OP-ED: The post-colonial Indian political discourse
The term secularism has attained a hegemonic position, which apparently enjoys normative and ethical respectability in Indian political and cultural parlance. However, the discourse on secularism is indicative of the complications that occur when the principles of Western constitutional and political theory are applied in the deeply religious cultural milieu of Indian society
In a literal sense, “post-colonial” is that which succeeds colonialism. Does that imply that colonial influence — political, economic, cultural, and military — ceases with the physical termination of colonial rule? It does not. On the contrary, all notions of post-colonialism are premised on the assumption that structural and cultural links between the metropolitan colonial power and the post-colonial state continue to influence the behaviour of the latter. Globalism, multiculturalism, authenticity movements and postmodernistic cultural trends are some of the typical features of the post-colonial situation.
The founders of independent India decided to base the polity upon the constitutional theory and practise initiated by the British. Among the intellectual elite, particularly the powerful group of politicians and bureaucrats around Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru (1947-64) and his Congress Party, the idea of secularism, in particular, was highly esteemed as a worthy norm and principle of a modern state introduced by the British. In formal terms, it meant that the state did not privilege any particular religion. Multiparty democracy, liberal fundamental rights, reservation of seats for the former Untouchables, the continuation of English as the official language, a liberal rational approach to education, a strong emphasis on industrial development, and various other such features acquired by the new state, suggested that India would try to build on the traditions of reform introduced by the British, albeit in a radical-democratic manner. India managed to establish a functioning political democracy that has survived many tests and trials.
The subsequent fortunes of Indian democracy have not followed the linear developmental path its founders wanted it to attain, however. Instead of national consolidation upon a secular-territorial basis, the state has been facing cultural nationalist threats from the Hindu mainstream and separatist threats from the minorities along its borders. Communal violence has been growing and worsening. Partly this change is reflective of the new modes of political assertion emerging in different parts of the world. Social groups, both dispossessed and privileged, are increasingly asserting their demands in primordial terms and lacing them with cultural imagery and jargon. Thus for example, since the 1970s, the successors of Nehru have increasingly strayed from secularism and have played the religious card to win support from the Hindu mainstream. The protectionist socialist framework of the economy has progressively been abandoned by both Congress and non-Congress governments. India is expected to become a major economic power in the not so distant future if it could jump on to the globalisation bandwagon. Frantic efforts have been going on for the last decade or so to ensure that that happens.
Simultaneously a movement for cultural authenticity has been impinging political and cultural life in increasing measure. The minorities perceive such developments as a process leading towards majoritarian tyranny. In an intellectual sense, the main target of the “culture authentists” has been the allegedly alien model of secularism introduced by Nehru. Some would like to modify it to suit Indian conditions. In this regard, it is sometimes argued that Mahatma Gandhi presented a more authentic type of secularism. It was based on the equality of religions and religious communities rather than on the equality of individual citizens. A leading Gandhian Indian scholar, Ashish Nandy, argues that all efforts to transcend the politics of faith and culture in South Asia are futile. Further, that in reality the modern-educated ruling elite groomed in Nehruvian rationalism or Marxist radicalism has always compromised on secularism in order to retain power and influence. He prescribes a model of governance, which seeks to incorporate the reality of faiths and cultures into formulae of negotiated power and resource sharing and communal understanding
The more regular rightwing critics of Nehruvian secularism allege that it favoured the non-Hindu minorities at the expense of the Hindu majority. As a proof they point out that whereas the Hindu marriage and divorce laws were modernised in an egalitarian direction, the Muslim minority has been allowed to practise the Islamic law which privileges men. They insist that secularism should be practised on the terms of Hindu culture and Hindu majority. Some rightwing political parties and movements such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and others propose that all Indian citizens must accept that Hinduism is their national cultural identity. They may, however, in the private sphere continue to believe in other religions such as Islam or Christianity. Although the cultural nationalists have generally held Muslims in suspicion, recently Christian missionaries have also become the target of violent attacks. The Hindu nationalists propose another type of secularism. Such secularism would allow freedom of religion to non-Hindu minorities provided they indigenise themselves and create an Indian Islam or Indian Christianity and so on.
On the left, while admiration for Nehru’s secularism is usually expressed it is considered doomed because it did not try to abolish through revolutionary measures all vestiges of the pre-modern cultural mould and underdeveloped capitalism. Also, radical Dalit leaders perceive secularism more of a means for the upper castes intellectuals to enjoy liberty than a process of emancipation of the downtrodden and oppressed.
Notwithstanding various objections, the term secularism has attained a hegemonic position, which apparently enjoys normative and ethical respectability in Indian political and cultural parlance. In short, a post-colonial Indian discourse on secularism indeed exists. However, the discourse on secularism — the various positions and standpoints — is indicative of the complications that occur when the principles of Western constitutional and political theory are applied in the deeply religious cultural milieu of Indian society.
On the other hand, the fact remains that if illiberal ideas and trends are dominant among communities of faith, they neither facilitate tolerance within the group against dissenting individuals or subordinate strata or castes, nor accommodation between groups. There is very little evidence that communitarian leaders representing Hindu culture have voluntarily agreed to remove caste oppression or have favoured a more credible form of communal harmony originating from so-called indigenous and authentic sources.
Thus the post-colonial political discourse reflects all the complexities of structural and ideational tensions between pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial India. There can be little doubt that cultural authenticity movements will not yield better models of societal transformation. These may even lead India towards fascism. The way forward is more of secularism and rationalism but matured in Gandhian humanism and compassion.
The author is an associate professor of Political Science at Stockholm University. He has authored two books and written extensively for various newspapers and journals