March 21, 2002


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Kuldip Nayar

After Gujarat, what?

Many years ago I met Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, a towering leader of our national struggle. Out of respect he was called the 'Frontier Gandhi'. He lived in a ramshackle cottage in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Pakistan would not accept him because of his participation in India's independence movement.

The communal orgy at Ahmedabad in 1969 was very much in his mind when I met him. Badshah Khan, another endearing title for him, asked me whether the victims at Ahmedabad were Muslims. I said: "Most of them." He fell silent. After a long pause, he said: "We had imagined that the Hindu-Muslim riots would end after the British left since it was their creation." Yet more poignant was this remark: "How could it happen in the land of Mahatma Gandhi?"

Strange as it may sound, the rioting between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat hurts the nation more than riots in any other state. It is well known that the place is the most dangerous powder keg of communalism, ready to explode any time. Still, Gujarat is associated with Gandhi in the minds of people -- the apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity, the greatest son of the soil.

Gujarat may be the worst case. But it is a symptom, not the disease. The disease is the distance between Hindus and Muslims, still yawning after 55 years of Partition. We have adopted the most secular Constitution in the world. But we have failed to cultivate a temperament required to implement even its letter, much less spirit. Muslims are generally suspect and they still carry the cross of Partition.

The Pakistanis do not realise the price that Indian Muslims continue to pay for what was an agreed formula on the division. The terrorism that Islamabad has been exporting to India for more than a decade has only heightened suspicion against local Muslims and created more problems. The reason why some in India have doggedly pursued good relations between the two countries is the co-relationship between anti-Muslim feeling and anti-Pakistan feeling.

Probably Gandhi could foresee this. He insisted on the payment of Rs 55 crore to Pakistan, its share that India had withheld during the first war on Kashmir. It was Gandhi who took up the cause of Muslims in the country. Despite Partition, he urged Hindus and Muslims -- his two eyes -- to forget their personal tragedies and quarrels and live like brothers. Belief in pluralism is the only way to keep different religions together, he said. Rioting would tear the fabric of common heritage that the people had shared for centuries.

He was right. But once he disappeared from the scene, his ideas began to fade. Parochial considerations began to raise their ugly heads.

What happened in Gujarat, in fact, was happening all over India after Partition. The fires of communalism were raging. The country looked like it was coming apart. The Hindu Mahasabha and its allies talked of a Hindu Rashtra even at that time. But people did not pay any heed to them. Gandhi was such a bright secular light that even the dark corners of communalism came to shine.

But what killed communalism was his assassination. There was an electric change in the atmosphere, from hate to understanding, from alienation to amity, and from communalism to pluralism. The fanatics were boycotted. The extremists were on the run. No party pandering to communal sentiments got any attention, electorally or otherwise. The Jana Sangh, the predecessor of the Bharatiya Janata Party, could not even reach double figures in the Lok Sabha.

For more than 40 years, Gandhi's martyrdom kept communal forces at bay. Secular forces did little to consolidate the ground. Everybody took faith in secularism for granted. For a long time, it was as much fashionable to talk in secular terms as it is now to talk Hindu chauvinism.

The Hindutva forces have a long-term agenda. They lay low, but went on penetrating every segment of activity and injecting the poison of communalism into them. When the Congress fell from grace through its acts of omission and commission, the Hindutva forces were able to exploit the opportunity. They began to occupy the place the Congress had vacated. Indira Gandhi's authoritarianism and Rajiv Gandhi's naivete gave the RSS Parivar a chance, which they grabbed with both hands.

Today we have a situation where the Centre is led by the BJP, which has pronounced Hindu credentials. Once the torchbearers of secularism, George Fernandes, Sharad Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan are its allies, eyes fixed on power, not on Gandhi's philosophy. The Congress is beginning to take a stand against communalism, but its past has been so dubious that people are reluctant to trust it again.

The situation is getting more tangled because some Muslim organisations have come to believe that they must unite the community to form an all-Muslim party. Such elements are playing into the hands of Hindu extremists who want to polarise the country. The Godhra train incident has done what the RSS could not have done for years.

There is no option but Gandhi's path of Hindu-Muslim unity. Secularism is the only alternative to keep the country democratic and united. The BJP, if it wants to be a party of tomorrow, has to cut its relations with the RSS, the advice that Jayaprakash Narayan, a Gandhian, gave the party when it was part of the Janata government. But the BJP continues to be politically dependent on the RSS.

It is a pity that the Centre has taken no action against Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders even when they have openly incited people to support their communal agenda. Increasingly, one feels that the BJP-led government does not have the will or firmness to fight obscurantism. Even on the communal flare-up in Gujarat, it has adopted a lackadaisical attitude. The party, internally divided, cannot do anything. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee looks a pathetic figure. He is willing to strike, but afraid to wound.

Secular forces have to assert themselves to save the country. Blinded by fundamentalism, the BJP is unable to see the writing on the wall. Muslim jihadis have destroyed Pakistan and put on the country's back the army which refuses to return to the barracks. The Hindutva jihadis are out to install in India a theocratic state. The BJP cannot even conceive what type of forces they will unleash. Its own leadership may be the first victim. But one thing is certain: India, a secular, democratic nation, will cease to exist. Playing the communal card for power is suicidal, but playing it for governance is a national disaster.

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Kuldip Nayar

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