Growing up in India in the 1970s and 1980s, I often read about the profound disagreement between Mahatma Gandhi and his disciple, Jawaharlal Nehru. Both these leaders of the Indian freedom movement wished postcolonial India to be a multireligious state. But Gandhi, a devout Hindu, could not conceive of politics without religion. And Nehru, an agnostic liberal with a distaste for religion, who became India’s first prime minister, wanted to keep the two strictly separate, especially after Muslim leaders demanded, and won, from departing British imperialists a separate homeland for Indian Muslims.
To many educated Indians, it was clear who was right. Nehru’s vision was modern and secular, shaped by his awareness of Europe’s brutal religious wars as well as of the swift rise in the 19th century of secularized Europeans as masters of the world. Nehru hoped that, as in Europe and America, secular education in India would expose millions of people to the virtues of science and reason, diminishing the power of religion in the civic sphere and turning it into a private indulgence. Helped by industrial technology, India would amass economic wealth and state power, and catch up with the West-led march of history, all of its citizens equally placed to pursue individual happiness.
As for Gandhi, his plea for religion in politics seemed backward and incoherent. He appeared to have fallen victim to his own beliefs, when, a few months after India’s independence in 1947, he was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu activist who wished to make India a militant nation-state and to strangle at birth the new Islamic state of Pakistan.
In the decades since Gandhi’s death, many Indians, including myself, believed that Nehru’s secularized India would partly fulfill the great new promise—of a rational political order—made to humanity by the revolutions of the modern era. We were shocked and bewildered when in the 1980s and 1990s an aggressively religious and right-wing political movement rose to power in India.
The Hindu nationalists used the folksy symbols of Hinduism even as they struck deals with big businessmen and multinational corporations. They pointed to various terrorist and Islamic fundamentalist threats to India, and promised to restore the national virility that a “liberal and secular elite” had apparently sapped by pampering special-interest groups and promoting a morally lax culture.
Many of these claims were exaggerated and deceptive, when not outright lies. Nevertheless, millions of educated and relatively affluent Indians voted repeatedly for the Hindu nationalists.
How did people professing an antiquated faith come to dominate such institutions of the secular civic sphere as the political executive, the legislature, and even the judiciary? How could their crude religious rhetoric attract educated middle-class people? Or, how did people who were claiming direct access to God come to control a world that their ancestors had made after removing religion from politics and plunging into the adventure of science and reason?