Inside Story

The battle for India’s soul

Books | Two new books throw light on the social and religious forces swirling around Narendra Modi’s Indian government, writes Bob Smith

Bob Smith 20 May 2016 1635 words

Beyond secularism? Hindu nationalists have used the slogan Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Long Live Mother India) in their campaign for India to reflect a single religious philosophy.

The Public Intellectual in India
By Romila Thapar and others | Aleph | ₹499

This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines
By Barkha Dutt | Aleph | ₹599

After the election of Narendra Modi to the Indian prime ministership in 2014, demands for a Hindu rashtra, or nation, began to intensify. Modi himself has mostly been silent on the question, but individuals and groups associated with his party have loudly asserted a triumphal vision of Hindu religious, cultural and political identity. If they had their way, the legacy of the secular liberalism of official India that emerged under Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister from 1947 to 1964, would be swept away, and with it the influence of the Congress Party and the English-speaking elite of Lutyens’ Delhi.

The clarity of Modi’s successful election campaign, with its focus on economic growth, opportunities and jobs, has given way to government by mixed messages. In foreign policy, the prime minister has enchanted new friends and old antagonists alike; at home, the combination of his direct leadership of key civil servants and his cautious and adaptive policy and infrastructure initiatives have been overshadowed by the upsurge in Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, agitation within his party.

These two books approach India’s divides from different directions. The distinguished historian Romila Thapar and her colleagues, mostly established scholars, debate the role of public intellectuals in reasserting connections between liberalism, secularism and democracy. Barkha Dutt, a controversial television journalist (self-described in an open letter to the prime minister – using insults levelled against her – as an “Anti-National, Sickular, Presstitute”), reflects on the conflicts behind the news stories, and in doing so explores similar themes to Thapar’s. Scholarly exposition and gritty reflection converge around the puzzle of how the Indian people can find a way forward that doesn’t involve marginalising the significant elements of a segmented and diverse society that are perceived as anti-Hindu.

Thapar poses the problem as one of intellect and inclusion. “How,” she asks, “can we create the independent space that will encourage us to think, and to think together?” She pursues the question in three contributions to The Public Intellectual in India, which evolved from a memorial lecture in honour of the late founding editor of the current affairs weekly Mainstream. She advocates a role for public intellectuals in reversing the shrinking of the space for public debate.

According to Thapar, the shrinkage has its origins in the way the British fostered notions of identity in India around religion. The impatient voices demanding a Hindu rashtra arise not from mainstream Hindu practice but from reactions to colonial rule among upper-caste movements that use religion as a vehicle for political mobilisation. She sees current demands, including multifarious attempts to ban things considered offensive to Hindu sentiment, as an attempt to use religion as an instrument of social and political control. She regrets that the wider society does not stand up to such demands and very publicly champions her own vision of a secular India.

Thapar wants an India free from colonial perspectives and structures. She advocates drawing on indigenous traditions of critical thinking and melding them where appropriate with other critical traditions, including – controversially for those who do not share her preference for reason over myth – the European Enlightenment. Throughout, she argues against the “mythologising” associated with Hindutva agendas. Her co-contributors generally complement her approach, though one of them, the historian Neeladri Bhattacharya, suggests that Thapar is nostalgic for earlier times when the approach to secularism she favours appeared strong only because a “deep structure” of alternative perspectives was repressed.

Despite the cogency of Thapar’s advocacy, Bhattacharya’s proposition deserves more exploration than the book provides. It leads to questions about the very nature of secularism in India, how it has been reflected since 1947 in Congress-led administrations, and which people and interests have felt left out. It probes the gap, acknowledged even by Nehru, between declarations that India was a secular state and how many people lived and thought.

As the Australian National University’s Peter Friedlander has pointed out, the language in which Indian secularism is discussed is significant. In Hindi, the multiple meanings of “secularism” focus not on independence from religion, as in English, but on how religions are regarded. Friedlander identifies three different meanings in Hindi: all religions treated as separate and equal; all religions as essentially one; and equal respect for all religions. He also points out that in the Hindi version of the constitution there has been a shift in the word used for secularism from “all religions treated as separate” to “all religions as essentially one.” From there it is a short step to claims (depending on one’s perspective, perfectly normal or disturbingly ambitious) that Hinduism provides a home for other religions in India.

In these circumstances it would have been useful for Thapar and her co-contributors to have looked more closely at what secularism means for different streams of thought in India. It would also have been useful to look more closely at Congress and at the charge made by its opponents on the right that it has used secularism as cover for tailoring benefits to minority communities, especially Muslims. And it would have been useful to devote more attention to those who supported Modi mainly because of discontent with Congress’s statist economic policies up to 1991 and its disappointing economic record more recently. The potential of conservative and liberal-right intellectuals to become allies in the creation of the desired “independent space” for thinking might have been too easily dismissed.

Barkha Dutt examines changes in India over the past twenty-five years and the rumblings that foreshadow further change. She looks especially at the place of women, at sectarianism, Kashmir and the games politicians play, and at rapidly changing class and caste equations – all topics she has covered extensively as a reporter. She reflects, too, on how television news, in which she began in the mid 1990s, has come to frame so many issues in the public arena. She does this from the perspective of someone who was raised in South Delhi in a professional salaried family originally from Sialkot (now in Pakistan). Her mother was a pioneering woman journalist; at home, religion and caste were not prominent concerns. Dutt received a tertiary education in English and won a scholarship in journalism at Columbia. As the book proceeds, she is frank about how her work has prompted her to press beyond her original values.

She is relentless in probing the deep-seated inequities in social relationships in India. She starts with the sexism that confronts Indian women, from rape – a phenomenon that authorities routinely turn back on the victim – to the “chick charts” in elite colleges and her own experiences of abuse. (The latter include molestation by a distant relative when she was a child and social media allegations that she has had two Kashmiri Muslim husbands.) She records the struggles of Dalits and the sharpness with which attempts to escape through conversion are scorned by some upper-caste Hindus.

More broadly, she writes extensively about the sufferings of the peoples of Kashmir, Muslim as well as Hindu, and the inability of the authorities to arrive at any kind of enduring settlement. Official lack of preparedness for emergencies and the ease with which officials on the spot resort to violence are recurring themes. She records the devastation wrought by mob violence – in one especially notorious case, “simultaneously senseless and perfectly controlled.” Yet she is also alert to acts of generosity and selflessness. She is particularly eloquent about the valour of the troops who fought the alpine war at Kargil.

Dutt’s career began shortly after the liberalisation in economic policy in 1991. While Thapar is deeply discomforted by the changes it brought, Dutt looks at who benefited and who did not. She suggests that liberalisation expanded the circles of the rich and powerful, but many others missed out. She argues that those left behind included the old upper castes (which Thapar sees as reacting already to colonial policy) and many in the new middle class. This exclusion set off multiple revolts that also drew on dissatisfaction about the decision to extend the scheme that reserves a proportion of government jobs for lower castes. Those who felt disadvantaged provided targets for Modi’s election campaign (and less successfully for that of the Aam Aadmi Party).

Dutt goes on to examine how religious enthusiasm combines with economic aspiration. Indeed, the extent of religious devotion leads her to question the secularism with which she grew up. She refers often to Hindu majoritarianism and quotes one spokesperson who even finds support for his claims in Australia: “Why can’t we say like John Howard said in Australia about Christians, that in this country Hindus are the majority and so this country will be run on the principles of Hinduism?”

Her questioning of the style of secularism practised by Congress governments is particularly sharp. She suggests that Congress tended to give in to religious extremists among both Muslims and Hindus. Secularism thus came to be seen as two-faced. “In a country where religion is threaded into the fabric of society and culture,” she concludes, “the only thing we can hope for is a way of living that respects all faiths and does not deny faith altogether.” While she is no less dismayed than Thapar at recent attacks on alleged enemies of Hinduism, her hope is in the rejection of religious phobias, not in the separation of religion from public life.

Both these books make a case for understanding not only the workings of the Modi government, but also the noisily competing forces in social and religious life that accompany it. •