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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 13 New Delhi March 14, 2020

Secularism on Trial

Sunday 15 March 2020, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

We as a nation are proud of the fact that we are a secular democracy. The test of our secularism does not consist in our protestations, however loud these may be, but in the manner we conduct ourselves towards the minorities who live and toil in this far-flung Republic of ours. Not only have we as a nation to ensure security to the minorities but should be able to instil into them a sense of security through our conduct. It is this challenge the nation faces today.

Currently, a storm of angry controversy has broken over a memorandum submitted to the Prime Minister by fortyfive Muslim Members of Parliament belonging to different parties, including the ruling Congress-I. The memo-randum, which was spurred by the festering communal riots at Meerut, drew the Prime Minister’s attention to the growing sense of insecurity gripping the minority community, and suggested some measures, many of them wholesome and unexceptionable, to combat communalism. The Prime Minister received the memorandum on November 5 but nothing moved, though the MPs concerned had legitimately expected that the government’s response would be prompt and earnest.

An impression is being sedulously created that the Muslim MPs’ memo has been inspired by some Opposition elements, particularly by the active Janata MP Syed Shahabuddin, to alienate the Muslim population from the ruling Congress-I. What is worth noting is that the initiative for the memo had come from staunch nationalists, those belonging to the Jamiatulama-i-Hind, the organisation of nationalist Muslims, which has a consistent record of combating Muslim communalism. Some of the prominent Muslim members of Indira Gandhi’s Council of Ministers—particularly two—took an active part in the discussions that led to the drafting of the memo, though being Ministers they naturally could not put their signatures on it. After waiting for over a month—forty days to be precise—the signatories, other than those from the Congress-I, decided to release the memo to the press but were careful in keeping away most of the names.

It is amazing that there has been a spate of vitriolic attacks on this initiative coming from the Muslim MPs genuinely concerned about the mood of helplessness growing within their community. They have done nothing that should annoy anybody committed to secularism: they frankly put forward their views before the Prime Minister of India and when they found that these were as good as shelved, some of them thought it necessary to let the public know about their point of view. Let it be noted that the move was not meant to embarrass the government as is evident from the fact that Congress-I MPs signed it and even some of the Ministers personally approved of it. Should this not be sufficient to make all anti-communal forces sit up?

In fact, it is time to sit up and take stock of the entire situation dispassionately, with stern objectivity. Whether one likes it or not, the Muslim community is genuinely disturbed at the persistent outbreak of communal violence. The Congress-I, the ruling political party over which Indira Gandhi presides, is the bearer of a great heritage. The martyrdom of Ganesh Shankar Vidyarthi was not an isolated episode: it was part of a hallowed traditoin. But today, if one makes a factual study of the outbreak of communal violence in places like Moradabad, Meerut, or Baroda, to take only the latest round, one is appalled at the involvement of the local leaders of the Congress-I. Indira Gandhi is certainly right in pointing an accusing finger at the RSS, but she can carry conviction on this point only if she deals with an iron hand the communal proclivities inside her own party.

Indira Gandhi is certainly not communal as a personality. And yet many of the recent stances of her government and her establishment can legitimately create misgivings. What is the point in arranging AIR broadcasts of recitations from the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures? It looks almost like pre-empting the Akali demand for broadcasting Gurbani. Indira Gandhi goes for pujahs to different temples all over the country: she is perfectly entitled to her own religious beliefs and avocations and nobody can have any grudge on this point. But should the news of such rituals performed by the Prime Minister be dutifully broadcast by AIR? Is this not a recent innovation? Nobody heard of such news-items in AIR broadcasts twenty years ago, not even ten years ago.

Apart from the actual outbreak of riots, there is a new wave of Hindu fundamentalism in our country today. The phenomenal spread of the cult of the Viswa Hindu Parishad receives no rebuff from Congressmen, either ideologically or politically. Dr Karan Singh turning a vigorous campaigner for it has not barred his access to the Congress-I parlour: in fact, there is a perceptible appreciation of his stand in certain Congress circles. This is nothing surprising when one finds, for example, a senior member of Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet, Bhisma Narain Singh, lending a helping hand to the Viswa Hindu movment in Bihar.

Recently, Kashmir Chief Minister Dr Farooq Abdullah announced his decision to ban communal bodies like the RSS and Jamaat-e-Islami. Any citizen committed to secularism should have hailed the proposal. But what has been the reaction? Congressmen have been maintaining eloquent silence, and, strangely, so also the Left. When one raises the issue with the Establishment politicos, they trot out the time-worn plea that banning an organisation might be struck down by the Supreme Court as contrary to the Consitution. Then, why not amend the Constitution? Instead, they say with an air of profundity that communal bodies have to be combated “politically”. Barring the season of electionering, does any party—Congress or Opposition—keep up a sustained fight against communal bodies? And in times of election too, there is always a tendency, if it pays, to hobnob—under all types of quibbling like ‘seat adjust-ment’—with known communal elements.

The record of the Union Home Ministry on this score is far from edifying. Sometime in the mid-sixties (between 1963 and 1965), the entire file on the role and activity of the RSS in 1947-48 was mysteriously found to be missing. Rather interesting, since that was the period of communal build-up that led to the assassination of Gandhiji. It is the Home Ministry which has invariably stood in the way of banning communal bodies. It claims to have set up a communal harmony cell. It has denied that it sent out a circular to State governments to stop any mass conversion to Islam, though it is known that their reaction to the Meenakshipuram conversion was largely in tune with the Hindu communalists. What the Home Ministry has not denied is that one of its officers made a study of how communal disturbances originate, a sort of academic exercise without pinning down the responsibility for the mischief. What is intriguing is that this document was not placed before the Communal and Caste Harmony Committee of the National Integration Council, which met on November 30. Nor, for that matter, was the Muslim MPs’ memo, though it made some important suggestions. By its own action—or inaction—the government has kept the National Integration Council in a state of emasculation.

Another example of the government’s lapse is the way it has taken no action to deal with, if not disband, the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) of UP which has earned all-round testimonials for its active involvement in attacking the Muslims in riots that have smeared the UP countryside in recent years—at Agra, Aligarh, Moradabad and Meerut. The press has exposed the misdoings of the PAC and so have many upright citizens, irrespective of communities. Not even a letter from a retired Judge of the Supreme Court to the Union Home Minister after a visit to Meerut recently (reproduced in Mainstream, November 20, 1982) could produce any effect. Obviously nobody bothered. On the other hand, a press report has quoted “the verbatim statement” by a Home Ministry officer, in which he makes a blatant plea in defence of the PAC for being trigger-happy.

The government has set up an elaborate body like the Minorities Commission, with practically no authority. Its biggest drawback is that it is composed entirely of persons, how-ever eminent, from the minority communities. Not content with that, another high-level panel for communal harmony has been set up, this time too composed entirely of persons from minority communities. Understandably, these make no impact on the red-stone walls of the Home Ministry nor on the wider public beyond.

It is time that men and women concerned with the serious erosion of secularism in our country took stock of the worsening situation without fear or favour, with the minimum bias or prejudice but maximum understanding of the problems that face the minority communities. The Muslim MPs’ memorandum should force us to ponder seriously why our secularism, however profuse in public declarations, has become skin-deep. Tolerance, deliberately inculcated and nationally reinforced, can alone be the starting-point of a movement for the consolidation of secular democracy in this country of Gandhi and Nehru.

(Editor’s Notebook, Mainstream, December 25, 1982)

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