Friday, May 14, 2004

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.


Anonymous said...

What a lot of rubbish you talk. Why should secularism be dead? And what makes you a spokesman for secularism considering you know so little about the country? What you say is just incoherent blather. I dont even know how to respond to it.

Amardeep said...

Well, you haven't actually responded to it -- you've just ranted irrelevantly.

Plenty of people were talking about the death of Indian secularism recently. People on the left were mourning it, people on the right were celebrating it.

Anonymous said...

Only idiots were mourning the death of secularism. Part of the reason the BJP did so badly in Gujrat is that the shrill leftist media had kind of given up on Gujrat and were relatively quiet.

Amardeep said...

Meaning what? That the people of Gujurat were free to identify the failures of the BJP government without assistance? Losers always blame the media -- but here it seems like your logic supports the Congress side (without media, people saw the reality, which was the failure of the government in power).

I gather you just feel that secularism is not an urgent issue in India, and anyone who disagrees is an idiot. That's speculation, since you've been too lazy to actually spell out your position. If you're going to say "people just shrug their shoulders," don't bother, because I don't buy it, and anyway it doesn't answer the question about what the role of the state should be in these matters. Middle-class Hindus may shrug their shoulders, but the rest of us do not.

Did you read the Naipaul/Dalrymple debate on Outlook? Not just the original articles, the debates that came after (I posted a link to it a couple of days ago). People are obsessed by secularism, at a visceral and emotional level.

Anonymous said...

People reading outlook are people like me and you who are mostly reacting to other people. On the web, things tend to get shriller and shriller because good sense doesnt draw attention.

In the state assembly elections in Gujrat, the media added to the polarization. Shrieking about secularism isn't conducive to secularism, because shrieking about anything is not conducive to peace and calm and moreover secularism has become a loaded word, more of a tag or a label that people use - like fascist or nazi -it doesnt mean anything any more. I have met so many gujjus who will readily admit that Modi is an ahole, but said (at that time) that they have to stick by him out of bloodymindedness. When there is peace and calm, people think of more important things like water and health and education.

Most people on the net are expats and a few are abcds like yourself who can afford the luxury of ideology on a daily basis.

Anonymous said...

By the way I laughed loudly at the helicopter idea. I said to myself saala typical abcd. If there is money to be spent, it would be spent on basic things like protection for police, better traiining, better communication equipment - not for helicopters to find out who is participating in riots.

Anonymous said...

I suppose you will call the triumph of Laloo Yadav as a victory for corruption and goonism.

Anonymous said...

Are 'middle-class Hindus' the new demon-class? Are you Sikh, Mr Singh? What class are you, may I ask?

Amardeep said...

Are 'middle-class Hindus' the new demon-class? Are you Sikh, Mr Singh? What class are you, may I ask?I can withdraw the phrase, as it comes from anecdotal knowledge: the only people I know who dismiss secularism, or who assume that the Hindu right doesn't pose a threat to it, are of that background.

But surely my turn to anecdotal evidence is no worse than S. Kumar's attempt to convince me that ideology is irrelevant, and that people just 'shrug their shoulders' at the mention of secularism or communalism (if you are not S. Kumar, see the discussion threads from earlier posts to get a sense of his perspective). Which people has he been talking to? Members of religious minorities I know (mostly Indian Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians) do not shrug their shoulders when this question comes up -- though they often disagree as to what is to be done.

That is my explanation of why I made the statement that I'm now withdrawing. It is not a defense, since as I said, it was made on anecdotal evidence, which I admit is unreliable across the board. Unfortunately we have less than reliable data on the rapidly evolving views of Indians from different class, caste, and religious communities. It would be nice if there were more anonymous polls conducted in a scientific manner (i.e., random samplings, large sample pools), with complete political neutrality. We need more knowledge about what people are thinking...

But right now the only really reliable data, it seems, are elections themselves. The claims I make in this post are oriented to that hard data, and the (small) lift it gives to people who do support pure secularism in principle.

I ignore all of your insulting personal questions.

Anonymous said...

Everyone wants to play the victim - even wealthy Sikhs who do not live in India. Hindu-bashing is rapidly become synonymous with secularism, which is why it is high time the word be phased out. Upon probing further by the sceptical, this usually gets modified to "brahmin" bashing or "upper-caste Hindu" bashing.

Can you explain how your secularism has gone from a resounding defeat to a victory within a year? What caused this about-turn?

Anonymous said...

Mr Singh, does your heart bleed for the copious numbers of Hindus killed by your co-religionists in the 80s in the name of Khalistan? Are you a flag-waving Sikh, Sir? I know you remember the 1984 massacre of Sikhs by Rajiv Gandhi's goons in 1984 - and so do I, by the way. I also remember the 1994 riots. I actually lived there - in the middle of it all. I had a stake in peace and still do. Your tears are crocodile tears because you have an 'academic' interest in 'secularism', so you can take finely 'nuanced' poses and impress your friends.

Anonymous said...

Why not make more of an effort to gather hard evidence of these crimes? rajivian technocratism in 2004! but the answer to your question is actually the same answer as to why riots happen, so i don't think gadgetry will get very far.