Back in March 2013, when I received and accepted an invitation to visit Bogazici University, I did not for a moment imagine that my arrival in Turkey would follow hot on the heels of a historic election in India. But so it did: I landed in Istanbul on June 1, 2014, five days after the swearing-in of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). For the Indian National Congress, which has long carried the banner of secular nationalism in India, the election was a humiliation – an unprecedented defeat, at the hands of an organization that is closely associated with Hindu-nationalist groups, some of which, like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have even been banned in the past. The outcome of the election, while not a surprise, was still a moment of reckoning for those such as myself, whose revulsion at the dynasticism and corruption of the Congress was outweighed by concerns about the BJP’s right-wing economic program and its espousal of majoritarian politics. The prime ministerial candidate’s record during his tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat was itself the greatest of these concerns, especially in relation to his conduct during the anti-Muslim violence that had convulsed his state in 2002 – See more at: http://amitavghosh.com/blog/?p=6857#sthash.nO2lbyT1.dpuf
Former Union minister and a BJP MP from Darjeeling in Bengal SS Ahluwalia while speaking in Lok Sabha during the debate on conversion said something very pertinent. He pointed out that schoolchildren had been invited to Parliament to watch the proceedings and the language and manner of discussion would be a dangerous influence. Ahluwalia is right, history lessons for these schoolchildren began with Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led the country to independence. The same kids who Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed via video conference on spreading Gandhi’s message of Swachh Bharat.
What Ahluwalia conveniently forgot on the floor of the House was that a member of Parliament from his party had that very day hailed Nathuram Godse as a patriot. Godse, an RSS worker, was shamed in history textbooks for his cowardly and terrorist act of assassinating the father of the nation. Parliament was discussing the deceitful conversion of 200 Muslims to Hinduism by RSS offshoots Bajrang Dal and Dharma Jagran Samanwaya Vibhag as part of what the RSS itself claims is a ghar wapsi programme.
Rajeshwar Singh, the convenor of the Dharma Jagran Vibhag, claimed on national TV the day before that in the next five years, they would want to fulfil the dream of a Hindu Rashtra by reconverting all Muslims and Christians in the country; the not-so-subtle message that the Sangh Parivaar sent through the mass conversion was that those who do not believe in Hindutva had no place in what is a secular, inclusive democracy.
Not to be left behind, BJP’s rabblerouser-in-chief Yogi Adityanath has announced that nothing will stop him and his co-workers from the planned mass conversion ceremony of 5,000 Muslims and Christians on Christmas,two weeks from now, in Aligarh. Adityanath is the same man who claims the Taj Mahal was built on the site of a Hindu temple. Those familiar with the events and propaganda that led to the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 and the subsequent nationwide bloodshed might not be surprised at the parallels with the current situation.
Mr Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of MIM recently remarked in a media conclave that ‘Muslims are not coolies of secularism’. The statement made perfect sense for his politics. He is the leader a party that aims to mobilise voters on the basis of them being Muslim. The unprecedented success of Hindutva under Mr Modi in recent elections has upset many old electoral calculations, and opened new opportunities. Mr Owaisi is smelling a chance for the MIM to expand beyond its turf in Hyderabad, to regions where non-BJP parties have been getting the major chunk of Muslim votes with the slogan of secularism, seen principally as the promise of protection from riots. For Mr Owaisi, the remark serves multiple purposes. Average Muslim citizens are deeply disillusioned with a political process that has resulted in the utter marginalisation of their community. For such voters, the statement is intended to clearly distinguish his party from the so-called secular non-BJP parties. It is calibrated to raise a doubt in their mind, why should only Muslims be expected to vote for such parties, when significant sections of the Hindus have sided with the communal BJP? It is also a preemptive answer to his political competitors and ideological critics, who are likely to accuse him of being communal.
Otherwise too, the secular discourse in India has largely become a minorities’ affair. It is said to be under threat when minorities are attacked. It is claimed to be flourishing when minorities rights are protected. A corollary belief among major sections of the so called majority community is that India could have as well been non-secular if there were no minorities in the country, or if they are put in their place as the RSS political programme demands. It is not difficult to see that once secularism is equated with minority interests, the majority interests would be perceived as non-secular and with a passage of time the BJP style of politics would become the common sense of the majority. Should India remain, or rather become secular, only for minorities’ sake? Then, why should the majority be interested in secularism? Only because of their ‘good neighbourly’ sense, or to avoid civil strife of communal clashes? The tragedy and the farce of Indian secularism is precisely this, that ever since its initial conception and practice during the freedom movement, it has remained hostage to a majority-minority framework, and it has implicitly answered all the above questions in the affirmative. Nothing can be farther away from the real significance of secularism for a modern democracy. There have been many non-democratic secular regimes. Secularism though is a democratic imperative. What everybody, including minority citizens, lose in the absence of secularism are distinct democratic freedoms which only secularism can assure.
One of the oft-repeated theories in the wake of the general election this past May was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power by presenting a single-minded commitment to developing India’s economy. In truth, campaigns, in many parts of the country, were intensely divisive affairs. Many of those who canvassed for votes, and who have since been accorded important positions in the ruling party, often trod treacherously beyond communal boundaries. This dissonance, which was inherent in the attitude of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) towards the election, has now grown further, and it increasingly appears that the government is incapable of deviating from what is quite plausibly its real agenda.
As much as Mr. Modi would like us to believe that it is his plank of a developmental model that continues to hold the primary sway in his policies, his stark reticence in dealing with the acrimonious practices of the BJP’s allied groups seems to paint a different picture. The state, under the BJP, is slowly progressing towards more pervasive involvement in matters of ethical choice such as religion. And, the Sangh Parivar has only been emboldened by the attitude of the new regime. Week after week, its agenda of Hindutva has seen the imposition of new and stridently discordant measures. The latest salvo involves the organisation of programmes of “Ghar Vapsi,” for the conversion (or “reconversion” as the Hindu Right would have it) of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism.
The right wing and conversion
The Dharam Jagaran Samiti (DJS) — an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal — only recently announced that it aims to meet a target of converting one lakh Muslims and Christians into Hinduism every year. Earlier this month in Agra, the DJS reportedly converted some 200-odd Muslims to Hinduism. The event came to light after the supposed converts, many of who are among the most impoverished sections of the society, alleged that they had been misled into believing that they would be offered Below Poverty Line cards by consenting to the conversion. In spite of these contentions, the Sangh Parivar remains unmoved in its agenda. According to a report on the website Scroll.in, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) has already made plans to mark the 50th anniversary of the group’s founding on February 6 with a Ghar Vapsi in Faizabad next year. Making matters worse, the VHP has claimed, as The Hindu reported, that those Muslims or Christians who reconvert to Hinduism in such programmes would be allowed to choose a caste for themselves once the VHP has investigated the tradition, faith, and culture of the convert’s ancestors.
One of the peculiarities of Indian political debate is that everyone claims to be secular while accusing others of not being so. Secularism’s hegemony as an idea was made clear by L.K. Advani, when he coined the now famous term “pseudo-secular” to describe his political enemies. But if secularism is so dominant an idea, this is because it is and has always been deployed as a polemical category as much as a constitutional principle, and indeed its insertion into the Constitution by Indira Gandhi was itself a partisan act. In colonial times, for example, Congressmen identified secularism with nationalism, which was in turn held to be the real antonym of communalism. In other words it was the pluralism and popularity of the Congress, compared with the supposedly sectarian appeal of Hindu and Muslim parties, that was seen as defining its secular credentials, and this in a demographic rather than constitutional way.
Since Independence, however, secularism is increasingly opposed to communalism, with the nation no longer central to its definition. Is it therefore being separated from a strictly populist logic to assume a purely juridical character — and does this indicate the failure of the nation to demonstrate its plurality and therefore secularism, which must instead be sought in the pre-modern past? Even in the days of its alleged dominance under Nehru, secularism could hardly be said to possess its own history or even existential reality, given that its membership included both the religious and irreligious. Indeed, secularists had to lay claim to explicitly religious precedents, such as bhakti or Sufi forms of devotion, and the pluralistic festivals with which these were often associated. In other words, the condescending reference was invariably to the “folk” devotions that had never, in fact, been part of the “culture” of self-professed secularists.
On December 16, 2014, 145 people, including 132 children, were executed by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in a terrorist attack on an Army Public School in Peshawar. [The toll is now 150.] When cornered, the seven militants blew themselves up; five inside the school and two outside. Later a TTP spokesperson, Mohd. Omar Khorasani, said that the attack was retribution for the Pakistani government’s counterinsurgency operations in North Waziristan, which had “targeted our [Taliban’s] families and females”.
Operation Zarb-e-Azb is a massive counterinsurgency operation that was launched by the Pakistani Army in June 2014 to wipe out the Taliban from North Waziristan a week after the TTP’s attack on Jinnah International Airport in Karachi, which killed over 36 people including the attackers. It involves 30,000 men, armoured battalions, air support and drones. The operation came in the wake of repeated failure of talks between the Taliban and the Pakistan government. With the Pakistan government feeling as if the Taliban was dodging the talks by sending TTP sympathisers and not actual TTP ranks, the airport attack was the last straw. Between June and December, approximately 1,200 reported insurgents have been killed in the region and approximately a million civilians have been displaced.