Dr. Manzoor Alam

A monumental dichotomy marks the contemporary Indian situation. It is a single thread that runs through the entire gamut of our national life today - from our polity to economy, from governance to the tenor of media discourse.

     To explain this dichotomous mode of our national existence: we have a secular Constitution that demands equality before law, but we have a political power structure and an administrative culture that nullify this basic provision. It is so blatant that even former US President Bill Clinton earlier this year publicly complained about the different ways in which the cases of the Godhra train attack and those who burnt down the entire state of Gujarat were being pursued. He complained that India could not hope to become the 'right kind of giant’ if it treated different citizens differently on the basis of religion.

     Anybody who has a close look at the contemporary Indian situation would be struck by dichotomies cascading upon dichotomies through the entire spectrum of our existence. The Constitution recognises the ethnic, linguistic religious and cultural diversity of India and tries to protect it as a cherished asset, while the government of the day tries to demolish it at every available opportunity by all manner of underhand tactics, including failed attempts at introducing a religious hymn of a single religion for all students at schools, gradually replacing the multi-hued patterns of religious and cultural life with a dull, monochromatic alternative. Recent attempts at changing school syllabi explain this point well.

     The emergence of this pattern as a dominant motif in our national life can be easily attributed to the rise of BJP in recent years. This point has been widely noted, including by the US State Department’s Commission on Religious Freedom. Anti-minority riots and the unnecessary brouhaha over religious conversions are only a crude manifestation of this malaise.

     We had been promised that the BJP would give us “a government with a difference”. We are yet to see the difference. The only difference that we see is that the new dispensation is more corrupt (look at those petrol pump stories, the financial scams, the tehelka tapes, ad nauseum), more criminalised, more communal and more vicious than any other in the past.

     The foundations of democracy have been attacked in many more ways than we can enumerate here in such a short time. The rulers have got people’s vote but trampled on their aspirations and ignored their will. Remember the way POTA was railroaded through Parliament ignoring people’s protests and even objections by international human rights groups? It was nothing but a thinly disguised attempt to harass the Muslims and other weaker people in much more vicious ways than TADA was used. Even Bill Clinton has categorically and in very clear terms noted that one group of people can’t be tried under ‘the draconian POTA’ (his words, not mine) and others under softer laws for the same offence. Ignoring people’s will and international objections, this dispensation goes on with its ways. It had second thoughts only when it was hoist on its own petard as its allies like Vaiko and Raja Bhaiya were sent behind bars under this law. Now the great admirers of this law have some second thought-jails are known to make people sobre. We don’t know against whom these laws will ultimately be used by future governments. Even its advocates are not safe in the long run. That’s why we say, “don’t destroy democracy for selfish ends”.

"It has the effect of reducing the level of participation by the minorities in the economic and political process, the shrinkage of common space, and the exclusion of the weak from the benefits of development. This is being done under a plan, against the democratic spirit, against Constitution, against all laws. This is the Mother of all Dichotomies."

     Howsoever loudly we may plead, things are not really going to change quite for a while, because the BJP (the NDA is only a fiction) is out to implement its Hindutva agenda stealthily. And to hell with the NDA’s common minimum programme. After all the BJP knows that the other NDA leaders are, in Winston Churchill’s words, merely “men of straw”.

 This has dangerous implications for the future wellbeing of India as a nation and as a state, because this Hindutva doctrine is based on an ominous majoritarian excluvism, a phenomenon that journalist and writer Siddharth Vardrajan calls ‘Hindu separatism’. He is not alone in diagnosing the malaise in these terms.

     Interestingly, the idea began as a part of a massive British colonial project as early as the 1860s, soon after the anti-British uprising of 1857. People harping on separate communal identities right from the 1860s had been (some knowingly, others inadvertently) actually pushing the British agenda of divide et impera, rather than anything else. The trend is evident even in the literary writings of late 19th-early 20th century.

 The trend has continued since then, gaining momentum with each passing year. Even before the 1940 Muslim League demand for a separate Muslim homeland, Veer Damodar Savarkar had propounded (and published) his theory of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism as a counterweight to Indian nationalism. Since independence, Savarkar’s ideas have gained strength consistently. These ideas outright reject common citizenship and common nationality on the basis of acceptance of the country’s Constitution. The idea of Hindu nationalism is exclunivist and runs against the spirit of India’s composite national heritage, as the binary opposite of Indian nationalism itself. That the Centre has conferred legitimacy on it is a sure indicator of where the country stands today.

    Happily, the fact that a government has ideologically denied the existence of minorities through a set of symbolic gestures does not necessarily mean that the entire nation has shed its heritage. How tenuous is the argument of Islam being a foreign religion is pointed out by a Western academic who says, “Islam is an Indian religion the way Buddhism is a Chinese or Japanese religion”. Does it really matter to the Chinese or Japanese that his or her religion is of Indian origin, and hence less nationalistic?

    These are very serious questions which have a direct bearing on the future of our country. Academics and political thinkers cannot afford to be complacent about these questions as they not only affect the future of Indians within India, but also of those 20 million people of Indian origin settled in foreign lands, many of whom have risen to be heads of government and important public figures in their adopted countries. Vardrajan rightly points out that if we accept the pernicious doctrine of Hindutva, it would mean that those 20 million Indians now settled as citizens of other countries will be condemned as traitors, simply because this doctrine says people professing “foreign” religions cannot be true nationals. Vardrajan asks whether Hindus in Britain, the US and Canada are following a religion originating in those countries?

     There are other very serious questions regarding the nature of the Indian state itself. For instance, pertinent question have been raised by academics in India on why under every stress situation the Indian state abdicates in favour of the mob and just melts away from the scene, only to reappear as part of the mob. Can a state survive by becoming part of an unruly mob? People have come up with very important findings that illuminate this question. Such people could be academics in India and the West, journalists, lawyers and judges, human rights activists, concerned citizens, common folk.

    All this shows that howsoever aggressive the project of destroying India’s composite national heritage and its Constitution, the strength of India’s traditions and democratic institutions is not to be pooh-poohed either.

 I would like that these large questions are studied in detail. Some studies have connected the newly aggressive mood of Hindutva to its success in Gujarat. Others have connected it to the marginalisation of Dalits, women, minorities and the common poor people under the new economic order. It is a larger project of dispossession of the weak (not always motivated by religious considerations), rather than a merely anti-minority campaign.

     There are legal and constitutional issues like why the Indian State joined the mob in 1984 in Delhi, or in 2002 in Ahmedabad? And at other places and times. How effective have been our systems in curbing dereliction of duty by public officials, or curbing hate speech (a serious offence) by politicians? It is time to ponder these questions.

     These issues are being examined even by the best of fiction writers and creative artists worldwide, including the US. In a recent article, novelist and journalist Kamleshwar wonders whether the centuries-long persecution of Jains and Buddhists that decimated most of them even before the birth of Islam is now going to revisit upon today’s minorities of India. He says the masterminds behind the genocide of Buddhists and Jains and their cultural extermination are the same dark forces that are threatening our Constitution and our national life today. He too, like many other eminent writers, poets, filmmakers and other creative artists of today places these happenings within the larger economic, political and military context of the emerging world order.

     The enthusiasm with which the BJP-led government at Centre has agreed to become the factotum of America and Israel is alarming. It amounts to subjugating our economic and political interests to those of these two countries, thus turning upside down the decades-long foreign policy laid down by our stalwarts.

    So far as our sovereignty and independent stature are concerned, our country has been in the forefront in launching the Non-Aligned Movement in the 50s. Our country also played a key role in shaping the SAARC into a reality. But now doubts are being raised about our Non-Alignment and sincerity in keeping the SAARC united. Non-Alignment and friendly neighborhood have been the cornerstones of our foreign policy. These characteristics too have come under a question mark.   

    One is naturally concerned over the startling 6-part “Rediff Special” series (April 21-26, 2003), based on a classified US defence department study “Indo-US Military Relations: Expectations and Perceptions”. Authored by Juli A MacDonald, the 176-page report states that the country wants access to Indian bases and military infrastructure with the United States Air Force specifically desiring the establishment of airbases in India. The report on the future of Indo-US military relations, being distributed among decision-makers in the United States and made available to a handful of senior members of the Indian government, also speaks of the USAF’s desire for “having access closer to areas of instability”.

     “American military officers are candid in their plans to eventually seek access to Indian bases and military infrastructure. India's strategic location in the centre of Asia, astride the frequently traveled Sea Lanes of Communication (SLOC) linking the Middle East and East Asia, makes India particularly attractive to the US military," the report says.

The report is the most comprehensive picture of American perspective of its military relation with India and its future aspirations. To some extent it also uncovers Indian military thinking vis-à-vis the US. It has quoted US lieutenant generals as saying that the access to Indian bases would enable the US military 'to be able to touch the rest of the world' and to 'respond rapidly to regional crises'.

     The report, prepared by Juli A MacDonald, an associate at Booz Allen Hamilton, for the department of defence, is based on interviews of 42 key Americans, including 23 active military officers, 15 government officials and four others. In India MacDonald met 10 active Indian military officers and five government officials besides several members of the National Security Council, and outside experts advising the government. 

     In this context, the most pertinent question being asked today is: Will the US turn to India after emptying the arsenals of “rogue states”. Whether India likes it or not, there indeed is an attention in the US on India’s nuclear assets. According to The Week (April 27, 2003), “the fear is creeping even into stable and democratic India. Though India is not a rogue state in the US perception, it is already being called a “proliferator”. A CIA biannual report to Congress calls India, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan “secondary proliferators”. An indication that a dossier on India is being prepared!

    It is time to consider the entire gamut of issues and come up with a strategy of course correction through civic activism and political intervention. g

This article is part of Dr Manzoor Alam's observations at All India Milli Council Convention on Challenges Before the Nation and Minorities in Independent India held in New Delhi on May 31- June 1, 2003.