Muslims and ‘secular alternatives’

As the supporters of the right-wing fascist Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) burst crackers on 5th August to celebrate the foundation ceremony in Ayodhya, there was a more surprising celebration done by the Congress, the main opposition of BJP and often hailed as the sole guardian of liberty, secularism and rights in India. However, their claim to this guardianship is now under-investigation given their delight over the temple in Ayodhya being constructed literally over graves of Muslims.

A day before the foundation stone was to be laid in Ayodhya, the charismatic Congress heir Priyanka Gandhi wrote a letter proclaiming the foundation ceremony as a symbol of the national cultural congregation. Congressman Kamal Nath sent 11 silver bricks for the foundation ceremony. Senior Congressman Digvijay Singh claimed that the first foundation of the temple was laid by late Rajeev Gandhi. Shashi Tharoor went as far as to use Quranic verses to justify Congress’ support of Ayodhya temple.

In short words, Congress desperately grabbed at its share of the Hindu voters, the only vote bank which now seems to matter in India. To do so, they had to shed their secular image and assert their Hinduism, which they did unapologetically. Their actions have reverberated negatively in liberal and democratic circles of India. There were many Muslims who were astonished, even paralysed by this desperate grabbing of Congress. Some even tried to defend Congress by prancing the overused narrative of defeating BJP and “its hate-politics”. However, we should understand that our fight is not only against BJP but also the wider Islamophobia it has spread in the Indian society.

Secular Indians no longer see the party as a suitable alternative to BJP. Many have alleged that Congress’s ideology is principle-less. The core fact which remains is that Congress seems to have bowed down to the far right-wing fascism and it astounds many. But Congress did not bow in August. In fact, Congress had already bowed to it after independence. It never intended to defend secularism. What happened on 5th August is that their stance on the right-wing fasicsm became clear to everyone. This is not a subtle change in Congress’ politics, it’s their one and only game-plan.

Even before independence, many Congressmen had subscribed to the “Hindu” identity and achieving a “Hindu” India[i]. The Hindutva ideology had influenced the party so much that it nurtured people like Keshav Baliram Hedgewar who founded Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. This right-wing influence reverberated in the successive generation of Congress leaders like Sardar Patel, Rajendra Prasad, Jayaprakash Sangh and Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant. This conglomeration of Hindutva leaders forced the secular-minded Nehru to take unprecedented decisions and overlook actions which undoubtedly revitalized Hindu nationalism.

Sardar Patel as an agent of the Indian state ordered the reconstruction of Somnath temple in Junagarh, which was followed with a fulsome installation ceremony presided over by then President of India Rajendra Prasad along with Union Minister K. M. Munshi[ii]. Nehru had severely disapproved of their attendance because he did not want an infant Indian state to be associated with religious symbols, especially that of the majority community.

Nehru also ignored actions of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Pt. Govind Ballabh Pant who facilitated the escape of RSS leader Guru Golwalkar when he was caught with evidence of planning communal violence in Uttar Pradesh. This incident took place while there is extensive coverage of Muslims arrested in northern India for “inciting violence” when they were only slaughtering cattle on Bakra Eid.

Within one decade of Kashmir’s accession, death of Syama Prasad Mukherjee, the godfather of Hindu nationalism, forced Nehru to remove permit system, the posts of Sadar-e-Riayasat and Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir from Instrument of Accession signed between Kashmir and India. The removal of these components can be viewed as the infant step which today has resulted in the unconstitutional removal of Article 370 by Modi’s increasingly fascist regime.

However, one of the biggest mistakes Nehru made was including Sardar Vallabhai Patel, who had once called RSS workers patriotic Indians, in the sensitive process of annexing states and nation-building.

Hindu nationalism was introduced to Indians by the RSS but it does not absolve Congress of the responsibility of making it relevant in mainstream politics. This legitimization did not start with Nehru. In fact, he had tried very hard to fulfil his commitment to secularism. From writing a letter intended to secure rights for minorities to opposing the foundation ceremony of Somnath temple, he often fought bitterly with fellow Congressmen to protect secularism.

However, Nehruvian secularism died in 1963 along with Nehru, and the country soon fell prey to communal forces under the leadership of his daughter, Indira Gandhi.

In 1970s, Indira in the pursuit of electoral wins drifted towards communal politics in Punjab and Kashmir while allowing K. Karunakaran to approach Sangh Parivar whenever help was required for electoral battles with the Left.

Professor Ashutosh Varshney noted in his book Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, “Indira Gandhi broke up with Nehruvian secularism in the late 1970s, when she granted recognition to Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the Sikh religious fundamentalist leader. Not only did she legitimise his ‘religious’ demands but also the role he was attempting to assume in the government.”

Trying to increase her outreach in the valley, Indira aligned with Hindu nationalist parties, appealed explicitly to communal sentiments among Hindu voters in Jammu and accused the opposition of harbouring “anti-nationals” and “pro-Pakistani” inclinations. She might be the first Indian to invent and normalize “anti-national” rhetoric which BJP now uses freely to attack those criticizing it.

 Indira represented Nehru’s legacy, her words carried her father’s weight and her support of Hindu nationalists allowed right-wing parties to enter Indian politics. Their entry was marked with Virat Hindu Samaj (VHS) which was found in 1981 by Dr Karan Singh, son of erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir, a member of Congress, and a close friend of Indira[iii].

VHS was founded in reaction to Meenakshipuram conversions in which 150 Dalits had willingly converted to Islam. The willing conversion became the basis of Karan’s “Hindus are in danger” theory which he advocated in front of Indira. Indira gave a go and thus started a series of Virat Hindu Sammelans organized by the members of Virat Hindu Samaj. The first Sammelan was organized in the Indian capital Delhi by Karan Singh himself and attracted a crowd of 4 lakh Hindus from all over India.

The second Sammelan took place in Patna in 1982. This time the organizer was Shankar Dayal Singh, a Parliamentarian from Congress and Cabinet Minister of Bihar. These initial waves of fear-mongering amongst Hindus were fanned by more such gatherings in Mathura, Patna and Jodhpur. These gatherings were organized and attended by members and leaders of both Congress and Virat Hindu Samaj[iv]. Now is an important junction to mention that the VHS was an assortment of leaders from many right-wing groups such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and RSS. As such, Congress willingly mixed with right-wing parties it now claims to abhor. More than that, its inclusion of these right-wing fringe groups loaned them the centre stage of Indian statecraft.

Till this point, Congress could have been defended by reasoning that it was pandering to electoral demands. But Congress went overboard in 1983 when instead of just pandering, it itself created the demand of Ram Janam Bhoomi temple to further consolidate its share of Hindu votes.

The first step towards this demand was taken by Congressman Dau Dayal Khanna. He was the first one to demand restoration of the temple structure on Ayodha’s disputed land. Dayal held and attended multiple conferences in Muzaffarpur, Muzaffarnagar, Delhi, Sitamarhi and Ayodhya during 1983 and 1984. In each of these conferences, Dayal talked of liberating the temple structures of Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura[v]. Indira did not oppose the movement lodged by Dau Dayal for opening locks of Babri for the sole purpose of worshipping the idols inside.

Indira died in 1984 but unlike her, her successor Rajiv Gandhi continued her form of politics by further violating the secular code of the country. Shah Bano case was Congress’ and by extension, Indian judiciary’s first direct dabbling with communal nationalism in India. Rajiv tried to woo Muslim voters by Shah Bano case which alienated Hindu voters, to appease them Rajiv opened the locks of Babri. It was much like a tennis match with the secularism as a ball. In matches like these with communalisation as a factor, the ball had to fall. And fall it did, hard.

When an appeal for removal of restrictions on Hindu worship in Babri premises was moved, it made electoral sense to give in. The Rajiv Gandhi government removed the locks on Babri. The unlocking of the gates was “manipulated through a judicial order” with the aid of the state government and District Judge of Faizabad, KM Pandey. This was the first time bureaucracy faced ‘manipulation’ to satisfy the electoral demands of the majority community. When Modi abrogated 370 on 5th August 2019, it was by far just an extension of this manipulation Rajiv was the first to command in Indian statecraft.

Until then, a priest had performed puja once a year for the idols ‘placed’ there in 1949. Then the mosque became functioning like a temple and with it, Ayodhya became a boiling pot of communalisation and violence.

Ramayana was broadcasted in between 1987 and 1988 on government-run Doordarshan. Doordarshan’s programming was until then, under a secular policy, religion-neutral. After unlocking Ayodhya, Rajiv adjusted Doordarshan’s secular policy to push the streaming of Ramayana. The “Hindi, Hindu and Hindutva” form of Hindu Rashtra might as well be laid with this show. Ramayana’s show broadcast is the first actual Islamophobia-laden activity of the Indian bureaucracy. This whole drama was run during the tenure of Rajiv and now it is being re-run by Modi. Its actors later joined BJP and won elections.

During the 1989 elections, Rajiv Gandhi started his election campaign from a meeting on Ram’s birthplace at the Saryu bank in Ayodhya by vocally asserting his commitment to establishing “Rama Rajya” in Nehru’s once secular India and even performed “Shilanyas” there. Rajiv’s loyalty to this commitment can be determined by his silence and inaction during Babri’s demolishment and the widespread riots which followed it.

The opening of the Babri Masjid site exclusively for Hindus, the politicization of Mandir and idea of Ram Rajya together justified the entry of a major communal political party, the BJP, into the Indian political landscape. So 1989 elections followed a shaky regime of BJP in coalition with mainstream communist parties and the disputed area at Ayodhya was levelled despite the High Court judgement of 1991.

Muslims still have not forgotten the fact that it was under Congress that idols were first “placed” inside Babri in 1949 and it was a Congress government that allowed a foundation ceremony for the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya. Again, it was under a Congress prime minister that a Hindu mob amassed at Ayodhya and attacked the mosque on Dec 6, 1992. Congress instituted the Liberhan Commission ten days after the demolition of the Babri Mosque and never made its report public.

The past generation of Indian Muslims might have forgiven Congress on the account of defeating rabid right-wingers but the emerging generation today remembers Congress’ relative silence on Kathua. There was no strong protest against the murder of an eight-year-old child in Jammu, who was reportedly kept captive in a temple for days, gang-raped, drugged, beaten, her head smashed in and targeted apparently for her religious identity. Why the “secular” party did not charge the “communal” BJP with gross negligence of its duty. Congress was in full play, not just in Karnataka, but in Jammu too, where its leaders expressed solidarity with the Kathua accused. The Gandhis’ candlelight vigil must not cancel the absence of action taken against those Congressmen who supported the accused. Actions like these indicate the ideological bankruptcy of Congress, continuous pandering to electoral demands and its immoral position.

Even before Kathua, when Gopalgarh incident of 2011 took place neither Rahul Gandhi nor the then home minister P. Chidambaram, considered to make an hour’s drive from Delhi and visit there, despite several delegations imploring them to do so. This is the first documented instance in India of police firing inside a mosque and 10 dead Muslims as casualties.

Congress instituted various commissions and committees to resolve the problems of the minorities and secure secularism. But all such committees and commissions became nothing but political stunts with empty promises. The report of Sachar Committee like its predecessors, including Ram Sahai Commission on Muslim weavers, Srikrishna Commission on 1993 Mumbai riots, Liberhan Commission on Babri’s demolition, Gopal Singh Committee on Minorites in 1983 and Ranganath Commission on religious and linguistic minorities, gathers dust.

Congress has completely disassociated itself from the Sachar Committee.  The party’s manifestos for the recent assembly elections are virtually silent about the recommendations of the Sachar Report.

The leaders of the party are now very careful about using the word ‘Muslim’. In their need of abandoning Indian Muslims to woo Hindu voters, Congress has made secular India an orphan. When seen in context to this history, Priyanka’s one-month-old letter neither baffles Indians nor threatens Indian secularism. In fact, it might be seen as a veritable finishing stroke to Congress’ dabbles with communalization and should indicate the end of any and all Muslim support to Congress’ ideological stand.

Tazeen Junaid is a Bachelors’s student at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) and had been at the forefront of AMU students’ anti-CAA protests

[i] William Gould. Hindu Nationalism and the Language of Politics in Late Colonial India. Cambridge University Press. p. 1. ISBN 9781139451956.

[ii] Christophe Jaffrelot. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s : Strategies of Identity-building, Implantation and Mobilisation. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, p 85-86 ISBN          1850651701

[iii] Christophe Jaffrelot. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s : Strategies of Identity-building, Implantation and Mobilisation. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, p 364 ISBN              1850651701

[iv] Christophe Jaffrelot. The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics: 1925 to the 1990s : Strategies of Identity-building, Implantation and Mobilisation. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, p 365 ISBN              1850651701

[v] Vishwa Hindu Parishad distributed a four-page hand-out titled ‘Sri Ramjanmabhumi Mandir ke Tathya’. The pamphlet narrated how in March 1983, a Hindu Sammelan was organised in Muzaffarnagar where Daudayal Khanna called upon Ram devotees to restore the glory of the country by freeing Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi. VHP to launch drive to spread awareness about ‘history’ of Ayodhya dispute on ‘New Indian Express’ on 30th November 2019.