Purity Vs. Plurality In India

Narendra Modi’s brood of Hindu nationalists are ostensibly rooting for the return of an Indian civilizational state, but in fact are merely envisioning a narrowly defined, identity-based nationhood.

James Daus

Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist and author. Her most recent book is “Orienting: An Indian In Japan.”

The economic and technological convergence of globalization did not lead to a singular cosmopolitan order, but to a great divergence, in which prospering emergent nations, most notably China, once again attained the wherewithal to chart a path forward based on their own civilizational foundations. Economic and technological strength engenders, not extinguishes, cultural and political self-assertion.   

This development has led Bruno Maçães to argue we are seeing the return of “civilization states,” such as Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China, that are pushing back against the universalist claims of a liberal world order.

In this series, we asked several thinkers, including Shashi Tharoor and Zhang Weiwei, to assess Maçães’s argument.

— Nathan Gardels, Noema editor-in-chief

As an Indian who has spent more than two decades living outside her country of birth, I have always struggled to explain my homeland to foreigners. For India is like playdough in the hands of any would-be educator: a civilization, a nation, a philosophy, a palimpsest. It is ancient, with a history stretching back millennia to the Indus civilization. But it is also new, having celebrated only its 76th birthday as a republic last August. 

Broadly sketched, the country’s contemporary politics is a face-off between two camps: midnight’s children and Modi’s offspring. The former, under a label borrowed from Salman Rushdie’s Booker Prize-winning novel, are the inheritors of the vision of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru: secular, liberal and — as critics would claim — rather English and elite. This was the country that Nehru imagined was born at “the stroke of the midnight hour” on August 15, 1947, the end of British colonial rule. 

Their power is waning. Midnight’s children guided the Nehruvian Congress Party, which for decades bestrode the country’s political landscape like a colossus — albeit a corrupt and inefficient one. It was unceremoniously booted out by the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his offspring: a hyper-patriotic, atavistic, majoritarian-oriented and — as critics would claim — bigoted and bullying brood of Hindu nationalists.  

All nations are ideas as much as territory. They are, therefore, fungible: molded by wars and revolutions as well as dreams and texts. The geographic outline of India is more-or-less clear, although its precise contours are drawn differently in Pakistan and China. But what is the idea of India? 

In the first few decades after independence, that idea was plurality. It was an idea that stood as the antithesis of the concept of the 19th-century European nation-state, where a single religion, a single language and a common enemy supposedly formed the “natural” basis for the only sustainable kind of political unit. For decades, India defied the exclusions of the nation-state so defined. By resisting the Balkanization that many Western commentators had thought to be its inevitable destiny, this idea of India stood as testament to the fact that it was possible to create a strong, common identity out of fractured multiplicity.

Post-independence India, like many other former colonies, was forged at the intersection of an ancient civilization’s often traumatizing encounter with Western “modernity.” It was, therefore, a new kind of nation-building project. An amalgamation of what Bruno Maçães has identified as civilizational and national states. The Republic of India’s metaphysics blended civilizational acceptance of pluralism and absence of an insistence on singular truths, gods and loyalties, with a liberal constitution that treated the population as free and equal citizens governed by an abstract, secular law.

For midnight’s children, India defied the linear, European narrative of progress, which entailed a steady march “forward” from the feudal religious practices of the Middle Ages to the homogenizing modernity of the present.

This idea of India provided a third way between so-called civilizational and national states by acculturating Western ideas to Indian civilizational values. Indian secularism, for example, is neither defined nor practiced in the Western sense of a separation between church and state. It does not promote public spaces bleached of religion. It is instead about acknowledging the legitimacy of people’s deeply religious sentiments by stressing equal respect for different beliefs as the bedrock of societal cohesion. Many beliefs flourish in public spaces without prejudice. 

“All nations are ideas as much as territory.”

In the school I attended in New Delhi in the 1980s, for instance, celebrations for the religious festivals of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians were all part of the annual activities curriculum, although the academic one did not include anything of a religious mien.

In practice, this high-wire act of balancing the civilizational with the modern-liberal-national by being both and neither has often resulted in incongruous outcomes. Indian citizens, for example, while supposedly equal under the law, are left to the vagaries of their religious traditions when it comes to “personal” matters like marriage, divorce and inheritance. 

A uniform civil code that would expel religion from the legal sphere altogether has eluded India, although a “directive principle” enshrined in the constitution strongly suggests that the state strive toward implementing it as soon as possible. 

The reason? Democratic politics in India, regardless of the party in power, operates along narrow lines of identity, with votes being conceptually divvied up along caste and religious lines. Politicians then appeal to these so-called “vote banks” by promising various sops and boons, including non-interference in their private community-based laws.

Muslims in India can, therefore, divorce and marry women according to religious norms that are different for Hindus or Christians. And Hindu succession laws are different to those of citizens who belong to other religions. 

But the Republic of India cannot claim credit for having thought of this way of dividing and ruling its citizens. That credit goes to the British Raj, which, in a self-serving manner, encouraged and institutionalized the concept of India as a number of identity silos with little in common except a “neutral” state that was essential for providing arbitrage between them.

What midnight’s children failed to do was to move away from the legacies of the Raj. They not only adopted a constitution with borrowed liberal and “Western” values, but also failed to apply those values uniformly. Doing so maintained the hypocrisies and biases of their erstwhile colonizers, resulting in an inconsistent political worldview that stressed individual freedoms and equality on the one hand while paying obeisance to community-based “civilizational” values — often cynically for the purpose of winning elections. 

The cumulative result of their failure has been the rise of Modi’s offspring. For the latter, the project of a modern Indian pluralism failed to achieve little more than the appeasement of minorities to the detriment of Indian unity and “civilization.” 

If the Nehruvian idea of India was premised on plurality, for Modi that idea has been replaced by purity. Under the current political dispensation, Project Hindutva has replaced Project Secular. The underpinnings of the country are thought to lie in a nativist metaphysics that are undiluted by centuries of invasions — first Islamic and then European — that India suffered. Hindutva would erase the layers of the palimpsest that Nehru championed and return it to so-called civilizational-first principles, which are Hindu.

In its softer iterations, the Hindutva concept includes all the diverse peoples of the Indian subcontinent as de-facto culturally Hindu regardless of the religion they might practice and profess. Hinduism, in this conception, is conflated with being civilizationally Indian, rather than related to any particular practice of devotion. 

In fact, given its cacophony of beliefs and practices, Hinduism has been compared to open-source code, where apostasy becomes almost impossible and atheists (the Charvakas being a case in point) can exist within the fold. Consequently, and much to the bewilderment of people grounded in monolithic, Abrahamic worldviews, there were peoples in the Indian subcontinent that could be described as Hindu-Muslims. Examples include Khoja Muslims and Kutchi Memons from western India, who are self-professed Muslims but long retained elements of Hindu worship from their pre-Islamic conversion.

It was, in fact, the modern, colonial encounter with the British that ended such syncretic identities. Taking the census, a core activity of the British administration, was centered on categorizing the “native” population according to their religion. The Raj was unable to comprehend or consider more pluralistic conceptions of self that did not adhere to binaries.

“The civilizational state that Modi’s offspring are attempting to ‘return to’ is in fact a modern construct, closer to a Hindu Pakistan or a Germany cleansed of Poles and Jews than any historic state of cultural purity.”

The creation, with British assistance, of a religion-based state like Pakistan, in the mirror of European conceptions of what a nation-state should look like, has made it that much harder for India to truly exist as the syncretic civilizational state it once was. The civilizational state that Modi’s offspring are attempting to “return to” is in fact a modern construct, closer to a Hindu Pakistan or a Germany cleansed of Poles and Jews than any historic state of cultural purity. Hindutva — the political project of creating a Hindu India — is far closer to the Western ideal of identity-based nationhood than it is to a Hinduism-infused civilizational state where heterogeneity rather than orthodoxy is the norm.

In the past, I have argued that India could be a role model of sorts for the European Union, were the EU to care to learn from a “less-developed” country. For modern India was in some respects a proto-EU: a large region of immense diversity wrought into a strong political and economic unit. Like the EU, India has more than 20 official languages, and the two share the motto of “unity in diversity.” Indeed, by its very existence against the norms of political convention, India had something to teach Europe about the possibility of what Maçães calls “a third way between nationalism and liberalism.”

Midnight’s children essentially undertook an Indian version similar to what would evolve as the European project: rejecting the homogenizing tyranny of the nation-state and choosing instead to celebrate aggregation. Modi’s offspring, while ostensibly rooting for a return of the civilizational state, are in fact merely envisioning a narrowly defined, pre-EU, European-style nation-state.  

It’s an increasingly complex world that simple binaries cannot adequately capture. Cleavages between the liberal and the civilizational have never been fully overcome anywhere, and these continue to play out — not only between states, but within them as well.