The landslide victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the Gujarat elections last month has given rise to much debate. Can the Gujarat victory be replicated in the forthcoming elections in nine states' Will Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and New Delhi vote saffron if aggressive Hindutva is preached there or if communal riots occur' Given the unpredictability of Indian elections, there cannot be any definite answer to the question.
But the Gujarat polls do point to the tremendous hold that communal feelings have on a vast section of the populace. This is true not only of Hindus, but also of Muslims and Sikhs. This is a reality that cannot be denied by talking of issues like development. And once communal fear or pride is roused, the ability to take rational decisions takes a backseat. This happened at the time of Partition 55 years ago; it is happening again now — on a smaller scale, maybe — but it may take on bigger and more fearful dimensions later.
In the later decades of the freedom struggle, riots erupted which resulted in the massacre of millions. We were lucky to have had leaders like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad and Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan then, but even they could not prevent Partition and its violent aftermath. So it is best not to expect much of the lesser mortals we have for leaders today.
The British who used — and thereby reinforced — communalism as a policy measure, may no longer be at the helm of affairs in the country But, the leaders of the Centre today are either communal themselves or have decided to side with communal leaders.
India is now in not a very different position than on the eve of independence. The country has not gone the way of Pakistan. It is not a theocratic state, but a progressive, secular, democracy. Even so, there is no room for complacency. Five decades of experience show that we took the right decision then, which has enabled us to progress as much as we have. But it will be difficult to sustain such progress if we backtrack now on our commitment to secularism. The BJP must not be allowed to get away with ambiguity on this point.
A secular, democratic state is impossible without the equality of all its citizens. No matter whether one is a member of the majority or minority community, we are all equally Indians. Hindus are not more Indian than the rest of their countrymen. The same holds true for members of all other religious communities.
An important aspect of a secular state is that religion does not play any part in many important spheres of activity. Take the national economy. What should be the ideal rate of growth, how can poverty be alleviated, how can unemployment be reduced and what reforms ought to be undertaken — these questions cannot be addressed by means other than secular enquiry, discussion and decision.
But the state is not the only arena of battle between secularism and communalism. The social arena is just as important. It is crucial here to accept two fundamental truths. One, our nationalism cannot be equated with any one particular culture or religion. Cultural nationalism is acceptable only if we agree that what we call “Indian culture” today is the product of a rich historical past in whose shaping men and women of different religious beliefs, and even perhaps those who did not believe in any religion, played a significant part. Take the teachings of the Buddha or our great epics. Also, Hindustani classical music and dance forms like Kathak, as also our systems of astronomy, medicine, statecraft and so on are products of such a process of synthesis.
Two, India will lose its distinctive identity if it abandons the spirit of coexistence based on tolerance and respect for all faiths. We have always been a multi-religious society, and that is the way we should remain.