Terms of Trade | Why current form of secular politics is helpless, once again

May 27, 2022 03:36 PM IST

India has been seeing a proliferation of demands claiming that many ancient mosques were allegedly built by demolishing temples, with ineffective opposition to these movements. 

In the last few weeks, India has seen a proliferation of demands, both inside and outside courts claiming that a lot of ancient mosques, allegedly built by demolishing temples, be returned to Hindus for their restoration as Hindu places of worship. The most important case of this kind is the one around the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, where the Supreme Court has refused to stall a lower-court ordered survey and subsequent arguments. The stay was primarily being demanded by citing the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. This Act explicitly states that with 15 August, 1947 as the cut-off date, there can be no change in the nature of any religious place. The case is now being heard by a district court.

Does this mean there is no way in which this majoritarian trend can be prevented? (PTI) PREMIUM
Does this mean there is no way in which this majoritarian trend can be prevented? (PTI)

Here is the broad theme in such cases. Parties claiming to represent Hindu sentiments — not necessarily or directly linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — cite historical evidence or demand surveys that they are sure will unearth such evidence that will furnish proof of such places being Hindu temples back in time.

The opposition to these movements can be broadly classified into three categories.

First, is the direct judicial and extra judicial opposition to such demands by Muslim (as custodians of these religious places), citing (perhaps rightfully) the 1991 Act.

The second is the response of parties other than the BJP (such as the Congress, SP, BSP, and Communists), which see behind such moves a sinister plot to create communal polarisation in the country.

The third is the counter rooted in history which argues that while there is historical evidence of temples such as those in Kashi and Mathura being demolished by Muslim rulers, the practice of rulers demolishing religious places was common back then and that wholesale demands for restoration of status quo ante is going to lead to anarchy. Irfan Habib, one of India’s most eminent historians (he is rooted in the Marxist tradition), has made such an argument recently.

None of these arguments are likely to be effective.

Here is why.

Consider the invocation of the 1991 Act to oppose demands such as what is being made in the Gyanvapi case. The best lesson from history is to be drawn from what happened in the case of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. While a Supreme Court judgment ultimately paved the way for construction of Ram temple on the site where Babri mosque stood, some argue that the verdict, if it had been different, may not have been accepted widely. The Ram Janmabhoomi part of the 1989 Palampur resolution of BJP, which is widely considered a watershed moment in the party’s history, is unequivocal on this question. “The BJP holds that the nature of this controversy is such that it just cannot be sorted out by a court of law. A court of law can settle issues of title, trespass, possession etc. But it cannot adjudicate as to whether Babar did actually invade Ayodhya, destroyed a temple and built a mosque in its place. Even where a court does pronounce on such facts, it cannot suggest remedies to undo the vandalism of history,” the resolution said. 

The fact that India’s criminal justice system could not even punish one person for what the courts have described as a criminal act of demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992 will likely only embolden the extra-legal route to resolution of such disputes.

Marshalling an exclusively legal or extra-legal Muslim opposition to such Hindu claims is a political strategy which (even if inadvertently) falls into the majoritarian trap of further polarising the communal situation. Once again, the Palampur resolution is instructive. “A rally organised by this (Muslim) lobby in front of Parliament House actually held out threats of violence unless these orders were reversed. It is significant that most of the members of the Babri Masjid Action Committee belonged to the Congress (I),” it said.

The pitfalls of an exclusively or predominantly Muslim opposition to such claims have been underlined by several experts. “When the Babri Masjid question arose in February 1986 the Muslim community seethed with resentment at the gross injustice it had suffered, dimly aware of the games that were being played out in secret. Muslims politicians chose mindlessly to pursue the course on which they had embarked since 1948—mobilisation of Muslims ‘to assert Muslims’ rights; ventilation of Muslims’ grievances, agitation for Muslims’ protection against wrongs…In truth, every wrong, every act of injustice done to a Muslim—or for that matter, any other citizen—is an Indian lapse from Indian ideals, for Indians to set right, cutting across the religious divide,” A G Noorani wrote in the introduction of his book The Muslims of India: A Documentary Record.

As for the secular criticism that issues such as Kashi-Mathura being raised to distract attentions from issues of the economy etc. is concerned, it is a nothing but defeatist rant. If the BJP or any other political party can convince the majority (or even a significant part of it) to prioritise religious issues over real or perceived economic pain, it represents a hegemonic victory over the opposition’s agenda. While there is always the option of describing the electorate as “communal”, in terms of political praxis, the opposition is condemned to live with a taunt which was, ironically, best articulated by the left-leaning German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht in his poem called "Die Lösung" (The Solution).

After the uprising of the 17th of June

The Secretary of the Writers' Union

Had leaflets distributed on the Stalinallee

Stating that the people

Had forfeited the confidence of the government

And could only win it back

By increased work quotas. Would it not in that case be simpler

for the government

To dissolve the people

And elect another?

In fact, the BJP often attributes its electoral victories to a rejection of what it terms “ pseudo secularism”.

This brings us to the last question. Why has the intellectual case against such demands not been very effective? The typical Marxist historian response to the claim of “Babri mosque was built after demolishing a Ram temple and therefore status quo ante be restored” was that the argument was not backed by historical facts. A 1997 Social Scientist article by SP Udayakumar summarises some of these arguments. They include questions such as if a Ram temple was indeed demolished during the Mughal period in the 16th century then why did Tulsidas – his Ramcharitmanas is the most popular version of Ramayana – who wrote in the early 17th century maintain silence on this issue. There were also arguments based on archaeological evidence which questioned whether the present city of Ayodhya was indeed the city which exists in Ramayana.

Whether or not such arguments are true – the BJP and its fellow travellers claim that they are not – is beside the point. The futility of such arguments in deciding what was basically a political battle was underlined by a historian from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Majid Hayat Siddiqui, who broke ranks with his peers when he refused to sign the famous 1989 statement The Political Abuse of History: Babri Masjid Ram Jamnabhomi Dispute (republished in Social Scientist) with his colleagues at the history department of JNU. The statement questioned the historical veracity of the claims being made by the forces leading the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.

Siddiqui explained his reasons for breaking ranks in a short piece in the Economic and Political Weekly in January 1990. “When ‘history’ is invoked by a group that encourages aggression against a minority, the role that historians could play in countering it would be as moral and political persons, not as historians. It is not for historians to ‘prove’ or disprove’ as right or wrong every instance of an assertion made by a political or cultural group as social winds this way and that. That would be allowing history to be used (and therefore abused) by sections of society as opposed to its being of value in society”, Siddiqui wrote.

Siddiqui is not the only historian to have argued along these lines. Shahid Amin’s 2016 book Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan – Suheldev, who is celebrated by the Hindu right (and has been popularised after author Amish Tripathi’s bestseller) is believed to have defeated Ghazi Miyan who wanted to establish a Muslim kingdom in India – makes a similar argument even after arguing at length that historical evidence suggests that even a section of Hindus showed devotion towards the legend of Ghazi Miyan. “That spectral world where promiscuous accounts of the past are variedly embraced by the victors and conquered alike is not amenable to unalloyed certitude; it is best explored by sidestepping the hubris of history,” Amin wrote.

Does this mean there is no way in which this majoritarian trend can be prevented?

Any answer to this question has to go to the core of the Hindu right’s argument which says that India is not a country which come into being in 1947 but a civilisational state which goes back thousands of years. The political implication of accepting this argument is that whenever such civilizational questions come into conflict with constitutional norms, the former will always take priority. Like the BJP’s 1989 Palampur resolution’s dismissal of the role of judiciary in adjudicating on the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute and the celebration of a favourable Supreme Court judgment shows, any claim of subservience to constitutional mechanism is at best a marriage of convenience. One can always argue that institutions themselves are nimble-footed when it comes to interpretation of what it constitutional and what it not, both by acts of omission and commission. Such an argument should have the maximum resonance with Marxists.

India, in the modern and constitutional sense, has dealt with this civilisational question, although not in the most amicable way, in 1947 and 1950. Even though the country underwent a partition on communal lines in 1947, our founding fathers decided to adopt the principle of equality towards all religions when we adopted our constitution in 1950. The constitution does not see India as a “Hindu Rashtra” or a civilisational state.

The two-nation theory of Hindus and Muslims being two separate nations in India (which, it was argued, necessitated partition) had support of not only the more extreme elements among the Muslims and the Hindus, but also voices as progressive and emancipatory as Bhimrao Ambedkar.

“The Muslims have developed a ‘will to live as a nation’. For them, nature has found a territory which they can occupy and make it a state as well as a cultural home for the new-born Muslim nation. Given these favourable conditions, there should be no wonder, if the Muslims say that they are not content to occupy the position which the French chose to occupy in Canada or the English chose to occupy in South Africa, and that they shall have a national home they can call their own,” Ambedkar wrote in Is There a Case for Pakistan?.

Not everyone agreed with such arguments, of course. Among the most influential and powerful voices against Partition was Jawaharlal Nehru, who attacked such a demand from two positions. The first was the question of practicality. “Any division of India on a religious basis as between Hindus and Moslems, as envisaged by the Moslem League to-day, cannot separate the followers of these two principal religions of India, for they are spread out all over the country. Even if the areas in which each group is in a majority are separated, huge minorities belonging to the other group remain in each area. Thus instead of solving the minority problem, we create several in place of one”, Nehru wrote in The Discovery of India.

However, this was not the only counter Nehru had to such a demand. He was widely aware of the historical fault lines which had created the communal problem in India. “The individual and the national group fashion their own destiny by their actions; these past actions lead to the present and what they do to-day forms the basis of their tomorrows. Karma, they have called this in India, the law of cause and effect, the destiny which our past activities create for us,” Nehru wrote. However, he did not see India’s future as fait accompli given its past. “It is not an invariable destiny and many other factors go to influence it, and the individual's will is itself supposed to have some play. If this freedom to vary the results of past action were not present, then indeed we would all be mere robots in the iron grip of an unavoidable fate,” he further wrote.

Is it the case that the individual will of today’s secular leaders is weaker than that of the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru? As tempted as one is to answer this question in the affirmative, there is a handicap which the present generation of politicians face which Nehru did not. Nehru’s legitimacy as a politician came from his stellar role in the freedom movement (and also the support of Mahatma Gandhi who was by far the most popular mass leader in India at that time).

The present generation of secular politicians is (not completely unjustifiably) seen as defending such principles for the sake of capturing power in a first-past-the-post democratic setup. The reluctance of so-called secular parties in taking the forces of minority communalism head-on and their blemished track record on the question of probity and propriety in governance has added a lot of credibility to such a charge. On more than one instance, the so-called secular parties have shown that they prioritise realpolitik over a principled defence of secular praxis they claim to champion. The re-induction of many defectors (who joined the BJP before the 2021 and 2019 elections and used shrill communal rhetoric during elections) by the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal is just one such example.

So what is to be done? There is no recourse except following Nehru’s strategy of finding a strong practical and ideological counter to the ongoing majoritarian frenzy which can only be described as seeking endless historical reparations from the minorities in India. Such politics and demands are not going to end with a favourable resolution of Kashi-Mathura. At its core is a desire to keep communities polarised. One has seen the proof of this is in growing demands for alternative forms of othering minorities such as their economic boycott in states such as Karnataka.

The practical reason against such a majoritarian politics is not very difficult to see. India is home to more than 200 million Muslims and there is absolutely no way in which they can be purged from the country’s geographical boundaries. In fact, this holds even for a place such as Assam where even a disqualification of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of Muslims from the National Register of Citizens is not going to get rid of what many people consider to be illegal Bangladeshi infiltrators. A nation pushing such a numerically significant minority against the wall, which is what such politics is effectively achieving, is only weakening itself in the long-term.

However, for such a counter to have resonance, its proponents will have to conclusively display that they are making such an appeal from a position of conviction rather than electoral opportunism. The momentary triumph of the so-called secular over the communal immediately after the demolition of Babri mosque and then in the post-2004 period was not a victory of the intellectual logic of historical rejection of the Hindu right’s demands. It was achieved by deploying another majoritarian strategy (Mandal) against that of Hindutva. The BJP has learnt from the reverses it suffered back then, reconciled itself to supporting reservations and exploited the inherent dominant other backward class (OBC) sectarianism in the Mandal movement to usurp the support of lower OBCs, who rightfully feel betrayed by their so-called vanguards.

To be sure, we are likely to see yet another attempt at rejuvenating the Mandal versus Kamandal contest by increasing demands for a caste-census which will justify pushing the existing cap of 27% for OBC reservations. Even if such a strategy were to succeed, it will only amount to temporarily kicking the can of majority communalism down the road. Two decades after Mandal kicked it down the road, the can has caught up with India once again.

Every Friday, HT’s data and political economy editor, Roshan Kishore, combines his commitment to data and passion for qualitative analysis in a column for HT Premium, Terms of Trade. With a focus on one big number and one big issue, he will go behind the headlines to ask a question and address political economy issues and social puzzles facing contemporary India.

The views expressed are personal

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    Roshan Kishore is the Data and Political Economy Editor at Hindustan Times. His weekly column for HT Premium Terms of Trade appears every Friday.

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