It is time to reinforce our belief in the core secular ideas of modernity and socialism. This is what should be said loudly after Babri judgment, not going back but moving forward.
a) It is well accepted that the liberal/secular/progressive political current in India has been in the forefront of the anti-communalism struggle. However, it is necessary to make a distinction between faith and politics because, “even if it was difficult to fight the majority's political influence on the justice system of the country, it was relatively easier to establish that it was happening. The culture of subcontinent’s liberal intellectual analysis has never hidden its discomfort with faith and its insidious workings. How is one to cry faith is influencing justice in a way that makes it unjust? This secret helplessness will become increasingly evident in times to come. Dealing with this challenge would require genetic alterations for which the secular skin may not be suitable” (emphasis all mine).
b) We should rather answer the question as to, ‘why the immense appeal of reason, rationality, proof, evidence does not cut much ice with the South Asian cultural psyche’ (ibid). The commentator goes on, “This to me seems a challenge that cannot be fully met without reassessing, for yet another generation or two, the persisting peculiarities of non-westernity” (emphasis mine).
c) While accepting that ‘appeal to reason’ is a gift of human society, the commentator maintains that, “the mantle of reforming the oriental psyche with enough compassion and home-grown modern sensibility may be still manages to put our people against our people...But perhaps the way that appeal is made need to be looked at” (emphasis mine).
I found this comment very interesting, not only for its linguistic charm but also because of the potential questions that might arise from it. Another reason for my immediate interest is the fact that these comments, effectively, summarise the ‘skeptic’ position in the debates on modernity and change, at least in India. On the one hand, we have many leading liberal social scientists/thinkers who already seem to have traversed the yet difficult path from our obscurantist past to a distant free-market utopian future, and hence concluding that Mandir-Masjid is a hangover from the past. On the other hand, we have the skeptics who doubt all discourses of ‘foundationalism’ which make even a remote claim of change including those of ‘modernity’ and ‘development’. In the particular case of Indian secularism, the ‘skeptic’ school seems to have concluded that secularism has failed because it is a western import unsuitable for our context where faiths could be the starting point for a local tradition of tolerance.
I would take this opportunity to raise such a set of 'discomforting' questions, though, at a very preliminary scale. I also hope this discussion would contribute to the debate and generate useful insight into the problem posed above by the commentator. It should also be said that that all of us share similar feelings against the communal-fascist political movement in the country which has gained considerable strength in recent few decades. The concern, here, too is the question of how best to fight Hindu-fascism in India, both at the level of ideology as well as political practice. Finally, I would confess that this note is presented only as an outline and is far from comprehensive, pending further work.
Liberal Secularism in India: ‘Western’ or Simply Coward?
We begin with the first proposition made above. Put simply, it says that while there are fascistic tendencies in the Hindu rightwing political manoeuvres, it has been difficult for the liberal intellectual analysis to fight it because liberal intellectuals do not possess equivalent rhetorical imagination matching the demagoguery of the Hindu-fascists. It seems that the commentator, here, means that while the reality of Hindu-fascism is on our face, we are unable to give it an appropriate ‘name’ and call it such loudly enough. This has happened, it is said, because of the deep-seated liberal discomfort-cum-helplessness over matters of faith, religion and tradition. At another place, it also seems that the problem is mainly concerned with communication, and the commentator has little issues with the analysis and conclusions reached by the liberals about primordiality of faiths, in general. So he says, ‘How is one to cry faith is influencing justice in a way that makes it unjust?’ The conclusion is even more ironical: the secular skin is not compatible with the necessary corrections required for this transcendence from knowing to crying!
The best working definition of liberal intellectuals can be those intellectuals in public life who proclaim to be liberal. I presume that we refer to the same category when we use the term ‘liberal intellectuals’ and hence, would propose two lines of solutions to this problem. One, we should not stop merely at the liberal discomfort since it is more than that: liberal secularism in India has been ambivalent at its best and complicit at its worst with the communal-fascist forces. This has been achieved conveniently by various means. Only one of this is the pretence of being beyond the dualism of ‘faith-reason’, and ‘tradition-modernity’. An example of this overarching discourse beyond the complexities of the ‘local’ context is the transcendence of all social contradictions under the magic wand of neoliberal economic growth. Our home minister and the political establishment think that Kashmiri demand for equal treatment can be tackled through it and Naxalism can also be uprooted through free-market developmentalism. It is as if all other class interests should be subservient to the goal of urban bourgeois-led economic growth. This is, of course, not say that economic growth does not mean anything for the general well being of economy as a whole. However, this certainly enables many upwardly-mobile class spokespersons and specifically, Rahul Gandhi to conveniently comment that Mandir and Masjid are not relevant issues anymore.
It must also be noted that Indian liberals have been unable to give Hindu-fascism a convincing ‘name’ because of their organic connection with a similar project of ‘reclaiming Indian nationhood’. As a matter of fact, historically, there has been a really thin line which separates Hindu-right wing from the liberals. The worldview have been similar, it is only the political methods which have differed a bit. In the advanced neoliberal phase, however, Hindu-fascism presents a strange challenge for the liberals in India since it is both ‘nationalist’, ‘cultural’ and politically ‘majoritarian’. In everyday political life, these liberal intellectuals hardly ever denounced the ‘cultural’ nationalist project of the Hindu-right. Denouncing religion/tradition can take two forms: moral and historical. Ironically, liberals in India rarely even take a moral stand against the ‘Hinduised’ propaganda of the RSS-BJP which has steadily gained legitimacy in the public sphere of the country. Beginning pre-independence and then the debates on the Hindu code bill, we have seen the inability of the liberals in India to tackle the distinction between what is ‘Indian’ and what is ‘Hindu’. Rather, the liberal intelligentsia has consistently invoked the glorious past (much like their adversaries Hindu Mahasabha-RSS) to justify the system of exploitation in the present which needs to be broken. As Marx says in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,
“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.”
Liberalism (and its new avatar neo-liberalism) has always resorted to this trick in the history of world politics. It has used the rhetoric of transcendentalism while sticking to the most banal/ordinary of conventional moralisms when confronted with the actual contradictions in the society. For the specific case of India, take for instance, the response of the doyens of liberal media/academia after the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai. There are several layers to this vigourous response, at least at the superficial level. To begin with, the class character of the so-called liberal establishment is such that the long ordeal at the famous Taj hotel did turn into a major nostalgia-booster for them. And the main concern remained around the notion of ‘full-proof security’. In the good olden days, the security of the ruling classes was maintained through a general use of force (physical and otherwise) in the organisation of the society. Unfortunately, such a step remains out of bound in a representative democracy that India is now. Hence, though security has always remained the paramount concern for the uninterrupted merry-making of the ruling classes, it has taken a dangerous turn with ever-growing inequality, intense conflicts and desperation in the society at many levels. Security, in other words, expectedly has become nothing but a tool to reign in lower classes in their ability to strike back. Also, the deep fear of the liberals about numerous outsiders and ‘others’- the peoples, the cultures, the religions, the nations within nations, the regions etc.- which they never thought existed has come true in last few decades. All of this ensured that we had in every liberal intellectual, a security analyst, a former army general of sorts, who wanted to carpet bomb Pakistan. Ironically, in another case of Naxalite violence, it took the chief of air force to clarify that defence forces should not indulge in internal problems and that it constituted an indiscriminate last resort to use these forces against nation’s own people.
As is clear, the simple way out for liberals in times of crisis in India has been to join the Hindu rightwing in its project of creating ‘internal’ as well as ‘external’ enemies which can exonerate the liberals of any direct political action.
Let us be clear: the liberal intellectuals in India are cowards and lazy. It is their own material/class insecurities that speak in their writings. There is nothing more to their academic/intellectual practice. And it is certainly not ‘secret helplessness’. On the contrary, it is part of their design, as explained above. Their self-referential overt ‘helplessness’ towards caste and religion (everything traditional and holding back India from superpowership) ascribes the liberal establishment its legitimacy and reactionary class support (I have made a similar point in detail elsewhere. See Kumar, Awanish (2009). “A Class Analysis of the ‘Bihari Menace’”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 44, No. 28, July 11 2009, pp. 124-127).
Here ends the story of the objective constraint of the liberals in India to combat communal-fascism. It is pure subjective class interest and fear of the ‘large mass of people’ out there. What is mistaken by the commentator as ‘secularism’ as political practice in general, is merely the liberal apologia towards secularism, which ‘masks an old barbarism with a human face’. Barbaric because it effectively forces Muslims in India to accept injustice as reconciliation. Human face merely because it uses the phrases of humanism and peace.
Two, before moving to points (b) and (c) which are of larger theoretical importance; we take a brief look at the glaring contradictions of liberal secularism as it is practiced in India. Discerning citizens of this country have already noticed the true communal colours of many popular publication houses, respected journalists and intellectuals in India during the late period of the five-year long NDA regime, especially on the eve of the elections of 2004. There is nothing much that one can expect from these persons who profess the ‘we are neutral’ stream of liberal secularism. They bemoan the ineffectiveness of the institutions, of the polity, of the constitutional edifice of secularism but would refuse to take into account the history and politics of communalism in India. However, the actual commitment that they have towards establishment of a genuinely secular polity becomes very clear when one considers their views on a) the polemical question of Hindu fundamentalism versus Islamic fundamentalism: Here they become covert advocates of Hindu-fascist-fundamentalists in the garb of Indian nationhood and the problem of moral equivalence; and b) Narendra Modi’s new communal-fascist developmentalism where they have practically redefined secularism to make it compatible to Modi. In one of his articles, Pratap Bhanu Mehta says,
“While most of the media was focused on the intellectually dead-end Hindutva versus Development debate, the real issue in the campaign was Modi's personal attributes: his incorruptibility, his total dedication, his grim reaper-like character calling everyone to account. There is more than a touch of megalomania and narcissism in Modi. But that gives him an advantage” (see Why the Idea of Modi Wins, The Indian Express, Dec 23, 2007, emphasis mine. See also Gujarat's politics of masks, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Indian Express, Dec 13, 2007).
You take a peek into the liberal ideologues’ writings and you understand why India is witnessing an unprecedented resurgence of Hindu right-wing extremism from Jammu and Kashmir in the North to Karnataka in the South. What sets apart the happenings of last few years from earlier waves of communal tensions in the country is the extent of connivance of supposedly liberal media in spreading misinformation and prejudiced hatred against Muslims. The reportage on incidences in Orissa, Karnataka and foremostly Jammu and Kashmir reflects a shift in focus from objective analysis to the practice of soft and gradual Hindutva in the liberal media.
Internationally too, the symbiotic relationship between the Islamist groups on one hand and the imperialist-right wing coalition on the other seemingly does not exist for most of the liberal intelligentsia. Take the case of the resurgence of political groups claiming association with Islamic principles and coming to power in many countries of West Asia in recent times. Some time ago, I was extremely surprised to see an article by the celebrity historian of our age, William Dalrymple (Democracy, not Terror, is the Engine of Political Islam; The Hindu, Saturday, 22nd September, 07). What multiplied my astonishment was the consistent, unassuming and juvenile use of the term ‘political Islam’ in whole of his article. We take his article as the archetype of the liberal perspective on ‘political Islam’ and dissect the real issues that lie underneath. I wondered why does the bestseller author of two thick volumes on 1857 himself looses the sight of history when he simplistically, yet eventually conforming to the American theology of the division of world into good and evil, equates political Islam with Mullahs and essentially terrorist elements? What we are questioning here is not whether ‘political Islam’ has been, in reality, taken over by conservative elements in these societies but a complete absence of ‘imperialism’ as a category in the dominant analyses. For instance, look at the ending passage from the article,
“Only by opening dialogue are we likely to find those with whom we can work, and to begin to repair the damage that self-defeating Anglo-American policies have done to the region, and to western influence there, since 9/11”.
This makes clear our discomfort of clubbing the liberal and progressive movements together with regard to crucial issues like secularism, both nationally as well as globally. We would propose, contrary to the typical liberal assessments, that recognising the complexity of the political processes in these societies needs an understanding of the history of imperialist misadventures before getting into ‘empathy’ and appreciation of ‘home grown’ tendencies, as is the suggestion of the commentator. Of course, this is possible only when one looks beyond the equation of Political Islam=terrorism, where terrorism is not defined for people like Dalrymple who do not have a coherent worldview; and defined according to the hegemonic interests of the US for the uninitiated and for the liberals/economic neoliberals themselves.
Most recently, the referendum in Turkey gives us another direction on the question often posed as secularism vs. democracy (?) in Islamic societies, mostly by clueless commentators of the west. An article published in The Hindu puts it as follows,
“For many observers, the referendum process was a further confirmation of Turkey's divisions. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan brazenly labelled all those who opposed the reform package as “coup supporters,” while many in the secular Opposition blamed the outcome on the “ignorant masses” that were easily manipulated.”
The same article also delineates economic development and deepening democracy as two major factors which have determined the course of transformation in Turkey’s history. Another article, while largely agrees with the foregoing analysis, points out,
“Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP leadership has repeatedly reinforced its political commitment to a democratic and secular state, which does not suppress the emergence of a modern Muslim cultural identity. It has also expressed its aspiration of carving out a distinct Turkish national identity, which is neither European nor a 21st century clone of the Ottoman Empire. It appears that the Turks now see themselves as the focal point of an emotionally integrated West Asian commonwealth, which has a thriving economic relationship with the West, especially Europe”.
I would like to emphasise here that the creation of a ‘modern Muslim cultural identity’ in Turkey is located in the objectives of national development and preserving democratic-secular ethos and is not standing against them at any rate. It is the modern political system which creates the context for diverse democratic tendencies in societies hitherto led by primordial interests.
It is another matter, though, that in another set of ideological arguments which are gaining dominance nowadays, the conceptual categories of ‘democracy’, ‘secularism’ and ‘modernity’ themselves are problematic ‘western imports’ which restrict the construction and potentials of the ‘local’ selfhoods, nationalities and cultures. In a sense, this new development in academia is an alter-ego of the fearful liberal self. However, it transcends to a more general plane than the liberal inability to go beyond their brahminical privileges. It incorporates a critique of the potential of modernity, modern political system, secularism and state in general. The classic writing of this genre can be found in the later volumes of Subaltern Studies (However, one typical statement against, what is referred as the ‘secular-modern’, can be found in Nigam, Aditya. (2000). “Secularism, Modernity, Nation: Epistemology of the Dalit Critique”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 35, No. 48 (Nov. 25), pp. 4256-4268).
We now move on to this realm which is seemingly more difficult to resolve, also because of the obscurity inherent in these writings.
Is there a ‘Peculiar Oriental Psyche’?
Now since we are reasonably sure that the liberal secularism is not worth engaging anymore, we take the question of the ‘oriental psyche’. Preliminary observation tells me that this concern itself is a product of the recent upsurge of post-colonialism and post-modernism in social sciences, though tilting more towards the former. To keep things simple, however, the same question can be posed differently in the context of this note: Does the practice of secularism in India require being different than the West because of the fact that ‘immense appeal of reason, rationality, proof, evidence does not cut much ice with the South Asian cultural psyche’ owing to the ‘persisting peculiarities of non-westernity’?. Our commentator makes the clearest diagnosis in the final parts of his comment where he declares his scepticism of the tactic adopted by liberal/secular/progressive politics. He says that ‘regular features of India’s cultural history that have become problems of its modern politics may not have solutions in positivist frameworks’. Whoever thought that modern Marxist politics employs positivism as its guiding philosophic framework!
Let us begin with the fundamentals of our politics. One of the most important principles of Dialectical Materialism concerns the interaction of human beings and the reality. Human beings not only get influenced by the reality outside but also change its workings. We learn from our practice and hence change the existing reality that we are part of. The positivist (and liberal) framework allows only for superficial engagements with the ever-emergent reality, hence providing the contexts for the two popular strands in Indian politics pointed out above- one, where you simply negate the existence of raging contradictions in the society as irrelevant and two, you provide the functional explanation of the problem while escaping its roots.
On the other hand, the realist view in politics (the genuinely Marxist alternative) would not only provide historically informed and progressive solutions but also try and assimilate the ‘moral’ with the ‘historical’ through political praxis. A dynamic reorganisation of ‘tradition’, based in dialectical idea of progress, has been a major concern for the Marxists throughout. That is how the Marxist-left has worked in the history even before the rise of the ‘doubtful’ postmodernists.
In our context, by invoking a priori and super-natural categories like ‘oriental psyche’, the commentator does not do any service to the modernist goals of developing societies. I would suggest another modern value, ‘justice’, which could be a revealing benchmark for the analysis of the state of Muslims in India and, the Babri Masjid case in particular. There is a deeper issue of blatant injustice done to Muslims in this case than the supposedly profound debate on whether faith and modernity are incompatible and whether ‘another modernity’ would bring together the ‘innocent’ local traditions/religions/faiths with corresponding ideas of equality, justice and development. In this respect, what would happen to caste since that is also part of the same authentic faith which has been ‘corrupted’ by western imports of development? (This question has also been rhetorically asked by Patnaik, Prabhat (2010). “On the Allahabad High Court Verdict”, Macroscan, October 8). The rise of modern development has expectedly given rise to new contestations which denounce Hinduism as against human liberation, principles of scientific reason and knowledge. What would be the non-enlightenment answer to the absolutely inhuman system of caste? And cultural nationalism?
By saying that the modern values of ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and else are products of ‘western’ science (and context), the commentator also tilts towards a cultural explanation of the history and evolution of scientific knowledge in the world. If oriental psyche means that people of the east think and behave differently, then it is a clear fallacy because it is empirically untenable otherwise. If this refers to the failures of the modernist tendencies in the east, then it is a call for deeper analysis and political praxis and not de-legitimizing the enlightenment goals of human reason and progress. We must not confuse neoliberal-capitalist modernity with the path to socialism. Otherwise, this effectively becomes another declaration of the end of history since there is no objectively achievable future which is qualitatively better than the past and the present.
In sum, ‘Oriental psyche’ existed only in the minds of Derrida, Foucault and Said who mistook ‘authenticity’ for ‘progress’, howsoever defined. And this, in turn, has become even more essentialist than the devil of positivism.
Conclusion: Modern Left-Progressive Secularism is the Only Way Forward
Another principle of Marxism is that we must begin with real human beings with their concrete interactions. Here, concrete is both a part as well as separate from the whole. This is the dialectical method which allows us to excavate truth through history. In this context, the suggestion about a deeper political praxis to comprehend diverse motivations and processes is well taken. However, I have argued that it is only the Marxist left which has never turned a blind eye to an existing contradiction in the society, be it land, cultural modernity or religion. The Marxist left has been working on numerous fronts of politics, culture and academia to achieve a similar objective. Political correctness is a liberal trait and theoretical blindness is its positivist basis. However, contrasting the Marxian approach with the ever-doubtful and politically dubious agenda of non-modernity (or oriental modernity/or else) does not serve any constructive purpose. We have already pointed out that even the so-called ‘contexual modernity’ is achievable only when all forms of conservative obscurantism and authority is done away with and a movement towards justice and equality is forged jointly by progressive forces in a national milieu. The Marxist left does not need to learn lessons of context and sensibility from the apologists of the past.
The way out, hence, is not merely sticking to localisms/identities of various kinds though that might seems to be an attractive option. It is a long painstaking process of creating mass-political movements on progressive issues of all progressive classes. In this regard, I fondly remember my own childhood when Palestinian liberation used to be such a locus of politics, at least in the particular context of secular polity in India. The need is to create such an inclusive politics- not only responding to every challenge of cultural nationalism. It is time to reinforce our belief in the core secular ideas of modernity and socialism. This is what should be said loudly after Babri judgment, not going back but moving forward.