Caste, communalism and coup

Published: March 19, 2009 - 18:29 Updated: March 21, 2009 - 09:31

Jawed Naqvi, Delhi,

There were at least two occasions in recent memory when the exultation on Indian TV channels was telling.Gen Musharraf staged a military coup in Pakistan and at about the  same time, in India, then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was heading for the majestic British-built presidential palace for a swearing-in ceremony of his newly elected government.

More recently, as India's independent election commission announced the dates for the next parliamentary polls in April, a fractious and querulous coalition government in Pakistan was making a largely atavistic deal with Taliban fanatics in the scenic Swat valley.

This week the boot was on the other foot. As much of Pakistan united in a largely peaceful national campaign to clean up the all-encompassing mess dumped in its judicial and political arteries by the last round of military rule, news headlines in India were riveted to its own variant of atavism.

Although caste-based politics and communal mobilisation had a start before Indian independence, their resurgent manifestation as a popular ploy in the country's democratic journey deserves closer scrutiny. Much outrage was expressed in Wednesday's papers over Varun Gandhi's abusive election campaign, in which he threatened to chop the hands of Indian Muslims and send them to Pakistan. (It was a string of filthy speeches but enough for TV channels to seek an improvement in their TRP ratings. Put it to the fallout of global recession!)

Varun Gandhi is Rahul Gandhi's younger first cousin, both being grandsons of Indira Gandhi, and great grandsons of Jawaharlal Nehru himself. Indian newspapers found it  particularly scandalous that the scion of the house of Nehru, the erudite, liberal and secular founder leader of Indian democracy could indulge in dirty street slang. For a
knockout blow he even abused Mahatma Gandhi, who though unrelated to India's ruling Gandhi clan, has served as an ageless mascot for a host of parties.

It would make sense to berate a young first-time candidate in the fray for straying from the line. But that is putting it mildly. What the Indian media will not discuss is that the young Gandhi is a product of decades of the communalisation that has given India many a popular government both at the centre and in the states. Their coyness is nothing but a sleight of hand, for it fortifies the very tendencies that the media and indeed a section of the middle classes appear to want to reject.

For months if not years Varun Gandhi has been spewing communal venom in his columns through the rightwing journal, Organiser. Every significant Hindu leader has patronised the journal, which is treated with reverence reserved for a party mouthpiece. 

Of course, that is where the sleight of hand comes in. The question that will not be asked is whether and why Atal Behari Vajpayee, before India's opinion makers anointed him as a moderate leader and before he began to compare himself with Nehru, gave exactly the same speech as his younger party colleague did the other day.When did Vajpayee, whose Enoch Powell-like "rivers of blood" speech in Assam led to the infamous Nellie massacre of Muslim women and children by enraged Hindus in 1983, become a moderate leader?

Indira Gandhi had to personally throw out copies of the India Today magazine from Delhi's Vigyan Bhavan where the Non Aligned Movement was holding a summit conference. She was naturally embarrassed that the world would see the cover, which showed piles of dead bodies of Nellie victims. That was the contribution of Vajpayee to his heir Varun Gandhi's upbringing. The supposedly moderate Vajpayee made another contribution to India's communal cauldron. He revived in one stroke the foundation of muslim zealots in Assam. Today, they have gained worrying electoral clout in the  sensitive state.

Again that may have been the precise purpose of the rightwing BJP and it could partly explain the vested interest that exists in creating the communal Muslim genie. It is hardly a coincidence that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, rightwing Hinduism's ideological
fountainhead, issued an appeal the other day - even as Varun Gandhi was laying into the Muslims in his constituency in the Himalayan foothills - to increase the salaries of the  muezzins of thousands of  Indian mosques. The Muslim clergy is both a necessary counterpoint and a potential ally of majority communalism in India.

Outrage over Varun Gandhi's fulminations was also laced with words of  sympathy for  the BJP's current prime ministerial candidate Lal Kishan Advani. The brash and   irresponsible Gandhi was out to tarnish the image of the moderate Advani, it was claimed. The lament was uniformly shared across the mainstream media. Moderate Advani? When did the charioteer of Ayodhya whose men tore down a nondescript mosque to assert their nationalist identity become the mild mannered, soft-spoken liberal he is made out to be? Oh well, look at the alternative, we are cautioned. Would you prefer Narendra Modi of Gujarat instead? The offered choice is deliberately false. Both the worthies are role models for the impressionable and still-groping-in-the-dark Varun Gandhi.

Communalism like a military coup is a means of shepherding recalcitrant citizens towards a choice offered by the state that they would be otherwise reluctant to accept. A happy tiding for both India and Pakistan is that enough people are still around to resist the
state's insidious manoeuvres, failing which we would quickly collapse into a South Asian variant of fascism. Instigating a communal standoff between India's religious communities has come to serve another strategic purpose. It helps paper over the far deeper fault lines of caste. Part of the purpose behind Advani's chariot journey to  Ayodhya was to neutralise the disruptive effects of caste polarisation on Hindu society that was unleashed by the Mandal Commission's recommendations for caste-based affirmative action. Hindutva was resurrected to counter it. That the upper-caste Muslim clergy too would lose its stranglehold on their community has remained a less discussed outcome of the Mandal report. Since 1991, with the rise of free-market-driven corporate enterprises in India, the role of business clubs has increased dramatically in guiding and honing communal politics across the country. Big-time money is at stake in keeping the embers of religious strife alive. The recent public patronage extended by leading tycoons to Narendra Modi's communally driven governance in Gujarat is an example of this aspect of Indian democracy.

While it is reassuring that mainstream Pakistan has succeeded in saving democracy from another grievous blow from the military there is little to suggest that the worst is behind us. The deal with the Taliban in Swat remains ominous, even more so if it was clinched to serve interests other than the nation's own. India had a brief fling with authoritarian rule but its merrily regressive religious underpinning has ensured that a democratic façade serves the purpose of manufacturing consent well without recourse to overt state

Jawed Naqvi, Delhi,

There were at least two occasions in recent memory when the exultation on Indian TV channels was telling.Gen Musharraf staged a military coup in Pakistan and at about the  same time, in India, then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was heading for the majestic British-built presidential palace for a swearing-in ceremony of his newly elected government.

Read more stories by Caste, communalism and coup