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Communalisation and the Retrieval of the Secular

by K N Panikkar, 3 September 2008

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(Text of Freda Laski Memorial lecture delivered at Lucknow on the 16th November 2007)

The most striking feature of Indian polity during the last ten years, according to Martha Nussbaum, an American Political Scientist, is the near collapse of Indian democracy into religious terror and its eventual survival. The collapse was not sudden nor the recovery influenced by some immediate reasons, although there is a tendency, particularly among secular activists and ant-secular scholars, to locate the communal discomfiture in its flawed strategy of mobilization through ’India Shining’ campaign. In fact, the near collapse of democracy was the end product of a long process of communalization of Indian society, gaining momentum during the last two decades of the twentieth century. The recovery also had its roots in the historical process of secular tradition. Neither the collapse nor the recovery can be attributed as an aberration. Inherent in them were the influence of long historical processes. Not purely political, but cultural and intellectual as well. Nussbaum may be right in her assessment that democracy has survived through the defeat of the communal forces in the election. The electoral victory, however, did not mean that secularism has triumphed over communalism and that the threat of communalism has been overcome. On the contrary communalism as an ideology continues to be powerful and influential, particularly because communalism is not a political phenomenon alone. Even if its political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is currently in disarray its actual strength has not wilted. For, its real strength lay in its cultural appeal and ideological influence. The large numbers of socio-cultural organizations which constitute the Hindu communal collective ensure the climate for the assertion of Fascism still exists.

Fascism, as Norbert Elias has argued, is a decivilising process. The unprecedented cruelty in human history experienced under Fascism deprived the Germans much of the finer qualities of their civilization. Without meaning to be comparative it can be stated that the Fascist character of Hindu communalism has unfolded itself during the last two decades. Its ability to enact the cruelty witnessed under Fascism is now very evident. Hardly anyone, except the communally convinced, would doubt that Gujarat 2002 was not a version of Fascist terror. Yet, interpretations of its impact vary. Nonetheless, the opinion of Elias is true not only of Germany but also of India. It did mean a set back to Indian civilization. The pillars of Indian civilization have been compassion, accommodation and togetherness. These qualities of the civilization have been shaped by a historical process which brought together different cultural streams, thereby leading to their mutual enrichment, despite tensions and contradictions within it. What the communal forces tried to do during their spell of power was to undo this secular tradition, mostly by coercive persuasion. There were a variety of reasons why they did not fully succeed in it. Among them the strength of the secular tradition and the resistance rooted in it were not unimportant factors.

Secular Tradition

The secular tradition was long in the making. The demographic diversity of the country, historically constituted by the coming together of people from different parts of the world through a process of migrations and invasions ensured cultural heterogeneity. India may not have developed as a melting pot, but the cultural interaction it experienced led to harmonious co-existence. With the exception of Europeans everyone who came to India made it their home. As a result, influenced by the compulsions of daily life Indian society under went a process of secularization, characterized by mutual respect towards the believers of other faiths. Attempts to reach out to this ideal were also manifested in the creative and philosophical realms. As a result regardless of the religious identity of the ruling elite the common people shared the same advantages, in most times the same misery, thereby generating certain social solidarity. In depicting the togetherness of people belonging to different religious denominations the popular Indian cinema may err on the side of exaggeration, but it does capture the essence of fellow feeling in the villages, regardless of different religious identity. It would be simplistic to hold that it is this fellow feeling which shaped the character of Indian Constitution in the form of commitment to secular state and society. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the historical experience played a major role in the making of the secular character of the Constitution. The anti-colonial struggle and the left movement which stood for the secular cause was the immediate background in which Indian state tried to shape its character. The three years intervening between 1947 and 50 were very crucial in the history of India. During those years Indian society had a choice to determine the character of the state. India chose the secular, and it was a deliberate choice, despite the experience of the Partition. Subsequently the Indian state took care to impart secular character to its institutions and public policy. The assessment of Donald Eugene Smith, perhaps the first scholar to give serious thought to the prospects of Indian democracy, that India had a chance to survive as a secular democracy was based on the early initiatives of the state.

Secular Initiatives: Education and Culture

The two areas in which the secular commitment of the state was most manifest were education and culture. The ruling elite of India had realized that education was a crucial component in the making of a secular society. Almost every report on education had taken cognizance of this connection in formulating its proposals. The independent Indian state is often criticized for not dismantling the colonial system of education it had inherited. One of the reasons why it did not do so was because the colonial system, despite its weaknesses and biases, was essentially liberal and secular. The independent state, therefore, developed its educational policy and practice on the foundations laid by colonialism. What the independent state tried to achieve in education was in consonance with its politics. Although educational opportunities and advantages were mainly cornered by the upper castes and classes, the content of education contributed to the growth of secular consciousness.

In the making of the cultural policy and practice the views of the nascent state was guided by secular imperatives. The cultural diversity and multi-religious demographic composition made secularism a necessary condition for the republic. The state had to ensure that the cultural rights of different groups are respected and preserved. An equally important issue was how to shape the relationship between the state and religion. This was particularly complex because of the multi-religious composition of society. Jawaharlal Nehru whose contribution to Indian democracy and secularism is unparalleled took care to dissociate religion from the concerns of the state. Being an idealist he insisted that the government functionaries dissociate themselves in their official capacity from all public religious rituals. He himself tried to set an example by scrupulously avoiding participation in religious functions or visiting temples. However, this was not observed by his colleagues in the government or the party, including the head of the state, who decided to participate in the consecration ceremony of Somnath temple. Nehru‚s attempt to dissuade the President reflected the tension within the government about the relationship between state and religion. Although the official policy has been based on equal distance from and equal respect for all religions, influence of religion progressively made its mark in matters of state. Nehru was forgotten by his successors in office. After him the prime ministers and other functionaries of the government had no qualms of conscience for lending their presence in religious functions. They even patronized god men and women by being present in their birth day celebrations and other such occasions. Who is patronizing whom is however difficult to say. The state increasingly came closer to religion and when the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power it strove to identify the state with Hinduism.

The attitude towards education and culture had larger political implications. It was integral to the nature of politics the state wanted to promote and the secular character of the nation it sought to construct. Secular education and culture were necessary pre-requisites for building a modern secular nation. It would not be wrong to say that these early efforts had set in motion, despite their limitations, a process of secularization of state and society. This process, however, suffered from several weaknesses. Firstly, the commitment of the ruling classes to secularism was very tenuous. As a result they not only departed from the secular ideal, but also very often invoked communalism for political advantage. Secondly, the middle class which was the support base of secularism increasingly slipped to communal consciousness as a result of its cultural crisis.

The agenda of communalism was to reverse this process of secularization. With a secular past a communal future could not be constructed. Therefore the past had to be reinterpreted and reordered. With this in view, the communal forces, with the active participation of the governments, both in the states and the Centre, sought to undermine the secular character of education and to replace it with a communal scheme. Although distortions in history textbooks have been at the centre of the debate what actually happened was much more inclusive of education as a whole. The historians went to town about factual errors, often overlooking the larger implications of willful misrepresentations. Most of the factual errors in history and other textbooks produced by the NCERT were not errors, but were consciously inserted with a purpose. They were part of the construction of the idea of a Hindu religious nation, validated by historical experience. Instead of focusing on this important political agenda the critique of the communal educational initiatives was led away by obvious academic flows like factual errors in history text books. As a result attention was focused on the communal interventions in institutions like NCERT or ICHR or ICSSR. What was attempted by communalism was a massive right wing ideological shift for which education and culture were used as effective instruments. The changes the communal government introduced were not cosmetic and temporary, but systemic and institutional. A complete reorientation of the policy in education and culture was effected in the name of privileging the indigenous. Addressing the Vice-chancellors of the country, Muralee Manohar Joshi, one of the most committed Hindu communalists, who was in charge of the education portfolio, exhorted them to return to indigenous knowledge. The outcome of this attempt was that intellectual and cultural discourse took a turn for the communal. It increasingly received support in academic institutions as well as public respectability and acceptance. The attempt of the communal dispensation was to change the character of the nation - from the secular to Hindu religious. A simultaneous phenomenon was that Hindu communalism received the respectability of nationalism, particularly through the writings of influential Western scholars. The concept of cultural nationalism which communal ideologues put forward sought to identify religion with culture and to redefine nationalism in religious terms. This interpretation of nationalism had a favourable resonance among the middle class. The secular intelligentsia did not succeed in countering it as their conceptions were limited to the political and economic.

For communalism to thrive it was necessary to undermine the credibility of the secular. This was done in two ways. First, by undermining the idea of secularism itself and secondly, by destroying the prestige and credibility of the secular intelligentsia. For achieving the first, secularism was systematically projected as alien and borrowed from the West, with out any roots in the soil. The communal argument was indirectly helped by the anti-modernist critique of secularism which propagated that the only form of secularism possible in India was based on religious toleration. The communal ideologues turned it around to suggest that secularism in India was contingent upon the toleration of Hindus. Such an argument ran counter to the aggression and violence continuously perpetrated by the Hindu communal forces. That the Hindus are intrinsically peaceful has been proved a myth.

One of the positive parts of the intellectual life in post-independent India was the emergence of a strong secular intelligentsia. In almost all spheres of creative and scholarly fields they were highly respected and influential. Their contribution in diverse fields has been instrumental in the making of the hegemonic character of secularism. The communal forces were quick to realize that unless they are marginalized and discredited the appeal of the secular can not be undermined. That accounts for the vilification of historians by the likes of Arun Shourie and the physical aggression against outstanding painters by the goons of the VHP. That M.F.Hussain is still being targeted and is being prevented from receiving an award in the name of Rajah Ravi Varma, who brought modernity to Indian painting, is an example of the pursuit of the same agenda.

However crude and vulgar the communal propaganda has been it managed to earn considerable support in society. It was mainly because of the grass root level work undertaken by its social and cultural organizations. The movements like the Ramjanmabhoomi may have helped the process, but Ramjanmabhoomi was possible because grass root level organizations have been active and had already achieved some level of religious mobilization. The access to power at the centre considerably helped these organizations with financial support, supplemented by the massive funding they received from abroad. These organizations intervened in almost every area of social and cultural life, bringing the unsuspecting participants under communal influence. The secular forces did not succeed in evolving an effective programme to meet this challenge. They continued with the same methods, same language and same idiom. As a result the secular space increasingly succumbed to the communal during the last two decades. The question before the secular forces was how to restore the secular space, let alone increase and expand it. The defeat of the communal forces in the election provided an opportunity to reclaim the secular space.

Retrieval of the Secular

When the United Progressive Alliance came to power the expectation was that it would take comprehensive and wide ranging measures for the retrieval of the secular. For, the electoral success was achieved by the alliance primarily on an anti-communal platform. The MHRD minister Shri. Arjun Singh, who is known for his secular commitment, gave some inkling to that effect by indicating the measures of detoxification the government proposes to undertake. It aroused considerable expectation in the secular camp. But very few realized that detoxification was not a sufficient step to neutralize the communal poison. The concept itself was inadequate, as it did not fully comprehend what communalism had actually achieved. Or did it reflect the reluctance of the Congress government to squarely confront Hindu communalism, as it was afraid of loosing the support of its Hindu constituency? What BJP rule had done was not to inject poison into the system. If it were detoxification was possible. Actually it had injected into the system germs which produced poison. The detoxification was possible only if the germs were flushed out for which communalization had to be replaced by resecularisation. This was a major all embracing project for which the new government appeared to be reluctant. This was possibly because the change of government was seen only in terms of power and not of ideology. Therefore, the need to eliminate the ideological influence was not realized or pursued. As a consequence communal ideological power remained unabated. The secular intelligentsia also did not push for such a programme as it was content with their return to positions of power or wielding influence in institutions, often with the support of communal ideologues.

The attempt to infiltrate, control and transform education was central to the ideological work of the communal forces. They had adopted the Fascist method of ’catching them young’. In order to achieve that the effort was to turn schools and colleges into recruiting grounds of communalism. In most cases the introduction to the communal ideology was through the physical training or literary activities organized in the school premises. The access to power brought about a qualitative change in the nature of communal intervention. They were now able to change the curriculum, revise the syllabus and alter the pedagogy. In essence to communalize all the three. In the bargain there were very few educational and research institutions which were not saffronised. It reflects poorly on the intelligentsia that a large number of them abandoned their secular baggage, in some cases quite heavy, and preferred to enjoy the patronage offered by the communal government. Those who resisted had to face hostility, malicious propaganda and even physical aggression.

The new government was expected to reverse this process of communalization for which a comprehensive plan of institutional restructuring and ideological reorientation was required. Within five years communal forces had become so well entrenched within the academia and the bureaucracy that the new government could not bring about any fundamental change. The secular intelligentsia preferred compromise rather than confrontation, particularly because they returned to the portals of power. In one of the research funding organizations in which an enquiry had found intellectual dishonesty and administrative mismanagement, the intelligentsia preferred to overlook them and chose to absolve the guilty. This is not an isolated instance. Generally the communal ideological influence has continued to persist.

A large number of institutions which had impeccable secular record in the past succumbed under pressure to the communal influence, some willingly and some due to coercion. It is generally considered as the failure of individuals who manned them. It may well be in case of many. But the fragile nature of the autonomy of institutions was not an unimportant factor. When a communal politician like Muralee Manohar Joshi behaved like a bull in a Chinese shop most institutions did not put up any resistance. More than the failure of individuals who manned them, which indeed it was, this should be seen as structural weakness of the institutions. Therefore, if the secular character of public institutions is to be preserved there must be adequate internal mechanism to resist possible external interventions. During the post-election period no thought has gone into it, either by the intelligentsia or the successor government. The experience of the communal regime was enough reason to undertake such an exercise which unfortunately was not considered at all.

The only field in which some steps have been taken to counter the communal ideology and to retrieve the secular is education. The NCERT has replaced the blatantly communal text books the BJP government had introduced and has brought back the secular ethos in the new books it has produced. But what happened to the NCERT text books was only the tip of the iceberg. After all the NCERT books were used only in three percent of the schools in the country. The books in the remaining schools are perhaps much worse than the NCERT books. The government has not so far taken any steps to ensure that such books are not in use so that the minds of the young are not vitiated by their content. The recovery of the secular in education and the construction of a healthy society largely depend upon the elimination of the communal element from the curriculum, syllabus and text books. It would require constant monitoring for which an institutional arrangement in the form of a national commission for textbooks is necessary. The commission should be empowered to take cognizance of all communal distortions and take appropriate action, including the punishment of the guilty.

In almost every sphere of social and cultural life communalism has carved out enough space to pursue its activities. The new government has hardly taken any step to restrict or reclaim this space; rather it has allowed this space to be maintained and even expanded. The communal forces are taking advantage of this lack of secular initiative to consolidate their influence in the fields of education and culture. In fact, they have currently become more active in education, expanding their activities into newer domains. They are practically running a parallel system. Apart from the thousands of institutions under the RSS outfit, Vidhya Bharati, more than one lakh Ekal Vidhyalayas were proposed to be set up in tribal areas. It is not known how many have already been set up. Moreover, their presence in government and private institutions continues unabated. Recently a RSS outfit in Kerala has started courses to award Mphil and PhD degrees.

The communal organizations have been quite innovative and enterprising in transforming cultural consciousness on communal lines. Given an all inclusive definition of culture that the communal forces have adopted, it became possible for them to intervene in daily life practices. The strategy has been to generate and exploit religiosity. During the last few decades there is distinct increase in religiosity, mostly expressed through superstitious practices which are consciously promoted by the communal forces. At the same time they try to recruit the Dalits and Adivasis to the communal cause by hinduising their religious practices and social life. A ritually oriented homogenization and appropriation are steadily progressing.

The secular cultural organizations have not been successful in countering these initiatives, primarily because there is a fundamental difference in the attitude of the communal and the secular forces towards cultural work. The difference is between cultural intervention and intervention in culture. While the method of secular forces is the former that of the communal forces is the latter. The secular forces generally take an instrumentalist view where as the communal approach is transformative. That secular resistance to communalism has been static and ineffective is a result of this conceptual inadequacy. A reorientation in the nature of secular cultural intervention is therefore called for. It is only then decivilising process which communalism has unleashed could be contained and reversed. It is different from detoxification or desaffronisation. It is actually retrieving the essentials of Indian civilization-humanism, mutual respect and togetherness. In achieving this objective retrieving the secular in education and culture is a crucial component.

Despite the conscious efforts of communal ideologues and administrators the impact of communalization was of a limited nature. There were fairly large areas which communalism could not conquer. As a result there was enough space for secularism to assert itself. The electoral defeat of communalism was essentially the political articulation of the opinion nurtured in this space. The UPA government has not been able to protect and expand this space. In fact it has not tried adequately. As a result there is enough space for the communal forces to reassert which it is trying to do through interventions of social and cultural organizations at their command. The communal forces are conscious of its agenda. The secular forces are not. Therein lies the danger to Indian democracy, which has just about managed to survive from the communal assault.