The secular sectarianism of feminists, Dalits, the Left and religious minorities has ghettoised communities and is leading to a political dead end.
Political imagination in India has come to a standstill, aiding and abetting the construction of a homogenised cultural and political sphere. The roots of this lie not only in the right-wing political imagination of a Hindu Rashtra but also in the secular sectarianism pursued by secular, democratic and progressive political formations. Secular sectarianism of feminists, Dalits, the Left and religious minorities has, over a period, ghettoised communities and advanced a sectarian political imagination, leading to a political dead end that they are now finding difficult to negotiate.
Cumulatively, they all seem to have contributed to a shrinking political imagination that has in turn contributed handsomely to the rise of right-wing politics. Feminist politics in India was silenced by the demand being made by right-wing forces for a uniform civil code, unable to negotiate the competing demands between women’s rights and that of the religious minorities, after the Shah Bano case. It is a puzzle as to why they did not proceed along the lines of equating gendered practices in all religions, whether against the Hadith or the Manusmriti or the Bible, along with many other very similar practices that are sanctioned which place women as being less than equal to men. In fact, it was B.R. Ambedkar who argued that it is only Dalits and women who face untouchability due to religious sanctions.
Mobility with dignity
Similarly, Dalit politics in India moved from its focus on Ambedkar as a philosopher — and who was the chief architect of the Constitution — to a claim that he belongs to Dalits alone. In the 1980s, the demand was that Ambedkar and Phule be introduced in university syllabi and taught by all in order to understand caste. Now, the demand is that nobody other than Dalits has the right to write and talk about Ambedkar. Similarly, the idea earlier was that all dispossessed social groups are Dalits, irrespective of their caste. Today, even progressive and democratic individuals and organisations are reduced to the caste they are born into; a new kind of homo sacer — as bare caste beings. This shift, to a narrower interpretation of anti-caste imagery, led to social justice shrinking to (political) representation, where even if it is the right-wing political organisations such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that provide for an opportunity, it should be taken as an opportunity for mobility that was otherwise denied to Dalits for centuries.
Today, the case for this has grown stronger, with the RSS advancing a more de-brahmanised mode of Hinduisation, in the sense of providing for leadership for individuals from the Dalit-Bahujan communities. Here it is being argued that for Dalits, the difference between left, right and centre makes no sense. Dalit politics, however, has ceased to question whatever happened to forging a bahujan samaj, along with the Other Backward Classes and Muslims, if they were to consider the opportunities provided by right-wing political mobilisation as justified mobility towards undoing demeaned social status. After the success of the Bahujan Samaj Party, the centrality of political power in anti-caste politics has undoubtedly been a source of some of these visible shifts. If mobility with dignity is the true meaning of the struggle against brahamanical hegemony, it can be accrued only by questioning sectarianism in all its manifold forms.
So has the case been with the secular discourse regarding minority rights in India. It not only assumed Muslims and other religious minorities to be homogeneous but also articulated their concerns disconnected from other political discourses in a democracy, by mentally and spatially ghettoising them into a segregated social group. For instance, Muslim political organisations could have talked about the witch-hunt against Muslims from Azamgarh and the alleged encounter killings at Batla House and also about the same kind of exceptionalism being practised against tribals in Chhattisgarh and what amounts to the racial profiling of citizens from the Northeast. In the same breath, it would be incumbent to speak of the plight of Hindus in Baluchistan and Bangladesh, as much as the rights of Kashmiri Pandits who lost their homes, and not merely or exclusively about the Palestinians of Gaza. It is important to conjoin the rights of Muslims with questioning the views of Mr. Geelani on Hindu religious minorities and women in Kashmir. Citizenship, as a political practice, is instantiated in the right to speak for others, and not in speaking just for one’s own self alone. This becomes all the more important in a context where neo-liberalism has, in a very substantive sense, undermined empathy for others, and fraternity and solidarity of all kinds. While capital and the market depend on a process of individuation, progressive politics has to move towards affinity and an idea of shared spaces rather than focus on mere claims of essentialised identity, notwithstanding the contribution ‘identity politics’ has made in highlighting the concerns of some of the most marginalised social groups in India. This, in essence, is also the difference with right-wing political mobilisations. Otherwise, there would be very little distinction between the sectarianism of the “democratic” kind, and the divisive politics of the RSS, the BJP, the Bajrang Dal, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Decline of the Left
Indian democracy — otherwise considered to be a success story among postcolonial nations — built its foundations on secular sectarianism of various kinds. This was previously typified as the “Congress System,” where different and conflicting social groups were accommodated within the same political party. This accommodation however, retained the social status of the groups as they stood in an umbrella formation. It is this politics of forming a coalition of social groups without any sustained attempt to forge intersectional dialogue that is now visibly unworkable and which has led to a sharp decline in the electoral prospects of the Congress. It is this very strategy of maintaining a centrist polity that has gradually shifted rightwards through replicating the same strategy of forging a status-quoist coalition but for a different purpose — of realising a Hindu Rashtra — by right-wing political formations. This decline of the Congress is made even more pronounced by the simultaneous decline of the Left parties that have found themselves in a political landscape best typified as a no-man’s-land. They have not only failed to align themselves with the non-class democratic organisations but have also never failed to express mutual contempt for other Left-based political mobilisations. In pursuit of a “correct line,” they could neither respond to the political exigencies nor overcome the dogmas that they have often fallen victim to. Today, they are faced with a difficult choice, of being either pragmatic or dogmatic, both of which have only contributed to a sustained decline of the Left in Indian politics. The “classism” in the Left too failed to instil a political culture of social groups speaking for each other.
The way forward really seems to be in opening up internal dialogue within communities as also across them. These will have to necessarily go together, and include the following: raising difficult questions such as masculinity within anti-caste movements that time and again attract them towards far-right groups like the Shiv Sena; highlighting various practices of discrimination including untouchability within and between various sections of the Dalit community; highlighting communal sentiments and the inward-looking philosophy of Muslims reflected in ideas of jihad or in considering non-Muslims (barring Christians and Jews) as Kafirs, along with the unholy alliance between the politically powerful and their convenient interpretations of the Koran; disallowing a more progressive interpretation around justice and equality being the core pillars of Islam and self-righteous tendencies in the Left that refuses to listen and learn that social change cannot be programmed, scientific and sanitised, but carries with it a load of uncertainties that need to be made sense of. Also, it must find within them the possibilities to break the condensation of the polity into a majoritarian construct. Majoritarianism in the Indian polity today is growing in the interstices of secular sectarianism that have left unanswered various inconvenient questions pertaining to social groups that were considered as the subaltern. It is within this space and the growing possibility of conflicts within the subaltern on the one hand, and their joining in alliance with the traditional social elite on the other that right-wing political mobilisation is finding its new space and turning democracy on its head.
(Ajay Gudavarthy, with the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, is now visiting professor, Centre for Modern Indian Studies, Gottingen University, Germany.)