The campaigns for the ongoing elections have since become too shrill, acrimonious and bitter for ordinary citizens to stomach. Allegations, insinuations, innuendoes, et al, have been flying thick and fast between the two major contending political parties, the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
In the process, a war has broken out among the members of the “first family” of the Congress. Priyanka Vadra, the daughter of Sonia Gandhi, the first lady of the Congress, happened to say, seemingly quite needlessly, that her cousin, Varun Gandhi son of her uncle Sanjay Gandhi, had gone “astray” and “betrayed the family”, presumably because of opting to be in the BJP, the party which is fighting the Congress led by her mother. Varun did not reciprocate the ‘compliment’ but said that the decency displayed in not doing so should not be taken as his “weakness”. This led to a further spirited attack by Priyanka. She said it was an “ideological war” and not “a family tea party” and, presumably, attempted to convey that such an attack was par for the course.
Although Priyanka did not elaborate what she meant by “ideological war”, one presumes, the term used embeds the age old semantic difference between the two political parties on what are generally reckoned as “secularism” and “communalism”. Come elections and these two words get bandied around by all and sundry; those aligning with Congress calling themselves “secular” and condemning the BJP and its supporters as “communal”. One has been hearing these two words with such frequency that it is now sickening to hear them knowing, as one does, that neither the Congress is truly secular nor the BJP wholly communal. The Congress now goes on to claim that it alone can protect the unity of the country because of its “secular” credentials whereas the BJP practices divisive policies on the basis of religion. Thus the claim is while communal BJP divides people, the secular Congress acts as a unifying force.
Before examining the claims of the Congress it would, perhaps, be worthwhile to see what exactly is meant by “secularism”. Secularism as it is understood in the West generally means separation of government institutions and officials from religious institutions and religious functionaries. The state is thus neutral in matters that are religious, leaving people to their own geniuses to decide for themselves in matters relating to their faith. Again, secularism entails public activities and decisions have to remain uninfluenced by religious beliefs and practices.
The situation in India, however, is quite different from Western “secularism”. While India has no state religion its constitution requires equal treatment of all religions and religious groups. In so far as laws are concerned, though the Constitution required it under the Directive Principles of State Policy, the State has so far been unable to formulate and prescribe a “Uniform Civil Code” applicable to all citizens regardless of their religious beliefs or faith. Personal Laws, therefore, take precedence when in conflict with the laws enacted by the Parliament or state legislatures. Hence, while all religious groups like Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, etc. are governed by inherited or enacted civil and criminal laws, only Muslims are governed by Sharia-based Muslim Personal Law. Thus, despite being in conflict with the laws in existence to the contrary, the State recognises child-marriages, polygamy, extra-judicial divorces and unequal laws of inheritance among Muslims. To that extent the Indian State is not secular though declared a “Secular Republic” by an amendment of the Constitution in 1976 as it discriminates in the vital matter of applicability of laws to the Muslim community as against all others. The Constitution was largely framed by Congressmen and the Congress, therefore, cannot really claim to be the repository of all secular virtues.
This is further corroborated by several subsequent political developments. Since the very first General Elections the Congress looked at the Muslim community as a “vote bank”, a term that later got wide currency. Many political analysts have gone to the extent of even suggesting that the Congress did not want transfer of population at the time of the Partition as it knew it could use the remaining Muslim population as a secure source of support. That may or may not be true but whenever a Congress government was cornered by Muslims and their clergy it succumbed to their pressures. Shah Bano’s case, among many others, is an example where the government of Rajiv Gandhi, Priyanka’s father, enacted a law to nullify a reasonable Apex Court verdict only to deny alimony to a divorced Muslim wife of 44 years under the Muslim Personal Law. In plain language, it was the State that intervened to allow continuance of discriminatory practices against Muslim women.
Almost at every election the Congressmen went out to woo the Muslims. It would approach the Muslim Clergy, especially Shahi Imam of Delhi Jama Masjid who would issue his fiat to all Muslims to vote for it. Not long ago the Congress-led UPA government had mooted a proposal to carve out a Muslim quota of 5% from 27% reservations applicable to Other Backward Castes. It also attempted a census of Muslims in the defence forces. During the current election campaign Sonia Gandhi went to a mosque to talk to Muslim voters without ever trying to do likewise with the voters of other communities. Quite apparently, the secular claim of the Congress is a big fraud on the people. One wonders how Priyanka missed it, seemingly, more intelligent than her brother as she appears to be.
The Congress alleges BJP of “Communalism”, one of the definitions of which is strong allegiance to one’s ethnic group rather than to society. If one looks at BJP it would seem to snugly fit the definition. It, without being hypocritical, wears its affiliation with Hindu religion on its sleeves. Deviating from the definition, it, however, claims that it owes allegiance to the entire Indian society. Its current main protagonist, Narendra Modi, while asserting that he observes Hindu religion and its traditions, has affirmed his respect for all other religions and their traditions. He also declared recently that he would not be asking for votes on the basis of religion. His assertions would seem to be true as during his 12-year rule in Gujarat not a single communal riot between Hindus and Muslims has taken place.
Harping on 2002 Gujarat riots, the Congress has used several vicious epithets for him – from “merchant of death” to “killer with blood-soaked hands”, “liar” and so on. In fact, while Modi has been cleared of all charges by the Apex Court-appointed investigators for the 2002 riots, the Congress’s memory lapses in respect of yesteryears when under its long rule in Gujarat Hindu-Muslim riots took place almost every other year. Curiously, its blinkered vision does not allow it to see the Godhra massacre of Hindus which precipitated the 2002 riots. It also does not acknowledge its failure to control the 1984 Sikh killings in Delhi.
Understandably, in electoral fights accusations and counter-accusations are common. But, regardless of what Priyanka and her Congress Party say, voters need to know that none of those in the fray is either really “secular” or entirely “communal”. The voters have to choose only those who are capable of delivering a better life to them.
Photo is from the Internet