Nehru on Religion, Culture & Politics: Lecture by Dr Irfanullah Farooqui

The Centre for Studies of Plural Societies organised an online ‘Seminar Lecture’ on “Nehru on Religion, Culture & Politics” on 25 November 2021 at 4.00 PM (IST). The lecture was delivered by Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi

 About the Speaker

Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Sociology. He has previously worked at the Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia. His areas of interest include Islam and Muslims in South Asia, Urdu Studies, South Asian Social Thought, Sociology of Literature, and Sociology of Education. He is also interested in the university-nation interface, academic freedom, secular-religious exchange, media-culture dynamics, and identity-related questions.

Commencement of the session

Dr. Irfanullah Farooqi started the lecture by delineating the difficulties in discussing Jawaharlal Nehru as a thinker and statesman. He argued that both of these sides of Nehru have marked inadequacy and cannot be reconciled. Despite these limitations, Dr. Farooqi asserted that Nehru was an excellent writer of lucid prose and briefly touched upon Nehru’s writings on Religion, Culture and Politics. He presented an overview of Nehru’s essay titled ‘What’s Religion?’ in which Nehru tried to understand religion’s ontology and epistemology in a dialogical way. Nehru argued that religion is an ambiguous and subjective realm which defies any rational intervention. Dr. Farooqi pointed out that Nehru believed that dispassionate and objective analysis of religion is impossible. Nehru recommends the replacement of religion with unambiguous principles of ethics and philosophy that will form the basis of a rational plural society. According to Nehru, religion should be a private affair concerning an individual’s inner development. Thus, calling for the privatisation of religion, Nehru states that it should not have any role in the public sphere or politics of the state. He also intelligently vouches for outer change, a prerequisite for inner development. Nehru stressed that the quality, not objective, of thoughts, is necessary and concludes the section by arguing that religion is an inconclusive meaningless enterprise which cannot eradicate poverty and hunger. 

Dr. Farooqi then steered the talk towards a brief discussion on Nehru’s iconic book The Discovery of India in which Nehru charts the history of India and engages with India’s civilisational legacy. He pointed out that Nehru wrote in troubled times when India witnessed the nascent buildup of division and intolerance among its diverse communities. In the background of such turbulent times, through his book, Nehru stressed the importance of tolerance, the centuries-old tradition of mutual co-existence, the plurality of cultures, and the continuous dialogue between them. He did not believe in reactionary politics, for it leads to intolerance unbecoming of the ‘great Indian tradition’. He also elaborated on the Nehruvian imagination of a nation which is inherently pluralistic. Nehru emphasised self-discipline to counter intolerance. Dr. Farooqi also drew the audience’s attention to the concept of ‘indifference’ masquerading as tolerance. Indifference implies living together without understanding other groups. A society built upon indifference is bound to fall apart in turmoil. There needs to be an investment in each other to survive the waves of bigotry and violence.

Dr. Farooqi proceeded by highlighting Nehru’s thoughts on religious conversion. He talked about Nehru’s scepticism about religion and the futility of thoughtlessly switching an already insignificant institution. Nehru believed mass conversions were rarely reason driven and were a step towards further ignorance. For him, religious conversion should culminate in a long process of self-realisation and inner calling. Here Dr. Farooqi highlighted the conversion of Dr. B.R Ambedkar to Buddhism, which resulted from intense meditative study and reflection.

While discussing Nehruvian secularism, Dr. Farooqi pointed out the Western conception of secularism’s influence over it. Nehru believed in state neutrality towards all religions. Nehruvian secularism is not only about religion but secular interventions to address domination, oppression and inequality carried out in the name of religion. It is not anti-religion but aims at national integration, which is possible only by being loyal to secular principles of questioning. Dr. Farooqi informed the audience that Nehru believed that a modern mind constantly engages in plural dialogues and discussions.

In the end, Dr. Farooqi discussed Nehru’s thoughts on culture, which he had presented in a lecture titled “What is Culture?” in April 1950 at Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR). Nehru said that a culture must have two key elements to be great. First is depth, which means roots without which culture will be too prone to external forces to survive. The second element is dynamism. A culture flourishes only with a balance in its components of depth and dynamism. There has to be a degree of openness and acceptance for a culture to thrive. Dr. Farooqi concluded the discussion by reiterating that Nehru makes a case for dialogue and understanding between cultures and concludes and reiterates his thought that understanding is a “suggestive infinity”. There is no finality to understanding, and the openness to understanding would make a society open to plurality.

The report is prepared by Aadil Wani and Neha Singh, Research Interns at CSPS