Printer Friendly

Can secular liberal politics be reincarnated in India?


The last decade in Indian politics hailed the triumph of communal politics, as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), based on the ideology of 'Hindutva' (1) formed the government. This article examines a number of questions: does the recent electoral defeat of the BJP (2) signal the end of such communal politics? Why did the secular liberal ideology fail to take deeper roots in Indian soil? What enabled the BJP to usurp the secularist notion and capture the imagination of the Indian people? Can secular liberal politics reshape the political sphere, as distinct from religious and cultural spaces? What can the secular ideology learn from the tremendous, albeit short-lived, success of the BJP?

I want to analyze the norms of secularism and communal politics to illustrate their respective decline and acceptance in Indian politics. The underlying premise is that while secular politics was (and is) based on the norms of exclusion, communal politics has succeeded in incorporating the norms of inclusion. The success of Hindutva should be taken seriously and secular liberal ideology has much to learn from the logic and grammar of the rules of inclusion. I want to explore the rules of both exclusion and inclusion from a historical perspective to find answers as to why secularism failed to take roots in India, whereas other western ideas of science and knowledge were embraced earnestly. This article also attempts to understand why communal politics gained enthusiastic acceptance and fervent momentum in Indian politics.

Rules of Exclusion

From the days of anti-colonial struggle to the present, India's history has been obsessed with a search for national identity: one that swings back and forth between religious orthodoxy and secular nationalism. The early nationalists in India attempted to define a distinct cultural identity for the nation and to assert its claim to modernity and, perhaps more importantly, to find a viable cultural basis for the convergence of the national and the popular. The elite intellectual and political thinkers chose a form of classical Hinduism as the basis of nationalism: one that was organized around a central high culture and downplayed the diversity of cultures within Indian history (Dirks, 1992).

The anti-colonial struggle of the Indian subcontinent initiated two conflicting political demands. On the one hand, it demanded a commitment towards the nationalist spirit that was expected to absorb all kinds of religious, ethnic, and linguistic identity. On the other hand, it created very precise 'identity slots' based on these primordial categories. The concept of 'nationalism' was fraught with ambiguities from the very beginning of the anti-colonial struggle. There were actually two versions of nationalism: cultural and political. The cultural construction of 'nationalism' put forward a new form of Hindu identity that demanded undisputed subservience of individuals and groups to the nation as a corporate whole. In contrast, the political construction was less concerned with identities, Hindu or otherwise, as it was based on the belief that there exists a deep underlying cultural unity in India (Dirks, 1992).

One of the ways the nationalistic thinkers reconciled these diverse ideologies was by demarcating them and constructing separate spheres to keep them apart so that they could coexist in harmony. The dialectical tension between these two worldviews manifested itself in the split personality of India's nationalism. In its official or public form it embraced the superior materialism of European culture: its science, economy, government, and institutions; while in its domestic or private form it rejected Europe's spiritual impoverishment relative to Indian culture. The icons of masculinity and femininity capture the conflicting features of nationalistic discourse in the forms of material/spiritual distinction and public/private segregation. The material or the outer world was the male domain, where one followed the colonial norms that shaped the political ideals of nationalism. The inner core of India's culture, its spiritual essence as the cultural construct, was a feminized space that needed to be protected and preserved. In the outer world imitation and adaptation of the western norms was a necessity; at home they were tantamount to annihilation of one's own identity (Chatterjee, 1993).

In India, the leadership of the anti-colonial movement had been fundamentally in the hands of the upper-class educated elite who fought against the colonial rulers, but embraced their education and political systems. The upper-class Indian leadership was also motivated by the practical necessity of egalitarian commitment to unite the masses to make the independence struggle into a mass movement (George, 1986). The democratic discourses and practices in India had been dominated by a paternalistic nationalist discourse, within which ordinary Indians merely provided the necessary numerical strength. With the emergence of the rising trend of politicization of identities based on religion or ethnicity, individuals ceased to be members of communities; instead of becoming citizens, they remained mere body counts for political purposes. The ideological nationalists attempted to rejuvenate Indian culture by accentuating past glory, while evading the problematic aspects of oppressive customs surrounding caste and gender relations. The centrality of nationalist messages consistently de-emphasized the real-life issues of the common people (Banga and Jaidev, 1996).

The social reformers, intellectuals, and public figures that introduced this concept to Indian soil were influenced by colonial theories of social evolution and history, which had little regard for the traditions and lived experiences of the Indian people. It is no surprise that these nationalist leaders paid no attention to the fact that the subcontinent's public life had always been multi-ethnic and multi-religious and yet contained room for both disputes and harmony, as can be expected in a 'mixed neighborhood'. Conflicts in the communities did occur, but these were localized and sectored and did not involve large aggregate or generic categories such as Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Tamils, or Sinhalas (Das et al., 1999).

The initiation and application of secularism, however, subverted and discredited the traditional ideas of inter-religious understanding and tolerance that had allowed communities to co-survive in reasonable neighborliness for centuries. Once institutionalized as an official ideology, the concept of secularism helped identify and set up modernized Indians as embodiments of the principle of rationality in an otherwise irrational society and provided them disproportionate access to state power (Das et al., 1999). A system that had, without the notions of secularism, contained communal animosities within tolerable limits was devalued, but the alternative that evolved was not necessarily the western secular notion.

In spite of the liberal inclinations of the first generation of nationalist leaders in India, neither liberalism nor secularism ever evolved into a permanent stream in Indian politics. Although the public culture created by the nationalist elite endorsed high idealism, it never really challenged the more enduring social structures, like caste hierarchies, family structures, and upper caste norms (Hansen, 1999). Far from being understood in the light of the western connotation of separation between church and state, the meaning of secularism evolved very differently in the Indian context. The state only practiced secularism in terms of protecting minorities, but never discouraged any form of religious superstition and custom in its public sphere (McGuire et al., 1996). The public sphere of secular India remained full of religious signs and practices, packaged and represented as culture, making up a nationalized cultural realm represented as apolitical, pure, and sublime (Hansen, 1999).

I would argue that the secular liberal politics operated on the basis of exclusion, as anything that did not fit with its ideological scheme had to be rooted out or redefined to fit into its rather inflexible mold. For instance, for the lower castes, or Dalits, the only way to gain access to state resources was by co-opting the principles of Brahminism, which implied a rejection of their ways of life. The urban Jadavs, a leatherworking caste of Agra, attempted to sanskritize their practices, that is, adopt the ritual practices of higher castes in a bid to achieve status. Indeed, they claimed that they were of Kshatriya origin and not untouchable at all. In 1956 the Agra Jadavs converted to Buddhism en masse following the lead of Dr Ambedkar. Ilaiah (1990) notes his own experience of growing up as a Dalit--how the modernist trends of dress and education affected the lives of members of his community. He also discusses how the accepted definition of knowledge makes other life skills incompetent and renders the people helpless.

As the all-inclusive 'Indian' identity downplayed minority characteristics, but highlighted Hindu symbols, it paved the way to create other identity slots: Muslims, scheduled castes, and later, 'other backward castes', in the controversial Mandal Report. (3) The rise of the Muslim community as something fundamentally different from the Hindu identity posed a very real threat to India's unity, which ultimately led to the birth of Pakistan. The Muslims in prepartition India were the only ones who were successful in claiming their separate community identity. This was partly because of their numerical strength, but more importantly because of the nationalist historical construct that portrayed them as 'others', which validated their claim as a distinct group. Lower castes and other community leaders barely succeeded in becoming visible in the mainstream political sphere and the political leadership that represented India was very reluctant to allow any spokesperson other than itself to enter into any dialogue with the British.

The making of both India and Pakistan as nation-states started not only with the redefinition of territorial space, but also with the realignment of national and community identities. The play of identity politics in South Asia has, in fact, never ceased to be volatile ever since. In pre-partition India, neither the Muslims nor the Hindus could be termed as outsiders within the political unit of British India. After 1947, anti-Muslim propaganda gained its edge by denoting the Muslims as outsiders, or as partisans of Pakistan. Caste conflicts over reservation policies are still not seen as communal, as castes are very much inside the cultural or political collectivity of the Indian nation-state. If the problem of 'untouchability' has caused such a fierce controversy in Hindu society, it is because the Sudras, though an assimilated part of the caste system, always remained very much on the periphery of society; not outsiders, but not insiders either (Sen, 1993). From time to time, the 'state' of India has also implemented its norms of exclusion in the name of nationalism to keep serious political concerns out of the political domain. The portrayal of Kashmiri rebels as 'Pakistani agents' while ignoring their genuine grievances is a pertinent example where lack of access to political process led to protracted never-ending violence.

The partition of 1947 and its violent aftermath also illustrate how communal claims over their respective women members have always obscured secular principles. The women--Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh--served as substitutes of the territories that needed to be conquered and vanquished during the vicious human massacre of the partition. Menon and Bhashin (1998) very aptly depict how the process of recovery of the abducted women back into their national space was not conceived by the state as a relationship to women as missing citizens of the new state, but rather as missing members of religious and cultural communities on whose behalf choices had to be made. The recovered women, although promised a 'free' environment and 'liberty', were divested of every single right to legal recourse. The writ of habeas corpus was denied to them, their marriages were considered illegal, and their children illegitimate. The only slot available to them was 'victim'.

After independence, the Nehru government construed an institutional and ideological basis for the nation-state, with its emphasis on the democratic political process. The site of the new political society was being built around modern political associations, following the principles of secular civil institutions (Chatterjee, 1998). The Indian National Congress, the leading political party in the first three decades of independence, maintained its secular agenda. When the Hindu nationalists proclaimed Hindutva as a divinely inspired form of nationalism, the Congress was bound to address the question of communal difference (Marty and Appleby, 1997).

The Shah Banu case reveals how secularism ended up as a political tool, rather than an ideal in Indian politics. In 1985 the Supreme Court of India passed a judgment granting alimony to a 73-year-old woman, Shah Banu, who had been thrown out of her husband's house after 43 years of marriage. Ahmed Khan, her husband, returned her mehr, (4) or marriage settlement, as required by Islamic law. Banu sued her former husband for maintenance under the criminal procedure court of India. Khan appealed to the Supreme Court that according to the shariah, (5) he was obliged to pay for her maintenance only during the iddat (6) period and no longer. The Supreme Court ruled against him, stating that under Section 125 of the Criminal Code, a husband was required to pay maintenance to a wife without means of support. This provoked widespread reaction and led to mass demonstrations, strikes, and petitions by a portion of the Muslim population. In 1986 the Indian parliament passed the Muslim Women's Protection of the Rights to Divorce Bill that withdrew the right of Muslim women to appeal for maintenance under the Criminal Procedure Act.

Although Article 44 of the Indian Constitution promised a uniform civil code, it was never delivered; rather inheritance, marriage, and divorce laws tended to be separate for different communities, following religious tenets. The Indian state often chose not to implement its secular ideals, in order to evade political consequences. (7) In the Shah Banu case, the state followed the interpretation of Jamiyat-ul-Ulema's version of shariah, which is a highly politicized organization of Muslim clerics. There are other interpretations which claim that there exist verses from the Qur'an that ordain the husband to pay maintenance to the divorced wife. The reversal of the Supreme Court's decision not only agitated the Hindu population, but a large proportion of Muslims as well (Hasan, 1989). It should also be mentioned that just before the Congress Government changed its stand in the Shah Banu trial, it suffered electoral setbacks in a number of constituencies with Muslim majorities throughout the country.

Secularism was one of the major western ideologies that was accepted by the nationalist leaders almost unanimously as a satisfactory system for managing religious differences. Its history is rooted in the attempt to unify the followers of different religious faiths in their struggle against the British. Instead of a disjunction between religion and politics, in India the idea of secularism came to be understood as a political ideology; sometimes to keep the religious fervor in balance, sometimes as a bargaining chip to lure minorities. Secularism in the Indian context was limited to the modernizing project of the post-colonial elite. Common people, especially women, were never really perceived as individuals, and that has been demonstrated repeatedly during partition and in independent India during major controversies like Shah Banu's trial. Secularism in India was (and is) used as an ideological tool and as an agency of power. Its political importance lies in providing a superior model to a religion-based experiment called Pakistan; its social importance lies in providing a symbol of distinction between the educated and the masses.

Rules of Inclusion

During the 1980s and especially in the 1990s, we find a growing consciousness of a political philosophy known as Hindutva on the rise. The communal ideology of Hindutva, the Hindu identity, was put forward by an apparently non-political cultural organization, the Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was established in the early 1920s. Hindutva promulgated a restrictive definition of Indian identity that treated any non-Hindus as foreigners and even denied them citizenship rights unless they merged with the Hindu cultural mainstream (Marty and Appleby, 1997). The cultural construct of nationalism, which was undermined in the first few decades of independence, finally made its bold and renewed appearance which changed Indian politics forever.

The maturing of the BJP out of the RSS/Jana Sangh cubicle reflects the failure of Congress, the leading political party from the colonial days--one that claimed to uphold the secular stance ever since. There is no dearth of theories explaining why and how this wave of Hindu nationalism grew and gained social respectability in a relatively short span of time. The promotion of Hindu identity and communal antipathy simultaneously appeals to the anxieties of those who feel that they are the victims of declining traditional status and to the bitterness of those who feel that corrupt insensitive politicians pamper the rich, spoil the poor, and favor religious outsiders at their expense (Gould and Ganguly, 1993).

Corbridge (2002) notes how the gendered rituals of pilgrimage and spatial representation allow the Hindu nationalists to position Mother India as a geographical entity under threat from Islam and in need of the protective armies of Lord Rama, the (now) very masculine God-king whose birthplace is in Ayodhya. The Hindutva movement has very successfully appropriated both the political and the cultural terrain. The Shiv Sena's emotional themes, its social and political perceptions, and its modes of organizations are strongly linked with life in the streets and bazaars. The reworked tradition, in both its militant and communalized forms, has succeeded in filling up the public sphere; the space occupied by politics and intellectual contentions and such other openly conducted activities, with its discourse and articulations within mass mobilization. The danger lies in the fact that within the terrain of their habitual cultural day-to-day living, people no longer find avenues to contest or contradict the monopolistic definitions being imposed on society in the name of religion, tradition, or nationalism. It has forced the rived experiences of people, minority or majority alike, which do not conform to the Hindutva, into the corners of private domestic life (Banga and Jaidev, 1996).

The way the ideology of Hindutva attempts to incorporate and override leaders like Nehru, Gandhi, and Ambedkar unfolds a rather remarkable process. As the essence of Hindutva lies in its pride of a glorious past, it is hard to imagine how Nehru--who had accepted the Orientalist view that traditional culture was ill-suited for modern India and was best left alone to die an inevitable historical death--would react. Although the Hindu fundamentalists have succeeded in usurping Gandhi's ideology of Ram Rajya, they are hardly interested in Gandhi's creative dialogue with tradition. At the theoretical level, the BJP argues that Ambedkar's act of conversion was in conformity with Hinduism, rather than its subversion. On the other hand, they are trying to exploit and consolidate anti-Mahar/Buddhist feelings among the Mangs, Chambars, and Dhors, who have grievances against the Mahars for monopolizing the reservation benefits (Guru, 1991). (8)

The vision Nehru had of India was very much an orderly and legible political space. The political spaces that mark the BJP's rise in power depart radically from the modernist notion of separate political spheres (Corbridge, 2002). Politics and religion do not embody distinct spaces in Indian political and social life; the power base of the BJP is built on their interrelatedness and negotiations with the society at large. Hindu nationalist agendas, discourses, and institutions have been very successful in penetrating everyday life and in acquiring a growing, if not uncontested, social respectability in contemporary Indian society (Hansen, 1999). The most tangible depiction of this power struggle is, perhaps, the much-publicized Ram Janmobhumi/Babri Masjid issue that involved claiming religious identity through physical spaces and symbols.

In the early 1990s, Indian politics was dominated by the conflict between the Hindu nationalists' claim of destroying the Babri Masjid (a mosque built during the era of the first Mughal emperor, Babar) situated in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Ram (one of the most important Hindu deities), to restore the sanctity of that sacred place. The myth that was popularized was that the mosque stood at the very birthplace of Ram and had been built after the destruction of the temple that originally stood there. It should also be mentioned that it is only the history penned by British writers in the last century that originated this myth (Noorani, 1989). Nevertheless, the source of history attracted much less attention than the discourse of Hindutva, which was successful in mobilizing thousands of its followers to attack and destroy the mosque. BJP and its allies touted the return of the Babri Masjid to Hindu access as a great victory, and as the first step towards the achievement of Hindutva, the eventual de-secularization of Indian society, and the establishment of an ethno-religious state (Gould and Ganguly, 1993).

The politicization of Hindu sentiment through the symbolic manipulation of the Babri Masjid and other sites where mosques supplanted temples in medieval times has been the preoccupation of the BJP and its militant quasi-political ally, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. It directs popular discontent into essentially racist channels, thereby diverting it from challenging the cultural status quo with its attendant economic and status advantages (Gould and Ganguly, 1993). But we cannot get away from the fact that the transformation of the Babri Masjid from a local, or at most, regional, issue to one of national proportions required a dramatic amplification of the current level of public awareness.

Hansen (1999) points out that Hindu nationalism has emerged and taken shape neither in the political system as such, nor in the religious field, but in the broader realm of public culture; the public space in which a society and its constituent individuals and communities imagine, represent, and recognize themselves through political discourse, commercial and cultural expressions, and representations of state and civic organizations. The political discourse consciously evokes the symbols of religion by adopting the language of everyday life. The emergence of militant Hindu and Muslim identities all over the subcontinent did not grow out of the deficiencies of democracy, but by the very processes of a series of intensely fought elections and intense battles over religious sites, rituals, and spaces; over the meanings of shared symbols of culture; over the meaning of secularism, history, and so on, all of which are an integral part of democracy. The call for Hindutva combines a well-established paternalistic and xenophobic discourse that has successfully articulated desires, anxieties, and fractured subjectivities in both urban and rural India (Hansen, 1999).

Banerjee (1993) draws our attention towards the fact that the Sangh Parivar continues to enjoy a democratic space in the Indian polity, even after its aggressive violation of all the provisions of the constitution. Even when the state has embraced secularism, it demonstrated a strategy of compromise with its communal forces. The communal forces have eminently made use of the democratic space by building up their base. The expansion of their network among the urban middle class, the wide expanse of the primary schools run by their educational programs, their gradual penetration of the traditional left-dominated working class, and their attempts to gain a foothold in the countryside, have been made possible by the democratic space available to them.

We also need to remember that the changes in the political scenario occurred when India was liberalizing its economy. The mid-1980s also witnessed the burgeoning of media and media-related businesses. With the boost given to consumption, the increasing prominence of media signaled an unprecedented industrialization of not only material cultural goods, but also of culture in general. The Hindutva's appeal to identity overlapped with this rhetoric of advertising and consumerist identity formation. The Hindu imagery in market circulation, in national television, videos, calendar art, or advertising, redefines popular symbols and inserts an invigorated sense of identity by including these symbols in daily narratives. As the increased circulation of images becomes an integral part of society, the meanings of these images and the commitment they entail undergo enormous change (Breckenridge, 1995).

One of the most appropriate manifestations of cultural appropriation is probably the metamorphosis of Lord Ram himself. From being the epitome of the ideal son and the just ruler, Hindutva has transformed him to the warrior and savior of tradition. It seems that even the identity of the god incarnated is not safe from manipulations. Drawing on cultural icons for political or ideological ends, however, is not entirely new for the Indian scenario. The crux of Gandhi's teaching was the reinterpretation of tradition: freeing culture and religion from its frigid form by emphasizing abstract notions. Sadly, Gandhi had to wage a gigantic struggle and end as a tragic hero when he attempted to move tradition beyond frozen boundaries (Banga and Jaidev, 1996). Gandhi's image of an ideal society was 'Ram Rajya' (the kingdom of Ram), where ultimate justice prevailed, while Hindutva also strives to bring back the days of 'Ram Rajya'--ones in which the Hindu had reigned with glory.

Once again, if we take a look at the constructions of gender identity for communalism and fundamentalism, we find an interesting shift in the making of the ideal Hindu woman. Around the late 1970s and early 1980s, the autonomous women's movement focused on issues like rape, bride burning, and dowry, most of which challenged the patriarchal power structures within a broad liberal framework. In order to reach out to women from all castes and classes, to popularize the ideology of strong and assertive women, while accentuating their 'Indianness', these movements relied on mythical symbols of Shakti (goddess of power) and Kali (goddess of destruction) to convey the newly constructed feminist ideology. Incidentally, the systematic hate campaign of Shiv Sena also constructed angry, rebellious women, like Durga, the destroyer of evil that resembles very closely the new Indian feminist woman (McGuire et al., 1996). But the image of the new modern Hindu woman put forward by Shiv Sena is very different from its predecessors. Although she is no longer a subservient and docile domestic being, she rarely questions her position in the patriarchal society (Kapur and Cossman, 1993).

The manipulation of mythical women figures illustrates yet another fascinating, yet not so unpredictable, contradiction. The Hindu communal forces have very skillfully usurped the protest marches and road blocks by the feminist movement, which were contrary to the conservative domestic role of traditional Hindu women. The new woman is allowed to come out in the street in the same way as the men from the community to avenge wrongs, but the vengeance is directed against the other, the Muslims in the present context, not the norms of the patriarchal society. The recreation of the 'Hindu' woman as strong, fighting beside her male counterpart, and the 'Muslim' woman as oppressed, who needs salvation from her own community, deflects attention away from the subordinated condition of women within the dominant community (Kapur and Cossman, 1993).

The xenophobic discourses of Hindutva developed in the heart of the large and expanding middle class, which is increasingly becoming aware of its rights as citizens. The particular social, political, and economic forces that operate in this sphere are the burgeoning middle class, a variety of entrepreneurs, commercial institutions, and the state itself. Public culture in contemporary times involves the overlap and interpretation of diverse modes and sites of cosmopolitan experience, interrelated by modern media, by consumption, and by technology (Breckenridge, 1995). The Shiv Sena had planned to sponsor the Michael Jackson concert in 1996 in Bombay (which did not take place) to raise 40m rupees for its 'non-profit' trust, the Udyog Sena (Katzenstein et al., 1997). The effort of the BJP to reach its expatriate potential members illustrates another fascinating aspect of its norms of inclusion. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) began functioning in the USA in 1970 and currently has branches in 40 states. The European Hindu Sammelon in the Netherlands in 1988 was attended by the mayor of The Hague, the Dutch home minister, the envoys of India and Nepal, and the chief justice of the International Court of Justice (Nandy et al., 1995).

Neither of these repackaged identities, nor the reclaimed cultural space, is rigid and segregated. The most captivating aspect of these processes lies in the fluidity, uncertainty, and possibilities of reversal of power. The concepts and their meanings are ever changing; they form new meanings at critical junctures and contain even more possibilities that can never be predicted. Just in the recent past, the term 'Hindu' meant ancient and out-of-date; the nationalist movement created a new dimension in the glory of an old civilization, yet in the early years of independence it implicated the burden of a backward nation striving to be modern. It has only been in the last few decades that the term 'Hindu' performed the equivalent of a semiotic somersault. To be Hindu became a triumphant declaration of strength and vigor, and the symbol of an aggressive culture eager to acquire hegemony (Rajagopal, 1994).

The space of politics is an active space in present-day India. Not only is it constantly merging with religion, culture, and consumption, but similar norms are also being adopted by marginal groups to redefine their spaces in society. The Dalit intellectuals have made their own political space by forming the 'Pondicherry Group'. With pan-Indian nationalism having long been a contested category in the Tamil region, the Pondicherry Group concentrates its critical energy on Tamil/Dravidian nationalism. The post-colonial Tamil history presents itself as a critique of the Indian nation-state's exclusionary politics based on language (by privileging Hindi), region (by privileging Hindi-speaking North India), and caste (by privileging the Brahminical Hindu worldview). In criticizing the Indian nation for its restricted notion of citizenship, the Dravidian movement has indeed advanced a more inclusive notion of citizenship by incorporating the aspirations of lower castes, religious minorities, and non-Hindi speakers (Chatterjee, 1998).

As Dalits respond to the disintegration of the old vertical links by pursuing laterally integrated class mobilization, Muslims appear to be on the verge of severing their lateral, inter-ethnic links to the secular parties and stressing their vertical ties to each other (Gould and Ganguly, 1993). It is also interesting to note that non-Brahmin and Dalit leaders are using the language of liberal humanism to address the issues of caste oppression. This language of rights assumes that the rights spoken of are those that accrue to an individual as the atomized unit, rather than part of a socio-economic structure. Though individual identity in Hindu society used to hinge on notions of caste, caste itself is being defined in terms of existential, rather than political, terms. It is not surprising that the issue of rights is never spoken of in conjunction with production relations, or contextualized within a politico-economic logic (Geetha and Rajadurai, 1993).

The Dravidian political parties in south India have also succeeded in shifting their emphasis from policing ethnic boundaries to revaluing plebian culture. Rather than inspiring attacks against ethnic out-groups, the articulation of ethnic appeals within a populist discourse has led Dravidian regimes to focus on the creation of entitlements for emergent groups. Not only has the Dravidian movement charted its course in the opposite direction of Hindu revivalism, but it has also inhibited Hindu revivalist growth in southern states (Subramanian, 1999). On the cultural front, the Dalit movement also attempts to counter the process of sanskritization, by including all non-Hindu religions: Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Sikh, and so forth. The invention of the Tamil past offers a counter culture, which is not a faceless past, but a glorious history that challenges the authority of the upper castes.

Learning from the BJP

I have argued that the success of the BJP was built on the failure of the Congress party to promote a truly liberal and secular political environment. We can also trace another account that accuses Congress of using secularism to manipulate minority votes. According to the proponents of this latter view, the inability of Congress to uphold the secular stance resulted from a conscious policy of appeasing the minorities, especially the Muslims, by compromising the basic principles of the Indian state (Sharma, 1996). Ironically, the Shah Banu case serves as the evidence for both these points of view. It is noteworthy that the enactment of the Muslim Women Bill during the Shah Banu controversy conferred legitimacy on the ulemas and mullahs (9) as the sole spokespersons of the community (Hasan, 1989).

If Congress aspires to revive the norms of secularism, it has to abide by the principles of secularism. Even if the election signals that the short-lived (six years) reign of the BJP is over, the spaces of politics, culture, and religion have already been altered considerably. Congress and its allied leftist parties have to invent another version of secularism, one that is not aligned with high culture, but rooted in mass culture as well. Reinventing 'secularism' may appear as a thorny project, but Indian culture is undoubtedly much more porous in the present than it was during the anti-colonial movements. In the last few decades, globalization has created new economic and cultural zones all through the country. National languages and cultures are no longer considered to be the exclusive and ultimate form of individual and collective cultural ingenuity and expression (Appadurai, 1996). For Congress, and its allies, this may be the most opportune moment to bring back the ideals of secularism; only this time, there needs to be a better understanding of the desires of Indian people and a stronger commitment to follow the principles, even if political gains are at stake.

In the last 20 years, there has been a spread of education in rural areas, which has changed the awareness and aspirations of the poor, especially lower castes and women. Caste might still be the focal point of social identity, but it does not really shape economic and political associations any more (Krishna, 2003). The dominant caste can no longer be sure of its position because many factors intervene in determining who has power. The introduction of adult franchise has assigned numerical strength an important source of power. Thus politics has provided a new idiom of social mobility for castes at the lower levels of the hierarchy. In the post-Independence era, the horizontal divisions within the caste hierarchy have formed alliances with each other, uniting to form caste associations, intermarrying, and even coalescing (Sharma, 1999). The application of secular liberal principles should move away from caste-based identity slots towards economic categories in its various affirmative action policies. Keeping in mind the Mandal fiasco, the new approaches of liberal politics should design new modes of inclusion.

Congress and its allies not only have the difficult job of disintegrating religion from politics, but also incorporating economics into politics. Almost everyone agrees that this time the election was fought over economics, rather than religion. Although the economy has been growing at a very impressive rate, surpassing China for the first time (Das, 2004), the benefits of globalization have been distributed very unevenly in India (Dasgupta, 2004). The slogan, 'Bijli, Sadak, Pani' ('Electricity, Roads, Water') replaced 'Mandir, Masjid, Mandal' ('Temple, Mosque, Caste'). Scholars disagree about why the Indian people rejected the pioneers of this fast-growing economy. While the leftist groups claim that it is a statement against globalization, scholars like Bhagwati frame it as a statement to get included in the globalization process, a result of the 'great expectations' of the rising middle class (Bhagwati and Pangariya, 2004). Wherever the discontent is stemming from, it is quite apparent that the government needs to redistribute its economic and technological benefits to a much broader group of people: rural and urban, poor and rich.

Interestingly, the failure of the BJP has been ascribed to the failure of advertisement as well. India's economy has been growing steadily and the BJP asserted its claim over this success with its slogan, 'India Shining'. The Grey Global Group highlighted this 'feel-good factor' mainly through media advertisement, running the cost up to US$100m. Their focus was the urban TV audience, the main benefactors of the new economic policies. In contrast, the Congress party focused on the rural poor asking in posters and videos, 'What did the common man get?'. Their low-budget message cost just US$6.5m. Instead of opting for superior technology, it attempted to build a rapport with its electorate base (Fowler, 2004).

The success of the BJP, especially in the 1996 election, can be attributed to its strategic alliance and disarray of the other parties. The BJP polled less than 21 per cent of the votes in 1996, but its seat tally went up from 120 to 161. Along with its allies, the Shiv Sena and Shikh Akali Dal, it garnered 194 seats and formed the largest bloc in the Lok Shobha (Ayoob, 1997). Thereafter, all Indian elections have been fought on the strength of coalitions. The 1999 election placed the BJP in a stronger position because of its regional and caste-based alliances. This seems to be the only lesson Congress has learnt from the BJP. The 2004 election should not be regarded as a broad peoples' mandate, but rather a reward for Congress for its wide and tactical coalition. While Congress received 145 seats against the BJP's 138, it is the Democratic Progressive Alliance with 217 seats that actually made it possible for Congress to form the government against the 185 seats won by the BJP and its allies and the 136 seats won by other parties (Ninian, 2004).

The Congress party is yet to discard its corrupt image; about 100 of the 542 present members of the lower houses face criminal charges in the present government. The best-known political persona is, perhaps, Laloo Prasad Yadav, the new railway minister who faces the charge of having committed the biggest frauds in Indian history. The minister of heavy industries, Mohammed Taslimuddin, also faces the charge of attempted murder. Citing examples of criminal records of the members of the BJP is not a worthy justification. The Indian electorate has a tendency to punish the incumbent; these compromises may not be forgiven as election strategies in the future.


The rise of the Indian nation-state is associated with the triumph of a national secular model, which had limited tolerance for ambiguities arising from ethnicity, religion, or class conflicts. Often, the legitimate political aspirations of minority groups were interpreted as irrational communalism or expressions of backward, primordial, primitive loyalties. The focus was almost, without exception, the negative consequences of these conflicts, ignoring the foundations of these conflicts. The emergence of Hindutva attempted to provide an outlet for the religious and cultural consciousness of the people, one that was completely ignored and devalued by secularity and nationalism. The success of Hindutva lies in the fact that it offers an ambiguous space where there is more room to maneuver secular, national, religious, and even gender metaphors. We see that the uprising of Hindutva is associated with the resurgence of religious styles, not only in the forms of retrieval from the past, but also developed into new creations, ready to be used for political purposes.

The communal forces all over the Indian subcontinent have been far more successful in repackaging culture and religion and in laying down new rules of inclusion and exclusion in the political process. Their triumph is accentuated in all the modern-day symbols and metaphors in the Indian political arena. The symbols of Ram Mandir, Babri Masjid, Muslim infiltrators all have become coded images associated with our innermost fears or desires, which are being incorporated and exploited in the political processes through a number of innovative techniques. The challenge for the Congress party is to reincarnate secularism, where nationalism will not inhibit minorities from negotiating the creation of a national identity; where religious and cultural issues will evoke dialogues between and across communities, rather than usurping these social spaces and collating them with politics. REFERENCES

Appadurai, Arjun (1996) Modernity At Large. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Ayoob, Mohammed (1997) 'The 1996 Indian Election: A Political Milestone', Washington Quarterly 20(1): 21-37.

Balsubrahmanyam, Vimal (1985) 'Women, Personal Laws and the Struggle for Secularism', Economic and Political Weekly, 27 July: 1260-1.

Banerjee, Sumanta (1993) 'Sangh Parivar and Democratic Rights', Economic and Political Weekly, 21 August: 1715-8.

Banga, Indu and Jaidev (eds) (1996) Cultural Reorientation in Modern India. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study.

Bhagwati, Jagdish and Arvind Pangariya (2004) 'Great Expectations', Wall Street Journal (eastern edn.), 24 May: A14.

Bonner, Arthur (1990) Averting the Apocalypse. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Breckenridge, Carol A. (ed.) (1995) Consuming Modernity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Chatterjee, Partha (1993) The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chatterjee, Partha (ed.) (1998) Wages of Freedom. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Corbridge, Stuart (2002) 'Cartographies of Loathing and Desire: The Bharatiya Janata Party, the Bomb, and the Political Spaces of Hindu Nationalism', in Yale H. Ferguson and R.J. Barry Jones (eds) Political Space: Frontiers of Change and Governance in a Globalizing World, pp. 151-69. New York: State University of New York Press.

Das, Gurucharan (2004) 'Is India Shining?', Wall Street Journal (eastern edn.), 3 May: A20.

Das, Veena, Dipankar Gupta and Patricia Uberoi (1999) Tradition, Pluralism, and Identity. London: SAGE Publications.

Dasgupta, Swapan (2004) 'India Dimming?', Wall Street Journal (eastern edn.), 17 May: A20.

Dirks, Nicholas B. (ed.) (1992) Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

Engineer, Asghar Ali (1995) Lifting the Veil. Bombay: Sangam Books.

Fowler, Geoffrey A. (2004) 'Big Ad Agencies Played a Role in Indian Upset', Wall Street Journal (eastern edn.), 14 May: B1.

Fuller, C.J. (ed.) (1996) Caste Today. Bombay: Oxford University Press.

Geetha, V. and S.V. Rajadurai (1993) 'Neo-Brahminism: An Intentional Fallacy?', Economic and Political Weekly, 16 January: 129-36.

George, Alexandra (1986) Social Ferments in India. London: The Althone Press.

Gould, Harold A. and Sumit Ganguly (eds) (1993) India Votes. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Guru, Gopal (1991) 'Hinduisation of Ambedkar in Maharashtra', Economic and Political Weekly, 16 February: 339-41.

Hansen, Thomas Blom (1999) The Saffron Wave: Democracy and Hindu Nationalism in Modern India. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press.

Hasan, Zoya (1989) 'Minority Identity, Muslim Women Bill Campaign and the Political Process', Economic and Political Weekly, 7 January: 44-9.

Ilaiah, Kancha (1990) 'Reservations: Experience as Framework of Debate', Economic and Political Weekly, 13 October: 2307-60.

Kaput, Ratna and Brenda Cossman (1993) 'Communalising Gender/Engendering Community', Economic and Political Weekly, 24 April: 35-44.

Katzenstein, Mary Fainsod, Uday Singh Mehta and Usha Thakkar (1997) 'The Rebirth of Shiv Sena: The Symbiosis of Discursive and Organizational Power', Journal of Asian Studies 56(2): 371-90.

Krishna, Anirudh (2003) 'What is Happening to Caste? A View from Some North Indian Villages', The Journal of Asian Studies, 62(4): 1171-94.

Marty, Martin E. and R. Scott Appleby (eds) (1997) Religion, Ethnicity and Self-Identity. London: University Press of New England.

McGuire, John, Peter Reeves and Howard Brasted (eds) (1996) Politics of Violence. London: SAGE Publications.

Menon, Ritu and Kamla Bhashin (1998) Borders and Boundaries: Women in India's Partition. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

Nandy, Ashish, Shikha Trivedy, Shalil Mayaram and Achyut Yagnik (1995) Creating a Nationality. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Ninian, Alex (2004) 'The Indian General Election of 2004', Contemporary Review 285(1662): 1-7.

Noorani, Abdul Gafoor Abdul Majeed (1989) 'The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi Question', Economic and Political Weekly, 4 November: 2461-6.

Rajagopal, Arvind (1994) 'Ram Janmabhoomi, Consumer Identity and Image-based Politics', Economic and Political Weekly, 2 July: 1659-68.

Sen, Geeti (ed.) (1993) Perceiving India. London: SAGE Publications.

Sharma, Arvind (1996) 'Religion and Politics in India: The 1996 Election', Cross Currents, 46(3): 352-61.

Sharma, Ursula (1999) Caste. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Subramanian, Narendra (1999) Ethnicity and Populist Mobilization. Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Mehnaaz Momen

Texas A&M International University, USA


(1.) Hindutva defines Indian identity in a restrictive fashion, excluding all non-Hindus as foreigners unless they merge with the Hindu cultural mainstream. The current form of Hindutva aspires to transform Indian public culture into a uniform national culture rooted in what is claimed to be a superior ancient Hindu past, and to impose a corporatist and disciplined organization upon society (Banerjee, 1993).

(2.) A marginal victory of Congress (145 seats) over the BJP (138 seats).

(3.) The 'Mandal Commission' issued a comprehensive report to accommodate considerations of region, caste, and creed in public service recruitment, which was implemented in 1990. The Commission identified over 3500 different groups (termed 'Other Backward Classes', or 'OBCs') 'socially and educationally backward classes', and recommended that 50 per cent of vacancies for most central government jobs be reserved for OBCs under a quota system. It created widespread civil disturbance and led Prime Minister V.P. Singh to a defeat, although the Supreme Court approved its recommendations after a long legal battle.

(4.) Marriage is a contract under Islamic law and the bridegroom is supposed to promise the bride an agreed amount of money/gold/silver as her security, that she can claim at any time during her marriage and that is her right in case of marriage dissolution.

(5.) Islamic law, but practiced in different forms throughout the world.

(6.) The three-month period granted to both the parties as a second chance for reconciliation. In accordance with the Qur'an, divorce is only finalized after this three-month period when it is absolutely certain that both the parties want the divorce and the wife is not pregnant.

(7.) In the late 1950s, law minister V.R. Krishna Iyer attempted to introduce a bill seeking to amend the inheritance laws, which discriminate against Christian women in the state. His efforts were opposed by not only the Christian establishment, but also by Muslim leaders and other members of the opposition (Balsubrahmanyam, 1985).

(8.) The Mangs, Chambars, and Dhors are scheduled castes, while Mahars are Budhhists.

(9.) The body of Muslim scholars trained in Islam and Islamic law who are supposed to be the interpreters of Islamic doctrines and law.

Melmaaz Momen is an assistant professor in the Department of Social Sciences at Texas A&M International University, where she teaches courses in Political Science, Urban Studies and Public Administration. She worked in a non-profit organization in Bangladesh and completed higher education in Halifax, Canada, and Cleveland, Ohio. The theme unifying her work is the exploration of the marginal, or minority, or border situation within the larger political realm. Her research is concerned with the interrelationships between the structural framework of the state and the meaning and practice of citizenship in diverse, multicultural, and indeterminate arenas of public space.

Address: Department of Social Sciences, College of Arts and Sciences, Texas A&M International University, 5201 University Boulevard, Laredo, TX 78041, USA. (
COPYRIGHT 2005 Sage Publications, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Momen, Mehnaaz
Publication:Journal of Asian and African Studies
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Aug 1, 2005
Previous Article:Samuel Oluoch Imbo (2002): Oral Traditions as Philosophy: Okot p'Bitek's Legacy for African Philosophy.
Next Article:Orphanages in Egypt.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters