historian | journalist | peacebuilder

Indian secularism still has a future if followers stop blame game with RSS

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This piece has been sparked by Yogendra Yadav’s important article in ThePrint, “This Hindi book on Indian secularism could have exposed liberals, but it was ignored.” I have not yet read Abhay Dubey’s Hindu-Ekta banam Gyan ki Rajniti, but the remarks that follow have been stimulated by Yogendra’s summary of the book’s conclusions.

Read Yogendra’s article here, in which he lists several of Dubey’s crucial assessments: the defeat of secular politics is a defeat of secular ideology; the harsh truth that this defeat is well earned; the arrogance of the secular ideologues that made them overlook basic facts about the Sangh Parivar; and a quick reminder of the weaknesses of the secular politics — from exclusively focusing on minority rights to glossing over the Congress’ inconsistencies.

Many of the points that Abhay Dubey raises, and Yogendra Yadav summarises, are indisputable. Defenders of secularism have often refused to look objectively at the Sangh Parivar, its diverse components, its strengths, weaknesses, achievements and failures. The failure of the Congress to stand up to minority communalism over Shah Bano was an egregious blunder. But I am not so sure about the verdict that the secular ideology has been defeated.

Election can’t defeat what’s in Constitution

Some would argue, and I would join them, that the momentous defeats of secular politics during the last 20-plus years — first the Lok Sabha election results of 1998-99 and then, after the 10-year spell of UPA rule, the chain of defeats that began in 2014 — do not translate so readily into a defeat of secular ideology.

Without attempting a definition of “secular ideology”, it may be suggested here that the Preamble to our Constitution “conveys” this ideology pretty well, and also that the rights to liberty and equality assured in the Constitution give that ideology a solid grounding. Today, we know, these rights are hardly secure. The wish to abrogate them may be seen all around us, and a climate may indeed be reached or created for an open attempt at abrogation.

However, as long as “justice”, “liberty”, “equality”, “fraternity” and “the dignity of the individual” remain in the Preamble, and are protected by our Constitution’s Articles, we need not concede the secular ideology’s defeat, and we must continue our protests against the steady flouting of the Articles.

India’s secular political parties suffer from a number of major weaknesses for which they have been duly punished by our people, the ultimate rulers. But let us not forget that the latter — our crores of ranis (queens) and rajas (kings) — repeatedly gave secular political parties the right to govern India. They did this, decade after decade, from 1947 onwards. Even after the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections, secular parties have received the popular mandate in several parts of India.

Accepting secularism despite deficiencies

I will be the first to agree that India’s governance was flawed from day one of Swaraj. Yet the Congress Party, holding aloft a much-reviled banner of secular ideology, was elected again and again by our people, who knew that perfection does not exist on our soiled, if also sacred, dharti (land).

The reviling of secular ideology had started before 15 August 1947. From the summer of 1946, this condemnation was in violent flow. From much earlier, at least from the 1920s, a few Muslim and Hindu ideologues argued that Hindus and Muslims were two nations. The violence of 1946-47, which was linked to the convulsing demand for Partition, seemed to validate that belief.

That’s when a miracle happened. Between 1947 and 1950, even as Pakistan began its journey to an Islamic state, and even while wounds of the 1947 carnage were still fresh, India’s leaders and Constitution-makers rejected the two-nation ideology. Thereafter, in elections held every five years, the people kept rejecting the two-nation ideology even as they faced deficiencies in Congress ministries at the Centre and in the states.

This is not the place to offer my understanding of how that miracle of 1947-50 happened, but it seems undeniable that crucial to what unfolded was the clarity of several exceptional persons including M.K. Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Vallabhbhai Patel, Abul Kalam Azad, J.P. Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia. All of them insisted that India belonged equally to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, everyone. That was the heart of their secular ideology.

Thanks to their uncompromising, publicly expressed and repeated stand against the two-nation theory, and the backing they received from political and non-political associates in the Constituent Assembly, the government, political parties and elsewhere, not only was our secular Constitution put in place. Secularism and pluralism seemed to enter India’s bloodstream.

That India belonged to all was accepted – it would appear – by the Indian mind, which also seemed to recall that poets and saints had underlined that truth over the centuries in different parts of the land.

The RSS’ control

If today, seven decades later, India’s bloodstream shows angrier and less tolerant platelets, much of the blame doubtless falls on the Congress and other secular parties. But the story is not as simple as that. Credit, or responsibility, should also be assigned to the assiduous work for 95 continuous years of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose members would call these platelets virile rather than virulent, and to the toxic nationwide campaigns for demolishing the Babri Masjid and installing a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.

In more recent years, the success of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the spread of the Hindu nationalist ideology has also been aided by the skills and stamina of men such as Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, by a flow of massive funds to the BJP, and by the Sangh’s mounting influence, if not control, in TV channels, social media, and institutions of the State.

I accept that parts of the RSS have drawn upon the social reformist tradition within Hinduism. I agree that its exclusion of Muslims has been successfully complemented by a campaign to include lower-caste Hindus. But let us recognise that steady pressure on public opinion from proponents of the secular ideology compelled the Sangh Parivar’s reluctant deference to social reform and its eventual readiness to accord a few influential positions to lower-caste Hindus.

We can welcome these tardy steps while renewing our opposition to the two-nation ideology. If the Sangh Parivar can now move radically forward in its thinking, embrace Muslims as equal partners in building India’s future, and jettison the two-nation theory, that would be a welcome culmination as the RSS approaches its centenary.

Such a climax is unlikely. As is true of Muslim nationalist movements in countries such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey, and as was true for the Pakistan demand, India’s Hindu nationalist campaign needs the “enemy other”.

India’s secularism withheld majoriatian rise

I don’t know whether Abhay Dubey’s book examines the global rise of the belief that a particular race or religion owns a nation, and that others must accept a junior status. But it is not hard to see that the Sangh Parivar’s vision of a Hindu India coincides with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s picture of an Islamic Turkey (where the historic Hagia Sophia has now been decreed to become a mosque), with the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s view of a Sunni Muslim Egypt, with the vision of Iran’s Ayatollahs of a pure, Shiite Iran, and with the dream of a White America passionately nursed by sections in the US under Donald Trump.

For all their mistakes and failures, India’s advocates of secularism are not the chief architects of the Sangh Parivar’s rise. In fact, but for some of these champions, that rise would have come about much earlier. Jawaharlal Nehru was seeing into the future, not appeasing a minority, when in 1958 he declared that the “communalism of the majority is far more dangerous than the communalism of the minority” – because, as Nehru added, it “wears the garb of nationalism.” His assessment has been confirmed in India, Turkey and elsewhere.

Any discussion of the rise in India of Hindu nationalism must frankly acknowledge two crucial weaknesses on the secular side. One has been the letting down of Dalits and Adivasis. The partnership when Ambedkar worked with Nehru, Patel and company to produce our Constitution of equality, was not reproduced in India’s villages, in our cities’ crammed bastis, or in our forest lands.

All of us know that the contemporary lynching of Muslims was preceded by, and is today accompanied by, the lynching of Dalits and the uprooting of Adivasis. The claim of “a nation for all” becomes a mere taunt when the cries of victims go unheard.

Great leaders bringing their egos to the battlefront, or to a leadership team, has been a second crucial weakness. After the Emergency, Morarji Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram were unable to stick together even for two years. In 1989-90, it took less than a year for V.P. Singh, Devi Lal and Chandra Shekhar to split up. More recently, Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh fell out, and now there is the Sachin Pilot eruption in Rajasthan.

We just need to stick together against hate

The long-suffering people of India, the women and men who cook and scrub, and weave and plough, and guard and drive, and trudge, and put on masks so that they and others may live, don’t ask for perfection. The ability to rein in personal ambitions, which is easier said than done, and stick it out is enough for them.

Abhay Dubey is right to say that most critics of the Sangh Parivar do not look straightforwardly at it. All Hindu nationalists are not identical. Nor are they personally flawed, except in the sense that all humans have shortcomings.

What should be my attitude to them? I unreservedly reject their doctrine that Hindus must rule over or absorb Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other non-Hindus. But as fellow humans and fellow Indians, members of the Sangh Parivar are entitled to my attention and goodwill.

Those who believe in equality and in an India for all, also have my goodwill. In their case I would, in addition, endorse their ideology. I would not focus on their human imperfections. As long as they stand up to exclusion, disdain and hate, as long as they oppose ideologies of domination and hierarchy, they are my partners. They may belong to a political party, a caste, a religion, a tribe, or a state different from mine, but if they subscribe to liberty, equality and fraternity, they have my solidarity.

If enough of India’s countless lovers of liberty, equality and fraternity stick together, refusing to waste energy in the blame game, not only secular ideology but even secular politics may have a future in India.