Making India Great Again?
The political weakness of the BJS and Nehru’s towering influence within the INC ensured that there were few serious challenges to India’s secular ethos and practices during the first several decades of Indian independence, and that the country made progress on a range of social issues that could have easily rent the nascent republic apart. Between 1952 and 1956, for example, under Nehru’s tutelage, the Indian parliament passed four bills that significantly reformed a range of Hindu customs and practices. Quite predictably, the BJS insisted that Muslim personal laws relating to matters such as divorce and inheritance also be modernized. However, Nehru demurred, arguing that Muslims had just emerged from the trauma of the subcontinent’s partition and that the issue should be deferred. In consequence, Indian Muslims retained a separate legal code on personal matters.
Despite Nehru’s own initial opposition, the country also resolved, through the States Reorganization Act of 1956, another issue: the demand that India’s states be organized on a linguistic basis. Nehru had originally opposed this idea, fearing that it could balkanize the country. However, he changed his mind when faced with relentless pressure, including the death of Potti Sreeramulu, an activist who fasted to death in December 1952 during the struggle to gain statehood for what would later become Telugu-speaking Andhra Pradesh. The success of this legislation laid the groundwork for the accommodation of similar demands based on cultural diversity and distinctiveness, and mostly without violence. Notable among them is the persistent requirement that a proportion of admissions to educational institutions and governmental job openings be earmarked for India’s disadvantaged castes and tribal peoples.
Despite these successes, the first few decades of Indian independence were hardly free from ethnic and religious tensions. Hindu-Muslim riots erupted periodically, Muslims faced discrimination in various walks of life (as did lower-caste Hindus), social intermingling among the communities was limited and the push to declare Hindi the official language provoked riots in the south. Still, the apparatus of the Indian state did not regularly harass or intimidate Muslims, nor give Hindu zealots license to demonize or persecute them. That it does so now is owed to the atrophy of the Congress Party, which controlled the central government almost continuously from 1947 to 1977, when Indira Gandhi’s electoral gambit backfired and led to a coalition government headed by the Janata Party.
It was Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, who opened the floodgates to the anti-secular tide now sweeping India despite a personal commitment to secularism (she married the parliamentarian Feroze Gandhi, a member of the miniscule Zoroastrian community known as Parsis). Her father had carefully fashioned and nurtured a range of institutions suited to reconciling India’s great cultural and religious differences through bargaining, promoted mores of civil discourse, and cultivated a nationalism unmoored from religion and ethnicity. In marked contrast, his daughter eventually undermined many of these institutions and values, sometimes in response to crises and at other times driven by electoral opportunism.
Worse, as her popularity dwindled and Congress declined as a political force, she pandered to sectarianism. Perhaps the most momentous example was her promotion of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a violent but charismatic Sikh preacher in the state of Punjab, in order to undermine the Akali Dal, a local political party and member of the Janata Party–led coalition government. Her ploy boomeranged to deadly effect once the Congress Party regained power in 1980. By then, Bhindranwale had become a formidable political persona and a proponent of a separate Sikh state. He and his followers commandeered the Golden Temple, one of the holiest Sikh shrines, turning it into a command post for a statewide ethnoreligious insurgency. Unable to quell the rebellion using the police and paramilitary forces, in June 1984 Gandhi deployed the Indian Army to evict Bhindranwale and his acolytes from the temple. Bhindranwale was killed during the shoot-out, but became greater as a martyr than he ever was in life.
Worse was yet to come: two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards took revenge by assassinating her on October 30, 1984, which in turn unleashed a pogrom against Sikhs in New Delhi, leaving three thousand Sikhs massacred and many dead in other cities. Their property was pillaged, and Sikh women were raped. Key individuals within the Congress Party egged on or even joined the attackers, and police failed to protect the victims—or, some say, were even complicit.
Indira Gandhi’s political heirs did little to roll back the forces she had unleashed. Her son and immediate successor, Rajiv Gandhi, a political neophyte and former airline pilot, made a feeble attempt to restore the Congress Party’s vitality and original spirit. However, once he encountered resistance from party stalwarts he quickly abandoned those efforts. Moreover, he too had a tendency to indulge divisive impulses. For instance, when the Indian Supreme Court issued a judgment in 1986 granting an indigent Muslim woman, Shah Bano, alimony, he used his parliamentary majority to overturn the judgment—a decision made with an eye on the orthodox Muslim vote.