A Startling, Little-known Side Of Ram Manohar Lohia, And The Socialist Origins Of 'Pseudo-Secularism'

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Jul 31, 2022 06:22 PM +05:30 IST
A Startling, Little-known Side Of Ram Manohar Lohia, And The Socialist Origins Of 'Pseudo-Secularism'Ram Manohar Lohia
  • A reading of Lohia's book, 'Guilty men of India’s partition', leads one to ask—is there a need to reassess the legacy of the socialist leader?

This article posits that the roots of minority appeasement, identity politics, secularism, and a fierce loathing of Dharmic traditions, by those born as Hindus, can be traced to socialist thought of the early independence period in general, and Ram Manohar Lohia in particular.

While the Congress party may have been the most successful purveyor of these flagrant political tools in independent India, especially from the Indira Gandhi era; while the Marxists may have been more virulently and violently anti-Dharmic; and while the pole position amongst secularists was gradually taken over by numerous, regional, secular parties from the 1980s onwards; the ‘intellectual’ consolidation of such thought can, in fact, be attributed to Lohia. The evidence for this thesis is drawn primarily from a 1960 book written by him, titled ‘Guilty men of India’s partition’.


The term ‘Lohia-ite’ has been used as a proud, distinctive descriptor in Indian politics for about half a century now, by senior leaders of social-justice parties who sought to distinguish their socialist ideologies from those of the Marxist or Congress varieties.

They span faith, caste, geography and time. George Fernandes was one. Ram Vilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav are others. Former chief minister of Karnataka, K. Siddaramaiah, who joined the Congress only in 2007, is adulated in certain circles as a true Lohia-ite. And Mulayam Singh Yadav is generally considered to be the most successful inheritor of the Lohia-ite political tradition. Even Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan are seen by senior commentators as ‘remnants of the Lohia-ite form of politics’.

This clade of modern Indian political taxonomy draws its name from Ram Manohar Lohia (1910-1967). He was born into a wealthy Marwari family in Akbarpur, close to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. He took a doctorate in national economy from Humboldt University, in Berlin, at a remarkably young age of 23, returned to India in 1933, joined the Congress and the freedom struggle, and was a founder member of the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934.

By independence, he had risen to the senior echelons of the Congress party, and was a part of its major decision-making bodies. However, being unable to get along with either Nehru or Patel, he pulled the CSP out of the Congress in 1948, formed the Praja Socialist Party in 1952, left that to form the Socialist Party in 1956, unsuccessfully contested against Nehru from Phulpur in 1962, won from Farrukhabad in a 1963 by-poll, merged his Socialist Party with the Samyukta Socialist Party (SSP) in 1965, and was the sitting MP for Kannauj when he passed away in 1967.

While it is difficult to find people who can speak cogently of his views on policies today, Lohia’s politics was mainly focused on organising the ‘depressed classes’, demanding reservation, the removal of Congress-style elitism, and replacing English with Indian languages in governance. He was a mercurial maverick who constantly railed against the machine with nihilist vehemence, as his writings reveal, contemptuous of his peers, and too abrasively opinionated to work for long with any one person or organisation.

Perhaps that is why he changed parties four times within two decades. And yet, he was gifted, popular, influential, inspirational, and senior enough to not just command considerable public respect, but to also remain, till date, a legend in socialist circles as well.

What’s curious, though, is that while everyone knows of Lohia, very few know the man. Who was he, really? How did he view his country? What were his thoughts?

The answers are provided by Lohia in a book he wrote on the causes of partition, in 1960, and they are startling, to say the least. Readers would do well to read it.

One: according to Lohia, one of the main causes of partition was ‘Hindu hauteur’. The word ‘hauteur’ means unfriendly, overbearing, arrogant behaviour so as to suggest to the world that such people are better than others.

What stands out is that while Lohia’s list of culprits includes the British, the Congress, Gandhi’s non-violence, and a few intangibles like communal riots, he does not include Muslims in it; instead, he is careful to blame only the Muslim League – an organization, while he shows no such hesitation in freely tarring the entire Hindu community with hauteur.

Two, he declares that Hindu fanaticism was ‘one of the forces that partitioned’ India. Their crime, per Lohia, is that they opposed partition. But pointedly, he does not levy such a sweeping accusation on the Muslim community for having demanded partition.

Three, Lohia states for the record that the Jana Sangh (the precursor of the Bharatiya Janata Party) follows an un-Hindu form of Hinduism, and that ‘they helped Britain and the Muslim League partition the country’. Yet nowhere does he record that the Muslim League followed an un-Islamic form of Islam.

The key point to be noted thus far, is that the denigration is clearly one-sided, and openly critical and contemptuous of only one community – the Hindus (their hauteur, their fanaticism, and their un-Hindu form of Hinduism).

Four, he indicts the Jana Sangh for not doing anything ‘to bring the Muslim close to the Hindu within one nation’, and instead, estranging the Muslims

Simultaneously, five, he concludes that such estrangement was the root cause of partition; meaning, that the Muslims demanded a separate nation because the Hindus made them feel estranged. The fault lay with the Hindus, and he stresses this by using the phrase ‘root cause’.

This is a bit rich at multiple levels, since a few paragraphs earlier, Lohia states that the opposition to partition by Hindu fanaticism and ‘right nationalism’ were not primary events. How is that possible? Hindu fanaticism can either be the root cause, as Lohia writes, or it cannot, as Lohia also writes, but it cannot be both – and definitely not at the same time.

Further, what sort of an argument is it, where the demand for partition, which arose from within the Muslim community, is conveniently ignored, to, instead, place all blame on precisely that community which rejected the idea of partition in the belief that Hindus and Muslims could coexist in an undivided India?

It is at this point that a reader starts sensing that, perhaps, Lohia was more interested in selling something, than writing a tome.

Nevertheless, six, Lohia surges relentlessly on to say that ‘the opponents of Muslims in India are friends of Pakistan’. Another direct quote: ‘the Jana Sanghies and Akhand-Bharatis of the Hindu pattern are friends of Pakistan’. To him, ‘right nationalists’ are effete traitors; ‘They are despicable people’. Note the illogic if we test his comment by flipping it around: if the opponents of Muslims in India are friends of Pakistan, then does that make the opponents of Hindus friends of India?

And it is here that we come to the crux, because Lohia then says that he too opposed partition once, but that it could be avoided, and an undivided Hindustan be won, only if people ceased to be ‘exclusively Hindu or exclusively Muslim’.

This is an absurdly idealistic and flawed conclusion, based on a ‘unique’ form of logic, with no basis in reality. Distilling his polemic, we find that his reasoning was, in fact, a faulty syllogism:

Step 1: Estrangement of Muslims by Hindus against partition was the root cause of partition.

Step 2: Such estrangement was both un-Hindu and unpatriotic.

Step 3: Therefore, a true patriot and a true Hindu would, instead, reject his Hindu ways to rise above the problem of partition.

For parity, and moral equivalence, he extended this argument to Muslims, but it was too late – partition had already happened 13 years earlier, so, his words meant nothing to those who left, and little to those who were left behind. In which case, we may infer that this argument was, in fact, intended for non-Muslims in India.

The flaw in his argument was self-evident from the start, but those were the days when the Leftists could successfully protect their own from criticism, by using the shield of intellectualism. If enough people in academia and the press said that Lohia was a titan who stood for the emancipation of the downtrodden, and nobly struggled to rid this land of the elites’ stranglehold on power, then that was that!

No other description of the man could fly, following from which, in another flawed syllogism, ergo, those who submitted alternate, less-flattering, theses of the man were either the very Brahminical patriarchs whom Lohia had long riled against, or Congress obfuscators out to preserve their mandate.

But half a century after Lohia’s passing, when there is no Congress left in most of the country, and socialism is increasingly becoming a cuss-word with more adults, we may define the flaw in his syllogism without being silenced by an inundating tide of support from the old, usual quarters.

This is the flaw: if a Hindu who opposes partition is a faux nationalist, then by Lohia’s own arguments, a true nationalist is one who rejects his Hindu religion to surmount the ordeal of partition. In small words: Hindus can reverse and overcome the estrangement of Muslims only by abandoning their religious beliefs.

Having learnt Lohia’s views, the next step is to understand his political legacy. What keeps Lohia relevant even today, and why exactly do so many politicians continue to call themselves Lohia-ites?

Lohia remains important because he provided a large body of arguments which allows the rationalisation of secularism, appeasement and identity politics.

These arguments are regularly used by today’s secular parties as electoral and political tools, to either generate self-loathing amongst Hindus, to guilt trip them, to blame them (and only them) for a religious divide which continues to haunt and hurt us, to absolve Muslims of wrongdoing, to manufacture false equivalences, to aggravate caste prejudices and divides by framing the upper castes and classes (largely one and the same by Lohia-ite definition) as oppressors of the underprivileged, or, to put the onus of repairing our society entirely on the Hindu community alone.

Each of these arguments, if expanded to cover their application in present times, would fill a book. The names and phrases may be different, but the contents are the same, and they are derived from Lohia’s thoughts.

Every day, we hear the same slogans and arguments: ‘Hindutva is un-Hindu’; the BJP is anti-Muslim; ‘Smash Brahminical patriarchy!’; ‘Sanghis are religious fanatics’; ‘This is not my India’; ‘saffron terror’; no imposition of Hindi over Tamil; peace with Pakistan at any cost; Akhand-Bharat is unsecular; Hindu majoritarianism is ‘othering’ Muslims; Sanskrit is a sinister vehicle of Brahminical hegemony; the RSS is un-Indian, or anti-Indian, because it wants to destroy that idea of India; the PFI’s is radical because the Sangh is exclusionary. Et cetera, et cetera.

What most of us didn’t know till now, is that these phrases were first articulated in a comprehensive, cogent manner by Lohia, in the idiom of his day. It’s no wonder, then, that Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav, for example, hold Lohia in such high regard; of course, they would, since they successfully managed to secure huge, decisive, popular mandates by repeatedly, and persistently, using his arguments. Lohia provided the ‘intellectual’ basis for their politics and politicking.

In fact, the list of Lohia legatees is a lot longer; the Congress may not agree, and their present leadership may not know, but many of their stock phrases are but echoes of Lohia’s words (the exceptions are their temple runs, and a sartorial novelty of wearing the janeu over a jacket rather than under it). That’s ironic, since Lohia never wasted an opportunity to deride Nehru and the Congress in the strongest possible terms.

Consequently, how might we interpret Lohia?

Perhaps there is no better definition of pseudo-secularism than the one derived by Lohia when he decried ‘Hindu hauteur’. Per him, the onus was on the Hindus to accept partition, and thus unilaterally bridge the divide with Muslims, since any dream of an undivided India was necessarily predicated upon Muslims agreeing to such an undivided coexistence.

That is not just irrationally one-sided but inconsistent as well, since Lohia changed his position on partition more than once, and laboriously tweaked his logic to match his changing stances. The defensive, self-deprecatory manner in which he justifies these shifts are worth reading in full, because this is exactly what today’s Left-Liberal jamaat does – flitting from one view to another to suit the moment, by invoking conveniently specious reasoning.

Second, he was probably the first major politician to interpret the nascent civilizational re-awakening of his times as un-Hindu. From a political perspective, this was a foundational correlation which Lohia devised, since this is the same line which his successors and legatees have used ever since.

Third, his solutions to the problems of partition were too radical, idealistic, impractical, and spiritually disruptive, to ever work. In Lohia’s view, divides could only be bridged by a ‘Ganga-Jamuna tehzeeb’ type of syncretism, which required god-fearing people to first cease to be ‘exclusively Hindu or exclusively Muslim’, by compromising on their religious principles and beliefs, for remedies to be applied.

Fourth, is a vicious contempt for Hinduism which springs out of his writing. Not even Nehru dared to go that far; he stuck to the rationalist line and limited himself, at least openly, to ‘merely’ frowning upon our pagan practices. Lohia’s epigones will find it difficult to explain this contempt away, or sugar-coat it with postmodernist justifications, because the man really let himself go in an egregious rant, in the opening pages of his 1960 book. The words are a matter of record, and they are unambiguous.

This is not surprising, since, boiled down, it is pure Marxian thought – about religion being the opium of the masses. But what is surprising, and regrettable, is that since people like Nehru didn’t contest Lohia’s deplorable words, and since the Sangh had no real voice in those days, a fashion of speaking poorly about Hinduism, without fear of repudiation, entered the mainstream political narrative, and was normalized.

Nonetheless, rather than reacting, readers would be far better off understanding that no matter what the label – Communist, Socialist, Liberal, Rationalist or whatever – this is what they really are, deep down, and this is how their minds function.

Fifth, he was careful to not describe the Muslim community in similar, contemptuous terms; instead, Lohia limited his criticism to a Muslim organisation, the Muslim League, rather than that community. And in those rare instances when he was critical, Lohia ensured that his comments included the Hindu community for balance, and that they were safely generic.

Sixth, as explained in detail earlier, Lohia may have been an inspiring politician, but his logic was flawed, and targeted only towards certain sections of society. His grand thesis of achieving social harmony by compromising on one’s religion, is but the most prominent example of such illogic, amongst others.

So, how may we conclude our assessment of Lohia?

Lohia presented a template for secularism. The silence of his peers legitimised it. And his successors employed it for substantial electoral profit.

In Lohia’s introduction to his book on Partition, we can also note the origins, the recipe, and the ingredients for an invidious ‘Puppi-jhuppi Track-2’ diplomacy with Pakistan, which showed itself once in a while between the 1970s and ‘90s, and simmered the rest of the time in academia, before bursting into formal blossom under the Congress-UPA government in 2004-14.

Lohia comes across in his writings as a well-intentioned man consumed by bitterness, who had no understanding of his land’s traditional, civilisational ethos, or ground realities; a man socialist enough to hate communists, and egalitarian enough to hate secularists, yet also too gripped by a pathological opposition to ‘Brahminical patriarchy’ to shake off the old Marxist within; a man incapable of analysing society except through the distorting, self-defeating prism of religious and casteist identities.

It is difficult to fathom how a man with such a warped understanding of the ancient beliefs, customs, traditions, and ritual practices of his own land, could be viewed as a ‘maker of modern India’, unless that title was fused into the mainstream narrative by those who thought the same way he did.

And yet, a number of politicians still look up to Lohia, and still pay his memory frequent lip service. But if this is the sort of wild, ex post facto, theorising which makes the man, then regrettably, his followers will have no option today but to sit helplessly by, while their socialist idol is exposed for what he actually was.

Lohia may have been Indian, but he wasn’t Indic, and that makes all the difference.

Further reading: ‘Guilty men of India’s partition’ by Ram Manohar Lohia, Kitabistan Press, Allahabad,1960.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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