//Beyond Rhetoric

Beyond Rhetoric

TIMES OF INDIA, Editorial,

Is secularism only a convenient tool for Congress to drum up minority support in states where they constitute an influential vote bank?

Christian community organisations in Madhya Pradesh have accused Congress of deliberately avoiding a debate on the controversial Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion (Amendment) Bill.

The amendments to a 1968 Act further restrict the freedom to choose and change one's religious belief. It brings a priest who solemnises the conversion into the ambit of the law, wants people who seek to convert to intimate the authorities a month in advance, and proposes imprisonment for three years and fines up to Rs 1 lakh for violations.

The Bill was passed in the House without any debate as Congress, the main opposition in MP, had boycotted the session over the disqualification of an MLA.

Congress leaders have since gone on an overdrive to refute the allegation that the party's silence on the Bill in the assembly was with an eye on the votes of the majority community.

Its behaviour in the MP assembly apart, there appears to be hesitation on the part of Congress to confront at the grass roots BJP's attempt to muzzle the right to freedom of religion.

The party has preferred to maintain a low profile on this issue in other states including Gujarat, Rajasthan and Orissa where minority communities face similar threats from sangh parivar outfits and their governments.

Minorities, especially Christians, are numerically insignificant in all these states. Congress probably stands to alienate majority community votes if the party aggressively supports their anxieties.

In contrast, Congress is accused of appeasing Muslims in states where they form a significant percentage of the population. Congress has plenty of leaders who are avowed secularists, some even claim to be secular fundamentalists.

However, the Congress brand of secularism seldom goes beyond mere political rhetoric. On the ground, it becomes either appeasement of the minority or the majority, demography being the deciding factor.

Secularism of this sort is a doomed project. A party's secular credentials have to be validated at the grass roots. It may require the party to challenge existing social consensus, even at the risk of angering sections of the majority community.

But politics is all about convincing people about ideologies and values. Congress has repeatedly failed this test of political courage, in addressing the concerns of minorities vis-a-vis majoritarianism, and when progressive ideas emerging in minority communities have been challenged by fundamentalists from within.