Bourgeois Secularism and the Communal Challenge

Part Two

This is the second instalment of this article, which we began publishing in the last issue of Lalkar. It is a slightly extended version of that which appeared in The Marxist, Volume XIX, No 2 April-June 2003. The question of communalism and religious bigotry is extremely important, for it divides and weakens the working-class movement, therefore a Marxist analysis of the problem is essential to the development of a secular, democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist movement. In our view Comrade Grewal has done an excellent job in analysing the problem. However, the conclusions he reaches at the end do not follow from his premises and analysis. In fact, to be very frank, they contradict it. We are however fully aware of the reasons for the above discordance between Comrade Grewal’s premises and his conclusions. He is a members of the Communist Party of Indian (Marxist) and as such, being a loyal party member, feels obliged to endorse his party’s incorrect pro-Congress political line. No perceptive reader would fail to notice this. We are publishing this article, not withstanding some of its erroneous conclusions, for we believe that it makes an important contribution to the understanding of this question. Comrades of Indian origin, as well as class conscious workers in the centres of imperialism, will benefit greatly from reading this article. [ Editor]

In the Phase of National Liberation

The bourgeoisie and its main political vehicle the Congress needed the widest possible unity of the Indian people cutting across religion, caste and region during the national liberation struggle to be able to put up an effective fight against the British imperialists. Thus the Congress always projected itself as the party of all Indians and naturally came into opposition to the Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha. However, the fact that this upcoming bourgeoisie was rooted in a country dominated by pre-capitalist social formations with all their ideological baggage could not but influence the ideology and practice of the bourgeoisie. This was further compounded by its class need of warding off any threat to its hegemony over the national liberation struggle from an alternate class challenge. Its policy of refusing to confront feudalism emanated from this factor. Reflection of this unwillingness to confront feudalism was seen in the constant attempts by the Congress to keep the peasant movement in check, accompanied by assurances to the landlords about the benign intentions of the Congress towards them. In 1922, Gandhi withdrew the Civil Disobedience Movement after the Chauri Chaura incident in which enraged peasants burnt down a police station resulting in the death of a few policemen. One hundred and seventy two peasants were sentenced to death as retribution for the Chauri Chaura incident. This was met by deafening silence on the part of the Congress. In other words those who stepped outside the bourgeoisie’s parameters of the struggle against British imperialism deserved no sympathy. In the same vein, Gandhi refused to plead with the British authorities for the life of Bhagat Singh, India’s most famous anti-imperialist revolutionary.

Later, in 1937, when its ministries were formed in several states, the Congress belied promises it had made to the peasantry. Tenancy laws passed by these ministries showed a clear pro-landlord tilt. This approach found reflection in the relationship of the Congress with the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), founded in 1936 with a clear anti-imperialist and anti-landlord programme. Congress leaders like Gandhi, Rajendra Prasad, Patel and C. Rajagopalachari were openly hostile to the Sabha. Even Nehru, while supporting the demands of the AIKS, including the more radical ones like that of ‘land to the tiller’, did nothing to restrain this hostility despite being President of the Congress at that time. The spectre of agrarian revolution had to be laid to rest. The interests of the bourgeoisie demanded no less. Thus, the hostility to the AIKS as the harbinger of what Gandhi called “red ruin”.

Delivering his Presidential address at the Comilla Session of the AIKS in May, 1938, Swami Sahajanand Saraswati stated: “It is evident that the powers gained through office acceptance are being systematically sought to be utilised for suppressing the kisan and mazdoor organisations…. The big guns of the Congress haveā€¦ceased to boom against British imperialism and threaten to bombard us out of existence…” (M.A. Rasul- A History of the All India Kisan Sabha, p.33) Later, at its meeting in Sept., 1938, the All India Kisan Committee adopted a resolution condemning, “the shameful agreements by Congress ministries with zamindarsā€¦” (M.A. Rasul- A History of the All India Kisan Sabha, p.41) The satisfaction of the British imperialists with this anti-peasant record of the Congress ministries is tellingly captured in the following report of the Viceroy to the Imperial Home Office: “The ministries deserve credit for meeting this threat with resolution. The policy of the Congress party towards the kisan organisation has been firm, even repressive.” (Kapil Kumar- Congress and Classes, Nationalism, Workers and Peasants, p.247)

The bourgeoisie justified this compromise in the name of uniting all Indians against the foreign oppressor, despite knowing that the feudals represented the main internal bulwark of British colonial rule. The actual basis for this approach was entirely different. The bourgeoisie was aware that any direct confrontation with feudalism would necessarily involve mobilization of the peasant masses. This strategy, if followed, would inevitably radicalise the peasantry. Any such possibility was perceived by the bourgeoisie as a potential threat to it’s hegemony over the national liberation struggle, especially in the context of the arrival on the scene of the Communist Party, representing the interests of the working class and other toilers. Anti-feudal struggles, uniting broad masses of both the Hindu and Muslim peasantry, would have been the most effective weapon to combat the communalism of both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha and preventing the communal vivisection of the country. However, for the bourgeoisie its class interests were supreme. It could not risk radicalisation of the peasantry.

Revivalism and the National Leadership

This compromise with feudalism found resonance in the ideology and practice of the bourgeois leadership of the national liberation struggle. Thus its tallest leader, Mahatma Gandhi, chose an essentially Hindu religious idiom to communicate with the masses. In the words of R.P. Dutt, “The growth of the Muslim League reflected the failure of the Congress to make any serious and consistent efforts to reach out to the Muslim masses…Here a serious share of responsibility has to be laid at the door of the dominant leadership of the national movement…In all Gandhi’s propaganda, the preaching of Hinduism and his religious conception and preaching of general political aims were inextricably mixed. At the very height of the national Non-Cooperation movement…he publicly proclaimed himself as a ‘Sanatanist Hindu’…. Even while appealing for Hindu-Muslim unity, Gandhi made the appeal, not as a national leader appealing to both sections, but as a Hindu leader: the Hindus were ‘we’, the Muslims were ‘they’…At any moment…, Gandhi could pass from Congress politics to a Hindu reform movement (as in the crisis of the struggle in 1932-33) and vice versa.” (R.P. Dutt, India Today, pp.470-472)

However, unlike several of his disciples like Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad, Gandhi’s revivalist approach never took on a communal hue. His appeals for Hindu-Muslim unity, the innumerable fasts he undertook for the cause of communal harmony or his intervention in places like Noakhali during the bloody riots accompanying Partition stand testimony to this. He was ultimately assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. Yet one cannot help but note the contradiction between his opposition to communalism and the language of his political discourse which objectively provided a handle to the very forces he sought to combat. A similar contradiction can be seen in his social vision where his numerous campaigns against untouchability, were accompanied by his firm belief in the ‘varnashram’ or the caste system.

Other leaders of the national liberation struggle, like Tilak, took recourse to far more openly revivalist appeals as a means to mobilise the people against the foreign oppressor. Harking to the “golden” past as a means to fight the battles of the present was not surprising. As Marx noted, “The tradition of all the dead generations, weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods….they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in the time honoured disguise and this borrowed language.” (Karl Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, quoted in B.T. Ranadive, The Independence Struggle and After, pp.18-19). The effectiveness of such tactics in rousing the people, in the short term, cannot be denied. Conversely, nor can their long term divisive potential and retrograde nature be wished away. B.T. Ranadive has pointed out that, “In India it was not simply a question of using the past to seek inspiration for the present. The revivalist appeal represented a compromise with the….institution of caste, compromise with religious orthodoxy.” (B.T. Ranadive, The Independence Struggle and After, p.19)

The practice of the Congress at different stages of the liberation struggle bore the stamp of a consciousness that could not transcend the crucible of religion. Thus, the Congress accepted separate religion based electorates in its Lucknow Pact with the League in 1916. Later it attempted to forge Hindu-Muslim unity by supporting the Khilafat movement, which essentially centred on the religious demand for restoration of powers of the Khalifa in Turkey. The latter tactic paid immediate dividends in involving large sections of the Muslim masses in the anti-imperialist struggle. But this could not build lasting unity as it was grounded in a religious appeal which could not be sustained for those separated by religion. Ironically, while the Indian bourgeoisie was supporting restoration of the Khilafat, the upcoming Turkish bourgeoisie, led by Kamal Attaturk, fought a successful battle against it that resulted in the abolition of the post of Khalifa and the setting up of a republic in Turkey.

Among Congress leaders, many like Madan Mohan Malviya, Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prashad were soft on the Hindu variant of the Muslim League, the Hindu Mahasabha. The Hindu tinge surrounding the Congress could be seen even at a symbolic level. Annual Congress sessions were inaugurated by the performance of ‘havan’. This evoked a bitter response from Maulana Azad. Talking to Harkishan Singh Surjeet, presently General Secretary of the CPI (M), at the Tripuri session of the Congress in 1939, Azad said, “Which foolish Mussalman will come to the Congress if such overtly Hindu practices are followed at official functions of the Congress?” Such idiom and practices did not make for confidence in the Congress among the Muslim masses and made the task of the Muslim League of dubbing the Congress as a Hindu organisation easier.

The Muslim Bourgeoisie and Secularism

The propensity of bourgeois sections within the Muslims to compromise with feudalism and orthodoxy was even greater. This can be traced to the fact that the Muslim bourgeoisie was far weaker in all respects as compared to their Hindu class brethren. There were hardly any Muslim industrialists and the bourgeoisie of this community came from predominantly commercial and trading sections. The Muslim League was hence dominated by feudal elements. Just as Hindu feudals, Muslim feudals were also firm allies of the British. That the League kept aloof from and even opposed the national movement is, therefore, not surprising. Given its weakness, the Muslim bourgeoisie played along with the line determined by its feudals and religious orthodoxy. The most classic case in this regard is that of Jinnah – western educated, pork eating, married to a non-Muslim, self proclaimed secularist and yet the tallest leader of the League and the founding father of Pakistan. His perception and that of his likes was also guided by the fear of being dominated by the Hindu bourgeoisie. The slogan of Pakistan was God sent for them – it ensured them a share in state power without having to play second fiddle to the infinitely more advanced Hindu bourgeoisie. Whatever secular beliefs dominant sections of the Muslim bourgeoisie held were therefore quickly jettisoned. Jinnah’s declaration upon arriving at Karachi, to preside over the fate of his dream come true, that the Constitution of Pakistan would be secular was ironic in the extreme. This amounted to not only questioning the very basis of Pakistan; it also reflected the contradictions and duality of his class.

Partition: The Great Betrayal

The Congress leadership, which had pledged to oppose Partition, willingly accepted it in 1947. Its overwhelming desire to grab state power, despite the costs involved, lay behind this.

The post World War II phase witnessed the biggest and most radical upsurge in struggles of different sections. The RIN Mutiny, huge working class strike actions, unprecedented revolts of the peasantry exemplified by Punnapra Vayalar, North Malabar, Tebhaga, Surma Valley, Warli adivasi revolt, Tripura tribals movement and above all the glorious armed peasant partisan struggle in Telangana, represent outstanding examples of this rising storm. Most of these struggles were led by the Communist Party. This helped accelerate the process of the bourgeoisie’s acceptance of Partition. Of course, the fig leaf of inevitability was paraded to justify this volte-face. Ironically, it was the ‘Sanatani’ Gandhi who opposed this division. His was a solitary voice. As always, class interests took precedence and the secular ideal was sacrificed at their altar. Penderal Moon, in his book Divide and Quit, estimates the immediate human cost of Partition at 1 million 800 thousand killed and 10 million 500 thousand refugees (Sumit Sarkar, Modern India, p.434).

Thus dawned freedom on our land; torn asunder and gasping for breath in a deluge of hatred and blood. The famous sub-continental poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, aptly described the coming of freedom as follows:

“This is not that long looked for break of day

Not that clear dawn in quest of which those comrades

Set out, believing that in heaven’s wide void

Somewhere must be the star’s last halting place

Somewhere the verge of night’s slow washing tide

Somewhere an anchorage for the ship of heartache.”

(Poems by Faiz, transl. by V.G. Kiernan, p.123)

We are still paying the cost of this colossal betrayal by the bourgeoisie in the form of hostile relations between India and Pakistan and the suspicion and hostility that mark inter-communal relations.

Having accepted the communal division of the country, the Congress was unable to rally its members to oppose the accompanying bloodshed. Many Congressmen were swept away by the raging storm of hatred. Such was their plight that no Congressman in Punjab was willing to provide protection to Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew, Congress stalwart since the days of Jallianwala Bagh. The Communist Party arranged for his safe passage to Nehru’s house in Delhi. Many like Darbara Singh, future Congress Chief Minister of Punjab, covered themselves with ‘glory’ by leading gangs of rioters. There were of course honourable exceptions where Congressmen stood firm on the secular principle and even paid for their convictions with their lives.

[to be continued]

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