Updated: October 19, 2019 12:22:09 pm
The next few months may turn out to be crunch time for the institutional formation of Indian secularism. The Ayodhya judgment is expected. The government is also likely going to move on three other issues that go to the core of secularism: The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAB) and the possible extension of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) itself; the introduction of a Common Civil Code Bill; and a possible national legislation to regulate conversion. These issues have been simmering for 70 years, and one way or the other a dénouement looks likely now. But the monumental irony of the moment is these issues are also a reminder that the Congress’s cardinal sin was not letting the BJP walk away with nationalism; it was letting BJP walk away with liberalism.
Since Independence, the Congress dealt with these issues as a kind of modus vivendi, relying on deferring them issue, or fudging along with messy compromises that were often unprincipled. Both Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao did that on Ayodhya by facilitating access to the site and laying the ground work for a criminal act of destruction that took place with the demolition of Babri Masjid. They also, in effect, conceded the legitimacy of the principle that any wrong that might have been committed in the 16th century needs to be rectified in the 21st and that the importance of Ram requires worship on that site.
Ram bhakti requires no such diminution of Ram. The Left also unwittingly played into the BJP’s hands, by constructing a historiography that denied or underplayed the fact that temples might have been destroyed. Both, in a sense, were arguing on the same ground that current rights depend on ascertaining the facts somewhere around circa 1526. Depending on the way the judgment goes, the biggest danger of the Supreme Court order will be to create a precedent that a large number of current titles to sites, from Mathura to Kashi now depend on arcane historiography. As you can see from the gathering momentum, this is a recipe for a nation in permanent contest over monuments of the past, and permanently in the grip of communal tension. The Congress closed the path to the future, it did not uphold rule of law, and legitimised the idea that Ram bhakti requires a temple on that site.
Similarly on the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), the Congress crafted a modus vivendi at Independence. Its shameful abdication on Shah Bano gave the BJP the political opening. What variation in civil codes is possible in a manner compatible with the freedom and equality of persons is an intricate philosophical issue. But from a liberal democratic standpoint, any civil code would have to pass three tests: Reflect freedom and equality, especially on gender; acknowledge that Parliament has symmetric authority over the laws of all religions; and that common citizenship requires we all be able to speak on each other’s laws that are upheld by the state in our name. There are tricky issues. There is a false communal discourse that paints majority’s laws as practices uniquely progressive and minority laws as regressive. There is the vital question of who gets to set the content of the UCC, the principles that guide it, and what variations it should allow to respect diversity. There is a real risk that our current answers to these questions will have not just a majoritarian slant, but will be designed to humiliate minorities. But in public eyes, all that the Congress offered was an evasive status quo. It let the BJP formally walk away with the plank of gender justice and the liberal idea that rights should, as far as possible, not depend on membership in particular religious communities.
On conversion, again, the Congress wrote the playbook in states including Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. Whatever may be the theological pros and cons of conversion, the idea that the state is in the business of saving anyone’s soul should be an abomination for liberals. Yes, it has no right to intervene even if someone converts for inducement: That someone sells their soul, out of necessity or convenience, is their business. Often the legislation was one sided: Coming “back” to Hinduism is not conversion, but exiting is. The entire conversion discourse is built around the insecurities of Hinduism. We were complacent because we could always count on Congress governments not to enforce their own laws. But the idea of the state having any role in regulating religious beliefs should be anathema. But the Congress wrote the playbook.
The NRC process, as it is turning out, is an abomination; a recipe for human rights violations and the creation of insecurity all around. Formally, of course, every state can claim the legal right to want to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration. In Assam, there was a political issue about apportioning power between religious and cultural communities. The CAB is one discriminatory response to that quagmire. But instead of finding creative solutions consistent with practical realities, non-discriminatory constitutional ideals and humane values, all parties are now engaged in whipping up anxieties, whose logical conclusion will be more power to the state to harass ordinary citizens, especially minorities. We are risking consigning hundreds of thousands of people to that institution that is the 20th century’s most ominous symbol of oppression, the camp. The NRC will add another dimension to the politics of secularism.
In the aftermath of Partition, creating a modus vivendi that threw cold water on these issues was understandable. But the Congress not only refused to move on and think anew; it has never adequately distanced itself from its mistakes and betrayals. It cannot articulate a position that is both progressive and anti-majoritarian. Instead, it will go for status quo and soft majoritarianism. On many of these issues, particularly on UCC, there has been a lot of sophisticated thinking. But the Congress’s tainted record drowns out all other positions. Amit Shah will stand up and announce that the BJP is realising all the dreams the Congress did not have the courage to fulfil. The Congress will again be like a deer caught in headlights. What will it say? It will draw the erroneous conclusion that it lost credibility because it was soft on nationalism. No, it lost credibility because it betrayed liberalism. In this crunch moment for Indian secularism, which will be a crucial test for the Opposition, the Congress will be the cross we all have to bear. Fighting for secularism against the BJP is hard enough; being tarred with the legacy of Congress makes it even harder.
This article first appeared in the October 19 print edition under the title ‘Crunch time for secularism’ The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express
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