April 04, 2020
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Born-Again Hinduism

In response to the Sangh parivar's Sonia-bashing, the Congress reinterprets Hindutva

Born-Again Hinduism

I beseech my Hindu brothers to rise to the height of their traditional tolerance which is the basic glory of our Vedic faith.
INC president Sarojini Naidu , 1925.

Hinduism is the most effective guarantor of secularism in India.
Congress Working Committee resolution , 1999.

AT the Congress conclave in Panchmarhi, party president Sonia Gandhi had candidly commented that the party was perceived as having compromised on its commitment to the secular ideal. Last fortnight, she sought to equate that secular ideal with Hinduism, both as a philosophy and as a way of life.

Her speech on Vivekananda's anniversary at the Ramakrishna Mission, where she said that India was secular primarily because Hindusim "has been based on what our ancients said: truth is one", gladdened the hearts of right-wingers within the party, but left the rank-and-file confused on how the Congress stand on minority issues will be affected in future. By way of explanation, cwc member Pranab Mukherjee says: "The Sangh parivar has been projecting a distorted version of Hindutva; we are merely putting it in the right perspective. They want to choose the majority over the minority. That's not nationalist, thats' fragmentist. Their (Sangh parivar's) version (of Hindutva) is associated with attacks on minorities. Now, with the Congress setting right the distortions, people will link it with pluralism."

The attempt to give Hindutva a moderate face, Congressmen acknowledge, is an indirect response to the Sangh parivar's characterisation of Christians as anti-Hindu and Sonia as their chief patron. cwc member P.A. Sangma observes: What were opposing is the concept of Hindutva as propagated by the Sangh parivar. If Hinduism had not been tolerant, other religions would not have thrived here. If they stand for Hindu nationalism, the Congress stands for Indian nationalism. aicc general secretary Madhavrao Scinida goes one better: "We don't just tolerate other faiths, hum sweekaar kartay hain (we welcome them)."

The Congress first articulated its born-again Hinduism at a working committee meeting on January 16. The resultant resolution was clearly shaped by Sonia. At the cwc, while she did not participate in the discussion on minorities, she instructed the cwc resolutions authors - Arjun Singh and Pranab Mukherjee - to quote verbatim from her Vivekananda speech. Arjun Singh just happened to have it handy, an indication that the text of the resolution had been predetermined. More so, because it want the kind that Arjun Singh, whos hitherto favoured an aggressive pro-minority line, was expected to formulate.

There are differences in the cwc on the issue, although they were not articulated at the meeting. A.K. Antony had started the ball rolling, pointing out that if the Congress came out too strongly on the recent attacks against Christians and Muslims, it might well be charged with appeasement of minorities as it has been in the past. Nobody openly disagreed with the ever-cautious Antony, but as a cwc member later pointed out, the same logic had been applied in 1992, with disastrous results for the party. The Congress has always been seen as wavering on the minorities issue. "We invited flak for allowing shilanyas at Ayodhya, which eventually led to the Babri Masjid demolition. We ought to have come out aggressively, but our resolution said something else," he added.

The cwc resolution has no stronger votary than V.N. Gadgil, who feels that if it had been articulated earlier, perhaps the party would not have fallen between two stools, as it did in 1992. One reason for the bjps swift rise from two to 180 seats was the appeal to the Hindu mind, which was left with two distinct impressions: (a) the Congress pampers minorities and (b) the Muslims are rigid and unreasonable. "I have been saying all along that we must draw lessons from this." At the same time, he said, the Muslims held the Congress responsible for the Babri demolition and suspected a secret understanding with the rss. The party lost both ways.

He sees the resolution and Sonia's 'Vivekananda' speech as a return to the Gandhi-Nehru line on secularism. Taking a swipe at the bjp, Sonia said "it is tragic that Vivekananda who admired, appreciated and swore by India's pluralistic and composite heritage has been over the years sought to be appropriated by certain sections of our society who spread the politics of hate and antagonism, who reject the secular foundations of our ancient civilisation and who seek to distort the very message of Hinduism - that of tolerance, harmony and understanding of different faiths."

Gadgil says Nehru's belief in the human face of Hinduism is reflected in Sonias observation that the catholicity and tolerance of the religion was the best guarantee of secularism in this country. This focus was lost for some time. It has now been restored. After all, in six states - four in the Northeast, j&k and Punjab - Hindus are in a minority and if the Congress protests an attack on Muslims in Karnataka, it must equally take up the cause of Kashmiri Pandit refugees.

Gadgil spells out the Congress objective: "The resolution will effectively counter the bjp's propaganda that the Congress only pampers minorities." The Sangh parivar, he observes, has decided that it lost the assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi because of a dilution of Hindutva. Its strategy now is to take an increasingly hard line, in the hope of polarising the Hindu vote. Scindia's assessment that the days of radical Hindutva are over may well be true, but the Congress cant afford to take chances with the Sangh parivar's "Rome rajya" campaign. Gadgil had told the cwc that having identified Sonia as a major reason for its defeat, the rss would launch a vicious smear campaign against her.

The unstated but important objective of the resolution is thus to counter the focus on Sonia Gandhi's Italian-Christian background. Mukherjee answers that with: "Let's not forget that the first president of the Congress was a converted Christian, W.C. Bonnerjee. The second was Dadabhai Naoroji, a Parsi, the third Badrauddin Tyabji, a Muslim and the fourth, George Yule, a European." No less than four Europeans and seven Muslims had served as INC presidents, he stresses.

Weaning the upper castes from the bjp could be another objective. "Hindutva has always appealed to the upper castes, who are getting increasingly disillusioned with the bjp," says a senior Congress leader. "There have always been right-wingers in the party. Even those who agreed with Nehru's socialist economics were politically aligned with Sardar Patel. That's equally true today," he adds. Once again, the Congress is seeking to be all things to all people, to woo the majority without losing the minority.

The bjp lost no time in welcoming what it described as a Congress acceptance of Hindutva. Equally, the Congress friend-turned-foe, the Samajwadi Party, criticised the party for toeing the bjp line. But Gadgil is convinced that it's the way to go: "In the early 1990s, we re-examined socialism and went back to Nehru who had said that private enterprise had a role to play within the ambit of socialism. Similarly, we needed to clarify our concept of secularism."

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