A secular response

Print edition : July 30, 2004

Will Secular India Survive? by Mushirul Hasan (ed); Imprint One, Delhi, distributed by Manohar Books, New Delhi; Rs.800.

THE Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has long presented a conundrum to social scientists and political analysts, one that become particularly nagging after the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power in New Delhi in March 1998. How did a party, which in its pre-Janata avatar (the Jan Sangh) never left the fringes of politics nor commanded many more than 20 to 30 Lok Sabha seats, suddenly cross the 100-seat barrier and then the 150-seat and 180-seat marks?

What, besides the anti-Babri Masjid agitation, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad-Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh's (VHP-RSS) persistent work, holds the key to this impressive success? How do we assign relative weights to different causative factors in explaining the BJP's ascendancy: the historic decline of the Congress; the shrinking of the liberal space in Indian politics; the growing appeal of "identity politics" in many parts of the post-Cold War world; the VHP-Bajrang Dal's street-level mobilisation; the BJP's enormously flexible strategy of coalition-building, which allowed it to occupy spaces temporarily vacated by others (the Congress as well as regional and caste-based parties)?

Was there a still deeper process at work well before the 1980s, related to India's insufficiently developed "secular culture", and a failure of the Congress leadership even at its high noon (just after Independence), to negotiate the terms of a viable, sturdy, secularism? Or are the causes relatively more recent and not as well-entrenched as might have been thought? To what extent has the BJP's toxic ideology taken root among the upper and middle layers of Indian society, especially in rural India? Do secularists tend to underestimate the ideological appeal and influence of the RSS and accord excessive importance to contingent "mobilisational" factors such as the Ayodhya agitation, and the campaign around the Congress' "pseudo-secularism"?

Or, as critics of secularism like Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan have argued, is modernist secularism itself fundamentally flawed? If our general objective is relatively peaceful and harmonious relations between different religious communities, then might we not be better off with the notion of mutual tolerance, itself respected by different religions (which can, therefore, unify around it)? Tolerance, they hold, is deeply rooted in Indian tradition and therefore more "natural" to Indian culture. Might tolerance not be a far more satisfactory alternative to the "imposition" of secularism from "on top"?

Some of these questions assumed increasing salience and complexity as sections of the intelligentsia trimmed their sails and became apologists for Hindutva in the late 1990s. Those who refused to compromise on secularism were hard put to explain Hindutva's seemingly unstoppable `Long March' through the institutions, and the growing influence and rising votes of the BJP in election after Lok Sabha election. A ray of hope appeared in early 2002 when the BJP suffered defeats in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Uttaranchal, but this was quickly lost in the darkness that set after the Gujarat Assembly elections of December that year.

Coming soon after Independent India's worst state-sponsored pogrom, those results were a shocker. A year on, the BJP swept the elections to the legislatures of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Its victory in the approaching Lok Sabha elections looked near-certain, even inevitable, to many - right until the elections were held and results declared on May 13. It is during this gloomy interval that this book was written. The title captures its preponderantly sombre mood. But the questions many of its authors raise are by no means steeped in pessimism and hopelessness - despite those disorienting and demoralising times. It is a tribute to the intellectual integrity and secular commitment of much of India's liberal intelligentsia that essays like those in the present edited volume could be written in a genuine spirit of inquiry and critical self-appraisal without a loss of perspective - in particular, on secularism as a categorical imperative, without which the very existence of India as we know it, might be jeopardised.

There are many rich insights and much inspired analysis in these essays, which cover a wide range of subjects. Thus there is a discussion of Hindu-Muslim relations; secularism and its relationship to participatory and inclusive democracy and to individual rights; the question of identity; the shaping of the BJP's intellectual agenda; the Gujarat carnage and its causes; Hindutva's political and mobilisational strategies; caste, class, property and communal identities; and even a note, albeit brief, on the media and secularism.

One of the strengths of the book is the attempt (in essays by Neera Chandhoke, Martha Nussbaum, Zoya Hasan and others) to root the conception of secularism not so much in a cultural or historical context as in the spirit of the Constitution with its emphasis on democracy, equality, universal citizenship rights and inclusiveness. Thus, it is less relevant to ask if India has always been a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society (which it has), than to ask how we can build a minimally civilised, inclusive, democratic society today.

And here, secularism is not an option; it is an absolute necessity, an imperative, moreover one that is in keeping with the Constitution, itself closely linked to the ideals of the freedom struggle. A contemporary notion of secularism is best derived from the egalitarian and universalist ideas embodied in the Constitution. Secularism alone can create equal rights for all citizens, regardless of religion, ethnicity or culture.

Chandhoke makes a powerful plea for re-presenting secularism within this framework, thus cutting through competing definitions (for example, equality of all religions, equal respect for all faiths, or separation of religion from the state). She argues against treating secularism as a "free-floating" concept detached from the "democratic imagination": "If we relocate secularism in the wider concept of democracy as well as see it as an integral part of the democratic imagination, we can, perhaps revive the concept." Nussbaum discusses of two useful paradigms drawn from U.S. constitutional history: Massachusetts and Rhode Island. While the first tried to define citizenship and citizen's rights according to religion (Christianity), the second was inclusive of all religions and embraced universal rights, forcing the First Amendment to be adopted. Nussbaum places great value on the way the Constitution has evolved towards the second paradigm - despite weaknesses such as lack of affirmative action for women and Muslims.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, by contrast, poses a different question - , that of Hindu and Muslim identities and secularism, connecting it to individual freedom. His discussion is somewhat lame - in part, because he gives too much credence to the stereotype of Muslim co-optation and "appeasement" by the Congress, rather than full Muslim participation in democratic politics. In reality, the relationship between Muslim masses, their elites and the Congress is far more complex. As Zoya Hasan shows, there is major democratic deficit as regards the accommodation or integration of Muslims within structures of representation and of power. Social and educational backwardness, and lack of social opportunity are widely prevalent among Muslims. Discrimination against Muslims is incompatible with egalitarian and participatory democracy.

AMONG the other important themes discussed here is the ascendancy of the Hindutva ideology and of BJP politics, discussed in essays by Radhika Desai, Amrita Basu and Srirupa Roy, Aijaz Ahmad, Mushirul Hasan, among others. These recognise that some roots of that ascendancy lie in the upward mobility of the middle class, and to an extent, the propertied middle castes. Some authors analyse the links between this mobility and the neoliberal economic policy regime of the 1990s (continuing into the contemporary present). Yet, there is no full-length discussion in any of the essays of the powerful role of neoliberalism in reshaping both the ideology and the social base of the BJP. Neo-liberalism in the Indian context is imbued with profound dualism and growing inequality between classes and regions. Its ascendancy has led to a burgeoning middle class with rising consumption, which is seriously alienated from the people, and secondarily, to a business elite that is highly predatory and criminalised.

This middle class ascendancy occurred in particular circumstances - defined by post-Cold War despondency about non-alignment and an embrace of the West, rise of ethnic-religious identity politics in India's neighbourhood (and beyond), and intensified India-Pakistan rivalry. Therefore, it came with a heavy baggage of chauvinist-nationalism, militarism and an abiding faith in the utility of force in a (naturally and inevitably) Hobbesian world.

The BJP was the greatest beneficiary of this nationalism. In turn, it gave it a particularly malign dimension, a nuclear edge, and a domestic target as well - the disloyal Muslim, always in league with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan. This combination - aggressive, bellicose nationalism, and Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice - proved potent. The BJP also executed a major shift in its ideological make-up to woo the "new middle classes" spawned by neo-liberalism. From an emphasis on a more-or-less closed economy, with a degree of protection and regulation favouring traders and small business - but never workers or landless rural labour - it moved to embrace the Washington Consensus. While in power, it opened up the economy and indiscriminately privatised public assets.

The lack of a discussion of the connections between neoliberalism and communalism is not just a minor error of omission, but a glaring absence. No framework marked by such an absence can explain why the BJP has gained the kind of acceptance it has among the upper crust of Indian society and become the party of choice for Big Business.

Radhika Desai attempts a very useful partial explanation in respect of the middle castes. But her explanation, that these castes have no stake in secularism and tend to gravitate towards the BJP, or rather, "a diffuse form of Hindutva", needs further discussion, and surely some qualification. It is true that many parties representing the upwardly mobile middle castes have had few compunctions about allying with the BJP. But that is not because they have a special affinity for Hindutva, only because they find it politically expedient to do so. Some would gladly go with a secular "ally" - on the "enemy's-enemy-is-a-friend" principle. The essay by Basu and Roy has a factually rich and theoretically well-grounded discussion of the Gujarat carnage, which tries to answer a range of issues: the pogrom's violence and its ferocity, its function within the RSS-BJP scheme of things, its international and national contexts, Atal Bihari Vajpayee's vacillation over sacking Narendra Modi, and the participation of Adivasis and Dalits in anti-Muslim attacks. This further enriches our understanding of Gujarat and its importance for secularism.

The essays by Aijaz Ahmad, Mushirul Hasan, Amitava Kumar and Tahir Mahmood raise questions about the future of the political challenge to the BJP, and by implication, the future of the secularist project itself. This is particularly relevant after the rout of the BJP in the latest Lok Sabha elections. (It lost in 23 out of India's 28 States.) This opens up a great opportunity to promote and consolidate secularism. One central issue here is whether the Congress will programmatically reject soft Hindutva and embrace principled secularism. This is no easy question to answer in respect of a party which has been complicit in the spread of communalism in numerous instances - even if it does not have the pro-active aggressively communal orientation of the BJP.

The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won the last election on a Left-of-Centre platform, affirming secularism as well as issues of equity and justice - in opposition to neoliberalism. During the election campaign, the Sonia Gandhi leadership was as unsparing in attacking communalism as it was emphatic about addressing livelihood issues. Presumably, this could mount some pressure on the UPA to remain loyal to its secular popular mandate. Some pressure will be brought upon it to do so from the Left and progressive civil society elements including from those within the National Advisory Committee (NAC) on the Common Minimum Programme (CMP).

However, the critical test will come on three issues: justice for the Gujarat victims, detoxification of communalised institutions of the state, and correction to the approach hitherto followed by the Central government to the Ayodhya litigation, effectively shielding the guilty of December 1992.

If the UPA argues strongly for the transfer of all major cases of violence outside Gujarat, along the lines of Best Bakery litigation, it could begin to re-orient itself both on ethnic-religious identity issues and questions of justice. On the other two issues too, there is much to be done. We will soon know in which direction the UPA, and especially the Congress, moves.

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