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POST MORTEM - The Congress?s pluralism became a reflex by the time of Partition

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  • Published 2.10.05

So if Partition happened anyway, if the majority of British India?s Muslims set up house on their own, if the Noah?s Ark nationalism of the Congress failed to keep all of India?s human species on board, then what price pluralism? Why should Indians in 2005 be interested in an experiment in pluralist nationalism that failed?

The magnitude of this failure shouldn?t be underestimated: if Partition and its violence was a tragedy for the people of the subcontinent, for the Congress it was a catastrophic defeat. From the moment of its foundation, the Congress had moved on the assumption that the subcontinent was a single nation. ?All-India? wasn?t a flourishing appellation for the Congress, it was its raison d?etre. The Congress?s celebration of difference, its cultivation of economic (therefore non-denominational) anti-colonialism, the carefully secular symbols around which Gandhi organized his great mobilizations, were designed to create a hold-all patriotism, and when that hold-all tore, it left a large rent in the party?s reason for being.

What remained? A great deal. Had the Congress closed shop at independence as Gandhi once suggested, it would still have been the most benevolently successful party in the history of the 20th century. To state the obvious (because Indians take so much for granted), the republic?s Constitution wouldn?t have been the liberal, democratic and plural charter that it is, if the Congress hadn?t lived that pluralism, that democracy for more than sixty years. By the time of Partition and independence, the Congress?s pluralism wasn?t merely strategic, it wasn?t just a stratagem to achieve the goal of an independent, undivided India, it was a reflex, a part of its political instinct.

Try to imagine independence and Partition without the Congress. Put in its place a Hindu majoritarian party, even a liberal Hindu majoritarian party, nationalist in a conventional, European way. There?s no question that such a party would have believed that a partitioned India had to be framed as a Hindu nation, in the same way as Zionists, even socialist Zionists, saw Israel as a Jewish nation. This majoritarian nationalism might have sanctioned electoral democracy as Israel does, and granted religious minorities the right to vote, but they would have been second class citizens both in theory and in fact, dependent, for their security, on the goodwill and forbearance of Hindus, the sole proprietors of the republic. But for the grace of the Congress, India would have been Hindustan, that is, Pakistan scaled up.

Hindustan would have been a train wreck. The violence that India as a majoritarian state would have generated can be estimated by looking at a south Asian parallel in miniature, the example of Sri Lanka. In terms of social indicators, Sri Lanka, like Kerala, represents the best of south Asia. Yet, even in this oasis of literacy, female emancipation and all-round loveliness, the absence of a pluralist nationalism led directly to Sinhala chauvinism, Tamil disaffection and chronic civil war. And this in a small island nation with just two substantial ethnic communities: the violence that majoritarian politics would have created in a country as diverse as India, even a divided India, is unimaginable.

There?s only one country in the world outside of Western Europe and its white settler colonies, which is diverse, consistently democratic and intact, and that?s India. Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, not one of them survived nationalism and/or democracy in one piece. The reason India did was because of the Congress and its systematically pluralist politics.

Western politicians and journalists are quick to explain the violence in Iraq in terms of sectarian feeling. Sectarianism in its turn is understood as the inevitable result of making an artificial country out of unlike communities. Dozens of pundits have by now observed that Iraq was created not by god but by Winston Churchill. The fact that Iraq is home to Kurds, Shias and Sunnis is adduced to prove that it?s an unnatural nation, that might be better off partitioned. As the regime installed by the occupation founders, the necessity of a de facto partition of Iraq has become conventional wisdom.

If Iraq?s an unnatural colonial invention, consider what the pundits would have made of a country as bizarrely various as India, had the pluralist genius of the Congress not shut them up before they got going? Contemporary Indians take the unity of India as given and this is a measure of the Congress?s achievement. Things could have been otherwise. There were principled, progressive, radical politicians in colonial India who didn?t frame their post-colonial dreams in terms of unity. Periyar and Annadurai and the politics they created dreamt of an independent Dravida state. Ambedkar, frustrated by the Congress?s ambivalence about caste, agreed with Periyar and saw no reason why the principle of self-determination couldn?t be applied to different parts of British India. He saw nothing wrong in principle with the notion of Pakistan. The communist left, for ideological compulsions of its own, endorsed the idea of Pakistan and Partition. Had the party of Indian nationalism phrased its commitment to Indian unity in majoritarian Hindu terms, in the way in which the Mahasabha or the RSS did, every separatist political vision in India would have found its justification. Fortunately for us, the language of Indian nationalism was a supple pluralism invented and nurtured by the Congress.

The quick tour of Congress nationalism that?s been attempted in these columns has been critical of the party, of its hubris, its political miscalculations, its insensitivity to people and politicians outside its own ranks. It has, at times, held Gandhi and the Congress leadership responsible for decisions which alienated Muslims and contributed to the one outcome that its own pluralism had been designed to preclude, namely Partition. The responsibility of the Muslim League and the colonial state for Partition and the genocidal violence that ensued has barely been touched upon, perhaps unfairly, because the ambition and originality of the Congress?s political project and its extraordinary ability to carry out its plans tempt historians to judge it by unreasonably high standards in the pitiless glare of hindsight.

All post-mortems simplify historical choices and thus exaggerate the stupidity or insensitivity or wickedness of actors who, in retrospect, seem to make the wrong ones. One of the mistakes the Congress made in the Thirties and Forties was to imagine that its good intentions in the matter of pluralism and secularism were enough to make it representative of All-India. But that its intentions were good is borne out by its success in building a pluralist, democratic Indian republic despite the genocidal violence of Partition. We only need to look across the border to know how different things could have been. It has been argued by respectable men that the difference between pluralist India and sectarian Pakistan is to be found in the essential tolerance of Hindu society. A cursory acquaintance with the pogroms of Partition should be enough to illustrate the smug stupidity of that idea. The real difference between the two young countries were the canny, hard-won ideals of the Congress, a remarkable nationalist vanguard that was wiser and better than the people it sought to represent.