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BRIEF HISTORY OF INDIA

- A secular republic founded on a religious metaphor
Cutting Corners

Should the culpability for the original sin be pinned exclusively on Mahatma Gandhi? He, of course, chose the easy way out and used the religious metaphor to rouse the passion of millions of patently listless countrymen afflicted by the pangs of hunger and sunk in the deepest morass of ignorance: Ye and all please do gather the courage to join me, we shall together remove the foreign yoke. Once that task was accomplished, the bliss of Ram rajya was bound to descend on us. The concept of Ram rajya was, however, integral to the Hindu ethos. It was impossible to convince a starving, illiterate peasant that a Ram rajya was only an allegory or that it could function in a vacuum, without dependence on the fervour of Hinduism. A Muslim peasant, equally illiterate and equally suffering from the blight of hunger and malnutrition, could not but feel somewhat left out from the ambiance of Ram rajya.

Muslim leaders associating with the Indian National Congress during its early days, such as the Ali brothers or Dr Ansari, must have felt disturbed over the matter. For whatever reason, they chose to be polite, at least initially. There was one exception amongst them though, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Not that Jinnah was not a liberal-minded gentleman with a catholicity of taste, including a weakness for ham sandwich in his spare hours. But his more pertinent identity was that of a practising politician and a leader of the Muslim community. Muslims, he was adamant in his assertion, could have no locus standi in Gandhi’s Ram rajya. The battle was joined; India’s political fate was also sealed at that fairly early juncture.

Before sending Mahatma Gandhi to, so to speak, the gallows, should we not consider the curious case of the first contingent of Bengali terrorists at the dawn of the last century? Was their culpability for the juxtaposition of political and religious issues any less? Both individual forays and action through collective ventures were the preferred modus operandi of these idealists in their war against foreign rulers. Before proceeding on a secret operation, it was obligatory for them to observe a standard ritual. They would seek the blessings of the goddess, Kali, and, at the same time, swear by the Gita or read evocative passages from Bankimchandra Chatterjee’s Anandamath.

This is no hearsay or lazy anecdote. Memoirs written in their later days by several of these revolutionaries meticulously describe the routine they followed. Quite a few scholars regard the Gita to be a breathtaking compendium of cynicism, lack of scruples and obiter dicta at high places. Maybe that controversy deserves to be shelved. Even so, the close association of this tract with Hindu religious practices can hardly be wished away. The preachings strewn across the Gita do not also quite convey anything approaching the grace and grandeur embedded in the Upanishads or the Vedas. Anyway, the choice of Anandamath, too, as an object of reverence by these dedicated groups of revolutionary youth plotting a fiery uprising against the British appears to be altogether odd. The message this historical fiction attempts to put across is that the British had arrived in India to deliver the Hindus from the tyrannical rule of the detestable Muslims; it was the sacred duty of all Hindus to welcome with open arms the benign foreigners from European shores.

No question the Gita and Anandamath-loving crowd of revolution-mongers exercised a major influence on the radical wing of the fledgling Indian National Congress in the opening decades of the 20th century. Call it misjudgment, or invest it with a more distilled epithet, some strange alchemy was the end-product. The ideological position of the Congress on the issue of secularism acquired a fuzziness that was never shaken off subsequently. World War II ended, British imperial power ebbed, the Congress leaders were itching to occupy the seats of power.

The British would agree to transfer power only if the terms arrived at via negotiations were satisfactory to the representatives of the minority community. Rather than share power with the cantankerous, constantly bickering Jinnah, both Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel preferred to accept the proposal of a truncated India. It was decided to divide the country along communal lines with a major chunk going out of the main corpus towards the dominion of Pakistan.

It is little use quibbling over spilt milk. Whether the Congress bosses should not have agreed to a constitutional arrangement, which, despite the presence of stipulations easily exploitable by troublemaking politicians, maintained the integrity of the country and adhered to secularism, is now an academic issue of zero practical significance. What is interesting though is that, while surrendering on the question of secular ideology during the pre- Independence parlays, those heading the new regime in New Delhi were nonetheless determined to build India as a republic secular to the core, where religiosity will have no place in governance.

With no Muslim League henceforth to interrupt the agenda, and the horrifying holocaust accompanying the Partition over, it was now daybreak for an independent India that would spell secularism. The new Constitution declared, with great éclat, the country to be a secular republic. What mattered, though, was the empirical correlate of the declaration. Under a secular dispensation, the State, one would have thought, will be totally indifferent to, and maintaining an equal distance from, all religions. What eventuated was nothing of the sort. The nation’s new leaders, with the prime minister donning the principal role, interpreted secularism to mean maintenance of equal proximity with each and every religion. The vibe went out that the State was not indifferent to religiosity; on the contrary, it reveres all religions and will protect the prerogative of a citizen to practise whatever religious faith he or she opts for. Jawaharlal Nehru put the seal of formal recognition on this meaning of secularism by constant rounds of temple-hopping, dutifully followed by constant hoppings of mosques, dargas, gurdwaras, churches, synagogues, et al.

Each of his descendants who have occupied the prime ministerial office has scrupulously copied the ritual. A number of developments, gestures and counter-gestures became part of a natural sequence, such as subsidy for the Amarnath trekkers being balanced by air-freighting haj pilgrims at the State’s cost. India, the hoity-toity secular republic, was rapidly transformed into a State that cares for, and encouraged, religious practices. Problems, however, did not disappear; in fact, they multiplied. Given the numerical preponderance of Hindus, temple-hopping by ministers got etched in the national consciousness, hopping of other ecclesiastical arenas did not have the same impact. Equally ominous was the introduction of out-and-out Hindu rituals like bhoomi puja and the breaking of a coconut as compulsory elements of official ceremonies. In this climate, it was child’s play for Hindu fundamentalists to appropriate the concept of Ram rajya for furthering their specific objective. They are now claiming, never mind Gandhi, to have established a Ram rajya in Gujarat, which has the stamp of religious intolerance all over.

It did not take long for the Great Indian Consensus to take shape. Rail against everything else under the sun, but for dear life stay away from attacking the institution of religion. India is a secular republic, but only in a special sense is it ‘religious-secular’. Everybody fell in line. Just look at the plight of the Left, which had started its innings with impeccable anti-sectarian credentials. There have been two states where it has wielded substantial influence. In Kerala, it had long fought blatantly communal formations entrenched in positions of privilege, but ultimately had to enter into an understanding with some of the same species it had so consistently opposed. In West Bengal, it was worse. A public holiday had to be declared by the Left Front regime on a date on which the world, according to a prediction published in a Hindu almanac, would come to an end. Small wonder that the Left came round to advocating ‘reservations’ in different spheres for disadvantaged sections of the minority community.

Once the belief gained ground that the State was the protector and defender of religious privileges, sectarian forces could not be blamed too much for thinking their kingdom had arrived. From the theme of ensuring religious rights to that of protecting caste interests is a very short interval to cover. Therefore, it is pointless to castigate the short-lived V.P. Singh regime or the Mandal Commission for the reservation mayhem that has been the dominating theme of India for the past couple of decades alongside economic liberalization. After all, for overwhelming numbers in different parts of the country, the identity of caste is no less important than the religion one belongs to; just check with a Yadav in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh.

On the theoretical plane, reservation can claim to cover anything and everything, including the list of the top 100 successful candidates in the All India Civil Service examination or that of the judges constituting the Supreme Court of India. It can be a ruthless means of conserving and extending the interests of any group that feels, or claims to feel, vulnerable.

Such is for now, in a nutshell, the story of post-Independent India.