Sep 12, 2011

Secularism, Politics and Hindutva...

In a couple of my earlier posts, I have mentioned my appreciation for Dr Subramanian Swamy & Janata Party - their agenda, and some of the good work they've done. Not surprisingly, some people found this outrageous, since Swamy - like the BJP - is considered 'communalist' and therefore unacceptable to the majority of the Indian intelligentsia.

I consider this very unfortunate, because the so-called 'secular' argument against Swamy & the BJP is quite hollow - as I will try to demonstrate in this post. Yet it has somehow been very effective in alienating the likes of Swamy from the educated middle-class which - ironically - should really be his support base, considering the fit between his politico-economic agenda & approach, and their own needs & values.

Meanwhile, their political opponents continue to successfully indulge in and benefit from divisive vote-bank politics by appeasing every imaginable minority as defined by caste, religion, language or ethnicity! Somehow this does not seem to offend the sensibilities of Indian intelligentsia and I struggle to understand why. Is this hypocrisy, or moral posturing, or just a case of being brainwashed by propaganda? I suspect it is a combination of the last two.

Anyway, to set the record straight, we have to examine the subject in a very detailed and dispassionate manner. While I am not really qualified to do so, I shall attempt this to the best of my ability, and welcome constructive feedback & debate.

1. Understanding the Basic Concept of Secularism.

Before the beginning of the modern industrial age, science wasn't developed enough to offer explanations for the majority of phenomena people observed and experienced in their lives. Since human beings are most uncomfortable with uncertainty, they turned to religion for answers. Of course, these answers were generally baseless and had to be taken on faith - to be accepted as the 'word of god' as interpreted by the clergy. This worked while there was no alternative, and perhaps no desire to look for one.

But things changed with the advent of the modern age. Humanity began to develop a scientific temper through the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment, culminating in the Industrial Revolution. The scientific method is based on facts and logical reasoning - empirical or experimental evidence. It does not accept anything on faith alone.

Secularism was essentially the extension of this idea to government. The scientific mind wanted to be governed based on laws and policies based on facts and logic - that made sense and seemed fair, and were based exclusively on considerations of this life. The very existence of God, the soul or the afterlife is at best unproven, and cannot be the basis or motive for any action. Therefore, secularism meant the rule of law rather than superstition, and a government acting on reason & principles, rather than religious beliefs.

This does not mean religion had no place in the modern world. The 'separation' simply meant that religion could not be a basis for government action, and conversely, the people would be free to practice their religions and the government would not discriminate on religious basis.

2. Pseudo-Secularism in current Indian Politics

Now, if you critically examine the 'secularism' issue in Indian politics today - you would realize that it doesn't quite relate with the concept of 'secularism' defined above. No major political party in India - including the BJP and Swamy's Janata Party - has ever governed in a manner based predominantly on religious beliefs or even expressed a desire to. All popular parties respect the constitution and no one important has called for the existing body of laws to be replaced by the Sharia or any Hindu equivalent. There have been multiple BJP governments at the center and in several states, and all of them have followed proper social and economic agendas, and operated within secular, democratic principles.

True, they have a strong Hindu skew and are dominated by people who have strong religious beliefs - but  'secularism' does not deny them the freedom to hold personal beliefs, as long as their actions in government are not based on these and defy law or logic. If you look at secular countries across the world - you will find that their heads of state invariably belong to the majority community, and leaders having strong religious values (typically being devout Christians/Catholics) is generally considered a good thing. In India, however, the opposite seems to be true. Politicians with Hindu leanings are viewed with suspicion, and we've had more government  heads (CMs, PMs and Presidents) from minority communities than even the most liberal, secular countries - in spite of our much shorter history of democracy.

Parties such as the BJP & JP favor a uniform civil code - meaning the same set of laws applies to all citizens irrespective of which region or religion they belong to. Note that this is actually congruent with the concept of secularism. On the other hand, politicians & parties who shamelessly appease the minorities - as Rajiv Gandhi did in the Shah Bano case - and allow religious considerations to enter the political realm, are also the ones who claim to be 'secular'! This appeasement of minorities under the garb of secularism is precisely what the term 'pseudo-secular' refers to.

3. Putting Ayodhya and Godhra in Perspective

Some will cite the examples of Ayodhya and Godhra to discredit the secular credentials of the BJP. While I do not claim the BJP was entirely without blame in these cases, I'd like to point out two things.

First, these are not the only cases of communal violence or riots in India. After the Babri demolition, riots broke out across the country and even other parties in power at the center and in various states did little to stop it. There were similar riots everywhere after the '93 Mumbai blasts, as there have been on other occasions in the past as well. When large numbers of people start rioting, it becomes tougher for the government to control and usually there is a lack of intent as well - because governments don't like to get in the way of the masses when tempers are flared. They never act against the public sentiment as this would hurt them in the next elections, regardless of how 'wrong' the sentiment may be.
All political parties in India are guilty of this behavior - prime case in point being the Congress in 1984. This, while unfortunate, is the harsh reality of populist politics in a democracy like ours. Why, then, are only BJP governments blamed for two instances of communal riots, and the general public and all other parties absolved of the blame for these and similar riots elsewhere? I believe there are two main reasons for these double standards - one, of course, is pseudo-secularism. The other is the media coverage. Riots before these were not reported nearly as extensively or dramatically by the limited, state-controlled media that existed then. In fact they were often brushed under the carpet.

Secondly, and more importantly, in both cases that the BJP is blamed, it should be noted that the violence was not govt vs people, but community vs community among the people. Prior to this, Congress governments presided over the Hashimpura Massacre and Operation Blue Star. These were not cases of government being passive observers while people fought, but pro-active government action lacking any popular support, that cannot be described as secular by any stretch of the imagination. Ironically, it was 'raving communalist' Dr Swamy who undertook a fast unto death demanding a probe into the genocide at Hashimpura. Yet, the Congress and others claim to be champions of 'secularism' and the BJP & Dr Swamy  allegedly represent a threat. How can anyone buy this propaganda?

4. Understanding Hindutva & Why It Can't be a Threat

The opponents of the BJP, Dr Swamy etc. claim that their Hindutva philosophy is a threat to the 'secular fabric of India', specifically to religious minority groups. This is bunkum.

The first thing we need to recognize is that Hindusim or Hindutva isn't even a 'religion' in the strict sense. Most religions are characterized by one god (Jesus, Allah, Buddha...), one or a few holy texts (the Bible, the Qor'an, Torah...), and an organized, hierarchical body such as the Roman Catholic Church with a leader such as the Pope. Most of these religions require followers to accept one god and reject all others. They have concepts of sins and/or heresy, and people who don't belong to the religion are sinners/heretics by default and have to be confronted and either converted or fought - the required level of commitment to the cause varies, but some such elements are always there.

Hinduism does not have any of the above characteristics. It grants a great degree of freedom of belief and worship, and the concept of heresy is absent. It is also extremely flexible and tolerant, and accepts that there are many paths to god. Academically, it is not even classified as a religion but has been described as 'a set of philosophies', 'a religious tradition' and so on.

In a judgment the Supreme Court of India ruled that "no precise meaning can be ascribed to the terms 'Hindu', 'Hindutva' and 'Hinduism'; and no meaning in the abstract can confine it to the narrow limits of religion alone, excluding the content of Indian culture and heritage."
The Court also ruled that "Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and is not to be equated with or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism. A Hindu may embrace a non-Hindu religion without ceasing to be a Hindu and since the Hindu is disposed to think synthetically and to regard other forms of worship, strange gods and divergent doctrines as inadequate rather than wrong or objectionable, he tends to believe that the highest divine powers complement each other for the well-being of the world and mankind."

Thus, Hinduism is essentially benign, peace-loving and inward-looking. Our history is devoid of aggressive events and concepts like Inquisitions, CrusadesJihad or evangelism. We've always been at the receiving end of invasions and conquests, and never fought too hard to resist those either. Even our freedom struggle against British rule was uniquely non-violent! Since independence, we've been called a 'soft state', we've favored 'status quo' when it comes to territory, and we've had the infamous 'Hindu rate of growth.' So, to the very idea of a Hindu threat of any sort to anything is laughable, and nothing more than a political chimera.

Of course, there are a few elements like the Bajrang Dal whose philosophy and actions are actually disruptive, regressive and dangerous. But equating Dr. Swamy and all BJP leaders with these elements is as fallacious as labeling every devout Muslim a jihadi or a terrorist. Within every community - including religious groups - there will always be some voices of reason, which will typically come from the better educated and progressive thinkers, and a few voices of extremism and fanaticism, which will typically belong to those who feel frustrated or wronged and don't think rationally. People will always have the choice to join, support & strengthen either of these sides. The big mistake a lot of the Indian educated/elite seem to be making is not recognizing the fact that there are two different sides to Hindutva as well, and we all have a role to play in determining which one becomes stronger in the future.

5. Divided We Fall...
Let us pause here and examine the Indian nation-state. In theory, the 'state' is a political and geopolitical entity; the 'nation' is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term nation-state implies that the two coincide, but how true is this of India?

We certainly have a 'state', which in terms of the width of its sphere of influence is almost as strong as communist regimes, which aren't too many in number today. As a nation, however, India is weak. A 'nation' is a group of people who typically share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, and more importantly - identity, principles & aspirations. This is what enables a nation to work towards the 'common good', and in unison against any external threats. In India, though, we don't have a common language or culture or ethnicity. When it comes to identities, we divide ourselves on many bases - primarily region (including language), religion and caste. A lot of these sub-identities are actually stronger than the common national identity - which is why we've had secessionist movements in Kashmir, Punjab, parts of the north-east and Tamil Nadu among other regions, and we keep getting divided into more and more states.

What is the result of this? We spend more of our energy working against each other and quarreling over petty differences, than moving forward together as a nation. Look at our political landscape. Most democracies have 2-3 major parties which are divided mainly on ideological lines - liberal vs conservative, pro-labor/left-wing vs right-wing, socialist vs pro-market, and people vote for an agenda. In India, we have a large number of parties that represent narrow regional or caste sub-identities rather than a proper socio-economic agenda. As a result, core governance, policy-making and reform processes (legal, admin, economic...) take a back-seat. A Laloo Yadav is able to kill growth & development in Bihar for nearly two decades, as he commands the loyalty of the Muslim-Yadav vote-bank.

We are fed the beautiful concepts of 'mixed economy' and 'unity in diversity' in school, but on objective examination one finds that the 'mixed economy' is a failed, bastard concept. And 'unity in diversity' is an even bigger myth. I can honestly say that as a north-Indian living in the south, particularly TN, I have experienced  more hostility than I have when I've traveled overseas. I grew up in an army environment - surrounded by men from all communities who literally put their lives on the line for 'India', living in cantonments in various cities across India which had a fairly uniform feel to them. So, I actually believed in the 'unity in diversity' concept and took pride in it too.

However, upon leaving that environment and living as a civilian, I witnessed an altogether different reality which left me somewhat disillusioned. Even at IIT - where we supposedly had the best young minds in the country, and were insulated from any external, political influence - I saw a lot of hostel elections being decided by regionalism. A 'gult' would tend to vote for a 'gult', and all 'northies' for 'northies' - often regardless of the candidates' credentials or manifestos. That is how deeply and fundamentally we are divided.

These divisions are not benign or just political noise either. They hold back socio-economic development, bring the wrong people into power, which in turn messes up the civil services. We all complain about how the IAS, the police etc. are so corrupt. When they report to the kind of politicians we have, and their own career growth & personal welfare depends on gaining favor with these politicians than actual performance, what else could even happen? Poor governance & administration leads to frustration among the masses - which fuels all the secessionist movements, naxalism and all kinds of fundamentalism and religious fanaticism - which are all serious threats to the unity and future of India.

6. Hindutva as a Unifying Force

It is interesting to note that there is a separate page for Communalism in the South Asian context. The introduction reads 'This article deals with the use of the word communalism in South Asia, as a name for a force separating different communities based on some form of social or sectarian discrimination. See the article communalism for the use of the word to denote a force uniting people into a community as well as a libertarian socialist political ideology, as it is used in other parts of the world where English is a major language.'

As I stated earlier, there are two versions of Hindutva. One is in line with our unique separatist concept of Communalism, and this is the one that draws most of the attention for the wrong reasons.

The other is the one described by the Supreme Court of India and what some political entities stand for. This version describes Hindutva as a cultural and civilizational concept that unites all the people of India. The term Hinduism derives from a Persian word that refers to the Sindhu (or Indus) river in northwest India; it was first used in the 14th century by Arabs, Persians, and Afghans to describe the peoples of the region. These usages show that the word Hindu, until the early nineteenth century was emphasized by nativity rather than by religion.

Since it is not really a religion, it does not exclude Muslims, Sikhs, Christian or any other communities. It emphasizes our common traditions, cultural elements and history, and is an inclusive concept that aims to assimilate all sub-groups into one Indian nation, rather than divide on any of several possible basis. I cannot think of a better basis for developing a strong concept of Indian nationalism - something that we desperately need to grow as a society and en economy and realize our potential as a people.

Of course, this would require the educated, 'elite' sections of society and the intelligentsia to participate. I don't see why this version - if properly understood and propagated by the right people - could do any harm to the secular fabric of India. It is only when capable intellectuals fail to provide proper thought leadership, that unqualified fundamentalists rise to fill the void.

So, in stead of developing an intellectual allergy to the concept of Hindutva, or getting swayed by the pseudo-secular rhetoric of most political parties and much of the media, perhaps you should try to think about it in a constructive sense.