Mulayam Singh Yadav wears secularism on his sleeve. So how does he square that with the communal murder and mayhem in Muzaffarnagar that has already cost 30 lives? Or indeed in several other pockets of Uttar Pradesh over the last one year even as his son and sundry relatives preside over the administration in Lucknow?
It’s simple. For Mulayam, and for his fellow travellers across the political spectrum, secularism is not as much a constitutional principle as an instrument of political power. In principle, all that secularism requires is a complete detachment of the state and religion, even as the state protects every individual’s right to worship their own faith. In India, the state has always dabbled in religion, whether by subsidising Haj pilgrims, passing legislation on religion-based civil law or by managing temple trusts. Secularism in India is practised quite differently, as the matter of protecting the life and property of minority communities against alleged majoritarian excess.
Now, the protection of the life and property of every individual (including minorities) irrespective of religion and other such identities is a different principle from secularism. Syria’s Bashar-al-Assad is staunchly secular but doesn’t hesitate to brutalise a section of his citizens. Saddam Hussein was secular too, but cared little for his citizens' life and limb. And then there are countries, like the United Kingdom, which are not secular (The Queen is the Head of the Church of England) but where individual and religious freedom is a reality.
For secularism to serve its political purpose in India there needs to be a perpetual fear in the minds of minorities about a potential threat to their lives and property from the majority. It suits politicians of all colour to allow this fear to simmer because they can then fashion themselves as saviours. That is why the Samajwadi Party has been pussyfooting about the communal violence in its backyard for several months.
Needless to say, this is a dangerous game. Politicians assume that they can close the lid when the simmer comes to boil. Mulayam Singh Yadav’s recent admonishing of Akhilesh Yadav is a case in point as things began to get out of hand in Muzaffarnagar. But at some point, like in Muzaffarnagar, the toll (in terms of human lives) begins to rise sharply as violence cascades.
Politics is the art of the possible. The Samajwadi Party is desperate. It has singularly failed to provide governance in UP. Its political trajectory is heading south. But it wants to see itself as a King-maker after the next General Election. It is, therefore, trying to shore up its core vote among the state's Muslims. The Durga Shakti Nagpal episode last month was a perfect example of such cynical politics, where an honest IAS office was painted by politicians as a communal fanatic who destroyed the wall of a mosque.
Unfortunately, the run up to the General Election will witness more of this dangerous game. Beyond Mulayam and the SP, the Congress, also desperate after a second term spent in corruption and misgovernance, will build up a fear factor around the BJP and their Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi and then claim to be the sole guardian of ‘secularism’. This, they hope, will consolidate minority votes for Congress. Of course, Modi and the BJP carry the baggage of majoritarianism and they haven’t ever dumped it convincingly enough, giving the SP and Congress a window to exploit. Still, let’s face it. The SP and Congress don't practise true secularism. They just use it as an instrument of political power. In the end it is just communalism by a different name.