By Ram Puniyani
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation, did say that he is a Hindu; at the same time he went on to say that religion is a private matter for him. His greatest disciple Jawaharlal Nehru was a rationalist agnostic. He laid the foundations of secular India where the matters related to religion were supposed to be dealt with at social or personal level. Nearly six decades after the death of the first Prime Minster of India, matters have drifted beyond imagination. Nehru’s great grandson who began his political career with no signs of public display of religion, today is making a clear public display of his religiosity. Apart from stating that he is a janeudhari (wearing sacred thread), Shiv Bhakt to visiting temples by the dozen, he also took the pilgrimage to Mansarovar. The Congress’ Madhya Pradesh unit took out a “Ram Van Gaman Pad yatra” and is promising a gaushala (cow shed) in each panchayat. BJP spokespersons are questioning all these moves as if their monopoly in such matters is under threat.
The result is that there are critics labeling Congress politics as being soft Hindutva. These signs of the party of Gandhi and Nehru are disturbing at one level. Still, does it mean that the Congress is abandoning the path of secularism, the path outlined in our Constitution, of religion being a matter of people’s personal choices to be dealt with by individuals–communities on their own? Is Congress trying to walk the path which RSS–BJP have pursued to gain power, the path of political polarization of communities along religious lines, the path of divisive politics, the path of abandoning material issues while creating the haze of emotive ones like Ram Temple and Holy cow-beef?
After its defeat in the 2014 general elections, the A.K. Anthony Committee set up by the Congress gave the report that an important cause of defeat of the Congress was the popular perception that people looked upon it as a pro-Muslim party, which by implication meant that it was being regarded as being an anti-Hindu outfit. This came in the background of the tireless propaganda from the RSS–BJP stable that the Congress has been appeasing Muslims, Congress is pro-Muslim, etc. This propaganda has been mixed up with the lie that Jawaharlal Nehru was the descendant of a Muslim and that the Congress is not interested in taking care of interests of Hindus, and so on and so forth. The argument was also put forward that the Hindu BJP is on one side and godless secularists are on the other side.
If we want to go to the roots of this false propaganda, we will have to go back to many decades ago. When the Indian National Congress was formed, it represented rising India; this umbrella organisation of all Indians had members from all the communities of India. This got manifested in people like Pherozhshah Mehta, Badruddin Tyabaji becoming its initial presidents. Right from that time, communal elements, who were the progenitors of future Hindu Mahasabha–RSS ideology and who represented the interests of the Hindu landlords, started saying that the Congress is appeasing Muslims. After its founding, the RSS continued with this propaganda; it was the Hindu Mahasabha–RSS propaganda against the leaders of the Congress, especially Mahatma Gandhi, as being pro-Muslim that created the hatred that led Godse to kill the father of the Nation. Following the winning of independence, in keeping with the spirit of democracy, special policies were initiated to support the minorities, such as that they were permitted to have their own educational institutions. This along with Haj subsidy, which as such was a subsidy to Air India, acted as a potent weapon in the hands of the RSS parivar to propagate the falsehood of appeasement of minorities. This malicious propaganda got a further boost when the Congress, in a grave mistake, overturned the verdict of Supreme Court in the matter of Shah Bano and got the Parliament to pass the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986. This opened the flood gates for the propaganda that ‘appeasement of Muslims’ was being done by the Congress. This was a grave error of judgment, mostly forced by protests by the conservative Muslim elements against the Shah Bano judgment.
This has not been the only flaw in the Congress stand on secularism. It failed to take decisive and firm action in controlling riots and the accusations made by secular activists that the Congress has often acted in a biased manner against Muslims and Sikhs are correct. The Congress role in opening the gates of Babri mosque was another important political blunder, and it eventually led to the demolition of Babri Mosque, to which the Congress leadership remained a mute spectator. Clearly, its secularism had holes which could not halt the march of Hindutva and Hindu nationalism. It created the grounds for the rise of the RSS. Today, the Hindutva forces have become strong enough for the political discourse to be dictated by their politics, the politics of the RSS–BJP. Not only Congress, even Mamata Bannerjee has lately shown the tilt towards displaying such religiosity by sanctioning subsidised electricity for Durga Puja pandals and participating in the Ram Navami festival.
So, the question arises, can the policies being pursued by Rahul Gandhi led Congress be termed as soft Hindutva? I would like to answer, definitely no. The unwanted tilt in display of religiosity is basically an attempt to undo the perception that has been created by the RSS–BJP of the Congress being pro-Muslim and undo the image of being godless secularists. Hindutva politics is based on Brahmanical hierarchy of caste and gender; it aims to gradually do away with secular democracy and bring in Hindu Rashtra. To combat this, what is needed is adoption of inclusive concept of Gandhi’s Hinduism, where values of pluralism and diversity have bigger importance. It is surely a sign of regressive times where Hindu nationalist discourse is overtaking the better of Indian nationalist ethos.
The RSS Parivar has been successful in setting the terms of debate, confining it to ‘Hindu RSS–BJP’ versus ‘pro Muslim, godless secularists’. The display of religiosity by the Congress is a reaction to this debate, but it actually means succumbing to the frame of debate set by the RSS–BJP. The real way it can be countered is by taking up the issues of the marginalised sections of the people, the majority of whom are Hindus, like the farmers, the oppressed castes and the victims of patriarchy, the women. The Congress took up the role of leading the freedom movement against British rule in yesteryears. It needs to assume a similar role in freeing the nation from the caste hierarchy, communalism and patriarchy now.