A Liberal’s Call
As the only Liberal among a group of conservative bloggers, I feel it my duty to make the Liberal case for India. One the one hand, it is indeed a sign of how far progressives have hijacked the Liberal agenda that I find myself more in agreement with my fellow centre-right bloggers than I do with my own kind. On the other, I am more concerned with issues than labels and reserve for myself the right to approach each issue on its own merits. In any case, in this anniversary post on Centre Right India, I briefly explain my own political leanings as pertaining to key issues that face India. Having lived in India for only 11 of my 33 years, I do not have the ability to comment with the benefit of virtually limitless anecdotes on Indian politics. However, as Groucho Marx once said, “outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it is too dark to read.” With that in mind, I delineate a couple of crucial issues India needs to address and offer my thoughts on them.
A. Religion: Religious strife in India is nothing new. Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism are native to Indian soil and have few troubles between themselves. Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are of foreign origin, and while the first two have found India to be hospitable and thrived, the latter two have been responsible for most if not all the religious problems independent India has seen. The challenges that these two religions pose to India has its roots in Indian politics of the 1920s when different strands of Indian nationalism – Hindu (Hegdewar), secular (Nehru), and conglomerate (Gandhi) – clashed. Whether it was because the public lacked the will to understand the issues at stake or the better organisational abilities of the Indian National Congress, the victor in this ideological battle was an odd combination of Nehru’s and Gandhi’s visions of India. What this new golem looked like became clearer upon independence in 1947 – although India was proclaimed a secular state, laws gave preferential treatment in terms of education and employment to certain groups based on caste. Different communities were allowed to have their own personal laws even if it went against the grain of a secular and united country. Furthermore, as the years rolled by, the three non-Hindu majority states in the Union (Kashmir, Nagaland, Meghalaya) were given special status under Article 370 of the Indian constitution. [For more on constitutional issues, click here] Needless to say, years of being second-class citizens in a land where they were the majority, many Hindus were deeply disturbed by the alarming trend Indian Progressive politics. As a result, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a new party that espoused a more moderate Hindu platform than the intellectual mothership of Hindu thought, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), increased its tally of seats in the Lok Sabha from 2 to 88 in 1989, 120 in 1991, 161 in 1996, to 178 in 1998. The rise of the BJP has been labelled by Indian Progressives as the rise of Hindu fundamentalism and is seen as sad evidence that the secular and perhaps internationalist narrative of Indian history has yet to succeed in the isolated and backward villages of India.
There is, no doubt, a national crisis in Indian politics today that is fuelled by religion. It is also true that India faces a Hindu backlash now, but as a result of Progressive politics that has for a century lied to the Indian people about its nature and victimised the majority group in India for the sole purpose of making Progressives feel better about themselves and their liberal agenda and perhaps giving them a holier-than-thou complex. However, the problem with a backlash is that it seeks to attain one end of a pendular arc in an attempt to balance a swing to the other side and it takes a while to settle down in a comfortable suvarna madhya. If India is not to lose time in meaningless debates between Leftist retards and Rightist children, a sensible position on the question of religion must be advocated and intellectually defended. It is my view that a Liberal politics is the only viable solution for a multicultural, multiethnic, and multireligious behemoth like India. I must also insist on differentiating between Progressives and Liberals – while the former are not in favour of economic liberalism, the latter are. A corollary to that is while the latter support equality of opportunity, they do not support equality of reward. Admittedly, Liberalism has today been hijacked by Progressives, but I cleave to the original early 19th century meaning that advocated equality of opportunity, free speech, and small government.
To return to the topic of religious turmoil in India, it must be remembered that the cause of unrest has been the unequal treatment of citizens based on their religion and caste. As an aside, it is interesting to note that political Hinduism began in response to the wave of violence set off by the Khilafat movement and the Mappila Rebellion, which were both sparked by a Muslim response to British colonial policy but caused many Hindu casualties. The pseudo-secularism we see in India today is the direct result of the fusion of Nehru’s and Gandhi’s versions of Indian nationalism. Between the two, Nehru was genuinely secular while Gandhi’s views maintained religion in the public sphere. Thus, despite being a secular state, religion occupies a central role in our daily public lives.
Although it is understandable that many Hindus in India are upset by what they see as preferential treatment of Muslims and Christians, it is not advisable to begin a militant movement to declare India a Hindu state. For one, given the diversity of India, this would merely serve to antagonise many Indians. Secondly, the state is an institution and as such it does not need religion. Even if states are composed of individuals who are religious, it is up to those individuals to practice as they see fit. Most importantly, we must realise that Hinduism emphasises a personal code of ethics and is soteriological more than a social code as Islam and Christianity do. For Hindus, religion is personal, and it makes no sense to make it institutional. To be fair to Hindu nationalists, when they demand that India be declared a Hindu republic, many of them are asking merely for the cessation of inappropriate consideration of minority rights and what can only be called a victimisation of the average Hindu, be it in the realm of pilgrimage subsidies, personal law, or the maintenance of religious institutions. Many observers have pointed out that the declaration of India as a Hindu state is necessary because Hinduism, unlike Christianity or Islam, does not seek to convert – to allow them to exist in the same environment would be tantamount to asking the sheep and the lion not to eat each other. Although the point is taken on this issue, the demand stems from two misapprehensions – the first is that the state is somehow responsible for the preservation of Hindu traditions and customs. It is not. Traditions and customs live in people and if they are not interested, these social artifacts will die out. The responsibility for their preservation lies in the individual, not the state. Too often in India is it thought that state patronage will guarantee prosperity. Perhaps this is a lingering effect of license raj, but the fact remains that with or without state patronage, if a product is not desired, it will fail. The second misunderstanding is in the assumption that Hindus do not want to convert. As a country that enshrines freedom of religion, citizens should be allowed to choose their faith. If they choose to renounce it for whatever reason – economic, social, or spiritual – it is not for the body politic to intervene. In cases of of forced conversions as has been seen in the case of (largely) American-sponsored Christian missionary work in rural India, these instances fall under already existing legal statutes (which should be strengthened and more vigorously implemented) that prohibit such activity. It would be a more tenable position politically to demand that the part of the penal code that prohibits forced conversions be strictly followed and legal action be taken against offenders. Faith cannot be forced – even if the authorities are strong armed into curbing religious conversions, one is left with a group of disenfranchised people who are still not Hindus in anything but name. Besides, oppression in faith has not been a Hindu tradition so far and nor should it start now.
B. Defence and Foreign Policy: There is precious little to say on this topic that is controversial. I have already commented on the frustrating state of affairs in Indian defence and in foreign policy, but to reiterate the case, I believe that a viable platform for a strong India should demand: 1. privatisation of the armaments industry such that the government and private companies will jointly or competitively design, build, and sell new hardware; 2. an increased exports orientation of the arms industry to sustain itself – presently, Indian is the largest arms importer and accounts for 9% of all arms sales worldwide annually. An arms industry that actually conducts research on new weapons platforms, manufactures and sells (within foreign policy norms) them can supply not only foreign forces but also the Indian army and police. This will create jobs, revenue, and independence in strategic goods. Furthermore, such research always trickles into other industries as the United States and Europe has shown, making for a stronger and higher quality economy. In the area of research, closer ties between industry and universities should be encouraged, allowing Indian graduate students and professors to work on meaningful and industry-specific projects, making them and Indian degrees more valuable in the international market; 3. in the realm of foreign policy, it is in India’s interest to jettison meaningless appendages of the Cold War such as non-alignment. India should seek closer ties with Israel even at the cost of upsetting her Arab friends, for her Arab friends seem to have no trouble in befriending Pakistan or China. India should also seek to increase its influence among Southeast Asian countries, initially through cultural exchange, university exchange programmes, development loans and infrastructural aid, increased economic activity, and eventually through defence sales and joint military exercises; 4. beyond the region, India should pursue similar means with countries that are rich in resources vital to India such as oil & gas, uranium, gold, diamonds, rubber, and other strategic materials. In a century that is increasingly becoming China’s, it is imperative that India start building a counter bloc to safeguard its interests.
C. Education: In a globalised world, it is imperative that Indians be well-rounded in other cultures as well as have technical and other expertise. In a system that rewards rote memorisation and does not encourage free thought, this will not occur. Furthermore, India’s education apparatchiks are more concerned with either a Marxist narrative than vilifies Indian history or rehabilitates Muslim kings. More research is required, and archives need to be opened and made more accessible without the rigmarole that scholars have to go through today. It should be noted that Chinese historians have mounted an effective defence of their cultural achievements against Western scholars who tried to minimise their achievements or tried to date them as close to the present as possible. Indian efforts to do so (if they could even be called that) have come off as ham-handed (take the case of marine excavations at Dholavira, for example) and amateurish. It is not enough for the next Indian generation to talk only of the Mahabharata and the Manusmriti but they should also be aware of the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, and Lost Souls to present a cosmopolitan and less threatening face to the world if India is to make the 21st century hers.
D. Environment and Infrastructure: Indians seem to be taking a perverse pride in telling the West where to shove it when it comes to environmental issues. Admittedly, the West has been the cause of far more pollution and the United States is still one of the largest polluters despite having a population a quarter the size of India’s. Indians must also keep in mind, however, that an unhealthy environment hurts Indians as much as the West. Consider, for example, that around 50% of Bangalore’s children – that is about 1.3 million – suffer from asthma, while in Calcutta, 45% of the population had reduced lung function. Every day, a thousand Indian children die of diarrhoeal sickness. Such statistics are unacceptable for a country that aspires to become a world power. In the case of infrastructure, bad roads, incomplete electrification, insufficient electricity, and inefficient bureaucracy costs the Indian taxpayer millions of rupees. Food distribution and storage is a prime example of the abject failure of Congress agricultural policy – the recent hike in onion prices underlined India’s creaking system in which much of the food produced was wasted or went bad due to improper storage. It is sad that a nation that is a nuclear power and has sent a mission to the moon still struggles to feed itself.
E. Freedom of speech: It is terrifying to see speech being restricted in a democratic country. In a case of hypersensitivity, Hindus complain about MF Hussain while Muslims attack Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen. Jaswant Singh and LK Advani were lambasted for their views on Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The constitution of the land restricts freedom of speech for reasons other than national security. I feel it my duty to remind my fellow Indians that without free speech, criticism is not possible and without criticism, improvement is impossible. Instead of whining about hurt religious sensibilities, it is better to let the market decide the success or failure of ideas and products. Strait-jacketing may get compliance but it will not get conviction, and is only a symbol of uncertainty of one’s own message.
So why is this a Liberal agenda? It is not, except for the demand for true secularism and free speech. On the issue of defence and foreign policy, Leftists are loathe to make an argument for machtpolitik, but I am yet to see anything else work. From the Arthashastra and the Nitisara on, it has been dictated that in the absence of strength, only weakness exists. Yet Indian leaders have sat back on platitudes of ahimsa and failed to protect India’s border from an expansionist China and Islamic terror. Therefore, I make the Liberal argument for strength – not for its own sake or for domination, but to preserve the integrity of the state. The other issues can neither be considered Liberal nor conservative. However, since the Left parties have seen it fit to ignore them, it is perhaps up to the BJP to take them up. In any case, I hope it is not a requirement that one be a Liberal or a conservative to wish to see a resurgent India in the 21st century. Jai Hind.