Idea of Hindu Rashtra threatens our secular democracy

Seventy years after independence the country is witnessing a three-pronged attack on the idea of India. The next two years will determine the direction it takes

Photo by Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Shankar Mourya/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Sitaram Yechury

Independent India will be seventy years old this year, and it, indeed, is standing at crossroads. The next two years will determine whether it proceeds its journey on the road of consolidating the foundational pillars of the Republic as enshrined in our Constitution or proceeds on the road of its negation that could very well lead to imposing critical strains on the unity and integrity of the Indian Union.

The four foundational pillars upon which the Indian Constitution rests are: secular democracy; federalism, social justice and economic self-reliance. Each one of these has come under severe strain since the 2014 general elections and the ushering in of the present BJP-led NDA government. We focus here on the threats to our secular democracy.

Secularism and democracy expresses themselves in an integral and inseparable unity under Indian conditions. This is only natural given the huge diversities that have come together under the unified Indian State structure. This unity can be maintained only by granting equality of recognition, dignity and opportunity to all elements of this diversity. This unity can be consolidated only by strengthening the bonds of commonality that run through this diversity. This process necessarily requires itself to be wedded to both the secular principles governing Indian State policy and society and to democracy based on a universal suffrage.

Three visions of India

The consolidation of this very process has come under severe strain today. In fact, the current challenges being faced by India, both in form and content, are, in a sense, the continuation of a battle between three visions of the character of independent India that emerged in the decade of 1920s during the course of our epic freedom struggle.

The mainstream Congress vision had articulated that independent India should be a secular democratic Republic. The Left, while agreeing with this objective went further to envision that the political freedom of the country must be extended to achieve the economic freedom of every individual, possible only under socialism.

Antagonistic to both these was the third vision which argued that the character of independent India should be defined by the religious affiliations of its people. This vision had a twin expression. The Muslim League championing an Islamic State and the RSS championing a `Hindu Rashtra’. The former succeeded, admirably aided and abetted by British colonial power, in the unfortunate partition of the country with all its consequences that continue to fester tensions till date.

The latter having failed to achieve their objective at the time of independence continues with its efforts to transform modern India into their conception of a `Hindu Rashtra’. In a sense the ideological battles and the political conflicts in contemporary India are a continuation of the battle between these three visions.

India, a Hindu Rashtra?

Following partition, the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi was a reflection of the frustration of the proponents of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ at their failure in not succeeding in achieving their objective. Many had wrongly thought that following the banning of the RSS by India’s first Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister, Sardar Patel, in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination and forcing the RSS to stay away from playing a political role, which eventually led it to declare itself as a ‘cultural organisation’, the danger of converting the modern secular democratic Republic of India into the RSS version of a rabidly intolerant ‘Hindu Rashtra’ had been defeated.

Following the withdrawal of its ban, achieved through many a deceitful promise made by the RSS to the then government of India headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the RSS was in search of a political arm to continue with its political mission of ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

In 1951, when Syama Prasad Mukherjee resigned from the Nehru Cabinet, he was in search of setting up of a political party. The RSS had then sent certain pracharaks to assist him to start the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, according to ‘Basu, Tapan; Datta, Pradip; Sarkar, Sumit; Sarkar, Tanika; Sen, Sambuddha, Khaki Shorts: Saffron Flags.’ Among them were Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and SS Bhandari. Thus was born the Bharatiya Jana Sangh as the political arm of the RSS.

Following the merger of Jana Sangh into the Janata Party in 1977 and the fall of the Janata Party government in 1979, the Jana Sangh component of the Janata Party came together to form the Bharatiya Janata Party as the new incarnation of the political arm of the RSS.

The vision of the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ was chillingly articulated by one of the chiefs of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh way back in 1939 in ‘We or Our Nationhood Defined’.

“In Hindusthan exists and must needs exist the ancient Hindu nation and nought else but the Hindu Nation. All those not belonging to the national i.e. Hindu Race, Religion, Culture and Language naturally fall out of the pale of real ‘National’ life. … Consequently only those movements are truly ‘National’ as aim at re-building, re-vitalising and emancipating from its present stupor, the Hindu Nation. Those only are nationalist patriots, who, with the aspiration to glorify the Hindu race and nation next to their heart, are prompted into activity and strive to achieve that goal. All others are either traitors and enemies to the national cause, or, to take a charitable view, idiots”.

With the formation of the current BJP government, under the stewardship of Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a systematic attack has been mounted on everyone of the foundational pillars of our Constitution. This is accompanied by a continuous process of sharpening communal polarisation in order to achieve the RSS objective. The murderous attacks of the private armies of ‘Gau Rakshaks’ and ‘moral policing’ squads are reflection of such efforts.

Needed a semi-proportional system

While we legitimately pride ourselves as a country that embarked on the path of democracy, granting universal suffrage without discriminating among any one of its adult citizens, the ‘first-past-the-post’ system has deprived the Indian people of democracy usually understood as the rule of the majority. Since independence, there has been no Central government that commanded the mandate of more than 50 per cent of the people who voted. Leave alone commanding the support of more than 50 per cent of the entire electorate, the current BJP-led government is in office with the BJP having just a 31 per cent share of those who voted.

We need to correct this weakness on our road ahead. This can be done by introducing a semi proportional representation system. For instance, the 542 Lok Sabha constituencies can be reduced to 271 by clubbing two constituencies together. In each of these new constituencies, each voter shall have two votes, one for a specific individual candidate and the other for a party which he/she chooses on the basis of its programme, policies and promises. Each of these parties submits to the Election Commission a priority list of whom they want to send to the Parliament. Depending on the percentage of votes the parties receive all over the country the proportionate number of MPs from the lists submitted earlier would be elected to the Parliament.

This would ensure both the majoritarian character of the government while, at the same time, protecting the needs of India’s immense diversity to have people of their community/region/language etc to be represented in the Parliament.

Funding political parties

Further, the health of the democracy can be improved only if we are able to cleanse the electoral system from the menace of the alarming rise of money power. To achieve this, we will begin by banning corporate funding of political parties; imposing a ceiling on political parties electoral expenses which, today, is unlimited; and introducing a form of State funding of elections.

The corporate bodies must be made to contribute to Indian democracy but these sums must be maintained and managed by the Election Commission, or, any other governmental agency.

Instead of moving towards this direction, the Modi government has chosen to move on the opposite role. It has now revoked all previous restrictions on the grounds that corporate could give to political parties; it has made corporate funding completely non-transparent by introducing electoral bonds and, thus, is only legitimising political corruption. These are retrograde measures which distort our democracy further.

Under our Constitutional scheme of things, the sovereignty of India rests with its people. Constitution, hence, begins with the words: “We the people ...adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution”. The people exercise this sovereignty through their elected representatives whom they choose in every election. The governments are answerable to the legislature. The legislators, in turn, are answerable to the people. This is how the system must work.

But this system collapses if the vital link between the government and the people, i.e., the legislature, does not function effectively. The government escapes from being accountable and answerable and the people are denied their power to exercise their sovereignty by making the legislators and the government accountable.

This is precisely what is happening under the current government. The brazen manner in which they are grossly misusing the Constitutional power given to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha to decide on any legislation being a “money bill” deprives the Upper House, i.e., Rajya Sabha, the right to debate and vote on such bills. The BJP today enjoys a majority in the Lok Sabha and has reduced that House as an expression of tyranny of the majority. The BJP today is in a minority in the Rajya Sabha, hence, denies Rajya Sabha its legitimate right and duty to question government’s legislations when it resorts to the route of the “money bill”.

Secular democracy in India has never come under such a severe strain. Only the fighting unity of Indian patriots can overcome this challenge and take India forward in the correct direction at this crossroads.

The author is the General Secretary of the CPI(M) and a member of the Rajya Sabha

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