How the Congress tarnished its secular image—and its credibility to oppose Hindutva

Leaving the hand
Leaving the hand
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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On the back of its Ayodhya movement, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)—from being a party of little consequence (it won only two seats in the 1984 general elections, although its showing might have been somewhat better if Rajiv Gandhi hadn’t been the beneficiary of a massive wave of sympathy following his mother’s assassination)—became the third largest party in Parliament in the elections in 1989 (after the Congress and Janata Dal) winning eighty-five seats.

It could be argued that Advani’s Ayodhya campaign would not have delivered the electoral dividends that it did if some other factors had not been in play. The first, of course, was that the Ram temple movement became as successful as it did in the 1980s because of widespread dissatisfaction among the middle class, in particular those belonging to the upper castes after the announcement that the recommendations of the Mandal Commission would be implemented. Prime Minister V. P. Singh accepted the 27% job quota in government institutions for Other Backward Classes in addition to the affirmative action that was already in place for the Dalits and Scheduled Tribes. Singh’s actions triggered a widespread anti-reservation stir in many of India’s cities.

The BJP capitalized on the unrest by presenting itself as the party best placed to serve the interests of the Hindu middle class. Advani managed to successfully portray the Hindu middle class as the unfortunate victims of vote bank politics. From Mandal to Mandir was but a short step. Advani’s calculated move was aided by the cynical politics of the Congress after its electoral victory in 1984. For example, it is unlikely that his Ayodhya movement would have got the sort of traction it did had the Rajiv Gandhi government not reversed the Supreme Court judgement in the seminal Shah Bano case.

In 1985, Shah Bano, a sixty-two-year-old destitute Muslim woman and mother of five, filed a case in the Supreme Court seeking maintenance from her ex-husband. The court, citing provisions of criminal law, ruled in her favour. The provisions were seen to be an interference with Muslim Personal Law by sections of the Muslim clergy. By 1986, the Congress, worried about an electoral backlash, used its majority in Parliament to overturn the ruling, leading to the resignation of Arif Mohammed Khan, a Muslim minister in the government who had passionately supported the verdict. In the next few years, the Congress would take a series of decisions that would discredit its claims to secularism.

By the summer of 1989, the BJP’s national executive endorsed the demand for a mandir in Ayodhya and charged the Congress with ‘callous unconcern’ towards what it called ‘majority sentiment’ in the country. In October 1988, a decision by the Rajiv Gandhi government that would forever polarize the free speech debate made India the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Author and political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has pointed out that Rajiv’s keenness to appease both Hindu and Muslim extremists was lethal.

‘From the Shah Bano case to the opening up of the Masjid on VHP’s request to launching his election campaign from Faizabad calling it Ram’s land, he was playing Hindus against Muslims and vice-versa,’ he said. It played right into the hands of the BJP […]

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Even more damaging to the Congress’s attempt to portray itself as secular is the fact that some of the worst communal conflagrations in India’s history have taken place when the Congress has been in power. The Nellie massacre of 1983 where 5,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed; the 1987 Hashimpura massacre in which 40 Muslims were killed in cold blood; the Bhagalpur riots of 1989 (in which the victims were predominantly Muslim); the Hyderabad riots of 1990 (where both the Hindu and Muslim communities suffered a large number of fatalities); and the Surat riots of 1992 (where again the victims were largely Muslim) all took place with Congress chief ministers in charge.

The absolute failure of Congress governments to uphold the principles of natural justice in all of these massacres has forever sullied the conversations around secularism in India. Most worryingly, it has made Indians cynical; is any party in our country genuinely secular? Or are the differences only of degree, circumstance and opportunity? When violence takes places in states governed by so-called ‘secular parties’—take the most recent riots in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 (that resulted in the death of forty-six Muslims and sixteen Hindus) in which the socialist Samajwadi Party was seen to have played a key role—it permanently dents their credibility to then oppose Hindutva politics.

In March 2015, sixteen accused policemen were acquitted of their involvement in the Hashimpura massacre, making minorities even more cynical about the promises of justice from secular parties. The case dated back to 1987 when riots had erupted in Meerut. Men from UP’s Provincial Armed Constabulary dragged out young Muslim men, most of them poor daily wagers and weavers, drove them to the Upper Ganga Canal in Ghaziabad instead of to the police station, and threw them in one by one […]

When the perpetrators of such a massacre walk free—or when both Samajwadi Party and BJP leaders are held responsible for fomenting riots (as they were by a judicial panel investigating the Muzaffarnagar violence)—claims to secularism become no more than a fierce battle of contestations.

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Excerpted with permission from Aleph Book Company from the book This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines by Barkha Dutt. We welcome your comments at