Communists and the Struggle for Secularism


Prakash Karat

The history of the Communist movement in India in the past 100 years has certain common characteristics like the Communist parties in other countries which arose after the formation of the Communist International in 1919.  The Communist Party in India was born and emerged in the phase of severe repression by the British colonial rulers.  The development of the class-based workers and peasants organisations were due to the work of the early Communists.  The anti-imperialist and anti-feudal struggles which unleashed made an important contribution to the freedom struggle.  It is a story of sacrifices and struggles against heavy odds. 

But there were two particular features which directly impinged on the class struggle, the development of a Communist Party-led national liberation struggle and, after independence, the struggle for people’s democracy.  These two features are, in some sense, unique to Indian society – religious communalism and caste.  For instance, in China, the Communists did not face either of these problems when they set about building the Communist Party and forging a national united front against imperialism and advancing towards a new democracy.  

When we are observing the centenary of the formation of the Communist Party in India, it will be useful to look back on the experience of the Communist Party struggle against communalism as it is inextricably linked to the advancement of the class struggle.  The issue of caste cannot be taken here as it will need a more detailed and separate treatment. 

As against the Gandhian idea of Hindu-Muslim communal unity, the early Communists – M. N. Roy, Muzaffar Ahmed, Singaravelu Chettiar and others – advocated the revolutionary idea of class unity.  They took the position that it is the fight against exploitation and British imperialism which will bring the Hindu and Muslim peasants and workers together.  Only through class unity can the caste and communal barriers amongst the people be broken.  

However, years of experience taught the Indian Communists that communalism in India is a more complex phenomenon with ideological, social and cultural dimensions. Hindu communalism had begun rearing its head in the last quarter of the 19th century.  Muslim communalism followed two decades later.  The freedom struggle had to constantly encounter the problem of communalism which sought to divide the Indian people.  It was only when the freedom struggle became a mass movement involving the millions of peasants and working people that the communal forces got contained to a certain extent.  However, this could not prevent the partition of India on religious lines when independence came in 1947.  

The Communist Party in the pre-independence period fought communalism of both varieties consistently.  During the communal riots at the time of partition, both in Bengal and Punjab, the Communists played a heroic role, far above its actual strength, in protecting people subject to violence and standing firmly for communal harmony at a time when many leaders and activists of the bourgeois parties were swept away by the communal passions. 

Given this history of communal divide and violence overshadowing independence, it became crucial for the Communist Party to champion secularism and ensure that it became the bedrock of the new Indian State and Constitution.  The Constitution of India adopted in 1950 did not explicitly define India as a secular Republic.  Secularism was indirectly expressed by stating that there would be no discrimination of citizens on the basis of religion and the  State would not privilege one religion over another.  The secular ethos was established mainly due to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose commitment to secularism was firm.  It was later in 1976 that through a Constitutional amendment, the term India is a “secular” Republic was introduced. 

But, over the years, the practice of secularism by the bourgeois-landlord classes was of such a nature that it eroded the very principle of secularism.  As the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Programme states: 

“The secular principle is enshrined in the Constitution and the values of secular democracy are proclaimed by the big bourgeois leadership of the State. However, the practice of secularism by the bourgeoisie has been flawed. They try to distort the whole concept of secularism. They would have the people believe that instead of complete separation of religion and politics, secularism means freedom for all religious faiths to equally interfere in the affairs of the State and political life. Instead of firmly combating the anti-secular trends, the bourgeoisie often gives concessions and strengthens them.” (Para 5.7) 

The definition of secularism, as understood by the Communists, is the strict separation of religion and the State and the non-interference of religion in politics.  But this is not accepted by even some liberals and secular-minded parties.  They say that the Western concept of secularism cannot work in the Indian conditions.  They say secularism in India should be defined as the State treating all religions equally.  By this, they also imply that all religions should have an equal say  in political and public affairs.  According to the Communists, this opens the way for the majority religious group to demand a greater say in matters of the State and politics. 

Communalism also thrives because it is used as an instrument by the ruling classes to divide the working people to ensure that their class rule is maintained.  Communalism is, thus, not an abstract threat as far as the working class is concerned.  It is a potent weapon to divide and break up the unity of the class.  Once communal ideology penetrates the working class, it loses its capacity to play a revolutionary role and ends up  as a tool in the hands of the reactionary forces. 

Secularism is anathema for the RSS and the Hindutva forces.  The rise of the BJP in the mid-80s saw a concerted attack on the very concept of secularism.  Secularism, as practiced in India, was denounced as pseudo secularism by the then BJP President L. K. Advani.  He argued that the BJP stood for “genuine secularism”.  According to him, India was secular because of Hinduism.  So genuine secularism was actually a euphemism for Hindu majoritarianism.  

The CPI(M) and the Left forces, therefore, had to struggle on two fronts.  Firstly, it had to counter the vacillating and compromising type of secularism being practiced by successive governments, particularly the Narasimha Rao government.  The manner in which Prime Minister Narasimha Rao compromised with the RSS and facilitated the demolition of the Babri Masjid showed how disastrous it was for the country’s unity and secularism to compromise with the communal forces.    

Secondly, it had to confront the Hindutva communal forces and counter their efforts to assault the secular-democratic principle.  It should be noted that where the CPI(M) and Left became a strong force, as in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, the machinations of the Hindutva forces were foiled in the 1990s and the 2000s.  When the West Bengal Left Front government was there, there were no communal riots after the Babri Masjid was demolished.  The minorities faced no attacks in this period in Bengal when large parts of the country were engulfed in communal violence which led to the death of over 2000 people.  In Kerala, the CPI(M) fought back attacks by the RSS which was trying to use physical force to try and expand its influence. 

Unfortunately, after the Left Front got weakened and the Left Front governments were defeated in West Bengal and Tripura, the communal forces were able to make headway in these two states. 

This underlines the truth that only a strong Communist and Left movement can fight the communal forces and defend secularism.  

The political-tactical line adopted by the CPI(M) since its 14th Congress in 1992 was aimed to keep the BJP out of power after it emerged as the largest opposition party in the 1991 general elections. The support extended to the United  Front government in 1996 and subsequently to the UPA government in 2004 was mainly intended to defend the secular principle which would be under threat if the BJP came to power. 

With the BJP winning the 2014 Lok Sabha election and the Modi government being formed, the CPI(M) Programme warning had relevance: 

The threat to the secular foundations has become menacing with the rise of the communal and fascistic RSS-led combine and its assuming power at the Centre.  Systematic efforts are on to communalise the institutions of the State, the administration, the educational system and the media.” 

This was stated with reference to the Vajpayee government, which existed from 1998 to 2004. Now with the Modi government having come back to power with a bigger majority in the 2019 election, the danger posed by the RSS-BJP combine is much more. 

During the five years in power in the first term, the Constitutional framework and the principles of democracy and secularism were damaged considerably.  After assuming power for the second time, the Modi government has stepped up its assault on the Constitution and secularism.  The very definition of citizenship, which is secular in the Constitution, is going to be subverted with the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the NRC process.  The CAB provides for eligibility of citizenship based on religious affiliation. 

The attack on secularism is also mounted by the Hindutva forces by espousing Hindu nationalism. Nationalism has to be secular, otherwise it is not nationalism.  The “nationalism” of Hindus is not Indian nationalism.  Modi has been using this sectarian-chauvinist nationalism to establish Hindutva hegemony.  The Communists must counter this fake nationalism with a strong anti-imperialist, secular nationalism. 

Anti-secular values and ideas are being infiltrated into the institutions of the State and Constitutional bodies.  A latest glaring instance is the assault on the special status of Jammu & Kashmir and  the dismantling of the state itself.  The hostility towards Jammu & Kashmir is because it is a Muslim majority state.  Therefore, in the eyes of the RSS-BJP rulers, they do not have the right to exist as a state.  

It is only the CPI(M) and the Left who are consistent defenders of the secular principle. They cannot compromise with the anti-secular forces in any way.  It is only party to conduct a campaign in support of the rights of the people of J&K. 

According to the CPI(M), the fight to defend secularism cannot be confined to the Constitutional-legal arena.  The battle is primarily a political one. Unless the BJP-RSS forces are isolated and defeated, secularism cannot be safeguarded.  This requires the mobilization of wider sections of people around a secular-democratic programme.  Such a programme has to include the struggle against the anti-people economic policies of the Modi government. It is these struggles which will help us to forge class unity among people belonging to different castes and religious groups – the class unity about which the early Communists talked about.  

Thus, the struggle to defend secularism and democracy has to be an intertwined one – the struggle against the Hindutva communalism combined with struggle against the neo-liberal policies. To achieve this, the Communists should work out tactics to build united platforms and movements which can encompass the broadest sections of the people in defence of democracy, secularism and people’s livelihood. 


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