The Bharatiya Janata Party, the political wing of a Hindu supremacist organisation that is committed to turning India into a Hindu Rashtra, seems to have discovered to its glee that even secular means can be useful in the pursuit of a communal end. The latest example of this is the scrapping of the Haj subsidy. What is more, this helps the myth promoted by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh that political parties calling themselves secular are in fact “pseudo-secular” and that the lotus, the BJP’s election symbol, is the sole representative of true secularism in India. What could be better from the perspective of the brotherhood in saffron?

When asked for the government’s view on a petition filed by Muslim victims of triple talaq – instant, unilateral divorce that is pronounced only by men – the Narendra Modi government had no hesitation in telling the Supreme Court that the practices of triple talaq, nikah halala (the stipulation that a divorced Muslim woman cannot remarry her former husband until she marries and divorces another man after having sex with him), and polygamy among Indian Muslims must be struck down as unconstitutional. Which thinking person would disagree that such practices discriminate against women and must therefore be banished? On August 22, the Supreme Court “set aside” the practice of triple talaq, while two of the five judges on the Constitution bench prompted that a new law be passed by Parliament on the issue. Advantage, BJP and its parivar.

In the Winter Session of Parliament, which began on December 15, the Modi government passed the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, in the Lok Sabha. While declaring triple talaq as “void” and “illegal”, the Bill criminalises the practice. It proposes a three-year jail term for men who violate the law. This is not the place to delve into the Bill’s serious flaws, including its implicit communal intent. But one must remember that none of the major self-proclaimed secular parties dared to vote against the Bill in the Lok Sabha lest their commitment to secularism be scrutinised.The Bill was held up in the Rajya Sabha but only because the government refused to accede to the proposed amendments. No one questioned the Modi government’s intent. Advantage, the BJP and its parivar.

Then there is the new policy of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government regarding women travelling to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on Haj. This is a pilgrimage that all Muslims are enjoined to go on at least once in their lifetimes. In his Mann Ki Baat radio address last month, Prime Minister Modi said that his government would allow groups of Muslim women above the age of 45 to travel on Haj unescorted by mahram – male relatives they are prohibited from marrying under Islamic law. In this case too, the BJP emerged again, smelling of roses. The Union Minister for Minority Affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, has seized every opportunity to let the world know that this was something the Congress could well have done but chose not to. Once again, advantage, BJP and its parivar.

The scrapping of Haj subsidies is the latest move in the BJP’s ostensible pursuit of secular politics. “This is part of our policy to empower minorities with dignity and without appeasement,” Naqvi has told the media. Nothing demonstrates the cynicism with which the BJP clothes its communal politics in a secular garb more than the bogey of “appeasement of minorities”.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj speaks with pilgrims in New Delhi on June 16, 2015, ahead of flagging them off on their journey to Mount Kailash in Tibet. (Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP).

Sangh Parivar propaganda

Since the 1980s, the propaganda machinery of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar has successfully used the appeasement canard to demonise Indian Muslims. Throughout this period, the Haj subsidy for Muslims figured prominently in the long list of alleged appeasements. It sounds like a legitimate grievance on the face of it. After all, what business is it of a secular state to subsidise religious activity? This secular principle, however, has never been the basis for the Sangh Parivar’s angst. The BJP, RSS and the rest of the saffron brotherhood has never had any issue with the government subsidising Hindu religious yatras.

According to official statistics, since the Supreme Court’s 2012 order to end Haj subsidies over a 10-year period, the total subsidy from the Union government has been scaled down year after year, from Rs836 crores in 2012-’13 to Rs408 crores in 2016-’17. But besides the Haj subsidy, the Union government also provides a subsidy to Hindu pilgrims for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. It organises the yatra to Tibet, spending money on facilities for pilgrims and on their security.

State governments also chip in with this and other yatras. For instance, the previous Samajwadi Party government in Uttar Pradesh used to give a subsidy of Rs 50,000 per pilgrim for the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. The Adityanath government doubled this amount shortly after it took over last year. Nearly a dozen state governments also provide subsidies or fully paid pilgrimages to the Char Dham Yatra – which entails going on a circuit of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri in Uttarakhand – as well as the Sindhu Darshan Yatra in Ladakh. Yet, the BJP and Sangh Parivar have never questioned such widespread appeasement of Hindus in secular India.

The matter of gender justice

What is true with regard to a secular state’s subsidy for religious pilgrimages is equally true about the issue of gender justice. The same Modi government and the BJP who swear by their “Muslim sisters” appear to be least concerned over the plight of deserted Hindu wives who far outnumber the victims of triple talaq. Nor has the Modi government said a word about the repeated demand of the Congress party to reintroduce the lapsed Women’s Reservation Bill, 2008. Given the Congress’s support, the Bill is certain to sail through both houses of Parliament.

If Hindutva’s selective secularism is suspect, the Haj subsidy issue also highlights the tactical myopia of the self-proclaimed secular parties as well as that of the Muslim religio-political leadership. If state subsidies to religious observances of all faiths is a given in the Indian version of secularism, what has prevented governments run by secular parties from running sustained advertisement campaigns to highlight the fact that Hindus are being appeased no less than Muslims?

It is interesting to note that both religious leaders and political leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi have welcomed the scrapping of the Haj subsidy. This is not surprising for various reasons. One, this subsidy was never a demand of Muslims. Two, Haj is an obligation only for Muslims with means, and, three, the subsidy benefited national carrier Air India, not the pilgrims.

Considering that Muslims across the board in India were so clear on this, what prevented them from foiling the Sangh Parivar’s three-decade long anti-Muslim propaganda by proactively launching a nationwide movement to demand the scrapping of the Haj subsidy? Imagine what that might have done to the perception about Muslims in India.

Javed Anand is Convener, Indian Muslims for Secular Democracy and co-editor, Sabrang India.