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Address on, Secularism and National Integration, at the Annual Celebration Day of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha, New Delhi, 24 October 2008.


Revered Swami Atmajananandaji, Swami Saswatanandaji, Shri Vasant Satheji, Sannyasins of Bharat Sevashram Sangha and Friends:

It is a matter of honour for me to have been given the opportunity to associate myself with the annual day celebrations of the well-known and almost a century-old monastic order, Bharat Sevashram Sangha, one of our great socio-religious organizations, dedicated to the service of the people, propagating the great human values of fraternity, tolerance and inclusiveness. I am indeed thankful to Swami Atmajnanandaji for this rare privilege. On this occasion, I beg to pay my homage and profound respect to Acharya Sreemat Swami Pranavanandaji Maharaj, the Holy founder of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha. My father, late Sri N.C. Chatterjee, was close to Swamiji and I had the great privilege of having the Darshan of Swamiji at the Ashram premises at Rash Behari Avenue, Kolkata, when I had accompanied my father. Along with his spiritual calling, Swami Pranavanandaji Maharaj, had always taken great interest in our Freedom struggle and extended support and assistance to the freedom fighters and was a constant source of inspiration to them.

Bharat Sevashram Sangha, with the goal of universal emancipation, has been tirelessly working for the uplift of the downtrodden and the neglected sections of our society, ever since its foundation in 1917. Its efforts in reaching out to the people in distress, particularly during natural calamities are most commendable. The extensive relief and rehabilitation works undertaken by the Sangha during the Bengal famine, Midnapore cyclone, West Bengal Floods, Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Andhra Pradesh Cyclone, Orissa Super Cyclone, the devastating tsunami and the recent floods in Bihar, to name some of the occasions, stand testimony to the philanthropic commitment of the Sangha. It is indeed commendable that throughout its chequered history, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha has ever remained committed to its noble objectives and has been contributing significantly towards empowering the neglected and the weaker segments of society through its people-oriented programmes and activities. By its own example, it has been able to attract and motivate people to various social and philanthropic activities.

In a growing communally polarized environment, where sections of the society are relentlessly trying to create chasm between different religious groups, the Sangha’s steadfast commitment to secularism and national integration is, indeed, inspiring. I am very happy that you have chosen the occasion of your Annual Day to have a seminar on 'Secularism and National Integration', an extremely relevant subject for our country today. Never before in the history of independent India has there been such a communally surcharged atmosphere as it is prevailing today and every well-meaning citizen should be greatly concerned about the same.

Our people have for a long time cherished the values of tolerance and co-existence and never encouraged the ways of violence and self-destruction. But to-day, some sections of the people in the country are taking recourse to violence and destructive activities, which to my mind, is substantially due to systematic attempt by some political forces inspired by fascist ideology to bring about political polarization around religious symbols and identities in the country, seriously endangering our democratic consolidation.

At the time of Freedom, our Founding Fathers had visualized an India, where people of all castes, classes, creeds and religions and all sections of the society would live peacefully and flourish together and contribute their mite to the building of a strong, progressive and prosperous country and thus help it free itself of socio-economic backwardness, inequity, strife and exploitation and enjoy the fruits of development in equal measure. Establishment of a secular State was a logical extension of the spirit of the freedom struggle, in which all sections of our people, cutting across the religious, regional, linguistic and caste divide, took active part and made great sacrifices to achieve the common noble objective of freedom from colonial rule. It was also in tune with our own traditional ethos and world view based on tolerance and co-existence.

As Shri Aurobindo, the great seer and revolutionary whose thinking had greatly influenced many of our nationalist leaders, observed: ‘Indian religion has always felt that since the minds, the temperaments and the intellectual affinities of men are unlimited in their variety, a perfect liberty of thought and of worship must be allowed to the individual in his approach to the Infinite’.

Therefore, our Founding Fathers, visionary as they were, provided for a very sweeping provision in the Constitution, in its most important list of Fundamental Rights itself, ensuring 'freedom of conscience' and the right 'freely to profess, practice and propagate religion'. It was a very bold and powerful message to come along with the birth of a liberal democratic Republic as opposed to a dogmatic or theocratic one. It was all the more remarkable when one considers the extremely provocative and polarized environment of partition in which, unfortunately, free India was born. But our Founding Fathers were too mature and visionary leaders to have succumbed to narrow thinking, while laying the foundations of a new Republic with a magnificent vision before it and visualizing a pro-active role for it in the newly emerging world order. Therefore, acutely concerned about the future of the country and conscious of the great danger that communal divide could pose to a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious society like India, our leaders made pain-staking efforts to instill confidence among our people in the idea and spirit of co-existence and harmonious living, Gandhiji was firmly of the view that 'All those who are born in this country and claim her as their Motherland, whether they be Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Christian, Jain or Sikh are equally her children and are therefore, brothers, united together with a bond stronger than that of blood'. He also reminded the people that his heart is 'incapable of making any distinction' between our people of diverse religions.

Our Founding Fathers did not rest contended merely with laying the foundations for a secular society in the fundamental law of the land, but always remained alert and sensitive about the need to nurture and preserve a secular democratic order in the country. Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru, known for his uncompromising commitment to secularism and national integration, passionately appealing to the countrymen in the early years of the Republic said, I quote :

We should not become parochial, narrow minded, because we have a great mission to perform. Let us, the citizens of the Republic of India, stand up straight, with straight backs, and look up at the skies, keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground and bringing about this synthesis, this integration of the Indian people. Political integration has already taken place to some extent, but what I am after is something much deeper than that – an emotional integration of the Indian people so that we might be welded into one and made into one strong national unity, maintaining at the same time all our wonderful diversity. I do not want this diversity to be regimented and taken away, but we must be wary of losing ourselves in petty quarrels …. (Unquote).

Our leaders reminded the people time and again that in free India, as it emerged in August 1947, not only it was expected but it was the duty of all our citizens to treat each other in a spirit of harmony. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, one of the chief architects of our Freedom reiterated unequivocally, I quote:

Eleven hundred years of common history (between Hindus and the Muslims) have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs … everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour…. The thousand years of our joint life has moulded us into a common nationality. This cannot be done artificially….. Whether we like it or not we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity. We must accept the logic of fact and history and engage ourselves in the fashioning of our future destiny…. If there are any Hindus amongst us who desire to bring back the Hindu life of a thousand years ago and more, they dream, and such dreams are vain fantasies. So also if there are any Muslims who wish to revive their past civilization and culture which they brought a thousand years ago from Iran and Central Asia they dream also and the sooner they wake up the better. These are unnatural fancies which cannot take root in the soil of reality. I am one of those who believe that revival may be a necessity in a religion, but in social matters it is a denial of progress. Unquote.

It is a matter of great concern for our country that forces, inimical to the notions of co-existence and communal harmony, still make efforts to reinforce and nurture separate identities among our diverse people. They have found in religion a tool to rouse fanatic and divisive feelings, intended to weaken, if not destroy, the concept of composite nationalism in the country. Elements fed on hatred and fascist notions of nationalism and social organization have trespassed into the political domain, under the cover of fundamentalist and sectarian religio-cultural bodies, to evolve an allegedly alternative model of nation-building for India. The first requirement of this new model was the demolition of the symbols and identities of unified India evolved painstakingly by the Founders of our Republic. The first victim of this hate-agenda was, understandably, by design or default, none other than the Father of the Nation himself, the real inspiration and the true face of the new-born nation, who, indeed had to give up life for building an all-inclusive society. What happened since then is part of our post-independence history and we are all well aware of it.

We have seen how grievance-hunters have effortlessly discovered the so-called, ‘historically convincing’ reasons for reinforcing a grievous sense of ‘victim-hood’, among particular communities and how successfully they have used those notions to whip up communal passions among an otherwise peace-loving and tolerant population. It would be naive to think that a markedly plural society like ours can escape the adverse consequences of such persistent, inward-looking and defeatist notions of nation-building, for a country characterized by illiteracy, underdevelopment, religiosity, social inequities and above all, the reality of a partition on communal lines.

Though it is moments that have caused the harm, but centuries have to pay a price. This is an important lesson that we have to learn from history, otherwise the nation will have to pay a heavy price. We have seen what price generations, cutting across borders, had to pay for letting fascism to flourish in the heart of Europe during the second quarter of the last century.

Friends, today, as a nation we are at a cross road of history and of our secular existence. Never before, since independence, has the country experienced such a grave threat to its integrity as it does today. Extreme forms of intolerance, negativism, hatred and violence have been generated in the country in the name of narrow, parochial, sectarian, religious and other divisive issues greatly vitiating its social and political atmosphere, weakening our national integration and inhibiting our development. The threatening forces of disruption, if allowed to operate unabated, would wreck the edifice of our country. The signals should no longer be ignored.

Growing and saner sections of the civil society are alarmed to find that our political space is beginning to be occupied by intolerant elements hostile to composite nationalism. The capacity of the State to hold them under leash is increasingly under doubt. When we see around us unruly crowd, carrying swords, spears and other dangerous weapons, some associated with religious symbols, defying the laws which prohibit such activities, it is not to be taken as a mere law and order problem, but primarily as an act of challenge to the very authority and foundation of the State as an institution. The perpetrators of such lawless acts openly dare the State to attempt to stop or control such activities which threaten organized living, and the State cannot possibly afford to counter them, which will only mean pandering to the forces of disruption, fascism and anarchy.

Already, as a result of the perceived complicity of the State in acts of sectarian violence and the State’s apparent failure in fixing accountability for administrative laxity and mismanagement accentuated by the slow-moving judicial processes, an impression has been created in the minds of both the aggressor and the victims as also among the other observers that the Indian State is not strong or motivated-enough in dealing with the destroyers of national unity, indulging deliberately in sectarian violence. Its negative and inevitable effects are manifesting themselves in different ways in our society today. The sharpening of communal polarization for political gains is actually leading to the rise of forces and ideas that threaten organized living and the civil society as a whole today.

We must not forget that a weakened State will not be able to hold together a plural and complex society like ours for long. As the eminent India-watcher and columnist Mark Tully recently observed : 'India’s Constitution is not being translated into action because the pillars, the institutions, which uphold it have been weakened'. According to him, this is an inevitable consequence of each of the institutions of the State not discharging its assigned responsibilities and indulging in the game of passing the buck, in the process weakening every institution.

The question, therefore, we have to grapple with in all seriousness, in the peculiar socio-religious, political and economic contexts in which we find ourselves today, is how to deal with and ultimately weed out these anti-national forces who are out to destroy the sentiments of unity and solidarity amongst the people. It is the duty of every patriotic citizen to make sincere efforts to generate a feeling among our people that the country belongs to all, regardless of religious and other distinct identities, have equal stake as citizens and that it is essential for the survival of this nation to cherish a spirit of unity and kinship among themselves.

Our society and its governing system cannot be strengthened if power is sought to be captured by exploiting the divisive identities of our people. Peace, security and fundamental justice are essential for establishing a stable social order. There is an urgent need to nurture the values of secularism and democracy in our society so that at least our future generation can get rid of the scourge of extremism and fundamentalism.

Nothing should be done to encourage polarization of social and political forces around our diverse religions. It is, imperative for all of us to strive unitedly to eliminate from our country the poison of communal hatred, parochial prejudices and sub-regional recriminations. All patriotic people should realize that the forces of disruption, if encouraged to grow, would wreck the edifice of our country in the making of which millions of our people and their leaders had made great sacrifices. Our endeavour should be to hold together the different religious, linguistic and ideological groups in our country to make a well-integrated nation.

Followers of our different religions should remember that no religious philosophy is founded on hatred and violence. The essential concern of all religions has always been the establishment of a just, peaceful and harmonious social order. All our great seers and saints have taught us to be compassionate to all around us, to forget religious identities and serve all. Hurting fellow-human beings, therefore, is the greatest sacrilege that the followers of any religion can commit. As the venerable Vietnamese Teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, 'violence and strife, which we notice today in contemporary society are symptoms of the deep-seated social malice, which need to be addressed by understanding and with compassion.'

Swami Vivekananda, one of the greatest minds that India has produced, believed that sectarianism was the greatest enemy of human progress. Reminding the followers of all religions of the innumerable inhuman deeds committed by man against his fellow beings in the name of religion, he said, at the World Parliament of Religions, and I quote:

'Sectarianism, bigotry and its horrible descendant, fanaticism have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often with human blood, destroyed civilizations and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now'.

According to him, preaching religion to a starving person is an insult not only to that person but to religion itself. 'The only way in which God dare appear before a starving person’ according to Swamiji, ‘was in the form of food’. Friends, we should not miss the significance of these words for our country today. Nothing can be more effective in turning humanity from conflict and confrontation to harmony and cooperation than the universal acceptance of the principle of the essential oneness of all humankind.

No doubt, there are factors, other than religious, contributing to the weakening of national cohesiveness. Development and social equity are important to strengthen our people’s resolve for unity among them. Everyone in our country, from the lowest strata to the highest should be motivated to think that they have a stake in our national fabric. For the socially and economically exploited, redressal of their grievances by the nation would help them identify themselves with the pluralistic society. It is essential that amongst all our people, there is equity and equality in all respects to be provided, if necessary, along with special opportunities, including reservations, as has been provided in the Constitution, which has since then had to be extended. Unfortunately, and it is a matter of greatest concern, that the minorities and weaker sections of the communities in the country have today justifiable feeling that they are denied the space they should occupy in our national, political and administrative hierarchy. Recent incidents in Orissa and Karnataka show how fanaticism and grossest form of religious fundamentalism have affected their very survival. Crude form of chauvinism is being displayed in its most strident and despicable form in one of the most important States of our country, on the plea of special rights on the so-called basis of being ‘sons of the soil’ today. The institutions of the State should not be found to be failing, by design or otherwise, in its duty to protect the victimized citizens. In a country like India, characterized by pluralism, discriminatory administration in any State will ultimately result in weakening national integration itself. An emotionally weakened India cannot be expected to be structurally strong.

National integration, should be a factor of common interest, without which, the country will be weakened irretrievably. As one of our eminent citizens, Late Nani Palkhivala, once said, I quote:

National integration is born in the hearts of the citizens. When it dies there, no army, no government, no Constitution, can save it. State of mind precedes States. Inter-faith harmony and consciousness of the essential unity of all religions is at the very heart of our national integration (Unquote).

We have to recognize that national integration cannot be achieved if centrifugal and centripetal forces work simultaneously pulling the country in opposite directions. National integration as a process can be effective only if the whole national leadership and the people at large, particularly the youth of the country, who have the greatest stake in its future, work unitedly to build a physically and emotionally integrated country. For this, first and foremost, it is imperative that the responsible political parties agree on the need and methodology to build such a nation.

When Prime Minister Nehru took the initiative to set up the National Integration Council (NIC), way back in 1961, it was hoped that this body, constituted as it is of the leaders of the country at the top level, both from the Ruling and the Opposition parties, the Chief Ministers of the States, eminent representatives from the Media and the Civil Society, would act as an effective force of national integration. The objective was to find ways and means, through the highest level deliberations of this body, to combat the evils of communalism, casteism, regionalism, linguism and narrow-mindedness, and to formulate definite conclusions in order to give a lead to the country. Until recently, it was deemed to be an effective forum in reviewing and analyzing the state of the nation, particularly from the point of view of nation-building and national integration. Of late, however, even this important body is being used to indulge in confrontationist and divisive political agenda of the different Parties in the country.

Today we need most urgently, a broad and visionary leadership, with a pan-Indian perspective, uncompromisingly committed to the values and ethos that inspired and guided its Freedom Movement, and strongly committed to promoting amity and fraternity among all communities and towards building a forward-looking India, which will not discriminate between its citizens on any basis whatsoever. We must succeed in developing among our people, a strong consciousness and feeling of identification which will enable them to think and act, transcending the primordial loyalties of language, caste and religion, to be first and foremost a citizen of India and then only we can succeed in our endeavour to integrate our country effectively. This is a challenge that our youth must take upon themselves with a strong resolve that they will shun all divisive thoughts and activities, which are destructive of national unity and fellow feeling. All our democratic institutions and the political organizations have to be consciously mobilized and channelised towards achieving this noble objective.

The focus of those associated with the political processes and governance should be on meeting the developmental needs of the people and should not be directed towards reinforcing religious identities or divisive issues among them and the national endeavour should be to ensure to the people the enjoyment of at least the basic minimum necessities for a dignified existence which alone can make politics relevant for those who deserve public intervention.

Once again, I express my respectful thanks to Swami Atmajnananandaji Maharaj for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the Annual Celebrations Day of the Bharat Sevashram Sangha. I am sure, occasions like this would help in reinforcing our commitment to secularism, national unity and harmonious co-existence.

Thank you.

 

 

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