Debating India


Riding The ’Secular’ Rath


Sunday 9 May 2004, by MANNATHUKKAREN*Nissim

Secularization of the BJP? Nothing could be further from the truth. The verdict in Muvattupuzha will tell us whether the Christians in Kerala will capitulate to the spin-doctors of Hindutva, or deny the legitimacy it craves for...

The noted scholar Benedict Anderson in his famous book on the origins of nationalism, The Imagined Communities had pointed out how the pre-bourgeois classes did not need language to construct alliances:

"If the ruler of Siam took a Malay noblewoman as a concubine, or if the King of England married a Spanish woman - did they ever talk seriously together?"

If one substitutes ideology for language, one can get a fair picture of the promiscuity of political parties in the ?shining India’ of ours. It is this promiscuity that political commentators across the spectrum of the Indian media have (mistakenly) celebrated as the secularization of the BJP. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the last two decades we have seen a seething debate in the academic and non-academic world about the relevance of secularism in a ?traditional’ and ?religious’ society like that of India. In fact, the BJP rode the crest of success by demolishing - what in its eyes was - the myth of Nehruvian (read Western) secularism. But BJP’s descent into more perverse forms of ?pseudo-secularism’ is something that has not received enough attention.

If BJP’s alliance with the National Conference was the greatest of ironies (people in Kashmir saw through this chimera eventually), the induction of P. C. Thomas into the union ministry last year made one feel aghast at the brazenness of the ruling classes. For Thomas represents the Indian Federal Democratic (sic) Party (IFDP), a unique entity in the nation’s political history: it was probably the first time a parliamentary party was formed by MPs from various parties (and also independents) and regions as varied as Kerala, Bihar and Dadra and Nagar Haveli.

The other known face in the party was Pappu Yadav, one of the leading members of the Bihar mafia who has at least twelve charges of murder (including the killing of Ajit Sarkar, CPI [M] MLA) and kidnapping against him. The BJP, by inducting this rag-tag formation into the NDA, truly proved that it is a party with a ?difference’. The vacuity of a party like the IFDP was reiterated when recently most of its MPs other than Thomas left it to join other parties.

The temptation of flaunting its secular credentials through the first Christian member of the cabinet (if we discount the Christianity of George Fernandes) was too much to resist for the BJP. More important was the opportunity to make a headway into Kerala, an electoral barren desert for the BJP. And what better way to accomplish it than dangling the carrot of ministership to the Syrian Christian community, which constitutes a strong 20 percent of the Kerala electorate.

If Advani’s Bharat Uday Yatra rolled onto the streets of Muvattupuzha, a predominantly Christian Lok Sabha constituency, which Thomas has been representing since 1989 (on a Kerala Congress [Mani] ticket), it is not without a reason. Unbeknownst to the rest of the country, the verdict in this constituency, assumes significant national importance.

A victory for Thomas will be the crowning glory on the BJP’s plank of ?positive secularism’, which apparently can only be an attribute of Hinduism. After all, ours is the great civilization that ?happily’ and ?peacefully’ tolerated the invasions from the Greeks to the Mughals. What better advertisement for the BJP than all the Thomases and Sangmas declaring a la Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, "BJP is the only secular party in the country"?

Until recently, Kerala has had a relatively remarkable record of communal harmony (despite the presence of three major world religions), something to which the Left has contributed in no small measure.

The significant influence of communitarian consciousness was always harnessed to the peaceful and democratic pursuit of secular goods thus resulting in what could be called a non-antagonistic communalism.

In this kind of scenario, even confessional parties such as the Muslim League were forced to tone down, if not completely abandon the reliance on the sacred. The pervasiveness of this model saw the unique phenomenon of the BJP/RSS combine reduced to constructing secret alliances with the Congress-led front or transferring votes to the latter (for example, the 1982 and 1991 Assembly elections) in a desperate bid to stop the Left from coming to power. What is galling for the sangh parivar is this status of a political hermaphrodite (to use a term from their own discourse of masculinity) despite the fact that the Kerala has one of the highest RSS cadre-strengths in the country.

However, three decades of RSS activity is finally beginning to ?bear fruit’ (including the provoking into existence of Islamic fundamentalist groups in the nineties). The last decade has seen a shocking incursion of the Hindutva agenda into the socio-cultural sphere through the various front organizations of the sangh targeting sections like children, tribals etc. and areas like education, arts and literature, theatre and temple renovation. The public sphere is now awash with religious symbols, motifs and ?spiritual’ gurus. The communal violence in Marad in the last two years was an outcome of the long process of erosion of the non-antagonistic model of communalism.

Nevertheless, the task of making Hindutva the political alternative is still an immensely difficult one in the highly polarized political atmosphere of Kerala—it is the only major state in the country that still does not have a BJP MLA or an MP, a remarkable trough in the high tide of Hindutva. Here, the alliance with the IFDP allows the BJP to piggyback on Thomas’ popularity and gain the necessary legitimacy. This is a proven strategy that has worked in other states. Therefore, the verdict in Muvattupuzha will be of crucial importance to the future direction of state politics too.

History and common sense tells us that it would be a tough ask for Thomas to win in a three-cornered contest in Kerala, but reports from the constituency indicate that there is substantial support emerging for him among the Syrian Christians.

While the various factions of the Kerala Congress representing the latter had always dreamed of the power and benefits that would flow their way if they were to enter into an alliance with a BJP in government, the Kerala sensibility which still abhors any kind of religious extremism prevented them from making the final jump.

However, in the present scenario, there is an increasing attraction for the BJP among the Syrian Christians. The prosperous sections among them are enthused by the BJP emerging as a better enforcer of the neo-liberal agenda, which equates progress and development solely with capitalism and economic growth. P.C.Thomas echoed this sentiment during Advani’s yatra:

"only BJP can save the nation and only a BJP government can bring development to the country".

Advani himself in his speeches throughout Kerala criticized the state for becoming a "prisoner of its political ideologies" and thereby lagging behind in "progress" and "development". In this discourse of crude neo-liberalism and market-led Hindutva, the building of an extensive welfare state in Kerala (the likes of which have been hardly achieved elsewhere in the third world), does not even qualify as either progress or development.

The tendency to view the economic in isolation from all other aspects of human social life and glorify it is a pernicious tendency of our times. In Kerala, this is seen in the celebration, even by the liberal media, of the ?efficiency’ of someone like O.Rajagopal, RSS man and union minister (presently Lok Sabha candidate from Thiruvananthapuram), in fighting for Kerala’s share of the economic pie at the centre. This totally ignores the role of Rajagopal’s ideology and its culpability in the destruction of the secular fabric of Kerala.

Christians in Kerala may justify the new bonhomie between them and the BJP as purely motivated by the secular motive of economic development, and thus conforming to the Kerala model of non-antagonsitic communalism which has subordinated the sacred to the secular. On the one hand, this is a misunderstanding stemming from the inability to recognize the Janus-faced nature of the BJP - that even when it seeks to appropriate the centrist space of the Indian polity, it is dependent on the right wing fanatic cabal. On the other hand, it shows the increasing identification of Christians with the Hindu demonization and vilification of Islam parallel to the Christian-Jewish alliance against Muslims in the world stage.

In the psyche of a middle class Syrian Christian, the threat of Hindutva and the violence perpetrated by it is a malady that afflicts only the northern parts of the country. It denotes the sheer fact that communal violence and its associated history is something that is physically far removed from his/her immediate reality (although, it is increasingly less so).

At the same time, and this is the tragedy of the times we are living in, it shows the moral estrangement from the plight of the distant stranger, not just from the Muslims and Hindus who are victims of communal violence, but also from his/her own co-religionists frequently subjected to violent attacks by Hindu fundamentalists in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and so on (the ongoing violence in Jhabua is an example). This kind of moral apathy was demonstrated in the muted protest against the Gujarat events.

The mad rush to align with the BJP across the country portends a dangerous tendency in our polity — the willingness to legitimize the unspeakable horrors that have been wrought upon by the fascist forces in the last decade and more. Sadly, even the minority communities, are imbibing the ?art of forgetting’ systematically fostered by the forces of cultural and religious nationalism.

Nothing is more shocking than to find that one of the worst carnages in the post-independence history of our country — the state-sponsored genocide in Gujarat — does not figure, even as a foot-note, in the election debates. The BJP’s shift to the discourse of bijli, sadak and paani does not signify the secularization of the party, but rather an attempt at evasion of responsibility for the communalization of society and its horrendous outcomes. The discourse of religious nationalism is never given up, but lurks underneath the discourse of development, waiting to erupt and cause another Gujarat.

Even development, as noted before, connotes something else for the BJP. The vision document of the party gives telling evidence of its Goebbelsian propaganda and sleight of hand which dexterously equates development with achieving ?Great Power’ status on the world stage. Never mind that for the time being we are the ?running dogs’ of American imperialism. The party leaders crow about the world stature that nuclear India has acquired in the five years of NDA rule, and how five more years will see it attaining the ?glory’ that our ?great’ civilization was always destined for.

Never mind that our Human Development Index ranking has fallen from 124 to 127 or that the per-capita food availability for the year 2000- 01 was lower than during the period of the Bengal famine!

There is some food for thought when the media here in N.America, which usually devotes not more than cursory space for the largest democracy in the world, decided to feature Lalji Tandon in the headlines. After all, it is not every day that people die for something which cost less than a dollar (the cost of each saree was Rs.40)! However, it is not a surprising fact considering that in the priority agenda drawn by the BJP, poverty alleviation comes fifth. So what if the masses do not have food to eat or sarees to wear, at least their ?lives’ are safe under the nuclear umbrella? All this shows that in the BJP version of secularization basic livelihood issues of the poorest 40 crore Indians do not feature at all.

BJP’s recent wooing of Christians and other minorities and its willingness to align with anyone and everyone is only seemingly secular. In reality, it is an abuse of the fundamental principles of secularism. One need not look beyond the irony of a Narendra Modi showering praises on Irfan Pathan to understand this. Commentators, who have gone to town delineating a split between the moderate party and the hardcore RSS/VHP/Bajrang Dal troika, obfuscate the fact that the BJP is reaping electorally what the sangh parivar has sown culturally. The Hinduisation of adivasis and the BJP’s stunning electoral success in the adivasi belt of Central India is the classic example of this. Pray, where was the moderate face when fetuses were gouged out and speared by Ram bhakts in Gujarat? The ineradicable role that violence plays in BJP’s success should stop us from harboring any illusions about its benign face.

The ?moderate’ face of the BJP and the shallowness of the media celebration of the same were exposed when the ?sophisticated’ Arun Jaitley, the darling of the middle classes, had the temerity to suggest that the scathing verdict of the Supreme Court in the Best Bakery case was not an indictment of the Gujarat Government! All his education and sophistication could not endow Jaitley with the moral courage needed to condemn the perpetrators of a human tragedy. He unwittingly justified the Supreme Court’s characterization of the ruling political class as the ?modern day Neros’.

Critics who cannot stop gushing at BJP’s downplaying of the issues of Ayodhya and Article 370 in its vision document miss the silent penetration of the Hindu majoritarian agenda into various spheres of civil society in the last decade. Nothing illustrates this more than the case of the young Indian immigrants in Western societies: they are some of the brightest minds, ?modern,’ ?educated’ and at the same time carriers of the most retrograde of ideologies. What unites an IIT professional from the Hindu-Hindi heartland with the Christian doctor from Kerala is their virulent support for the American crusade against Islam.

True secularism does not exist in a vacuum; it can flower only with a simultaneous substantive commitment to democracy, equality, rights and justice. BJP’s record on these is pathetic. Can we can dare to talk of secularism without summoning the courage to look into the eyes of Bilkis Yakub Rasool, who after being gang-raped had to see her two-year old daughter’s head being smashed by the rioters along with the killing of 13 other relatives in Gujarat? BJP’s religious nationalism is neither based on a principle of religious tolerance or on, what Gandhi had identified as a superior principle, the equal respect of all religions. The verdict in Muvattupuzha will tell us whether the Christians in Kerala will capitulate to the spin-doctors of Hindutva, or deny the legitimacy it craves for.


in Outlook India, Thursday, May 6, 2004.

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