Begusarai, metaphor of a secular crisis

For the minorities secularism is a survival tool, for the elite it is an ideology. In caste competition, it could be a tactic

May 09, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 12:02 am IST

Begusarai, in the Gangetic plains of Bihar, has long been a stronghold of the Communist Party of India (CPI). Kanhaiya Kumar, the firebrand young leader and former president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, is the CPI candidate from the Begusarai Lok Sabha constituency. Over the past five years, he has become a national icon of resistance against Hindutva. His candidacy has so inspired opponents of Hindutva that they raised all the money that he could legally spend in campaign through crowdfunding — ₹70 lakh. Actors, academics and activists, an array of people from India’s secular, liberal universe campaigned for Mr. Kumar. So did enthusiastic youngsters from all over the country. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi personifies the march of Hindutva in India, Mr. Kumar personifies the resistance to it. And the fight for Begusarai has larger messages than the fortunes of the candidates in the fray.

Collapse of binaries

However, this binary world as imagined by the elite was processed differently in Begusarai, which went to the polls on April 29. “We want Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and Kanhaiya Kumar as MP,” said Binod Singh, a 26-year-old belonging to the same upper caste Bhumihar community as the candidate. This view is broadly representative of a significant section of Mr. Kumar’s Bhumihar supporters, though the BJP’s candidate is also a Bhumihar.


In the triangular contest of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the CPI and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) in Begusarai, the latter two are avowedly opposed to the BJP’s Hindutva politics. The RJD is in alliance with the Congress and some other small outfits representing Dalit and backward communities. Its candidate, Tanveer Hasan, is a respectable modernist leader who lost in 2014 but stayed active in the constituency since.

How the principles of secularism and social justice, both components of progressive politics, interacted in electoral politics could be understood in terms of the intense competition among caste-based interests groups for political power over the decades. In the era of Congress dominance in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the upper castes that controlled the party roped in Dalits and Muslims with the rhetoric of justice and secularism, but excluded the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from power. The rise of Hindutva changed this dynamic, as the upper castes were the first to abandon the Congress for the BJP. The emergent OBC politics, with Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav at the helm in Bihar and U.P., respectively, offered an alternative to Muslims as the Congress collapsed. With the support of Muslims, the OBCs realised their decades long yearning for political power.

The Muslim-OBC social combination, with the Yadavs at its core, not merely ended the upper caste hegemony, but also crushed its vehicle, the Congress party. There is no normative exposition or pursuit of secularism in this context, but social justice parties were against Hindutva for its Manuwaad, or upper caste dominance.

From the social justice perspective, the opposition to Hindutva can be summarised thus: upper castes allied with Muslims to exclude OBCs initially; when they abandoned Muslims for Hindutva, OBCs challenged Hindutva, made a social coalition with Muslims that proved enduring, and won power. Muslims were unwitting participants in this caste competition.

Progressive, oppressive

The elite, vernacular and English, articulated the standards of secularism, but remained disconnected from the dynamics of caste aspirations at play in the electoral arena. The ideologues and leaders of this elite, the Nehruvian and the Marxist streams, have been primarily upper caste. It would be unfair to question their intentions or commitment but the accident of their birth limited their appeal among the subalterns. The role of Bhumihars in Bihar politics is instructive. Several doyens of the Communist movement were from the community, which also had the progressive poet Dinkar among its ranks. But the landowning community also mobilised a private army called the Ranveer Sena, which launched murderous attacks on Dalits in waves of violence in the 1990s, simultaneous with the Muslim-OBC political partnership, and as a reaction to it. If Brahminism denotes hegemony, Bhumiharism represents violent oppression.


That being said, the CPI’s Bhumihar candidate won nearly two lakh votes in Begusarai in 2014, which evidently included votes of Dalits and OBCs, for the politics it represents. This wider appeal has been significantly strengthened by Kanhaiya Kumar’s candidacy, notwithstanding the presence of ‘Modi-Kanhaiya’ voters among his supporters. But the nearly exclusive control of the CPI by a single caste makes it suspect in the eyes of subalterns whose politics it professes to advance. Of the five seats that the CPI wanted to contest as part of the RJD-led alliance, four were for Bhumihars, according to Shivanand Tiwari, RJD leader.

The Muslim elites could bargain with the upper caste-controlled Congress and the backward caste RJD and Samajwadi Party for favours and representation, but their power to do so is in decline with the rise of Hindutva. In any case, the material condition of average Muslims is the lowest compared to other social groups, though the Hindutva narrative portrays them as undeserving recipients of secular appeasement. Even for Muslims who do not subscribe to secularism as a principle, it is a survival strategy in a Hindu majority country. The rise of Hindutva has correspondingly meant a decline in Muslim representation in politics. Security has increasingly become the sole expectation of Muslims from secularism. But the RJD and the SP continue to field Muslim candidates, and in Bihar and U.P., there are constituencies where Muslims can win.

Begusarai is one such, but the contest between the CPI and the RJD put the community in dilemma. An upper caste communist’s verve to take on Hindutva is evidently more than a vulnerable Muslim could achieve, and the community supported Mr. Kumar in significant numbers. For security, Muslims are willing to surrender their claim of representation — which, ironically, is the implied demand that Hindutva makes to the community in exchange for security. If Muslims abandon a Muslim RJD candidate, the OBCs and Dalits would rethink their attitude towards Muslims — and the secularism-social justice axis, which has been a speed-breaker for Hindutva, could collapse.

Politically ambitious OBCs and Dalits prefer Hindutva in which they have representation to a secular nationalistic project that is thoughtless of those ambitions at best and exclusive at worst. Lower caste politics is broadly indifferent to the rhetoric of secularism and their opposition to Hindutva is primarily from a social justice perspective. Many champions of lower caste interests would even grudge that Muslims are indifferent to their struggles against Manuwaad. Hindutva 2.0 under Mr. Modi has cleverly used this dynamic for its rise, by offering them representation though no significant political power.

A progressive politics, of which secularism is a part, and agnostic of all considerations of caste and religion, may be an ideal worth pursuing, but questions of representation for different social groups within it is extremely critical.

The road ahead

In the arena of caste competition, secularism could be an effective tactic; for the minorities it is a survival tool, and for the elite it is an ideology. Reconciling these differing, though not necessarily contesting, perspectives, is essential but difficult as the contest between the RJD and the CPI shows. For secular politics to be sustainable as a winnable electoral platform, it must merge with social justice politics. That requires a negotiation between the self-interests of different social groups as they subjectively perceive them with the normative claims of that politics articulated by the elite. Though they have overlapping traits, their accents are different, and there is even a subterranean hostility with one another. Begusarai is a metaphor of that crisis of Indian secularism.

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