Competitive Communalism

Secularism—Many Loose Ends

Sujoy Banerjee

Ever since her emergence as a democratic republic, India has been a secular national entity, in contrast to her neighbour, Pakistan, which proudly declared her Islamic credentials. Though such secular declarations were appreciated generally at home and abroad, there was no dearth of doubters. These were not confined to Britain, where many well-meaning scholars, too, considered the Congress to be a Hindu party.

Conceptual clarity and agreement, have been limited. Even inserting the much-abused S-word in the Preamble to the Constitution, by the 42nd Amendment, has not obviously improved the situation. Is there a fundamental error that has been eluding the secular nation for so long.

The cardinal principle is that legally constituted public bodies/authorities shall be neutral between religions. To such authorities, religion shall not be a factor to reckon with, but only a private aspect of life, unless it contravenes any law or any provision made under such law. To dispose of such exceptions, consider the extreme case of a Tantric, claiming human sacrifice by way of a ritual, which can never be tolerated, as it violates the right to life. Or the much less extreme one of sacrificing animals in public places, and within public view and hearing, as these, too, militate against legal provisions made in this regard. But save in such law-defending capacity, authorities shall play no religious role whatever. Neither should persons in authority express any opinion on any religion generally.

Admittedly, this neutralist approach is not new. Indeed Nehru, as freedom- fighter, and later as Premier, took a similarly austere view, shared by Lohia, Jayprakash, Narendra Dev and their likes. But, almost all of such persons left the Congress Party soon after 1947, leaving Nehru in the uncongenial company of less rigorous, though not less vocal secularists. This caused a gradual dilution of the doctrine, more so in most states, where local influence, often coloured by primitive prejudices, was dominant. Yet, till the General Elections held in 1967, despite a few chinks, the armour of Indian secularism remained largely unimpaired.

The results of the poll, conforming to a more mature and pluralist pattern, should have made politics more interesting, reducing communalism to a negligible fringe, and thus reinforcing secularism in the process. But by one of those paradoxes of which India is prolific, things took the opposite turn.

The Congress Party, which, hitherto, had been in power in nearly all states, lost power in many. There, motley assortments of parties, Communist to the Hindu-right Jan Sangh, formed patchwork governments. They even began to articulate their dream of replacing the Congress at the Centre with a similar government. The rift between factions in the Congress intensified. A split in the party was precipitated by the presidential polls. The break-away Congress teamed up with the centre-right Swatantra, Hindu-right Jan Sangh and upstart splinter-groups, to challenge the ruling Congress led by Mrs Gandhi, at the snap parliamentary polls of 1971. Riding on the wave of populist claptrap, she routed all her opponents, most of whom began an existential struggle for political support on any pretext whatever, caste and religion, not excluded.

The failed Janata experiment [1977-79], followed by Mrs Gandhi's triumphant return, aggravated these trends. The Congress, now pretty much an extension of her family, and bent on preventing a recurrence of the 1977 ejection from power, scrambled for every scrap of support. The old truck with Muslim religious leaders was matched by visits to temples and Hindu godmen, as also ritual offerings [anjali] during Hindu festivals. Her son and successor, without her experience and sense of proportion, rushed recklessly along the same tightrope.

Rajiv, catapulted to the responsibility of directing the affairs of the Union, without apprenticeship at humbler levels, alternated between random aggressiveness and inaction. One of his worst adventures was opening up a mosque in Ayodha, Uttar Pradesh, which had been the object of a prolonged dispute between the devotees of the epic-hero Ram, and those who claimed the right to pray within it. To the former, it was sacred as the birthplace of Ram ,while the latter considered it as a house of prayer set up by Babar, the founder of the Mugal empire. To prevent the conflict from reaching flashpoint, the Judiciary had put the structure under lock and key. In unlocking these, Rajiv opened a veritable Pandora's box.

The Hindu right, the old Jan Sangh, in its new incarnation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had shrunk to a microscopic measure in the last parliamentary polls, was only too happy to make of this issue a stick to beat the Congress with. The country-wide campaign for erecting Ram's temple at the disputed site, waged by the BJP, the RSS, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in concert, carried with it a large part of the Hindu population, mostly in North India. While the avowedly Hindu BJP began to outwit the Congress in championing majoritarian sentiment, the Congress scrambled to foil it by pampering minority religious dogma.

At hand was a case in which the Supreme Court had taken a serious view of the cruel injustice done to a Muslim woman, Shah Banoo, on the pretext of Islamic law, and ordered remedial action, much to the chagrin of the extremely orthodox fringe of the Islamic clergy. Though the Court was lauded by all shades of liberal public opinion, Rajiv went out of his way to circumvent the order through legislation, in compliance with the orthodox diehards, but casting himself, unwittingly, into an illiberal anti-women role.

This most irrational and destructive communal bipolarity has plagued Indian politics ever since. As this coincided roughly with the era of coalition politics, run with help from about half a dozen local splinter groups, in addition to the national parties, the consequent fear of instability imparted to it an element of nervous anxiety. This made courting communal support, often with irresponsible promises, no longer a tactical, but a strategic force in politics. All elections since, have been contaminated by the communal contagion, Hindu and Muslim alike. No matter who won or lost, secularism kept yielding ground. Those avowedly communal, have demolished another community's religious structure, but others claiming time-honoured secular credentials, have gone hat-in-hand to religious leaders, begging for votes. Meanwhile elections have been held, ineffective coalitions have been followed by absurd ones, but competitive communalism has run from strength to strength.

Even in the glorious days of awakening maggots of error lay half-hidden in the apples of achievement. From 1867 the Tagores and other luminaries of Bengal, started a fair of new Indian art and handicrafts to encourage national enterprise, named National Fair. Soon, however, it was renamed Hindu Mela [fair]. This, coming from a set of reformed, refined, progressive, and highly cultivated Hindus, was warning enough that the consciousness of even the enlightened, left much to be desired. The close association of the Hindu Godess Kali with revolutionary extremism in early 20th Century Bengal, and the ritual oaths in terms of the Bhagwat Gita, the sermon of Sri Krishna before being initiated into secret societies, alienated nationalists from religious minorities.

Gandhiji's near-perfect secular credentials, tended to be a trifle tarnished, on the one hand, by his call for the restoration of the intrinsically anti-secular Khilafat in Turkey, and, on the other, his constant mention of Hindu gods and apostles at nationalist congregations. This deepened the doubts about the national movement's secular character.

Even some Muslim politicians with non-religious habits of thought and action, and secular social associations, felt alienated, and began to respond to the tug of communal temptations. It seems strange when recalled, that Jinnah who had defended Tilak before a Court, despite the latter's penchant for Hindutva, now became the most vehement champion of Muslim communalism.

It was in an environment, so surcharged with communal controversy and confusion, that Golwalkar published his pamphlet "We or Our Nationhood". Here, he let it be known in no uncertain terms, that non-Hindus, who wanted Indian citizenship, shall have to embrace Hindu language, culture, and religion, and confine their ideas to the glorification of Hindu race and culture. If this is accepted all Muslims and Christians shall have either to renounce their religion, or cease to be Indian citizens, as both these religions originated in foreign lands. The proposal was, of course, perfectly absurd. If such a maxim was followed in, say, Brazil or Argentina, the vast majority, being Roman Catholic Christians, would not qualify for citizenship, as both Christianity and its Catholic form, originated, not in another country merely, but in other continents as well. But what worries concerned citizens is not the obvious absurdity, but its uncanny similarity with glorification of Hindu cult and culture by venerated leaders of Indian national movement.

This critical historiography should provoke fresh debates on nationalist legacies, their ramifications, consistencies, contradictions, and the ways they impinge on the present. It is only through such a rational exercise, and not by violently reacting to dissenting opinions or burning or banning books, that a less fragile and more firmly functional foundation for secularism can emerge.

Vol. 50, No.38, Mar 25 - 31, 2018