When it comes to secularism, all our political leaders are liars. Last week was a good one to remember this. Also to remember that those who profess secularism must be held more accountable. Or India could end up in a situation as horrifying as exists in the Islamic Republic next door, with religious lunatics handing out death sentences. They erupted in hoardes last week to protest against Asia Bibi being acquitted after she had spent a decade on death row. Her ‘blasphemy’ was determined by an Islamic court on the evidence of Muslim women she argued with at a village well when they urged her to give up her Christian faith. No country does more to make India look civilised, righteous and enlightened than Pakistan.
For me the first week of November always brings back terrible memories of those three days in 1984 when the charred bodies of Sikhs littered the streets of Delhi because the city’s morgues were so full. This pogrom, offensively called an ‘anti-Sikh riot’, was organised as retribution for the assassination of Indira Gandhi. So it was fitting that it was on the anniversary of this assassination last week that the Delhi High Court sentenced to life imprisonment 16 of the policemen responsible for the Hashimpura massacre.
In the massacre of the Sikhs, the police simply looked the other way as mobs of Congress supporters burned, pillaged and murdered their way across India’s capital for three awful days. In Hashimpura, it was policemen who did the killings. They pretended to arrest Muslims from Meerut’s Hashimpura locality, only to take them to the edge of the Ganga canal and then gun them down in the truck in which they were trapped. If a handful had not survived, the story of this massacre would have remained untold, because when bloated bodies surfaced in the canal days later, they would have been dismissed as riot victims.
These two massacres happened under ‘secular’ Congress rule, but none of the political leaders which are now banding together once more in the name of secularism has ever questioned the Congress party on its role in that pogrom in 1984. These political leaders who are uniting to ‘save’ India from the ‘communal’ rule of Narendra Modi have all held power in Delhi. But, not one of them has ever made a serious effort to bring about even a measure of justice. If it were not for tireless human rights lawyers and activists, both massacres would have long been forgotten.
In a peculiar way, secularism is safer in the hands of the ‘communal’ BJP. Since 2014, sickening hate crimes against Muslim and Dalit cattle traders by vigilantes have increased. But, these vigilantes admit openly that they belong to outfits like the Bajrang Dal and take inspiration from Hindutva. Last week senior RSS leaders publicly announced plans to start a new movement to build that Ram temple in Ayodhya. In my book, this is less dangerous than the sly manner in which Rajiv Gandhi began his election campaign from Ayodhya in 1989, with the promise of Ramrajya. It is better than the way in which his son is now declaring himself a Brahmin who wears a sacred thread and worships Shiva. Incidentally, he cannot be a Brahmin because his father was a Parsi. But, in the arena of secularism, so many lies are told so often by so many that nobody cares about details.
What we must demand is more accountability from those who espouse secularism. Opposition parties have every right to band together to defeat Modi in next year’s general election, but please do this without defiling secularism. The Congress party believes that the principle of a secular state is their contribution to Indian politics. This is not true. The idea is as ancient as India herself. There have been powerful Hindu gurus, but they never controlled armies or political power. The roles of priests and kings have always been clearly defined. It is because of this that religious lunatics have rarely occupied the political space.
We may today have a man who wears the saffron robes of renunciation ruling our most populous state, but this is unusual. In my opinion it should not have happened at all and should not happen in the future. When the lines between religion and political power blur, as they have in Pakistan, bad things result, as we saw last week. We saw bearded Maulanas urge their followers to go forth and murder the judges who acquitted Asia Bibi and the lawyers who helped her win her case. We saw them urge soldiers to mutiny in the name of the Prophet. We saw them demand that Asia Bibi be publicly hanged. If such things are unimaginable here, it is because an Indian version of secularism has always existed. It must remain untainted by politicians seeking petty gains.