Remembering V P Singh: A defender of diversity and secularism

Written by Gurpreet Singh | Published on: November 27, 2018

For Singh, it was very easy and comfortable to align himself with the Hindu majority, instead of standing up for minorities and the oppressed communities and enjoy the fruits of power. He instead chose the most difficult path to become a champion of the underdog.

VP Singh
Image Courtesy: PTI
November 27 marks the tenth death anniversary of Vishwanath Pratap Singh aka V.P. Singh- the former Prime Minister of India.
Singh died following a battle with cancer. Even though he had served the world’s so-called largest democracy as Prime Minister from 1989-1990 and had left behind a rich legacy of secularism, the news of his death was eclipsed by the Mumbai terror attack a day before on November 26, 2008. While the incident that left 166 people dead rightfully captured media headlines, there was certainly more to the virtual silence over the news of his death.
Though Singh came from a royal family, history will always see him as a leader with a poor man’s lens.
He had started his political career with the Congress party from Uttar Pradesh. However, he later fell apart with the party under the leadership of the late Rajeev Gandhi. The turning point came when he was forced to resign as Defence Minister in Gandhi’s government after he came to learn about the high-level corruption in the country’s defence deals.
He later cofounded Janata Dal that came to power with help from left parties and the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). This was a new political experiment that brought the left and the right together to form a non-Congress coalition government.
Singh took over as the Prime Minister under very challenging circumstances. There was an insurgency in Punjab for a separate Sikh homeland, while Kashmiri militants were also calling shots for independence. Gandhi had left behind not only the legacy of corruption but also communal politics. He rode to power riding on anti-Sikh tide in December 1984 in the aftermath of the Sikh massacre organized by the Congress party following the assassination of the then Prime Minister and Rajeev’s mother Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The slain leader had ordered military invasion on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar in June 1984 to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons inside the place of worship. The ill-conceived army operation had left many devotees dead and several important buildings inside the complex heavily damaged. This had enraged the Sikhs worldwide and led to the murder of Indira Gandhi on October 31, 1984.
As if this wasn’t enough, the BJP had intensified its campaign to build Ram temple at the disputed site of Ayodhya. BJP claims that a Mughal emperor Babar had destroyed an original Ram temple that stood at the birthplace of Lord Ram – a revered Hindu god in Ayodhya and had built a mosque to humiliate the Hindus. They wanted the mosque to be replaced with a temple. Their vicious campaign culminated into the demolition of the mosque in 1992 by Hindu mobs. To outdo BJP, Rajeev Gandhi also allowed the Hindus to perform prayers at the disputed site and further precipitated the crisis by letting public broadcast relay a TV serial based on Ramayana.
Singh, therefore, had a tough road ahead. Despite these challenges, he never wavered from his stand on secularism and proved himself to be a diehard defender of diversity.
In order to assuage the feelings of the Sikhs, he travelled to the Golden Temple Complex in an open jeep to start a dialogue with the Sikh leadership. Years later, while he was visiting the US for cancer treatment, he told me during a telephonic interview for Radio India in Surrey that he had especially asked a Sikh soldier with an unsheathed sword to be deployed behind him when he addressed the nation on Independence Day to let the world know that his government trusts the Sikh community and wants to restore their confidence in the Indian mainstream.
A Sikh friend of mine whose father Harinder Singh Khalsa, a former Indian diplomat and currently an Aam Aadmi MP who had resigned in protest against the army attack on the Golden Temple Complex told me that it was Singh’s government that gave his father a safe passage to return to India. Khalsa, who was posted in Norway was framed by the Indian authorities and couldn’t come back home until V.P. Singh came to power.
Singh had also taken a very strong stand in support of affirmative action for Dalits or so-called untouchables and backward groups by increasing their reservation quota in public sector jobs. This had enraged BJP and the upper caste elite. There were angry protests everywhere in the country. I still remember that in Chandigarh where we lived at that time, the upper caste elites spearheaded agitations against Singh and he was publicly abused by the protesters. One night they asked the people who lived in our locality to switch off the lights in the entire block to protest against reservation. My father who supported Singh and disliked Rajeev Gandhi was firm and decided to defy this dictum. He honestly believed that Singh was doing the right thing by trying to help uplift the communities that were oppressed for years by the upper caste elite.
BJP was openly inciting the protesters. After all, it believes in the caste system that is still practised by orthodox Hindus and desires to turn India into a Hindu theocracy. Even as the BJP was supporting Singh’s coalition government from outside it was constantly flexing its muscles on the question of caste and religious identity to consolidate the majority Hindu votes for a future election.
Singh’s government finally fell when BJP was adamant to carry on its controversial chariot march to Ayodhya. It happened in November 1990, when a chariot march led by the BJP leader L.K. Advani was stopped in Bihar on Singh’s and his trusted ally and a staunch secularist Chief Minister Lalu Yadav’s orders. Both Singh and Yadav did not want the BJP to vitiate communal harmony in the country. Singh obviously knew the risk involved, but instead of going with the flow for political survival, he let Yadav go ahead and arrest Advani. This led to a vote of no confidence against Singh in the parliament. While Singh did receive the necessary support from the left parties, his government was defeated in the no-confidence motion and soon became history.
Singh’s exit from power gave the right-wing politics a room to grow in coming years. Not only was the mosque in Ayodhya razed to the ground right under the command of BJP, but it also led to more violence and bloodshed. There were anti-Muslim riots in Mumbai followed by serial bombings blamed on Islamic extremists.
In 2002, a train carrying Hindu pilgrims returning from Ayodhya, where a makeshift temple still stands, to Gujarat caught fire leaving more than 50 people dead. The BJP government in Gujarat led by the current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi blamed Muslim extremists for the incident. The whole episode was followed by ant-Muslim massacre engineered by the BJP supporters.
The Mumbai attack that happened exactly ten years ago cannot be seen in isolation from those past incidents of communal violence and serial blasts which have their roots in the sectarian politics of the 1980s. Ironically, Singh who stood for secularism and humanism passed away when Mumbai was under siege.
I still remember him warning me during the interview that the BJP poses a great danger to the secular fabric of the Indian society. Incidentally, this interview took place after the 2002 violence in Gujarat.
Today, under Modi, Muslims, Christians and Dalits are being targeted all across India by the Hindu extremists with impunity. Had Singh been allowed to run his government or had he ever been given a brute majority by the Indian electorate; the history of India would have been different. For Singh, it was very easy and comfortable to align himself with the Hindu majority, instead of standing up for minorities and the oppressed communities and enjoy the fruits of power. He instead chose the most difficult path to become a champion of the underdog. His legacy has become even more relevant when we look around to see how leaders like Modi or Trump are openly indulging in divisive politics and promoting majoritarianism where minorities continue to live in fear.
The silence over his death and its tenth anniversary only show how majoritarianism has penetrated the media industry. This is not to suggest that Singh was a perfect politician. He may have had many limitations and contradictions like any other political figure, but we must give credit where its due and keep the memories of his contribution to social justice alive.