A New Idea of India
The Right needs a different narrative—one rooted in the scepticism and openness innate to the Indian tradition, with a governance philosophy that views the individual citizen as the unit of State policy
The Nasadiya Sukta (the Hymn of Creation) in the Rig Veda (10:129) says,
“…who knows, and who can say
Whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truly whence it has arisen?
Whence all creation had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he, who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows – or maybe even he does not know.”
The foundational texts of Dharma, forgedsome three and a half millennia ago, are filled with such scepticism that would gladden the heart of philosophers and physicists to this date. Indeed, the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger, writing in 1944, observed that the Upanishadic concept that atman equals brahman or that “the personal self equals the omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self” was, in contrast to Christian thought, “far from being blasphemous”, and in fact represented “the quintessence of deepest insight into the happenings of the world” in Indian philosophy.
It is because of the sceptical tradition within the metaphysical aspects of what is now called Hinduism that, say, the New Atheist movement so prominent today mostly critiques Abrahamic or Western traditions when they critique “religion”. Hypocrisies and hierarchies very much exist in Indic religions as well but are primarily sociological—related to gender and caste—and less theological. This is not so because there are no worrisome “holy texts” or doctrines, but because those texts and doctrines can be selectively followed.
Why Scepticism is Essential
Scepticism is an indispensable foundation for what is today called “science”—the fundamental premise of scientific inquiry is that an unknown truth can be learnt through iterative experimentation and exploration. A school of thought that is dogmatic cannot profess to be scientific. As physicist Richard Feynman said, science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts. Applied to the spiritual sphere, a “scientific religion” would be one that can accept that its assumptions are wrong. Indeed, philosopher of science Karl Popper said much the same when he posited that for a theory to be scientific, it should be falsifiable. Popper also critiqued the historicist and teleological underpinnings of the Marxist and Hegelian worldview—that there were inexorable laws of historical destiny, all leading towards definite ends.In simple terms, the Indic worldview is more cyclical than linear.
Similarly, an economic system that imbibes such scepticism cannot, by definition, be centrally planned, for that would require an omniscient, omnipotent body to allocate resources. In this sense, socialism is analogous with obscurantist and fundamentalist faith, while competitive capitalism is analogous to a “scientific religion”.
Also, scepticism—and the intellectual humility that it engenders—is required to cultivate tolerance in a society, for it allows fellow human beings to accept mutual differences. This tolerance is also mediated through the mechanism of the social contract in the modern era of democratic, liberal nation-states, so that the views of one person or group cannot be forced onto fellow individual citizens.
Social diversity too is the product of scepticism. Only if individuals are allowed to syncretically build upon, add and subtract from tradition and practice, without being required to dogmatically treat them as immutable rules, can diversity within a group emerge. This diversity is apparent and much celebrated in the land that is India, where the same festivals and rituals are celebrated in different ways by different communities and regions. Had the Hindu tradition been a dogmatic one, there would have been uniformity, not heterogeneity, in socio-cultural life. That is why the opposition from some factions of the Hindu right to multiple interpretations of, say, the Ramayana, is very unfortunate.
India under Jawaharlal Nehru and his successors decided to pursue a development model inspired by Soviet Russia, with the State enjoying a gargantuan participation in the economy. Under his leadership, our democracy came to be based upon the State brokering and negotiating settlements between groups of religions, castes and languages rather than guaranteeing equal rights and freedoms to each citizen.
Inevitably, the State favoured some groups over others, needlessly anointing itself referee and vainly believing that it was best placed to decide what was right for whom. In both economic and social spheres, the Indian state exuded a certitude that chafed against the millennia-old ethos of the society it sought to govern. But the governance philosophy was not limited only to certitude; it was selectively condescending as well. While Hindu personal laws were modernised, Muslim laws were not. Perhaps Nehru wanted to cultivate a committed voter base as he pushed through his programme of leftist economics, for, despite being lampooned by the Right, Nehru always understood why India was united.
In 1961, for example, addressing the All-India Congress Committee session at Madurai, Nehru had said:“India has for ages past, been a country of pilgrimages. All over the country, you find these ancient places, from Badrinath, Kedarnath and Amarnath, high up in the snowy Himalayas down to Kanyakumari in the south. What has drawn our people from the south to the north and from north to the south in these great pilgrimages? It is the feeling of one country and one culture and this feeling has bound us together. Our ancient books have said that the land of Bharat is the land stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the Southern seas. This conception of Bharat as one great land which the people considered a holy land has come down the ages and has joined us together, even though we have had different political kingdoms and even though we may speak different languages. This silken bond still keeps us together in many ways.”
The “Secular” Confusion
But Nehru’s philosophy of centralisation and certitude, carried forward with increasing intensity by his successors, had disastrous consequences for economic development and communal harmony. However, it did not fail entirely—the carving out of linguistic states remains its biggest success. Today, the fact that Nehru’s successors are hard pressed to even acknowledge the civilisational unity that seemed obvious to India’s first Prime Minister shows how far they have travelled from their roots. In the quest to brand themselves “secular”, and guided by narrow electoral interests, they have transformed into deniers of India’s civilisational heritage. The fundamental flaw of modern India’s “secularist” philosophy is that it embodies what English-American political theorist and philosopher Thomas Paine had identified as the confusion between State and Society.
Nowhere is this confusion more evident than in the way secularism and communalism are routinely touted as antonyms. The opposite of secularism is not communalism but theocracy, for secularism is a feature of the State—nation-states can be secular or theocratic. However, communalism is a feature of Society. In a free, democratic and liberal country, it is not only acceptable but sometimes even welcome for individuals to be “communal”. The more “communal” a society is, the more social capital it has.
The networks of trust and cooperation that high social capital catalyses bind together a society in myriad ways and thus encourage intercourse rather than creating distinctions, to use Paine’s words. It is important to recognise that the “type” of social capital is as important as the “quantum”, but the former is more a product of State policy than the latter. The degree of economic freedom determines the type of social capital, and the greater the economic freedom, the more likely it is that communities not tied exclusively to religious or ethnic identity will emerge.
This same confusion between State and Society rears its head when India is spoken of as a “Hindu nation”. Whenever any politician, intellectual or public figure says so, there is much outrage and heartburn among a section of the left-liberal intelligentsia, who wail that secularism is in danger. But this intelligentsia fails to distinguish between Nation and State. Because of India’s civilisational ethos, demography and history, India is already largely a Dharmic nation or society. However, it follows from the scepticism innate to India’s philosophical tradition that the concept of a theocratic “Hindu state” is illogical and absurd.
The Contradictions of an Indian Renaissance
But the left-liberal intelligentsia’s fears are not entirely unfounded. There is a section of the Hindu right that is straying from the tradition that espouses scepticism and openness under the garb of protecting Nehru’s “land of Bharat” from foreigners. In a delicious irony, while purportedly protecting the land from “alien faiths”, the self-anointed protectors have come under the influence of foreigners in their interpretation and practice of the Hindu tradition, aping the antediluvian diktats—which disregard scepticism and deny openness—of the same traditions from which they aim to defend Hinduism.
How else does one explain a “Hindu” faction that beats up defenseless young couples, yet subscribes to the same broad Hindu tradition that worships Krishna, famed for his relationship with Radha, with whom he was never married? How does one reconcile a self-styled “Hindu” faction that attacks women for drinking alcohol, when Hindu festivals are celebrated by men and women alike with the consumption of a drink made from the cannabis plant, and when the potent datura is offered in prayer to Shiva? These factions seem to have internalised the anti-blasphemy attitudes of medieval Turks, and the prudery of Victorian England.
The Indian state has not been in consonance with Indian society’s highest metaphysical impulses. Given that the Nehruvian experiment has largely failed, there is a slow but sure, if as yet unexpressed, realisation that our idea of ourselves should evolve into seeing individual citizens as the unit of State policy, to quote Arun Shourie. It is this philosophy, the opposite of Nehruvian thinking, that is congruent with Indian society’s heritage and best represents the possibility for India to emerge as a progressive, prosperous and strong nation for all her billion-plus citizens.
India’s political right, with the Bharatiya Janata Party as its vehicle, has ensconced itself on the national centrestage only over the last two decades. Under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the right embraced free market reforms despite a powerful faction committed to anti-liberal economic policies, thanks largely to the Prime Minister’s visionary leadership. This push for market reforms created a new constituency of right-liberals committed to economic and personal freedom. Competitive capitalism, as opposed to crony socialism, also helped dissolve the bonds of caste and community, as has been extensively documented by intellectuals like Chandrabhan Prasad.
Cut to the present day in 2014—a “low caste” leader from a supposedly “obscurantist” party winning a simple majority in the Lok Sabha, speaking about women’s rights with peerless eloquence from the Red Fort, is surely a first and something to be celebrated by even cynics and opponents. When it comes to the normative underpinnings of our public discourse, the orthodox have been defeated decisively but not completely. But this is a defeat of orthodoxy and not tradition per se, for it is the tradition of our civilisation to be flexible. Through the ages, Indian tradition has been shaped by modernising influences of the time. Hence, the adjective Sanatana or “eternal” for India’s majority religion—and it is important to recognise that this is not an attitude limited to just one group. To take an advice given by the great poet Ghalib to Syed Ahmed Khan, we must focus on the present and the future and not the past.
The Indian Renaissance will soon enter its third century, initiated by its encounter with British imperialism. While India was humiliated, looted and denuded like all colonies are, it got back a window to its ancient past—a culture that had influenced the Greeks with its scepticism, to which the Europeans looked up to for their own Enlightenment. The process of reform started off in Bengal, where the Hindu elite finessed the acceptance of modernity and Western education while rejecting the Christianity of colonial missionaries. The deist, egalitarian and relatively feminist views of Rammohan Roy and fellow travelers in the Brahmo Samaj were opposed by the orthodox Dharma Sabha. Today, an increasing number of educated Indians are closer to Roy’s ideas on rationalism and equality than that of the Dharma Sabha’s even as they confidently continue to idol worship and believe in “polytheism” as symbols of piety, diversity and tradition.
A New Narrative for the Right
There are four levels of political consciousness, in increasing order of depth: party politics; public policy; philosophical; and psychological.
At the party-politics level, public intellectuals on the center-right, be they animated more by liberal economic or civilisational concerns, should rise above partisan bickering and apologia and focus more on pushing ideas rather than individuals, policies and philosophy rather than personalities or parties. Electoral politics should be left to the cadre, on the ground or increasingly online—and that too is a critical role in any democracy. However, idea entrepreneurs may come across as more credible if they keep reminding themselves that a political party is just a vehicle, and not an end in itself.
At the policy level, there is room for substantial give and take. Both sides can agree to concede a little and drive change on connected issues such as Article 370 and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the Special Marriage Act and concessions for minority educational institutions, and many other combinations. We have laws like the Right to Education, which does not respect private property and distinguishes between citizens based on religion. We have programmes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which is fundamentally Luddite in nature. We have welfare schemes like Right to Food, which do not understand choice and competition and instead force distribution of food to the needy through a government-run body in centralized, top-down model rife with waste and corruption.
This is just on the welfare side; on the supply side, besides a Byzantine bureaucratic structure, we also have the huge dearth of State capacity, with the number of judges and police officers in this country being woefully inadequate. This seriously undermines rule of law and justice delivery. Contracts are often not worth the paper they are written on, which drives Indians to work only with people they already know and trust, concentrating certain types of social capital within specific communities.
At the philosophical level, the big question is what is it that the Indian Right is aiming for? Is there a Hindu version of Utopia or Ram Rajya besides rhetorical abstractions? If not, what is the point of communal cold wars in the face of worsening demographics? The Right needs a different narrative. That is, the State must not discriminate based on identity, whereas individuals should be by and large allowed to do so, even if we find that personally reprehensible in some cases. Similarly, the antonym of an open economy is not a welfare state, but autarky—a protectionism-based, closed economic system that deludes itself into thinking it is perfectly self-sufficient. Competition-enhancing, supply-side reform is in no way inimical to the State taking care of the most needy, and indeed some competition should be introduced to make our welfare state more efficient. Swaraj is different from Swatantra. Individual freedom and local self-rule is very different from national independence.
Finally, at the psychological level, the real debate is between self-belief and a deep-seated inferiority complex. After 67 years of Independence, why are we as a nation still seemingly scarred? Is it just the “millennium of colonialism”? The Hindu right should be pushing for free speech and free conversions, but is instead acting only defensively. Despite all the bluster, do most rightists believe that India can take on the world? We should not hide behind a victimhood complex, and then blame others of doing the same. The Indian nation will soon be the largest section of humanity but do we really belong at the high table, and what do we hope to contribute?
These baubles that we have accumulated in the last generation or two—do we really believe that we deserve them? Do we say “Please” and “Thank You” to foreigners in the same way as we do to fellow Indians? Or there is something other than politeness involved? On average, is one Indian as important as one non-Indian? The answer is no.
Our economy will boom if we make prosperity, and not merely the removal of poverty, our aim. Our society will be free and open when we make self-improvement, and not the transfer of blames, our modus operandi. Instead of trying to bring others down, there’s no reason why Indians should not take responsibility for their destiny, channelise energies towards preparing to win, and as Krishna had advised Arjuna, do so without worrying about the outcome.
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