The Politics of Secular Sectarianism

The rise of right-wing politics in India is built on the fragmented nature of the struggles waged by the oppressed who constitute the vast majority of the population: “lower” castes, adivasis, working classes and peasants, women, religious

minorities, etc. Countering right-wing political imagination would mean a dismantling of caste-, class-, gender- and religion-based oppressions. This cannot happen without forging a commonality among the oppressed which is at once non-patronising as well as self-critical.

Ajay Gudavarthy ( is with the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Nissim Mannathukkaren (nmannathukkaren@ is with the Department of International Development Studies, Dalhousie University, Canada.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Hindu.
Political imagination in India has come to a standstill, aiding and abetting the construction of a homogenised cultural and political sphere. The roots of this exist not merely in the right-wing political imagination of a Hindu rashtra but also in the secular sectarianism pursued by secular, democratic and progressive political formations. Secular sectarianism of the feminists, dalits, the Left and religious minorities has, over a period, ghettoised communities and advanced a sectarian political imagination, leading to a political dead-end that they now find difficult to negotiate with. Cumulatively, they all seem to have contributed to a shrinking political imagination that has in turn handsomely contributed to the rise of right-wing politics.
Feminist politics in India was silenced after the Shah Bano Case with right-wing forces demanding a uniform civil code. As a result, it was unable to negotiate the competing demands between women’s rights and that of religious minorities. It is puzzling why it did not proceed along the lines of equating gendered practices in all religions. For instance, whether the Hadith or the Manusmriti or the Bible, all consider women to be impure during the menstrual cycle, along with many other similar sanctioned practices that place women as less than equal to men. In fact, it was Ambedkar who argued that it is only dalits and women who face untouchability due to religious sanctions.
Similarly, sections of dalit politics in India, especially vibrant on social media networks, have adopted a proprietary attitude towards Ambedkar in recent times. This has resulted in an excessive focus on “trivial and emotive issues” centred around the symbol of Ambedkar rather than on structural issues of dalit emancipation. Such “sensational and farcical attempts by Dalit groups” make it also easier for the ruling elites and mainstream caste society to trivialise Ambedkar’s ideas and the question of dalit emancipation (Wankhede 2012). Again, if earlier the idea was that all dispossessed social groups are dalits, irrespective of their caste, today even individuals seeking to annihilate caste are reduced to the caste into which they are born into; a new kind of homo sacer – as bare caste beings. In seeking to construct an authentic standpoint for dalit oppression, there is also an ignorance of oppressions like gender within certain strands of dalit activism. There is a lack of internal critique and this is justified, as Gopal Guru and V Geetha argue, “on the ground that it is not advisable to attack a dalit self which has not even emerged” (2000: 130).
Identitarian Politics
It is this prison of identitarian politics that becomes the breeding ground for right-wing politics. This shift to a narrower interpretation of anti-caste imagery also led to social justice shrinking to mere political representation, most clearly exemplified by the biggest force in dalit politics, the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). If Kanshi Ram gave birth to a movement that is an unprecedented and astounding advancement of the politics of the oppressed in India’s postcolonial history, its later trajectory has focused on the “politics of recognition” based on symbolic empowerment alone rather than one which adds to it the “politics of redistribution” based on material empowerment, a tendency which has reached its apogee under Mayawati.1
While the BSP governments have done an excellent job in ensuring communal peace, the original radical agenda of building a bahujan samaj uniting dalits, Other Backward Classes (OBCs), adivasis and religious minorities has been sacrificed at the altar of electoral expediency. The resultant new imaginations of sarvjan samaj including the savarna castes has ironically reduced the importance of dalits themselves (Teltumbde 2014: 29). The argument that the BSP remains the third largest party in the country (in terms of vote share) and thus faces no threat from right-wing forces is an erroneous one, for it does not recognise the party’s rapidly eroding support base (losing as much as one-third of it in less than a decade).
The attraction of right-wing forces and their buzzword of development for the marginalised castes arises from the vacuum created by the degeneration of the parties and other secular forces seeking to end caste. To believe at this juncture that the BSP stands for an “emancipatory politics for dalits” is ignoring reality (Teltumbde 2014: 29). The right-wing forces like the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are also seeking to appropriate caste by advancing a more de-brahmanised mode of Hinduisation by including leaders from the dalit-bahujan communities. It is not surprising then that sections of the oppressed communities consider the opportunities provided by right-wing political mobilisation as justified mobility towards undoing demeaned social status caused by centuries of abjection.
Dalits being at the margins and the receiving end of the dominant caste society are not the agents on whom the onus is placed to eradicate the horrors of caste, especially when the state and political society create immense divisions among them for their own narrow interests. Dalits do not enjoy political, economic, and cultural power to cause paradigm shifts (Sukumar 2014). But this should not mean that this reality of the force field of caste oppression structured by the dominant castes should exclude a critique of practices of discrimination, including untouchability, within and between various sections of the dalit community or that of gender as already mentioned.
Sectarianism has been rife also with the secular discourse regarding minority rights in India. It not only assumed that Muslims and other religious minorities are homogeneous but their concerns are disconnected from other political discourses in a democracy, mentally and spatially ghettoising them into a segregated social group. For instance, Muslim political organisations could have talked not only about the witch-hunt against Muslims from Azamgarh and alleged encounter killings in Batla House but also about the same kind of exceptionalism being practised against tribals in Chhattisgarh and racial profiling of citizens from north-east India. In the same breath, it would be incumbent to speak of the plight of Hindus in Baluchistan and Bangladesh, as much as the rights of Kashmiri Pundits who lost their homes. It is important to conjoin the rights of Muslims with questioning the views of Syed Ali Shah Geelani on Hindu religious minorities and women in Kashmir.
Expectations from Muslims
Muslims, like the dalits, being a marginalised minority, cannot be expected to be responsible for destroying the logic of communalism and religious majoritarianism. At the same time, the claim to mitigate one’s own marginalisation and oppression has to be sensitive to the claims of others who are similarly oppressed and marginalised. This has not happened often. For instance, Muslims in Kerala are probably the most empowered in the country because of the strength of the Muslim League as a political party, which is in a position to wield state power. But the liberal Muslim League, while playing an important moderating role in dissipating communal tensions, has been a conservative force allied with the power block rather than addressing marginalisations on the basis of class, gender, and caste within the Muslim community or outside. Citizenship as a political practice is instantiated in the right to speak for others, not in speaking just for one’s own self. This becomes important also in a context where neo-liberalism has in a very substantive sense undermined empathy for others, and fraternity and solidarity of all kinds.
Indian democracy, otherwise considered a success story within the postcolonial nations of the world, built its foundations on secular sectarianism of various kinds. This was previously typified as the “Congress System”, where different and conflicting social groups were accommodated within the same political party. This accommodation, however, retained the social status of the groups as they stood into an umbrella formation. It is this politics of forming a coalition of social groups without any sustained attempt to forge intersectional dialogue that is now visibly unworkable and has lead to a sharp decline in the electoral prospects of the Congress. It is this very strategy of maintaining a centrist polity that has gradually shifted rightwards through replicating the same strategy of forging a status-quoist coalition but for a different purpose – of realising a Hindu rashtra – by the right-wing political formations.
This decline of the Congress is made even more pronounced by the simultaneous decline of the left parties that have found themselves in a political landscape that can best be typified as a “no man’s land”. Any progressive social project in India cannot proceed without understanding caste, and it is astounding that even after so many decades, the Left is still grappling with the question. Reports about mainstream communist parties point to their own failures in eradicating caste, not in the larger society, but among their own cadres. But this self-critique has not necessarily translated into a structural programme to counter it.
A society suffused with caste hierarchies and culture (or caste privilege itself masquerading as merit) and the lack of secular spaces, have prepared the ground for the rapid incursion of Hindutva – modified now to incorporate the oppressed castes without dismantling the hierarchy, and modified also to make it a majoritarian ideology tied now with the economic one of neo-liberalism. The failure of the Left in building secular identities, even in their traditional strongholds, is a colossal one. This failure is worsened further by the domination of the upper castes and the exclusion of the marginalised, the dalits, adivasis and Muslims in the communist movement as in West Bengal (though Kerala does much better, especially with regard to the OBCs). Prabhat Patnaik (2013) calls this exclusion an “extraordinary phenomenon”.
New Low for the Left
Despite the historic lows that the parliamentary Left has touched in the recent Lok Sabha elections, there is a distinct refusal to recognise the severity of the crisis that it is facing. Instead, the same old squabbles among different communist parties are resurfacing centred around theoretical inanities like the inevitability of the 1964 split in the Communist Party of India. In pursuit of a “correct line”, it has neither responded to political exigencies nor overcome the dogmas to which it has often fallen victim. Today, it is faced with a difficult choice; of being either pragmatic or dogmatic, both of which have contributed to its sustained decline. There could not be a starker example of secular sectarianism than the numerous divisions within the communist movement when right-wing forces have achieved a parliamentary majority. The pathologies of secular sectarianism are also evident when there are last-minute attempts by the left parties to cobble up “secular” electoral coalitions against communal parties before the national elections. These attempts, supposedly meant to counter “fascist forces”, have inevitably been disastrous.
They are the worst examples of the latest avatars of what Marx had called “parliamentary cretinism”, a systematic reduction of the need for multifaceted social transformation across political, economic and cultural spheres to the politics of electoral adjustments. The mainstream communist parties are in the “conjuncture of late socialism”, a contradictory phase in which the ever growing hegemony of capitalism, its practices and values in all spheres is complemented by the upholding of an empty revolutionary rhetoric which masks the real evanescence of socialist dreams (Mannathukkaren 2010).
Parallel to the Left’s failures in the attempts to annihilate caste and the construction of class-based selves is the emergence of politics that refuses to engage with class. The glossing over by secular formations of identities like caste and oppressions based on them can be justifiably held partly responsible for this identity-based politics. At the same time, they are not entirely to blame either as we have seen with BSP’s trajectory. It is a remarkable paradox that India, which suffers from some of the worst forms of class-based inequities and deprivations, should increasingly generate a politics that glosses over class just as caste was papered over in secular politics. This is especially surprising when there is a significant overlap of caste and class (which nevertheless cannot always be conflated for any resistance struggles). This has serious consequences and is the context in which neo-liberal imaginations of the right become attractive to the exploited classes.
There is a commonly adduced argument from among a dalit-bahujan perspective that the differences between the Right, Left and Centre are immaterial with regard to dalits and the other oppressed castes as the entire political spectrum is equally casteist (Mhaskar 2014). So the binaries of secularism/communalism, Hindu/Hindutva are meaningless as both sides of the binary are equally structured by caste domination. By implication, it does not matter if dalit-bahujans become a part of the Hindutva project (Ilaiah 2014). This is a fallacious and vacuous argument. Even assuming that the different political ideologies are equally marked by visible or invisible caste discrimination, it surely cannot be argued that Hindutva and other political projects are the same when it comes to the question of religious minorities in India. The devastating consequences of religious nationalism are starkly evident, especially in terms of the state of the Muslim population in India. The dalit-bahujan argument that Hindutva is a bogey imagined by the (casteist) secular intellectual trivialises the significant numbers of lives lost in communal violence (of which a vast majority are lower caste). Further, it is ironical when we consider that the nearly 18 crore Muslim population is overwhelmingly lower caste. For instance, the Pasmanda Muslims on many indicators are worse off than the dalits. Again, the pitfalls of secular sectarianism that seeks the liberation of one’s own without worrying about the consequences for the other are evident.
The dalit-bahujan argument that materially too, there are no differences with regard to the Right, the Left and other political formations when it comes to the oppressed castes does not stand up to empirical scrutiny. Despite the ensconcing of the Left movement in caste hierarchies, the successes of class struggles have had a direct material impact on dalit-bahujan communities. The best example of this is the agrarian reforms instituted in Kerala, which are considered as the most radical and comprehensive land reforms in India. While even these did not grant land to the actual tiller of the soil – the dalit agricultural labourer – the securing of tiny plots of homestead land by the agricultural labourer, and a slew of laws protecting manual labour with regard to wages, working hours, pensions and so on (Mannathukkaren 2011) have led to the most empowered working classes in the country. This in turn has significantly contributed to at least some aspects of dalit well-being like health, education, fertility and nutrition.
The same is the case with Dravidian political mobilisations in Tamil Nadu, which even when operating in a hierarchical relationship with regard to the dalits, have had an important impact on human development indicators of dalits, far superior to those achieved by right-wing governance as in Gujarat. Therefore, the differences between political and ideological regimes, when it comes to caste, are not meaningless. The struggles by the dalits and adivasis in Kerala to complete the land reforms in Kerala, and the opposition of the dominant communist parties to them demonstrates, on the one hand, the significance of class, and on the other, is a telling commentary on the state of the communist movement in India.
While capital and the market depend on a process of individuation, progressive politics has to move towards affinity and an idea of shared spaces rather than focus on mere claims of essentialised identity, notwithstanding the contribution “identity politics” has made in highlighting the concerns of some of the most marginalised social groups in India. This, in essence, is also the difference with right-wing political mobilisations. Otherwise, there would be very little distinction between the sectarianism of the “democratic” kind and the divisive politics of the RSS, the BJP, the Bajrang Dal, and the Vishva Hindu Parishad.
Opening Internal Dialogue
The way forward seems to be in opening up internal dialogue within communities as across them. These will have to necessarily go together. This will include raising difficult questions such as masculinity within anti-caste movements that attract them towards far-right groups like the Shiv Sena, communal sentiments and inward-looking philosophy of the dominant sections of Muslims, the unholy alliance between the politically powerful and their convenient interpretations of the Koran which disallows a more progressive interpretation of justice and equality being the core pillars of Islam.
Questions are also to be asked about the self-righteous tendencies in the Left that refuses to listen and learn that social change cannot be programmed, scientific and sanitised but carries with it a load of uncertainties that need to be incessantly made sense of and within them find the possibilities to break the condensation of the polity into a majoritarian construct. The same goes for the Left’s failure in aligning with non-class democratic organisations and its mutual contempt for other left-based political mobilisations. The time has long passed for the parallel running streams of the Left and anti-caste movements to merge. There could not be a more critical juncture than the current one.
Majoritarianism in Indian polity today is growing in the interstices of secular sectarianism that left unanswered various inconvenient questions pertaining to social groups that were considered as the subaltern. It is within this space and growing possibility of conflicts within the subaltern on the one hand, and joining in alliance with the traditional social elite on the other that right-wing political mobilisation is finding its new space and turning democracy on its head. There cannot be a reversal of this without recognising the intersectionality of oppression and exploitation, and overcoming it. As Bell Hooks argues:
the struggle to end sexist oppression that focuses on destroying the cultural basis for such domination strengthens other liberation struggles. Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression (2000: 40).
At the same time, this does not mean an anodyne and predetermined recognition that all oppressions are equal and have the same material and symbolic consequences. This is something for actual struggles on the ground to determine.
In terms of dialogue and solidarity within and across communities, a few examples can be cited. The Dalit Intellectuals’ Collective is one. It seeks to critique the dominant caste society and its hierarchies, and at the same time wants an “audit of the dalit intellectual tradition and culture, which create and sustain internal hierarchies” and thus involve dalit intellectuals as well as non-dalit interrogators (Guru and Geetha 2000: 13). The question is how to translate this intellectual initiative into larger political movements. With regard to class, there is a need to go back to examples like the radical potential exhibited by the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra in the 1970s when it “understood caste and class as integral themes” in the revolution of the oppressed (Wankhede 2013: 23).
Similarly, within the Muslim community, the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind’s (JIH) transformation to engage with secularism is a significant development. This is especially so in the case of the Kerala, where the Jamaat movement is at the strongest (Anand 2012). There its movement has made a robust attempt to reach across to other communities, especially dalits, through social and economic programmes, forums for intercommunity dialogue, publishing a critical and secular newspaper (with an impressive circulation), magazines and so on. It has simultaneously intervened within the community by critiquing the conservative leadership, extremist trends and wrong interpretation of concepts like Jihad, and pushing for a progressive transformation of the religion. The movement is definitely not without blemishes; for example, its complicated relationship to its founding ideology of Islamic revivalism, or the fact that the movement is still upper-caste dominated. Nevertheless, what is significant is a new mode of political and intellectual engagement that has the potential to achieve critical dimensions.
These are some possibilities of the present. Whether they actually fructify to escape the current political and ideological morass remains to be seen.
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