Saturday, 5 March 2005

Hum to anything karega

This is an ad line of a car, which is a take off on a Kishore Kumar number – hum to mohabbat karega. It could well apply all those acting in the name of secularism. Nothing demonstrates this more than when, on Day One of the Jharkhand imbroglio, a young Congress leader RPN Singh blithely told NDTV, `arithmetic can be bought, secularism can’t.’ So now we are to believe that secularism is justification enough for the rape of democracy! Strong words but no words can be strong enough to describe what Syed Sibte Razi did.

But let’s not blame the young man. He probably doesn’t know any better. After all time and again he has (like all of us have) seen very senior politicians justify all manner of unprincipled alliances, rationalise supporting or taking the support of the likes of Lalu Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan, Mulayam Singh Yadav or worse (believe me, there are worse) in the name of secularism. So he was probably under the impression that paying obeisance to the word secularism is the best way to earn some brownie points.

The problem is that secularism has come to be identified with, not anti-communalism, but pure and simple anti-BJP-ism. So, opposing the BJP combine is reason enough to strike deals with other communal and caste-ist leaders. I recall a conversation I had with a Communist Party of India (CPI) leader in the mid-1990s about this whole thing about communal politics. There was some elections going on and this person was lamenting that the candidate from Mulayam Singh Yadav’s party – the Samajwadi Party – in his constituency was distributing calendars with the picture of Ram to the Hindus and with some Muslim symbol to the Muslims. `Look at how they are using religion during the elections. It is very sad,' he said. I asked why the CPI was allying with the Samajwadi Party. `Because we have to stop the BJP. It is communal,’ was his reply. He was dead serious. I remember Kishore Kumar warbling `joota polish karega’ in this song. Anything to win my lady love, he was singing. The CPI leader could well have been singing the same line in the context of keeping the BJP out.

So Mulayam Singh Yadav can distribute religious calendars and openly pander to the Muslim votebank with ridiculous sops (like making schools in UP declare half day on Friday to enable students to attend Friday prayers, a step that was withdrawn within two days), which even the community itself may be embarrassed about, but he is the upholder of secularism. Laloo Yadav can use a hastily put together report on the Godhra carnage in the elections, but he is a bulwark against communalism. Ram Vilas Paswan can openly proclaim that he is wooing the Muslim vote and yet can say with an absolutely straight face that he is the only truly secular politician in the country. All three may have chargesheeters with the most heinous crimes to their credit but that’s alright because they are the poster boys of secularism. (Come to think of it, is that surprising? When Indira Gandhi can emasculate the institutions of democracy and her favourite bahu can go one step further, what are a few murders and kidnappings?)

The upright Manmohan Singh is forced to take a criminal like Taslimuddin into his cabinet because otherwise the Rashtriya Janata Dal will pull out and that would be a blow to secular forces! The Left tried to persuade Paswan to support the RJD in Bihar – after the elections threw up a hung assembly – in the interests of secularism. Despite the RJD’s dismal record of governance, and the caste killings in Bihar, the Congress and the Left will always support the RJD because otherwise secularism in Bihar is under threat. Who cares about the people of Bihar? Words like secularism are more important. Caste killings are okay but killings in religious riots are not. (It’s another matter that they are never religious riots but riots engineered by goondas of all political hues – red, green, saffron, pink.)

Secularism means that religion should be left in the private domain. No political party in the country can take credit for that. Secularism is also the opposite of communalism. But can any of the parties claiming to work in the name of secularism be termed as not communal? No. That’s why I say secularism in India has just become a synonym for anti-BJP-ism. It’s a negativist, not positive, principle. It’s an affliction of not just the politicians but also of the liberals (both the left leaning ones and the economic right ones).

The BJP is also to blame for stoking this kind of sentiment by taking up dubious causes just because they are perceived as hurting Hindu sentiments. Just like the actions of the Yadav duo and Paswan probably embarrass the Muslims, the actions of the BJP often embarrass the Hindus.

What this negativist attitude results in is the kind of actions we saw in Jharkhand. And what may perhaps happen in Bihar.

In the interests of true secularism, we need an informed and cool-headed public debate about the meaning of secularism and how it should play out in public life. But is there scope for such public discourse in the country today?

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