The Real India

By Anjum Altaf

The overwhelming triumph of the BJP in the recent elections is being interpreted by many as the death of a liberal, plural, and secular India. This is a misreading of history.

Two distinctions are relevant. First, while post-1947 India was indeed characterised by the ideas of liberalism, pluralism, and secularism, these were ideals towards which Nehru wanted to move the country, not necessarily what India was actually like. Second, the long sweep of social history being unaffected by arbitrary dates on the calendar, there is no compelling reason to base our understanding of India solely on what transpired after 1947.

Pakistanis should have no difficulty grasping the first point if they recall Jinnah’s much celebrated 1947 address in which he said: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed, that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” Clearly, he wished Pakistan to be democratic and secular. That hope died with him and the country moved instead in a contrary direction. It was only the longevity of Nehru and his family that kept the hope alive much longer in India.

Setting aside the ideas of India that marked the times of Ashoka or Akbar, in the decades leading up to 1947 there were at least three other ideas of India in competition with Nehru’s. As articulated by Sunil Khilnani in his excellent book The Idea of India, the oldest among these was Savarkar’s Hindutva conceived as far back as 1923. Then there was Gandhi’s idea of a village-based, anti-industrial society and Patel’s idea that preferred market capitalism to Nehru’s Fabian socialism.

While Gandhi’s idea was swept aside as utopian, and Patel’s early death left his vision without a champion, it was Nehru’s pre-eminent position in the negotiations for independence that enabled him to impose his vision on a Congress whose underlying sympathies were actually more attuned to Savarkar. It is a fact that liberalism, pluralism, and secularism resonated very little with the mass of the Indian population. Nehru’s was really an elite project, launched without any consultation with the population and over the sentiments of the rank and file of the Congress party. As Khilnani summed it up succinctly, “Most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given.”

The second distinction, that of the continuity of social history, was reflected most clearly in the prophetic words of Ambedkar articulated in 1949: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Ambedkar was referring to the India that had existed for centuries, an India not only undemocratic but deeply hierarchical and unequal, characterized by a social exclusiveness almost unparalleled in human experience. To turn this unequal society, whose very basis was found on exclusiveness, into an inclusive one was an outlandish ambition. Dr. Ambedkar knew that well when he made the profound observation that “democracy was not a form of government: it was essentially a form of society” and warned: “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”

Sunil Khilnani has noted that the social structure in India was even impervious to urbanization: “Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organized by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity.”

This India of exclusive, hierarchical and unequal groups was not necessarily violent or conflictual; there were rules of engagement that, in general, allowed for a live-and-let-live co-existence. But, at the same time, the existence of group identities was continuously vulnerable to political manipulation. In recent history, such manipulation was starkly manifest in the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the attack on the Babri mosque in 1992, and the Gujarat violence in 2002. (India, in this context, refers to the subcontinent — the 1953 Anti-Ahmadiyya riots in Lahore and the 1971 aggression in East Pakistan fall in the same category.)

It is the unequal, hierarchical, exclusive and undemocratic India that has asserted itself with a majoritarian vengeance in the most recent re-election of the BJP. The short-lived attempt to transform India into a liberal, plural, and secular polity has failed with the thin top-dressing, an epiphenomenon courtesy of the Raj and its education of the leading personalities in the struggle for independence, being finally washed away for good.

Any re-emergence, however, is prone to its own dangers. In unsettled times, the nostalgia for a ‘glorious’ past has much more appeal than an invitation to an uncertain future. And, in appealing to the past, whoever can stir up the most emotions is likely to score the highest. Modi, in stoking an injured psyche, generated a powerful wave on the myth of a past marked by amazing feats of plastic surgery and intergalactic travel that was ruptured by evil and marauding invaders who were now to be made to pay penance for their transgressions. (In this framework, Pakistanis are just as susceptible to visions of the Riasat of Medina and the golden period of Islam which they have been allegedly denied by various external enemies.)

The social structures of the subcontinent, where there has been no social revolution of the kind Ambedkar identified, are reasserting themselves as the effects of the British interregnum fade away. One has to credit the late poet Fehmida Riaz for being among the first to understand these realities when she told Indians almost forty years ago that they were no different from Pakistanis — tum bilkul ham jaise nikley / ab tak kahan chuppe thay bhai. In hindsight, this should have been no surprise since social history is not altered by artificial lines in the sand.

This opinion was published in Dawn on June 9, 2019 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

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1 Comment
  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 20:26h, 12 June Reply

    The following article complements the points made in the post, in particular Dr. Ambedkar’s concern that democracy (which is more than elections every five years) would not take root in India where the old social order remained intact.

    “Another theme of “Democracy and Dictatorship” is that liberal democracy is so rare and difficult because it requires not only transforming political institutions, but also overcoming the anti-democratic and illiberal economic and social legacies of the old order. And this often requires violence, even war, to achieve.”

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