21 September 2020 01:48 AM

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P.K.BALACHANDRAN | 14 FEBRUARY, 2020

Can Kejriwal’s AAP be a Bulwark Against Hindutva?

Gandhian Secularism


COLOMBO: With the Aam Admi Party (AAP) successfully taking on the all-powerful Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Delhi Assembly elections held on February 8, many in India and India-watchers abroad wonder if “secular” AAP is the most credible alternative to the anti-Muslim and Hindu-majoritarian BJP.

Hardline secularists or secular purists argue that Arvind Kejriwal and his band are no means ideologically secular to claim to provide an alternative to Hindu majoritarian politics. It is pointed out that AAP and its leader have not taken sides on the critical issues facing secularism in India. They are only propagating a non-communal delivery of goods and services and are ideologically vaccous.

The “secularists” fear, quite justifiably, that BJP governments can easily decimate AAP politically by adopting the simple expedient of improving the delivery of goods and services to the masses. The BJP need not give up its communal agenda at all, they point out. Therefore, it will be wrong to imagine that the victory of AAP is a harbinger of India’s return to Nehruvian secularism.

But others say that there is a middle ground which, while being non-communal, is accommodative of the religious profile and religious sensibilities of the local population, which includes its notions of nationalism tinged with a religious affiliation.

Gandhian Model

This school of thought takes Mahatma Gandhi’s political approach as the model. Gandhi used Hindu religious symbols to communicate with and gather the support of the masses, but he was no proponent of the idea of a Hindu-dominated India. He saw no fundamental contradiction between religion and politics but was against the use of religion in political inclusion and exclusion and in governance.

Gandhian secularism is realistic to the extent that it correctly believes that the Western model of secularism cannot be applied in India in toto. Western society is secular as a result of centuries of evolution, but Middle Eastern and South Asian societies are still deeply religious, whether Islamic, Hindu or Buddhist. Political parties operating in the West can afford to be secular, but parties in the East have to factor religious feelings and practices into account. Unlike in the West, in the East, religion, religious concepts and symbolism permeate personal and social interactions. Politics is by no means out of bounds to such a tendency.

In Western secularism, there can be no appeal on religious grounds. But Gandhian secularism believes that religious concepts and religious symbolism can be used in political mobilization but religion should not become an instrument of domination and oppression of those who are the “other”. Gandhi believed that religion can be used for correcting wrongs or in communication of ideas, but only so long as it does not become an instrument of hate and dominance.

Knowing his host society well, as indeed Gandhi did, Arvind Kejriwal thanked the Hindu God Hanuman for his victory and worshiped at his temple, noting that February 11 was Hanuman puja day. During his election campaign, Kejriwal was careful not to take sides on the Muslim women-led Shaheen Bagh protest against the communally divisive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This was to avoid being dubbed as pro-Hindu or anti-Hindu, pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim.

When NDTV’s Rajdeep Sardesai tried to get him to say something on the Shaneen Bagh protests, Kejriwal stubbornly refused. He kept saying that he was fighting the elections only on a non-communal development platform for the welfare of all communities.

In other words, Kejriwal refused to toe the BJP’s divisive communal line even at the risk of losing Hindu votes. At the same time, he refused to toe the hard secular line even at the risk of losing the Muslim votes. The result showed Kejriwal’s wisdom. The constituency in which Shaheen Bagh is located, gave a thumping majority to AAP. Hindus and Muslims voted for AAP as it promised non-communal governance with no one being considered the “other” and therefore undeserving of benefits.

His silence on key communal issues has engendered criticism. Some described him as a “closet Hindu hardliner” given the fact that his party supported the anti-Muslim CAA. Others said that he is a practitioner of “soft Hindutva” like Indira Gandhi.

While the above criticisms are valid from the hard core secularists’ point of view, political realists will not endorse them, given the fact that the ‘Hindu identity’ is an essential and manifest feature of the majority of Hindu voters, just as the ‘Islamic identity’ is a distinguishing mark of Muslim voters.

Giving an illustration of the grip of religion on Indian society, sociologist M.N.Srinivas used to point out that leaders and cadres of the avowedly no-religious Communist Party of India (Marxist) in West Bengal thought it essential to put up “puja pandals” during Durga Puja. The Dravida Munetra Kazagam (DMK) in Tamil Nadu is an avowedly secular party following the rationalist tenets of Periyar E.V.Ramaswamy Naicker. But many of its cadres wear on their forehead, Hindu religious marks like vermilion dots and stripes of holy ash. These symbols reflect the social reality that Tamils are intensely religious while not being communal.

Gandhian Secularism

Mahatma Gandhi was a highly religious man who used religious symbols to establish rapport with the Hindu masses in his political campaigns. But he was not in the least antagonistic to the Muslims, whose religiosity he fully respected.

Farah Godrej on Gandhian Secularism

Farah Godrej of University of California, Riverside, in her paper on “Gandhian Secularism” says that Gandhi was at once religious and secular. He wanted politics to be permeated by religion in so far as religion provided a socially accepted moral code. But he was against the use of religious antagonism to capture power or dominate the “other”.

Here are some of Gandhi’s sayings on the need for religion in politics: “I cannot conceive of politics as divorced from religion.” “Religion should pervade every one of our actions.” “Politics are not divorced from morality, from spirituality, from religion.”

However, Gandhi was not blind follower of religious edicts or religiously sanctioned cruelties and injustice towards fellow human beings. This was the basis of his relentless campaign against “untouchability”. Gandhi also used the spiritual concept of the “inner voice” as an escape route from abhorrent socio-religious practices like untouchability and oppression of women.

Yet, at other times, Gandhi expressed a deep, abiding commitment to what he called secularism, Farah Godrej notes. Here are some quotes from Gandhi on secularism: “If I were a dictator, religion and state would be separate.” “I swear by my religion, I will die for it. But it is my personal affair. The state has nothing to do with it. The state would look after your secular welfare but not your or my religion. That is everybody’s personal concern!” “The state should undoubtedly be secular. Everyone in it should be entitled to profess his religion without hindrance.”

In his election campaigns from 2013 onwards, Kejriwal never exploited communal, caste or religious divides, though he had not taken a public stand on the burning communal issues which had arisen since the BJP came to power in May 2014.

Kejriwal and his AAP may not be a crystal clear alternative to the BJP, but it is should be noted that the recognized “alternatives” like the Communist parties, have not been able to penetrate the deeply religious Indian society except in some parts of the country. In fact, their hold has diminished over the years. The Congress, which was avowedly secular under Jawaharlal Nehru, gradually slipped into “soft Hindutwa” to face the emerging challenge from the Hindu right wing. Today, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi openly visits Hindu temples and declares that he is a “sacred thread-wearing Brahmin.”

Given the social situation, one can only hope that Kejriwal will stay with and propagate Gandhian secularism, which is non-communal even as it acknowledges the place of religion in the psyche of the Indian voter, whether Hindu or Muslim. He might be able to take the vicious sting out of Hindu majoritarianism and make it benign.

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