One party appears to have the monopoly on bigotry in India.
If you are not inclined to support the harassment and brutalisation of fellow citizens, you could vote for any number of parties. In Tamil Nadu, there are the two parties, both factions of the old DMK, while in Kerala there are various Left groups, in Karnataka former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda’s Janata Dal (Secular) is perhaps the only party in India that advertises its antipathy to communalism in its name. Then you have the various groups that have splintered from the Congress but retained its surname: the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra and YSRC in Andhra Pradesh. They are separate parties but have the Congress in their name because of brand recognition but also perhaps to assure their followers their core ideology is not different from that of the mother ship. Then nationally, there is of course the Congress party.
You could vote for the PDP or the National Conference in Jammu and Kashmir (assuming there is ever an election there again) or the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi or K. Chandrashekar Rao’s Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana. Even the communally formed parties, like the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (Ittehad means unity) or Indian Muslim League do not have an agenda that is opposed to inclusive secularism.
None of these parties is perfect and many of them have a history of harassing minorities when in power and being unable to prevent their persecution. But there is only one party that actively seeks harassment, and if you want that sort of thing, then there is only one party for you, and that of course is the BJP. No other party seeks to push exclusionary laws on citizenship, on divorce, on food, on segregation, as the BJP has done actively, especially after 2019. No other party deliberately excludes Muslims — of the BJP’s 303 Lok Sabha and 92 Rajya Sabha MPs, not one is a Muslim. Incredibly, of its more than 1,000 MLAs across India, there is not a single Muslim. This is a deliberate and calculated division of society based on religion that no other party wants to practice, even though it may be rewarding.
The BJP is in some sense resembles parties in the political landscape of Pakistan. There all parties tend to be anti-minority, even though the minority population is only around 3%. Six months after Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s passing in 1948, Pakistan’s constituent assembly was told that minorities would be allowed the right to practice their religion freely. They were told that the constitution’s religious orientation was only to ensure that Muslims would be more devout and conforming. This did not happen of course because the assumption that they were not pious was wrong, and in any case, it is not the role of the state. But after it became clear that it was floundering, attention turned to the minorities. A series of laws excluding them from political office and then actively persecuting them came starting in the late 1950s, and by the 1980s it had peaked. Even the socialist Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had participated in this out of expediency, with his second amendment that went after the Ahmadiyya community in 1974. In the last few decades, this has begun to be reversed to a limited extent. Under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the law on fornication was returned from Shariah back to the secular penal code, which Pakistan and Bangladesh share with India. Perhaps it was realised that there was no real benefit to persecution and that the damage to the nation and the state was long term.
In Bangladesh, the constitution opens with the Bismillah verse but it also, like India’s, commits itself in writing to secularism in its preamble. Further down, it says that “the principle of secularism shall be realised by the elimination” of communalism, political status in favour of any religion, abuse of religion for political purpose and discrimination or persecution. Bangladesh is as authoritarian as India is and the political Opposition and civil society are harassed in a similar fashion. It will hearten Indians to know that Bangladesh is even lower than us in the hated V-Dem liberal democracy index. On Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Index too, Bangladesh is lower than India and both nations are classified “partly free”. However today, Bangladesh is the only nation of the three that has its principal minority community represented in the Cabinet, through Sadhan Chandra Majumderr.
India is experimenting after 2014 with the same things that Pakistan tried and failed with in its opening decades. Though India’s economic achievements of the current time lie primarily in rhetoric, it is instructive to know that Pakistan often touched 10 per cent growth in the 1960s. Gen. Auyb Khan was likened to Greek lawgivers Solon and Lycurgus by political scientist Samuel Huntington (of “clash of civilisations” fame). The point here being that economic growth, for a short period at least, can go hand in hand with exclusionary politics. But not for long. Modern states that are focused on targeting their own citizens, on constant harassment through law and policy, that encourage the raising of militias and lynch mobs, have no record of success.
This is perhaps the reason, or at least one of the reasons, that India’s political parties have stayed away from this as an ideology, even if it may be electorally rewarding. All parties other than one, of course.
Aakar Patel is the author of Our Hindu Rashtra and Price of the Modi Years.
This article was first published on The Wire.
Featured illustration: Pariplab Chakraborty