A New Idea of India: Individual Rights In A Civilisational State. Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri. 2020. Westland. Rs 577. Pages 384
In the intellectual space, the term ‘idea of India’ is generally used to keep a group of people permanently on the defensive. The cynical calculation is to resist agents of change by pinning them down with endless accusations of majoritarianism, sexism, casteism, homophobia, superstition etc.
It is cynical because these agents of change are often at the forefront of breaking down the very barriers they are accused of putting up.
On the contrary, those resisting this change happen to be in bed with the most regressive forces known to history.
In this context, the bold new book by Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri represents a breakout. A daring intellectual thrust, behind ‘enemy’ lines, as the authors present A new idea of India: Individual Rights In A Civilisational State.
It puts the agents of change in the driver’s seat: the willingness to question old assumptions, the rising (and unifying) Hindu consciousness as well as the power of the free market.
They confront the establishment with a list of charges about lack of consistency, doublespeak, dishonesty and above all, intellectual laziness.
The book starts by pointing out that India is a both a modern state and the inheritor of one of the world’s great civilisations.
It talks about a future with the United States, China and India as great powers, with Russia and Japan playing middle roles.
As much as we could pretend otherwise, the reality is that each of these nations represents a separate civilisational entity. This does not necessarily mean a clash of civilisations, but the identities remain real and distinct.
With references to everyone from the outlook of Mexican immigrants in the United States to speeches from former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and US President Donald Trump, the book points out the consensus about the West being a civilisation with common values and identity.
It then establishes the same about the identity of Indian civilisation, quoting Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Dr B R Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Veer Savarkar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
One of the gems highlighted in this book is a quote by Ambedkar, stating his reasons for choosing Buddhism over Islam or Christianity as an escape from the rigidities of the caste system.
“I will choose only the least harmful way for the country. And that is the greatest benefit I am conferring on the country by embracing Buddhism; for Buddhism is a part and parcel of Bharatiya culture. I have taken care that my conversion will not harm the tradition of the culture and history of this land.”
Anyone who is familiar with the modern Indian political narrative will know that this quote will stick in the craw of the intellectual establishment.
Indeed, the authors point a finger at this establishment for their low quality of intellectual output, inability to produce ideas that resonate with real people, general laziness and compulsion to reduce everything, including foreign policy, to a sterile debate over ‘secularism’.
As mentioned before, the book identifies the modern Hindu right as the single most progressive force in India today. In conjunction with market forces and partly due to its own political interests, the Hindu right enthusiastically wants to break down barriers of gender and caste.
When the case for decriminalisation of homosexuality came up in the Supreme Court, the only forces left carrying the can for regressive ideas were Christian organisations.
In contrast, the old idea of India has failed spectacularly to provide agency to say Muslim women, whose lives are still governed by laws that have not undergone any progressive change.
The book refuses to somehow make the Hindu community apologise for this, as if often the subtext of narratives around things like the Sachar Committee report. On the issue of economic backwardness of Indian Muslims, the book observes pointedly:
“A community reluctant to see women as financially independent will fall behind.”
It emphasises that unlike in the case of Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, there is no context of historical discrimination against Muslims in India.
As such, if the Indian Muslim community finds itself economically backward, they must look within, identify the causes and initiate reform. The larger Hindu society has no moral duty to subsidise this transformation with taxpayer money.
This is in keeping with the general tone of the book.
As a whole, Hindus have more often been victims rather than perpetrators and as such, they have little to apologise for. As for the social evils that Hindu society has accumulated over the ages, it is the modern Hindu right leading the charge against them. Not the old establishment.
Of course, no debate over the ‘idea of India’ can be complete without talking about the fraud of pseudo-secularism.
Honestly, this is an easy task because the hypocrisies fall apart at the slightest touch.
The authors do a comprehensive job of recording these, from the secular state aiding and abetting minority religious institutions which enjoy full autonomy nevertheless — to the same secular state turning over to itself the proceeds from Hindu religious institutions funded by private charity from Hindus.
This comprehensiveness is another feature of this book. It takes into account historical perspectives on India from Aurobindo to Vajpayee.
On issues of secularism, civil liberties and free speech, it examines incidents from the Brandenburg v Ohio case in the US Supreme Court to the treatment of Dutch politician Geert Wilders in the European Union to the history of the first amendment to the Indian Constitution.
The book also discusses every institution of the Indian state, from the education system to the legal system and tackling the paralysis therein. What does it say, for instance, if 11 out of 28 Supreme Court judges in 2016 had other judges or legal luminaries as relatives?
Another of the strengths of this book is studying the post-1991 economic transformation of India, from the age when profit was seen as a dirty word to the era when Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress argue over who produced higher gross domestic product (GDP) growth and why.
Importantly, the book assigns the credit for India’s telecom revolution correctly to Vajpayee and his ministers, rather than mythical heroes such as Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda.
In the 1988 bypoll to Allahabad Lok Sabha constituency, which V P Singh won, a charismatic young Dalit politician from Punjab made waves with his slogan
“Vote hamara, raj tumhara, nahin chalega…” (We have the votes, but you have the power. No more!)
He came third in that election but went on to become a legend. It was the late Kanshi Ram, founder of Bahujan Samaj Party.
Indeed, Dalit assertion in the Indian political sphere was not significant as late as 1988. The economic reforms happened in 1991. A certain structure ceased to exist in 1992. In 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government passed a bill denying rights to Shah Bano, a Muslim woman.
In all those decades, ‘secularism’ had created a social trap which failed to break caste hierarchies in Hindu society and disempowered Muslim women. Alongside this, ‘socialism’ had created an economic trap that nobody could escape.
The old idea of India, riding on ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ has since collapsed.
Indian society is now in the midst of transformative, positive change. And this positive change is being led by Hindus, capitalising on fundamental principles of Indian civilisation.
This book is about plain speaking, challenging intellectual orthodoxies and acknowledging many of the wonderful things about India. It is essential reading for anyone who welcomes positive change.
Abhishek Banerjee is a mathematician and an Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. He is also an avid blogger and tweets @AbhishBanerj.
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