With Gujarat Assembly election round the corner, Rahul Gandhi has begun visiting temples in the State, drawing criticism from the BJP and reviving an age-old debate with the Congress over the meaning and practice of secularism.
In Gujarat, Rahul was spotted at Dwarkadhish temple. Next, he was seen trekking up to the famous Chotila temple in Surendranagar district. His other destinations included Khodal Dham temple in Kagvad village. Earlier this year when the battle for Uttar Pradesh was about to begin, Rahul had visited Hanumangarhi temple in Ayodhya.
For many, Rahul’s bid to blend religion with his political campaign is problematic and runs contrary to the Nehruvian idea of secularism. Jawaharlal Nehru was firm in his definition of secularism that meant separation of religion from the political, economic, social and cultural aspects of life. Religion, in Nehru’s scheme of things, was a personal matter that the state should disassociate from at all costs. In a letter to Home Minister Kailashnath Katju in 1953, Nehru wrote, “The fate of India is largely tied up with the Hindu outlook. If the present Hindu outlook does not change radically, I am quite sure that India is doomed.” Nehru had constantly observed that communalism of the majority community had a great potential to resemble nationalism.
On the other hand, for Mahatma Gandhi religion was an integral part of secularism. Gandhi who agreed with his disciple Nehru on a range of issues, was a believer that the Nehruvian secular prescription would not work in India. Gandhi kept saying “politics bereft of religion is absolute dirt.”
The secular dilemma of the Congress, full of Nehruvian-Gandhian contradictions, continues till date.
By the time Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, exploiting the Janata Party’s inherent contradictions, her zeal to push secularism was missing.
Indira sought to cultivate the majority community, accepting the invitation to launch the VHP's `Ekatmata Yatra', also called the `Ganga Jal Yatra.' This was a nascent Vishwa Hindu Parishad's first mass contact programme giving a glimpse that Hindu rituals and symbols could be effectively utilised for popular and political mobilisation.
Bureaucrat and author SS Gill noticed that post-1980, Indira lacked social solicitude towards Muslims. A clear indication came from her loyalist CM Stephen who declared in 1983, “The wave-length of Hindu culture and the Congress culture is the same.” Barely six months before her assassination, Indira sought to assure the majority community that, “If there is injustice to them or if they do not get their rights, then it will be dangerous to the integrity of the country.”
The late VN Gadgil, who served as AICC spokesman during the years of Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri at the helm, had told Congresspersons at a seven-day training camp in Maharashtra in 2000 that he disapproved of the party leadership’s policy of appeasing Muslims. At Kurla, which was a training camp to select ‘future Congress leaders’, Gadgil launched a scathing frontal attack on Congress policymakers. He observed, “Every time the Shahi Imam makes a statement, the party reacts as if god himself has spoken. Do minorities mean only Muslims? What about Buddhists, Sikhs and others? When thirty-six Sikhs were killed in Kashmir, not a single Congressman condoled their deaths. In Jammu & Kashmir, there is not a single Buddhist working in the State secretariat. The only Buddhist who was selected through the State Public Service Commission, had to convert to Islam to secure a Government job…The Congress is silent on this.”
“While appeasing Muslims, we should not forget Hindus, who are a majority in this state,” Gadgil said, pointing at an article published in The Economist which stated that “Islam and democracy do not go together”. Quoting from the article, Gadgil said a province in China, which had a substantial Muslim population, wanted to break away and form a separate country.
When Gadgil was asked why he was saying all this, he said: “I have said this earlier. Muslims constitute only 18 per cent of the voteshare. Even if all of them vote for the Congress, the party will not return to power. We cannot go on ignoring the sentiments of the other 82 per cent.”
The CWC under Sonia Gandhi had met at 24 Akbar Road to adopt a resolution on 16 January 1999, articulating the Congress's definition of secularism. It said, “The CWC endorses the views of the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, in her speech on the anniversary of Swami Vivekananda, where she had said, ‘India is secular primarily because of Hindus, both as a philosophy and as a way of life based on what our ancients said, Ekam satyam, vipraha bahudha vadanti (The truth is one, the wise pursue it variously)’.”
During UPA 2’s reign, around 2010-14, the Congress witnessed a subtle but significant battle of wits between conservative sections of the party and radicals who wanted to revert to the Nehruvian position that majority communalism is more dangerous than minority communalism.
Influential Congress leaders had lengthy and often heated exchanges over the selection of words in formulating the party’s stand on the recent trend of home-grown terror outfits in its political resolutions. The conservative sections, led by then Defence Minister AK Antony, often won the argument by insisting that terror had no colour. At the Burari plenary in 2010, the Congress political resolution said extremism and terrorism of every kind and shade was a threat to civilised society. When Digvijay Singh called for a need to express greater anxiety over rise of Right-wing radicals, he was vetoed.
Behind the scene, Pranab Mukherjee, Jairam Ramesh and others who drafted the Burari political resolution, deliberately decided to make a subtle distinction between the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of the Congress’s position paper. While the party hovered around the known position of denouncing extremism and terror of all kinds in the political resolution, politically the Congress leadership stated that a time had come to take a more stringent stand against home-grown terror outfits.
When ABP News ran a story on the rise of beef exports during the first six months of the Narendra Modi Government, the Congress dithered from commenting on it. Privately, some leaders said a comment on beef exports had the potential of upsetting the Hindu or the Muslim community. In Madhya Pradesh, the State Congress unit has started keeping idols of Lord Ganesh at the party office, ostensibly to pronounce its ‘Hindu identity’, but the move has not fetched an approval from the ‘high command’ so far.
Many Congress leaders like Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Janardhan Dwivedi want Rahul to showcase the party’s pro-Hindu image. At the same time, there are many within the Congress who feel such a measure would boomerang. Unable to take a call, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have decided to toe the path of least resistance and skirt the issue, a strategy that has dismayed many. After all, the Congress survival kit for over 132 years has been continuity with change. The Congress has been reinventing itself, avoiding confrontations and sharp divisions in society.
Now that Rahul is set to take over the Congress and an AICC plenary session (first since Burari 2010) is on the card, the new Congress chief needs to discuss and debate the definition and practice of secularism in a threadbare manner instead of opting for election time temple-hopping.
Rasheed Kidwai is the Associate Editor with The Telegraph. His Twitter handle is @rasheedkidwai
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