Harbans Mukhia says, "Faith No Bar": Gandhism as true secularism

A historian of Shri Mukhia’s eminence must be shown due seriousness and courtesy I suppose. This even though I find it hard to agree that anybody who keeps company with the likes of Praful Bidwai and Achin Vanaik deserve little else but contempt. But let me not pre-judge the merits of Shri Mukhia’s essay.

I will categorize this essay as another that espouses true secularism. Since Shri Mukhia has taken pains to tell us what is true secularism and why it is true secularism; I will let him speak with my interjections whenever required.

– Namaste

1. Used as we were in India to the horrifying spectacle of frequent communal riots every year, it is some relief to note that the recent past for over a decade and a half has been relatively free of this recurring nightmare. The last big spurt of rioting occurred in early 1993 in (then) Bombay in the wake of the demolition of the Babri masjib in far off Ayodhya. Since then, barring the massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in February 2002, there has been relative quiet on this front, despite grave provocation by way of bomb blasts in temples, mosques, dargahs and markets. What could possibly explain this descent of sanity?

Palahalli – Deduction being India has witnessed riots year after year without let, since 1947. This did not stop till after the riots in ’93 with a bump in ’02. The scene says Shri Mukhia, has been largely quite in-spite of grave provocation involving Hindu and Muslim places of worship and public places. How come, he asks. So, Shri Mukhia apparently wants to tell us that something changed in the character of the Indian people post ’02, for such radical change to occur in their communal relationships.

2. On December 6, 1992, when the Babri masjid was demolished by those bearing allegiance to the sangh parivar, for many of us reared in the tradition of secularism posited on the separation of religion and state which bordered on atheism the world crashed. All the values that we had held dear were under attack. Then, by and by news began to filter through in the papers that in one small town here, another big village there, common people local Hindus and Muslims had together undertaken to rebuild the temples and mosques damaged or destroyed in the wake of the events at Ayodhya.

Palahalli – One must immediately note that Shri Mukhia’s olde’ world secularism that ‘crashed’ around him, bordered on atheism. This is different from the ‘ekam sat’ variety. It is also different from the ‘all religions are equal’ secularism. It means a marxian reading of blunt Godlessness. So, naturally Hindus wanting their Temple on the birth place of Shri Rama, was an attack on Shri Mukhia’s atheistic belief system. Then, this author makes the assertion that common folks helped rebuild each others places of worship that were destroyed during post demolition riots.

3. Stories also reported that during the riots, several devout Hindus and Muslims had given shelter and succour to people of the other community. What marked out the denouement this time round was the combination of individual acts of humanity and generosity and collective and joint intervention to rebuild the religious structures, and to undertake to prevent their recurrence in their locality. Hope began to revive.

Palahalli – Here speaks of Hindus and Muslims helping and protecting each other from their own community members’ wrath. He sees hope in such display of humane instincts. 

4. But the renewal of hope also raised questions about the nature of secularism in the Indian context. To understand it, we might distinguish between a proselytising religious (or non-religious) ideology and a non-proselytising one. Christianity, Islam and Marxism belong to the first category and Hinduism, to the second. A proselytising ideology is predicated upon its monopoly of the final truth, which by definition marks out all else as falsehood. Also implicated is inevitable conflict, and one ideology’s ultimate universal triumph over all falsehoods. Triumph is embedded in the notion of the Day of Judgment, common to Christianity and Islam. Marxism also predicted the inevitable universal victory of socialism, and then communism one day.

Palahalli – “Also implicated is inevitable conflict”.Shri Mukhia is literally making a revolutionary assertion here. He, with one swift stroke accepts all of the most basic arguments that Hindu revivalists and nationalists have been making till date and who continue to make it. That the basic nature of Islam and Christianity engenders conflict with the ‘other(s)” and Marxism/Communism should be ranked alongside as just such an ideology. He also admits that these ideologies betray their own exclusive and conflicting (from and against each other’s) truth claims.

I am flabbergasted! I have never ever known a Marxist who has so openly admitted this truth.

5. Association with, and the use of, state power for that triumph is almost a condition. The spread of Christianity, Islam and Marxism were all aided by the state. However, post-Enlightenment, Christian society began to postulate separation between the church and the state, but not between religion and state. Muslim societies never accepted this separation and still do not. It is only the collapse of the erstwhile socialist regimes in the Soviet Union and elsewhere that has snapped the ties between Marxism and the state.

Palahalli – Here comes more admission. It’s almost like Shri Mukhia is confessing in Church. The use of State power is very central to the success of these ideologies. But for some unfathomable reason he implies that marxism and the state could have indeed existed apart from each other.

6. Hinduism does not formulate the notion of the final truth and, therefore, its ultimate universal triumph either through persuasion or conflict. On the contrary, it creates space for a great diversity of opinions and beliefs and their coexistence. It is the overwhelming presence of this ethos in India that also moderates others’ zeal which marks out the all-encompassing Indian civilisation. The concept of either identification of religion and state or their separation did not have much relevance here.

Palahalli – Shri Mukhia, in turing his gaze now toward Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) tells us why it is different from the ideologies/religions he has just spoken about. He tells us that Hinduism creates scope for diversity and co-existence. That somehow, this character of Hinduism also rubs off on the just mentioned “others” thus creating the all-encompassing Indian Civilization. But obviously, per Shri Mukhia himself, this never happened prior to ’93 including the bump in ’02. But he makes the great and relevant point nevertheless and here I would like all Hindu revivalists and nationalists who sear by a so called true secularism to make note. I will repeat Shri Mukhia’s phrase – “The concept of either identification of religion and state or their separation did not have much relevance here.”

7. At the popular level, this found utterance in the very moving poetry of medieval India’s saint poets, both Hindu and Muslim. Theirs was essentially religious poetry, but one that encompassed universal religiosity in lieu of sectarian religions. In some ways, this tradition was pitted against any form of atheism, even as there was a strong atheistic streak in Hindu philosophy, so eloquently highlighted by the late professor Debiprasad Chattopadhyay in several of his writings. It was this ideology of universal religiosity that preserved social peace in India’s medieval centuries, when the first recorded communal riot occurred only towards the end of the Muslim rule, in Ahmedabad, in 1693.

Palahalli – One can see Shri Mukhia reverting to the doublespeak that his class is (in)famous for. Somehow, he would like to sell the snake-oil of “Muslim” universalists outside of his (own) idea of Islam. He does not stop there, he implies that atheism too can claim some parentage in Hindu philosophy. So, in any case all of this goodness held till Muslim rule in India started to wane. How does one fit Shri Mukhia’s afore-mentioned square peg in Shri Mukhia’s currently discussed round hole is an undulated dilemma I do not wish to waste time on.

8. These are the values Mahatma Gandhi encapsulated in his personal as well as political conduct, which people in small towns and villages invoked when they undertook to rebuild damaged places of worship. This value system brought back peace in a highly fractured society. Atheistic secularism had lost ground substantially.

Palahalli – Basically Shri Mukhia is informing us that common folk lost ‘faith’ in atheistic secularism (when did they ever have it?). Apart from the telling fact of this Nehruvian’s admission of the true nature of India’s much vaunted secularism that indeed cannot be and is not different from the West’s perception of it; he informs us that Indians took to Gandhian values. So we have a new secular primer in Gandhism. Supposedly because Hindus and Muslims could not have helped build each others places of worship without referring to Gandhi. It could not have been a natural impulse toward the fact that they need to live beside each other and cannot do so if they are at each others throats.

9. This is the ethos that is an eyesore for the sangh parivar, which models itself on the proselytising religions, and is keen to mobilise state power for achieving the ultimate victory of its version of Hindutva, the very antithesis of Hinduism, if indeed there is such a thing. For, we should remember that even the term Hindu is of Arabic origin.

Palahalli – The last few steps in Shri Mukhia’s essay are now predictable. Quite suddenly to his unsuspecting readers but very obviously to himself, his real target; the Sangh Parivar is in view. The Parivar is not just placed against Gandhism but is also placed besides and bracketed with  “proselytising religions”. They are said to have an ‘ultimate victory’ goal a la triumphal religions and ideologies in the practice of Hindutva which is, says Shri Mukhia, the anti-thesis of Hinduism. But wait. Shri Mukhia says more. He doubts the very existence of Hinduism! The very Hinduism that he was not so many paragraphs before, was praising and comparing against Islam and Christianity and Marxism! For he tells us, the very term Hindu is Arabic! Does this historian forget that (H)indu is in lieu of (S)indhu and is in fact Persian not Arabic?

10. Can this inclusive tradition survive the multifarious assaults on it? Optimism may derive strength from the fact that it has survived many severe assaults on it in the past, not least the partition of the country on religious grounds. However, caution is still in order inasmuch as history also records drastic changes everywhere. And these are inclusive of changes in people’s mindsets, relationships and, not least, faiths.

Palahalli – What Shri Mukhia is really asking is this. Can Gandhism survive? He then leaves us with the warning that his non-existing but existing tolerant Hinduism can also change into something that will destroy his Gandhism aka true secularism.

The writer was professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


Times of India 8th may ’09

Harbans Mukhia


Kharaharapriya says:

I just dont understand one argument of these seculars when they drag in the name of gandhi. After all he was also a practicing hindu. He was not an atheist. His views on hindu society, cow slaughter, conversions etc are well documented. Dunno why they conveniently forget these when they bring in the gandhism-secularism.

Pala S responds:

Well, an ideology based on an artificial human condition cannot be expected to follow or base itself on truth. Secularism will use Gandhi and throw away Gandhi as per it’s inclination and need. It will somehow try to perpetuate itself even if it has to resort to falsehood. Much like fascism and communism.

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