The news of former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s death was conveyed to the world by the 2 pm news bulletin of AIR on 27th May 1964. His will released to the public on 3 June 1964 stated that his ashes be: “scattered over the fields where the peasants of India toil so that they might mingle with the dust and soil of India and become an indistinguishable part of India.”
Nehru was successful in steering India away from authoritarianism and communalism during his 17-year rule.
For the seventeen years that Nehru was Prime Minister, he had been successful in keeping the fabric of India’s unity intact under his leadership without hopping onto the bandwagon of authoritarian post-colonial societies. However, with his death, India was plunged into the darkness; also known as the ‘After Nehru’ era.
Identity politics is the politics of opportunism. Partition— indeed was the highest stage of it but with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, identity politics lost its legitimacy and faded into the background for some time. That being said, it never disappeared completely and cropped up at the first sign of distress.
Congress has time and again dipped its toes in communal politics for the sake of the ballot. Once the reactionary and the leftist forces in the opposition were arrested after the imposition of the Emergency, it was Sanjay Gandhi who emerged as a leader of the Youth Congress and took on the reins during the Emergency.
Sanjay was a pro-Hindutva ideologue and Muslims had to endure the worst of his bigotry enforced in the form of ‘family planning’ and a development agenda, which bulldozed many slums. Maneka Gandhi too assisted him in managing the day to day business of the government during the emergency.
This period in Indian history provides a template for the populist right-wing politics of the 80s and the 90s, and both the Congress and the opposition parties appropriated this sort of politics. The congress led by Rajiv Gandhi in the general elections of 1984, won 49.10% seats, the largest margin to date. Having said that, some historians have cited Rajiv Gandhi’s victory in 1984 as Indira Gandhi’s return to politics for a fourth term.
The reason for this are many and varied— many of the votes were cast out of sympathy due to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and it is not mere speculation to say that Congress benefited in the elections from the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. In November 1984, Muslim massacres were also taking place in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
The Ram Janmabhoomi campaign was helped by Sanjay Gandhi’s appeasement of Hindutva idealogues.
Rajiv Gandhi is accused of communalizing Indian politics because he reversed the supreme court judgement in the Shah Bano case, appeasing conservative Muslims, who were angered by the decision of the court, through a constitutional amendment. Contrarily, he also appeased Hindutva ideologues, by opening gates of the disputed Babri mosque, which had been locked in 1949.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad had been running an incessant campaign since 1983 for the liberation of the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi (Birthplace of Ram)’ by demolishing the Babri mosque, and even when BJP leaders had assured in the Parliament that the mosque would not be demolished, in 1990 they went onto organising the Ram Rath Yatra— led by L. K. Advani, to rally support for the construction of a Ram Mandir, at the place of the Babri mosque.
Identity politics in the eighties and the nineties was influential to an extent, that its presence was felt even in the women’s movement of the ’80s. It defined the nature of the women’s movement in India, as the leadership of the movement used religious symbols and imagery for widespread appeal among the masses— for e.g. Kali was projected as a symbol of female power.
The Assam Accord of 1985 signed, in the presence of Rajiv Gandhi between the leaders of the Assam Movement, represented by AASU (All Assam Students Union)— a right-wing group and the government of India, was an agreement that allowed the deportation of any Bangladeshi immigrants who had entered Assam after March 25, 1971. Even when Indira Gandhi’s administration had already accepted the estimated ten million refugees who had left Bangladesh and entered Indian territory during the Bangladesh liberation war.
While some of these refugees went back, some had stayed on. The leaders of the Assam movement agreed to accept immigrants, who had entered Assam prior to 1966, as full-fledged citizens and were ready to give them the right to vote, while those who entered India between 1966 and 1971, would not be allowed the right to vote but would be allowed to stay on, while those who entered India after 1971, would be deported.
In November 1989, Janata Dal under V.P. Singh’s leadership formed an alliance with the BJP to form a government at the centre. The BJP had gone up from 2 seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989, by growing its strength on the Ram Mandir issue. The V.P. Singh administration completely failed to handle the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits from the valley. J&K was under the governor’s rule at the time of this exodus and a name that frequently arises infamously with regards to this issue is that of Jagmohan, who later joined hands with the BJP.
LK Advani was one of the Hindutva ideologues that spearheaded the movement.
During Jagmohan’s time as governor, militancy peaked in Kashmir. The government also acted complacently in rehabilitating the Pandits after the exodus. Instead of resettling them, they let those who had been targeted, perish in refugee camps in Jammu. Following this migration, the BJP drew up a list of 55 temples ‘destroyed’ in Kashmir, and on the day of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in a rally organised outside it, Lal Krishna Advani in a provocative speech was quoted saying: “Everyone wants to defend Babri Masjid, none of them has spoken a word of criticism about the 55 temples destroyed in Kashmir.”
While communal politics in India grew and spiralled out of hand because parties saw the chance of victory in the usage of a right-wing populist agenda, the centrists faltered on many levels, by granting concessions to fundamentalists, at different periods of time, on both sides, resulting in a chain reaction in India politics, whose repercussions are being felt by us, even today.