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The Idea Of India In An Age Of Extremes

The Idea Of India In An Age Of Extremes

Nation-building in the postcolonial world by new states in their quest for modernity seems oblivious of the historical experience of the West, where the idea of a nation-state originated. As an imperative for political unity in a country, a brutal uniformity was enforced with an aggression visited on their own peoples and also on other nations, as when the imperial European powers expanded their colonies and subjugated them to their rule. As people constructed a common socio-cultural identity, they sought to give political and economic expression to it as a nation-state. Local languages and dialects, ethnicities and subcultures were subsumed in a uniformised national identity.

This would Balkanise the Indian state. Differences of caste and class, religion and region, ethnicity and language are still deep and volatile, and could easily explode into violence if exacerbated by forced repression rather than being contained and constrained by a consensual overarching unity embracing the bewildering diversity of India’s rich religious and cultural heritage. The dominant inspiration of our freedom struggle was to celebrate an inclusive political unity in our rich cultural diversity. The Partition of 1947 premised on religious unity unravelled by 1971. Intra-religious differences still riddle both Pakistan and Bangladesh.

A genuine historical memory must be faithful to the facts. We do not create the past nor can we recreate it. Yet the past is never quite dead, it lives in the present and has implications for the future. This is precisely the explosive potential of history. However, the selection we make of the facts and the meaning we give to them will demand an honest and sensitive transparency that preconceived prejudice does not permit.

Regrettably over the years other mainstream political parties and their successive governments they have failed to protect the constitutional rights and promote integral development of society and to the benefit of all its citizens. In the pursuit of lesser short term goals, vested interests and poor governance have prevailed. Over the decades, there has been positive progress, but these very gains fed a revolution of rising expectations. However, the political leadership they failed to effectively address the very real long-term challenges that have and still confront India. ‘Identity politics’ has displaced ‘interest politics’ and polarised our society into religious and caste, linguist and ethnic communities. The consequent cascade of crises and disruptions is fertile ground for authoritarian demagoguery.

The secular Left now sees a connection between saffronisation and liberalisation and the predatory capitalism the latter has spawned. The liberal Right and ‘saffron neo-liberalism’ make willing bedfellows. Some view our predicament as due to the pragmatic communalism of pseudo secularists, who have used the communal card to appease the minorities. Others explain it as the well planned "programmatic communalism" of religious extremists, who manipulate religious sentiment and polarise religious communities. Modernists see this revival as a failure of rationality and a regress into a reactionary tradition; postmoderns blame the homogenising nationalist state with its ‘technocratic mind sets’ for precipitating a communal reaction.

Gandhi’s nationalism was emphatically inclusive. He wanted India’s freedom to be an example to the world. He was very wary lest the freedom struggle merely succeed in getting swatantrata, (independence), from the British for the political and other elites, and fail in achieving, swaraj (self-rule or freedom), or rather purna (complete, integral) swaraj for the Indian people, especially the last and least among them. His ‘Ramrajya’ (rule of god Ram) was not just ‘freedom from’, but more so ‘freedom for’, freely to fulfil one’s duties not merely affirming of one’s rights. This was not just an economic-political agenda, but a socio-cultural revolution. He saw no point in replacing white sahibs with brown ones. Today we find his fears were all too prescient as amply witnessed by our country’s netas (leaders).

The freedom struggle had constructed a new ‘idea of India’ as a multi-nation state in the making with multiple, fluid, porous, inclusive personal and community identities. The Constitution spelt this out in in terms of democratic rights and civil liberties, minority rights and affirmative action, and contextualised in the Directive Principles. The Gandhi-Nehru legacy was a consensus that interpreted these for both governance and civil society.

Clarifying section 123 (3) of the People’s Representation Act of 1951, a seven judge bench of the Supreme Court, affirmed  on 2 Jan 2017: “Religion has no role in electoral process which is a secular activity…Mixing religion with State power is not permissible while freedom to practice profess and propagate religion of one’s choice is guaranteed. The State being secular in character will not identify itself with any one of the religions or religious denominations.” The reality on the ground is so very different.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is relentlessly committed to making India into a Hindu nation with which its millions of volunteers are indoctrinated. The meta-narrative of a Hindu Rashtra  finds its avatar in hyper-nationalism that is aggressively anti-minority . This privileges the Hindu urban rising middle class but it will marginalise further the poor and the minorities, who are then asked to make a sacrifice for the ‘nation’! Here  the perceptive comment of Samuel Johnson is pertinent:  patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels. India does not need to be a Hindu superpower; we would rather Indians to be a happy people. Good governance be premised on a sectarian nationalism in a multicultural, multilingual, pluri-religious country as diverse as India. Only an empowered civil society and alert human rights activists to monitor the political agenda and bringing justice to oppressed victims are better able to deliver on this.

Today caste and ethnicity, religion and region have become fault lines along which collective violence periodically rips apart the fabric of our society, leaving wounded people in broken communities, crying out for relief and justice that is delayed if not denied. And through all this the real issues of poverty and marginalisation, of inclusion and participation, of rights and freedoms are compromised in favour of the vested interests of the rich and powerful.

Constitutional idea of India is a revolutionary one. It must be the common foundation on which to build this together for a just and decent society, especially the poor and marginalised. People of goodwill must come together on the common ground of our basic humanity, and draw on the best in our Indic traditions to affirm human rights and fundamental duties as Gandhi did, and to stand by his last and least Indian.

We can be proud of our democracy which has shown enduring resilience in spite of the hiccups, like the Emergency of 1975-77. But this is as yet electoral democracy. A substantive democracy has still a long way to go to bring swaraj through satyagraha. However, today this idea of India is being violently contested as never before.  The recent elections are ambiguous warning of the real and present danger of our democratic Republic being hijacked by a chauvinist ‘majoritarianism’ that polarises the electorate building on imagined fears to consolidate its ‘vote banks’. This politics of hate spills over into communal violence and is spiralling out of control.

Hindutva ideologues are now pushing an agenda of growth regardless of equity. This privileges the Hindu urban neo-middle class and free-marketeers, like multinational corporations and multilateral institutions. But it further marginalises the poor and the minorities. Increasing governmental suppression of any dissent makes for ever greater instability.  In a similar situation in 1975 the government declared an Emergency. The slogan then ‘ India is Indira’, is now displaced with: ‘Modi is the New India’! We now seem to be at the cross roads once again with an already undeclared emergency.

The ‘dance of democracy’, which we celebrate with each election, is turning into a ‘dance of death’ for the Indian Republic and a prelude to an authoritarian, majoritarian Hindu Rashtra, with its cultural nationalism. Such regressive authoritarianism has overtaken many new democracies and is gaining ground even in the West, where once it precipitated unforgettable disasters with its national socialism. Will this new India sweep away the Constitutional idea of India so eloquently described in it Preamble as “a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic and to secure to all its citizens: justice, liberty, Equality, fraternity”? Will Indians be a happy people or India just another great nation?

(The writer is with Indian Social Institute, Delhi. Email:

(Published on 19th June 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 25)