I came back from the relief camps of Muzaffarnagar’s riot victims, not just numbed by the deaths of six-year-olds from the freezing cold, but bewildered at the manner in which the “secular” Samajwadi Party government had left for dead, those in whose name it apparently rules. Why, in a dispensation avowedly committed to minority rights, were thousands of Muslim families (the UP government has now forcibly cleared 43 camps) living in those filthy relief camps, without water, medicines or blankets? Why the mostly deafening silence of the Left — once the vigilant guardians of minorities — on the death of over 30 toddlers due to cold?
Homeless, their children dying, with only local madrasas providing shelter, Muzaffarnagar riot victims still cling to hopes of justice. They hope that FIRs will be registered against those who have been accused of rape. They hope that perpetrators will be arrested. They hope justice will be done to those who burnt their homes. Yet there is no one to provide justice to the Muzaffarnagar riot victims; their plight is a shocking stain, a highly revealing indictment of secularism as practised today by the so-called secular establishment.
So what does secularism mean today? Simply an idea for drawing rooms and seminars? Suitably grimy raw material for academic perorations on India’s post-modern condition? Is secularism simply a Facebook post or a righteous lament between the like-minded, every time Narendra Modi speaks? Is secularism a totally weakened force, entirely stupefied by television discourse, incapable of any agency of its own, any systematic volunteerism or grassroot campaigns?
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says it would be “disastrous” for India if Modi became PM because he is responsible for a massacre. By this logic, is secularism simply a weapon to blackmail voters into voting for the Congress? Rahul Gandhi claims the ISI is recruiting riot victims. What then is the Congress doing? Are secular forces so helpless, too weak to prevent this kind of recruitment? Is Mulayam Singh Yadav so content that the Jat population in western UP has been thoroughly Hindu-ised, wrenched away from the age-old Jat-Muslim alliance that Charan Singh capitalised on, so pleased that the Jats have deserted Ajit Singh and gone to the BJP, that he is happy to keep the Muslims in fear and trembling so they rally to messiah Mulayam on voting day?
Yet I saw secularism in action by the Mayawati government when I went to cover the Ayodhya title suit judgment four years ago. Passions boiled on both sides as the judgment was awaited. But Mayawati clamped down hard. Ayodhya and Faizabad were turned into fortress towns. As a result, even after that judgment which could have torn apart communities, there was not a whisper of communal protest and UP remained calm. When governments want to control communal incidents, they can.
Triumphant Hindu majoritarianism is gaining cultural ground and being popularised by many who believe in Narendra Modi’s articulation of it. Hindu outfits are working on the ground in UP to spread their beliefs and win people over. But, where by contrast, are the similarly energetic and committed secular forces to combat, provide an argument and a challenge on the ground to those whose ideology is opposed to secularism? If Modi calls for a debate on Article 370 then why is the Congress or the secular brigade unwilling to join issue and debate why they believe in Article 370?
When Jairam Ramesh says Modi poses an ideological challenge why is he silenced, when in fact Congress should take Ramesh’s cue and fashion an argument against Hindu nationalism, beyond maut ka saudagar? For secularism to hold any meaning whatsoever, it must be an idea that doesn’t just timidly hide behind laws like the Communal Violence Bill, but be an idea that is aggressively confident, able to provide a healing touch on the ground, and above all, be committed to upholding law and order. Secularism is a rooted-in-the-ground, natural impulse in India, and must be reinvigorated as a bottom-up, mass, plebeian force, rather than a top-down imposed fetish of Macaulayite elites. Why can’t a modern secularism argue, for example, that in place of mandir/masjid at Ayodhya, there should be a hospital for the poor?
If secularism is unable to find a new identity, then Modi will be proved right when he says secularism Congress-style, is simply opportunism, tokenism, taking the easy way out such as setting up a minorities ministry or a Sachar Committee on Muslims. Secular leaders have failed to implement the Sachar recommendations, failed to uphold impartial law and order, failed to make secularism a living, flesh-and-blood doctrine at the grass-roots.
The suffering of the Muzaffarnagar riot victims is a painful and tragic reminder of a discredited secular project and
the weakened narrative of secularism. Muzaffarnagar should have become the epicentre of the Congress’ ideological push towards a modern secularism. Hold the Mulayam Singh Yadav government accountable, register FIRs, organise relief on a war footing, above all, ensure that a neutral police prosecutes Hindu and Muslim offenders. Instead, the secular project has got buried in petty calculations about the Jat and Muslim vote, and an opportunity has been missed.
A Congress-NCP government was in power during the Mumbai riots of 1992-1993, and until today the Srikrishna report lies buried. A Congress government presided over 1989 Bhagalpur riots in Bihar, a Congress government watched over anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi. Yet the Congress claims a monopoly over secularism. It’s not enough for Rahul Gandhi to pay a flying visit to the Muzaffarnagar camps. It is time secularism was shaken free of its Modi-obsessed stupor, and walked with new muscular energy, new volunteerism, new commitment to impartial law and order. The secular project needs the energy that we see in AAP volunteers and their commitment to 24x7 politics.
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal