The New India Project

Last few days, we have been hearing a lot about New India. Opinions differ about what exactly does it mean as also the hopes and fears that it generates. But what everyone seems to agree upon is that we are at a crucial inflection point and the next few years are going to see a significant transformation not just in the political space but also in other aspects of the Indian society. Personally, I am not too sure about the extent and depth of this transformation but I will not get into that debate. For the present, I will accept that we are likely to see some shifts, though they may not be as dramatic as some people expect.

There are two broad pictures of New India, which people are talking about- depending upon personal orientation and political ideology, most people subscribe to one or another. The feelings that they have towards the New India project, is a direct consequence of which picture they are looking at.

The first picture of New India is of a young, strong,  united, confident, meritocratic, aspirational society striving to claim its legitimate space under the Sun. In this picture, the emphasis is on your merit, performance and delivery – your lineage etc. are of no concern.  In this picture, everyone is ( or hopefully will be) on the same page. While different groups may  have different affiliations (e.g. of caste, creed, language, region, religion etc.) they are all aligned to same goals, values and nationalistic fervor. It is a picture which supporters of the New India project find extremely inspiring and even the detractors find it difficult to argue against.

The second picture which the detractors find very frightening is of a majoritarian, jingoistic, intolerant, insensitive, boorish society run by an autocratic regime. In this picture, there is no space for dissent and there is an insistence that everyone must adhere to the same ideology. Goals, values and behaviors which do not conform to those propagated by the majority have to be strictly regulated and any potential disruption weeded out.  Whether the ideology is called Hindutva or Bhartiyta or Indianness, is irrelevant. It is the monolith of the ideology which frightens the detractors.

The supporters of the New India project try to allay these fears by arguing that the ideology which they are propagating is inherently open, flexible, tolerant and diversity friendly. Acts of intolerance are attributed to “fringes”, but the failure to regulate the fringes( and often extending implicit support to them), brings into question the intent and motives of the powers that be.

Not surprisingly, often the discourse turns into an examination of intent and motive.  The detractors argue that the New India project is nothing but a sham and the real purpose is to gain power at any cost. On the other hand, the supporters argue that the detractors are blowing things out of proportion so that they can protect their vested interest in the “status quo” After all, the feudalistic and corrupt  politicians, the elite in various other fields (the so called Lutyens and the Khan market gang) have much to lose if the New India project becomes a reality.

In this bitter exchange of attributions of motives, the real issue gets lost viz. the inherent tensions and contradictions in the New India project.  It is easy to see that the two pictures of the New India project ( as portrayed by its supporters and detractors respectively) are intimately connected. In many ways, they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

A monolithic ideology and an authoritarian regime are more pronounced in the second picture, but are an implicit part of the first picture also. A simple example of this is the PM’s speech to the MP’s of NDA.

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Take for example, his preference for “efficiency” over “effectiveness”. Efficiency requires adherence to a laid drown process in a disciplined and rigorous manner.  Thus, authoritarian regimes are best suited for efficiency ( recall  that  running of trains on times was touted as the biggest achievement of Emergency) Effectiveness is a more messy affair, it entails juggling with several variables in order to achieve the desired result.

In a soft and gentle manner, the PM kept reminding his MP’s to stick to their ” maryada” – refrain from speaking out of turn, ensure that they do not misuse (or let others misuse) their power and status, dedicate themselves to their duty in a selfless manner. The message was loud and clear- ” you are to be dedicated soldiers of my army- yours is not to question WHY but to DO and DIE. However, the message was delivered in such a suave and self effacing manner that the underlying authoritarian streak did not become “in your face”.  My suspicion is that perhaps he looks at himself also as a dedicated soldier who is fulfilling the task which destiny has bestowed upon him.

The simple point that I wish to make is that there is no way you can pursue the first picture of New India project, and stay clear of the second picture. Nationalistic fervor is a necessary ingredient of the New India project, without which it loses its emotive appeal and inspirational value. Similarly an authoritarian streak ( even if it be of a soft benevolent variety) is necessary to enforce the “selfless disciplined effort” which lies at the heart of the New India project. The similarity  between the New India project and protestant work ethic is quite stark and its aims seem to be inspired by the western concepts of progress and development. In this sense it is closer to Calvinism than Hinduism.

This is a significant difficulty which the New India project is likely to encounter. Its success depends upon its ability to manage the tension between Indian cultural identity and western notions of progress and development. Not surprisingly, the path chosen by the New India Project is far removed from both Gandhi and Deendayal Upadhayay, though it claims to be inspired by them. Significantly, both rejected the western notions of progress and development.  Both were great champions of Indian cultural identity though they defined it in very different ways. Similarly, the differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar were not just tactical but fundamental. They conceived of an ideal society in very very different ways. If the New India project claims to draw inspirations from these conflicting sources, then it has to address the tensions between them. Without that it is unlikely to go beyond well intended homilies.

Indeed, the vision which underlies the New India project is problematic and full of internal contradictions. However, with all its limitations, at least the supporters of the New India Project have a vision, which is much more than what can be said about the detractors. Every time, the detractors are asked for a vision, they have very little to offer except homilies like pluralism and social justice. This is essentially a fall back on the Nehruvian vision, which I believe has already run its course.

The Nehruvian vision was a source of great inspiration for people like me who grew up in the fifties. There were several reasons for its losing steam after the first decade post independence. One of the significant reasons was that it was a culture agnostic vision. It side stepped the question of what does it mean to be Indian, beyond citizenship of the geo -political entity called India. Unity in Diversity was a great slogan – it  urged us to transcend our sectoral identities( based on caste, creed, language, region etc.) and embrace a national identity. However, the national identity remained an abstract construct with no cultural anchors. Not surprisingly, people either remained caught with their sectoral identities of caste, creed, language, region etc. or embraced soulless, rootless notions of national identity and/or global citizenship.

It is great to talk about diversity and pluralism, but simultaneously one needs to ask as to what holds this diversity together. Does India have a heart and soul or is it a mere geo- political convenience to hold together disparate, disjointed clusters ? Thus at  the core is the issue of our Identity – Who are we and what do we wish to become ?

The supporters of the New India project have defined it in a certain way, which is both problematic and full of internal contradictions. On the other hand, the detractors do not wish to engage with it at all. They either dismiss it as irrelevant ( let us only focus on issues of development, social justice and individual liberties) OR respond to it with negation ( we are not Hindu Rashtra).

I find it rather disturbing that  terms such as cultural identity or  Indic have been virtually usurped by the right wing. I am sometimes invited to participate in discourse around Indianness, and invariably it is by bodies and institutions which lean towards the right side of the political divide. It is another matter, that very soon they discover that what I have to offer does not suit their agenda and promptly drop me like a hot potato. I have rarely come across initiatives from the other side ( generally referred to as left liberals )  to explore this issue. At times I feel that they are allergic to terms like cultural identity  and see it only as a reactionary, regressive endeavor which will support oppressive monoliths.

I believe, it is high time the detractors of the New India project give up their aversion to notions such as cultural identity and Indic. Mere denial or defiance will keep them perpetually on the back foot. It is time that they start defining Indianness in their own way. Their fears are very real but the only way to deal with them is to actively participate in the New India project rather than scoffing at it or fighting it. Whether they like it or not, a New India is emerging and will continue to emerge.  In this transformation process, we can ill afford to ignore the issue of cultural identity. A culture agnostic rhetoric of Pluralism, Inclusion, Development, Social justice etc. is just not enough. It must take into account the salient predispositions of the Indian people and their cultural identity, otherwise it will not have any emotive force.

In other words, if we do not wish to get trapped in a narrow, restrictive definition of what it means to be Indian, we have no choice but to participate in defining it.

 

Two faces of the Hindu Monolith

Significance of the excluded

One of my teachers, late Pulin Garg, had a favourite question- ” In saying what you are saying, what are you not saying AND in not saying, what you are not saying, what are you actually saying ?” Besides being a nice tongue twister, the question is also a reminder  that in order to understand any phenomenon, it is important to take into account that which has been edited out.

Thus I was quite amused by the fact that Shashi Tharoor in his recent book “Why I am a Hindu”, makes no reference to Ambedkar’s ” Riddles in Hinduism” or even ” Annihilation of caste”. In fact, Ambedkar’s name figures only thrice in the book with no serious engagement with his views. One wonders, where does Ambedkar figure in the grand narrative of Hinduism ( religion for the 21st century etc.) offered by Mr. Tharoor. Presumably, Mr. Tharoor does not agree with Ambedkar’s position, but then why does he not refute it and explicitly state his disagreement. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that Mr. Tharoor’s book is essentially a political statement and the best thing to do would be to stay clear of everything which could spoil the grand narrative which he wishes to lure us with, as also to sidestep anything which could be potentially controversial.

Political dilemma and the same Monolith 

Mr. Tharoor’s predicament is understandable. His party has FINALLY recognised that the secular card has lost much of its sheen and credibility, and hence carries very little traction with a large part of the electorate. On the other hand, its main political rival has achieved considerable success through consolidation of what is somewhat simplistically referred to as “Hindu vote”. Under the circumstances, the only viable choice that it is left with, is to offer its own version of Hinduism and convince the electorate that it is being hoodwinked by its rival in the name of Hinduism. The strategy is identical to what its political rival had done by coining the term “pseudo-secularism” . Mr. Tharoor is now trying to turn the tables by suggesting that what his political opponent is following is “pseudo- Hinduism ( though he does not use this term) and his party is the torch bearer of “real Hinduism”

Consequently, there is very little difference in his version of Hinduism and the one subscribed to by the Hindutva brigade. . They draw from the same scriptures ( Vedas, Upanashids, Gita, etc.) offer identical interpretations and extol the same virtues of tolerance, plurality, etc. Even in respect of social ills (like untouchability, superstition, oppression of the downtrodden, cruelty towards widows etc.) their perspectives are  identical i.e. these are distortions which have emerged (mostly in the last few centuries) and have very little to do with the intrinsic nature of Hinduism.

Thus beneath the veneer of modern sensibilities Mr. Tharoor offers as the same monolithic version of Hinduism as the Hindutva brigade – the same smug claims of being the only universal religion ( without of course seeking to proselytise) and the same subtle  “holier than thou” stance. Note for instance Mr. Tharoor’s assertion- ” India’s secular co-existence was paradoxically made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of   Indians are Hindu” Net net, Mr. Tharoor has no difference of opinion with his Hindutva counterparts as far as the understanding of Hinduism goes. All that he is saying is that ” They are fake, I am the authentic version”

Hinduness as a cultural construct

Both Mr. Tharoor and Hindutva brigade, also seem to agree that Hinduism ( or more appropriately Hindu-ness) is also a cultural construct- a perspective, a philosophy, a way of life, a set of values, a psycho-social predisposition about different facets of human existence. This notion of Hindu-ness is not restricted to any specific religious creed but transcends  religious affiliations. In this sense, the term Hindu becomes quite similar to the way Mohd. Iqbal used the term Hindi, in his famous verse ” Hindi hein, watan hai hindustan hamara” ( We are Hindis and our land is Hindustan)

It is therefore logical to infer that both for the Hundutva brigade, and the likes of Mr. Tharoor, Hindu-ness is not the monopoly of only those who belong to the so called Hindu religions. ( I use the plural because I do not believe that there is anything called Hindu religion. At best, we can talk of a wide set of belief systems, which can broadly be classified as Hindu) . To a large extent, both the virtues and ills of Hinduness, cut across the religious barriers and can be witnessed in most inhabitants of this land, including the followers of Abrahamic faiths. 

The two fallacies

There is thus an undeniable overlap between Hinduness and Indianness. Where Mr. Tharoor differs from his Hindutva counterparts, is in his response to this overlap. The Hindutva brigade treats Hinduness and Indianness as identical and refuses to acknowledge any difference between the two. From their point of view all Indians are Hindus who belong to different sects( or Panths) Thus Moslems become Mohammed Panthi Hindus, Christian become Issah Panthi Hindus, Sikhs become Nanak Panthi Hindus, and so on.

On the face of it, this approach seems quite inclusive, but what it conveniently overlooks is that religions are not just about theology, worship of God and religious rituals. They are also social arrangements and significant anchors of a person/community’s identity. This insistence to erode the distinction between Hinduness and Indianness only fuels paranoia and enhances the need to assert one’s separateness . What is worse, it leaves the community feeling vulnerable about unwanted intrusions into its ways of living e.g. dietary preferences and the like. The net result is that non-recognition of difference between Hinduness and Indianness, only heightens the difference between them.

On the other hand, people like Mr. Tharoor treat them as disjointed separate entities,  They believe that  Hinduness and Indianness should not be mixed with each other and each should be respected and valued in its own right. This sounds perfectly rational but the trouble is that humans are not just rational beings – they also have emotive needs. Devoid of Hinduness, the notion of Indianness is reduced to a mere geo-political convenience and carries no emotive force with it. 

This approach of dealing with the overlap, not merely leaves a huge  emotional vacuum for exploitation by various vested interests, it also puts people like Mr. Tharoor in a peculiar double bind, because they are unable to take any cogent stance in respect of our collective cultural heritage. Thus on one hand Mr. Tharoor wants epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata to be treated as non-religious texts which should be taught in our schools, but simultaneously castigates Doordarshan for telecasting them and contributing to the Hindutva agenda.

There is no way we can remain connected with our heritage without gracing our Hinduness, because a large part of our epics, mythology, cultural symbols, architecture,  art forms, etc. have a strong stamp of Hinduness. Similarly in order to infuse our notion of national identity, with emotive force, we are forced to fall back on Hinduness, because it lives within us ,irrespective of our religious affiliations,  and provides the invisible thread which connects this diverse and pluralistic society. 

While the Hindutva brigade commits the error of not differentiating between Hinduness and Indianness, people like Mr. Tharoor err by disassociating them. Neither approach helps us in pursuing our cherished goal of “Unity in Diversity” In the first scenario, diversity is sacrificed and all that we are left with is a hegemony in the name of unity. In the second scenario, the invisible thread of Hinduness, which holds us together, is forgotten and all that we are left with is a soulless, incoherent melee in the name of diversity.

Unresolved Feelings about Hinduness

It is indeed not easy to acknowledge the overlap between two constructs without confusing them with each other.  What makes it even more difficult for us is the strong religious associations with the term Hindu and the host of unresolved feelings around our Hinduness.  For a variety of reasons, the followers of Hindu religions have carried a strong sense of stigma, shame and feelings of victimisation. These are either discharged through hyper aggressive reactivity or compensated through a self-image of hyper graciousness( we are tolerant, inclusive welcoming, non-violent etc.) The Hidutvawadis try and exploit the sense of victimhood and injury, whereas the likes of Mr. Tharoor appeal to the innate graciousness of the Hindu identity. The  ill effects of  stoking the victimhood are well known but ironically the appeals to graciousness are not likely to work either. This is so because graciousness and victimhood become two sides of the same coin- “We have suffered because we are too gracious” kind of syndrome.  Hence the more we exaggerate the gracious side of Hinduness, the more we will fuel the sense of victimhood, and the greater will be the counter reaction in terms of crude aggressive “show of strength”  

The followers of non- Hindu religions have their own set of difficulties . Often,the fear of being swallowed and losing their identity, makes it difficult for them to embrace their innate Hinduness.  Also, they have a clearer and tighter religious organisations, which do not always sit well with the “open-ended and fluid” notions of religiosity associated with Hinduness. This creates a conflict of loyalties for them. Their innate Hinduness pulls them towards an open ended approach, but it also leaves residual discomfort/guilt about betraying their religious doctrines. Additionally, there is sometimes a sense of superiority about the foreign ( and hence more advanced/progressive) origins of their religion and a wish to differentiate themselves from the heathen Hindu.

Another difficulty stems from the fear that any emphasis on either Hinduness or Indianness, will make us parochial and closed. This is particularly prevalent among a section of English educated urban elite, who see themselves primarily as “global citizens”. Their belief is that all social/cultural codings ( like race, gender, ethnicity etc.) create prejudice and stereotypes, and consequently prevent us from acknowledging the innate humanness which cuts across these differences.

I have a great degree of resonance with this perspective, but I also find it limiting. Human beings are not just autonomous entities but also relational beings. A large part of our identity ( a sense of who we are) stems from our belonging system (family, community, culture etc.) .Thus codings received from these systems have a significant impact on how we think, feel and act. When this impact is not acknowledged and graced, it either operates in a surreptitious manner or makes us rootless and alienated ,not just from our context but also from ourselves. It is true that often these codings become a burden and prevent us from thinking freely, but it is equally true that they are an integral part of ourselves. The more we fight them and deny them, the more virulent they become. It is only through acknowledging them, understanding them and gracing them, that we can go beyond them and release ourselves from their captivity.

To sum up, we can not escape the reality that beyond our differences of class, creed, religion, ethnicity etc. there is a shared invisible  cultural thread which holds this diverse society together. We also share a heritage which is largely ( though by no means completely) associated with the term Hindu. In this sense Hinduness  can be seen as an integral part of us. We may like it or hate it, but we cannot wish it away. This Hinduness deeply impacts the way we see ourselves as a nation. We can neither equate Hinduness with Indianness, nor can we disassociate them with each other. We simply have to learn ( both individually and collectively) to walk the tight rope of ” differentiation without disassociation ” However, this will only be possible if we first learn as to what does Hinduness really mean, and deal with our own unresolved feelings around it.  The more we get caught in the” victim-gracious ” binary , the more difficult our task will become.