The road not taken

The real damage to the struggle for secularism in India has been caused and is being caused by those who claim to be secular but have no compunctions in forming alliances with the very elements that they claim to fight.

If the battle for secularism con-tinues to be fought on present lines, we are destined to lose. Unless the struggle against minority communal-ism is as determined and con-sistent as against majority communalism, we simply cannot win. Today, in the public perception, the battle for secularism appears as a fight against the sangh parivar alone, whereas it ought to be a fight against communalism of every hue.

For instance, if the Congress(I) party forms a government in alliance with the Muslim League in Kerala, what does this mean? Communalism is basically the misuse of religion and religious identity for political mobilisation. How else can communalism be defined? The very mandate of secularism in a multi–religious, plural society is against such manipulation of religion and religious identity. Since emotions related to religion run high, genuine secularism mandates against the use of religious identity as a basis for political mobilisation, or to suit the purposes of a political party.

What did the Muslim League do before 1947? It questioned the identity of every Muslim who was not with it, and doubted people’s ‘Muslim’ credentials simply because they did not believe in the politics of communalism that the Muslim League epitomised. Now, if a national party like the Congress (I), enters into a political alliance with a party with such a past and such politics based on religious identity, it certainly affects the credibility of its proclaimed fight against communalism.

The campaign for secularism will be won or lost in the minds of those whom we call the middle ground. The large majority of Indians are not communal, they are not affiliated with the sangh parivar — i.e., the BJP, RSS, VHP etc. But, when they see that those in the vanguard of the campaign for secularism, those who politically raise their voices against the sangh parivar, are at the same time making political alliances with the Muslim League, not only do such parties lose their credibility, the secular principle itself comes into question.

Middle India is simply not ready to digest the theory that the sangh parivar is more dangerous than the Muslim League. Here we have to treat this as a generic term, the Muslim League means not only a particular party by that name; it also applies to many other outfits with a similar mindset and who, too, base their political life on religious identity alone.

If the sangh parivar believes in a Hindu Rashtra (Hindutva), such Muslims believe in Milli Tashakush. Basically, it is the same issue of the use of religion–based identity in politics. There is no difference in their worldview, or methodology, or mechanism of organisation: the basic methods/mechanisms whereby we describe the sangh parivar as "communal", are also the same methodology/mechanism that is followed by them.

Politicians with communal mindsets who function within mainstream political parties also do a lot of damage to the struggle for genuine secularism. There are for instance individuals in the Congress party, who, in the wake of the Shah Bano controversy came out with a book titled, ‘Muslims At Home in India’. The basic philosophy of the book suggests that only a Muslim can represent Muslim interests. By the same logic, only Hindus can and must represent Hindu interests. Now, if I do not consider myself capable of representing the interests of those whose religion differs from mine, on what grounds can I ask for their votes? But members of the Congress, a party that espouses secularism, continue to practice such warped politics.

Though I do not think that the situation in India today is entirely hopeless, I do feel the need to emphasise that the real damage to the struggle for secularism in India has been caused and is being caused by those who claim to be secular but have no compunctions in forming alliances with the very elements that they claim to fight.

For the first time in nearly 130 years, the obscurantist sections among Muslims, the clergy, was brought to the national centre-stage by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress.

There is of course the other major problem — that in India there are many in public life who spoke of secularism in the past but who were not genuinely wedded to the idea and the principles of secularism. This section within mainstream politics – the best example of this sort that I can find is George Fernandes — also saw Indian polity in terms of Hindus and Muslims though their perspective was somewhat different.

In their short–sightedness, this lot had engaged in duplicitous politics in the past, viewing Hindus as caste groups (not as a single community), but Muslims as a single religious group. When this section realised in recent years that the ground reality had drastically changed and that Hindus, having acquired a consolidated identity, would not relate or respond to caste appeals, it had no problem shifting over to the BJP. Fernandes, the man who used to speak of the "fight to the finish" against communalism in the past, today does not even raise a voice (nor do any of the other NDA allies) when the BJP brazenly flouts the commonly agreed agenda of the National Democratic Alliance.

These sections have been ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ to minority groups in the past. But today, when they see numbers on the other side, they have no qualms in not only keeping silent but in espousing filthy politics even after a carnage like the one in Gujarat last year.

As I see the secularism debate unfold today, I recall my conviction and the stand I took in 1986 on the Shah Bano controversy. I had strongly felt then that the mistake made by the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi would prove too expensive for India, that it might even lead to an irretrievable situation. Today it is apparent that the apprehension and fear that I had then, and had expressed publicly, were justified.

In 1986, my staunch opposition to the Muslim Women’s (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill, was not simply opposition to a solitary piece of legislation. What I was dead against was the central government — the Indian State in other words — giving legitimacy, respectability and credibility to communal elements within the minority community. What the sangh parivar or others describe as "appeasement" is not appeasement of the Muslim community at large, but an attempt no doubt to woo and win over a vocal section of the community that could and did speak a language that was and is communal, threatening and forceful.

It was the Congress government’s enactment of this legislation in 1986 that gave credibility to the politics of communalism. I felt strongly then that if this did happen, and the new law was enacted, the winners would not be these small groups, the ultimate winner will be the BJP. This is exactly what happened. And 1986 started a whole chain of events that continue in their chilling spiral, even today.

The Congress and the entire national political leadership has been responsible for projecting, time and again — whether through the allotment of Rajya Sabha seats or anything else — only this face of Muslims, the communal face. Now, if you are a secular party interested in a genuine battle for secularism in a fight to the finish, which section of Muslims would you or should you try and project and strengthen?

The so–called secular national leadership has played the villain’s role. Why? Because, unfortunately, you just need to scratch the surface of any one of these leaders and you find that they harbour strange ideas about Muslims, about the issues that Muslims respond to, etc. To them, the past has shown, especially the pre–Partition past, that Muslims, especially the large number of them who came under the sway of the Muslim League, responded to issues of faith more than issues of bread, butter and survival.

Post–1947 India under the Congress makes a fascinating study. The work of independent scholars like Prof. Bipin Chandra and Aditya and Mridula Mukherjee reveal the utter sidelining of Muslim freedom fighters from the political ranks of the Congress. Why? Should these not have been the natural allies of a secular formation like the Congress? But, no. Post–Independence, when communal representation in electorates was dropped and electoral constituencies drawn on territorial lines, politicians had to fight their political battles with an eye to the constituents that resided within. While the front rankers of the Muslim League (ML) had migrated to Pakistan, the third and fourth rankers remained. These were, however, very defensive, given the carnage of Partition. They were men of small stature while the freedom fighters stood tall among the people. But, come election time, Congressmen chose to enter into crude negotiations with the ML types rather than support Muslim freedom fighters. This was done in the belief that whenever it came to important issues, Muslims would respond to narrow and sectarian slogans of the ML rather than to secular and broader issues. This association with the League types, Congressmen thought, assured them of votes more easily.

Given this background, I feel that the damage caused in 1986 is near irretrievable. Why? For the first time in nearly 130 years, the obscurantist sections among Muslims, the clergy, was brought to the national centre-stage by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress. Ever since 1857 (when they played a critical role in India’s first war of Independence), the British had sidelined them. Then came the Aligarh movement under Sir Syed with it’s emphasis on modern English education, which rendered their situation unenviable. By then the clergy had been reduced to an object of ridicule within the Muslim community. But through one simple piece of legislation introduced by the Rajiv Gandhi regime, the entire social process was reversed and once more, the Muslim clergy was brought back to centre–stage. It is a position that they enjoy even today and this has helped the BJP tremendously.

In 1986, Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress showed that the party does not relate to the Badruddin Tyabjis and the Khwaja Ahmed Abbases of the Muslim community, it does not respond to the voices of Muslim professionals who spoke out against the Muslim Women’s Bill, but prefers instead the obscurantist Muslim clergy for credibility, association and alliance. And the Congress continues to function in the same self-serving and shortsighted manner even today. How can the battle for secularism ever be won from a position that has been so compromised?

However, if I still believe strongly that the secular battle will not be so easily lost, it is because the past decade and a half has seen the upsurge of the depressed castes in Indian society. Having tasted power and gained political clout through the democratic process for the first time, these sections are unlikely to simply let it go. I do not believe that the end of democracy is in sight because there are just too many sections in Indian society today that have a stake in its continuance.

Another real problem with the debate on secularism is the fact that progressive sections have simply been unable to engage with and come to an understanding about caste realities and deprivations. The secular-communal debate needs to encompass the reality of India as a caste–driven society where caste-based divisions, justified in the name of faith, have created discriminations and deprivations.

Caste is so strong in India even today that a casteist vision permeates even Muslims and Christians. Secularism is not simply a Hindu–Muslim issue. Significant sections of the deprived and oppressed castes also have a stake in secularism and democracy. For this battle to be waged on both fronts, those concerned about secularism need to understand and relate to the issue of caste. This, too, is an issue that continues to dodge the secularists. 

(As told to Teesta Setalvad.)

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2003 Year 9  No. 84, Cover Story 1



Related Articles