The build-up of political tension as next year’s general elections loom large has led to a flare-up of communal violence in India’s largest electoral battleground, Uttar Pradesh. A little further back but from recent memory, one can also recall instances of rioting between communities in Assam and of course, the chronically vulnerable state of Jammu and Kashmir. The thread of communal harmony which seems to have become increasingly taut and susceptible to tear with time naturally raises the question if the much-talked about Indian secularism is only a mirage.

In one more deep-diving conversation with eminent historian and sociologist Ramachandra Guha, India Together discusses one of the most controversial and emotive topics in Indian public discourse . the precept and practice of secularism.

Secularism as an Indian construct had its basic premise in equal status and reverence for all religions. But given the history of the last 70 years or even before, can India ever really be a secular democracy? What are the primary threats and challenges to that imagination? Subramaniam Vincent and Satarupa Sen Bhattacharya explore the issue with Ramachandra Guha.

Satarupa: While we are tempted to start the discussion in reference to the most recent riots in UP, let me stand back and start at a broader level. What do you think the term ‘Secularism’ really stands for in common Indian imagination?

Ram Guha: It is a term with many meanings, sometimes even contradictory, and can create much confusion. I prefer the term Pluralism. It has two broad dimensions in India. One is linguistic pluralism and the other religious pluralism. The idea of linguistic pluralism, which we discussed in our last conversation, has been largely positive in creating a unified nation while allowing people to speak the languages of their choice. Religious pluralism is more complicated. It has to do with trust between people of different religious faiths, and a trust which entails an absence of violence or conflict. The main conflict, of course, is between Hindus and Muslims, but we have also seen conflicts between Hindus and Sikhs, Hindus and Christians and so on.

I am happy to talk about inter-faith harmony and religious pluralism as a constitutive feature of Indian democracy. Inter-faith harmony is and will always be hard won because of the background of partition, and the insecurities of the Muslims who were left behind in India. It is a difficult, uphill task and it requires action by civil society, it requires trust between individuals and communities. It requires strong and tough action by the State not to let animosity or suspicion or prejudice translate itself into violence, hatred and riots. Therefore at both levels, at the level of civil society as well as the state, it is important to know the ways in which we can nurture inter-faith harmony and religious pluralism.

Satarupa: In our country, we have seen hierarchies of many different sorts which polarise Indians. We have caste based violence on the one hand and we have religious distrust on the other. How do you see the threats to pluralism from something like casteism as opposed to religious fundamentalism?

Ram Guha: Caste is a more complex issue. But let’s just talk about relationships between religions, primarily between Hindus and Muslims, but also between Hindus and other communities. Hindus are a majority in our country. They have demographic and numerical majority. Yet, because we are a large country, although the proportion of Muslim population is small, India has the third or fourth largest Muslim population in the world after Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan. With such a large minority, it is obligatory for the majority to recognise its limits and responsibilities.

I am not saying one was more responsible than the other, but the politics of today would have been different and we could have been a more contented and peaceful nation if both Rajiv Gandhi and Advani had acted differently.

Of course, the minorities also have their responsibilities but the majority has a greater responsibility. In my view, in India in particular, Hindu fundamentalism poses a greater danger than Islam fundamentalism. In the world at large, it is just the reverse. Islamic fundamentalism is causing terrorism in many parts of the world. But in India, simply because we Hindus form such a vast majority, we pose the gravest danger and this is borne out by studies of communal riots everywhere, except for Kashmir. In Kashmir, the Hindus were persecuted, the Pandits had to flee and the violence was largely against them. But in every other state, Maharashtra, Gujarat, UP, Muslims have suffered much more in proportional terms. More Muslims are killed, even though they are fewer in numbers; more Muslim houses are burnt. These are the cold facts revealed by dozens of scholarly studies down the decades.It is a real obligation and responsibility on Hindus not to be seduced by fundamentalism or by talk of supremacy or by the idea that India is a Hindu Rashtra. Pakistan may be an Islamic Republic but India is not a Hindu state and the only way it can survive is by affirming its commitment to religious pluralism and inclusiveness.

Subramaniam: You have quoted Hamid Dalwai in Makers of Modern India. There is an interesting paragraph where he writes that to even call Hindus a majority and Muslims a minority reflects a non-secular attitude in this country. And yet in public discourse today, there is always talk of who is majority and who is minority and whose responsibilities are what. Isn’t Dalwai’s a deeper take on what secularism in a democracy should be about?

Ram Guha: Absolutely. I think Hamid Dalwai was very far sighted. He was writing in the 1960s, against the background of 150 years of Hindu social reform. From Raja Ram Mohan Roy onwards and through the ages of Gokhale, Gandhi or Nehru, we see Hindus trying to eliminate caste inequality and overcome gender hierarchy and engage with the modern world. In that context, Hamid Dalwai asks, where is the Muslim Ram Mohan Roy? Or, the Muslim Nehru? But he also says that unless there is a parallel development of Muslim liberalism, right-wing Hindutva will revive and he was right. That is what has happened.

In my view, Indian pluralism has suffered a double defeat. The Hindus who have had a vigorous tradition of pluralism and social reform have ceded ground to the hardliners. Muslims, on the other hand, have never had a far sighted group of reformers of the likes of Nehru or Gandhi, except perhaps Hamid Dalwai.

But having said that, I also slightly disagree with Hamid Dalwai. As a sociologist or a scholar, I have to deal with objective facts and the objective facts show that in every communal riot outside Kashmir, Muslims suffer more. This means that there is a special burden on us Hindus to recognise this and to stop India from going down the same slope that Pakistan did. Pakistan went from being a Muslim homeland to becoming an Islamic republic. India started as a secular, plural state where people of all religious denominations were considered equal and there were no bar to anyone of any religion participating in public life. But now we have again reached a stage where we have to be vigilant both at the level of the civil society and the state.

In the case of the Muzaffarnagar riots, although inflammatory speeches were made by the BJP and the VHP, clearly the main responsibility lies with the Samajwadi party because they were in power and they couldn’t stop it. From my personal experience, I can say that if the state acts, rioting can be stopped. And there are examples to prove that. In our home state of Karnataka, in the 1990s the Sangh Parivar wanted to make the Baba Budangiri hills a second Ayodhya. There are both Muslim and Hindu shrines on a hill. The Parivar wanted to erase the Muslim shrine and make it a second Ayodhya. J H Patel was the socialist Chief Minister at that time. He may not have been a good CM in any other respect but was so committed to communal harmony that he sent 10,000 policemen to the site and nothing happened.

Another example is from 1984 when there was a pogrom against Sikhs in the whole of northern India directed by Congress MPs. Yet virtually no Sikh was touched in West Bengal because of Jyoti Basu, who firmly told the police that not a single Sardar should be harmed. I think the lack of this kind of courageous state action is often responsible for religious rioting.

So, at one level you have prejudice, insecurity, and fanaticism within the population; at another, you have the unwillingness to uphold the rule of law at the level of the state or its officials. And sometimes, they are instrumental in creating the schism. In fact, the game that they are playing in UP at the moment is this: the BJP wants to consolidate the Hindu vote while the SP wants to consolidate the Muslim vote.

Subramaniam: Let me then ask you about the lack of courageous state action. Where does the courage for state action really come from? What do you perceive historically?

Ram Guha: It has to come from a commitment to pluralism, or secularism if you call it so, and through a far sighted recognition that a single riot can break down trust built over generations. In Muzaffarnagar, for example, there had not been a riot since 1947; three generations grew up together where Muslims and Hindus could trade, play together, attend the same colleges. A riot simply breaks all this. 60 years of trust is broken. Even a single small riot in a town can break up ties of reciprocity, of harmony and cooperation between communities built up over generations. So, it requires that kind of humanistic commitment to be able to recognise that.

It is rare because our political class is known for being short sighted, for being instrumental and only looking at how to win the next elections, a few exceptions apart, one of whom was Jawaharlal Nehru. One of the greatest, underrated achievements of Nehru’s time was that between 1947 and 1963 there were no major Hindu-Muslim riots.

Satarupa: You have mentioned in your book that the 1950s were a period of a lull in communal violence and around 1963, we see a regression. Is there a sudden reason for this step back? Was there any particular factor at play that led to a regression?

Ram Guha: There are several factors at play. One is the global context, which presented a rise of fundamentalism and reassertion of religion into public life all over the world. India had gone through a process of secularisation in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was assumed that other countries would do so too. But look at Israel, where there are fundamentalist Jews who are influential in politics, or look at America, which tries to appear as a secular country, but where radical Christians have determined public policy and presidents like George Bush openly proclaimed their faith. Radical Islam and radical Hinduism could be viewed as part of this global trend.

Another factor comes from a regional trend of the times, which was one of rising Islamic fundamentalism. The Hindus were emboldened to say, if Pakistan is a Muslim homeland why can’t we also be a Hindu homeland? People like Ashok Singhal of Vishwa Hindu Parishad have explicitly said that Muslims and Christians should be second class citizens in India just as Hindus and Sikhs are second class citizens in Pakistan. So, that presents the regional context.

The other factor in India is the decline of the Congress party. The Congress party of today is not the one during Nehru’s time. It is short sighted, opportunistic; it is a dynasty, it is corrupt. The manifest failures of the Congress party have made many people willing to overlook the radical Hindutva of the BJP.

Then there are economic factors; there is a booming economy but the sectors which are thriving are knowledge intensive, such as information technology and so there is a huge pool of young men who do not have dignified employment and because of economic insecurity, take out their frustrations by entering the Naxalite movement, or Jehadi groups, or the Hindutva brigade. Thus global, regional, national and local factors all encourage religious intolerance. This suggests that wise leadership is particularly very important.

Satarupa: Even in the 1960s, there was a resurgence of communal violence, do you not see a leadership failure there?

Ram Guha: Of course, but that was when Nehru was very old and weak. It was in 1963 that the first major riot in his time broke out over the theft of a relic of the Prophet which led to riots in East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh) and that, in turn, led to retributive riots in Jamshedpur, Rourkela and around Calcutta.

I have always argued that Indian pluralism is hard-won, it is secured with great difficulty and to sustain it and maintain it, it requires patience and hard work. I am not one who believes that economic prosperity leads to a decline of religious fundamentalism. Some political scientists draw a facile line; they say: more the wealth, less the interest in religious fundamentalism. But that is not true.

Subramaniam: You have always insisted, in writing as well as quotes to other media, that Indian pluralism is a hard-won. Why do you even say it is “won”?

Ram Guha: It was hard-won and it will continue to be hard-won. To refer back to a formulation that I used in India After Gandhi, if Indian democracy is 50-50, then Indian pluralism is also 50-50. But we haven’t broken up or become a Hindu state yet. Even the BJP is obliged to say that they believe in “positive” secularism. It may be tokenism but they are also seen trying to reach out to the minority communities now. So, most of India is not scarred by religious fundamentalism. We haven’t gone down the Pakistani route . we have Hindus and Muslims and Christians and Buddhists in public life; we haven’t had continuous riots all across India.

But maybe it is not absolutely “won” yet; I agree it is still in the process of being secured. Maybe one can say it was hard-won in the 1940s when Nehru and Gandhi insisted that India would not be a Hindu Pakistan. It was a famous speech that Gandhi gave in 1947 where he said that the Congress always stood for all of India irrespective of language, caste, gender or religion and that’s how it must always be. That is how we did not descend along the slippery slope.

Some people think that Gandhi’s martyrdom shocked Hindus so much that they retreated from their radical faiths and came to their senses. But it is also true that the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim homeland gave a spur, an encouragement, an incitement and an opportunity to radical Hindu groups. I always say that as long as there is Pakistan, there will be Hindutva in India. In times of crisis, this Hindutva will be strong and aggressive, in times of calm, it will be recessive and on the margin. But as long as we have a state on the borders that has committed itself to being an Islamic republic, there will be Hindus who say, “Hum bhi aisa karenge.” These are the ways in which our pluralism will always be fragile, difficult to secure and hence, we can never take it for granted. The conceit that a decade of economic growth will remove the threat of religious fundamentalism is misplaced.

Subramaniam: If you say ‘hard-won’ again, who would do you say is winning?

Ram Guha: You see, we need peace and security. One place where it has been won is Bombay. After the 1992-93 riots, there were these Mohalla Committees which were set up. People worked consistently to rebuild trust between Hindus and Muslims. And when the terrorists from Pakistan attacked Mumbai in 2008, one of the objectives was to spark a pogrom against Muslims and that didn’t happen. Bombay which had regular riots in the 80s and 90s has been regularly peaceful over the last 20 years because of vigilant and focussed work.

That’s the kind of work we need in a sustained way and we need media also to play a role. It requires a great deal of responsible reporting by the media, steady and patient action by citizens to build or rebuild trust and above all it requires courageous and decisive political leadership, which is what was lacking in UP.

Satarupa: There is a general consensus now that most of the violence is politically created and engineered. But we had militant leaders in the past as well. How would you see a difference that made it possible to contain the violence even then, while that is not possible now?

Subramaniam: Yes, for example, you categorise Bala Gangadhar Tilak as a militant nationalist whose views were pro-Swaraj and pro-Hindu and may have alienated Muslims. Yet he was also defended by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. How do you see Tilak’s brand of nationalism playing out today?

Ram Guha: I think it is difficult to say…he could have moderated his views as many people have. One can’t really say how Tilak would have acted now. But we can invoke Nehru or Gandhi – one can look at what Gandhi did after independence. What he did in Delhi and Calcutta and what he intended to do in Punjab was the same. It was to restore trust and faith and inter-communal harmony.

Some people say that it is because Gandhi adopted a Hindu ideology of Ram Rajya that Jinnah looked the other way. But the greatness of Gandhi was that after the creation of Pakistan, he did everything he could, even to the extent of losing his life, to secure religious pluralism. That is the kind of leadership that one needs today.

For example, if Narendra Modi were to reach out and say I am sorry for what happened in 2002, that would build trust not only with Muslims but also with a large section of liberals who do not believe in Hindutva. But he is unwilling to do so, and his supporters do not want him to. If you see the hatred spilling out on Internet platforms such as Twitter, it is worrying. More so, because the ruling Congress is so weak and pusillanimous; it does not have the courage to stand up.

Satarupa: Since you talk about the divisive vocabulary and hatred on Twitter, it shows that the weak or manipulative leadership is still being able to create this level of distrust among the people, and ultimately the responsibility for harmony lies with the people as well. The fact that politicians are still able to polarise the people and lead to actual violent incidents on the ground, what hopes does that hold for the inclusive ideal that the nation’s makers referred to?

Ram Guha: You see, it is a disaggregated process. India is a large country of 28-29 states and operates at different levels. Each state goes at its own pace. The worrying part is UP, it’s very large. It has a large and insecure Muslim population. It has economic problems, lack of employment opportunities. In Bihar too, there are similar problems but Nitish Kumar is very focussed on this and he will hopefully carry on. But it is not so bad in the South, for example in Karnataka, Tamilnadu or Kerala, or even in Bombay, as I explained.

So, in some parts of India there is sanity, there is inter-communal trust. It is impossible to generalise about India. There is a worry in places like UP, Assam, and probably Bihar. But in other parts as in Kerala, you have a large minority population who are successful professionally, who own property, and of course you also have a committed leadership who would not let the situation go out of hand. Overall, I am not despairing. As a historian I can say this democracy still has some resilience and some strength. Bombay is a great example of how citizens have worked together in rebuilding trust between religious communities.

Subramaniam: Why is it that peacemaking capacity or secularism has not played a role in the competitive politics of our democracy? Parties are also supposed to seize peacemaking opportunities to stand and say, ‘Look I stand for peace and you can vote for me.’ Why hasn’t that happened across the parties?

Ram Guha: It is hard to answer that. It could be because riots are episodic and localised; some parts see violence when nothing has happened in other parts. But some people are positioned that way; for example, Communists have been hopeless in most respects but wherever they have been in power, there have been no Hindu-Muslim riots or provocation for the same.

The BJP has always been committed to Hindutva. They had a lot of opportunities in the past to distance themselves from the RSS and they have not done it. Now the RSS has come back in full flow. It is an insular, bigoted, chauvinistic narrow minded form of politics. The RSS’s ideas basically mirror those of the Mullahs and the Pakistanis. The only difference is that the Hindus will be in charge here and the Muslims there.

And of course, in the Congress no one has the courage. If Rajiv Gandhi had not reversed the Shah Bano judgment and provided for uniform, gender-sensitive civil codes, things could have been different. Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi can’t really rise to it. But the one good thing is that the ordinary common sense of the people in the country is against communal riots, which is why in Kerala, Karnataka and Bombay you have seen the build-up of trust over time and abhorrence to violence.

Satarupa: Do you see any concrete political alternatives in history since independence that could have changed this but were not adopted?

Ram Guha: I think the Shah Bano judgment could certainly have. And then there is Advani’s Rath Yatra. There is a big debate over 1984 Delhi and 2002 Gujarat. The BJP demonises Rajiv Gandhi while the Congress demonises Modi. But in many ways, the real culprit was Advani. Advani’s Rath yatra was deliberately aimed at polarising Hindus and Muslims. So those two are indeed responsible for present realities – Advani for promoting his Rath Yatra and Rajiv Gandhi for not using his 400-MP majority to push through an agenda of a gender-sensitive civil code.

I am not saying one was more responsible than the other, but the politics of today would have been different and we could have been a more contented and peaceful nation if Rajiv Gandhi and Advani had acted differently.

Satarupa: And yet such choices do translate into vote banks for them?

Ram Guha: Not necessarily. We do know Rajiv Gandhi lost the 1989 elections very badly. If he had effected the Supreme Court judgement on Shah Bano and enacted it into law, he may have generated so much more goodwill. I would say it is because Rajiv Gandhi did not allow that judgment to become law, that Advani got the leverage for his Rath Yatra. Those actions have left these scars and suspicions and insecurities for the next three or four decades.

Subramaniam: Why do you think Vajpayee had no influence in restraining Advani or is he exactly the same type, only seen as a moderate?

Ram Guha: I think he was weak. Probably his instincts are different from Advani. He said it was appalling when the mosque was brought down but his party shunned him. In 1966 too, when the Sadhus marched towards Parliament, Vajpayee tried to restrain them. His appreciation for Nehru, his gestures towards Pakistan all say the same. Vajpayee was supportive, but he was weak.

For example, if he had sacked Modi in 2002, I think it would have sent a fantastic signal worldwide that India is not Pakistan. In India, the majority does not indulge in pogroms and whoever does not uphold the Indian constitution has to pay a price for it. Modi could have been brought back later in some capacity.

I do think that Vajpayee in terms of intellectual or philosophical orientation is not as hardline or extreme as Advani or Modi. But unlike Nehru who was liberal and courageous enough to stand his ground, Vajpayee was a liberal but was unwilling to fight for his beliefs.

Satarupa: There is a lay perception or grouse that the liberal discourse in our country reflects disproportionately on Hindu fundamentalism and does not acknowledge Muslim fanaticism or Christian manipulative threats as much. As a liberal and a historian, what is your response to that?

Ram Guha: My response has already been indicated. Globally Islamic fundamentalism is a threat. In India because Hindus comprise more than 80 per cent of the population and records of communal riots show that Muslims suffer disproportionately in terms of loss of lives, houses burnt and women violated, I – as a Hindu – stand against Hindu fundamentalism.

Of course, I would criticise Islamic fundamentalism too . and globally, that is a much greater threat – but in India, the objective reality is that Hindu fundamentalists pose a much greater threat to the inclusive ideals of the Constitution. That is not because they are wicked people, not because their ideology is worse than other radical elements but simply because on Indian soil they outnumber Islamic fundamentalists by about 7 or 8:1. That is just a statistical fact. For that reason, people like me will always have more to say about Hindu fundamentalism.