Communal politics in India is primarily due to absence of land reforms; absence of process of secularisation and failure to reduce the hold of clergy, says Dr Ram Puniyani.
Dr Ram Puniyani has been one of the foremost voices against communalism and has been active in promoting communal amity and national integration through various engagements at the grassroots. A regular commentator on important socio-political issues, Dr Ram Puniyani has written as well as edited many books on communalism and for secular polity in India.
Ram Puniyani (born 25 August 1945) is a former professor of biomedical engineering and former senior medical officer affiliated with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay. He began his medical career in 1973 and served IIT in various capacities for 27 years, beginning 1977. In December 2004, he took voluntary retirement to work full-time for communal harmony in India. He is involved with human rights activities, communal harmony and initiatives to oppose the rising tide of fundamentalism in India. He is associated with the organisations All-India Secular Forum, Center for Study of Society and Secularism and ANHAD. In 2006, he was awarded the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration.
In this detailed conversation with activist-writer Vidya Bhushan Rawat he explains several issues confronting the nation.
VB: India is passing through one of the toughest periods since independence. You have seen the emergency time, too. What difference do you find between today and during Emergency in 1975?
RP: The Emergency period and today’s political scenario cannot be compared. The Emergency was an authoritarian imposition of dictatorial norms by a small coterie around Indira Gandhi through the existing mechanisms of state. There was a censorship on the press. Snajay Gandhi’s over enthusiastic family planning drive led to the Turkman Gate incident. The state was operating arbitrarily through its own will.
Today’s situation is like a semi fascist rule. Power is exercised by a political party through its different allied organisations. While BJP is in power, the dictates of RSS are at the core of the situation. The whole RSS combine (the allied organisations of RSS like VHP, ABVP, Bajrang Dal, to name the few) is on the run, and repression is applied through these organisations. These organisations have created a base in society. This section of people stands with the state in repressing the minorities and the poorer sections of society. Cow vigilantes and Hindu Yuva Vahini are an example of that. The hate-other ideology, which has been spread through RSS shakhas is now part of social common sense, and this forms the basis of hatred and violence in the society. Emotive issues are dominating the social space and an atmosphere of intolerance is the order of the day.
VB: What are the reasons of the growth of Hindu communal politics in India? Definitely, it would not have been possible without the liberal upper caste Hindu interests of the Sangh variety inside the Congress Party and their failure in tackling communal politics in India.
RP: Communal politics in India is primarily due to absence of land reforms; absence of process of secularisation, failure to reduce the hold of clergy, which are missing in Indian society. While Muslim communal elements were primarily in Muslim League, the Hindu communal elements were spread in Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and Congress as well. The influence of these elements within Congress party was marginal till Nehru was there. These communal elements in the party did keep communalism alive within Congress as well. After Nehru’s death they started getting a greater hold and their influence led to opportunist communal politics of Congress coming to the fore. Nehru did warn that communal elements were there within the party as well, but they could not be rooted out.
VB: You have recently mentioned that Nehru’s letters to the chief ministers must be published for wider dissemination to understand how he used to interact with his chief ministers. In fact, his letter to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Govind Ballabh Pant with regard to Ayodhya issue is an eye opener. There may be other similar letters. At the time when Nehru is being blamed for every evil that we have, how important will these letters be?
RP: Nehru was a thorough democrat. At the same time he was trying to put the roots of secularism in a society gripped by religiosity. In order to keep the state chief ministers in the loop for secular democratic values and things related to education, industrialisation etc., he was writing regularly to them. The letter he wrote to Govind Vallabh Pant was for removing the Ram lalla idols which were forcibly installed in the Babri Mashid in 1949. Similarly, on all crucial issues, he was corresponding with the CMs. These letters contain the wisdom of state craft along with the values of a liberal, democratic state.
VB: BJP tried to co-opt every icon. They started with Sardar Patel, then came to Subhash Chandra Bose, and now to Ambedkar. In between they have used Gandhi, Vivekananda as well as Bhagat Singh. At the moment, the focus seems to be totally on Dr Ambedkar. Some people wrote that RSS does not have its own icon and hence it needs to appropriate someone else’s. All of these icons might have differences with Nehru as well as Gandhi, but all of them stood for the idea of an inclusive, secular, socialist India. Why do you think Nehru has become so important for the Sangh Parivar and the current dispensation that they want to discredit him using the differences that he might have with contemporary leaders, which was only natural?
RP: There are multiple reasons for co-opting these icons of freedom movement, those who contributed to the process of India as a nation in the making. RSS kept aloof from freedom movement, due to its agenda of Hindu nation (in contrast to the Indian nation agenda of these icons). It discouraged its volunteers from participating in the freedom movement. The attempt to co-opt Ambedkar is for electoral purposes, to win over sections of Dalits, in particular.
Nehru apart from being a popular mass leader standing for secular values, was also a person who had a vision of a modern India with industrialization and modern education. He was the anti- thesis of what RSS wants to bring in. Nehru’s domestic policies for a democratic state are anathema to RSS. Nehru’s policy of global peace, peace with neighbors and alliance with neighbors is opposed to the expansionist ideology of RSS. Nehru’s impact on the masses has been too strong and respected all around. To establish the hegemonic Hindu nation, they need to undermine what Nehru stood for.
VB: Why has Congress party become so weak that it is unable to respond the current political crisis? It has the legacy of political leaders, and yet it failed to challenge the distorted narratives that were being built around its top leaders.
RP: Congress was a movement in pre-Independence period. The national movement was educating the masses through the anti colonial movement. After Independence Congress became the party in power and later party for power. The elements of mass education for a democratic society was totally missing in its programs, while it was best suited to counter the narratives being developed in RSS shakhas and later through RSS led campaigns like Ram Temple and Holy cow. The writing of its leaders like Gandhi and Nehru has dealt with some of the issues which are dominating social scene. Like Gandhi’s writing of Indian History, his understanding of Cow as mother are totally opposed to what RSS is exploiting for its political goals. The main strength of Congress came from the downtrodden sections of society; it failed to speak for them effectively, paid mere lip service to the issues of dalits and religious minorities for example. Similarly in case of these icons, Congress has all the material from its history to keep them away from the grip of RSS, but somehow the will power for this is missing. Most of the top Congress leaders are office holders and none of the tall leader is devoted for promoting and protecting the legacy of freedom movement.
VB: While it is easier to blame to Rahul Gandhi for so-called inexperience or whatever fault line but the fact is that he has a legacy and the carrying the burden of it is too difficult at the moment when things are against the family but what are the reasons of dismal state of affairs in the left parties. Is it because they become the biggest bastion of upper caste politics and failed to carry the SC-ST-OBC-Minorities along with it?
RP: Rajiv Gandhi’s mistakes cost the nation very heavily. In addition the left parties failed to grasp the issue of caste in Indian society. They failed to intervene against the rising tide of communal politics. The RSS agenda has twin tracks. On one hand it targets minorities and on the other the dalit-ObC. On both these counts left failed to come up to take the challenge thrown by the Hindutva politics. Rahul Gandhi has been targeted by Hindutva leaders, though his intentions seem to be serious, the backup from the supporters is lacking in intensity. Things have by now become too complex to achieve the goals of dalit-Bahujan upliftment without alliances, which are not easy to forge. Left parties have not addressed the caste-minorities issue in any seriousness. Their pivot of understanding is mainly around class analysis of society.
VB: Uttar Pradesh results have not just disappointed many but it has also given strong sense of approval to the ruling party on the issues such as Demonetization and the communal rhetoric. What in your opinion has failed the non BJP opposition in Uttar Pradesh particularly SP-BSP who were the main players there.
RP: UP strategy of BJP was strongly communal. Most of the issues were presented in the communal angle. Even demonetization was sold as a move to curb Muslims’ clout, as Muslims generally are part of cash economy. In addition most of the issues were presented as if BSP, SP and Congress are appeasing Muslims, while BJP is the only party for Hindus. This line led to consolidation of non Yadav Hindus and non chamar SCs around BJP. The failure of SP-BSP in coming together helped the BJP plan very well. The national line taken by RSS-BJP that demonetization will harm the rich and help the poor in long term also helped the matters for BJP.
VB: Attempt is being made to convert India into a US module of Presidential form of democracy which is thoroughly dominated by corporate funding. The tragedy in the United States is that despite the country of such a huge size and variety the corporate democracy has only allowed the two party systems. The power elite in India want the same thing. How dangerous is it to attempt India into and a model.
RP: RSS seems to have realized that it may not be possible to replace Indian Constitution. They have been arguing for Presidential system from last quite some time. The main point is that RSS wants to do away with the diversity of the country, also Corporate World, which has a strong alliance with BJP also is more comfortable with the Presidential system.. With that system the voice of the marginalized will not have much place in influencing the policies of the country. The concerns of deprived, marginalized will have no place in the political-economic policies]
VB: In the past three years the Hindutva forces are fixing their agenda on the country. They are raising such issues which are difficult to counter by the political parties for the fear of losing the ‘Hindu’ votes. Whether it is ‘terrorism’, beef, cow or nationalism debate, it is aimed at occupying the sole moral high ground for being the ‘sole’ authority on the issue on behalf of India. Everyone else except them and their allies therefore becomes villain. How can such agendas are countered politically.
RP: The identity based politics; the emotive issues are difficult to combat on the grounds of reason. A concerted campaign where all non communal political and social forces come together to struggle for real issues of society is the only way out. During UPA I and II, the major issues being discussed on regular basis were related to issues of basic rights as Indian citizens, the rights to employment, food, health, education, information and what have you. The social discourse has been shifted away from real issues to emotive issues. The only way is a concerted attempt by all those standing for secular democracy to come together and strengthen the social movements and political campaigns for these issues, issues related to survival and dignity.]
VB: After the Uttar Pradesh government’s order of closing slaughter houses the meat business in the state has come to virtual standstill. The industry has huge number of non Muslims too. There is a dark side of the story too. That India’s ‘pink revolution’ which Prime Minister Modi talked during his electoral campaign in 2014 grew further during his tenure. Now, he seems to have forgotten that. Shouldn’t the government release a white paper on beef Industry and who is the owner of it and how much revenue it is bringing to India?
RP: The idea of white paper on the issue of Cow slaughter, beef trade, cattle fares, the importance of Cow /buffalo in agrarian economy is a good one. There is immense lack of information, gaps in popular knowledge about these issues. The knowledge of these will ensure that people don’t then blindly support or ignore the Cow vigilantes. But the point is why this government should do this. Such a move will harm their political agenda. Probably a Peoples’ white Paper on the issues may be a more realistic idea.
VB: What do you think the idea behind ‘ anti Romeo Squad’ by the Uttar Pradesh government? Government failed to protect individuals against the Khap dictates and yet it encouraged people to adopt anti constitutional provisions in denying youths to enjoy right to choice. Why, in your opinion, the Uttar Pradesh government adopted such tactics.
RP: There are multiple goals behind this move. First it generally such squads promote vigilantism, which the ruling party can use in its own favor. Secondly it is a sort of continuation of their Love Jihad campaign to demonize Muslim youth in particular. And thirdly as you correctly say it is an assault on the freedom of Right to choose.’ It also strengthens the patriarchal values of controlling the lives of girls. Demonetization failed but government wants to use the election results as an approval to it. What is your opinion it. Has the opposition failed in to raise this issue?
Demonetization is the case of learning how you can sell a bad idea in a successful way. One kept hoping that this move will boomerang on the Government. Their word of mouth propaganda mechanism is so strong and well lubricated that they could spread that this is a small sacrifice for the sake of the nation that the rich will suffer etc. Still there are large numbers of people who have suffered. The opposition did try to raise it but their efforts were too small compared to the propaganda might of BJP-RSS combine.
VB: The recent incidents at Sukma and then in Kashmir are being used as a tool against the human rights defenders. The government is promoting the idea that all those who speak against human rights violations are anti national. What is your view on the same?
RP: This Government is very uncomfortable with the human rights defenders and those leading the movements for the rights of deprived and vulnerable sections of society. Right at the start they muzzled the funding of NGOs. They also want to assume hard muscular policies which are worsening the situation in these areas. It is their well programmed work due to which anybody disagreeing with them is labeled anti National. This also shows their faith in democratic dissidence is skin-deep; essentially they are having intolerant ideology of Hindu nationalism.
VB: How do you respond to government initiative to deny JNU to provide opportunity to students in the PhD and M.Phil courses? Is not it a step against the Dalit backward students? How do they respond to it?
RP: JNU has been special target for this Government as JNU is the bastion of liberal progressive voices where dissent is handled in a democratic way. These ethos have strong roots in the principles of Indian nationalism. In JNU again apart from other aspects, the percentage of women, dalits, OBCs as students has been very good. This move of Government in reducing the seats for research has twin objects. On one hand they want to stifle the progressive nature of JNU, and on the other to reduce the opportunities for the marginalized sections. The movements which began from JNU and HCU need to take note of this and create a larger protest/campaign on this issue.
VB: The issue of nationalism has put the other parties including Congress into a very defensive mode despite the facts the track record of the Hindu right wing is well known to us. Why are the parties on defensive and not able to carry the historic legacy of our freedom fighters who talked about an inclusive India?
RP: India Nationalism has been the foundation of Congress in particular. This party has not much focused on the intellectual front to educate the people. The all round rise of Hindu nationalist ideology, from bottom to top, has lead to a situation where other parties seem to have been taken aback and they don’t seem to be prepared to counter it ideologically. There are hoards of material which can come handy for these parties to counter the sectarian nationalist surge. The issue is that of ideological and political preparedness, which seems to be missing.]
VB: In the normal Hindu discourse, Muslims are brutal and too conservative. How do you counter this particularly when Europe and America too suffer from Islamophobic tendencies?
RP: This discourse is a construct, which has come up in two major ways. One, the British introduced communal historiography was picked up by Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. RSS shakhas started propagating it in a systematic way. Later other mechanisms were added to spread this propaganda far and wide. This is based on selective incidents. The large presentation of interaction of social life of Hindus and Muslims is missing in this discourse. The narrative of alliances of Muslim and Hindu kings has been erased in this version. What remain dominant in this, is, the aggressive ‘foreign’ Muslims versus noble native Hindus. With Ram Temple movement, this discourse found a strong vehicle for its propagation.
The second component of this comes from the imperialist lust for oil resources. The promotion of Al Qaeda in some Madrassa in Pakistan, funded hugely by US created the monster of terrorism. To cap this retrograde step, the coining of phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ by US media added further venom to this issue. In last couple of decades the migration of Muslims from ex colonies of European colonial powers, and then the migration from war torn countries have been worsening the situation. Islam as a religion has strong ethical component, while the present propaganda is based on some social practices and some versions of Islam which oppressive rulers have encouraged, like the Salafi version by Saudi Arabia. The consequent events, which are the product of this cancer of terrorism, have been adding on to the negative image of Islam and Muslims.
These two major components of demonization of Islam and Muslims have been topped up by issues like triple talaq, polygamy and higher (poverty related) fertility among Muslims]
VB: The powerful Hindu upper caste and powerful backward communities seems to join hand against Dalits and Muslims. The Hindutva is using the dominant communities in each region. How can the Dalits, Muslims, OBCs and adivasis get along against this onslaught?
RP: Hindutva politics has used all means to ally with the upper castes and to co-opt other castes. The social engineering put into operation by RSS has confused the communities and has also shown them carrots. Some of the opportunist leaders from the dalit, Adivasis have been given lucrative positions to woo them to Hindutva politics. It is a dangerous situation, where Hinutva is emerging as the central, dominant force.
Last three decades have also seen a decline in the social movements at all the levels. The social alliances to protect the interests of Dalits-Muslim are long overdue. This needs to be supplemented by political alliances at electoral level which can overthrow the march of Hindutva politics.
VB: The secular political discourse failed to take caste issues into account and therefore Dalits, OBCs, and adivasis were out of its agenda. Now many of them are realizing it but the gap in the narrative and discourse is quite big. How can we strengthen secular alliance if there is no participation of Dalits, OBCs and other marginalized sections in it?
RP: There is an urgent need to reach out to these sections of society. The impact of globalization on their lives has been tremendous. In this worsening scenario, there is a need for taking up their real issues in a substantive way and to connect them up. We need to learn from the new movements which have come on the social scene. The one’s like that of Una has been very innovative in using the strength of dalits for their agitation, at the same time it went on for the demands like land for dalits. It is movements like these which should be the fulcrum for future campaigns and agitations.
VB: The secular parties or alliances have failed to take the student unrest along with them. The incidents at JNU, then Hyderabad University and other universities failed to attract attention of secular organizations. Why?
RP: The student’s wings of many of these organizations have been dormant for quite some time. These parties need to realize that it is movements like this which hold the hope for future. There have been some marginal attempts to relate with these promising movements and other movements built around the needs of students and their future aspirations have been there, but they have remained notional only.
VB: The government has been targeting civil society organizations. It is targeting students. It is targeting trade unions and all those who speak against the dominant Hindutva practices. Despite all this, we still have not been able to forge a common alliance against Hindutva. What may be the reason and how can we come together. Do you think anti congressism is now a thing of past and we need to look beyond it and forget new alliances based on Common Minimum Programmes.
RP: I totally agree. Anti Congressism has been playing a very negative role during last many decades. Also there have been special efforts to defame Congress on purpose. The whole Anna-Ramdev-Kejrival movement was primarily brought up to defame Congress as that can be the real kernel around which secular movement can crystallize. With consequent defeats like that in UP, many parties will realize the need for all democrats to hang together. The failure is subjective and well as rooted in material conditions.