India At The Crossroads


The cat is out of the bag at last.Kapil Sibal is one of the twenty-three dissidents who wrote a letter to the Congress president Sonia Gandhi pleading for organisational reforms leading to the installation of an elected president in place of one who was alleged to have inherited it.He was indirectly blaming the latter for the poll disasters Congress suffered.He is reported to have said in an interview given to PTI that Congress has erred in giving due weight to Muslim fundamentalism which according to him is as a big a threat to the nation as Hindu fundentalism. It will be idle to pretend that the allegation is totally baseless.But given the glaring fact that socially,culturally and politically the Hindu variety has been much more on the offensive and aggressive in the last decade and more,the posited equality appears to be a pathetic concession to the former rather than a rational assumption based on just appraisal of facts.

Actually one has watched with unease the gradual but unmistakable retreat of Congress from firm secularism,however one interprets it,over the years.It seems to this writer that during all this time the Hindutva camp has been mounting a relentless country-wide campaign against secularism upheld by the constitution.The response of the Congress seems to have been a confused retreat from the conviction of the framers of the constitution,including many who were staunch Hindus.This is the crux of the matter.

In his rather feeble reply to Rama Chandra Guha’s forceful attack on the dynastic character of the leadership,Salman Khurshid makes at least the valid point that we cannot wipe the slate clean to make a new beginning.As long as you accept democratic politics in place of a fundamental revolutionary break.History has also taught us that revolutions cannot be made to order.There are historical givens which constrict your choices in politics.That limitation does not mean a spineless surrender to the current of contemporary affairs,but a resolute effort to stay afloat and at times swim against the current.

That means you have to come to terms with given circumstances and deal with them without wearing blinkers.To cave in before the incessant saffron propaganda that Islamic Jehad is aiming at our throat is not this kind of realism at all.The IS is now in a rout along with its miscellaneous clones like Boko Haram,undone as much by its own horrible excesses as by the opposition it has faced.(This monstrous terrorism gained ground after Western powers mouthing pious slogans decimated the secular forces in the region.)Rather the need of the hour in the country is to re-affirm with ringing conviction the principles of secularism.

The Congress is associated with certain kinds of principles and values,increasingly eroded both by the tireless slander of its enemies as by the anaemic commitment of some of its own leaders and people one thought should have known better.Like Ram Manohar Lohia who eventually preferred the Hindutva army to Congress the jeremiad of the die-hard anti-Congress clan may only strengthen the former.That will in the end throw the country from a frying pan into a blazing fire.

This is not to say that the Congress has no skeletons in its cupboard.There are many,and the party’s disavowal has been half-hearted.But the remedy lies not in joining the Hindutva camp in a misguided move to eliminate the Congress,but in constructive criticism that makes no bones about its follies and lapses and vigorously recalls it to the positions it has retreated from.

In our view it is the lapse from its advocacy of science and reason to liberate the country from hardened feudal ties and obsolete encrusted beliefs,that has led to its losses to the Hindutva offensive.Nehru represented that strand in the Congress and it inspired his endeavours to build institutions of modernity and enlightenment.(Something that Guha acclaims as among his signal achievements.) Nehru believed,perhaps wrongly, that these alone will lay the foundations of a modern,welfare-inclined democratic society.But that does not at all mean that he was unaware or scornful of India’s heritage.His views were aligned to those of Tagore who hailed the contribution of Western science to human knowledge,uplift and social welfare without abandoning India’s spiritual inheritance.Anyone who dips into his DISCOVERY OF INDIA cannot fail to be aware of his pride in and reverence for it.But he put his foot down when reactionary elements sought to impose inhuman social orthodoxy and blind superstition on hapless people in the name of heritage.That is why he had insisted on propagation of a scientific outlook and temper as an obligation of the state in its foundational document.

The Hindutva camp had opposed that project tooth and nail.It demanded publicly in late forties of the last century that the MANUSAMHITA be followed as a model for independent India in stead of some “imported and alien notions”about democracy.Insiders of the camp have made no secret of their ardent wish to ditch the constitution at the earliest opportunity.The caste system is implicitly at the heart of the debate.Today its pertinence in the ongoing struggles has become imperative.Nehru without question wanted to see an end to it,but he had to carry along with him people who were still bound to their old moorings.

The forces of social and intellectual reaction are on the offensive against this legacy that disturbs them deeply,and they are going about it in both subtle and gross ways.Their fabulous claims about achievements of ancient Hindu space science and nuclear technology and their strident denigration of modern medicine are too well known to be dwelt on.But I am constrained to say that there is a softer more attractive version among well-meaning critics of the model of secular democracy.

There is a strand of respectable and philanthropic opinion that eschews the rigid and menacing orthodox version of Hinduism and harks back to a different strand that emerged during the tumultuous BHAKTI movement that heaved in the whole country for three centuries and longer, challenging orthodoxy and promoting a more humane and nurturing form of Hinduism.It emphasized need for tolerance and co-existence of the major religions and their followers.

It did not insist on a colourless dry faith in sanctified inequality and discrimination but a soulful relationship to the deity and all other human beings as His emanations.Abstract equality is no longer held up as a desirable goal,but concrete social and cultural diversity as well as respect for it.Liberty in the Western radical politics,according to this discourse,is only selfish indifference to other men and women,and has led to social atomism and moral chaos.

While this critique cannot be simply swept into a corner,it will be a dangerous chimera to junk scientific reason and pursuit of liberty in search of an alternative that simply wishes away the dilemma posed by the much
more powerful,aggressive and toxic challenge from a camp that voices the same criticism and invokes the same heritage.The differences between them get blurred the moment one disowns scientific humanism.That was not the path Nehru had wanted to adopt for the future.Kindness and compassion are essential,but cannot be substitutes for freedom and equality that are the goals democracies in the world are engaged in ensuring in different degrees.For Nehru as well as Ambedkar the state could be the instrument for realizing them.

What are the sources of this alternate vision of social and political life?It was the colonial construction of an idealized village community frozen in time and impervious to change by such British scholar-administrators as Thomas Metcalfe,and rapturously adopted by leaders like Mahatma Gandhi.I think the most forceful deflation of this romantic image is to be found in Ambedkar’s forthright and ruthless exposure of its evasion of ugly social realties like the inequity of caste and narrowness of mental horizons in the Constituent Assembly.From the outside it appeared idyllic to the colonial rulers unaware of the cruelties and injustices embedded in its harmony in diversity.

Unless society acquires the dynamism of change and the perception of its deep-seated inherited injustices,and commits itself to a renunciation of its allure, social justice will remain elusive and tyranny will continue.All natural rebellion against it will be accused of betrayal of sublime traditions and crimes against the state.

Nehruvian democracy for all its blind spots at least rejected it,but prolonged enjoyment of power and compromises it exacted from Congress leadesrship has dimmed its awareness of and commitment to this scientific humanism and helped the meteoric rise of Hindutva fanaticism and inhumanity.The charitable concessions to oppressed castes led to certain undoubted benefits,but did not go far enough to reform social life.Meanwhile the alternate ideology of exalting inequality and superstition inexorably gained ground with support from vested social interests.Unless its challenge is met on and the romantic rhetoric about an idealized past rejected, it will lose all momentum.Hence while I feel little enthusiasm for the campaign against Congress I believe the only way out of its present impasse that enfeebles it every passing day is to return to this vision and reaffirm it forcefully.

P.S. ‘In spite of the social convulsions it caused and the cultural efflorescence it triggered, the sad truth is that the  BHAKTI movement could not rupture caste and ultimately withdrew within small exclusive sects.’

Hiren Gohain is a literary critic, and social scientist



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