M.L. Sondhi
The Statesman, 1990

Pandit Nehru's "secular" views overrode all other values in independent India. To the "progressives", Hinduism was incompatible with the political system and posed a threat to the social fabric. The Nehruvian perspective was coherent as long as the protection of Muslims did not deprive Hindus of their rights. But by the '70s, Indian secularists had come up against something they could no longer ignore - Islamic fundamentalism and conversion of Hindus. The conversion of Hindus en masse to Islam in Meenakshipuram created a social and psychological problem, with communal peace taking a back-seat.

The Jamaat-e-Islami's sixth all-India conference in Hyderabad, with the blessings of Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao (the then Foreign Minister), was used to separate further the Muslims from the Hindus. The Hyderabad conference revolved around presenting an exclusive and dynamic view of Islam and portraying Hindus as antagonists. To counter this antagonism, political and material support for converting Hindus to Islam was sought - paying scant regard to national unity.

"Existential representation", says Eric Voegelin, political thinker, is basic to a national community's expression. Indian policy-makers failed to realize the perils of Islamic fundamentalism in the '70s and more so in the '80s. Increasing the Muslim population in India to 200 millions in a decade and creating a Pakistan-type polity within the Indian Union were the principal areas of thrust at the Hyderabad conference. These, no doubt, could not be translated into reality, but Hindus saw in it a threat - given the backdrop of conversion of Harijans to Islam.

Politics itself is a process of resolving conflict says the political scientist, David Bastrop and Hindus and Muslims could use the Indian political process to reach enduring agreements by accepting each other's proposals or by developing alternatives which would help restore respect for each side. But the "mass conversion" aided by foreign funds and rigidity of the Muslim leadership paved the way for a severe Hindu backlash.

The aggressive stand of one group can threaten the existential representation of the national community. The Hindus by the mid-80s realized the fundamentalist tendencies inherent in Islam both at home and abroad. Though the Muslim leaders continued to swear by the Indian Constitution their activities smacked of the political process that led to partition. What with the increased emphasis on a "dispossessed ruling elite", and disregard for democratic values, the philosophy of non-violence seemed somewhat misconstrued. Hindu "ecumenicalism" was misunderstood. The Ramakrishna Mission, the Ramana movement, the Aurobindo experience together with Narayan Guru, the Shankaracharya of Kanchi and ISKON installed a sense of unity among the Hindus. Given this backdrop, Islamic fundamentalism only forced the Hindu religious leaders to call for restoring Hindu dignity.

To forget the ghosts of the past, needed were meaningful moral gestures by Hindus and Muslims towards each other. It is true that people like Mian S. Abdul Hasan Nadvi tried to present social and moral models before Indian Muslims, appealing for reconciliation of Islamic brotherhood with "the means of strengthening and furthering the interests of their own country". But this was confined to the philosophical and metaphysical level, for Muslim politics was "getting tough" and keeping a safe distance from "healing the wounds". This created "Hindu voters" who segregated themselves from the Muslims with the obvious intention of furthering their "cause" and fulfilling the interests of the majority community.

The growing importance of the Hindu vote for electoral gains in north India and the effect it has had on the politics of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress (I) has drawn much attention. With the exacerbation of the Babari-Masjid Ram Janambhoomi controversy, the political situation in the country seems to have reached a stalemate. There is even talk that India has been led to the brink of disaster. Creative thought and discussion are not stimulated by continuing to argue ad nauseam that the feeling for Lord Ram is sham emotion and that everything would be fine if the BJP stopped fanning Hindu revivalism. The decisive question in this context is whether the Nehruvian paradigm of secularism is conducive to communal peace. The stock answer to this question is bedevilled by intellectual dishonesty. Passing moral judgements on the faults of the Hindus and being insensitive to their needs is not the best way to maintain communal harmony.

A better way to harmony would be to adopt a rational policy which would eschew militant proselytisation root - cause of the present malady. Hindus and Muslims should adhere to a stable value consensus which would pave the way for an enduring partnership in national affairs. Hindus should not be at a disadvantage only because it is not a monolithic bloc. If the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee can be an essential protective mechanism for the Sikhs, and the Waqf Board for the Muslims, the Hindus should be allowed to achieve a minimum level of stability with institutions like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Elimination of poverty in India and improving the economy require Hindu-Muslim cooperation. Ideas like Islamic banking can be novel applications of economic practice. Communal peace must become the basic influence on political rationale. Once the fundamentalist logic of mass conversion is given up, Hindus and Muslims can come together to establish a society which would meet the needs of the interdependent world.

In an article published recently in the International Herald Tribune, Barbara Crossette has lauded the peaceful atmosphere and communal harmony in south India. She has referred to Kerala as an "ecumenical state" where Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived in harmony for a millennium. A little insight would have told her that the fundamental balance of Hinduism in south India was not disturbed by religious fanaticism to the same extent that it was in north India. Even in the North, if the Hindu cosmic myths are not threatened by the forces of mass proselytisation, it will usher in a new era of communal harmony.

Once an equal partnership is established between Hindus and Muslims, there would be nothing wrong in political competition as such. Today, we need a leadership that would recognize the importance of the recovery of spiritual values.

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