Written by Gurpreet Mahajan.

India has never been a completely neutral state. So what has changed in the last 18 months? The BJP led NDA government insists that nothing has changed. However, neither its supporters nor its detractors accept this. The opposition, and sections of the intelligentsia, maintain that a culture of intolerance is growing; others, supporting the BJP, proclaim that pseudo-secularism and minority appeasement have ended. Both sides miss the wood for the trees. They fail to note the currents that are pushing for a shift – from the politics of ambiguous accommodation to the politics of unambiguous majoritarianism.

Congress governments were not, contrary to what the BJP claims and what they themselves project, anti-majority. Shortly after independence, several Congress governments legislated to ban cow slaughter; others placed restrictions upon conversions. By enacting the Freedom of Religion Act, they subjected conversions to the scrutiny of the District Magistrate. These were all concessions to the majority sentiment.

Appeals to the majority sentiment were however accompanied by similar gestures towards the minorities. The Congress governments astutely stayed away from ‘reforming’ the personal laws of minority communities – Christians, Muslims and the Parsis. It did not put its weight behind the Directive Principles of State Policy (enshrined in the Constitution) to push for a Uniform Civil Code.

In this way, the Congress performed a juggling act: it tried to keep different communities – the majority and the minorities – with it. While no community was completely assured of its protection each could [despite its grievances] believe that some of its cultural and religious concerns would be heard and accommodated. This yielded, what might be called, competitive communitarianism.

The Congress governments, whether at the centre or the states, did not protect individual liberty unconditionally. In the interest of ‘public order’ or fear of ‘offending/hurting’ the sentiments of a community they frequently restricted freedom of speech and expression. They also did little to check communal violence. Most of the time the guilty were let off the hook. Nevertheless there are two significant differences between the situation then and now. Even though many things that are occurring today are not without precedence there is still a qualitative difference that needs to be acknowledged.

First, the Congress rule was marked by the politics of ambiguity. The Congress did not align itself unambiguously with any one group; and more importantly, not all Congress led governments in different states acted in a like manner. Not all banned cow slaughter; nor did they follow a similar policy on Madrasa education. They extended patronage to different communities depending upon their electoral calculations. This ambiguity suggested to the majority as well as the minorities that they could, in principle, be counted and heard. This feeling is gradually being eroded today.

 Second, Congress owned the legacy of the national movement; particularly, its discourse of secularism and cultural diversity. Although in practice it fell short on people’s expectations many times, it could explain away the actions of its governments and individual members as being aberrations. Owning the secular ideals, and remedying the popular perception by addressing some cultural need of the aggrieved community, helped the Congress in this. As a result, even when the minorities were upset with it for targeted them through the provisions of preventive detention and other extraordinary laws, they were not completely alienated from the political system.

The difference today is that the BJP, given its ideological leanings and its history of close ties with many Hindu organizations, is unable to shake off the legacy of majoritarianism. It cannot comfortably own the ideas of secularism; it can at best, as the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has done hold out the promise of development for all. Unfortunately for it, when religious majoritarianism is poised to dominate the public arena, settling for development rather than equality in the public domain appears an unfair and unacceptable bargain to the minorities.

The BJP government is technically correct when it says that communal violence has occurred in the past; that the state government is directly responsible for what happened in Dadri and the killing of the Rationalists. But political responsibility is different from legal responsibility. Ignoring, what many even in the majority community, regarded to be unacceptable expressions of minority targeting, and worse still, explaining away such actions as random acts of violence or accidents, have only burdened the government with the taint of majoritarian politics.

For several BJP members and its supporters the end of minority appeasement implies that the majority will get its rightful place: its cultural norms will prevail in the public and political domain. If the state does not push in that direction through its policies they take it upon themselves to carry forward this agenda. Distinguishing between friends and foes along religious lines, targeting individuals within minorities, asking them to prove their loyalty to India and disloyalty to Pakistan, demanding that all should say no to beef  and just to yoga education, are ways in which they are pushing the envelope.

The new language of majoritarian politics poses a threat to civil liberty but that is not its primary agenda.  Its aim is to cleanse the public domain of all western and minority influences. On the one side, it aspires to homogenize Hinduism – so we have the targeting of Hindu sects like the Sai Baba followers – and, on the other, it wishes to homogenize the nation culturally. When this agenda is pursued by individuals and groups then all are vulnerable, be they members of the majority or the minorities.

Cultural dominance but economic equality: this mantra has not, and cannot, work. Even circumspect voices within the corporate sector, that rallied behind the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, are beginning to express this. The politics of ambiguity was not without faults. Its instrumental use of politics paved the way for the majority to make strong claims upon the state. But allowing the majority to unambiguously stamp its identity on the public domain is neither good for development nor for occupying the high table as a leader of democracy.

Gurpreet Mahajan is Professor of Political Science at the Centre for Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. This article forms part of an Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies special issue on Hindu nationalism in India. Image credit: CC by Al Jazeera English/Flickr.

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