Wednesday, October 28, 2015


The gruesome lynching of a 50-year old man, Muhammad Akhlaq by a frenzied mob has led many in India to question the direction in which the country is headed. Muhammad Akhlaq, as we know, was murdered on the mere suspicion of having stored beef in his house. This lynching and other instances of violence in the past was followed by many Indian writers returning their literary awards in protest against the rising intolerance in India. The debates surrounding the death of Muhammad Akhlaq, and other such incidents in the past, took an interesting though predictable turn.

The debate around the ‘idea of India’ and ‘secularism’ within the secular-liberal media was the most interesting and predictable. One could see many laments about the loss of the ‘idea of India’. At this point, it is important to ask what this ‘idea of India’ means. To put it simply, the ‘idea of India’ imagines the modern nation (and state) of India as an ancient and glorious civilization, having a history of more than 5000 years. This unbroken history was believed to have sustained a remarkable artistic and literary tradition (exemplified by Sanskrit texts) and a cultural efflorescence that was inclusive and tolerant, despite ‘minor’ irritants like the subjugation of millions of people under the caste system and the deplorable condition of women. Though Jawaharlal Nehru apparently envisioned a ‘modern’ India (though it was far from it), the ‘idea of India’ as an ancient and timeless civilization gained prominence from his time onwards, and one can observe many prominent public intellectuals and academics actually defending and indeed longing for this ‘idea of India’ which is Nehruvian to the core.

As an example of the reiteration of the Nehruvian ‘idea of India’ following the growing number of incidents like the death of Muhammad Akhlaq, one can read Shyam Saran’s article. Saran, a former Foreign Secretary and current chairman of the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (an independent think-tank), opens his article by asking, “What is left now of the idea of India? The expansive cultural sensibility, the persistent sense of wonder and curiosity, the delight in open discourse and debate with no point of view discarded, and above all the embrace of humanity with all its quirks and eccentricities – these have been the hallmark of a civilisation which has mostly seen itself as a journey not a destination”.

Lofty poetic exhortations are but poor guides out of any problem. For despite acknowledging that for most of India’s post-colonial history has “been a relentless slide towards…a tragic parody” of the ideals enshrined at the moment of Independence, Saran closes his article by forcefully arguing that “[i]f we value the idea of India we must not only Make in India but defend the idea of India too”.

At this point it is imperative to ask if the ‘idea of India’ was really all-inclusive, as the Nehruvian secular-liberal intellectuals are inclined to believe. Given that rapes, murder, and lynching are routine for many Dalit communities in India, and that the rise of banal violence and rioting against minority communities is not a recent phenomenon, one wonders how the notion of plural and inclusive ethos of the ‘idea of India’ can be sustained. To understand why, despite having a seemingly inclusive and progressive vision, violence is regularly visited upon marginalized and minoritized communities in India, one need not look at India’s ancient history but the modern debates by which a ‘secular’ India was constructed.

To begin with, the ‘idea of India’ was not at all inclusive. Shabnum Tejani, studying the development of the idea of ‘secularism’ in India in her book Indian Secularism: A Social and Intellectual History, 1890-1950, argued that rather than creating conditions for a just and equal society, the powers-that-be who debated about the nature and essence of Indian secularism, broadly wanted to create a political structure based on Hindu majoritarianism. What the defenders of the ‘idea of India’ miss is that right from the 1950s, the equation of power has been firmly in the hands of the Hindu upper-castes and a more equitable distribution of power has not been achieved. For instance, it can be observed that many of the cow-protection laws in various states were first legislated under the aegis of the Congress party. Similarly, suspicion and targeting of Christian missionaries (foreign or otherwise) was routine from the 1950s.
There is also no reason to believe that ancient India was a tolerant space, as we can observe that Buddhism as a religious movement arose against the excesses of Brahmanism. Similarly, a literary tradition that saw the production of the Manusmriti cannot be, by any stretch of imagination, considered as tolerant. That access to the knowledge produced in Sanskrit was the exclusive privilege of brahmins and the glorification of the same exclusive knowledge today as “wisdom”, should be enough to dispel any myths of inclusivity and sagacity.

Considering the above mentioned facts it seems a bit silly that someone would, in the face of rising violence, argue for a defense of the ‘idea of India’ even though, like Saran, many observe that “churches [are] being burnt or Dalits being hacked to death”. If at all there is any seriousness in countering the rising trend of intolerance, it is not by defending this ‘idea’ which has no real basis in history or reality, but by rigorously questioning it.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 28 October, 2015)

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