Congress leaders are understandably the most vociferous in displaying righteous outrage at the unfortunate speech delivered by Varun Gandhi, just as they spare no occasion to castigate Narendra Modi for the Gujarat riots of 2002. However, their words would have more credibility if they expressed comparable shame at the fact that their party led the way in showing that riots and massacres can be used as means to manipulate vote banks. Apart from the infamous massacre of Sikhs in 1984, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed a series of communal riots presided over by the Congress party in places like Meerut, Malliana, Jamshedpur, Kanpur, Bhiwandi, Bhagalpur, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad.
The arrest of Congress leader Meghsingh Chaudhary at the instance of the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigative Team for his active participation in the Gulbarga Society massacre in Ahmedabad in 2002 confirms what knowledgeable people in Gujarat have for long alleged that many Congressmen enthusiastically joined hands with members of the sangh parivar in the anti-Muslim riots of 2002.
Without doubt, serious problems do arise when politicians decide to use select religious symbols and manipulate religious sentiments of people in order to acquire power. However, history is witness to the fact that religion and politics do not make as lethal a mix as do politics and violence.
We would do well to remember that many of the highly venerated political figures of the 20th century have been those who brought the best values of their faith traditions to uplift politics to new moral heights. By contrast, many of those who claimed to be secular and, therefore, treated matters of faith with disdain, caused massive genocides and human suffering.
The US is secular but that has not prevented it from polarising global politics on religious lines. Stalin did not use a religious justification while carrying out his genocide of the Soviet Union’s peasantry. He did so in the garb of a secular cause, namely, “collectivisation of land” and the uprooting of those he called “kulaks”. Nor did he confine his waves of assassinations and purges to those with religious beliefs. He claimed that he killed people in the name of building a secular and socialist republic.
Jinnah was not religious minded. He too merely used certain religious symbols and Islamic slogans to mobilise Muslims against the Hindus as a political force. Jinnah’s aim was secular in so far as he acquired political power for himself. Though claiming to defend the political and economic interests of Muslims of the subcontinent, he left behind many more millions of Muslims in India as a mistrusted minority than could be accommodated within the absurd geographical borders of the new ‘Islamic’ state he created for them.
By contrast, Mahatma Gandhi’s politics and world view were rooted in Hindu Sanatan Dharma. Gandhi chose truth and non-violence as his guiding principles, not any ideology or “ism”. He drew some of his inspiration from the bhakti-Sufi traditions rather than the ideology of modern-day secularism, as defined by the West. That did not prevent him from being a historic global role model of ethical politics. Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan derived strength from his unshakeable faith in Islam. That did not prevent him from becoming Gandhi’s most valued colleague in promoting the cause of communal harmony and freedom from colonial rule. Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama make no secret of the fact that they draw inspiration from their Buddhist world view. Martin Luther King drew his strength from Christianity.
It is worth noting that even Marxists and socialists in India have had to deploy the wisdom of men like Kabir, Nanak, Bulleh Shah and Namdev whenever they decide to spread the message of communal harmony as a counter to the divisive agenda of some Hindutvavadis. All these bhakts and Sufis derived their world view from their deep connection with the Divine who they saw manifested in every living being, rather than through secular education. In short, despite the inspiration the leaders discussed above took from their religious ideals, they remain outstanding examples of politics based on compassion and humane values.
MADHU PURNIMA KISHWAR is a senior fellow at CSDS.