Rediscovering Janmashtami: Congress' grand strategy to counter Hindutva
The Congress can’t treat the perversity bedevilling secularism unless it simultaneously rebuilds the party apparatus.
A personal tragedy has pushed back the Congress from immediately implementing its politically significant decision of celebrating all important religious festivals at the party State committee offices. Till now, the only religious function the Congress organised was, believe it or not, the iftar party during the month of Ramzan.
It was to implement this decision that the Delhi unit of the Congress had scheduled a Bhajan Sandhya on 17 August, the eve of Janmasthami. But the death of someone close to Delhi Congress president Arvind Singh Lovely in Amritsar had him rush there, leading to the cancellation of the bhajan programme.
The attempt of the Congress at image-makeover will now have to wait till the next important Hindu festival.
Underlying it is the recognition of the need to correct the perception among the Hindus that the Congress is partial towards religious minorities. Congress leader AK Antony has cited this as an important reason for the party’s deplorable performance in the last elections.
The decision to celebrate festivals of all religious communities is significant because it testifies to the belated realisation among Congressmen of their role in perverting the idea of secularism for securing electoral majorities. In reimagining secularism, the Congress hopes to reverse its decline.
However, to achieve the goal of revival, the Congress should remember that it was organizational decay that prompted its leaders, in the first place, to warp the idea of secularism spawned during the anti-colonial movement. In other words, the Congress can’t treat the perversity bedevilling secularism unless it simultaneously rebuilds the party apparatus.
But first, the different ideas of secularism which dominated the political discourse of the last century.
There was the idea of Mahatma Gandhi, who was deeply religious in both his personal and public life. He argued it was his intense religiosity which had inculcated in him a respect for other religions, a respect which made him include non-Hindus in his conception of the Indian nation.
He, thus, argued, “If Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in a dreamland. The Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis and the Christians who have made India their homes are fellow-countrymen.” Gandhi was an unabashed Hindu, not hesitating to invoke religious symbolism for socially broadening the anti-colonial movement.
No doubt, Gandhi influenced the Indian state’s attitude towards different religious communities, best described as Sarva Dharma Sambhava, or equal respect for all religions. Equal respect also implied the State was to maintain equidistance from all religions, whose followers were guaranteed the right to profess, practice and propagate their faith.
In this conception, India is, to use the phrase of a social scientist, a salad bowl, in which different religious communities mingle but maintain their separate identities. But they are Indians because they share a common culture, bearing the imprints of its geography and history over the centuries.
This culture is rooted not in a specific religion, but is composite in nature, a veritable medley of diverse elements borrowed from different traditions, whether language, religion or ethnicity. The lynchpin of this pluralistic culture is toleration. These ideas were formulated by Nehru, who was religious neither in public nor in private life.
In contrast to Gandhi and Nehru’s ideas about the Indian’s identity is that of Hindu nationalists, many of whom banded together to form the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. They want India to be a melting pot, in which all communities lose their distinct identities to become part of Hindu, not Indian, culture. In their conception, the Indian and the Hindu are coterminous, a point RSS chief Mohan Bhagwant has been harping upon.
Further, the Hindu – and, therefore, Indian – is one whose fatherland is also his or her holy-land, thus excluding Muslims and Christians from the Indian nationhood. They can be included in the Indian (rather Hindu) nation through assimilation that entails foregoing their distinct religious identity, their personal laws, accepting that Indian civilisation is Hindu civilisation, and as far as Muslim go, surrendering mosques which are said to have been built at the site of temples.
You don’t have to be politically savvy to figure out that the RSS’s idea of nationhood, or Hindu nationalism, is in ascendancy, evident from the BJP mustering a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha after 30-long years This has prompted several analysts to argue that the pull of Nehruvian secular nationalism has weakened as it is not rooted in the Indian socio-cultural milieu.
Such a sweeping explanation, however, ignores the political dynamics through which the lure of secularism was diminished.
Undoubtedly, and ironically, the decline of secularism is linked to the rise of Indira Gandhi, her centralizing tendencies, and the decaying of its organizational apparatus under her leadership. Is it a mere coincidence that loss of power in several States in 1967 – billed as the first serious challenge to the party post-Independence – was followed by a rash of riots from 1967 onwards?
From Ranchi to Nagpur, from Malegoan to Ahmedabad, to several towns in Uttar Pradesh, rightwing groups and a clutch of Congress leaders conspired to set India aflame.
These riots were triggered to craft electoral majorities. But communal violence as a tool for mobilisation was cast aside as Indira Gandhi became the principal vote-gatherer, riding the following she built through a victorious war over Pakistan and popular policies like bank nationalization.
She became the party; the regional satraps either quit the Congress or were reduced to pygmies. From village to state, Congress committees began to languish, no longer the channel of communication between the grassroots workers and the leaders.
The disastrous post-Emergency elections conveyed to Indira Gandhi the limits of her appeal – the minorities, like so many other social groups, moved away from the Congress. Insecure, unwilling to rebuild the party or democratize it, she took to playing the Hindu card on her return to power in 1980.
This was most visible in the cynical manner in which Indira Gandhi turned the Punjab problem into a communal conflict between Sikhs and Hindus. She nurtured Bhindranwale to thwart the Akalis, mistakenly believing she would eventually tame the radical Sikh spewing secessionism.
Bhindranwale tapped Punjab’s receptacle of disaffection, and with more than a little help from Pakistan, spawned the kind of terrorism India hadn’t known till then.
Secessionism fanned anxiety about India’s “sacred geography”, whether it was to go undergo another spell of division. In just a few months of 1984, India teetered on the precipice – first, the Army stormed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which the Sikhs perceived as humiliation inflicted on them by Hindu Indira. Then Indira Gandhi was assassinated and the grisly retaliation against the Sikhs ensued.
With the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, the Hindu card acquired national resonance. Communal polarisation was no longer a matter of electoral tactics pursued in select constituencies. The aim was to consolidate Hindus, at least across North Indian, into voting as a religious community.
In fact, even before the storming of the Golden Temple, Indira Gandhi had openly pandered to Hindu sentiments on her tours of UP and Kashmir. Hers had been a preparation to ensure the Congress didn’t get battered in the election due for 1985.
Otherwise too, the 1980s was a decade of tumult, arising from the Indian state’s confusion about the meaning of secularism. In this period occurred deadly riots in Meerut, Moradabad, Nellie in Assam, Biharsharif and Bhagalpur in Bihar. Instead of providing Muslims security, the Congress sought to appease the community through the overturning of the Shah Bano judgement of the Supreme Court, and a ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.
These measures only aggravated the anger and disenchantment of Hindus, simmering since the Punjab problem. They too had to be appeased – the locked doors of the Babri Masjid/Ram Janmabhoomi were thrown open and secularism bolted out. This was eloquently symbolised by Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to kick-off his 1989 election campaign from the district of Faizabad, which is where Ayodhya is located.
No wonder then, from 1990, the BJP began to rise steadily, scaling a new summit in the last Lok Sabha elections. Indeed, its growth couldn’t have been possible without the Congress leaders eroding the very meaning that its illustrious leaders had imbued secularism with.
On the one hand, Indira Gandhi’s use of the Hindu card legitimized the Sangh’s Hindu nationalism, which had been discredited because of the involvement of its proponents in the assassination of Gandhi. On the other, Rajiv Gandhi’s policies stoked the anxiety of Hindus, of them feeling aggrieved, rightly or wrongly, that their religious sentiments are ignored. This is the section the BJP addresses itself to.
It’s against this backdrop the decision of the Congress to host all religious functions has to be looked at. Is this its way of demonstrating its respect for all religions, an argument against those who accuse it of favouring Muslims over Hindus?
Or is the Congress tacitly accepting that Nehru’s secularism has to be blended with Gandhi’s religiosity to counter the BJP? Is it the party’s first baby step to enter the religious realm to challenge the BJP’s appropriation of this space?
If yes, it will be a tightrope walk for the Congress, for the line between the Gandhi-Nehru secularism and Hindutva is a thin one. In Gujarat, the Congress tried to counter the BJP through a strategy which degenerated into soft Hindutva.
Again, in Karnataka, the Congress raised an outcry against the BJP government’s attempt to saffronise school textbooks. The revision carried out under the current Congress government there, from all accounts, is cosmetic, reflecting its inability to engage the Hindus creatively.
Ultimately, as the Congress tries to redefine the idea of secularism, it must keep in mind two defining aspects of the Indian political reality. One, you need an organisation to take your message to the people. A party needs footsoldiers to win the battle of ideas not just in TV studios, but also on the ground.
Second, the Congress must remember that Gandhi managed to straddle both the temporal and the sacred because he was a devout Hindu whose use of religious idioms had a certain moral authority. As social psychologist Ashish Nandy wrote in his seminal essay, An Anti-secular Manifesto, those who don’t believe in religion in private but do so in public life are most inclined to using religion as a tool, a means, for achieving their profane political goals.
This is what the BJP leaders are guilty of. This path the deracinated leaders of the Congress might too end up taking.
(A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, HarperCollins India, releasing September 2014)
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