Economist Joan Robinson once declared "whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true".
Her recognition of Indian reality drew attention to the resilient diversity of a country that had confounded both its soothsayers and doomsayers by outliving all their predictions.
Hence, I was taken up by the admonitions of Professor Ramachandra Guha, historian of post-independence India, who warns that the Hindu-majority country, which was multicultural and secular at the time of its independence in 1947, is moving towards religious majoritarianism.
There are reasons for his disquiet. Critics say the propagation of Hindutva as the unofficial state ideology and its effect on the psyche of both Hindus and religious minorities, as well as the promotion of Hindi as the chief instrument of "saffronisation", are reordering social relations in India and colouring its ties with the world.
But the opposite is also true. India lies in no danger of becoming a Hindu-majoritarian state because the eclectic nature of Hindu belief and practice prevents Hindus from constituting themselves as an exclusive majority. Hinduism does not deny the reality of other religions.
How then can a devout Hindu practise Indianness within the universal ambit of Hinduism while denying followers of other faiths from claiming that same Indianness?
A Hindu has no existential reason to fear other religions as long as their followers do not challenge Hinduism's universal mandate, centred in India.
There is no better proof of Hinduism's eclecticism than the reverential presence of Hindus at Sufi shrines such as the mausoleum of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi and Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Rajasthan.
These shrines and many others have survived the rise and fall of dynasties and empires to embody the personal agency of mysticism in the overlapping lives and memories of Indians.
No matter how strenuously hardliners try occasionally to keep religious communities away from one another at common places of worship, Indians are drawn back to what they possess in common.
The best name for that commonality is secularism.
Indian secularism is not based on the denial of religious belief: It rests on the impartiality of the state with regard to religious belief.
The Indian Constitution does not banish the necessity of religious thinking, but neither does it privilege one religious thinking over others.
Any argument based on the avowed superiority of one scripture over another as the basis of state policy would not last a moment in Indian courts. This is no mean achievement in the global annals of secularism.
A concrete reason for believing in the secular continuity of India is that it did not turn into a majoritarian state after its partition in 1947.
Imagine a moment when a civilisational nation that had existed for thousands of years was divided externally along religious lines, losing not just historical territory but an integrative identity derived from that history.
Invaded, brutalised, subjugated and colonised over unhappy centuries, India fought for its freedom and won, only to find itself snatched away from the integrity of its own past, its independence bifurcated, its eternal children separated by a gigantic communal bloodbath that drove them into the murderous arms of the largest forced migration in recorded human history.
Yet, India did not turn on its Muslims in revenge. Instead, the secular underpinnings of the civilisational state held. If anything, an era of minority appeasement began in order to build reliable vote blocs for the ruling dispensation.
That appeasement fed the political appetites of some of the most regressive elements in minority communities, including semi-literate "religious" leaders, turning progressive Hindus and their nationalist counterparts of other faiths into intellectual minorities on the pan-religious terrain of India.
The era of minority appeasement is ending in India. That is to be welcomed, but the danger is that this development could lead to an era of majority appeasement in which the most retrogressive members of the majority feel emboldened to set the national agenda for what remains a secular state.
That outcome would be a disaster.
All in all, it is good that public intellectuals such as Professor Guha should intervene in the evolution of Indian politics. That is their responsibility. But they should not lose heart.
India is simply too much of an inclusive civilisation to let any one segment of it define the truth. The definition may well be right - but the opposite would be equally so.
Asad Latif is an editorial writer for The Straits Times. The article was published in Tabla (Magazine), Singapore
Leave a Comment
The news that the UN’s culture and education arm, UNESCO, has de ...
Russian Ambassador to Bangladesh Alexander Mantytskiy today said they ...