The Hindu Card

How the Congress legitimised the Sangh’s communal politics

Indira Gandhi addresses a rally at Rae Bareli, on 3 October 1979. Santosh Basak / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images
Elections 2024
30 September, 2023

IN ONE OF HIS FORTNIGHTLY LETTERS to India’s chief ministers, on 2 May 1950, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru warned about the dangers of communalism. Nehru was writing in the midst of the tumults of Partition, weeks after he signed an agreement with his Pakistani counterpart, Liaquat Ali Khan, to protect the rights of the millions of refugees fleeing their respective countries and of the religious minorities who had decided to stay. “The challenge is there, not so much from Pakistan,” he wrote, “but from those of our own people who can only think and act on the strictly communal plane.”

It is extraordinary how soon many of us have forgotten one of the basic principles and planks of the Congress—inter-communal unity—for which we have laboured ever since Gandhiji came on the political scene more than thirty years ago. The issue is a clear one, though attempts are made to befog it. We have talked about a secular State. Often enough, those who talked most about it have understood it least and belied it by their own words and actions. We have to decide firmly and precisely what we stand for in this important matter. There can be no half-way house and no sitting on the fence. Nor can we adopt a high philosophical attitude and allow matters to take their course. That is not the way of free men and women or of people who want to mould their destiny and not be mere playthings of forces they cannot control. Therefore, for all of us in India, and more especially Congressmen and Congresswomen, this issue of communal unity and a secular State must be made perfectly clear. We have played about with this idea sufficiently long and have moved away from it far enough. We must go back and go back not secretly or apologetically, but openly and rather aggressively, though with all courtesy.

The Congress Working Committee had supported the Nehru–Liaquat Pact and reiterated its support for secularism, he wrote, asking the provincial committees to follow suit. “There can be no compromise on this issue, for any compromise can only mean a surrender of our principles and a betrayal of the cause of India’s freedom,” he added. “It must be remembered that once we surrender, even in part, on this issue, then disruptive forces come into play and carry this process further and further.”

In an article for the Economic and Political Weekly, four decades later, the constitutional lawyer and political commentator AG Noorani noted Nehru’s disavowal of majoritarian politics at a 1958 meeting of the All India Congress Committee, during which he said that “communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority.” Nehru expanded on this idea in a 1961 speech. “When the minority communities are communal, you can see that and understand it,” he said. “But the communalism of a majority community is apt to be taken for nationalism.”