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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , July 26, 2013 at 00 : 03

Reading between the lines: the secular vs communal debate


How does one define a tweet as secular or communal? Last week, I sent a morning greeting wishing people 'Happy Ekadashi'. A particularly auspicious day in Maharashtra, it is linked with the God Vithoba, considered a revered form of Vishnu. That Ekadashi greeting was enough for Internet Hindus to suggest that I had lost the plot. "How can a pseudo-secular liberal like you be thinking of a Hindu god?" was the question asked. For a moment, I felt a bit like the late VN Gadgil, the veteran Congressman. Mr Gadgil was once accused of betraying his secular credentials because he had begun a public meeting by breaking a coconut. The criticism led Mr Gadgil, a gentle intellectual, to write a pamphlet and even call for a debate on secularism.

That was in the 1990s when the forces of Hindutva were on the political march. Now, years later, that debate is being sought to be re-ignited. Unfortunately, confusion still persists between religiosity and communalism. A devout religious person is not necessarily communal. Celebrating a religious festival, breaking a coconut or even seeking to build a Ram Temple are not "communal" acts. But when the temple is sought to be built by destroying a mosque in defiance of the law, then the vandalism is a communal act. When an Akbaruddin Owaisi projects himself as a community leader of Muslims by threatening non-Muslims, he is clearly pushing a dangerous form of communalism. When the Shiv Sena chief, the late Bal Thackeray, asked Muslims to "behave" or "go to Pakistan", he was engaging in the worst form of incendiary communal rhetoric.

Which brings me to Narendra Modi and the "Burqa" debate. Did Modi make an overtly communal statement by suggesting that the Congress was hiding behind the "burqa" of secularism? To my mind, Mr Modi made an ill-conceived, politically incorrect analogy. But to call it a "communal" statement would be a slight exaggeration. Yes, Mr Modi's past utterances would suggest that making such religious allusions is part of his political vocabulary designed to incite and provoke (remember his references to a former chief election commissioner as James Michael Lyngdoh and to Mian Musharaff and Mian Ahmed Patel?). It would suggest a deliberateness to stoke prejudice that does little credit to his credentials to lead the country, but to dismiss them as communal is classic Modiphobia.

Rather than focussing on Modi, the real debate should be two-fold. First, is the Congress really hiding behind the veil of secularism as is being suggested? There should be little doubt that the Congress party has moved far away from the secular "fundamentalism" of Jawaharlal Nehru. For Nehru, secularism was a personal badge of honour that at one level meant a virtual rejection of any form of religiosity in public life. In a deeply pious society, Nehru's aversion to religious rituals was always going to be a difficult act to follow. Which is why the post-Nehru Congress party chose the more politically convenient option of running with the secular hare and hunting with the communal hound.

The Truth is that the Congress has appeased religious groups across the spectrum for political benefit, thereby exposing a bankruptcy in thought and action on secular values. When the gates of the Babri Masjid were opened and a shilanyas was allowed to be performed at the disputed site, Hindu fundamentalists were "appeased". When the Shahbano judgment evoked controversy, the Muslim Womens Act which diluted a Muslim woman's right to maintenance was enacted to "appease" Muslim clerics.

The BJP would like to suggest that this appeasement has only benefitted Muslims at the cost of the majority community. This too is a bogus argument. As the Sachar panel report makes amply clear, India's Muslims still lag behind on several key social and economic parameters. If the state is to give them greater opportunity, this is not "appeasement" but a constitutional obligation to ensure a level playing field among all social groups. Which is why we need to differentiate again between ridiculously flawed attempts to woo minorities by declaring the Prophet's birthday as a national holiday and welfarist programmes like scholarships which can genuinely uplift Muslim youth.

The second question is whether this debate over who is more secular should determine voter behaviour in the next election. The fact is, there have been only two elections in this country where the content of secularism was pitched as the defining issue. The first election of 1952 took place in the backdrop of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the fierce determination of Nehru not to allow India to descend into a Hindu Pakistan. In almost every speech on the campaign trail, Nehru stressed on the need to fight the forces of bigotry and communalism.

The 1991 general elections also saw the BJP successfully pitch the secular vs pseudo-secular debate at the heart of the national agenda. The emotional fervour created by LK Advani's rath yatra and the failure of the then Congress leadership to offer an effective response created a political space which was exploited by the BJP to become a genuine contender for power.

But the India of 2013 is very different from 1991. A post-liberalisation country is driven by aspiration and not emotion, by economic growth and not social identity alone. If the BJP believes it can win the election by positioning Modi as the mascot of Hindutva nationalism, it is sadly mistaken. Modi, as a Hindutva nationalist, may appeal to a section of the urban middle class but his real shot at power will be if he is able to convince the silent majority that he is truly an emblem of good governance. Likewise, the Congress cannot win the next election by seeking to change the agenda from the numerous corruption scandals to its so-called secular credentials. Mock fights over secularism make good television; in the real world, it is the economy stupid.


More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.


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