Congress, secularism and freedom


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WATCHING the Congress grapple with the challenges posed by Hindutva, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Congress is acting on Yogi Berra’s famous advice. ‘When you come to a fork on the road you are travelling, there is only one option: take it.’ On the one hand the Congress was seen in recent months as trying to appropriate what has come to be known as ‘soft Hindutva’. Its campaign in Gujarat, Digvijay Singh’s initiatives on cow slaughter and Bhojshala, the party’s feeble attempts to counter Hindutva with Santana Dharma, all seemed to point to a party not averse to opportunistically expanding the space for religion in politics.

On the other hand, the recent crack down on Togadia’s activities in Rajasthan seems to many a signal that the party is preparing to fight Hindutva. Should the party appropriate much of the BJP’s agenda in the hope of enhancing its power? Or should it more clearly distinguish itself from the BJP by drawing a firmer line on matters of principle? Or should it do both?

On the face of it, there is no inconsistency between these two outlooks. After all, in principle one can be for a ban on cow slaughter, for opening the Bhojshala for worship to Hindus, even stand for the construction of a temple at Ayodhya, and still be against the virulent anti-Muslim stance of organizations like the VHP. Indeed, many would argue that the only way of increasing communal harmony, decreasing anti-Muslim violence, is for politics to more openly embrace these causes dear to Hindus. Embracing these causes would not only cut the political wind out of the Hindutva sails, it would also be in the best interest of minorities themselves. It would do away with the majority’s minority complex, its sense of being besieged by a political system that grants ‘favours’ to minorities, but is embarrassed to recognize that this is a predominantly Hindu country.

Currently Hindu identity, as it exists, is constituted by a sense of injury and only when its anxieties are assuaged can we hope for a more decent politics. On this view, it is immaterial whether or not this sense of Hindu hurt is justified. It is a political reality that any party with any ambition cannot afford to ignore. It is better that parties like the Congress address these grievances. Whatever Hindu bias it may or may not have, at least it does not have the overt determined anti-Muslim baggage that the Sangh Parivar does. It can position itself as both pro-Hindu and protector of the minorities at the same time.

Historically this balancing act has always been part of Congress’ conception of its identity. After all, during the independence movement it could make room within itself for both the Hindu right and orthodox ulema, at the same time as it championed the cause of modern secularism. Rajiv Gandhi was not averse to allowing the Ayodhya issue to be politically reopened; Indira Gandhi gave Sikh fundamentalism an opening in organized politics and then tried to capitalize on a Hindu backlash. Anti-conversion legislations and bans on cow slaughter were crafted first in states ruled by Congress.



In principle this was a win-win strategy all around. Each religious group could wrest concessions from the Congress without anyone of them becoming a target. And this politics of placating one group after the other as the political need arose was ideologically legitimized in the name of a distinctive brand of Indian secularism. Indian secularism was not to be defined by strict separation between Church and state; the state could patronize all manner of religious ambitions so long as it did so even handedly, and without advocating establishment or dominance of one religion.

A politics of this kind could, in theory, be given a principled rationale; and in practice it had a lot of plausibility. Arguably, it sustained Congress for almost a century. But by the mid-eighties this politics was beginning to lose its plausibility for a variety of reasons and the long term ideological costs of this politics were beginning to be more apparent. It would be foolish to argue that the Congress party began to decline only because its conception of secularism had started running out of steam. The reasons behind Congress’ decline are complex and cannot be fully dealt with here. But its conception of a secularism that could flirt with all religions was no longer a viable way of crafting a broad based political coalition.



First of all, after 1985 and the politics that emerged in the aftermath of the Shah Bano decision, Congress found it very hard to make credible the claim that it was being even handed with all communities. It tried, by first caving before Muslim orthodoxy and then by courting the Hindu right, but it could not effectively combat the charge of ‘pseudo-secularism’. This charge meant two different things, though in practice they were often run together. One was the claim that Congress really was succumbing to ‘minorityism’, an unfair privileging of minorities. Again the ‘truth’ of this charge is beside the point; what is important is that fact that the groundswell of ideological, cultural, organizational propaganda that the Sangh Parivar produced made this charge seem credible to many.

The second claim was that Congress was really not interested in the transformative agenda of secularism at all because, rather than extricating politics from religion, it went on implicating them even more. On either reading, the authority of Congress’ secular credentials was suspect. Instead of befriending all religions it had ended up giving all of them reason to suspect its motives; instead of a balancing act, it had produced a politics of perpetual concessions that made all religious groups active and permanently discontented.

Second, and perhaps equally importantly, the Congress organization had been seriously decimated. Its ability to counter the BJP on the ground in much of North India was, in organizational terms, limited. It had no cadres. Over-centralization and arbitrary party rules had seriously impaired its ability to incorporate newly mobilized groups like the OBCs and Dalits into the party. Even if the Congress was well-disposed towards them, the Muslims could not count on protection from it. On the ground, parties like the SP and the RJD seemed more effective protectors.

Any claims Congress might have staked to be protecting Muslims were rendered hollow by a series of events. The demolition of the Babri Masjid was perceived to be as much a reflection of Congress’ lack of will, as it was the result of BJP mobilization. The riots that followed, especially in Mumbai, laid to rest any illusions about Congress’ capacity to position itself as the benefactor of minorities that it claimed to be. On the other hand, its own misgovernance did much to legitimize the RSS, especially during the emergency.



Perhaps most importantly, Congress’ traditional strategy reified group identities in all sorts of ways. It created fundamental confusions about the sorts of values secularism was meant to embody. It created a discourse that still casts a permanent and distorting shadow on our politics.

One of the more revealing oddities in the Indian debate over secularism is that a defence of individual freedom rarely figures prominently in defences of secularism. While many different conceptions of secularism dot our political landscape, none of them makes individual freedom explicitly a political value. For some secularism is simply synonymous with communal harmony: the peaceful and possibly respectful coexistence of different religious groups. For others secularism is a view about the state’s relationship to religion.

All secularists agree that the state should, in some sense, be impartial amongst different religions. But some take the view that the best expression of this impartiality is that the state, as far as possible, disentangles itself from all religious arguments and identities. Others argue that this impartiality is best expressed by equal treatment of all religions, but that this equal treatment does not necessarily require the state to distance itself from religion. For others still, the debate over secularism is largely a debate over the asymmetric authority the state exercises over different religions. Does it have the authority to interfere with the practices of some communities but not with the practices of others? But whatever the nuances of these positions, none of them seems to give individual liberty its due moral weight.



Few articulations of secularism are directly concerned with the value of individual liberty. Those who advocate the disentanglement of the state from religion as far as is possible are clearly motivated by a concern for freedom. They believe, rightly, that the coercive power of the state should not be used to advance the cause of any religion; that such use of coercive power violates fundamental freedoms because it forces adherents of other religions to go along with practices that they have, given their beliefs, no reason to go along with.

But mere disentanglement cannot avoid the thorny problem that historically religious communities can (and do) exercise coercive power over its members as well. These communities can deny their members basic freedom and equality and the state will have to massively intervene in ‘religious’ practices to ensure that freedom and equality are enjoyed by all individuals. Principled distance is never an option for any state interested in securing the rights of its citizens, sometimes against the traditions of particular religious communities. The principled distance metaphor is misleading in so far as it suggests that the state can lay its hands off religion. But the state should be principled all right. It is justified intervening only in so far as these interventions secure the conditions of individual liberty and equality.



The other versions of secularism – secularism as communal harmony, secularism as respect for all religions, and secularism as a project for giving different groups their own space to collectively define their identities – are even less motivated by a concern for individual liberty. Of course they are motivated by other high ideals: peace, sometimes solicitude for pluralism, sometimes a genuine piety towards the diversity of our society. But none of them make freedom a central value.

These invocations of secularism are quite compatible with many sentiments that ought to worry those who care about freedom. These versions of secularism are not averse to using state power to advance religious ends provided some kind of parity between different communities is maintained. So, on this view it is all right for the state to ban practices offensive to Hindus so long as it does the same for Muslims and so forth. So long as the state demonstrates equal treatment for communities secularism stands vindicated.

But casting secularism in terms of communal parity is itself misleading. The parity model produced an untenable politics. Governments established their secular credentials by giving one concession to a particular religious community and then offset it by granting concessions to other communities in a process of competitive bidding that left all communities feeling that they had lost. The charge of pseudo secularism is essentially a charge framed within the discourse of the parity model, and all attempts to answer the charges of pseudo secularism simply reinforce the dominance of this model.

This parity model was suffocating in so far as it put respecting religion or collective identities above the cause of protecting individual freedoms. It is disingenuous in minimizing the potential conflict between established religions and individual liberty, and it rests on the illusion that all religions are essentially harmonious with each other so that respecting all of them is indeed possible. To say that the state should use its coercive powers to express ‘respect’ towards all religions equally is by no stretch of the imagination the same thing as saying that each individual ought to have as much freedom as is compatible with a similar freedom for others.



In the whole thicket of issues that are wrecking secularism, from the debate over conversion to cow slaughter, very few protagonists stake the simple and obvious claim: each individual has as much liberty as is compatible with a similar liberty for others. This claim has three large implications for secularism. First, secularism is not about respecting this or that religion and granting them due recognition. It is about giving individuals the freedom to realize themselves in whatever way they choose to do so, in whatever religion or without religion at all. The state is not in the business of saving anyone’s soul; it is not in the business of advancing any particular religious conception or conceptions. Its primary function, other than securing security and a minimum of well-being for all citizens, is protecting their liberty as individuals.

Second, the state has an obligation to ensure that this freedom is secured for all individuals, sometimes even against the prohibitions that religious communities impose upon them. Third and most importantly, no majority can override the basic rights of individuals, no matter how strong their sentiments. When the state uses the sentiments of the majority as an argument to impose restrictions on what people may think, what they may eat and so forth, it violates the fundamental tenets of freedom.



Freedom is admittedly a complex notion, but making it basic has certain advantages. It better defines the goals of our collective arrangements. Our collective project is to create a free society, where only those interdictions on freedom can be justified that serve the cause of freedom itself, not the cause of this or that community. Second, taking freedom seriously does not require us to make contorted distinctions between the secular and the sacred; it does not enjoin us to view our identities or our histories in any particular way. All it requires is a commitment to the idea of freedom itself, the freedom to define ourselves in whatever way we please, the freedom to think our own thoughts, secure in the belief that no collectivity, however deep its sentiments, can violate the rights of individuals.

The proper antidote to majoritarian politics is not some nebulous ideal enjoining respect for all communities. The proper antidote is the cultivation of a love of individual freedom that rejects the thought that any community, majority or minority, can define the identities and circumscribe the possibilities of any of the individuals that compose it.

The Congress’ inability to connect secularism with freedom extracted a high price. It prevented secularism from being the transformative project that it was meant to be. It reified group identities, often orthodox ones.1 Just think of the way in which Congress has constructed Muslim identity.



During the nationalist movement, it was very keen on claiming that Congress could represent Muslim interests at least as much as the Muslim League; the Muslim League could not claim sole monopoly over the question of Muslim representation. This claim was crucial to Congress’ conception of itself and, by extension, India, as having a pluralist identity. But what Congress could not ever seriously question was the idea that there was a singular Muslim identity.

After independence, rather than providing meaningful space for Muslim politics, a space for debate, contestation and reform, Congress tried to incorporate them as a supplicant minority. This meant on the one hand playing the politics of symbolic state support of religious activities of Muslims, without any attempt to provide them with those resources that would more effectively integrate them into the political mainstream. It even consistently privileged negotiating with Muslims on religious issues rather than on issues such as Urdu education.

During Shah Bano, an occasion for discussion and debate amongst Indian Muslims, Congress did what it had always done: allied with orthodoxy. This alliance of Congress with religious conservatism has historically been very deep. It is an alliance that makes sense only in terms of Congress’ perpetual need to identify and support unified community interests. You can make entire communities of voters dependent upon you only if there are community interests in the first place. Congress has favoured an idiom of politics in which group interests continue to be reinforced by the work of politics. It eventually was put on the defensive by the most virulent idiom in which the politics of group identity can be carried out: Hindu nationalism.



Many have argued that there is a lesson to be learnt in Togadia’s arrest in Rajasthan. The whole affair turned out to be a damp squib. Togadia and the VHP were not able to mobilize much support. If you combine this fact with the Congress’ victory in the elections in Himachal, you could argue that Hindutva is running out of steam. But this would be a premature conclusion. First, nobody has ever argued that Indian politics at any time is just about Hindutva; that religious and communal issues exhaust the discourse of politics. This would be as foolish a position as suggesting that Hindutva has no purchase on politics whatsoever. Indeed, economic discontent, anti-incumbency sentiment may very well allow the Congress to do better at the next election. But the long term prospects for Hindutva cannot be inferred from one election or two.

Second, even if the BJP loses, Hindutva could triumph. After all, from Jayalalitha to Digvijay Singh, a much wider constituency is doing Hindutva’s work for it on issues like conversion, cow slaughter and privileging an idiom of majority sentiment in politics. Third, Indian politics gets polarized around Hindutva when there is either a mobilization push by Sangh Parivar cadres or when there is a series of precipitating events that give the Parivar an opening, or both. In Gujarat, Godhra, Akshardham and terrorism elsewhere provided the backdrop that fuelled a politics of anxiety. It is too soon to confidently say that these conditions will not obtain in the near future. Will Congress under those conditions have the strength, courage and imagination to counter Hindutva or will it once again waver and cave in? Togadia’s arrest notwithstanding, it is too soon to tell.

Politics is about imaginatively crafting social coalitions. In the politics of identity, caste or religion are two idioms by which political parties have crafted coalitions. Their logic then determines the manner in which differences are accommodated. Both these idioms have serious limitations; and at this historical juncture, Congress will be severely disadvantaged if these idioms come to dominate our politics. Congress, at least in North India, unless it crafts alliances, will not make a huge dent in Dalit, OBC votes. And Congress is doomed if the politics of anxiety that marks Hindutva dominates our political landscape.

Its best bet, therefore, is to reinvent itself: throw cold water on communal politics rather than opening up new spaces for it, and imaginatively think of an economic and social agenda that can be the basis of a sustainable new social coalition consistent with the economic demands of our times. And it will once again have to think of itself as a party, not always on the defensive, but as a party of transformation, committed to emancipating the state from religion and religion from the state. But this requires leadership, organization, imaginative ideology and a little patience, all of which are currently in short supply.



1. The best argument showing how damaging the reification of groups for secularism has been is Gurpreet Mahajan, Rights and Identities, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1998. A very effective argument showing its impact on democracy is in Niraja Jayal, State, Welfare and Democracy, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2000.