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Home > Dissident Left Archive > Shekhar Gupta - National Interest: Secularism is dead!

Shekhar Gupta - National Interest: Secularism is dead!

by Dilip, 21 April 2014

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NB - A significant article, that should be read as carefully as Ms Lekhi's observations on fascism. My comments are appended below - DS
This anti-Modi battle cry is lazy, illiberal and an affront to Muslims — and to Hindus.
If the opinion polls turn out to be generally correct, and Narendra Modi comes to power, it will unleash an angry flurry of obituaries of Indian secularism. Last week, some of India’s most respected public intellectuals signed a joint appeal to save the idea of India from Modi. That his rise is a crucial turn in the Hindutva project that began with the Babri Masjid demolition. That nobody and nothing will be able to resist this wave of saffron communalism. Not the liberals among the majority Hindus, not our great institutions and, least of all, Muslims. Nothing could be lazier, more cowardly, illiberal or unfair to all three. Let me try to explain.
I said in a television discussion on NDTV 24×7 last week that India was not a secular country because only its minorities wished it to be secular. India is secular because its Hindu majority wants it to be so. I said, also, that if I were an Indian Muslim, I couldn’t be faulted for thinking sometimes that both sides on the secular divide in this election were hell bent on fighting their ideological battle to the last Muslim. It drew quite a bit of comment and I think it deserves a more detailed elaboration than a sound bite would allow.
This is how the picture would look to an Indian Muslim. First, the BJP, it would seem, has accepted that Muslims won’t vote for it, and it couldn’t care less. It would simply contest this election with, to take liberties with a golfing metaphor, a handicap of 15 per cent. The BJP is therefore not even bothering to address Muslim concerns and fears specifically. The “secular” group, led by the Congress, on the other hand, is pitchforking India’s Muslims into this unequal fight against the BJP. As if the responsibility of saving our secularism lies with our Muslim minority. An Indian Muslim would find it both unfair and worrying.
To say that only Muslim consolidation can stop Modi, or at least limit his mandate, is unfair to the Hindu majority as well. It is as if all of the Hindus have joined the RSS and have no faith in constitutional secularism. This is rubbish. Because if such was the case, Modi would probably equal Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 mandate of 415, if not better it. No such thing is about to happen. The most generous opinion poll estimates put the NDA’s vote share in the mid-30s, which accounts for just over a third of India’s Hindus. The remaining majority will be voting for others. And most of these 30-odd per cent would vote for the BJP/NDA not because they want to build grand temples, spank the Muslims or banish them to Pakistan. They will be voting in search of an alternative to the weakest, most incompetent, uncommunicative and incoherent full-term government in our history. Having voted in the UPA so enthusiastically for a second time, they are going elsewhere, in search of jobs, more buying power, stability and confidence. To insinuate that this mass of Hindus will be voting Modi because they have suddenly turned communal is unfair to them.
It is also intellectually lazy, morally cynical and politically disastrous. Put more simply, it is a bit like saying that Hindus have been voting for the Congress and other “secular” forces all these decades because they were not given a convincing saffron option. India gave itself a secular, liberal constitution because a vast majority of all its people, in fact almost unanimously, determined that this was the finest formulation for nation-building in a land as diverse and complex as ours. The Constituent Assembly had participation from across the many ideological divides. The document it drafted has now acquired the status of scripture and nobody in mainstream politics dares to question it. The man credited with leading that process, Ambedkar, has been added to our pantheon of all-party gods.
It is also unique. Unlike Western countries, where secularism means living with one or two faiths, Christianity and Judaism or Islam, India is a deeply religious country, and peopled by every religion invented, including the many thousand variants of Hinduism. As Wendy Doniger says in her magisterial book, The Hindus — the one Penguin pulped, quivering with fear in the face of a man called Dina Nath Batra — Hinduism is the “Ellis Island of religions”. Pluralism and diversity are deeply ingrained in it, “the lines between different beliefs and practices are permeable membranes”. That is why, she says, there are countless more narratives of Hinduism than the ones defined by Sanskrit, Brahmins and the Gita. And if I may dare to make my own risky addition to that list of defining three, by the RSS or VHP.
In a country where the determinants of identity change every 10 miles, from religion to caste to language to ethnicity to culture, tribe, sub-tribe and region, secularism is the glue needed to keep it all together. It isn’t just a charter to protect Muslims. The Hindus need it as much as them. That is all the more reason why India is secular, and must remain so.
Indian Muslims can, in fact, complain that over the decades, they have been taken for granted and offered a minimal political deal in return for their votes: to give them physical protection from the Hindu right. I know some will argue that even that promise was never really kept. But the truth is, the Muslim vote has been hostage to fear. Explaining why he had joined the BJP now, M.J. Akbar said to me that in the “Congress/secular” view so far, the Indian Muslim had to conform to one of three stereotypes: the decadent, decrepit feudal with sherwani fraying at the collar, as portrayed in the 1960s’ “Muslim socials” like Mere Mehboob, a riot victim like the crying Gujarati with folded hands in that infamous 2002 portrait, or a petty criminal in the image of Haji Mastan, even if sometimes with a sacrificing heart of gold.
Since he hasn’t delivered, despite my asking him several times to put this in an article, I am borrowing the idea. That mainstream, liberal politics in India has deliberately failed to treat the Muslim as a mainstream Indian. The extreme and most shameful manifestation of this was Azam Khan’s claim that the peaks of Kargil were conquered not by Hindu soldiers of our army, but by Muslims with the battle cry of Allah-o-Akbar. This is not a secular claim, but amounts to spreading communalism to the one institution that remains so secular, the army. It is true that Muslim soldiers fought alongside the Hindus and the rest in Kargil. Two of the battalions with mostly Muslim soldiers, 12 JAK LI and 22 Grenadiers, suffered heavy casualties.
But to now view them in isolation, through a sectarian prism, and pit them competitively against their fellow soldiers from other faiths is not secularism. It isn’t even pseudo-secularism. It is the most cynical, anti-minority communalism. That is why this newspaper and this writer had objected so furiously to the Sachar Committee’s misplaced idea of investigating the recruitment patterns and numbers of Muslims in the army (‘Kitne Musalman hain?’, National Interest, IE, February 18, 2006, iexp.in/FC79596). The fundamental values of our secular Constitution sustain because of our institutions, which are trusted as fair and secular. The Election Commission can send Imran Masood to jail, ban Azam Khan and Amit Shah and then let one off with an apology. Some will call it unfair but nobody calls it communal. The Supreme Court, the UPSC, the armed forces, the mainstream media and the public intellectual class are, by and large, liberal and secular. Of course, these institutions will be tested by such a fundamental ideological shift on Raisina Hill.
But that is why the founding fathers invented them. We need to strengthen them, preserve their credibility and freedoms to protect and strengthen our secularism. It is too hasty to write its epitaph. Or to hunt for a sabbatical to a liberal campus on the American east coast until some post-Modi secular resurrection. I am conscious that this column is being written on Good Friday. But that is purely coincidental.

http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/national-interest-secularism-is-dead/99/

NB- There are four observations here that are crucial to Gupta’s argument and with which I agree:

the truth is, the Muslim vote has been hostage to fear - true

mainstream, liberal politics in Indiahas deliberately failed to treat the Muslim as a mainstream Indian - also true (but wait, has the Sangh Parivar always treated Muslims as mainstream Indians? Has it repudiated its revered ideologues, Hegdewar, Golwalkar and Savarkar?)

To insinuate that this mass of Hindus will be voting Modi because they have suddenly turned communal is unfair - yes, it would be very unfair. Who has made this extreme proposition? Is this sentence not itself an insinuation?

Indiawas not a secular country because only its minorities wished it to be secular. Indiais secular because its Hindu majority wants it to be so - Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. What do the ideologues of Hindu Rashtra want - as per their explicit utterances for eight decades? The crux of the matter is whether they take pride in or are disgusted by Indian liberality. Or do they play both sides of the divide as per convenience?

Gupta concludes with these remarks: The Supreme Court, the UPSC, the armed forces, the mainstream media and the public intellectual class are, by and large, liberal and secular. Of course, these institutions will be tested by such a fundamental ideological shift on Raisina Hill. But that is why the founding fathers invented them. We need to strengthen them, preserve their credibility and freedoms to protect and strengthen our secularism. It is too hasty to write its epitaph. Or to hunt for a sabbatical to a liberal campus on the American east coast until some post-Modi secular resurrection.

The remark about hunting for a liberal campus in the USAis uncalled for. Verbal sneering is sadly quite common now in political debate, as in terms like liberal chatterati, sickulars etc., (And yes, leftists do it regularly as well). But it is a digression.

The elephant in the drawing room is the refusal by many opinion-makers to address the violence and brutality that has rampaged through the country for decades. They don't see it - worse, they don't think it a big deal. In addition the tendency is to cast all debate on communal matters in a narrowly partisan mould – as if we are all compelled to range ourselves on this or that side of the great Hindu Muslim divide. Gupta is addressing himself to those who are capable of heading to a campus on the 'east coast'. But they aren't the ones in refugee camps, in Muzzafarnagar, Jammu, or Juhapura & Vatwa. Both Gupta and others of similar inclination remind us of India's strong democratic traditions and institutions etc. And the great heart of Hinduism. But these great institutions/traditions have been systematically attacked, precisely by communalists of all hues, and other authoritarian tendencies. Over the decades, we have been unable to uphold the minimal requirements of a civilized polity – protection of life (Article 21 of the Indian Constitution). The pattern of vigilante killings began in the run-up to Independence, in the mid 1940’s and became a genocidal outrage in 1947-48. Leaving that aside, there have been a series of such killings from late 1960’s (Jamshedpur, Ahmedabad, etc) leading up to 1984, 1989 (Malliana/Hashimpura), 1989-90 (Kashmiri Pandit killings), 1990-92 (Babri Masjid related violence), 2002, 2008 (Kandhamal) etc. Not to mention massive human rights violations in Kashmir and the North East and the Samjhauta Express bombing.

The moderate and liberal Hinduism that (as Gupta reminds us) is the bulwark of Indian secularism, is under attack by precisely those who are mobilising like never before to seize power for a Savarkarite programme. Let us remember who murdered Mahatma Gandhi, and why. (Please read The music of humanity). Why is this irrelevant to democratic concerns? We learn from the pages of the Indian Express that its owner prides himself on having been the 'invisible publisher' of the RSS journal Organiser. (Why was he invisible?) I'd like to know Gupta's views on the RSS and its activities. As an aside, is it likely that any other top leader could be caught on tape encouraging the kind of violence referred to by Swami Aseemanand and be let off so lightly? Why has the mainstream media blacked out Manoj Mitta's book on the post-Godhra investigations. By all means refute it, but why ignore it? How and why is Sanjay Baru's book more significant? 

The term fascism is rhetorically misused. There are some of us who do our best not to misuse it. (I suspect that the public rebuttals about fascism are deliberately over-simplified). The notion that fascism may be properly recognised only when it seizes absolute power is dangerously misleading. This is because its hold on power arises primarily from intimidation and ideological influence, and is exhibited at the very first moment that organs of state tolerate or enable illegal and violent activities of fanatical cadre or crowds (See the first few paragraphs of A brief history of Indian fascism). There is indeed a link between the communal violence of the INC & the RSS; a seamless thread between 1984, 2002 & 2008. That's why we need to examine ideological links over & beyond organisational ones. The bane of political analysis today is the reduction of all matters to a partisan dimension. I have expanded on this theme here. What we have is a genocidal consensus. (Read the 1948 Convention on Genocide to see if the term is applicable to India). This consensus will obtain massive institutional re-inforcement by Modi's accession to power. 

Doubtless there will be talk of forgetting the past (its ironical that those who ask us to forget 2002 never let us forget 1528). There is a process at work, playing itself out over time. As Gupta says, there are safeguards. But no one is arguing as if yesterday we had democracy & the day after tomorrow we shall have fascism. Nevertheless, the polity will undergo a big change & the RSS will accelerate its quotidian erosion of democracy & liberal-democratic values. This is already happening: Evict Muslims from Hindu areas: Pravin Togadia . And here is news of a protest, that once more, saw persons of BJP persuasion denouncing Prashant Bhushan as a Pakistani agent. The BJP may well distance itself - but did not Modi himself use similar language about the defence minister and Kejriwal, recently? Did he not even allege that rhinoceri were being culled in Assam to make room for Bangladeshi's? Do such utterances not signify an assault on the mind? How do we know that any new dispensation headed by the Parivar will not sabotage the already frail justice system? 

As regards secularism, when Gupta announces that it is dead, surely he means it is dead – or deserves to die - as practiced, rather than that it is a useless doctrine in itself? (Read some analyses of this debate here). A modern state cannot inscribe religious dogma in its statutory laws. Nor can it allow state institutions to be used for promoting agendas of communal mobilization. Let us reflect on whether or not this been happening in India. That is why, with Allah inserted into the statutes of Pakistanand Bangladesh, these two state systems can never function with civility. ( I hope I am proven wrong, but if communal ideas are placed in the statutes, communal ideologies have already won half the battle.) That is why the Turkish PM Erdogan, with his insistence that a Muslim cannot co-exist with secularism, and that sovereignty belongs to Allah, is leading his country towards even greater disasters than it has already undergone. So I hope that in saying secularism is dead, Gupta does not wish it to be so.

I wish to ask those who think the term 'fascism' is inapplicable here because of the strength of our institutions and/or Hindu liberality, a simple question: how would you describe the situation from the standpoint of someone who has been mutilated or killed or seen their loved ones murdered? Is 'fascism' irrelevant to them too? Or has it not come to fruition? Can they console themselves with the thought that our civilisation and institutions will survive? 

The single most important matter is the maintenance of a genuinely neutral criminal justice system. Can we honestly say our justice system has been clean and neutral when it comes to communal killings? The BJP and the Sangh Parivar castigate the Communal Violence Bill on account of it allegedly being ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘pro-minority’. But what frightens them - and the Indian police and the bureaucracy - the most is the principle of chain of command responsibility that is embedded in the proposed law. What this implies is that if violence is not controlled in good time, not only the murderous mobs and lowly constables guilty of dereliction of duty, but the senior police officers and civil servants and instigating masterminds too will be held accountable, tried and punished if need be, for what they did and what they failed to do.

Here’s a list of judicial commissions of inquiry into communal carnages (appointed by different state governments):
Jagmohan Reddi Commission (Ahmedabad, 1969)
D.P. Madon Commission (Bhiwandi, Jalgaon and Mahad, 1970) 
Joseph Vithayathil Commission (Tellicherry, 1971) 
Jitendra Narain Commission (Jamshedpur, 1979) 
Venugopal Commission (Kanyakumari, 1982)
B.N. Srikrishna Commission (Mumbai, 1992-93) 

There are two common threads in all these reports: one, the criminal role of Hindutva organisations in masterminding the violence; two, the partisan, anti-minority (Muslim, Christian, Sikh) conduct of the police. Two examples: 

Here was not only a failure of intelligence and culpable failure to suppress the outbreak of violence but (also) deliberate attempts to suppress the truth from the Commission, especially the active participation in the riots of some RSS and Jana Sangh leaders." 
Justice Jagmohan Reddy Commission on the Hindu-Muslim Ahmedabad riots, 1969

The RSS sets itself up as the champion of what it considers to be the rights of Hindus against minorities. It has taken upon itself to teach the minorities their place and if they are not willing to learn their place to teach them a lesson."


Justice Venugopal Commission on the Hindu-Christian Tellicherry riots of 1971.



The act of murder and the experience of violent hatred puts an end to speech, to humanity itself. It bifurcates time into the lives of those who may hope and the lives that were cut down. A chasm appears, even in ordinary life, across which it becomes impossible to communicate. With every orgy of communal violence, the chasm is widened. That is what the state and the communalists feed upon, into perpetuity. Fascism for some, democracy for others. Until finally there remains no difference.

All of us concerned by the current turn in Indian politics are by no means prophets of doom. For my part, I have argued for some time that the Indian constitution is by no means a dead letter, and needs to be defended, even though the rights promised by it to all Indians are increasingly denied to millions of citizens. I have also argued against apocalyptical theorisations of fascism, and pointed towards the interplay of ideas, movements, outbreaks of violence and state complicity. (See The law of killing - a brief history of Indian fascismBut when we reassure ourselves of the strength of Indian democracy, let us also remember the long line of corpses along the path towards self-proclaimed Indian greatness. These were people denied the most fundamental protection, the most basic of rights - that of staying alive.

After World War Two, sundry German philosophers who had lived through the venomous speeches and hooliganism, seen Kristallnacht in 1938, (when Jewish homes and shops were smashed all over Germany), said they never knew. Some of our opinion makers today speak as if they have no idea of the relentless propaganda, the dark and open threats, the Togadias & Singhals and Amit Shah's on the side of a beaming 'moderate' Modi. The bloodletting that has happened for so many years, the tens of thousands killed (of all communities), the failures of justice, the vigilante groups spewing hate and weaponry, the ghettofication, the forced migrations, the experience of being a refugee in your own country. We have no idea. 

We speak about super-powerhood and greatness as if all these things did not exist, as if all the innocents who lost their lives were so much biomass. I have no hesitation in saying that this cynical disregard for human life runs across the political spectrum, left, right and centre. I am not as sanguine as Shekhar Gupta (whom I respect as a journalist) about the strength of Indian political institutions. I believe we have come to this pass precisely because they have been successfully undermined. All I hope is that at some point we will begin to speak with less self-deceit about the great Indian faultline.

See also

Evict Muslims from Hindu areas: Pravin Togadia 



Hannah Arendt: Reflections on Violence (1969)

Hannah Arendt’s conception of Sovereignty

WOLE SOYINKA: Religion Against Humanity

On 'revolution': Closing the Circle (Frontier Vol 45, No. 7, Aug 26 -Sep 1, 2012)


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