High voltage campaigns of political parties are on in the poll-bound West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Puducherry for seeking the votes of the electorate and a clear mandate to govern. It is in the context of these high-decibel election campaigns, it is worthwhile to recall a question put to Mahatma Gandhi in the erstwhile Madras province in 1925.
“What is the duty of the voters in the coming elections to the Legislative Council?”
More than the question the answers Mahatma Gandhi gave while responding to it assumes critical significance not only for the voters of the poll-bound regions but also the voters across the country.
He asked, “If I were a voter and if I exercise the right to vote”, and answered by stating “I will first of all scan the candidates from top to bottom”. It is instructive that Mahatma Gandhi gave priority to examine the candidates thoroughly in the first instance before making up his mind to cast his vote in favour of a selected candidate.
The next thing he wanted to do was to find out if among all candidates at least one man was wearing khadi from top to bottom and in case he failed to do so then he would refrain from voting. And in case he would trace a candidate wearing khadi, he would ask him if he used Khadi dress for that occasion or he put on them habitually at home and outside. He maintained that he would not cast his vote in case the answer to that question would be negative.
He would next ask the question, “It is extremely good that you always wear khaddar. Do you also spin for the sake of the masses at least for half an hour?” And in case he was satisfied with the answer he would ask, “Do you believe in Hindu-Muslim-Parsi-Christian- Jewish unity?” A satisfactory answer to it would lead him to ask questions such as, “Do you believe in the removal of untouchability,” and “Do you favour total immediate prohibition even though every one of our schools will have to be closed for want of revenue?”
If he got positive answers, he would ask another question to ascertain if he was sound on the Brahmin-non-Brahmin question. With affirmative answers, he would cast his vote for that candidate. His decision to vote for a candidate was determined by the issues and not religious or caste identities which often guide voters to cast their votes in large parts of India.
The above questions of Gandhi were only illustrative and not exhaustive and he wanted people never to be satisfied until the above questions were asked and many more were added to them.
Significance of Gandhi’s questions
It is noteworthy that of all the questions Gandhi asked, the one where he asks – “Do you believe in Hindu-Muslim-Parsi-Christian- Jewish unity?” – bears special significance in the present context of majoritarianism and polarisation tendencies being promoted by several leaders by shouting Jai Shriram slogan for dividing Hindus and Muslims.
In Bengal as also elsewhere people of the Muslim community are fearful of such slogans, which they say are designed to dominate them and deny the way in which they would pursue their own faiths. The statement of the leader of a political party that if Mamata Banerjee wins Bengal would be turned to “Mini Pakistan” is demonstrative of communal politics that deeply divide people along religious lines.
So Gandhi’s assertion that those candidates who do not believe in Hindu-Muslim-Parsi-Christian- Jewish unity should not get the votes of people sounds so contemporary to 21st century India, when politics, based on the exclusion of one community over another, is being promoted, and nationalism is being conflated with Hindutva by some political leaders who occupy high positions in the machinery of governance.
Divisive ‘love jihad’ and ‘land jihad’
It is quite shocking that the narrative centring around “love jihad” is becoming central to the campaign plank of BJP in several states. The essence of “love jihad” is the promotion of acrimony and bitterness among Hindus and Muslims.
It prevents individuals to exercise their freedom and choice, regardless of their religion to choose someone of any faith for forging a matrimonial alliance, in tune with the parliament-enacted Special Marriage Act.
In several states, ruled by the BJP, “love jihad” legislations have been enacted primarily to target interfaith couples and take punitive measures against the Muslim spouses of such couples. When the political regimes headed by BJP and top leaders of ruling political party in India use the instrumentality of the law to prevent heart unity among people belonging to different faiths, and when such measures are used for electoral politics, the voters need to decide if they would give their votes to those who openly promote disunity among Hindus-Muslims-Parsis-
Now in Assam, for the first time, the idea of “land jihad” is occupying a prominent place in the election manifesto of the BJP. All such terms, as part of the election campaign and mobilisation of votes, are spreading communal poison and breaking interfaith harmony.
While speaking in Calcutta (now Kolkata) on May 1, 1925 Mahatma Gandhi said, “I do not want to interfere with the politics of Bengal or India today.” In the same breath, he referred to Hindu-Muslim unity, which according to him meant unity between all the races that inhabited India. He then appealed by saying, “Hindus and Mussalmans, if it is at all possible for you without shedding a drop of blood, do come together and embrace each other as brothers in arms.”
Current polarised scenario
It is indeed tragic that no political leader in India today is invoking such a vision of unity and fraternity of faiths fearing the loss of Hindu votes. Such is the poisonous impact of majoritarianism and polarising forces which define the political and electoral narrative.
In an article “Beware of Ourselves” published in Young India on January 26, 1922 Gandhi wrote, “Whether we are Hindus or Mussulmans or what does not matter. The spirit of democracy which we want to spread throughout India cannot be spread by violence whether verbal or physical, whether direct, indirect, or threatened.”
The way democracy in 21st century India is getting shaped through majoritarian and polarising forces has given rise to violence and assault on freedom and civil liberties of people. That is why India is now called “partly free” and an “electoral autocracy”.
Can the political leaders of India appeal, like Gandhi did in 1925, to voters not to vote for those who do not plead for “Hindu-Muslim-Parsi-Christian- Jewish unity”? Or, as Gandhi put on March 22, 1925, “If the Hindus and Mussalmans do not unite reasonably, they will unite forcibly, because one party cannot lead this country; and so long as there are some Hindus and some Mussalmans with whom the unity of all the races is an article of faith. I have every hope that we shall unite and unite whole-heartedly.”
We in India have enough of such people who believe in the unity of all people regardless of their faiths. Their vision of unity as enshrined in the constitution would triumph over the polarisation and majoritarian tendencies. Inclusion of non-violence in the Preamble of the constitution as suggested by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik to stem the tide of divisive and polarising politics constitutes hope for the Republic of India.
S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India, K.R. Narayanan.