Special Reports

Ram Puniyani speaks his mind on the current Indian polity

INTERVIEW — 'Communal politics in India is primarily due to the absence of land reforms, absence of a process of secularization and failure to reduce the hold of clergy': Prof. Ram Puniyani

Prof. Ram Puniyani has been one of the foremost voices against communalism and has been active in promoting communal amity and national integration through various engagements at the grassroots. A regular commentator on important socio-political issues, Prof. Puniyani has written as well as edited many books on communalism and secular polity in India. In this detailed conversation with activist-writer Vidya Bhushan Rawat, he explains various issues confronting the nation.

Ram Puniyani
Ram Puniyani

VB: India is passing through one of the toughest periods since independence. You have seen the Emergency in 1975 time too. What difference do you find today and during Emergency?

RP: The Emergency period and today’s political scenario cannot be compared. Emergency was the authoritarian imposition of the dictatorial norms by a small coterie around Indira Gandhi through the existing mechanisms of the State. There was a censorship on the press. Snajay Gandhi’s over-enthusiastic family and town planning drive led to incidents like Turkman Gate.  The State was operating arbitrarily though its own will.

Today’s situation is like a semi-fascist rule. The power is exercised by the political party through its different allied organizations. While BJP is in power, the dictates of RSS are at the core of the situation. Whole RSS combine (allied organizations of RSS like VHP, ABVP, Bajrang Dal to name a few) is on the run, and repression is applied through these organizations which have created a base in society. This section of people stands with the State in repressing the minorities and the poorer sections of society. Cow vigilantes and Hindu Yuva Vahini are an example of this. The hate-other ideology, which has been spread through RSS shakhas, is now part of the ‘social common sense’, and this forms the basis of hatred and violence in the society. Emotive issues are dominating the social space and an atmosphere of intolerance is the order of the day.

VB: What are the reasons of the growth of the Hindu communal politics in India? It would not have been possible without the 'liberal' upper-caste Hindu interests of the Sangh variety inside the Congress Party and their failure in tackling the communal politics in India.

RP:Communal politics in India is primarily due to the absence of land reforms, absence of a process of secularization, failure to reduce the hold of clergy. All this is missing in the Indian society. While Muslim communal elements were primarily in the Muslim League, the Hindu communal elements were spread in Hindu Mahasabha, RSS and Congress as well. The influence of these elements within the Congress party was marginal till Nehru was there. These communal elements in the party did keep communalism alive within the Congress. After Nehru’s death, they started getting more hold and their influence led to opportunist communal politics of Congress coming to the fore. Nehru did warn that communal elements are within the party as well, but they could not be rooted out from the party.

VB: You have recently mentioned that Nehru's letters to the chief ministers must be published for wider dissemination to understand how he used to interact with his chief ministers. In fact his letter to Uttar Pradesh chief minister Govind Ballabh Pant with regard to Ayodhya issue is an eye-opener. There may be other similar letters. At the time when Nehru is being blamed for every evil that we have, how important will these letters be?

RP: Nehru was a thorough democrat. At the same time he was trying to root secularism in a society gripped by religiosity. In order to keep the state chief ministers in the loop for secular democratic values and things related to education, industrialization etc., he was writing regularly to them. The letter he wrote to Govind Vallabh Pant was for removing the Ram Lalla idols which were forcibly installed inside the Babri Mosque in December 1949. Similarly, on all crucial issues, he was corresponding with the CMs. These letters contain the wisdom of statecraft along with the values of liberal democratic state.

Books by Ram Puniyani published by www.pharosmedia.com/books

VB: BJP tried to co-opt every icon. They started with Sardar Patel, then came to Subhash Chandra Bose and now to Ambedkar. In between, they have used Gandhi and Vivekananda as well as Bhagat Singh. At the moment, the focus seems to be totally on Dr Ambedkar. Some people wrote that RSS does not have its own icon and hence it needs someone else. All of these icons might have differences with Nehru as well as Gandhi but all of them stood for the idea of an inclusive secular socialist India. Why do you think Nehru has become so important for the Sangh Parivar and the current dispensation that they want to discredit him through using the differences that he might have had with contemporary leaders which was natural?

RP: There are multiple reasons for coopting these icons of the freedom movement, those who contributed to the process of India as a Nation in the making. RSS kept aloof from the freedom movement due to its agenda of the Hindu nation in contrast the Indian nation agenda of these icons which was the goal of freedom movement. It discouraged its volunteers to participate in the freedom movement.  In addition, the attempt to co-opt Ambedkar is for electoral purposes, i.e., to win over sections of Dalits in particular.

Nehru, apart from being a very popular mass leader standing for secular values, was also a person who had a vision of a modern India with industrialization and modern education. He is the total anti-thesis of what RSS wants to bring in. Nehru’s domestic policies for a democratic state are anathema to RSS. Nehru’s policy of global peace, peace with neighbours and alliance with neighbours is totally opposed to the expansionist ideology of RSS. Nehru’s impact on the masses and mass consciousness has been too strong and respectable all around, so to establish the hegemonic Hindu Nation, they need to undermine what Nehru stood for.

VB: Why has Congress party become so weak that it is unable to respond to the current political crisis? It has the legacy of political leaders and yet it failed to challenge the distorted narratives that were being built around its top leaders. 

RP: Congress was a movement in the pre-Independence period. The national movement was educating the masses through the anti-colonial movement. After Independence, Congress became the party in power and later party for power. The elements of mass education for a democratic society were totally missing in its programmes although it was best suited to counter the narratives being developed in RSS shakhas and later through RSS-led campaigns like Ram Temple and Holy Cow. The writings of its leaders like Gandhi and Nehru had dealt with some of the issues which are dominating social scene now. Like Gandhi’s writings on Indian history, his understanding of Cow as mother are totally opposed to what RSS is exploiting for its political goals. The main strength of Congress came from the downtrodden sections of society, it failed to speak for them effectively, paid mere lip service to the issues of dalits and religious minorities for example. Similarly in case of these icons, Congress has all the material from its history to keep them away from the grip of RSS, but somehow the will-power for this is missing. Most of the top Congress leaders are office holders and none of the tall leaders is devoted for promoting and protecting the legacy of the freedom movement

VB: While it is easier to blame Rahul Gandhi for his so-called inexperience or whatever fault but the fact is that he has a legacy and carrying its burden is too difficult at the moment when things are against the family but what are the reasons of the dismal state of affairs in the Left parties. Is it because they became the biggest bastion of upper caste politics and failed to carry the SC-ST, OBC and Minorities along?

RP: Rajiv Gandhi’s mistakes cost the nation very heavily. In addition, the Left parties failed to grasp the issue of caste in Indian society. They failed to intervene against the rising tide of communal politics. The RSS agenda has twin tracks. On one hand, it targets minorities and on the other the dalit-OBCs. On both these counts, Left failed to come up to take the challenge thrown by the Hindutva politics. Rahul Gandhi has been targeted by Hindutva leaders. Though his intentions seem serious, the backup from the supporters is lacking. Things have by now become too complex to achieve the goals of dalit-Bahujan uplift without alliances, which are not easy to forge. Left parties have not addressed the caste-minorities issue in any seriousness. Their pivot of understanding is mainly around class analysis of society.

VB: Uttar Pradesh results have not just disappointed many but they have also given a strong sense of approval to the ruling party on issues such as demonetization and the communal rhetoric. What in your opinion has failed the non-BJP opposition in Uttar Pradesh, particularly SP-BSP who were the main players there. 

RP: The UP strategy of the BJP was strongly communal. Most of the issues were presented with a communal angle. Even demonetization was sold as a move to curb Muslims’ clout, as Muslims generally are part of cash economy. In addition, most of the issues were presented as if BSP, SP and Congress are appeasing Muslims while BJP is the only party for Hindus. This line led to the consolidation of non-Yadav Hindus and non-Chamar SCs around BJP. The failure of SP-BSP in coming together helped the BJP plan very well. The national line taken by RSS-BJP, that demonetization will harm the rich and help the poor in the long term, also helped the matters for BJP.

VB: An attempt is being made to convert India into the US model of the Presidential form of democracy which is thoroughly dominated by corporate funding. The tragedy in the United States is that despite the country of such a huge size and variety, corporate democracy has allowed only a two-party system. The power elite in India wants the same here. How dangerous is it to push India into the American model?

RP: RSS seems to have realized that it may not be possible to replace the Indian Constitution. They have been arguing for a Presidential system since last many years. The main point is that RSS wants to do away with the diversity of the country. The Corporate World, which has a strong alliance with BJP, also is more comfortable with a Presidential system. With that system the voice of the marginalized will not have much place in influencing the policies of the country. The concerns of the deprived and marginalized will have no place in the political-economic policies.

VB: In the past three years the Hindutva forces are forcing their agenda on the country. They are raising such issues which are difficult to counter by political parties for fear of losing 'Hindu' votes. Whether it is 'terrorism', beef, cow or nationalism debate, it is aimed at occupying the moral high ground for being the 'sole' authority on all issues on behalf of India. Everyone else, except them and their allies, becomes villain. How can such agendas be countered politically?

RP:The identity-based politics and the emotive issues are difficult to combat on the grounds of reason. A concerted campaign where all non-communal political and social forces come together to struggle for the real issues of society is the only way out. During UPA I and II, major issues being discussed on regular basis were related to basic rights of Indian citizens, the rights to employment, food, health, education, information and the like. The social discourse has now shifted away from real issues to emotive issues. The only way is a concerted attempt by all those standing for secular democracy to come together and strengthen the social movements and political campaigns for these issues, issues related to survival and dignity.

VB:  After the Uttar Pradesh government's order of closing slaughter houses, the meat business in the state has come to a virtual standstill. The industry has huge number of non-Muslims too. There is a dark side of the story: India's 'pink revolution' which Prime Minister Modi talked about during his electoral campaign in 2014, grew further during his tenure. Now, he seems to have forgotten that. Shouldn't the government release a white paper on the beef industry and who are the ownerss and how much revenue it is bringing to India? 

RP: The idea of a white paper on the issue of cow slaughter, beef trade, cattle fairs, the importance of cow/buffalo in the agrarian economy is good. There is immense lack of information; there are gaps in the popular knowledge about these issues. The knowledge of these will ensure that people don’t blindly support or ignore the cow vigilantes. But the point is why this government should do this? Such a move will harm its political agenda. Probably a peoples’ white paper on the issues may be a more realistic idea.

VB: What do you think the idea behind the 'Anti-Romeo Squad' formed by the Uttar Pradesh government? Government failed to protect individuals against the Khap dictates and yet it encouraged people to adopt anti-constitutional provisions in denying youth to enjoy their right to choice. Why, in your opinion, the Uttar Pradesh government adopted such tactics.

RP: There are multiple goals behind this move. First, generally such squads promote vigilantism, which the ruling party can use in its own favour. Secondly, it is a sort of continuation of their Love Jihad campaign to demonize Muslim youth in particular. And thirdly, as you correctly say, it is an assault on the freedom of right to choose. It also strengthens the patriarchal values of controlling the lives of girls. Demonetization failed but government wants to use the election results as an approval of this move.

Demonetization is the case of learning how you can sell a bad idea in a successful way. One kept hoping that this move will boomerang on the Government. Their word of mouth propaganda mechanism is so strong and well-lubricated that they could spread that this is a small sacrifice for the sake of the nation that the rich will suffer etc. Still there are large numbers of people who have suffered. The opposition did try to raise it but their efforts were too small compared to the propaganda might of the BJP-RSS combine.

VB: The recent incidents at Sukma and Kashmir are being used as a tool against the human rights defenders. The government is promoting the idea that all those who speak against human rights violations are anti-national. What is your view on the same?

RP: This Government is very uncomfortable with the human rights defenders and those leading the movements for the rights of deprived and vulnerable sections of society. Right at the start they muzzled the funding of NGOs. They also want to foist hard muscular policies which are worsening the situation in these areas. It is their well-programmed work due to which anybody disagreeing with them is dubbed anti-national. This also shows that their faith in democratic dissidence is skin-deep. Essentially, they espouse the intolerant ideology of Hindu nationalism.

VB:  How do you respond to the government initiative to deny JNU to provide opportunities to students in the PhD and M.Phil courses? Is not it a step against the Dalit and backward students?

RP: JNU has been a special target for this Government as JNU is the bastion of liberal, progressive voices where dissent is handled in a democratic way. These ethos have strong roots in the principles of Indian nationalism. In JNU, apart from other aspects, the percentage of women, dalits and OBC students has been very good. This move of the Government in reducing the seats for research has twin objects. On one hand, they want to stifle the progressive nature of JNU, and on the other to reduce the opportunities for the marginalized sections. The movements which began from JNU and HCU need to take note of this and unleash a larger protest/campaign on this issue.

VB: The issue of nationalism has put the other parties including Congress into a very defensive mode despite the facts that the track record of the Hindu right wing is well-known to us. Why are parties on the defensive and not able to carry the historic legacy of our freedom fighters who talked about an inclusive India?

RP: India Nationalism has been the foundation of Congress in particular. This party has not much focused on the intellectual front to educate the people. The all-round rise of Hindu nationalist ideology, from bottom to top, has lead to a situation where other parties seem to have been taken aback and they don’t seem to be prepared to counter it ideologically. There are hoards of material which can come handy for these parties to counter the sectarian nationalist surge. The issue is that of ideological and political preparedness, which seems to be missing.

VB: In the normal Hindu discourse, Muslims are brutal and too conservative. How do you counter this particularly when Europe and America too suffer from Islamophobic tendencies? 

RP: This discourse is a construct which has come up in two major ways. One, the British introduced communal historiography which was picked up by Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. RSS shakhas started propagating it in a systematic way. Later, other mechanisms were added to spread this propaganda far and wide. This is based on selective incidents. The large presentation of interaction of social life of Hindus and Muslims is missing in this discourse. The narrative of alliances of Muslim and Hindu kings has been erased in this version. What remain dominant in this, is the aggressive ‘foreign’ Muslims versus noble native Hindus. With Ram Temple movement, this discourse found a strong vehicle for its propagation.

The second component of this comes from the imperialist lust for oil resources. The promotion of Al Qaeda in some madrasas on the Pakistan-Afghanistan borders, funded hugely by US,  created the monster of terrorism. To cap this retrograde step, the coining of the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ by US media added further venom to this propaganda. During the last couple of decades the migration of Muslims from the former colonies of European colonial powers, and then the migration from war torn countries have been worsening the situation. Islam as a religion has a strong ethical component, while the present propaganda is based on some social practices and some versions of Islam which oppressive rulers have encouraged like the Salafi version. The consequent events, which are the product of this cancer of terrorism, have been adding on to the negative image of Islam and Muslims.

These two major components of demonization of Islam and Muslims have been topped up in India by issues like triple talaq, polygamy and higher (poverty related) fertility among Muslims.

VB: The powerful Hindu upper-caste and powerful backward communities seems to join hands against Dalits and Muslims. Hindutva is using the dominant communities in each region. How can Dalits, Muslims, OBCs and Adivasis get along to face this onslaught?

RP: Hindutva politics has used all means to ally with the upper castes and to co-opt other castes. The social engineering put into operation by RSS has confused the communities and has also shown them carrots. Some of the opportunist leaders from the dalits and Adivasis have been given lucrative positions to woo them to Hindutva politics. It is a dangerous situation where Hinutva is emerging as the central, dominant force.

The last three decades have also seen a decline in the social movements at all levels. Social alliances to protect the interests of Dalits-Muslim are long overdue. This needs to be supplemented by political alliances at electoral level which can overthrow the march of Hindutva politics.

VB: The secular political discourse failed to take caste issues into account and therefore Dalits, OBCs and Adivasis were out of its agenda. Now many of them are realizing it but the gap in the narrative and discourse is quite big. How can we strengthen the secular alliance if there is no participation of Dalits, OBCs and other marginalized sections in it?

RP: There is an urgent need to reach out to these sections of society. The impact of globalization on their lives has been tremendous. In this worsening scenario, there is a need for taking up their real issues in a substantive way and to connect them up. We need to learn from the new movements which have come on the social scene. The ones like that of Una have been very innovative in using the strength of dalits for their agitation. At the same time they raised demands like land for dalits. It is movements like these which should be the fulcrum for future campaigns and agitations.

VB: The secular parties or alliances have failed to take the student unrest along with them. Why the incidents at JNU, then Hyderabad University and other universities failed to attract attention of secular organizations?

RP: The student’s wings of many of these organizations have been dormant for quite some time. These parties need to realize that it is movements like this which hold the hope for future. There have been some marginal attempts to relate with these and other movements built around the needs of students and their future aspirations have been there, but they have remained notional only.

VB: The government has been targeting civil society organizations. It is targeting students. It is targeting trade unions and all those who speak against the dominant Hindutva practices. Despite all this, we still have not been able to forge a common alliance against Hindutva. What may be the reason and how can we come together? Do you think anti-Congressism is now a thing of past and we need to look beyond it and forget new alliances based on Common Minimum Programmes.

RP: I totally agree. Anti-Congressism has been playing a very negative role during the last few decades. Also there have been special efforts to defame Congress on purpose. The whole Anna-Ramdev-Kejriwal movement was primarly brought up to defame Congress as that can be the real kernel around which secular movement can crystallize. With consequent defeats, like the one in UP, many parties will realize the need for all democrats to hang together. The failure is subjective as well as rooted in material conditions.