ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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On Religion and Secularism

Nehru against Nehruvians

Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on religion and secularism, indeed even his considered political practice, were very different from the Nehruvian secularism that emerged soon after his death, a handiwork of intellectuals close to his daughter, Indira Gandhi. It is an argument of this paper that Nehruvian views on secularism must give way to Nehru’s own views on the matter which have great relevance today.

Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the central figures in the anti-colonial movement against the British and the first prime minister of independent India, is widely believed to be a Westernised intellectual, influenced by mainstream views of the Enlightenment on religion as a storehouse of falsehoods and superstition. As an atheist, religion raised some important questions about human existence, but at best answered them wrongly and dogmatically.1 It petrified old beliefs and customs, encouraged an attitude against social reform and revolution. Science and philosophy, on the other hand, encouraged critical reasoning and self-reliance in intellectual matters, helped take a distant, more detached view of things, and opened up the mind to progressive change. Thus, Nehru pitted scientific reason against religious faith. No wonder then, he also espoused a secular state—a state that separated itself from religion and was indifferent, if not hostile to it. Some have found striking similarities between him and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, except that, because of the constraints of democracy and diversity Nehru failed where Ataturk succeeded (at least in his own time).

In this paper, I try to argue that Nehru’s views on religion and secularism were unusually subtle, considerably more complex than is suggested by this simplistic portrayal. Besides, they remain acutely relevant in India today. To be sure, some Nehruvians in the late 1960s and 1970s, encouraged by some of Nehru’s own remarks, played not a small role in constructing this picture. But that precisely is my point. Nehru’s own views on religion and secularism, indeed even his considered political practice, were very different from the Nehruvian secularism that emerged soon after his death, a handiwork of intellectuals close to his daughter, Indira Gandhi. It is an argument of this paper that Nehruvian views on secularism must give way to Nehru’s own views on the matter which have great relevance today.

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Updated On : 7th Apr, 2017

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