An Expose On The Spurious ‘Idea Of India’, And What We Need To Replace It With

An Expose On The Spurious ‘Idea Of India’, And What We Need To Replace It WithThe cover of A New Idea of India: Individual Rights In A Civilisational State by Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri.
Snapshot
  • Madhusudan and Mantri have done a phenomenal job.

    If, after reading this book, the Lutyens elite does not hang its head in shame, one has to presume that they do not have India’s interests at heart.

A New Idea of India: Individual Rights In A Civilisational State. Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri. 2020. Westland. Rs 577. Pages 384

For some time now, and especially after Narendra Modi came to power in May 2014, the basic premises of the “manufactured Nehruvian consensus” on what India is all about have been under challenge.

For the Nehruvian elite, a.k.a. the Lutyens Lobby, the Khan Market Gang, or the LeLi (“Left-Liberal”) caucuses, the modern Indian state and its liberal constitution were the gifts of Jawaharlal Nehru and like-minded idealists, who helped create a secular, liberal, modern and inclusive post-colonial nation-state defined by constitutional morality. Any previous idea of state or nationhood or morality was, by definition, suspect, and possibly regressive.

The arrogance underlying the assumption that there can only be one Idea of India, ie, The Idea of India, in a country with close to 1.35 billion people, should have been called out much earlier than in the current decade. But despite repeated puncturing of The Idea, its proponents seem to have stuck doggedly to their dogmatic version of what India is, can be or should be.

A book by two feisty authors, Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri, punctures this arrogance. They have junked the monochromatic Idea of India without replacing it with another dogmatic vision.

The book is, aptly, titled A New Idea of India: Individual Rights In A Civilisational State, with “a” replacing “the” in ideas about India. It is an alternative offered with much humility, and a humongous amount of evidence, unlike the Nehruvian Idea Of India that was foisted on unsuspecting Indians for more than seven decades. The Nehruvian consensus is being eclipsed by a substantially better Idea of India.

The book is divided into five basic chapters, with the first one exploring the idea that India is a civilisational state (India, that is Bharat), even if it has not politically been a single entity ever. But it was definitely not a state created out of thin air in 1947, or by the British in a spirit of absent-mindedness. The Idea of India was created by the ordinary Indian traversing this sacred geography over centuries as a pilgrim, crossing formal state boundaries and creating a culture that everyone can recognise as Indian.

The second chapter (From Civilisation to Nation), which buttresses the first, starts with a quote from B R Ambedkar, which tells us that despite being a squabbling mass of humanity at all times, our “cultural unity has defied political and racial divisions”.

Madhusudan and Mantri partially buy into Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations thesis, and point out that the originator of The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani, could not bring himself to admit that India’s Partition represented not the bifurcation of one civilisation into two states, but two different civilisational entities going their separate ways.

The authors emphasise an obvious point: “India and Pakistan undoubtedly represent two civilisations…. Of all the modern states in existence today, India represents the pinnacle of syncretic polytheism and Pakistan probably the most unrestrained instincts of proselytising monotheism.” True. Long before ISIS, Pakistan created the original Islamic State in opposition to the ideas of India.

Without actually saying so, the authors seem to believe that Partition allowed the underlying Indic civilisation in post-colonial India to move towards a more sensible form of state, driven by the ideal of universal inclusion and pluralism.

The question is, what prevented the rump civilisational state, still a salad bowl of community identities, from becoming a dynamic melting pot that metamorphosed into a cohesive nation? The authors believe that the Left-Liberal elite (warning: only the Left part of this identity can be taken seriously) confused state and society.

The state cannot privilege group rights over individual ones, but that is exactly what the Nehruvian state did. State cannot always hope to influence society to change at its will; the task of reforming society and ridding it of evils lies largely with society, with the state focusing on making uniform laws for all citizens without discrimination.

This clearly is where India went wrong. From the beginning, the fear was about restraining the so-called “majority”, and the end-result was the creation of a minoritarian state, where minorities were given special privileges and rights – rights that ought to have been available to everybody, every community. The minorities got rights without responsibilities, and the majority was held responsible for anything that went wrong for the minorities.

The third chapter (Saving Secularism from the Secularists) is very important, for it brings together evidence from many sources and legislations on how India has essentially become a minoritarian state despite pretensions to being “secular”. The word secular has been mangled out of shape, as it does not mean separation of church from state, but about privileging the rights of minorities.

This includes offering their special rights and benefits, including the right to run their own educational and religious institutions, and exclusion from many laws that apply to the majority (including gender equality, banning of bigamy, implementation of affirmative action programmes, etc).

It also lays bare the reality that only Hindus can be called “communal” or bigoted, while states dominated by “minority” Muslims or Christians can be openly bigoted without being called out (examples: Kashmir Valley, Nagaland). This chapter is a must-read for all those opinion writers in the mainstream English media, both in India and abroad, for they all operate on the assumption that the majority cannot be discriminated against.

One can perhaps forgive the international media for taking a jaundiced view of Narendra Modi and Hindu nationalism, for they may be ignorant of Indian realities, but surely the domestic English media cannot claim such ignorance. It is willful blindness.

This refusal to see the truth can only be explained as being the result of pursuing narrow personal agendas and vested interests. In short, they have sold their souls.

Chapter four (Profit is Not a Dirty Word) needs no elaboration, for it is about getting the state out of its socialist mindset and freeing entrepreneurship and encouraging animal spirits. Anyone who reads the pink press can understand the call for freer markets, promotion of consumer choice, etc, with the state focusing on providing public goods like law and order, quick enforcement of contracts, and so on.

The last two chapters, “Decolonising the Indian State”, and “India’s Moment” tie up the authors’ approach to how the Indian state and its key institutions need to reform themselves and their processes to become effective where it counts. If this is done, India’s soul will be in perfect step with its innate potential for progress and prosperity. State and society can go about doing their separate jobs in harmony.

This book offers a strong intellectual and ideological challenge to the Lutyens elite’s Idea of India, and proposes a way out of this cul-de-sac. However, one would be amiss if one did not raise some follow-up questions which the authors do not explicitly deal with.

One, if Indian pluralism is the outcome of the Indic civilisational ethos, isn’t it important to hard-code Hindu-Sikh-Jain interests into the Constitution so that demographic changes do not erode this civilisational advantage in future?

Already, demography is moving adversely against Hindus in many states, and those states which already have districts that are minority dominated, are essentially moving out of the Indic civilisational construct, and becoming no-go areas. This calls for the Indian state to be more cognizant of Hindu interests, which is what has been sold down the river in a religiously neutral state.

Two, if society and state are not to be confused, we need Hindu society to become substantially different from what it is now if it is to hold its own against predatory and expansionist faiths. We need to prescribe a way forward for society even as the state focuses on protecting individual rights. Is this path Hindutva, or something else? This writer believes that Hindutva is crucial to erase or reduce narrow caste identities so that its power to resist proselytisation improves.

Three, if we are to shift from minorityism to equal rights, entire institutions – from minority commissions to minority ministries to iniquitous laws like the Right to Education Act – will need to be junked.

While the authors take a friendly view of some of the Narendra Modi government’s decisions (abolition of article 370, fast-track citizenship for persecuted Indic minorities in three Muslim-majority states, etc), the truth is the so-called majoritarian government has done almost nothing to move away from minority appeasement.

This shows how hard it is to replace an entire ecosystem of minorityism in just a few years.

The authors have provided the ammo for telling the story as it is, but it is not clear that India’s first-past-the-post electoral system will enable the kind of changes required for forward movement.

Put another way, the parliamentary system itself may be a part of the problem, since it empowers legislators and small caste and religious groups that can bring in the bulk vote to demand special treatment. A presidential system would be a partial answer to this problem, but the idea is not explored.

Despite these caveats, Madhusudan and Mantri have done a phenomenal job. If, after reading this book, the Lutyens elite does not hang its head in shame, one has to presume that they do not have India’s interests at heart.

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