Hindu hedgehog, secular fox


Piece keeping

There is a murmur of concern in India about the present crisis in Sierra Leone. Questions are being asked about India’s longstanding commitment to United Nations peacekeeping activities around the world. Frustration is setting in at the political stalemate in the west African state which has left 21 Indian peacekeepers prisoners of the rebel Revolutionary United Front. The fate of the prisoners is raising concern. But Indians are also irritated with the UN’s cumbersome military command structure, its absurdly restrictive rules of engagement for peacekeepers. Underlying this is a deeper question of whether Indians are willing to be involved in the bloody quagmires in faroff lands like Sierra Leone.

Largescale UN involvement in an African civil war became taboo after the fiasco in Somalia. After strong lobbying from the African states, the world community agreed in January this year to be more active in containing the continent’s endemic violence. Sierra Leone was to have been the test case. Eleven thousand peacekeepers — the biggest UN operation in the world — were dispatched to the country. The UN secretary general, Mr Kofi Annan, personally helped negotiate a truce with the RUF leader, Mr Foday Sankoh. The plan, modelled on what had worked in neighbouring Liberia, was to use the stick of military force and the carrot of political power through elections to persuade Mr Sankoh to holster his guns. The icing on the cake was to let Mr Sankoh keep the country’s lucrative diamond mines.

The UN proved gullible. Mr Sankoh too greedy. Now Mr Sankoh is a prisoner and a couple of hundred UN peacekeepers are in the hands of the rebels. India is unhappy with UN rules that, for example, disallow its troops from using their weapons in their self-defence without security council sanction. This sort of complaint has dogg- ed UN peacekeeping operations for years. UN forces tend to be a mosaic of nationalities. Though a single commander exists, in practice the soldiers obey orders issued from their respective governments. One analysis said there were 14 distinctive lines of command in the Somalia operation.

The other part of the problem is that in the post-Cold War era, nations are increasingly unwilling to risk their soldiers’ lives for intractable tribal bush wars in faroff lands. Somalia marked the end of direct US involvement in peacekeeping. If India suffers casualties, it is likely New Delhi will be shy of future involvement in similar ventures. The problem is twofold. Because of media coverage and increasing public sensitivity towards casualties, governments are reluctant to send soldiers into combat situations. Governments also find it harder to explain why their soldiers should involve themselves in remote conflicts, even if they are under a blue UN banner.

A number of trends are evident. First, only countries with a direct security interest in a conflict are willing to volunteer to play the role of regional policeman. In the civil wars of Sierra Leone and Liberia, it was the armies of regional powers like Nigeria and Ghana that blunted the violence of the rebel groups. Similarly, India is taking the lead in Sri Lanka. And Australia that sets the world’s response to Fiji. Second, the international community’s role is to provide backup support for such regional initiatives. This is normally in the form of economic or diplomatic support. The Western countries, for example, have bankrolled Nigeria’s military operations in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Finally, such peacekeeping operations are nowadays carried on outside the direct purview of the UN. The UN often serves only as a post facto legitimizing authority. Recognizing this, Mr Annan has repeatedly called for a permanent UN army. Unfortunately, this has fallen on deaf ears. Sierra Leone will go down as India’s first exposure to two postmodern phenomena: the failed state and the UN’s inability to do much about them. So far India has not thought through this situation and its implications for the country’s peacekeeping activities.    

The recent attacks in Goa, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have brought such concerted condemnation of the government’s response to anti-Christian violence, that Atal Behari Vajpayee has been forced to hold high-profile meetings with the National Minorities Commission, consult with Christian representatives and backpedal on his earlier stand that such incidents were routine law and order problems, not instances of communal violence.

Why is the press so hard on the Bharatiya Janata Party? For those of us who have lived these 25 years since the Emergency as adults, where does this period of BJP-led government rank in Indian communalism’s Hall of Fame. Has 1999-2000 been worse than the two years of the Emergency as far as minority rights are concerned? Think of the forced sterilizations of Muslims, the demolitions at Turkman Gate. Have they been more awful than the dark years when Sikhs killed Hindus and the state killed Sikhs?

What comparison is there with the politically directed killing of Sikhs in 1984 after Indira Gandhi’s death? Was L.K. Advani’s revelation of foreign funding for missionaries after the Dangs attack on Christians more insensitive or less sinister than Rajiv Gandhi’s bland explanation for the Sikh pogroms after his mother’s death: “When a big tree falls the ground shakes” ?

Has there been any violence in the past two years that even begins to compare with the Bhagalpur riots for sectarian hatred and violence? Does the senior leadership of the BJP include anyone as tainted by accusations of hands-on involvement in communal violence as the Delhi Congress of the Eighties? Has the army in Kashmir under the BJP killed more people than it did during the time of the Congress? Has any BJP state government presided over killings on the scale that occurred in Bombay in 1992 when mobs killed Muslims at will while a Congress government watched?

Even in the matter of the Babri Masjid’s demolition, the gates of the mosque were unlocked under a Congress regime and the mosque was razed during the prime ministership of P.V. Narasimha Rao. Can we confidently assert that the Congress is less culpable than the sangh parivar for the killing that followed?

If the answer to all these rhetorical questions is no (and it arguably is), then why are we so exercised about the future of India’s secular polity merely because the BJP has trimmed its sails and come to power at the head of a rag-tag coalition? This, I suspect, is the question that the BJP’s allies — the Telegu Desam, the Samata Party, the rump of the Janata Dal that joined it — pose to their critics when their secular credentials are challenged.

It is the question the BJP asks when journalists point to the rash of anti-Christian violence and invoke the spectre of organized fascist violence against stigmatized minorities. Didn’t the Congress preside over tens of riots in which Muslims died in greater numbers? Why didn’t this add up to a fascist majoritarian plot?

The answer to this is not complicated or novel. The Congress is regarded as a cynically secular party that is opportunistically sectarian, while the BJP is seen as an ideologically Hindu party that is opportunistically secular. So the Congress is given the benefit of the doubt but the BJP isn’t. Is this fair? No. Is it, nonetheless, prudent? Yes.

First and most simply, it would be unwise to judge a party by its actions alone when its words remain so explicitly sectarian. Neither the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, nor its affiliated organizations have ever disavowed the frightening National Socialist view that Guru Golwalkar took of the place of minorities in a free India. Contrast this with Sonia Gandhi apologizing to the Sikh community for the violence visited upon them by the Congress. While the Congress apology is transparently meant to win Sikh votes, at least it indicates a political willingness to admit mistakes. But the world view enunciated by vatic Nagpur is beyond criticism.

The BJP remains committed to Hindutva, to building a temple on the site of a mosque that its supporters razed, to supporting a party, the Shiv Sena, that stands accused of visiting the most horrific violence on Muslims in the wake of that violence. It is also a party that came to power on a groundswell of majoritarian self-assertion that its sponsorship of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement helped create, which Advani with his rath yatras consolidated into a political constituency.

The BJP’s public image is defined by its consistent hostility towards minorities. This is its USP, its reason for being. To put it more respectably, the BJP stands for the rights of the majority. Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain. Since Murli Manohar Joshi, Advani and Arun Shourie are such committed defenders of the faith, such alert sniffers-out of minority mischief, the party and the government to which they belong will always be seen to be hostile to non-Hindus. Its supporters will approve of this hostility because they want to see “pampered” minorities get their comeuppance and its critics will see it as creeping fascism but in neither case will the record of the BJP in office over the last two years make much difference to their perceptions.

The BJP itself makes it impossible to suggest that its record in office belies its sectarian reputation. Its “moderation” in government — cited by its supporters to argue that this majoritarian party has evolved in office into the equivalent of the German Christian Democratic Union and not the Nazi bogey beloved of secularists — is undermined by its own spokesmen who regularly declare that the party remains committed to its maximalist agenda in the long term and is merely constrained by coalition from giving free play to its political instincts. When the leopard itself tells everyone who will listen that it doesn’t intend to change its spots, its present good behaviour becomes sinister instead of reassuring.

Baldly, the BJP in office will always be suspected of prejudice because it does not, cannot, dissemble about its raison d’ętre. The Congress, on the other hand, has from its beginnings, striven to be all things to all men and dissembling is second nature to it. Nehru in a Sikh turban, Nehru in a skull cap, Nehru in a Naga shawl was low-grade pluralist theatre, but it worked for the Congress because representing diversity was its business.

Isaiah Berlin in a marvellous essay comparing Dostoevsky and Tolstoy described the first as a hedgehog and the second as a fox. All novelists, according to Berlin were either hedgehogs or foxes. The hedgehog was possessed by one big idea with which he ordered the world while the fox had a series of insights that explained it.

If the Congress is the fox, promiscuously plural, rhetorically socialist, piously non-aligned, inconsistently secular, the BJP is a hedgehog, possessed by a single idea, Hindutva, and a single goal, Hindu hegemony. Vajpayee can wear all the costumes he wants, but he will never be the sunny quick-change artist that Nehru was. It is not in the BJP’s nature to be a fox: in good times and bad, for enemies and friends, it will always be the dour Hindu hedgehog.    


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