Secular Parties Have Hobbled Secular Institutions

Gujarat has now been in communal flames for 75 days. Police firings on mobs has killed almost 200 people, yet not quelled communal hatred. Deploying the Army has not worked.

What has gone wrong? I think the problem goes far beyond Gujarat, or even religious hate. I think secular institutions have failed so badly in India that they no longer have moral authority. The space they once occupied is gradually being filled by sectarian forces based on religion, caste and region.

Those who led the freedom struggle hoped to move India away from traditional sectarian institutions to modern, secular ones. The British Raj had made a start in this direction, and Nehru took it much further in the 1950s and 1960s. My generation thought that modernization and secularization would soon defeat the dark forces of traditional sectarianism.

We were proved wrong. Instead of delivering services impartially to all, our secular institutions have been hijacked by trade unions and other vested interests, and become instruments of oppression rather than deliverance.

The secular government school system has failed. After 55 years of independence, literacy is only 65 per cent, lower than in many African countries. Government teachers skip school with impunity, teaching quality is substandard, and any parents who can afford it move their children to private schools.

But even as the secular school system erodes, sectarian schools gain ground. The RSS now runs 20,000 schools with dedicated teachers. Muslim madrassas are expanding, oiled by Gulf money. Christian-run schools cannot cope with demand.

The failure of secular education is equally evident at higher levels. In Delhi University, I am told by students, regular teaching takes place in only one college, St Stephen’s. Why? Because it is a Christian institution, and so not subverted by the teachers union and workers union that wreck secular government-run colleges. In the south, private colleges run by religious mutts provide better education than government ones.

Our health centres, electricity boards, ports and all organs of the secular state are in a mess. A 1990 study showed that the quickest way to unload cargo in Bombay was to pay unionised dock workers not to come, and then hire private workers for the task. State Electricity Board linesmen connive in electricity theft to the tune of Rs 40,000 crore a year. Every government office teems with corruption and waste. Secular institutions of state look increasingly like bands of robbers.

In British times, the police-judicial system seemed to deliver justice, but no more. Nobody with resources gets convicted beyond all appeals, and people like Harshad Mehta die of old age before their cases conclude. The system benefits only lawyers, yet nobody dares take on the lawyers. Witnesses turn hostile because they believe the government cannot protect them from threats by the accused. Criminals enter politics in droves.

When the secular organs of the modern state look corrupt and moribund, sectarianism looks more attractive. The religious hatred spewed by Bhindranwale or the Bajrang Dal would sound insane in a country where the secular state redressed grievances and delivered justice and fairness. But outcomes are decided mainly by money, muscle and influence, identity politics becomes increasingly respectable.

Killing for your community ceases to sound so horrible if the secular organs of state are so moribund that they cannot penalize those who attack you. If the Gujarat administration had immediately apprehended the culprits of Godhra, and looked on course to convict them quickly, I doubt if Gujarat would have gone up in flames. In fact, 75 days later, the state looks too incompetent to find the culprits, let alone jail them. In this milieu, communal revenge is seen by hotheads as an acceptable substitute for a legal process that never works.

In the 1950s, when the secular state actually functioned properly, almost all the main political parties were secular: the Congress, the Communist Party, two Socialist Parties and the Swatantra Party. Communal parties like the Hindu Mahasabha and Ram Rajya Parishad faded away. The Jan Sangh survived, but had a limited following.

However, in the last decade, India’s political space has increasingly been occupied by parties based on religion, region and caste. The Congress and two communist parties have lost ground, and the secular Janata Party formed by VP Singh in 1989 has shattered into sectarian fragments. The parties that have risen to the fore in the 1990s are those based on religion ( BJP, Shiv Sena), caste (BSP, RJD, SP) and region (BJD, TDP, Akali Dal, AGP, JMM, and the sundry Tamilian regional parties). Some of these forces existed in earlier decades too, but have become far stronger in the 1990s.

I do not think the rot can be stemmed by demands from the chatterati to sack Modi, or lectures on the virtues of secularism. If the secular organs of state are held in contempt by citizens, secularism will willy-nilly get edged out by sectarianism.

I have long been dismayed that almost all our political parties think it less important to protect consumers than woo trade unions, bar associations, teachers associations, and other organized interests. Accountability implies that consumers should be to penalize government servants who do not deliver. Yet no politician seems interested in creating systems that give aggrieved customers swift justice against organized interests. No politician wants to empower communities to sack teachers, health workers, or other employees who fail to deliver services satisfactorily.

Every political party has a workers wing and a teachers wing, and these wings provide the troops that parties need at election time. The two communist parties are the worst offenders, but others are not far behind. When secular political forces systematically emasculate the secular organs of state, they open the floodgates to identity politics and sectarianism.

So, do not blame the BJP alone for rising communalism. Narendra Modi sowed his seeds in soil that had been fertilized by other, secular parties.

What do you think?