After the Bandung Conference in 1955, responding to a question from Andre Malraux about his greatest problem since Independence, Nehru said: “Creating a just state by just mean… Perhaps, too, creating a secular state in a religious country. Especially when its religion is not founded on an inspired book.” We seem to be going in circles around the same endemic problems even today. The aftermath of the recent 2014 Lok Sabha election could well accentuate this to the point of breakdown.

The recent escalation of communal violence in this country has left religious minorities feeling threatened and insecure. An aggressive divisive politics will inevitably highjack the government’s proclaimed agenda of “sabka vikas, sabke saath”, development for all and with all. There is a contradiction between this agenda for a modern nation and an aggressive espousal of “Hindu Rashtra” by the Sangh Parivar.

Already the blowback is gaining momentum. The surprise results of the Delhi assembly elections, the increasing demonstration against the now stalled amendments to the Land Acquisition Act, the disruptions in Parliament over Hindudvawadi extremism and minority bashing, all point to the unease being generated by an open agenda that serves corporate business and oppresses the poor in the name of development, and a hidden agenda that targets minorities to polarise communities.

Gandhi’s least and last Indian as a talisman for a just state is forgotten and buried under a neoliberal capitalist agenda, his sarvadharma sambhava has been rubbished and overtaken by the promotion of a Hindu Rashtra. There is an intrinsic connection between a just society by just means and a secular state in a multicultural and pluri-religious country like India.

Growth without equity will further entrench the endemic inequalities in our society. A just society cannot ignore this. The drive to rapid economic development with compromised means can only be a cure worse than the disease. Privileging a majority religious tradition will marginalise the minorities to the point of alienation. Majoritarian communalism is inevitably mirrored in a minority version that eventually turns violent. A secular state is necessary to contain and reverse such escalating conflict.

Polarisation by politicians

Our founding fathers designed a democratic Constitution for a social transformation that would address gross inequalities with affirmative action and religious majoritarianism with minority rights. No country can be democratic unless all its citizens are equally valued. As Ambedkar said: one man one value. Neither can a religious state be democratic if one religious community is privileged over others.

The religious communalism in this country must be seen in this context. When socio-economic inequalities are not effectively addressed, then politicians use communal identities to polarise communities for electoral advantage. Communal tensions are kept simmering, ready for use on demand as and when required to escalate into overt conflict. For some political parties this is a programmatic agenda though always denied; for other parties it is more pragmatic but never admitted. This is political cynicism at its sanctimonious best! It is a disease that first targets the minorities and the vulnerable, but eventually poisons the whole body politic.

It is in this context the steep rise in incidents of communal violence in this country must be read. Each incident has its own contextual explanation and judicial commissions inquiring into them have gone on endlessly and ineffectively. Too often all this has been used to escape the real upstream causes underlying such violence with banalities and platitudes. However, when read in the larger context of issues involved, the pattern and purpose becomes clearer.

For long it has been mostly Muslims who have been targeted. As the largest minority they are more easily projected as a threat, and with their aggressive response this becomes a convenient self-fulling prophecy for the saffron brigade. Thus history is reinvented, Partition repeatedly recalled and re-enacted: Pakistan ya kabrastan (To Pakistan or to the graveyard). But the vast majority of Muslims are not jihadis, just as the vast majority of Hindus are not Hindutvawadis. So instead of building bridges with the positive majorities in both communities, some politicians on both sides indulge a vested interest in polarising the divide between communities in their quest for power. To stay relevant they must keep communal tensions going and nurse them ever so often with cynically planned violence. The worse losers in this are the poor and marginalised.

Freedom of religion?

The Christians represent such a small minority that the huge majority of Hindus can hardly feel credibly threatened by them. But as a community they do punch way above their weight.

Christian education is much sought after. Many of their hospitals and welfare centres cater to the poor and the marginalised in major cities and remote areas. These institutions are easy targets for planned or random violence. Trumped-up charges are made but not substantiated credibly, except perhaps with the soft saffron-tinged Hindutvawadis. The perpetrators of the violence are always disowned later by their patrons and instigators. This is par for the course in the cynical political game of targeting vulnerable minorities.

Christian social activists, inspired by liberation theology, conscientise people to affirm their human rights and oppose projects that undermine their community’s quality and way of life. This is perceived as obstructionists by vested interests and governments beholden to them obligingly target such activists.

The bogey of religious conversion and population growth of minorities is repeatedly raised as a threat. But demographic statistics do not support such fear mongering. In fact census figures show a marginal decline in the Christian population over recent decades. Ghar wapsi is an obviously politically motivated ploy and not free from “force, fraud or inducement” that the supposed “Freedom of Religion Acts” have put in place to contain Christian proselytisation.

Only when electoral returns from this spiralling violence are clearly negative will it begin to reverse. An active and alert citizenry must mobilise to conscientise voters to their own long-term interests and not be taken in by the illusory promises and patronage of partisan politicians.

Atmosphere of hate

With Partition in 1947, we had genocidal violence. Pakistan began as a religious state by politicising religion, and is now overtaken by religious violence, and on the brink of becoming a failed state, an epicentre for religious terrorism in South Asia and the world. The birth of Bangladesh saw a near repeat in 1971. It began as a secular state but has been compromised later by politicising religion. It still struggles to find its founding vision again. Sri Lanka, perhaps once the most peaceful country in South Asia, gradually began to privilege Sinhala Buddhists and eventually alienated Tamil Hindus. The civil war this precipitated was long gestating but it was almost as long ending. The wounded memories of that war are still to heal. Recently we had genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, continuing, horrendous violence in the Middle East, and shocking terrorism around the world. We still do not ever seem to learn from this to resolve: “never again”.

When the politics of identity based on religion and caste has displaced the politics of interests premised on class and ideology, the resulting politics of passion rapidly becomes a politics of hate, nurtured on a sense of self-righteous grievance and irrational insecurity. In an intense atmosphere of hate, a hopeless economic situation produces social failures and failed fortune seekers who readily displace their rage on easily identifiable victims. The despairing poverty of people allows their discontent and vulnerability to be exploited for such murderous purposes.

This politics of hate that thrives on constructing hostile collective identities, mobilising these into an ‘us versus them’ game of winner takes all. Targeting an enemy is an effective and efficient way to consolidate one’s own group and one’s leadership in it. This may seem a convenient and safe strategy. But eventually it precipitates a blowback, a reaction that mirrors the earlier action, finally spiralling out of control.

The general elections of 2004 and 2009 did contain this politics of hate, but they failed to develop a more positive integrative, participative politics in which all have a stake. Corruption and policy paralysis eventually de-legitimised the government. Even some of its positive achievements fell under a dark cloud. Now the last general election has let loose forces we may not be able to contain if we do not recapture our Constitutional vision of an inclusive and egalitarian society, of a participative and integrated politics for a democratic, secular, compassionate India, a model for a just society by just means, and for a secular state in a pluri-religious society.

We can only wonder in anxiety about India’s future? Which idea of India will prevail? A Hindu Rashtra of hierarchy and exclusion, or our Constitutional “sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic Republic”, where the aam aadmi, the common citizen, will find a place in the sun?