Secular fundamentalism in a time of bhoomi pujan

I joined the Congress party when Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister. The party then was in steep decline. As expected, he was defeated. My political life began when future prospects for the Congress were bleak. Why then did I join? Principally because the Congress alone was the contemporary embodiment of the Idea of India bequeathed to us by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and exemplified by the opening lines of the Prime Minster in a debate he had himself initiated in the Lok Sabha: “A secular India alone is an India that can survive. Perhaps an India that is not secular does not deserve to survive.” That India faced the most serious challenge mounted till then to secularism as we had understood it for four decades. I wanted to be part of the response.

A missing word

Yet today, when more than ever before in independent India’s history, it is necessary to reiterate our unflinching commitment to secularism, the word that is absent from the party’s vocabulary. We are falling over ourselves celebrating the event, pushing to one side the fact that the bhoomi pujan ceremony at Ayodhya was conducted at the site of the sacrilege committed in destroying a place of worship of the minority community. We say we are only observing, as we have always said we would, the judgment of the Supreme Court of India, but seem to have forgotten that the judgment also described the demolition of the masjid as barbaric. It is that barbaric act which opened the way to the bhoomi pujan. We cannot, and must not, forget the thousands of innocent Indians butchered in the wake of L.K. Advani’s chariot of fire and in the aftermath of the razing of the Babri Masjid.

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An alternative ‘Idea of India’

The event is a celebration of an alternative Idea of India, a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, that the Congress has always opposed on the same grounds that it denied Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory. When Pakistan was created, we insisted that even if Pakistan were to declare itself an Islamic state, we would not validate Jinnah’s contention by becoming a Hindu nation. We would proudly proclaim our secular values. We considered ourselves equally the inheritors of “The Wonder that was India” as of all that had become part of India over millennia, including our Islamic inheritance. That is why Jawaharlal Nehru, as the Prime Minister of a secular nation, refused to involve his government in the rebuilding of the Somnath temple despite the championing of that cause by his indispensable companion, Sardar Vallabhai Patel. He also refused permission to President Rajendra Prasad to attend the opening of the rebuilt temple as the Head of a secular State. Now, we have the spectacle of the Prime Minister of a still allegedly secular India attending the bhoomi pujan and are afraid of raising our voice, as a secular party, against this blatantly partisan sectarian act. Indeed, we have not even suggested that Gandhiji’s favourite Ram dhun be sung on the occasion, “Ishwar Allah tero naam/sabko sanmati de Bhagwan”. Let us also remember that at the height of the rioting in Delhi, Gandhiji insisted that all occupied masjids be returned to the Muslim community. We have drifted so far from what we believed in because we seem no longer to believe in it.

We now have Congress leaders boasting that Rajiv Gandhi opened the locks of the Masjid at Ayodhya. He did not. This was done by sleight of hand without his knowledge by leaning on the local judiciary to pass an order that was implemented with undue haste within half-an-hour of the order being passed. The Prime Minister was informed only when it was already a judicially ordained fait accompli. His main concern was to put a status quo in place and ensure that the monument was protected from vandalism. I was with him when during the Lok Sabha campaign, he urged Congress candidates in the vicinity of Ayodhya to bus leaders of the Muslim community to Ayodhya to see for themselves that — notwithstanding the ill-advised shilanyas — the Masjid was still standing. The only one to do so was Kalpnath Rai. He was also the only Congressman to win between Amethi and Calcutta.

What the top court also said

To respect the Supreme Court’s judgment does not mean to celebrate the outrage of the Masjid’s destruction. We must also remind everyone that the same Supreme Court urged the expeditious completion of the trial of those indicted for that destruction by, among others, the Liberhan Commission. We must also ask whether the Prime Minister will demonstrate the nation’s secular belief in sarva dharma sambhava by attending the foundation stone laying ceremony of the masjid that has been decreed by the Supreme Court. Thus far, he has delighted in being photographed in every conceivable headgear — except the Muslim skullcap that he declined to wear even at an Eid milan.

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As Congressmen and women, we must also remind all concerned that Rajiv Gandhi permitted the shilanyas only in what he had been assured was undisputed territory. What was being celebrated at the bhoomi pujan is the construction of a temple at the site of the demolished mosque. Moreover, we appear to have forgotten that a Congress Prime Minister, on the morrow of the demolition, had promised a mosque at the demolished site to replace the demolished one. These are the issues we should be raising, not joining the sectarian chorus that rises from the throats that have cried out: “Ek dhakka aur do/Babri Masjid thod do.”

The Muslim community is quiescent but concerned. As far as it is concerned, the Congress as a party has long lost its secular credentials for fear of being labelled “appeasers”. We hesitate to affirm what Jawaharlal Nehru had no hesitation in affirming when we were in the throes of the Partition trauma and on the eve of the first-ever elections with full adult franchise in a nation that had just emerged from the furnace of vicious communal violence. Nehru said categorically that whatever the electoral consequences, win or lose, he was not going to let the Congress join the communal madness. On Gandhi Jayanti in 1951, he proclaimed at a public rally on the Ram Lila grounds: “If any man raises his hand against another in the name of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, whether from inside the government or outside.” He also held consistently that “majority communalism is worse than minority communalism”.

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Taking a stand

That is what we should be telling the saffron brotherhood today rather than competing with them to determine who is more Hindu — the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? We should be asking instead: who is more secular, the Congress or the BJP? We are trying to usurp their space. We would be better advised to fight for our own principled ‘Idea of a secular India’, whatever the perceived electoral cost. We can only justify our existence in the eyes of the nation as an alternative to the BJP, not as a pale imitation.

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a member of the Congress party

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