The BJP’s weaknesses as a political party make it doubly dangerous as far as the non-Hindu minorities of India are concerned.
Of the many liturgies of nationalism in India, the one that has risen to political and rhetorical prominence in recent years bears the unmistakable stamp of a municipal parochialism which, in some of its agendas, is not very different from the cosmopolitan provincialism of the post-September ‘free world’. Because of the convergence of views on the holy war against ‘Islamic terrorism’, which has now been made part of the official business of the rest of the world, vide Resolution 1376 of the normally defunct UN General Assembly, executive functionaries in the world’s largest democracy, elevated to office for no particular expertise save the incendiary lessons learnt on the parade grounds of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), have felt themselves a lot freer use the administrative machinery they command to renew their attacks on Muslim life, property and freedom.
The continuing violence in Gujarat and the enactment of a new ‘anti-terrorism’ legislation, which, even before its ratification by parliament, had been invoked with sectarian selectivity against Muslims, do not just coincide with the new global offensive against Islam. They also closely follow on the heels of the second major fiasco that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies have encountered in two successive rounds of elections to state legislatures in the country. The global onslaught merely provides the indulgent climate in which exceptional violations of fundamental democratic rights can take place. Domestic electoral compulsions supply the immediate and sufficient impulse for both the riots and the legislation and therefore raises ominous questions about the future trajectory of Indian democracy.
The BJP has not renounced it sectarian agendas, a hope entertained by many on the assumption that the compulsions of coalitional governance would push the party to the centre of the political spectrum and hence moderate the fundamentalism of its avowed social programme. The empirical circumstances of the Indian polity militate against the abstract validity of this assumption. The BJP is not a party that accommodates a social diversity the way the Congress Party does and is therefore not compelled by any internal pressure to find an intrinsic balance. In the event, any moderating influence on its programme must come from its allies, who, having locked themselves in a compact of power, have a strictly limited capacity to exert the requisite pressure.
Given the narrow elastic limits of sustainable coalitions, both the communal BJP and its allegedly secular allies device tactical methods of accommodation without having to deviate from their sometimes antagonistic agendas. It is precisely this predicament that expressed itself through convoluted charades during the second half of March. The allies (such as the Trinamool Congress, the Samata Party) vocally asserted their opposition to the BJP’s stealthy attempts to introduce Hindutva agendas, especially when the Attorney General of India pleaded in the supreme court that a temple-related ceremony be allowed on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi premises, currently in the possession of the Uttar Pradesh government. Yet they tacitly concurred with it once their own secular credentials had been adequately displayed for all who cared to see and believe. As Defence Minister George Fernandes, leader of the Samata Party and the ‘convenor’ of the ruling coalition, subsequently conceded, the allies cannot dictate to the BJP on the nature of its relations with the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other fraternal organisations that were at the forefront of the Gujarat riots.
In the light of this inability, or unwillingness, of the allies to enforce even a moderate discipline on the BJP, the party’s most fatal political weakness could well have the most serious repercussions for the safety of India’s Muslim minority in the future. The BJP has at various points in the past, through the efforts of its fraternal organisations, mobilised a significant mass of Hindus to its electoral advantage. But it has failed to consolidate this into a permanent and secure base on which a reasonably stable and moderate policy could have been constructed. That the absence of a continuous mobilisation has eroded the base built up during the first half of the 1990s is evident from the steady decline in the BJP’s electoral performance from 1998 to 2002. The irresponsibility of its politics arises from this particular statistical trend, and therein lies the danger to the Muslims and other minorities of all kinds.
At no time in the past, after coming to power at the Centre, has the BJP’s vituperation against Muslims attained the pitch it has reached after the party’s disastrous performance in the February elections to four state legislatures, including, most importantly, Uttar Pradesh. This menacing attitude was an early recognition of its evaporating base among once-mobilised Hindus. Soon thereafter, the executive body of the RSS issued a veiled warning to all Indian Muslims. A few days later, communal disturbances erupted in Gujarat. And even as BJP stalwarts in New Delhi express inane regrets over the mass killings, RSS functionaries have been unable to contain their glee at the turn of events.
The BJP’s strategy therefore is quite clear, if it has to avoid a repetition of the recent debacle in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. The party’s strategists know from past experience that successful mobilisation leading to worthwhile electoral dividends requires a continuous state of Hindu-Muslim tension that can be sustained over a few years. Consequently, with elections in Gujarat due in the near future and with general elections scheduled for 2004, the foot-soldiers of the BJP’s front organisations can be expected to indulge their ghoulish tastes so that the parent party is furnished the necessary environment and the accessories to repeat the triumphs of the mid-1990s.
Ironically, this is an outcome that suits the ‘secular’ politics of the BJP’s allies as well as many others in the opposition, with the obvious exceptions on the Left. The aggressive cultivation of the Hindu vote by the BJP enables the equally aggressive cultivation of the insecure minority by parties that exclusively cater to specific combinations of castes. The secular constituency is predominantly just an arithmetic outcome of electoral calculations and therefore does not represent a real political commitment to secularism. This raises a further question about the capacity of India’s electoral democracy to create a substantive secular foundation, as opposed to the partial and incidental secular veneer that exists today.
In the pious folklore of liberal fundamentalism there is a casual textbook assumption that competitive politics automatically accommodates all competing social groups of any sizeable numerical strength. There is little in the Indian case to bear out validity of such a mechanical equation, while the recent attacks on the Hindu minority in Bangladesh, by both the major national parties, provide clinching evidence to the contrary (see page 18). The 40-odd years of Congress rule in India rested crucially on the consolidation of the Muslim vote and yet, long before the rise of Hindutva, there was no dearth of anti-Muslim riots under the various Congress regimes both at the Centre and in the states. Clearly, maintaining the party’s protectorate over the minority involved periodic reminders of their permanently insecure status in a Hindu-majority nation. The ritual sacrifice of Muslims was a necessary precondition for the electoral dominance of the Congress. In fact, the latent communalism in the Congress Party’s secularism broke out in all its virulence during the Emergency period.
The semblance of defence of the beleagured minority in India today is a welcome departure from the current global norm of anti-Muslim bigotry. But there is good reason to believe that Indian democracy presently does not go beyond an electoral secularism to which there is no necessarily benign logic. The contingent, often accidental, aspect of the outcomes of such politics are best indicated by the case of Bihar, which under four decades of Congress rule was a notoriously riot-prone state. In the late 1980s Rajiv Gandhi magnanimously redefined the party’s secularism to subsume both Muslim and caste-Hindu agendas, including the fundamentalists trends in both. As a result both groups were alienated from the party, and Bihar, like many other states passed out of the Congress Party’s hands, as a backward caste formation led by Laloo Yadav came to power with the help of the dalit and Muslim communities. In the decade and more since then, the state has not witnessed a single Hindu-Muslim riot, which is no statement on the inherent tolerance of Bihari society, but says much about the administrative investment in the Muslim community, whose loyalty has been secured. In such situation if nothing else, at least lives have not been lost.
On the other hand, it it possible that in certain areas the electoral arithmetic could render the minority vote entirely dispensable. Or, the preoccupations of institutional politics could make the minority temporarily irrelevant to the political calculation, as is evidently the case presently in Tamil Nadu. In the recent vote on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill in the Indian Parliament, both the main rival formations from the state, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, an ally of the BJP at the centre, and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), found it possible to vote in favour of the legislation, which is widely perceived as a law against Muslims. This was because both parties in this instance were competing for the BJP’s favours and hence could dispense altogether with the ‘Muslim sentiment’. Within a few days, communal trouble errupted in the south of the state. The law and order establishment in the state has reacted swiftly, but the damage has already been done.
Because India’s electoral process does not necessarily provide guarantees against the more carnivorous forms of majority mobilisation, there has been a tendency to rely on the two other institutions of Indian democracy – the Supreme Court of India and the media. The former was quick to respond in firmly secular fashion when called upon to make a ruling on the VHP’s immediate plans at Ayodhya. The media’s conduct conduct through the Gujarat riots was more equivocal. But the Supreme Court and the media are both unrepresentative, and are prone to vacillations. They have less stakes in the defense of Indian secularism than the elected representatives.
The Supreme Court, in its ruling on the so-called “undisputed site” at Ayodhya that came up for litigation, categorically asserted the fundamentally unalterable secular character of the polity, which under the existing grim circumstances is no doubt heartening. The problem is that the courts, like Rajiv Gandhi and many others in their time, can quite easily redefine the meaning of secularism. In fact the judicial system has had a none-too-honourable role to play in the Ayodhya dispute. The supreme court has consistently ruled that, pending a final settlement, the original status quo, ie that the disputed mosque and its land should be left as it stood at the point when the dispute was first admitted in courts in the early 1950s, should be maintained. In effect there was once a disputed mosque with a disputed Hindu idol in it.
The pretence of a status quo is still maintained but its substantive content has repeatedly changed — from a disputed structure, to a disputed site on which there was no longer a disputed structure, to an undisputed site adjoining the disputed site, on which disputed ceremonies are urged to be permitted and so on and so on, ad nauseam. The supreme court has had a hand in the making of this deteriorating status quo. On at least two occasions the supreme court chose, in the name of an irresponsible freedom and at the cost of secular good sense, to dismiss petitions seeking injunctions against two events that contributed to accentuating the dispute. In the late 1980’s it refused to forbid shilanyas ceremonies at Ayodhya during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership and again in 1991 did not disallow LK Advani’s mechanised chariot trip from Somnath in Gujarat to the disputed site. Both events had a direct bearing on the eventual demolition of the mosque. Similar prejudicial judgements in the future are not precluded by any mechanism intrinsic to the judicial system.
As for the media, there is a small segment of it whose reaction to the Gujarat riots and other attendant developments has been refreshingly at variance with what has been on display in the past many years on sensitive matters. Unfortunately, a large section of the media is not immune to the incitements of Hindutva. Perhaps inevitably, over the period of the Ram Janmabhoorni mobilisation, the media, ensconced in tall buildings in the affluent localities of Delhi and other capitals, in close proximity to the centres of power, and pretty much out of touch with everything else, saw the transient mob of Hindutva and believed it to be the pulse and the will of the people. Being the instrument of democracy that is most vulnerable to threats and inducements, there is little that is predictable about its long-term conduct in similar situations. The reportage between 1990 and 1993, on Advani’s rath yatra, the demolition of the mosque, the riots that followed, the Bombay bomb blasts and other developments, is still too recent to be overlooked.
In balance, until such time as administrative and judicial mechanisms that safeguard the secular principle equally in all situations can be put in place, the fate of Indian secularism and its minorities, and hence of minorities elsewhere in the Subcontinent will in all likelihood continue to rest on the contingent benevolence of the electoral system. That is too thin a hope to live on for a mass of humanity to whom death is dealt at random by the hoodlums of the RSS.