Asghar Ali Engineer
(Secular Perspective, July 1-15, 2002)
Gujrat riots were going on full blast some people thought that to check
It should also be noted that a clean division between political and civil society is not always possible. It is essentially a western concept. The relation between political and civil society is quite complex and should not be oversimplified. After all what is political is a reflection of what is social and vice versa. When I met a politician after Janta Party was elected to power in 1977 and solicited his support for our Bohra reform movement he said expressing his inability that we are led by society, we do not lead the society. If society is conservative and orthodox we also tend to be so.
I met several Prime Ministers to solicit support for legislation against social boycott, which the Bohra High Priest resorts to, to persecute reformists and all expressed their inability to do anything, as society was not prepared to accept reforms. Thus our politicians do not lead society but are led by it.
We often talk of ‘political will’ to bring about social changes but such a political will does not exist for fear of fact that there will be social turmoil and politicians will be thrown out of power. Our politicians visit temples and dargahs because it is expected from politicians from our civil society. Politicians, it is well known, do not visit these religious places, especially ones that do not belong to their religious tradition, out of any faith; they visit these places to placate their voters.
It must be noted that democracy has not grown from our society as in the west after the authority of the Church crumbled. Also, Europe went through great turmoil and a civil society had already come into existence led by commercial bourgeoisie before democracy was ushered in. However, it was not so in India. The growth of democracy was a very complex process from a colonial society, which was also essentially feudal. Capitalism had not become strong and vibrant before we adopted democratic form of governance.
Feudal relations of production were somewhat weakened but not quite knocked out when our constitutional document was framed and adopted. The constitutional document represented best from many other constitutions from highly developed democracy. However, ground reality was far from constitutional ideals. Our society, at the dawn of independence, was quite backward, conservative and traditional. Though political awareness existed among the masses thanks to the mass struggles launched by Mahatma Gandhi, real democratic traditions did not exist.
Another thing important to note is the qualitative difference between civil societies in the west and our own civil society. Firstly, democratic traditions have developed in western world for a couple of centuries and illiteracy was rooted out from civil society long ago in Europe. However, democracy in India was borne from a colonial society and the people of India had no adult franchise right up to dawn of independence in 1947.
There was widespread poverty, illiteracy and backwardness among the people of India and caste system was its bane. Caste hierarchy has not broken down even after more than fifty years of independence; it has been, on the contrary, reinforced further. Caste based parties are thriving. It is not congenial to a qualitative democracy. Thus Dr. Ambedkar’s priority was removal of caste - based hierarchy and not independence in a hurry. He wanted to usher in a qualitative democracy, not just formal democracy.
There has always been tension between qualitative democracy and a formal one. Qualitative democracy calls for widespread education, well-placed population and freedom from want. In western societies there is high degree of employment, hundred per cent literacy and universal dissemination of information to create proper opinion. It is these factors which lead to creation of vibrant civil society.
In addition to caste hierarchy in our society communal division is its greatest weakness. Communalism in fact is a product of colonial society. It is the British rulers who created communal consciousness among Indian people. One can even say that religious identity began to emerge as principal identity during the colonial period. Thus communal consciousness slowly seeped through our civil society and communal division became so real that it became nearly impossible to avert partition of the country on the eve of independence.
By late thirties communal discourse became the dominant discourse in our freedom movement. Though Gandhi-Nehru-Azad triumvirate stuck to secular discourse it was considerably weakened. Communal frenzy could not be prevented at the time of partition despite all the efforts by this dominant triumvirate and its secular discourse. More than a million people lost their lives on the eve of independence thanks to communalisation of our civil society.
Thus the society we have inherited from colonial period was a communalised society and no conscious efforts were made in post-independence period to get rid of this communal legacy. On the one hand, our society was communally divided, and, on the other, politicians reinforced this communal division for their electoral purposes. A communally divided society, though mainly at the level of middle classes, cannot become a vibrant civil society. A vibrant civil society has to be secular in nature avoiding caste and communal divisions. A vibrant civil society is united by ideals but divided in political opinions.
The Indian civil society can hardly said to be united by ideals and hence political majority and political minority are less important than religious majority and religious minority. The whole dynamics of our society is based on religious majority and religious minority. Communal and caste divisions are very deep rooted indeed and this is great stumbling block of our civil society.
Also, the whole nature of our politics is status quoist and not transformative. Thus identity politics assumes great importance over social and economic transformation. It must, however, be admitted that ethnic and religious identity in post-modernist society has assumed new significance. Even post-communist societies in Russia and China are now experiencing a new resurgence of ethnic and religious identities. The western societies are also tending to become pluralist and mosaic model of identity is overriding the melting pot model.
But having said this it must also be said that western societies are not deeply divided on ethnic and communal lines. Certain democratic ideals do unite them and substantial developmental issues have overriding importance over religious and communal issues. This is not so in India. Caste and communal issues assume overriding importance and become explosive political issues.
Ram temple issue was raised by BJP during late eighties and it became deeply divisive political issue as the communally conscious civil society responded to it zealously. The communal politicians are of course guilty of raising such issues and for polarising Indian society on communal lines but civil society also cannot escape its responsibility altogether. They mutually reinforce each other.
The Sangh Parivar in its lust for power crossed Lakshman Rekha (line of caution) and exploited Ram temple issue beyond all limits and violating constitutional values. Communal carnage in Gujrat itself is a result of communalisation of civil society by the Sangh Parivar. Many observers of Gujrat scene have said that there is no sense of gulit among those who perpetrated this communal carnage in that stronghold of Hindutva. Thus communal consciousness has seeped so deeply in a section of civil society in Gujrat that it considers this carnage quite ‘natural’ and an question of remorse does not arise.
This communalisation of civil society is spreading faster now as Sangh Parivar is in power through coalition in the Centre also and its resources are being cleverly used by the Sangh ideologues to disseminate communal ideology. It is spreading now in rural areas also as RSS, with its enhanced strength is sending its pracharak throughout the nook and corner of the country.
It is for the secular politicians to take on this communal challenge. But it must be admitted that secular forces are deeply divided and seriously weakened. The response of secular politicians to the communal menace is piecemeal rather than comprehensive, much less confrontational. Left politicians are an exception. Their priority is to take on communal challenge head on. However, Left forces are confined to few states and have no influence in most parts of India.
A vibrant civil society has to be secular and committed to democratic ideals rather than to religious fundamentalism. Then only Gujrat like carnage can be prevented.
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