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Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Communalism, Minority Identity And Secularism In The Time Of Elections 2009 – An Evaluation

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Venu K.M

Communalism, Minority Identity And Secularism In The Time Of Elections
2009 – An Evaluation

By Cynthia Stephen

07 April, 2009

“Majorities are of two sorts: (1) communal majority and (2) political
majority. A political majority is changeable in its class composition.
A political majority grows. A communal majority is born. The admission
to a political majority is open. The door to a communal majority is
closed. The politics of political majority are free to all to make and
unmake. The politics of communal majority are made by its own members
born in it.” – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.

These prophetic words are very relevant in today’s India. “The world’s
largest democracy” prides itself on the fact that its voters are
showing more and more maturity in the results the elections throw up.
People-groups which have not hitherto played a major role in electoral
alliances are beginning to gain importance and “rainbow coalitions”
are the rule rather than the exception. A political majority is sought
to be built to fight elections and gain power. But what is happening
in the context of the communal majority?

For instance, the results of the recently Assembly elections in Jammu
and Kashmir show up a glaring fault-line, one that Ambedkar refers to
in the quotation. Never before had voters in J&K ever returned 10 BJP
representatives to the assembly, all from Jammu. The divide between
the Kashmir valley and Jammu was thrown into sharp relief. But the
emotive issue which ended in such polarization, just before the
election, was of the agitation on the issue of the allotment of land
for amenities for pilgrims going to Amarnath. While the issue was
communalized, the dividends were political. Gujarat is another clear
case in point, as is a recent controversy: Varun Gandhi and his
rabble-rousing speech which has been exploited both by the media and
the BJP to maximum dramatic effect.

The birthing of India took place on the hopeful though tearful dawn of
the 15th of August 1947, when British Imperialism conceived and
delivered offspring which were almost like conjoined twins: torn apart
into two on the basis of religious identity but held together by a
shared trauma of birth, history, geography and blood-ties. It was an
ominous portent. The two newly-born countries had a ruling class whose
class-caste identities were clear and unambiguously elitist, but in
India at least, their secular credentials were not under doubt. On
26th January 1950, and the founding dream of India: as a sovereign
republican democracy – became a reality, not chiefly by the efforts of
the Congressmen who had led the anti-colonial movement for India’s
political freedom, but by the tireless efforts of one man, whose
numerous contributions to his country was crowned by the singular
effort to produce the Constitution of India: Dr. B R Ambedkar, head of
the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly. But as he
presented to the nation the most important work of his life, he
stated: “On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life
of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and
economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be
recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value.
In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and
economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one
value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions?
How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic
life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by
putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this
contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those who suffer
from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy which this
Constituent Assembly has so laboriously built up.”

But now, in the India of the third millennium, equality continues to
be denied, and contradictions abound. Communalism has taken the
centre-stage, leaving its bloody footprints on the sands of the
sixty-odd years of time that India has existed.

The Constitutional values of Equality and non-discrimination are the
bedrock on which rests the edifice of rights and freedoms of Indian
citizens. The Constitution recognizes, even celebrates, the diversity
and plurality of the country and its citizens, and guarantees equality
before the law to every citizen. But the very idea that our country is
universally secular, democratic and plural in experience is
problematic. It may be so for the privileged. But women, Dalits,
children, Christians and Muslims, especially those belonging to the
lower economic and social strata, and rural, forest, hill and
desert-dwelling populations experience a different, harsher reality -
of unrelenting exclusion, violence and deprivation.

But the spirit of Equality was violated by one of the earliest
executive actions performed by the first President of India, Shri
Rajendra Prasad. He signed the rank discriminatory Presidential Order
1950 in August that year, in which an apocryphal third paragraph was
introduced, which effectively denied the benefits of reservations to
members of the Scheduled castes who were Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians
(and Muslims). This was modified in 1956 to include Sikhs in
reservations and in 1990 to include Buddhists. And despite many
assurances, recommendations and protests, the fact is that Christians
and Muslims of Dalit origin continue to be denied the very amenities
that are theirs by right. Thus the principle of nondiscrimination on
the basis of religion which was embedded in the DNA of the Indian
state, has been bypassed by this order, even though the order is
against the spirit as well as the legal position of the Constitution,
and there the matter continues to stand.

Thus, clearly, while the de jure position is that every citizen in the
country is equal before law, the reality – the de facto position – is
that the religious and other minorities in fact face systemic
discrimination. The rule of the dominants, namely those who follow a
Brahminical and casteist mode of life, prevails. Ironically, though
this category is in a numerical minority, at best about 15% of the
country’s population overall, they comprise an overwhelming majority
in the government, the academic, the political sphere, the judiciary
and the private sector. The very poor implementation of reservations
at all levels in jobs and employment, barring the lowest or class D
category – is testimony to the discriminatory nature of our society
and policy. Thus even if the law provides proactive measures for
development of those who are backward or poor, the ‘iron frame’ of
privilege will work to exclude those who are eligible for the benefits
and try to appropriate them for itself. And if about 40% of our
population is below the poverty line, that is, too poor to afford
survival-level food consumption – then we need to ask how
representative, fair and democratic our political and social structure
actually are.

The silver lining to this cloud is the consolidation of the lower
castes, both in the political and educational spheres. This has
brought fresh thinking and new talent to the fore, even if the persons
concerned are inexperienced and less exposed to the nature of the
establishment, and for that reason are better able to bring about
much-needed changes in it. The impetus given by the Mandal Commission
report to this process - and the backlash in the form of the
“Kamandal” – the consolidation and mobilization of the saffron forces
to counter this – has yet to be fully understood. The Mandal
Commission evolved an index based on 11 indicators, subdivided into
three categories – social, educational and economic – for the
definition of the OBCs, and caste was not the sole criterion. Three of
the indicators concerned caste, while the others referred to other
impediments to the progress of the people group including early
marriage – a barrier to education – and other criteria such as
percentage of the caste who owned at least kuccha housing.

Christophe Jaffrelot, in his “India’s Silent Revolution: The rise of
the low castes in North Indian politics” points out that the entire
purpose of the exercise of the Commission was to give the OBCs access
to power, not jobs. He quotes from the report – “ It is not at all our
contention that by offering a few thousands jobs to OBC candidates we
shall be able to make 52% of the Indian population as forward”. The
report goes on to say that “an essential part of the battle against
social backwardness is to be fought in the minds of the backward
people. In India government service has always been looked upon as a
symbol of prestige and power. By increasing the representation of OBCs
in government services, we give them an immediate feeling of
participation in the governance of this country. When a backward class
candidate becomes a Collector or a Superintendent of Police, the
material benefits accruing from his position are limited to the
members of his family.. [B]ut the psychological spin off of this
phenomenon is tremendous; the entire community of that backward class
feels socially elevated. Even when no tangible benefits flow to the
community at large the feeling that it now has its ‘own man’ in the
‘corridors of power’ acts as a morale booster.” The report further
says “reservation will certainly erode the hold of the higher castes
on the services.”

How is this relevant to the discourse on communalism? It has a very
important bearing on the discourse, because before Mandal, conversion
to “other” religions was an important, and often the only option for
upward social mobility of disadvantaged groups. Thus India saw
large-scale conversions at various times in the past to Islam, at a
time in its history where Muslims were the ruling class, for example
in Gujarat, Central India and in Bengal. Similarly the latter part of
British rule in India, after the East India Company lost its hold on
the affairs of the colonial project, and the Crown took over, saw a
surge in the numbers of people from the untouchable and lower castes
who became Christians because of a similar process – from being
excluded from access to the corridors of power, they saw the virtues
of becoming co-religionists of the ruling class so as to feel a sense
of belonging and identity with the powers-that-be. Thus the conversion
process, at least in the past, had a lot to do with the contemporary
political processes.

In the present day, the rise in saffron assertion has closely
paralleled the growth of the political aspirations of the lower castes
following the Mandal Commission. The Sangh Parivar also kicked in
around the same time with a thrust into the communities of the
subalterns with their Vanvasi Kalyan, Ekal Vidyalayas, and the Bajrang
Dal. Thus the threat perception of the ruling classes – that the
processes unleashed by the Mandal Commission would succeed in
subverting their hold on power – caused them to, on the one hand,
reach out to the subaltern classes to build a constituency among them,
and on the other, drive a wedge between the so-called “Hindus” and the
Minorities by demonising them by harping “differences” between the
minorities and the “Hindus”. The organizations using the name of Ram
such as the Ram Sena are usually composed of the more dominant caste,
thereby underscoring the inherent caste-class divide and power
relations implied in the relationships (Hanuman – Bajrang Bali – the
devotee of Lord Shri Ram).

As the wheels of Advani’s Rath rolled over the Indian landscape in the
1990s and subsequently, the power surge - Orissa, Chhatisgarh, MP,
Bihar, Delhi - suggests a seemingly broad-based support for the RSS-
sponsored communal agenda. But straws in the wind suggest that we have
not yet seen the real face of Fascism. Bangar Laxman, Uma Bharathi and
Kalyan Singh were all elevated to positions of power and later
discarded, after their communities appeared to buy into the Parivar’s
agenda. All of them were Dalits or BCs. Narendra Modi, though no one
thinks of his caste, is also said to belong to a BC community – the
Teli caste. He too has been used to do some major dirty work for the
Parivar. Soon the time will come when he too will be dispensed with.
Even Advani – with his Sindhi origin and his householder status – too
does not fit into the Fascist scheme of the RSS. Soon, he too will
bite the dust and a quintessential RSS man – single, Brahmin or
upper-caste will either be projected for leadership. Alternatively,
the BJP itself will be eclipsed and become a footnote in Indian
politics, while an upper-caste preferably Brahmin “Brahmachari” from
the RSS will wrest control of the political space presently occupied
by the BJP. Hardline Brahminism, Patriarchy, and Fascism will combine
to try and occupy democratic spaces and take over the governance. The
situation of the Dalits, religious minorities and women will see a
rapid decline.

With this end in mind, the ruling class have set into motion a series
of processes aimed at exploiting the existing fault-lines in Indian
society and channeling the desire of the subaltern classes to be close
to the seat of power by enabling formations such as the Dharm Raksha
Sena, the Bajrang Dal, etc. They also appropriate local linguistic
sensibilities by infiltrating or taking them over – such as happened
in Karnataka with the Kannada Rakshana Vedike. It is ironical that one
section of Kannada “Abhimanis” bought into the saffron agenda because
even a cursory glance will reveal the non-Brahmin provenance of the
linguistic and cultural heritage of the Kannada people – Basava,
Akkammahadevi, Kanakadasa and other luminaries who have enriched the
literature and philosophy of this ancient land and language can hardly
be termed Brahminical.

But the sad irony is that the true inheritors of the legacy of social
struggle, progressive and subaltern assertion appear to have lost the
capacity to counter the communal agenda. Instead they have become
pawns in the hands of those who propagate the Fascistic saffron
communal agenda. Most in India are aware that the Sangh Parivar, and
chiefly the RSS, its intellectual fountainhead – is actually a vehicle
for Fascism. In the south, the vibrant non-Brahmin movement in Tamil
Nadu has kept the Parivar at bay in Tamil Nadu. The Left and the
relatively larger percentage of Islamic-Christian populations has to
some extent retarded their progress in Kerala. But while Karnataka
appears to have been won over, the first real support for the Parivar
in the South was actually in Andhra Pradesh, because the first ally of
the BJP was the TDP which enabled the NDA to rule in Delhi for a whole
term for the very first time. But Karnataka’s social realities are
very different from AP, where the minorities rallied together to send
the TDP packing in the state elections, to punish it for its dalliance
with the BJP. Even in Karnataka, the pockets of support for the BJP
are not widespread, but only in parts of the state – the coastal and
North-western areas. The South and most of the North-eastern part of
Karnataka do not seem to be much enamoured of the Parivar. But the
secular political forces have failed to see the writing on the wall
and come together to counter its agenda. This has caused the BJP to
come to power in the state on a negative vote. Will our politically
savvy voters now save the day for our state, even though the leaders
seem to betray them time after time?

All is not lost - thinkers and scholars, writers and grassroots
political activists, and newer political formulations are waking up to
the realities. People in Karnataka were shocked to see the ugly face
of the Parivar in their own backyard or rather in their own drawing
rooms, as TV channels gave blanket coverage to footage of the public
beating of women in a restaurant in Mangalore, and some footage
emerged of unprecedented attacks on churches in the town too. In the
same region, for the past two years there were communal incidents
involving the sale of beef – mainly against Muslims. As one astute
grassroots political activist in Bangalore pointed out, the violence
against minorities is carefully orchestrated. They target Muslim for
their Beef-eating and selling, Christians for conversions, and Dalits
are targeted for casteist atrocities if they become assertive. It is
not as if Dalits or Christians don’t eat or trade in beef; or that
Muslims or Christians are not asserting. And conversions happen both
among Dalits and Muslims, but they are not targeted on this issue.
They target these three groups on three different issues so that they
cannot come together to oppose the Parivar’s agenda. In fact, on some
issues there are bound to be differences between the three subaltern
groups. And the Parivar is fishing in these waters to gain political

The RSS has shown ingenuity in enlisting youths from subaltern groups
and co-opting them into their agenda, at a time when secular and even
progressive democratic forces have ceded their spaces. Where are the
active students’ movements of the 70s and 80s? Have the educational
institutions and universities actively discouraged the activity of
these groups? Or did changed social expectations de-politicise our
youth so that they can no longer distinguish between fascism and
democracy? How can we educate young people about the dangers of
fascism? Even the strong trade union movements of the 80s have been
weakened by internal contradictions, by attrition in policies and by
sheer economic compulsions. Thus the existing political awareness in
society has been

To go back to the quotation cited at the beginning of this paper, has
our inaction succeeded in making what was surely only a communal
majority into a political majority? Is it too late already? A peep
into the future suggest that there may still be time. There is still
space for sections of society who have so far been marginalized from
these processes to come to the fore, such as women, youth and the
professional class, at least those from the newly upwardly mobile
classes. Their involvement and fresh thinking, their identification of
issues and location of solutions will bring in a new vibrance to our
maturing democratic system.

Cynthia Stephen is an Independent Researcher, based in Bangalore

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always want to defend peace, justice, peoples' right to love each other and live with dignity,struggles against parochial visions and hatred;instinctively a defender of socialist and democratic values  

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