Bourgeois Secularism and the Communal Challenge – Part Four

This is the fourth instalment of the article, which we began publishing in the January 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 member of the Communist Party of India (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]

Recent Record

The recent spectacle of avowedly secular parties like the Janata Dal (U), Samata Party, BJD, Lok Shakti, Trinamul Congress, DMK, Telugu Desam, National Conference etc., lining up with the BJP to share the spoils of power, further underlines the limitations of bourgeois secularism. These parties are guilty of obfuscating the communal face of the BJP and helping it project an image totally at variance with reality. Some of them are even more loyal than the king. Thus, George Fernandes, leader of the Samata Party, went about loudly proclaiming the innocence of the Bajrang Dal in the heinous murder of the Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor children. Other ‘secular’ constituents of the communal Government are no better. The attacks on Christians or attacks on the Muslim minority in different parts of the country evoke at best a ritual expression of concern from them. The worst example of this criminal opportunism is reflected in the response of these parties to the state sponsored genocide against the Muslims in Gujarat in the aftermath of the Godhra incident. For full two months with the active support and connivance of the BJP state government, the BJP-RSS-Bajrang Dal went on a spree of murder and mayhem. Over 2000 Muslims were slaughtered and more than a hundred thousand were forced to seek refuge in camps. Their shrines and tombs were destroyed and desecrated. Property worth crores belonging to them was looted and burnt.The Prime Minister and other worthies like Home Minister Advani did everything to defend the murderous Modi government. The BJP went on to reap this harvest of hate in the form of its electoral victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections. What was the response of the “secular” constituents of the Central Government? After the mandatory noises of concern they preferred to shut up and continue sharing the spoils of office as if nothing had happened. They also prefer to turn a blind eye to the penetration of all wings of the State by the RSS. What disastrous implications this has for both democracy and national unity, is of no concern to them. Their benign toleration of the hectic attempts by the RSS-BJP to rewrite history from a rabidly communal viewpoint and to undermine whatever scientific content the education system contains, tells its own tale of betrayal of the secular ideal. In fact their role is nothing but that of palanquin bearers of the triumphal beast of Hindu communalism. Neither are they, as well as some current constituents of the ‘secular camp’, averse to appeasing minority communalism for political gain. There are ample instances of their supporting minority communalists, including underworld elements masquerading as defenders of the ‘qaum’.

Even more telling is the role of the Congress during the genocide of Muslims in Gujarat in March to May 2002. The Congress is the largest opposition party in Gujarat. Yet, it was virtually paralysed in the face of the frenzied offensive against the Muslim minority launched by the BJP-RSS-Bajrang Dal and the state government. Worse still, many of its cadres at the lower levels participated in the massacre of the Muslims. For months after this massacre of the minorities began, the Congress chose to do virtually nothing to fight back the BJP/VHP murderers. Its assertion of secularism was limited to a few public meetings addressed by its all India President. Worse was to follow during the campaign for the Gujarat elections. Instead of basing its campaign on forthright defence of secularism, the Congress chose to follow a line of ‘soft Hindutva’ to woo the Hindu voters in the state. To paraphrase Anjali Modi’s excellent expose printed in ‘The Hindu’- the Congress chose Shankar Sinh Vaghela, a former R.S.S. man to lead its charge. It pitted a BJP supporter, who was not given a ticket by his parent party, to oppose the presiding deity of the Gujarat genocide, Narendra Modi. Its all India President began her election campaign in the state by first praying at a well-known Hindu temple. Its election manifesto in Gujarati chose to ignore the calamitous events that overtook Gujarat after the Godhra incident. These were to find mention only in its English manifesto. Its candidate from the Assembly seat in Vadodra, which houses the Best Bakery where 14 people (11 Muslims & 3 Hindus) were burnt alive, defended the perpetrators of this crime with fervour equal to that of his BJP rival. The list of examples of this crass opportunism is endless. Behind this lay the cynical calculation that as the Muslims had no option but to vote for the Congress, tactics tailored to woo a vast section of communalised Hindus would pay appropriate electoral dividends. Unfortunately, for the Congress, this mass chose to vote for the ‘genuine article’.

The Congress has failed to draw proper lessons from the rise of the Hindu Right and it’s capturing the levers of state power. There has been no attempt on its part to critically review its practice of secularism and the role it has played in facilitating the rise of the Hindu Right. It is therefore hardly surprising that it persists with its vacillations vis-à-vis communalism. Several other examples of this are available besides its sordid record in Gujarat, mentioned above. Thus the Congress Chief Ministers of Kerala and Madhya Pradesh see nothing wrong with the attempts of the BJP to introduce astrology as a subject at the university level. The Congress C.M. of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, has suddenly become an outspoken votary for the cause of banning cow slaughter. His broadsides against Uma Bharati, projected by the B.J.P. as their Chief Minister in waiting, are not directed against the communal venom she is reputed to spew but for her “insulting” Hindus by offering a cake containing eggs at a Hanuman mandir! The latest is the benign toleration of the V.H.P’s trishul [trident] distribution ceremonies in their states by the Congress C.M.s of Kerala and Assam. This after their counterpart in Rajasthan chose to arrest Pravin Tagodia, the V.H.P. leader for attempting to distribute trishuls in that state.

The ease with which bourgeois parties flip-flop between the secular to the communal camps is well known. Thus the AGP, previously allied with the Left, chose to align with the BJP in a desperate bid to somehow win the 2001 assembly polls. Conversely, the Trinamul Congress, a partner in the NDA Government, walked out on the BJP when it saw its dream of capturing power in West Bengal turning sour due to the ignominy heaped on the NDA Government in wake of the Tehelka tapes exposure. The Trinamul however retained its alliance with the BJP in Corporations and Municipalities in West Bengal. Having faced defeat, the Trinamul once again sought entry into the NDA. The DMK and AIADMK are further examples of this phenomenon. This reveals that for bourgeois parties the secular principle is secondary to their quest for perpetual enjoyment of the fruits of Governmental position.

Alongside these compromises, bourgeois secularism, especially of the Congress variety has not lagged behind in paying ritual homage to the ‘sarva dharma sambhav’ ideal of secularism. A major part of this exercise is taken up by organising Quami Ekta Sammalens, mushairas, kavi sammalens etc., at which tolerant religious traditions like those of the Bhakti and Sufi saints are sentimentally evoked as a foil to the communal menace. There is nothing wrong if cultural or even religious organisations and individuals utilise this medium to help the cause of communal harmony. But this takes on different dimensions when it is repeatedly used by a political party as it amounts to legitimising the use of religion as a political tool. The choice by the Congress of a religious idiom as a major weapon in the fight against communalism objectively amounts to conceding half the battle, for it is precisely on this terrain that communalism plays out its macabre game. The fact that several leaders, cadres and supporters of the Congress, trained in this tradition of ‘religious secularism’, had no qualms in walking over to the BJP when things got tough for the Congress, can, at least in part, be attributed to the flawed ideological approach of their mother party. The unwillingness of the bourgeoisie to treat secularism as a non-religious concept has greatly harmed the secular cause, besides dialectically feeding its tendency to compromise with communalism.

Growth of Majority Communalism

The opportunism of the secular bourgeoisie vis-à-vis communalism, coupled with the bankrupt path of capitalist development chosen by the ruling classes are, in the main, responsible for the rapid rise of the Hindu Right. The impact of the model of economic development chosen by free India’s rulers and its linkages with the growth of communalism will be discussed later. Here we will confine ourselves to facts relating to the growth of Hindu communalism. The Hindu Right had existed as an organised force right through a major part of the 20th century. Its influence, however, remained limited because of its opposition to the freedom struggle and collaboration with the British imperialists. It is only in the 1940s with communal polarisation becoming acute that it could expand its influence. The Partition of the country and the accompanying carnage provided them a fresh opportunity to consolidate and expand their base. These gains were largely offset in the wake of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by one of their ‘brotherhood’. In the first parliamentary elections, in 1952, the Jan Sangh, earlier avatar of the BJP could only poll a mere 3.1 % of the votes and bagged just 3 seats.Prior to 1977, the maximum votes it ever polled in parliamentary elections was in 1967, when for the first time the Congress monopoly over power was broken and non-Congress State Governments were formed in several states. It polled 9.4 % of the votes and bagged 35 seats. Their next high was to come in 1977, when riding the crest of the anti-Emergency wave the Jan Sangh polled 14.0 % of the votes and got 91 seats. The next two elections saw a drastic fall in their strength and in 1984 the Jan Sangh’s new face the BJP could only bag 2 seats and 7.4 % of the votes. The subsequent elections show an astounding rise in both the polling strength and parliamentary seats of the BJP. Thus they could bag 11.4% votes (85 seats) in 1989, 20.1 % votes (120 seats) in 1991, 21.34 % votes (161 seats) in 1996, 25.6 % votes (180 seats) in 1998 and 23.7 % votes (182 seats) in 1999. (Figures from A.G. Noorani, The RSS and the BJP, A Division of Labour, p.65).

This growth in the BJP’s parliamentary strength, is at least in part, based on the growth and work of other front organizations of the RSS like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini, ABVP, Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad etc. Increased parliamentary presence, in turn has given impetus to the growth of these organisations. Today they have a formidable presence in different parts of the country. This has also been helped by the electoral opportunism of bourgeois secular parties, which has provided space for the RSS-BJP to spread their tentacles in states like Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where they were hitherto at best a very marginal force. The last two General Elections resulted in the formation of Central Governments led by the BJP and the capture of central power by communal forces for the first time.

Impact on Minorities

What impact has the spectacular rise of majority communalism had on the minorities? The answer to this falls roughly under three heads. The first relates to the direct impact on their lives in riots. The second concerns the discrimination to which they are subject, in issues like employment and education. The third pertains to the rise of minority communalism. One estimate puts the total number of communal incidents between 1954 and 1979 at 5738 in which 4509 people died and 28,135 were injured. (Sixth Report of the National Police Commission, March 1981, from Mushirul Hasan, Legacy Of A Divided Nation, p.259) These are official figures, which are known to be notorious for downplaying facts, which would embarrass the powers that be. Besides, it needs to be noted that in this entire period, save an odd exception here and there, these incidents involved two communities – the Hindus and the Muslims, with the Muslims being largely at the receiving end. This latter aspect was to change briefly in 1984, when thousands of Sikhs were massacred in the aftermath of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. In the late 1990s and in subsequent years the Christians have also come within the scope of such incidents, thanks to the concerted attacks against them by the RSS parivar. The late 1980s and early 1990s, saw a quantum jump in the number of communal incidents. Padam Rosha, a former Director General of Police, has compiled figures of those killed and injured in communal incidents between 1988 and 1993. These figures are as follows (see table 1):

These figures per se do not reveal the hard fact that it is primarily the Muslim minority, which has been at the receiving end in communal riots. Different official and unofficial inquiries into communal incidents have laid bare this fact. V.N. Rai, a serving police officer, has in a report commissioned by the National Police Academy, given figures about the total number of communal incidents between 1968 and 1982 and the community wise break up of those killed in these incidents. According to him, 3949 such instances took place in this period, in which 530 Hindus and 1598 Muslims were killed. (Vibhuti Narain Rai, Combating Communal Conflicts, pp. 50-51) He has also provided comparative figures of Hindus and Muslims killed in 9 major communal riots between 1961 and 1982. They are as follows (see table 2):

A major factor in this is the anti-minority role of the civil and police administration during riots. The notoriety gained by the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in Uttar Pradesh in this context is well known. Lamenting this, a senior Police official commented that, “I have watched with dismay during the year 1982, the conversion of the Uttar Pradesh PAC from the model force that I worked with in the fifties to a unit which is feted by the Hindus and hated by the Muslims in the towns of Uttar Pradesh.” (C.F. Rustamji, New Wave Of Violence, from Mushirul Hasan, Legacy Of A Divided Nation, p.260). That this malaise is not restricted to Uttar Pradesh alone is borne out by different inquiry reports into major riots in different parts of the country. The Reports of Inquiry Commissions into riots in Ahmedabad (1969), Bhiwandi (1970), Tellicherry (1971), Delhi (1984) and Mumbai (1992-93), all illustrate this truth. To this blatant anti-Muslim bias of the police should be added the fact that Government officials found guilty of aiding and abetting attacks on the minorities are rarely punished. This only emboldens others of their ilk to behave in precisely the same way. The same goes for others involved in such attacks. No action is taken against them. The perpetrators of massacres of Sikhs in Delhi in 1984, many of them Congress leaders, roam free as respectable citizens. L.K. Advani, the charioteer of hatred and death, adorns the office of the Union Home Minister today. He and his co-conspirators in the destruction of the Babri Masjid revel in doublespeak making a mockery of the entire judicial process. Nobody dares touch Bal Thackeray and his goons, named in the Srikrishna Commission Report as being guilty of inciting riots and carrying out the killings of Muslims in Mumbai.

According to the Census of India (1991), Muslims accounted for 11.67 % of the total population of the country. However, their representation in Government services is far below this figure. The percentage of Muslims in the Indian Administrative Service stood at 2.99 % in 1981. The figures for the Income Tax and Railway Traffic and Accounts Services were 2.85% and 3.06 % in the same year. Representation of Muslims in the police force in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Delhi in 1991 was 6.2 %, 4.9 %, 4.2 % and 2.3 % respectively. Of the industrial licenses issued for units between Rs. 3 crores and Rs. 20 crores, in the years 1979 and 1980, 94.3 % were cornered by the Hindus. The rest 5.7 % was divided between four minority groups. Of houses allotted by state governments to lower and middle income groups and licenses issued for ‘fair price’ shops up to 1985 the share of Muslims was 2.86 % and 6.9 % respectively. (Figures from Mushirul Hasan, Legacy Of A Divided Nation, pp. 282, 283, 294)

Figures available elsewhere tend to confirm the ones given above. Thus among professionals the share of the Muslims in 1991 was as follows Engineers-2.00 %, Doctors-2.5 %, Indian Administrative Service-2.86 %, Indian Police Service-2.0 %, Income Tax Officers-3.06 %, Class I Officers (State Services)-3.3 %, Banks-2.18 % and Private Enterprises-4.08 %. Of the 415 High Court judges as on January 1st 1992, 29 or 6.99 % were Muslims. Of the 340 appointees at the level of Joint Secretary and above only 6 or a mere 1.76 % were Muslims. According to a survey conducted by the Planning Commission in 1987-88, the average literacy among Muslims was 42 % as compared to the national average of 52 %. (Figures from People’s Democracy, 8th March 1998)

The above is just a sample of the kind of discrimination faced by the Muslim minority. This official policy of discrimination only strengthens social attitudes, already biased against them for a multitude of reasons. Many of those who are otherwise quite liberal in their social approach draw a line when it comes to interacting with Muslims of even their class and social standing. Even among those who have Muslim friends, one often hears the refrain that Muslims are fine people as individuals but are fanatical, retrograde and essentially evil as a community.

Minority Communalism

The various forms of discrimination against the Muslims have had a disastrous impact on the thinking of substantial sections of the community. The failure of the secular State to protect their life and limb, the daily discrimination to which they are subject, the compromises of bourgeois secularism with communal forces and the offensive of majority communalism has resulted in the rapid growth of communal and fundamentalist elements within the Muslims. Lamenting the fate of those innocent Muslims who were massacred in Malliana near Meerut by the PAC in May 1987 a poet had written the following premonitory dirge:

“Weep for your mother, into pieces torn

Mourn for your father, killed with vengeful scorn

Cry for your sister, raped and left forlorn

Grieve for your brother, of human feeling shorn

Fear for the hatred; of those yet unborn.”

The hatred sown by such actions has borne fruit in the rapid growth of pre-existing communal organisations like the ultra conservative and revivalist Tablighi Jamaat and the Jamaat-i-Islami. The latter’s front organisation SIMI was in the news for its role in the Kanpur riots of March 2001. A host of similar, but new, organisations have also come into being in different parts of the country. Just as the youth of the majority community, the youth among Muslims is the worst affected. The growth of Muslim fundamentalism in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan and in areas beyond the confines of the sub-continent, besides the wrongs, real and imagined, being done to the Muslim population in Kashmir by the Indian State, have also played their role in deepening the influence of this retrograde and self-defeating thinking among the Muslims. This is not to say that Muslim communalism is only a reaction to Hindu communalism or has come about solely due to external influences and the doings of the State. The strong influence of feudal and other retrograde ideologies in the community and the opportunist politics of different Muslim leaders which perpetuate this influence for maintaining their own hold over the community, provide fertile breeding ground for communalism. However, it cannot be denied that the discrimination noted above has played a key role in bringing things to this pass. Muslim communalism is not wanton like Hindu communalism. That does not make it less dangerous. Unfortunately, its growth provides further sustenance to majority communalism. In fact the logic of things is such that both these variants of communalism complement and supplement each other.

Communalism and Economic Policies

Another factor that has adversely impacted on the state of secular polity relates to economic policies followed by the bourgeois-landlord classes since independence. The ruling classes opted for a model of capitalist development with the State playing a major role in developing the infrastructure. Being a late starter in the endeavour to build capitalism and that too after compromising with landlordism, besides being bereft of other avenues for capital formation like colonial loot, increasing compromise with imperialism and recurrent crises were inherent in its nature. Besides, as expected, it failed miserably to address any of the basic needs of the Indian people, giving rise to widespread dissatisfaction, which was cashed in upon by different communal and divisive forces.

The decade and a half since the mid 1980s which saw huge accretion in the BJP’s strength is precisely that period in which the crisis of the state led path of capitalist development reached new heights, leading to acute dissatisfaction among the people. These are also the years in which secular bourgeoisie parties made the maximum number of compromises with communalism in their bid to somehow retain their hold over the people besides being those in which significant sections of the big bourgeoisie overtly came out in support of the communal forces for the first time as an alternative for helping them tide over the economic crisis. These facts are a pointer to the linkages between the economic policies pursued by the bourgeoisie and the alarming growth of communalism as well as the increased tendency of the secular bourgeoisie to compromise with it.

The crisis of the model of capitalism adopted by the ruling class became acute in the 1980s resulting in the ruling classes adopting a new strategy of economic development the first signs of which became visible in the mid 1980s. It was formalised in 1991 under label of economic liberalisation. This was contemporaneous with the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union and East Europe, which changed the international correlation of forces in favour of imperialism. This change helped spur the full fledged adoption by the Indian bourgeoisie of the new economic strategy, a process already underway as a result of the old model of development having reached a dead end. The policies of imperialist globalisation which came to the fore in this international situation were bound to find resonance in the new economic policies adopted by the Indian ruling classes.

Today there is a consensus in all bourgeois-landlord parties, both secular and communal on this IMF-World Bank dictated path of development. These policies imply a no holds barred attack on the livelihood of the toiling masses. Thus, we witness cut backs in Government expenditure on the social sector and public utilities as well as the drive to privatize the latter. The withdrawal of the state from public expenditure is accompanied by the adoption of an overtly pro-active role by it in the interests of big capital both domestic and international. Another plank of the new strategy relates to the sale of the Public Sector into private hands at rates far below the real value of its assets. Along with defence purchases, the sale of public assets rates as the leading feeder for the graft and sleaze ruling the roost in the corridors of power today. The third plank of these policies involves unbridled access to all sectors of the Indian economy and market for foreign finance capital and commodities. This is leading to the ruination of the small-scale industrial sector, giving fillip to the process of de-industrialisation. In their quest for a share in the world market, the Indian big bourgeoisie is quite content to aspire for the role of a junior partner of imperialist finance capital. That this is leading, bit by bit, to the mortgaging of the Indian economy does not seem to bother them at all. Land reforms, already severely limited, are being reversed to provide latifundia to giant multinational agro-conglomerates.

The disastrous effects of a decade of market friendly policies are already visible in reduced consumption levels of the poor, further marginalisation of women and other socially disadvantaged sections, rampant unemployment, contractualisation of jobs, virulent attacks on the hard won rights of the working class and starvation deaths and suicides by peasants in the countryside. Consumerism, extreme individualism and cut-throat competitiveness have been raised to the level of super values, replicating the ‘glories’ of the market in the sphere of ideas.

Such policies are leading to widespread discontent among the people. In conditions marked by the weakness of the Left in large parts of the country and the vacillations of secular bourgeois parties towards communalism, this discontent is likely to be capitalised upon by communal forces. The history of the past decade and a half bears this out. Besides, the fact that these economic policies dovetail to the overall parameters of imperialist globalisation mean a far greater interference of imperialism in the internal affairs of the country. This is not restricted to the economic sphere alone. Imperialism has always found it handy to promote and utilise every form of fundamentalism, communalism and obscurantism to further its interests. In doing so it strengthens the Right within the country.

[To be completed in the next issue]

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