Debating the secular-communal divide

The right-wing brand of politics seems to be a step ahead in articulating the idea of ‘justice for all,’ which should have ideally come from those championing secularism and more so from the religious minorities themselves

March 25, 2014 01:16 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

Come election time and we invariably indulge in India’s very own “Great Debate” on the secular-communal divide in our democracy. While the Left and regional parties, that wish to either launch a third alternative or align with the Congress, resort to the need to keep communal forces at bay and maintain the secular fabric of the nation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Sangh Parivar lament minority appeasement and vote-bank politics and instead suggest universal development and providing education and employment to all. “Justice to all, appeasement of none” or “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas” is their new mantra . In terms of popular perception (that matters the most in democracy in general, but more so in the electoral season), this has now become almost an insurmountable divide.

Post the Sachar Committee report, there is enough data to prove that Muslims are badly off in terms of education and economic opportunities. In some cases, this means being worse off than even Dalits. Therefore, to make special provisions for Muslims, including demanding reservations on religious grounds or including them in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category is only a necessary corrective measure. When Jats and Rajputs are being included in the OBC list and Gujjars in Rajasthan make the demand to be recognised as Scheduled Tribes, there is very little justification in denying Muslims their due share in the resources of the state. Even if the Constitution does not recognise affirmative action on religious grounds, there is enough sociological reasoning behind demanding special provisions for Muslims. Legal reasoning and pronouncements are not absolute. They need to be opened up to the emerging reality because many of the legal pronouncements themselves are based on no specific logic except in reinforcing popular perceptions about justice, including the cap on reservations not crossing 50 per cent that has no special logic except to maintain a perceived idea about merit, efficiency and equal opportunity in the system. Similarly, this skewed logic that special provisions encourage vote-bank politics has been a long-standing complaint not only with Muslims but also with regard to policies for Dalits and the OBCs. While the former is seen as minority-appeasement, the latter is believed to be aiding the flaring up of casteism in society. Recognising specific disabilities is not reinforcing the divide but only providing a corrective to the divide that already exists and is not created by such protective policies. Further, the idea that vote-bank politics is limited to Muslims and Dalits is itself a misconception perpetuated for way too long by the dominant social groups, both religious and caste-based. Is it not true that the upper castes and the upper classes vote as vote-banks in India? How else can one explain the popularity of the BJP in the urban areas and among caste Hindus? The dominant social-religious and caste groups take recourse to the reasoning of individual rational choice but have voted as clusters all along.

A discourse in crisis

However, the problem with the secular-communal divide does not end here. The language and discourse of secularism itself has entered an irretrievable crisis across the world. In Europe, the secular separation of religion and politics was followed up by multiculturalism as a preservation of cultural differences, which has only resulted in an increasing ghettoisation of religious minorities and the creation of “parallel societies” and demands, mostly on Muslim populations, to demonstrate loyalty, and adopt the “our” values of the dominant community. This has given a fillip to not only a separation of communities but also, what Slavoj Žižek refers to as “racism at distance.” Now, Europe is exploring the possibility of shifting from multiculturalism to pluralism in order to open up intercultural dialogic spaces. In India too, secularism has contributed to the entrenching of received ideas about religious minorities — mostly Muslims. It has rarely succeeded in opening up dialogue between religious communities. How much is known about what a majority of Muslims feel about M.F. Husain painting Hindu goddesses, or about Hindus being killed in Bangladesh or Baluchistan? There is an impending need to overcome the “fear” of listening to their voices. Similarly, in a democracy it is only proper to expect them to respond to forms of injustice that not merely hurt them but also other vulnerable social groups. As we do not expect women alone to speak up on women’s issues, or Muslims alone to speak on issues of communal violence, we cannot expect Muslims too to speak up only on issues related to religious minorities. It could in fact be argued that Muslim groups that protest against the exceptionalism of the state in Kashmir, and the witch-hunt in the name of terrorism and “suspect Muslims,” also speak up against these very methods against tribals in Chhattisgarh, and the citizens of the northeast. Unless the religious minorities do not come across as being “secular” themselves on some parameter, then the forces of the far-right will continue to exploit these silences for sectarian mobilisation. This is not to demand loyalty but to move beyond secular sectarianism in speaking for others. This is not a demand to prove the legitimacy of “their” belonging but a legitimate — dignifying — demand that ought to be made in any healthy democracy.

The search for the weak

The roots of communalism are fast shifting. They no longer exist “merely” in the memory of Partition or modern-day terrorism. They are in fact emerging from an entrenched caste psyche. Caste is a ladderlike structure with every group having a dual-positionality, with an oppressor above and the oppressed below. Keeping caste privileges and also undoing caste for every individual subgroup is as much about unsettling those above as keeping those below in their downgraded positioning. Anti-caste movements have exclusively addressed the atrocities of those above but never as much simultaneously articulated the caste hegemony towards those below by the very same sub group/sub caste. The momentum today is much in terms of maintaining this caste hegemony and subjugating those below. Subjugating those below is the most readily available strategy to undo the humiliation — as a quick psychological relief/empowerment — perpetuated by those above in the caste ladder. This reverse- osmosis of caste groups has led to a process of searching for and identifying groups that are relatively weak socially, politically and economically. This process goes down all the way to the smallest and most underprivileged caste groups. This is the psyche that allows for the dominant groups to self-represent themselves as victims, and the less-privileged as enjoying undue largesse and thereby as either opportunists with regard to Dalits or as aggressors with regard to Muslims. However, in this search for the weak, the buck seems to finally stop with identifying Muslims as the necessary “other.” They are weaker, perceived to be “outsiders”, and are perhaps the most vulnerable social group in India, combined with an imagination of the community as being aggressive.

The failure of the political project of building a “Bahujan Samaj” reveals the limits of the “secular upsurge” in India. The cynicism of the caste psyche that produces the Muslim as the “other” is ironically also the source to maintain and consolidate the Hindu fold against its internal fractures along caste lines for the Hindutva brand of mobilisation. Growing mobility for marginalised caste groups has resulted in increasing caste conflicts and, in turn, widespread communal violence. The entrenched sectarianism of the caste system cannot, however, be tackled with secular sectarianism that dithers from asking religious minorities to address issues of justice across religious and other social identities. Strangely, the Hindutva brand of politics seems to be a step ahead in articulating the idea of “justice for all,” which should have ideally come from those championing secularism and more so from the religious minorities themselves.

(Ajay Gudavarthy is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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