In the third week of March 1940, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad delivered the presidential address at the annual meeting of the Indian National Congress, held that year in Ramgarh in Bihar. Azad here spoke of secularism as India’s “historic destiny”, proof of which was in “our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture , our dress, our manners and our customs”, all of which bore the “stamp of our joint endeavour” (as Hindus and as Muslims). Azad insisted that “whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate or divide can break this unity”.
A few days later, the Muslim League met for its annual meeting in Lahore, where its president, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, put forward a radically different point of view. Hindus and Muslims, he believed, “belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions”. Jinnah thought it “a dream that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a common nationality”.
In the short-term, Jinnah won the debate. In 1947, Pakistan was created as a separate homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Azad was deeply demoralised by this defeat, but his friend and comrade, Jawaharlal Nehru, set out to win the argument in the long-term. Millions of Muslims had stayed behind in India; to these, Nehru offered the ideal, and hope, of a common citizenship in a secular State.
Partition had been accompanied by ethnic cleansing and bloody riots. Remarkably, the first decade-and-a-half of Independence was largely free of Hindu-Muslim violence. This was in good part due to Nehru’s leadership. He helped make Muslims feel secure in a largely Hindu nation; at the same time, he kept the forces of Hindutva extremism at bay.
In 1963, after the theft of a relic of the Prophet Muhammad from a shrine in Kashmir, there was violence against Hindus in what was then East Pakistan, followed by violence against Muslims in West Bengal and Orissa. In 1969, there was a major riot in Ahmedabad. The 1970s also saw some serious bouts of Hindu-Muslim rioting (in Moradabad and Jamshedpur, among other places). However, it was really in the 1980s and 1990s that the Gandhi-Azad-Nehru ideal of a secular India came under serious threat.
The communal polarisation of those decades was enabled by two grossly cynical moves — the annulling by Rajiv Gandhi of the Supreme Court judgement in the Shah Bano case, and the rath yatra of LK Advani. These two acts helped fuel a wave of religious violence across northern and western India, a violence so regular and widespread that those decades still seem, to one who lived through them, to be best captured in the title of a book by MJ Akbar, Riot after Riot. Notably, in all states except Jammu and Kashmir, Muslims suffered massively. Despite being a minority, far more Muslim lives were burnt, and Muslim homes burnt, than Hindu ones. There were now real fears that India was becoming a Hindu Pakistan.
This cycle ended with the Gujarat riots of 2002. In the decade since, there has been no serious Hindu-Muslim riot in India. This is the first 10-year-period since Jawaharlal Nehru’s death of which this can be said. Indeed, the diminution of sectarian conflict is the one genuinely cheering thing about India today, small consolation — but consolation nevertheless — in the face of corruption scandals, growing economic inequalities, galloping environmental degradation, et. al.
My own impression, based on travels around the country and conversations with a variety of Indians, is that this cooling of communal tempers is occurring independently and simultaneously on both sides of the spectrum. Hindus who once went along with the Ayodhya movement now see the futility of constructing a nation’s agenda around a single temple. Having witnessed (and suffered) the BJP in power in New Delhi, they now know that far from being a ‘party with a difference’, it is driven by greed and personal ambition. Meanwhile, the ordinary Muslim is breaking free of the reactionary mullahs who once presumed to speak for the community. He, and increasingly she, is no longer moved by talk of the past glories of Islam — rather, they seek education and jobs in the modern economy.
The contrast with Pakistan in this respect can be striking. In Lahore, once a showpiece of cosmopolitanism, the women on the streets are mostly in burqas. In Bihar, once a byword for backwardness, Muslim girls go unaccompanied on cycles to school. Barely a handful of Indian Muslims have joined terrorist organisations; whereas tens of thousands of Pakistanis have done so. Indian Islam retains its diverse and plural character; Pakistani Islam has increasingly gone the Wahabi way. Here, unlike there, Shias, Ahmediyas, Khojas and Ismailis are not under threat from Sunni fundamentalists.
Have Nehru and Azad then finally won the argument? Is, will, must, secularism be India’s destiny? It is too early to say. The social peace of the past decade, the shedding of reactionary tendencies by Hindus and Muslims, could yet be reversed by the scheming of politicians. The bans on cow-slaughter and the mandatory teaching of the Bhagvad Gita in BJP-ruled states are inimical to the secularism that the nation’s founders sought. So are the job quotas for Muslims so energetically pursued by the Congress. Pace Azad, these schemes are not so much artificial as malevolent. The former seek to provoke Muslims; the latter, to placate them. Neither is consistent with the claims of equal citizenship. For the sake of Hindus, Muslims, and India itself, these schemes must be withdrawn, or, through the pressure of democratic public opinion, be made to fail.
Ramachandra Guha is the current holder of the Philippe Roman Chair in History and International Affairs, London School of Economics. The views expressed by the author are personal