Communalism vs pluralism

Print edition : February 28, 2003

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee with DMK president M. Karunanidhi at an election campaign in Chennai. Moderating its ideology of uniform nationalism, the BJP has forged coalitions with all possible regional parties. - AFP

The looming threat of fascism has its roots in religious identity-based nationalism and it can be countered by promoting subnational and supranational identities.

ALMOST the entire debate on the implications of the elections in Gujarat and their results centred around the issue of secularism versus communalism. It is a gross oversimplification, not only because many other issues also mattered but also because, strictly speaking, the two terms are not comparable. For, while communalism, as per its usage in India, means an exclusive political identity based on religion, secularism refers to identities that are not based on religion. Thus nation, region, language, caste, class, profession and ideology are all secular identities. Hence, communalism should better be contrasted with pluralism.

During the struggle for independence, the national and communal identities were the most pronounced ones. Communalism was then contrasted with nationalism. Thus, terms like nationalist Hindus, nationalist Muslims and nationalist Sikhs used to be contrasted with those like communal Hindus, communal Muslims and communal Sikhs respectively. As British imperialism was then the main enemy of Indian nationalism, Hindu communalism's anti-Muslim plank was considered a diversion from the nationalist movement and thus was isolated.

After Independence, Pakistan - a Muslim state carved out of India - was perceived by the Indian nationalists as a major threat. Jawaharlal Nehru succeeded in isolating it from other Muslim countries and the non-aligned world; for which secular the approach proved an asset. Indira Gandhi satisfied the nationalist sentiments by getting Pakistan split. But anti-Pakistan sentiment could no longer be kept at a high pitch on the support of a secular ideology. Meanwhile, cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and elsewhere in India - in which some local Muslims were suspected to be involved - increased the perception of threat from Pakistan. Thus, Mian Musharraf acquired relevance in the election campaign in Gujarat.

As Indian nationalism acquired a more aggressive form, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) claim to represent it became more plausible, through an attempt to redefine the concept of nationalism - a definition in place of its soft, liberal and cosmopolitan version. The BJP has by now appropriated all the icons of the national movement - Vivekananda, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and, above all, Mahatma Gandhi. Jawaharlal Nehru is an exception so far. But the BJP president, M. Venkaih Naidu, made bold to assert on December 26 that, "our nationalism is what was preached by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the pre-Independence days. The post-Independence Congress does not have it. We have inherited it." Thus it has staked its claim to the legacy of the national movement.

Another factor that helped it was the overlapping concept of Indian nationalism and Hinduism. Unlike other religions, which follow a single prophet and a single book, Hinduism is an amorphous sum of a large number of what sociologists call, little traditions and heritages in various fields of the nation. For instance, mythological figures like Hanuman, Ganesh and Durga and national heroes like Rama and Krishna are Hindu gods and goddesses. Ancient Indian philosophies like the Upanishads and the six shastras - with divergent viewpoints - comprise Hindu scriptures. National epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are its sacred books. Mythology, history and cultural heritage thus provide the basis of Hinduism as well as Indian nationalism.

But no goddess arouses as strong a passion as Bharat Mata. Even desh bhakti, worship of the nation, is a typically Indian version of patriotism.

The British rule and the modernisation process submerged little traditions into a pan-Indian and nationalised version of Hinduism, while Indian nationalism, a new-born creed in search of its roots, got Hindu revivalist traits. The dilemma that the religious approach to nationalism, including the concept of nation worship, created for non-Hindus, was never seriously discussed. Rabindranath Tagore's warning that transformation of Indian civilisation into nationalism, which was an import from the West, had a divisive potentiality was never heeded, even after it proved true in 1947. M.N. Roy had more sternly asserted that the logic of Indian nationalism would inevitably lead it to fascism.

This eventuality was averted, first, as nationalism was tempered by the moral and humanitarian impact of Gandhi's and Nehru's intellectual vision, as reflected in a federal constitution and democratic institutions. Secondly, Indian diversity could not be accommodated within a fascist ideology.

HERE the BJP took cognisance of the Indian reality better than, say, the Congress. Moderating its ideology of uniform nationalism, it forged coalitions with all possible regional parties. Tamil parties, such as the Dravida Munnetra Kazhgam and its offshoots, which had at one time raised a banner of revolt against Indian nationalism, are closer to the BJP than any secular party. The Akali Dal, which is still committed to the Anandpur Sahib resolution seeking maximum autonomy, and the National Conference which demands pre-1953 status for Kashmir, are its allies. That socialist formations such as the Samata Party and the Janata Dal (United) are its coalition partners, again shows its ideological flexibility.

While the BJP has accommodated most of the regional parties, in Gujarat it directly tried to represent the regional aspirations. In his election speeches, Narendra Modi invariably referred to the identity and pride of five crore Gujaratis. Regional identities are far more secular than Indian nationalism. For they are based on a solid and composite heritage to which all communities have made their contribution. Gujarati heritage includes contribution of many Muslim saints, poets, businessmen and, above all, Gandhi and Gandhians of all communities. Why did secularists allow Modi to hijack this heritage? The BJP has taken cognisance of caste reality of India better than the Congress. It not only accepted the leadership of a Dalit party in Uttar Pradesh, but was also able to encroach into the Dalit and tribal vote bank of the Congress in Gujarat. The Congress even failed to exploit the disillusionment of the Patels with the BJP.

Moreover while Mandal was supposed to have checkmated the kamandal in the early 1990s, the BJP outmanoeuvred the Congress in using the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), the beneficiaries of Mandal card, by projecting Modi as an OBC leader in Gujarat. Thus, the combined ammunition of caste, region, Hindutva and crude nationalism (expressed as anti-Pakistan) added to the cynical use of fear, hatred, and instincts of violence and brutality, was part of the electoral arsenal of Modi's fight against the vague secularism of the Congress. Anti-OBC sections of the Congress obviously played a part in its refusal to have any truck with Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party (S.P.) in the election. Otherwise, the combined strength of the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party and the S.P. outnumbered that of the BJP. Earlier, its refusal to support Mulayam Singh facilitated the formation of a government by the BJP-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance in U.P. and its refusal to support his candidate for the Legislative Council enabled the BJP-BSP alliance candidate to win the seat.

It was the BJP's handicap in the form of its ideological baggage as a party of uniformity that had helped the Congress to form governments in 15 States. But its ability to retain power in those States and aspire for it in other States and at the Centre would depend upon how far it comes to terms with the claims of non-communal identities based on, say, region, caste, class and ideology.

And, if the BJP defies diversities of India in favour of an exclusive and the post-Godhra Gujarati version of Hindutva agenda, it, too, would endanger whatever gains it has so far achieved and do greater damage to the interests of Hindu society and the Indian nation. In fact, the confused relation between Hinduism and Indian nationalism, described earlier, has repeatedly exposed the inadequacies in both of them. The sense of inadequacy in Hindu religion is reflected by the call in some sections to declare Ayodhya the Mecca of Hindus, which it never was, and to declare Ram as the sole Hindu prophet, which he never was. In the process of imitating of Islam, Hinduism will lose its own soul without imbibing what is good in Islam.

Religionised concept of nationalism, which we adopted during the freedom movement, too, has exposed many weaknesses; principally because it fails to accommodate India's vast diversity that has proved to be its greatest asset. The diversities cut across one another and check exclusiveness of each of them.

They, thus, prevent any threat to the unity of the country. Secondly, they are the most potent check against the fascist trends that are inherent in the concept of nationalism.

Strengthening of subnational identities and developing supranational identities, informed with humanitarian ideologies and democratic institutions, can save the country from divisive or fascist threats.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor