Constitution becomes battleground in war for India’s soul
NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN Desk) – ‘Secularism is biggest lie since independence,’ says firebrand Hindu leader
What’s been called the battle for India’s soul flared again this week when a leading Hindu-supremacist firebrand blasted the country’s secular constitution.
“Secularism is the biggest lie since Independence,” declared Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and a member of the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “No system can be secular. A political system can be sect-neutral,” he added.
The constitution declares India a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic, assuring its citizens of justice, equality and liberty.
Adityanath’s attack brought a swift response from the opposition Congress Party.
“Yogi Adityanath says secularism is a lie and compares Modi’s government to Ram Rajya [the god Ram’s reign],” said Congress leader Kapil Sibal. “This truth is perhaps the biggest lie.”
The exchange marked the latest shots fired in a political and cultural battle that has waged since the BJP government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ousted the secularist Congress Party in May 2014.
Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organisation, and has shown little regard for India’s secular roots.
“Modi has done nothing to stifle a growing culture of intolerance in India, not just towards Muslims, but towards all critics of the prickly nationalism that the BJP espouses,” writes the Economist.
“This vision of Indian history is one of victimhood,” historian Ramachandra Guha told the Guardian. “That Hindus were first persecuted by the Muslims, then the British, and they can only recover when they repudiate all that is Muslim and British in their past.”
Observers say the prime minister had been coy about his Hindu-nationalist agenda up until this year. That changed in March with the selection of the fiery Adityanath to govern Uttar Pradesh.
The chief priest of one of the state’s largest temples, Adityanath has regularly stirred controversy with incendiary rhetoric targeting Indian minorities, particularly Muslims, who make up one-fifth of Uttar Pradesh’s 220 million residents.
In one speech he vowed: “If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return ... If they [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”
The BJP and Adityanath’s Hindu supremacism has deep roots dating back to the birth of the Indian republic. Hindu nationalists such as Vinayak Savarkar (1883-1966) rejected the pluralist makeup of India in favour of a claimed “Hindutva”, or Hindu-ness, that persisted no matter what faith an Indian practised.
Jawarharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, opted for a more historically inclusive country in which state and religion were strictly separated: “An ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”
But critics of Nehru’s Congress Party say it has cynically manipulated secularism to build vote blocs and shore up its power.
“The Congress [Party] played with the core emotions of this country,” said Adityanath last week. “For its own selfish aims, it divided the country on the lines of caste, region, language. There is terrorism somewhere, Naxalism somewhere, separatism somewhere.”
The Congress Party now faces a tough challenge as it seeks to halt the Hindu-nationalist tide at the general election due in 2019. Nehru’s great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, is expected to lead that campaign, but his party remains fractured and without effective leadership.