Debating India


Advani’s Karachi speech decoded

Wednesday 8 June 2005, by PALSHIKAR*Suhas

The RSS has failed to understand the line of legitimation Mr. Advani has opened up; and the Congress, in its enthusiasm to mock him, has chosen to neglect the challenge this speech has thrown up for it.

LAL KRISHNA Advani’s resignation from the office of president of the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to have overshadowed the issues raised by his June 5 speech in Karachi. In that speech at a function organised by the Karachi Council on Foreign Relations, Economic Affairs and Law, Mr. Advani did three things. He projected himself as a statesman and approved of the ongoing peace process. He formally accepted that Pakistan was a reality and that there could be no going back to history, so the goal of Akhand Bharat, so dear to the diehard follower of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was now redundant. He also obliquely reminded the Pakistan state authorities of their responsibility towards the minorities. All laudable things indeed.

However, Mr. Advani did more than that through his speech. He said Mohammed Ali Jinnah was a secular leader and had a vision of a secular Pakistan; in fact, he quoted extensively from Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947 in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly. While both the Congress and the RSS have failed to grasp the significance of this, the media are playing this up as the great Indian political soap opera.

Two features of the speech have been less noted. One is the invocation of the goal of secularism. The other is the implicit legitimation of the politics of the BJP over the last two decades. The RSS has failed predictably to understand the line of legitimation Mr. Advani has opened up; and the Congress, in its enthusiasm to mock him, has chosen to neglect the intellectual challenge that this speech has thrown up for the Congress.

The evaluation of Jinnah as a secular leader must be seen in the context of Mr. Advani’s own contribution to the lexicon of Indian politics: pseudo-secularism. He has been making a distinction between "secularism" and "pseudo-secularism." It may be recalled that two issues are at the heart of the controversy about secularism in India: one is the basis of nationalism, and the other is the role of religious identity in public life. On these and some other aspects, Mr. Advani would share common ground with Jinnah.

Jinnah and Savarkar

Jinnah was a non-practising Muslim but used religious sentiment as the tool for mobilisation and ultimately upheld religion as the basis of nationhood. Vinayak Damodar Savarkar’s position was closest to Jinnah’s during that period. Savarkar, too, was a non-practising Hindu, in fact a rationalist. However, he too, like Jinnah, approved of religion as the basis of nationhood. Savarkar strongly believed in the mobilisational potential of religion.

However, he fudged the issue by confusing between the Hindu religion and Hindu culture (Hindutva). Although there were differences between the two, (Jinnah was brought up on the staple diet of liberalism while Savarkar operated on the continuum of patriotic nationalism and Hindutva), both Savarkar and Jinnah were products of the modern Western political tradition and knew the limits of religion as the basis for running the state.

Their position was that religion could be the basis of the nation, and once the nation attained statehood, a secular state structure must evolve, though, the cultural ambience could still be dominated by the religion of the majority.

Textbook cases of communalism?

Their understanding of the majority-minority question was mired in the colonial context and, in the case of Jinnah, was situated at the outdated recesses of the liberal democratic framework. Thus, the issue was the sharing of power between the majority and the minority.

On the other hand, the issue was that of representation. Both Savarkar and Jinnah argued that it was possible and necessary that the majority and the minority communities should be politically represented through separate political outfits. This ensured proper representation, sharing of power; and above all, this constituted democracy.

It is in this sense that Jinnah and Savarkar operated in the framework of majority-minority. The politics of both Jinnah and Savarkar represented the distortions possible within the liberal democratic framework. For both, competitive politics meant legitimation of religious identity as the basis of politics.

In this sense, Jinnah and Savarkar would constitute the textbook of communalism in the subcontinent. Mr. Advani and the BJP are the additions to this textbook in its late twentieth century edition.

In order to understand the former Deputy Prime Minister’s approving remarks on Jinnah, it is necessary to keep in mind his own ideological position. Mr. Advani, like Jinnah and Savarkar, is not a devout person in the religious sense of the term. It may not be an exaggeration to say that he belongs to the Savarkar school of Hindu nationalism. Not only Mr. Advani, but a majority among the present day Hindutva politicians would want Hindutva to be the basis of India’s nationhood, also the main influence on India’s public life.

Yet it would be foolhardy to imagine that all of them want to establish a non-secular state in India. Thus, Mr. Advani represents and extends the Savarkar legacy in the context of contemporary India. His remarks about Jinnah incontrovertibly situate him as the representative of Savarkarite Hindu nationalist position.

Mr. Advani and the BJP have always believed in Hindutva as the basis of Indian nationalism. They have used religious identity as the basis for political mobilisation and as a lever for political power. Mr. Advani’s politics ever since his Rathyatra has relied on a majoritarian framework and communalised the political terrain.

His remarks about Jinnah seek to justify all these positions as secular. True enough, the BJP has never challenged the official secular structure of the Indian state. This confusion arises because "secularists" are not clear about the meaning of secularism. Many of them are in fact unaware that in the Indian context secularism is challenged not so much by theocratic ideas as by communal ideas.

According to this idea, the state can be secular, yet the texture of politics, the basis of political competition, can be communal. In praising Jinnah, Mr. Advani has underlined this version of secularism with which he and his party would have no problem.

Congress’ folly

It is unfortunate that the Congress does not understand this link between Jinnah-Savarkar, on the one hand, and Mr. Advani and the present BJP on the other. More unfortunate is the Congress’ complete amnesia about its own history. Ironically today, in their haste to welcome Mr. Advani’s remarks, sections of the Congress have unknowingly approved Mr. Advani’s (Savarkar’s) conception of secularism. This is not a moment for settling political scores or creating confusion in the ranks of the adversary.

The Congress would do well to remember that its secularism, until recently, was based on the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. It hinged on tolerance, liberal sentiment, and respect for diversity. In reacting to the Advani episode, the Congress must remember that the Savarkar-Golwalkar-Advani conception of "We" or "Our Nationhood" defined is in direct contrast to the Gandhi-Nehru conception of Indian nationhood anchored in "We the people of India".

(The author teaches Political Science at the University of Pune. His email id is

See online : The Hindu

SPIP | template | | Site Map | Follow-up of the site's activity RSS 2.0