India’s major national political parties are invariably viewed through a binary lens of secular versus communal. In the 2014 general elections, multiple appeals were issued, including by film stars, to “vote for the secular party”. For the other side too, secularism remained a point of reference, as they went about coining terms like pseudo-secular or “sickular”. But this binary betrays ignorance of both the Congress and secularism.

Leaders of the Congress party wear their secular mantle prominently. They can be heard invoking a “secular commitment” or reaching out to “like-minded secular parties”. But how does this identification with secularism sit with Congress members being implicated in inter-religious violence periodically?

Prominent figures such as Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar and H K L Bhagat are identified with the violence of 1984. Party workers, municipal corporators and other leaders across religious lines figure in reports on the Bombay riots of 1992-'93, the Gujarat violence of 2002 and the Muzaffarnagar violence of 2013. In November, a Congress leader participated in the Mahapanchayat in Bawana town of Haryana that was held with the express purpose of browbeating Muslims into ghettoising their observance of Muharram to a Muslim-dominated locality.

Coexisting ideologies

It would be easy to compartmentalise the communal Congressman or woman as an aberration, leaving the party’s generally secular tag intact. However, in its colonial as well as contemporary avatar, the Congress has been a big tent, accommodating a range of opinion and ideologies.

In this tent, the secular exhortations of Congress leaders have coexisted comfortably with the “Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan” sloganeering of Purushottam Das Tandon in Uttar Pradesh in the 1930s and 1940s, and indeed the “soft Hindutva” electoral strategy of Shankarsinh Vaghela in Gujarat in the 2000s.

But the real issue is not even of this coexistence. It is of the hydra-like nature of secularism. For decades, the Congress and so-called like-minded parties have been in the predicament of embracing a foundational idea of India that is actually very difficult to grasp.

The problem is visible in the debates of the Constituent Assembly (1946-'49), which was convened to draft our Constitution. Assembly members variously discussed “a religiously minded country in which a secular state was not pledged to ignore or eradicate religion” (Morarji Desai), “nationalism not religion being the basis of modern life” (S Radhakrishnan), and “the Hindu community acting as elder brother to the religious minorities” (Naziruddin Ahmad).

Protector of Hindu dharma

In practice, Congress administrations have grappled with needing to appear secular, while also wearing the tag of special protector of one religious community or the other. In the 1980s, an ascendant religious nationalist opposition exposed the weakness of the Congress’s secularism, both at the Centre and in the states. In 1986-87, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously capitulated to conservative and patriarchal elements by legislatively overturning a Supreme Court judgement that favoured Shah Bano’s appeal for alimony from her ex-husband. Congress chief ministers were making similar concessions in the states.

In Gujarat, Chief Minister Amarsinh Chaudhary was fire-fighting multiple communal incidents generated by a spate of yatras linked to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. He was also underlining his secular credentials, while making exaggerated overtures to religious groups. In a letter to Muslim Taziya committees in 1986, Chaudhary declared:
Sarvadharma Sambhav (treating all religions equally) has always been the policy of the government. The state has always been dharmanirpeksha (independent of religion). This is because lokshahi (democracy, literally, the rule of the people)… and binsampradayikta (secularism) are the principles on which this government and the nation depend.

Meanwhile, revealing the true extent of the government’s rootedness in religion, the Gujarat Home Department instituted a case of blasphemy against three individuals on behalf of a Hindu sect in 1988. These men had presented a paper on Sectarian Literature and Social Consciousness in an academic journal, and the sect featured in the paper took umbrage.

Instead of turning to lawyers and possibly a defamation suit for redress, the sect’s leaders approached the government. The government obliged by turning to a rare legal provision: Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code. This Section threatens imprisonment of up to two years for “outraging religious feelings” or insulting any religion. In trampling on academic freedom and the freedom of expression, Chaudhary’s government earned the title of Hindu dharmarakshak (protector of Hindu dharma) from the satisfied swamis.

Even-handed approach

Despite secularism’s many meanings, we could agree that Indian public life is not to be guided by religious doctrines or institutions. Our secular ideal must be informed by a conceptualisation of the state benignly disposed towards, but even-handed in its dealings with all religions.

As for our “secular” parties, it is hardly enough to take secularity for granted. India’s torchbearers of secularism must make a concerted effort towards normative clarity, and then put this into practice. The implementation would involve bringing “secular” rioters, mahapanchayat instigators and such like to book. Surely, India needs this today, more than ever before.