The real battle for the idea of India

What’s India’s ruling Congress party up to now?

By Aijaz Zaka Syed

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Is it really undergoing a radical metamorphosis or is this yet another clever, little trick out of its ancient bag? When was the last time you had senior Congress leaders hold forth on Hindu extremism being a grave threat to India’s security and integrity? That too in the presence of the high and mighty of government and party, including Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi!

Digvijay Singh is one of those few Congress leaders who wear their liberal credentials on their sleeve. Yet watching him take on the saffron brotherhood at the party’s plenary was breathtaking, even if simplistic. “In the 1930s, Hitler’s Nazi party attacked the Jews. Similarly, the RSS ideology wants to capture power by targeting Muslims under the garb of nationalism,” thundered the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister. Accusing the RSS-VHP-BJP combine of sowing the seeds of terror in the country with the destruction of Babri Masjid, Singh warned the nation of the Hindutva forces infiltrating all organs of the state, including the bureaucracy, police, and the army.

What makes Digvijay Singh’s assertions interesting is the fact that they were not projected as his own views but as a clear ideological line of the party. Earlier, in her opening address, Sonia Gandhi, the party’s president, warned the country against both majoritarian and minority extremism. “They are all dangerous and must be defeated. We cannot ignore such elements who provoke people to violent means by using religion” said the Italian-born politician.

This theme of Hindutva specter was emphasized further in the final political resolutions, without the usual spin and hedging. Secularism, said the Congress’ resolution, the lifeline of Indian democracy “is threatened by the ideology of the BJP and its affiliate organizations like the RSS. The RSS and the VHP are insidious in their efforts to break India.”

Launching a full frontal attack on you know who, the resolution said: “The role of fundamentalist organizations in challenging the security of the nation can no longer be ignored. The Indian National Congress calls upon the government to tackle this menace in the strongest possible manner and investigate the links between terrorists and the RSS and its sister organizations that have been uncovered in some recent cases. Terrorism, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes, must be dealt with firmly and effectively.”

Of course, nothing of this sanctimonious stuff comes as news to anyone familiar with the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Hindutva’s history and shenanigans are not exactly state secrets. Everyone knows how the BJP grew from a two-member party in Parliament to the “natural party of governance” that calls itself today in no time. From the hundreds of riots and pogroms targeting the Muslims to the Ayodhya outrage to the constant demonization and witch-hunt of the minority community, Muslims have got a great deal to thank the saffron friends for.

And as Congress so wisely warns us, these forces aren’t just a threat to religious minorities but a clear and present danger to India and everything it stands for — tolerance, pluralism and religious and cultural diversity.

The question is why the Congress has woken up to the dangerous designs of Hindutva forces now? And what’s with its sudden love for the Muslims? Is it a real concern for the well being of the nation or is this inspired by something more mundane like power? Is the party, with its back to the wall over all these corruption scams, resorting to what it does best, vote bank politics, using Muslims as the cannon fodder all over again?

The Muslims have enough reasons to be wary of Congress. While they have over the past couple of elections begun voting for the party once again, it’s not out of love for the Gandhis. It was not a mandate for the Congress but more of a protest against the RSS-BJP worldview. Even if the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) experiment with some secular, regional parties falling for the amiable mask of the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had persuaded some Muslims briefly to vote for the alliance, Gujarat served as a stark warning of the shape of things to come.

It was this fear that has made Muslims vote for the Congress, and other secular parties. However, their deep sense of distrust and betrayal of the grand old party remains.

While they have come to respect Sonia Gandhi, they cannot get over the Babri Masjid demolition and the carnage that followed on Narasimha Rao’s watch. It’s not just that particular phase under India’s answer to Nero though. Talk to any member of the community and there’s a long history of treachery, exploitation and repeated betrayals that is revisited.

And it’s not just the loss of lives, businesses and property that the Muslims suffered in hundreds of riots for decades after India won independence in 1947. If today they find themselves educationally and economically in conditions worse than the Dalits, lowest of the low in the social hierarchy, the party that has ruled India for nearly half a century must share the responsibility.

Despite their large numbers — at least 150 million, twice the population of Egypt — the community remains dangerously dispossessed and on the margins of the amazing economic revolution that India has lately witnessed. They have no voice in the decision making process either at the centre or in the states. Their representation in the government, bureaucracy, police and the army is next to nothing.

Little has been done even under the present dispensation, except form commissions and committees. Justice Sachar Committee’s recommendations are waiting for their implementation five years after their submission. Even government schemes and funds to help the minority community remain underutilized or not utilized at all.

Even when some governments did try to do their bit, their efforts have been defeated by a systemic indifference and, let’s say it, deep-seated prejudice at all levels. A disturbing state of affairs, indeed! And this won’t change overnight or in a year or decade. But someone has to start somewhere.

If the Congress is sincere and really means what it says about the need to fight the dark forces of fascism and communalism, the Muslims and other minorities must support its efforts. In fact, what’s urgently needed is a national movement against the scourge of communalism and extremism, a threat far bigger than corruption.

This is perhaps the first time since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, that the Congress has given the call to fight the ideology of hatred and fascism in such unequivocal terms. Rahul Gandhi may still be a babe in the woods but he got it right when he argued, according to WikiLeaks, that the threat to India from the Hindu extremists is greater than that posed by groups like Lashkar. A sentiment echoed long before him by his great-grandfather Nehru who had argued that majoritarian extremism was more dangerous than a minority’s militant mindset because it always dresses itself in nationalism. Just as it did in Germany. And Nehru hadn’t even seen the latter-day avatars of the RSS and company!

But fighting the scourge of communalism isn’t the responsibility of one party or community. It’s not just in the interest of the Muslims and other minorities that India’s secular and plural character is protected. India’s unique selling proposition (USP) is its breathtaking diversity and fabled tolerance. All of us — Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs — have a stake in a secular, progressive and pluralistic India. If India fails, none of us will survive.

For their part, Muslims cannot fight their battles alone. If India is what it is, it’s because of its silent majority that is reasonable, peace-loving and believes in justice and fair play. We must enlist their support and involvement. Inclusion, not isolation, is the way forward.

Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Dubai-based commentator. Reach him at [email protected]. This article first appeared in Arab News