Why Rahul Gandhi’s candlelight vigil was light at the end of a very long tunnel

The Congress and its president have been worryingly silent over several recent instances of majority assertion.

 |  6-minute read |   15-04-2018
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Recently, activist Harsh Mander wrote a column –“Sonia, sadly” – to voice his disillusionment with what he saw as abdication of responsibility by Congress in protecting the rights of Muslims, who are getting increasingly marginalised in India’s political landscape.

Mander took exception to Sonia Gandhi’s speech at the India Today conclave, where she spoke about how the ruling BJP had successfully managed to “convince” people of the grand old party being a “Muslim party”. She also admitted to Rahul Gandhi’s temple hopping in the run-up to the Gujarat elections as being an attempt to shed that anti-Hindu image, after getting “pushed into a corner”. 

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Though I agreed with the perspective of Mander and the political imperatives of Sonia Gandhi and the Congress, it has to be noted that Mander’s fears are only getting more and more validated in the backdrop of the Rasana case; better known as the Kathua rape case. Though the incident came to light in January, it received national attention only this past week, when the lawyers of the Kathua bar tried to resist the filing of charge sheet by the Jammu and Kashmir Crime Branch on April 9.

It has been reported that the Magistrate had to be persuaded for six hours to get the case finally admitted on the next day. On Tuesday, the Bar association of Jammu called for a Jammu Bandh on April 11, to protest the filing of the charge sheet and demanding that the case be handed over to the CBI. What was truly shocking was that all the mainstream political parties in Jammu – including the Congress –lent their support to this bandh.

While the civil society expected secular and liberal politicians to speak out against this conscience-shaking act of horrific violence perpetrated on a little girl, Congress President Rahul Gandhi remained curiously silent and issued a tweet only in the evening of April 12 to condemn the incident. The tweet seemed to have come a bit too late, as his silence was already the subject of a Twitter debate the previous evening.

Some commentators assumed the silence was strategic owing to “vote-bank politics”, a euphemism for communal or appeasement politics. It was suspected that the ambivalent stance of the Jammu unit of the party had something to do with the leader’s silence.

Despite the tweet taking a long time coming, it seemed the late realisation of the blood-curdling nature of the case – reminiscent of the Nirbhaya case of 2012 in some ways – spurred the party into quick redressal, through a late-night announcement of a midnight candle light vigil at India Gate. A spontaneous gathering of people from all walks of life at that march gave further impetus to the cause, which has finally forced the central government to acknowledge it.

Though some people would tend to see Gandhi’s leading of a candle light vigil to highlight this issue as political, I would disagree. Moreover, even if it were political, it wouldn’t matter to me in the larger interest of the nation. Let me explain why: Much like Mander’s own scepticism and lament of the Congress party’s ostensible dilution of secular convictions, I have also been deeply distressed by the party’s calculated silence on a few occasions.

During the campaigning phase of Gujarat assembly elections, the video of the horrific lynching and burning of migrant labourer Afrazul by Hindutva-inspired Shambhulal Regar emerged from Rajsamund, but Rahul Gandhi chose to maintain a strategic silence on the matter for fear of polarisation in Gujarat. Despite my unease, I believed the shameful silence would be an exception since Gujarat is one state where the Hindutva project is almost complete and has emerged as the dominant philosophy.

But just a couple of months later, in the run-up to the Alwar and Ajmer parliamentary by-elections, Rahul Gandhi went to great lengths to make sure that he didn’t take on the Karni Sena – which had unleashed violence in many parts of the state and across the country as part of the Padmaavat protests – by name. As the Karni Sena had already exhorted the Rajputs, who make up sizeable numbers in these constituencies, to vote against the BJP, it was assumed that the strategy was to ensure that these votes weren’t jeopardised by naming and taking them on.

In the light of these events, I wondered if our polity had begun to emulate our near-theocratic neighbour: Pakistan. It seemed we were on the slippery slope towards majoritarianism a la Pakistan, where every political party appeases fundamentalists in varying degrees.

After our polity took a dual-party shape since the late-nineties, the choice for a majority of people is limited to either the Hindutva majoritarian BJP or a weakened Congress. Despite the omissions and commissions and the major blot of 1984 riots in its resume, it is a widely held belief that secularism is an article of faith for the Congress.

But ever since the RSS managed to spread its tentacles afar into major spheres of social and political life in India, which has become much more evident in the last decade, the grand old party has been boxed into a corner, where they have to burnish their Hindu identity at regular intervals to prevent being labelled Anti-Hindu. The matter has come to such a pass that the Gandhi scion has to declare himself a “Shiv-bhakt” publicly to make sure that “Hindu” votes aren’t alienated.

While I fully understand this dilemma, I hope it is not an unrealistic desire to expect the Congress President to fight for the reclamation of a secular India while simultaneously remaining conscious of electoral imperatives. We are currently positioned at the edge of a cliff and if Congress chooses to abandon secular politics through appeasement of majoritarian sentiments, we could be in for a free fall. That would sound the death-knell for our secular polity as we know it and we would then begin to hurtle towards a majoritarian state.

We have already witnessed how the different pillars of democracy have begun to buckle under pressure under the present regime. Apart from a section of the media that has doubled up as government propagandists, even the judiciary and institutions like the Election Commission have come under a cloud.

Though the Sangh Parivar’s intention would be to keep chipping away at the foundations of our democratic republic, it is incumbent upon the Congress as the major opposition party and Rahul Gandhi as its leader to lead the charge against this assault.

While we imagined all along that our secular republic and the Constitution would be impregnable for the Hindutva ideology – that has continued to survive and thrive after losing out at the dawn of Independence – that may not be true anymore. It is up to every single citizen in this country to ensure that the cherished values of our Constitution are nurtured and protected from antediluvian and regressive forces.

But for neutral and liberal folks to vote the Congress, it has to ensure that the party and their leader is man enough to take the principled stand on issues. A renewed pledge to stand up for all the marginalised and peripheral segments of society – including the Muslim community under the prevailing circumstances – is in order.

Also read: What Kathua and Unnao rapes reveal about BJP’s India

Writer

Anand Kochukudy Anand Kochukudy @anandkochukudy

The writer is a political journalist and lapsed academic.

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