A secular veneer

Print edition : January 31, 2003

Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's New Year's Eve message from Goa, which attempts to attach secular attributes to Hindutva, invites intense criticism.

in New Delhi

Prime Minsiter Atal Behari Vajpayee.-SEBASTIAN D'SOUZA/AFP

THERE is now a pattern to Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajayee's New Year Eve musings. These musings, it appears, help him "forget" momentarily the import of his utterances in the immediate past, which had placed him in the company of the lunatic fringe of the Hindu Right, and appear more secular.

In his musings from Kumarakom in Kerala, on the New Year's Eve two years ago, Vajpayee made an attempt to correct what he thought was a misleading description of himself in the media. "Overnight I was transformed by a section of the media and the political class from a `moderate' to a `hard-liner'. `Vajpayee Unmasked', they said, conveniently masking the fact that my long stint in public life is an open book. Worse still, a campaign was launched to create misgivings about me in the minds of the minority brethren," he wrote. Elsewhere in the musings, Vajpayee argued that the Indian people did not give their mandate to any party or coalition that did not follow a secular, inclusive and integrative agenda. "To think otherwise is to disparage our people's democratic intelligence," he noted.

Vajpayee was forced to prove his secular credentials by the media and the Opposition parties, which were dismayed by his statement in Parliament and outside that the Ram temple movement in Ayodhya was an expression of `national sentiment'. Vajpayee reiterated that his statement was "well thought-out", despite the misgivings it had created on whether he approved the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

This year, though the context had changed, with the verdict from Gujarat elections dominating the political discourse, the pattern of the musings remained the same. It was probably naive to expect Vajpayee, who spent the New Year's Eve in Goa this time, to reflect on why he was under attack by secularists for his address to the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting on December 17. After claiming due credit for the BJP's victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections, Vajpayee blamed the leaders of the Muslim community for not condemning the Godhra massacre "sufficiently". "Even now, they are not remorseful for the tragedy," he said, as if the entire Muslim community was to be blamed for the incident. Although his claims were shown to be factually incorrect, Vajpayee never found it necessary to make amends for the hurt he caused. In his musings from Goa, instead of answering the misgivings created by his speech, he chose to address a certain lack of clarity within the parivar on Hindutva.

Vajpayee claimed that secularism was being pitted against Hindutva, under the belief that the two are antithetical to each other. "This is incorrect and untenable," he argued. Secularism as a concept of the state, he said, enjoined upon it the duty to show respect for all faiths and to practise no discrimination among citizens on the basis of their beliefs. In this sense, he said, India had been secular since the beginning of its known history. His clarification perhaps inadvertently refuted the decade-long campaign of the BJP that secularism as practised by successive Congress(I) regimes at the Centre and in the States since Independence was not genuine.

He alleged that Hindutva, which "presents a broad, all-encompassing view of human life", was being projected by some people in a narrow, rigid and extremist manner - an unfortunate and unacceptable interpretation that ran totally contrary to its true spirit. Hindutva, he claimed, was liberal, liberating and brooked no ill-will, hatred or violence among different communities on any ground. Citing a Supreme Court judgment, he said that Hindutva connoted a noble and elevating way of life. "This Indianness or Bhartiyata (which is not different from Hindutva) is what we should all celebrate and further strengthen," Vajpayee said.

RSS chief K.S. Sudarshan at a meeting in Guwahati. Even as Vajpayee attempts to equate Hindutva with secularism, he fails to clarify whether he accepts RSS ideologues' definition of the term, which questions the nationalist credentials of religious minorities.-RITU RAJKONWAR/AP

In fact, Vajpayee was not the first to equate Hindutva with Indianness or Bhartiyata, which affirms that India belongs to all its people. Confronted with criticisms of abuse of Hindutva (or what it meant in practice) for narrow political ends, its apologists have always taken refuge in the argument that it is an apolitical doctrine and that it has secular philosophical underpinnings. However, by emphasising its assimilative (rather than accommodative) character, the Hindutva proponents have exposed their true intent in espousing the ideology. In his musings from Goa, Vajpayee failed to dwell on this dichotomy between assimilation and accommodation, which explains Hindutva's incompatibility with secularism. A policy of assimilation, even while recognising diversity, does not endorse the minorities' right to separate identities in terms of culture, religion and language. The principle of accommodation, on the contrary, not only recognises diversity but seeks to preserve it in its entirety.

To sustain his argument, Vajpayee quoted Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo, who admired Hinduism's acceptance of various faiths. Ironically, Vajpayee refrained from quoting V.D. Savarkar, who first coined the term, Hindutva, by titling his book as such, in 1923. In Hindutva, Savarkar clearly distinguished Hindutva from Hinduism. His concept of Hindutva suggested, for instance, that the primordial loyalties of Muslims and Christians were not towards India since their religions originated in foreign lands.

At the same time, he clubbed together people of the remaining communities under Hindutva despite their obvious differences in beliefs and practices.

Vajpayee also conveniently avoided references to the founder of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) K.B. Hedgewar, and his successor, M.S. Golwalkar, who built on Savarkar's formulation. He also did not clarify whether he accepted their definition of the term.

NOTWITHSTANDING the obvious gaps in his understanding of such a divisive concept, Vajpayee's musings led to a phoney controversy. Political observers, who believed that Vajpayee was a moderate, assumed that he had indicted the pursuit of a sectarian agenda by the extreme fringe of the Sangh Parivar like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Vajpayee's failure to name the VHP - if he had really wanted to indict it - did not appear to be a major lapse to them. After all, his admirers claimed, he headed a huge multi-party coalition on the basis of his impeccable personality and he deserved the privilege of keeping a distance from the rabble-rousers who constituted the VHP. It was suggested that his naming the VHP could have led to a direct confrontation between him and the VHP, which would have been rather unseemly.

However, Vajpayee's decision to avoid naming the VHP hardly dissuaded the latter from launching a verbal attack on him. In his reaction to the musings, VHP vice-president Acharya Giriraj Kishore called Vajpayee a `pseudo-Hindu'. Yet he agreed with Vajpayee that Hindutva could never mean a narrow, rigid and extremist approach. Although Vajpayee promised mediapersons that he would respond to the VHP missive against him, probably he thought his musings had served their purpose and left it at that.

In any case, it appeared, he did not want to be projected as a hard secularist, and if his remarks had invited a rebuke from the VHP it was enough to show his secular credentials to the party's partners in the National Democratic Alliance. After all, the RSS had hailed his musings.

Apparently, the BJP's allies too were not perturbed by his musings. While the Samata Party expressed its reservations on Vajpayee's attempt to equate Hindutva with secularism, owing to the former's negative connotations, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi asserted that he would condemn the practice of Hindutva, even if one was inclined to call his position `Dravidatva'.

The allies' mild rebuke of his musings encouraged Vajpayee to return to his pre-musings understanding of Hindutva. On January 6, he gave a lengthy exposition on education, on the occasion of the birthday celebrations of his colleague Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and justified the Ministry's project to rewrite history. The project was criticised in Parliament and outside for its emphasis on saffronisation and its pro-Hindu slant. Vajpayee elaborated this theme again at another function in Mumbai, thus endearing him to the RSS.

Vajpayee's pro-Hindu tilt followed a similar attempt by Deputy Prime Minister L.K.Advani to display his Hindutva credentials. On January 4, while addressing the Gujarat unit of the BJP in Gandhinagar, Advani criticised Jawaharlal Nehru who, he alleged, had distorted, under the influence of communism, Hindu secularism by distancing it from religion.

He claimed that there could be nothing more unfortunate than the `Ashoka Chakra', which symbolised Buddhism, adorning the national flag and Hinduism was sought to be separated from nationalism. The remark was criticised by CPI(M) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet, who deplored Advani's blatant attempt to denigrate national symbols by weaving a web of lies and distortions. Advani seemed to have distorted the fact that Ashoka Chakra was part of the national flag because it symbolised peace rather than a religion. Advani's remark was apparently aimed to neutralise the impact of Vajpayee's Goa musings, which sought to equate secularism with Hindutva. He made it in the context of the BJP deciding to stick to its Hindutva agenda in the ensuing elections to the 89 municipalities and some district and taluk panchayats in the State.

Apparrently, the growing affinity among the RSS, Vajpayee and Advani seems to have displeased the VHP, which is showing signs of restlessness. After calling Vajpayee a turncoat, for going back on his promise to facilitate the beginning of temple construction at Ayodhya in 2002, the VHP has now directed its ire against Advani. His role during the `Shila daan' ceremony of the VHP at Ayodhya in March 2002, when he kept the agitating kar sevaks under check for fear of losing the allies' support to the BJP at the Centre, had displeased the VHP sants. VHP president Ashok Singhal has now blamed Advani's rath yatra in the early 1990s, which built the party's Hindu vote-bank on the basis of the Ram temple movement, for politicising the movement. Singhal meant that after the rath yatra, parties other than the BJP stopped extending support to the movement on the grounds that it was inspired by the BJP, and even opposed it, causing it a setback.

By seeming to attack the Vajpayee-Advani duo, therefore, the VHP perhaps intends to convey to the RSS that it is no longer willing to temper its Ram temple movement for the sake of Sangh unity. It is also meant to tell the non-BJP parties that after the Gujarat elections, the results of which have demonstrated what a pro-Hindu campaign can achieve for a party, they should not be seen to be opposing a campaign to build the Ram temple. This message is inherent in the appeal of VHP general secretary Praveen Togadia to the Congress(I) to facilitate the passage of legislation in Parliament to transfer the ownership of the undisputed land at Ayodhya to the VHP to help it begin construction of the temple, without waiting for the court decision on the pending title suit. With the VHP sants congregating in the third week of February to set a timetable for the commencement of temple construction at Ayodhya, the contradictions within the Sangh Parivar will only become sharper than what has so far come to the fore.

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