Speaking to The New York Times on Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s prospects for leadership at a national level, Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University opined, “Modi’s politics is against the idea of India… The idea of India has a clear place for minorities as minorities, not minorities simply as individuals.” His comment succinctly captures the view of most so-called secular intellectuals and politicians.
If minorities, be they religious, ethnic or linguistic, must exist as groups and these groups supersede individual identities, what, then, does it mean to be an Indian?
It is noteworthy that this was a pressing question during the decades preceding the founding of the Indian Republic, through the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s. This question, along with that of the position of Muslims as a “minority” group in free India, gained importance with the political rise of the Muslim League under Jinnah.
One of the reasons why the Congress party accepted partition and rejected the last-ditch compromise that was the Cabinet Mission Plan of May 1946 was its disagreement with the Muslim League, which demanded differentiated citizenship. Jinnah asked for separate electorates, grouping of provinces by religion and myriad other religious identity-based “safeguards”.
In such a confederation based on consociationalism and confessionalism, religious identity would have primacy by constitutional sanction. The League had earlier fought for, and won with British connivance, these separate electorates. Jinnah initially opposed separate electorates, but that was before he discovered the raw political power of the dog whistle “Islam in danger”. The Congress too had opposed separate electorates initially, before Motilal Nehru instrumentally constructed an about-turn with the Lucknow Pact of 1916.
The Muslim demand for separate consideration gave rise to other communities asking for the same. The idea of separate electorates for Dalits was supported by B.R. Ambedkar, and stoutly opposed by Mahatma Gandhi. The latter undertook a fast unto death, and 1932’s Poona Pact, unlike the Lucknow Pact, was a compromise, not surrender—reservations, not separate electorates, carried the day.
When the Republic was created in 1950, reservations were enunciated with a clear sunset clause, but they have been extended and even expanded by successive governments in the last six decades. Ambedkar stood for the long-term annihilation of caste. But reservations have, in fact, perpetuated it.
Moreover, it is important to take cognizance when designing policy that caste and gender identities are less easier to change than one’s religious identity. Any government that creates “minority” religion-based schemes and reservations—it would be baffling to any rational, neutral observer how these are termed “secular”—is incentivizing conversions from the majority community, especially if such reservations are socio-economic and not just political.
In the Constituent Assembly debates, some Indian Muslim leaders once again raised the issue of separate electorates. Sardar Patel shot the proposal down with great anger and pain saying, to thunderous applause, that “those who want that kind of thing have a place in Pakistan, not here... we are laying the foundations for One Nation.”
The demand for separate electorates prior to independence and even partition itself arose from the view that Muslims are a separate grouping. In a free, democratic India, if Muslims should be treated as a group and not as individual Indian citizens, why, then, did we accept the trauma of partition?
Thanks to increased economic freedom since 1991, there are an increasing number of Muslims who see themselves, first and foremost, as aspirational Indians. But ultra-conservative Islamist leaders and “secular” politicians, who are both invested in denying the individuality of the Indian Muslim for maintaining their power, want to box these individuals into a group identity.
The mentality that seeks to view Muslims as a separate group in free India also thrusts upon them a separate civil code, once again in the name of an Orwellian kind of secularism. Most of our intellectuals saw no wrong when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proclaimed that a particular religious group has the first right over the nation’s resources and when Rahul Gandhi peddled religion-based quotas before the Uttar Pradesh elections—both are “secular”.
Instead, a chief minister who addresses the citizens of his state as “six crore Gujaratis” and declines central education aid because it discriminates against citizens based on religion is “communal”. When Narendra Modi was asked by the Sachar Committee what we had done for minorities in Gujarat, Modi replied he had done nothing, just as he did nothing for the majority community. “Whatever I do is for the six crore people of the state; I believe in equal development for all,” Modi is reported to have said.
The “secular” intellectuals deride Narendra Modi as “communal” for not fielding Muslim candidates for Muslim constituencies during elections, not realizing that their demand is akin to the Jinnah’s demand for separate electorates. In the face of these grotesque distortions, one is reminded of George Orwell’s 1946 classic “Politics and the English Language”.
Maulana Azad, in a seminal speech as Congress president delivered in March 1940 at Ramgarh, spelled out how by emphasising internal differences, British imperialism “sought to use various groups for the consolidation of its own power”. Today, the Congress party and the “secular” intellectual establishment champions a softer form of Islamic separatism.
Azad envisioned Muslims in a free India to be confident and aspirational - but the Congress party has borrowed the Muslim League’s demagoguery (which itself derived from the British Empire’s strategy) and adopted policies in provincial and the Union governments that seek to enfeeble Muslims and keep them dependent on the government dole, adding to the efficacy of this dog whistle and thus maintaining its grip on political power. What would Azad and Patel have said?
This has shackled India’s Muslims and kept India behind, for no nation can become developed if 15% of its population remains economically and socially isolated.
Narendra Modi, who has become the lightning rod for the debate on the “idea of India”, breaks from this narrative.
Perhaps for the first time in independent India’s history, reams have been written on a sitting chief minister’s governance record, with writers splitting hairs over economic growth rates and human development indices. That Narendra Modi has shifted the debate in this direction is in itself an achievement. No sitting chief minister has faced the kind of scrutiny that Modi has for the 2002 riots that happened on his watch.
The Supreme Court’s Special Investigation Team in its 541-page closure report exonerates Narendra Modi and charges activist Teesta Setalvad with tutoring case witnesses to commit perjury and of “cooking up macabre tales of killings.” In fact, those who are alleged to have participated in the 1984 Sikh pogrom backed by Rajiv Gandhi and the Congress party continue to be cabinet ministers with incredible impunity in the UPA government.
We are told that Gujarat was always a prosperous state and development is nothing new. But it should also be remembered that Gujarat has had a very bloody history of communal violence. In the worst riots that happened in 1969, thousands of Gujaratis died; 578 of the 685 communal incidents reported in that decade all happened in 1969, according to a news report in Outlook magazine. Between 1987 and 1991, 106 incidents of communal violence took place, according to the same report.
If traditional entrepreneurship and business friendliness is responsible for Gujarat’s economic success, surely communal problems too are attributable to historical factors?
It is notable that there have been no communal riots since 2002, marking a period of unprecedented peace in the state. This is partly enabled by the sustenance of economic growth. Raymond Fisman of Columbia University and Edward Miguel of the University of California at Berkeley have shown that a causal link exists between poverty and conflict. They have demonstrated that ameliorating poverty and creating economic opportunity mitigates violence and conflict.
For liberalization supporters, it is heartening to see that Narendra Modi has ushered in a “hundred small steps” to make Gujarat the economically freest state in India, displacing Tamil Nadu in the latest rankings. Social sector reforms have been implemented too – the Chiranjeevi scheme in maternity care was one of the earlier PPP (public private participation) models in the health sector, while the tweaking of the one-size-fits-all RTE (Right to Education) Act from Delhi gets private schools recognized based on outcomes instead of inputs.
As has been documented by economist Bibek Debroy, Gujarat has been one of the fastest growing states and the agricultural sector has not been left behind, enabled by various micro-reforms in the power, irrigation and other sectors. According to the Sachar Committee Report, the all-India rural Muslim poverty number was 27%, and just 7% in Gujarat. The state also has a higher percentage of Muslims in high government positions compared to Maharashtra and Delhi despite having a relatively smaller Muslim population.
Coverage of Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) for Muslim children is 7.6% all over India, and 31.7% in Gujarat. Mid-day meal coverage for Muslims is 22.8% (all India) and 31.4% (Gujarat), respectively. The report also contains facts such as the national Hindu female labour force participation rate being almost double that of the Muslim one. There are endogenous factors for minority backwardness, not just discrimination.
We in India should strive to remove all identity markers from the state’s business—from the Hindu Undivided Family benefits to Haj subsidies, from St Stephen’s College being taxpayer funded despite having a substantial Christian quota to disallowing conversions and discouraging beef consumption simply because some dislike it. Caste quotas need to be gradually phased out with a binding sunset clause. No major political party is likely to adopt this programme in the near future. Therefore, a realistic—if necessarily subjective—comparison between the BJP and the Congress is needed.
While Congress heir apparent Rahul Gandhi has no track record to commend or critique, governments led by his party—nationally and various states - have been at least as bad as the BJP on free speech, encounter killings, and other civil liberty violations. While a POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) was repealed, Section 66A of the pernicious IT Act now haunts citizens.
Moreover, the Congress supported exemptions in the RTE Act under pressure from conservative Muslim groups, just like Rajiv Gandhi had earlier buckled during the Shah Bano case. Is a sellout to hardline religious conservatives “secular” and in the interest of India’s 150 million Muslims?
In a diverse nation like ours, most individuals have overlapping identities—Shaivite, Buddhist, Bengali, Yadav, Sufi, agnostic, female, bisexual - and the state makes for a clumsy adjudicator. For example, if one religious group is not allowed to adopt children, then the state is effectively giving them a rather unpleasant choice – accept our definition of your faith, or declare yourself an apostate. The philosopher Ayn Rand was right when she said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”
In a land of over a billion minorities, the unifying strain that all of us share is that each of us is an Indian - and retaining this individuality amidst the panoply of identities is the idea of India.