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08 April, 2009

Communalism, Minority Identity and Secularism in the 2009 elections

CYNTHIA STEPHEN
Countercurrents.org

“Majorities are of two sorts: (1) communal majority and (2) political majority. A political majority is changeable in its class composition. A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is closed. The politics of political majority are free to all to make and unmake. The politics of communal majority are made by its own members born in it.” – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.


These prophetic words are very relevant in today’s India. “The world’s largest democracy” prides itself on the fact that its voters are showing more and more maturity in the results the elections throw up. People-groups which have not hitherto played a major role in electoral alliances are beginning to gain importance and “rainbow coalitions” are the rule rather than the exception. A political majority is sought to be built to fight elections and gain power. But what is happening in the context of the communal majority?

For instance, the results of the recently Assembly elections in Jammu and Kashmir show up a glaring fault-line, one that Ambedkar refers to in the quotation. Never before had voters in J&K ever returned 10 BJP representatives to the assembly, all from Jammu. The divide between the Kashmir valley and Jammu was thrown into sharp relief. But the emotive issue which ended in such polarization, just before the election, was of the agitation on the issue of the allotment of land for amenities for pilgrims going to Amarnath. While the issue was communalized, the dividends were political. Gujarat is another clear case in point, as is a recent controversy: Varun Gandhi and his rabble-rousing speech which has been exploited both by the media and the BJP to maximum dramatic effect.

The birthing of India took place on the hopeful though tearful dawn of the 15th of August 1947, when British Imperialism conceived and delivered offspring which were almost like conjoined twins: torn apart into two on the basis of religious identity but held together by a shared trauma of birth, history, geography and blood-ties. It was an ominous portent. The two newly-born countries had a ruling class whose class-caste identities were clear and unambiguously elitist, but in India at least, their secular credentials were not under doubt. On 26th January 1950, and the founding dream of India: as a sovereign republican democracy – became a reality, not chiefly by the efforts of the Congressmen who had led the anti-colonial movement for India’s political freedom, but by the tireless efforts of one man, whose numerous contributions to his country was crowned by the singular effort to produce the Constitution of India: Dr. B R Ambedkar, head of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. But as he presented to the nation the most important work of his life, he stated: “On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy which this Constituent Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

But now, in the India of the third millennium, equality continues to be denied, and contradictions abound. Communalism has taken the centre-stage, leaving its bloody footprints on the sands of the sixty-odd years of time that India has existed.

The Constitutional values of Equality and non-discrimination are the bedrock on which rests the edifice of rights and freedoms of Indian citizens. The Constitution recognizes, even celebrates, the diversity and plurality of the country and its citizens, and guarantees equality before the law to every citizen. But the very idea that our country is universally secular, democratic and plural in experience is problematic. It may be so for the privileged. But women, Dalits, children, Christians and Muslims, especially those belonging to the lower economic and social strata, and rural, forest, hill and desert-dwelling populations experience a different, harsher reality - of unrelenting exclusion, violence and deprivation.

But the spirit of Equality was violated by one of the earliest executive actions performed by the first President of India, Shri Rajendra Prasad. He signed the rank discriminatory Presidential Order 1950 in August that year, in which an apocryphal third paragraph was introduced, which effectively denied the benefits of reservations to members of the Scheduled castes who were Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians (and Muslims). This was modified in 1956 to include Sikhs in reservations and in 1990 to include Buddhists. And despite many assurances, recommendations and protests, the fact is that Christians and Muslims of Dalit origin continue to be denied the very amenities that are theirs by right. Thus the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of religion which was embedded in the DNA of the Indian state, has been bypassed by this order, even though the order is against the spirit as well as the legal position of the Constitution, and there the matter continues to stand.

Thus, clearly, while the de jure position is that every citizen in the country is equal before law, the reality – the de facto position – is that the religious and other minorities in fact face systemic discrimination. The rule of the dominants, namely those who follow a Brahminical and casteist mode of life, prevails. Ironically, though this category is in a numerical minority, at best about 15% of the country’s population overall, they comprise an overwhelming majority in the government, the academic, the political sphere, the judiciary and the private sector. The very poor implementation of reservations at all levels in jobs and employment, barring the lowest or class D category – is testimony to the discriminatory nature of our society and policy. Thus even if the law provides proactive measures for development of those who are backward or poor, the ‘iron frame’ of privilege will work to exclude those who are eligible for the benefits and try to appropriate them for itself. And if about 40% of our population is below the poverty line, that is, too poor to afford survival-level food consumption – then we need to ask how representative, fair and democratic our political and social structure actually are.

The silver lining to this cloud is the consolidation of the lower castes, both in the political and educational spheres. This has brought fresh thinking and new talent to the fore, even if the persons concerned are inexperienced and less exposed to the nature of the establishment, and for that reason are better able to bring about much-needed changes in it. The impetus given by the Mandal Commission report to this process - and the backlash in the form of the “Kamandal” – the consolidation and mobilization of the saffron forces to counter this – has yet to be fully understood. The Mandal Commission evolved an index based on 11 indicators, subdivided into three categories – social, educational and economic – for the definition of the OBCs, and caste was not the sole criterion. Three of the indicators concerned caste, while the others referred to other impediments to the progress of the people group including early marriage – a barrier to education – and other criteria such as percentage of the caste who owned at least kuccha housing.

Christophe Jaffrelot, in his “India’s Silent Revolution: The rise of the low castes in North Indian politics” points out that the entire purpose of the exercise of the Commission was to give the OBCs access to power, not jobs. He quotes from the report – “ It is not at all our contention that by offering a few thousands jobs to OBC candidates we shall be able to make 52% of the Indian population as forward”. The report goes on to say that “an essential part of the battle against social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the backward people. In India government service has always been looked upon as a symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBCs in government services, we give them an immediate feeling of participation in the governance of this country. When a backward class candidate becomes a Collector or a Superintendent of Police, the material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the members of his family.. [B]ut the psychological spin off of this phenomenon is tremendous; the entire community of that backward class feels socially elevated. Even when no tangible benefits flow to the community at large the feeling that it now has its ‘own man’ in the ‘corridors of power’ acts as a morale booster.” The report further says “reservation will certainly erode the hold of the higher castes on the services.”

How is this relevant to the discourse on communalism? It has a very important bearing on the discourse, because before Mandal, conversion to “other” religions was an important, and often the only option for upward social mobility of disadvantaged groups. Thus India saw large-scale conversions at various times in the past to Islam, at a time in its history where Muslims were the ruling class, for example in Gujarat, Central India and in Bengal. Similarly the latter part of British rule in India, after the East India Company lost its hold on the affairs of the colonial project, and the Crown took over, saw a surge in the numbers of people from the untouchable and lower castes who became Christians because of a similar process – from being excluded from access to the corridors of power, they saw the virtues of becoming co-religionists of the ruling class so as to feel a sense of belonging and identity with the powers-that-be. Thus the conversion process, at least in the past, had a lot to do with the contemporary political processes.

In the present day, the rise in saffron assertion has closely paralleled the growth of the political aspirations of the lower castes following the Mandal Commission. The Sangh Parivar also kicked in around the same time with a thrust into the communities of the subalterns with their Vanvasi Kalyan, Ekal Vidyalayas, and the Bajrang Dal. Thus the threat perception of the ruling classes – that the processes unleashed by the Mandal Commission would succeed in subverting their hold on power – caused them to, on the one hand, reach out to the subaltern classes to build a constituency among them, and on the other, drive a wedge between the so-called “Hindus” and the Minorities by demonising them by harping “differences” between the minorities and the “Hindus”. The organizations using the name of Ram such as the Ram Sena are usually composed of the more dominant caste, thereby underscoring the inherent caste-class divide and power relations implied in the relationships (Hanuman – Bajrang Bali – the devotee of Lord Shri Ram).

As the wheels of Advani’s Rath rolled over the Indian landscape in the 1990s and subsequently, the power surge - Orissa, Chhatisgarh, MP, Bihar, Delhi - suggests a seemingly broad-based support for the RSS- sponsored communal agenda. But straws in the wind suggest that we have not yet seen the real face of Fascism. Bangar Laxman, Uma Bharathi and Kalyan Singh were all elevated to positions of power and later discarded, after their communities appeared to buy into the Parivar’s agenda. All of them were Dalits or BCs. Narendra Modi, though no one thinks of his caste, is also said to belong to a BC community – the Teli caste. He too has been used to do some major dirty work for the Parivar. Soon the time will come when he too will be dispensed with. Even Advani – with his Sindhi origin and his householder status – too does not fit into the Fascist scheme of the RSS. Soon, he too will bite the dust and a quintessential RSS man – single, Brahmin or upper-caste will either be projected for leadership. Alternatively, the BJP itself will be eclipsed and become a footnote in Indian politics, while an upper-caste preferably Brahmin “Brahmachari” from the RSS will wrest control of the political space presently occupied by the BJP. Hardline Brahminism, Patriarchy, and Fascism will combine to try and occupy democratic spaces and take over the governance. The situation of the Dalits, religious minorities and women will see a rapid decline.

With this end in mind, the ruling class have set into motion a series of processes aimed at exploiting the existing fault-lines in Indian society and channeling the desire of the subaltern classes to be close to the seat of power by enabling formations such as the Dharm Raksha Sena, the Bajrang Dal, etc. They also appropriate local linguistic sensibilities by infiltrating or taking them over – such as happened in Karnataka with the Kannada Rakshana Vedike. It is ironical that one section of Kannada “Abhimanis” bought into the saffron agenda because even a cursory glance will reveal the non-Brahmin provenance of the linguistic and cultural heritage of the Kannada people – Basava, Akkammahadevi, Kanakadasa and other luminaries who have enriched the literature and philosophy of this ancient land and language can hardly be termed Brahminical.

But the sad irony is that the true inheritors of the legacy of social struggle, progressive and subaltern assertion appear to have lost the capacity to counter the communal agenda. Instead they have become pawns in the hands of those who propagate the Fascistic saffron communal agenda. Most in India are aware that the Sangh Parivar, and chiefly the RSS, its intellectual fountainhead – is actually a vehicle for Fascism. In the south, the vibrant non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu has kept the Parivar at bay in Tamil Nadu. The Left and the relatively larger percentage of Islamic-Christian populations has to some extent retarded their progress in Kerala. But while Karnataka appears to have been won over, the first real support for the Parivar in the South was actually in Andhra Pradesh, because the first ally of the BJP was the TDP which enabled the NDA to rule in Delhi for a whole term for the very first time. But Karnataka’s social realities are very different from AP, where the minorities rallied together to send the TDP packing in the state elections, to punish it for its dalliance with the BJP. Even in Karnataka, the pockets of support for the BJP are not widespread, but only in parts of the state – the coastal and North-western areas. The South and most of the North-eastern part of Karnataka do not seem to be much enamoured of the Parivar. But the secular political forces have failed to see the writing on the wall and come together to counter its agenda. This has caused the BJP to come to power in the state on a negative vote. Will our politically savvy voters now save the day for our state, even though the leaders seem to betray them time after time?

All is not lost - thinkers and scholars, writers and grassroots political activists, and newer political formulations are waking up to the realities. People in Karnataka were shocked to see the ugly face of the Parivar in their own backyard or rather in their own drawing rooms, as TV channels gave blanket coverage to footage of the public beating of women in a restaurant in Mangalore, and some footage emerged of unprecedented attacks on churches in the town too. In the same region, for the past two years there were communal incidents involving the sale of beef – mainly against Muslims. As one astute grassroots political activist in Bangalore pointed out, the violence against minorities is carefully orchestrated. They target Muslim for their Beef-eating and selling, Christians for conversions, and Dalits are targeted for casteist atrocities if they become assertive. It is not as if Dalits or Christians don’t eat or trade in beef; or that Muslims or Christians are not asserting. And conversions happen both among Dalits and Muslims, but they are not targeted on this issue. They target these three groups on three different issues so that they cannot come together to oppose the Parivar’s agenda. In fact, on some issues there are bound to be differences between the three subaltern groups. And the Parivar is fishing in these waters to gain political mileage.

The RSS has shown ingenuity in enlisting youths from subaltern groups and co-opting them into their agenda, at a time when secular and even progressive democratic forces have ceded their spaces. Where are the active students’ movements of the 70s and 80s? Have the educational institutions and universities actively discouraged the activity of these groups? Or did changed social expectations de-politicise our youth so that they can no longer distinguish between fascism and democracy? How can we educate young people about the dangers of fascism? Even the strong trade union movements of the 80s have been weakened by internal contradictions, by attrition in policies and by sheer economic compulsions. Thus the existing political awareness in society has been

To go back to the quotation cited at the beginning of this paper, has our inaction succeeded in making what was surely only a communal majority into a political majority? Is it too late already? A peep into the future suggest that there may still be time. There is still space for sections of society who have so far been marginalized from these processes to come to the fore, such as women, youth and the professional class, at least those from the newly upwardly mobile classes. Their involvement and fresh thinking, their identification of issues and location of solutions will bring in a new vibrance to our maturing democratic system.

Cynthia Stephen is an independent researcher based in Bangalore. She can be contacted at cynstepin@yahoo.com

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