Indian secularism lives; the Dark Side of the Congress Party

The excellent discussion thread on Crooked Timber got me thinking about some issues relevant to the recent election, including the health of Indian secularism as well as the dark side(s) of the Indian National Congress.

Indian secularism
First, it's important to recognize that the election results in India are a victory for secularism in India, much battered in India in recent years. Secularism is not dead and it's not over. In India, as in the United States, constitutional secularism enforced by the executive power of the state is not optional. Some moderate BJP supporters feel it might be ok to 'blur' it a little to suit Indian culture. I disagree: secularism can't be merely passive or 'cultural' (where people assume that Hinduism is by definition tolerant, so state secularism is superfluous).

In recent years it had begun to seem more and more that secularism would have to change to survive. Advocates of religio-cultural nationalism succeeded in painting supporters of state secularism as either some species of anti-Indian Muslim or self-hating Hindu. In every case the evidence for this position was seen as proven by the evaporation of Nehruvian influence in contemporary politics.

The recent election results don't end the debate on secularism in India, but it is fair to say that it moves the staging of the argument back to the open ground. Secularists should be able to make their arguments free and clear, without being accused of taking a westernized, elitist position that has no relation to facts on the ground in India.

Those of us who believe in the implementation of secularism in a pure form can breathe a little easier, but we still have a long way to go. As many commentors have pointed out (in yesterday's post on this blog, as well as in many other forums), the election results are more a vote against the status quo than they are a definitve ideological statement.

Dark Side of the Congress Party (1984 and others).
Some commentors on the Crooked Timber thread alluded to some very salient problems in the Congress Party. One is that they too have blood on their hands, from state actions in the 1970s and 80s. Even supporters of the Congress have to always remain critical. Indira Gandhi was no saint -- nor was Rajiv.

It is unfair to blame Sonia and the newer generation of Congress MPs for the Congress Party's involvement in the massacres of Sikhs in 1984, for instance. But it's also true that many of the people who were involved in those events have never been punished. There have been endless government inquiries (nine official government commissions), which have all fizzled out for "lack of evidence."

Some people who can be directly held responsible for specific murders in 1984 are actually still in the Congress Party. People like Sajjan Kumar (of suburban Delhi) still hold elected office (there is a helpful account of his trial and acquittal at this Rediff article). The Congress Party should eject all people suspected of participating in mob violence based on its own review of the evidence.

Since lack of evidence is so frequently cited as the problem in these cases, the new Congress govt. should develop new methods for recording and investigating communal incidents. The authorities often know about these events as they are actually happening, and often claim that they can do nothing to stop them (sometimes this is even true). If it is impossible to stop them directly, why not send up some helicopters with video cameras when communal troubles are looming? Why not make more of an effort to gather hard evidence of these crimes?

If more people actually went to jail promptly (not 18 years later) for their role in communal events, there would be a sharp decline in their frequency.