate terrorism. It requires some understanding of the terrorists’ position, listening to them, without however supporting their violence. Essential also
is to look at ourselves to find where we have gone wrong and contributed to the creation of terrorists. One example of misunderstanding is with regard to women, where seen from a devout Muslim position, Western societies have an obscene culture. In contrast Western societies see conservative Muslim societies as oppressive to women. It is not easy to resolve these differences but attempts must be made.

Western culture can be felt as a threat to traditional cultures such as Indian and Muslim. While violence may be used in a good cause it must be the absolute minimum possible. A politician should always work to dampen the flames of conflict. From a Gandhian perspective our economy is violent. The basis of it is consumerism which in turn is based on greed and envy. Without greed the consumers won’t consume enough. Greed and envy, bad in themselves, may provoke violence. Is it moral to encourage debts? What about some of the signs of a healthy expanding economy which we hear about so much on radio and television ­ are they really healthy in themselves? Should we want higher house prices? Who does it benefit? Not young couples trying to get a mortgage, not lower income people in rural areas. Is a healthy society one which keeps the tills ringing on the High Street? There is some virtue in free-trade but taken too far it exploits poorer workers in developing countries, and it does violence to nature through degradation of the environment. Gandhi’s belief in the local economy is very relevant ­ we should support enterprises such as farmers’ markets and transport fewer goods around the globe. India’s development has been top-down, the opposite of what Gandhi advocated.

Religion can be a divisive factor in society but an aggressive secularism creates disrespect for religion which impoverishes society. Banning the wearing of headscarves by schoolgirls in France or directives not to celebrate Christmas in some hospitals in the UK, contrast with the tolerant approach of India where symbols of all are accepted and found side-by-side. Rowan Williams has called the former “the agenda of nervous secularists”. Importantly this increasing secularisation can produce fear in adherents of religion which may encourage development into a more fundamental form of their religion. Indeed Karen Armstrong has said that extreme secularisation is in symbiotic relationship with religious fundamentalism. This change in the West is also leading to a loss of the awareness of the transcendent.

If we are to respect Gandhi we should do so in the context of Indian thought. Gandhi was a Hindu and steeped in Indian culture. That is a culture which does not believe in absolutes and Gandhi certainly didn’t see himself as absolutely good or absolutely right. We shouldn’t see him in absolute terms either. Then maybe today’s India and the West will realise his relevance and the relevance of the Indian culture he stood for, a culture which would not take secularism, globalism, or any of the other isms of today too far but try to find a middle way between their advantages and their disadvantages.

Sadly even in India they are forgetting the great principle of the middle way. When I speak of Hinduism, secularists don’t see that I am advocating a middle way between religious and secular intolerance; to them the mention of Hinduism automatically implies fundamentalism. I came to India as a Christian, and I still am a Christian, but I came to believe with Gandhi that there is more than one way to God. It is possible to
live side-by-side with those of other faiths and not just tolerate them but appreciate them. This includes non-believers ­ after all Hinduism has an atheistic school of thought too.

The poet Kathleen Raine was a great admirer of Indian culture and suggested that the West should learn from it. Living in India and seeing the spread of Western consumerism and materialism I begin to wonder whether we are not doing the opposite and undermining Indian culture. To respect Gandhi and make him relevant in the cultural crisis of today we should not go too far in our appreciation of him and place him on a pedestal but discuss his ideas among ourselves ­ and sometimes argue with Gandhi himself. That I think is what he would want because, as I said, he did not regard himself as a saint.

We are delighted that Sir Mark Tully has kindly agreed to be a Patron of the Gandhi Foundation.

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