Bourgeois Secularism and the Communal Challenge?

Part Three

This is the third instalment of this article, which we began publishing in the last issue of Lalkar. It is a slightly extended version of that which appeared in The Marxist, Volume XIX, No 2 April-June 2003. The question of communalism and religious bigotry is extremely important, for it divides and weakens the working-class movement, therefore a Marxist analysis of the problem is essential to the development of a secular, democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist movement. In our view Comrade Grewal has done an excellent job in analysing the problem. However, the conclusions he reaches at the end do not follow from his premises and analysis. In fact, to be very frank, they contradict it. We are however fully aware of the reasons for the above discordance between Comrade Grewal’s premises and his conclusions. He is a members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and as such, being a loyal party member, feels obliged to endorse his party’s incorrect pro-Congress political line. No perceptive reader would fail to notice this. We are publishing this article, not withstanding some of its erroneous conclusions, for we believe that it makes an important contribution to the understanding of this question. Comrades of Indian origin, as well as class conscious workers in the centres of imperialism, will benefit greatly from reading this article. [ Editor]

The post-Independence Experience

The post-independence period is replete with examples of compromises made by India’s secular rulers with communalism. Behind this lies the sordid co-option by the bourgeoisie of feudal landlords as partners in the ruling class combine as well as the class need of the bourgeoisie to keep the working people divided. The fact that feudals had opposed the liberation struggle and been the most faithful allies of British imperialism was conveniently forgotten and forgiven. Fearful as ever of the toiling masses, the bourgeoisie sealed this compact to ensure its grip over State power. This in turn meant retention of landlordism and the monopoly over land, eviction of millions of tenants and unmitigated misery for the overwhelming majority of the rural masses. It also provided sustenance to the material and social basis of communalism, casteism and other forms of obscurantist and retrograde ideologies, besides impeding the process of capitalist development itself.

There is no denying that capitalist relations in agriculture have grown over the past fifty years. This has been the result of the ‘Green Revolution’ strategy adopted by the bourgeoisie to encourage and pressurise pre-capitalist landlords to take to capitalist farming. There are however, large parts of the country where old forms of landlordism still persist. Along with this, “All over the country, caste divisions, caste oppression, the worst forms of gender oppression and the exploitation of the poor by usurers and merchant capital continue unabated.” (Programme of the CPI(M), para. 3.19, p.16). Even in areas where capitalist agriculture dominates, retrograde social practices and ideologies still hold sway. Thus, Punjab had to go through a painful phase in the decade of the 1980s when terrorism inspired by religious fundamentalism was able to evoke sympathy and support in large part of its population. Haryana still tolerates kangaroo caste panchayats which sentence those daring to marry outside their caste confines to death. Similarly, Western Uttar Pradesh, which is another such region, witnessed acute communal polarization, rioting and a political tilt towards the BJP in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gujarat which is one of the more capitalistically developed states in the country is also the state where majority communalism has made its deepest inroads. In other words, capitalist development per se does not automatically get rid of pre-capitalist obscurantism. This only bears out the truth of the Marxist dictum that social consciousness lags behind changes in material reality. The impact of this factor is further exacerbated by the internalisation of retrograde ideologies like casteism and communalism by Indian capitalism.


The vacillations among the post-independence bourgeoisie vis-à-vis communalism date to the early days of freedom. In the trying times following the Partition it was virtually Nehru alone from among the topmost leadership of the Congress who stood firmly for the secular principle. Support to him on this count from within his Cabinet was forthcoming only from those belonging to the minority communities like Maulana Azad, John Mathai, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai and Amrit Kaur. Other stalwarts like Sardar Patel and Rajendra Prasad were deeply imbued with revivalist and communal ideas. S. Gopal, Nehru’s biographer has mentioned Patel’s pronouncements doubting the loyalty of Muslim officials opting for India and calling for their dismissal from service besides his viewing Muslims, as “hostages for the fair treatment of Hindus in Pakistan.” Similarly, he also refers to Rajendra Prasad’s missive to Nehru objecting to the deployment of the army to protect Muslims in Delhi during the riots accompanying Partition (S. Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, A Biography Vol. II, 1947-1956, OUP, New Delhi, 1979 pp. 15-16 from B.T. Ranadive, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Centenary Appraisal, The Marxist, July-December 1989 p.3). Noting Nehru’s positive role in this context B.T. Ranadive, wrote that, “Such was the contrast between Nehru who had a secular outlook and rejected all religious communal appeal and the two followers of Gandhi whose revivalism burst into an anti-human hatred of Muslims sanctioning mass murders; and these were the people who always talked of non-violence when facing the British…If any one except Nehru with his deep secular outlook and commitment to modern concept of democracy had been in charge of the Government, the independence of the country could have been jeopardized.” (B.T. Ranadive, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Centenary Appraisal, The Marxist, July-December 1989 pp.3-4)

Nehru was to play a big role in the adoption of the Indian Constitution and its secular and democratic edifice. He was keenly aware of the link between secularism and democratic rights. He correctly believed that the touchstone of any democracy is the treatment it metes out to its minorities and that democracy itself could not be sustained in a set-up that permitted discrimination against them. It is a different matter that in setting out the secular ideal Nehru and the Constitution which he piloted was not that which envisages the separation of religion and politics but of sarva dharma sambhav [all religions are true -LK]. Similarly the democracy envisaged in the Constitution was bound to be bourgeois democracy given the nature of the Indian state. Yet as B.T. Ranadive has pointed out, “The Constitution of India was a remarkable document considering that it was drafted mainly by the representatives of the bourgeoisie of a newly liberated country” and “declared fundamental rights, adult franchise, elected Parliament and its supremacy, right to free speech and agitation and freedom of conscience etc” (B.T. Ranadive, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Centenary Appraisal, The Marxist, July-December 1989 pp.3-4). The debates in the Constituent Assembly show the kind of pressure Nehru had to withstand from revivalists, lingual chauvinists and outright supporters of feudal privilege. Nehru used his tremendous prestige among the masses to fight back these attacks, though he compromised on some key issues like including the right to property as a Fundamental Right or the inclusion of ban on cow slaughter in the Directive Principles of State Policy.

As a bourgeois leader Nehru was not above compromising with communal forces. Thus, he included Hindu Mahasabha leader, Shyama Prasad Mukherji in his first cabinet (1947-50). The ban imposed on the RSS after the murder of Gandhi was soon lifted, on the basis that, “the RSS. leader has undertaken to make loyalty to the Indian Constitution and respect for the National Flag more explicit in the constitution of the RSS and to provide clearly that persons believing in or resorting to violence and secret methods will have no place in the Sangh…” (GOI Communiqué dated July 11 1949, from A.G. Noorani, The RSS and the BJP, A Division of Labour, p.29). Surely Nehru was not so naïve as to have taken Golwalkar’s word on its face value. Another instance was during the Indo-China border conflict in 1962 when Nehru and his Government, overtaken by national chauvinism, issued certificates of patriotism to the RSS which utilized this to re-establish its credibility among wider sections.

An example of a different kind was that of Nehru’s alliance with the Catholic Church, Muslim League and the upper caste Hindu NSS to launch a ‘liberation struggle’ against the Communist State Government in Kerala led by E.M.S. Namboodiripad which culminated in its dismissal by the Centre in 1959. This was a reflection of his class animosity vis-à-vis the Left. These tactics were to be replicated in future by the Congress in Kerala and other areas where the Left is their main opponent. This experience reveals that wherever the bourgeoisie is confronted by a credible class challenge it does not hesitate to compromise with communal and divisive forces to defend its class interests.

However, on balance, it can be said to Nehru’s credit that apart from the instances mentioned above, he continued to champion the secular ideal through his tenure as Prime Minister despite the revivalist challenge mounted from elements within his Government and party. Besides Nehru’s own secular convictions, three other factors helped keep him away from entering into overt compromises with communal forces. The first was the influence of the values generated by the national liberation struggle among the masses. These included the secular ideal. The horrific experience of Partition also helped strengthen the urge for communal harmony and peace among the people. The second is related to the fact that mass discontent was not of the scale it was to become in later years. The state led capitalist development initiated by the ruling classes did lead to tangible development and the economy was not beset with the kind of crises that would overtake it later on. The third factor was that of the overwhelming monopoly of power enjoyed by the Congress both at the Centre and the States during Nehru’s lifetime. This monopoly was first broken in 1967 with the formation of 9 non-Congress ministries in the states. A more decisive break was to come with the defeat of the Congress in the 1977 General Elections. Despite the return to power of the Congress at the Centre in 1980 and 1984 elections, its monopoly over power was a thing of the past. The dynamics of this reality coupled with the growing mass discontent engendered by the bankrupt path of capitalist development embarked upon by the bourgeoisie after independence created the objective conditions for strengthening the tendency to compromise with communalism within the secular bourgeoisie and its main political representative, the Congress. This got starkly manifested in the 1980-84 period when Indira Gandhi, the ruthless champion of bourgeois realpolitik, was at the helm of affairs as the Prime Minister.

Cynical Compromises

Indira Gandhi fully encouraged Bhindranwale, the rabid Sikh fundamentalist, in her quest to settle scores with the Akalis in Punjab. That this very Frankenstein came back to haunt her, and led to her own killing, is one of the ironies of recent history. She must share the responsibility for the reign of fundamentalist terror that gripped Punjab in the 1980s, leading to the death of thousands of people and untold misery. Moin Shakir has succinctly summed up her playing footsie with communalism in the following words: “She played the communal card in Punjab, Kashmir and the Hindi heartland to offset electoral reverses and check the growing disenchantment of the traditional Congress vote bank. She raised the spectre of religious war (dharma yudh) in Kashmir, reminded minorities of their duties, dwelt on ‘our religion and tradition’ being under attack and explained Hindu communalism as ‘a reaction to real or imagined threats from communal Muslim organisations’. She engineered Sheikh Abdullah’s defeat in Kashmir; allowed Zail Singh, Punjab’s Chief Minister in 1972-77, to create fissures in the Akali Dal; and propped up an obscure priest, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, to counter anti-Congressism in Punjab” (Moin Shakir, Congress and the Minority Vote, from Mushirul Hasan, Legacy Of A Divided Nation, pp. 261-262). She did not find much use for the National Integration Council and refused to grant statutory status to the Minorities Commission. A.G. Noorani described this policy as, “nothing but a cynical exploitation spread over a decade and a half. Its elements were promises galore coupled with administrative cosmetics.” (A.G. Noorani, Indira Gandhi and the Indian Muslims, EPW, 3 November 1990, p.2417 from Mushirul Hasan, Legacy Of A Divided Nation, p.262)

The anti-Sikh pogroms following the killing of Indira Gandhi were led by Congress leaders and their frenzied cadre. They were given a free hand for three days. More than 3000 Sikhs were massacred in Delhi, before the Congress Government decided that retribution had been achieved and imposed curfew. This gory scenario was replicated in several towns across the country. Congress Governments in different states were willing accomplices to this slaughter. It is only in the Left ruled West Bengal that the Government came down with a heavy hand on the rioters. Indira Gandhi’s heir apparent, Rajiv Gandhi, publicly justified these massacres with his infamous remark about the earth shaking when a big tree is felled. His communal outpourings won him the support of the RSS in the 1984 Parliamentary elections. Rajiv Gandhi had more feathers to add to his cap. He went on to appease Muslim communalists by introducing and passing in Parliament the infamous Muslim Women’s Bill which overturned the verdict of the Supreme Court granting maintenance to divorced Muslim women. Besides being a surrender to Muslim orthodoxy and a shameless betrayal of the rights of Muslim women, this gave the RSS an opportunity to vilify the Muslim community as a whole. As if this were not enough, he got the locks of the Babri Masjid reopened within a few days after passage of the Muslim Women’s Bill to appease the Hindu communalists. He went on to support, albeit indirectly, the shilanyas [temple founding ceremony – LK] of the VHP at Ayodhya and began his election campaign for the Parliamentary polls in 1989 from Ayodhya with the promise of establishing Ram Rajya [the rule of God – LK]. These compromises with communalism gave a heaven sent opportunity to the BJP. Its vicious communal campaign centring on ‘liberating’ Ram Janambhoomi that resulted in large scale communal rioting, Advani’s murderous Rath Yatra [Hinduism’s equivalent of Orange marches – LK], the demolition of Babri Masjid and its fall out of communal mayhem and polarization were in no small measure made possible by the doings of the leader of the secular Congress.

Rajiv Gandhi’s successor, Narsimha Rao, epitomises the extent to which the secular bourgeoisie is willing to compromise with communalism. It was during his rule that the Babri Masjid was destroyed by the Hindu communalists, with disastrous consequences. His approach towards these anti-national forces was marked by criminal toleration. Despite knowing the intentions of the Sangh Parivar and despite the mandate of the National Integration Council to deal firmly with any eventuality, he refused to act decisively to prevent destruction of the Babri Masjid. The CPI(M) captured the essence of this betrayal in the following words: “The BJP government in Uttar Pradesh was systematically used to subvert the state machinery to make this dastardly deed a success. No less culpable was Prime Minister Narsimha Rao, who refused to act even after the unanimous support extended to him to defend the Constitution by all secular parties. The betrayal of the secular duty of the State had disastrous consequences. The country was engulfed in a wave of communal riots, the like of which had never been seen since the Partition days.” (CPI(M), Political Resolution of the 15th Party Congress, para 2.41, p. 34).

The role of the Congress State Government during the communal flare up in Mumbai in December 1992 and January 1993, replicated that of Prime Minister Narsimha Rao in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Justice B.N. Srikrishna, who headed a Commission of Inquiry into these riots has described the role of the State Government in the following words: “Effete political leadership, vacillation for political reasons and conflicting orders issued to the commissioner of police and percolated downwards created a general sense of confusion in the lower ranks of the police, resulting in the dilemma, ‘to shoot or not to shoot’. Four precious days were lost for the Chief Minister to consider and issue orders as to effective use of the army for controlling the riots.” (Report of the Justice B.N. Srikrishna Commission, Volume I, chapter II, para 1.28, p.20, published by Sabrang Communications and Publishing for Communalism Combat) The same Report further notes that, “Even after it became apparent that the leaders of the Shiv Sena were active in stoking the fire of communal riots, the police dragged their feet on the facile and exaggerated assumption that if such leaders were arrested the communal situation would further flare up, or to put it in the words of the then Chief Minister, Sudhakarrao Naik, ‘Bombay would burn’, not that Bombay did not even burn otherwise” (Volume I, chapter IV, para 1.20, p.25). This attitude of the Congress leadership in the state is hardly surprising. Its flirtations with the Shiv Sena have a long history. Congress leaders like Vasantdada Patil and Sharad Pawar made cynical use of the Sena for immediate political gain and for fighting their inner-party factional battles. The Shiv Sena used these opportunities to create greater political space for itself. Besides the Shiv Sena “made the Communists it’s foremost political target… it received un-stinted support from big business, the Congress state government and large sections of the capitalist-controlled media.” (Ashok Dhawale, The Shiv Sena, Semi-Fascism in Action, p.12). The Shiv Sena’s active opposition to the historic textile strike of 1982 with the blessings of big capital and the Congress is well known.

The tendency to vacillate and compromises with communalism was not just the monopoly of the Congress. It was shared by other secular bourgeois parties as well. Thus, despite the BJP’s aggressive communal campaign in the 1980s, most non-Congress bourgeois secular parties had no problem in forging electoral pacts with it, under their slogan of ‘all in unity against the Congress’. Their tune changed only after the bringing down of the V.P. Singh Government by the BJP in 1990.

[to be continued]