Jaideep A Prabhu
Vaad-Prativaad: Secularism is Important to a Modern India II
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

Welcome to the second round of Vaad Prativaad (Round I may be found here). CRI apologises for the delay in initiating this round. In this round, as was explained at the beginning, each participant will interrogate his opponent’s opening statement, exposing its weaknesses, flaws, and inconsistencies as perceived by him/her. In the next and final round, both participants will get an opportunity to respond to these questions and offer their concluding remarks. So on to the participants:


Separating Indic exceptionalism from internalized Orientalism: Let us discuss policy differences to understand philosophical differences better

In our opening statements, Sandeep and I predictably talked past each other and did not disagree as strongly as one may have expected. The aim of this rejoinder is to explore those potential disagreements. Sandeep is critiquing Nehruvian “secularism”, a political philosophy that I do not consider secular enough. As I wrote in my opening statement, “our problems – including many that agitate Hindu nationalists – are not because we are too secular, but because we are not secular enough”.

Sandeep does not really critique “true” secularism or liberalism. His statement “we need to examine why there is such a huge disconnect between precept and practice of secularism in India” is a giveaway in this regard. But then, he explains his understanding of Hinduism, how it is not a religion in the Abrahamic sense (I do not disagree), how secularism evolved as an armistice of various Christian sects struggling for power in the late medieval West (again, I partially agree), and hence secularism is alien to India and Hinduism (here, I do disagree). By the end of his opening remarks though, I was still not clear where my opponent stood on the actual motion – that is, the role of the Indian state in a citizen’s life, especially seen through the prism of religious identity.

Michael Oakeshott wrote “The sin of the academic is that he takes so long in coming to the point”. So let us try to get beyond semantics and explore policy disagreements. Let us assume for the moment that “secularism” is alien and/or harmful to India (as my opponent claims), and “Dharma” or “Dharmashastras” could guide state policy in India. So some specific questions – what would Sandeep’s policy position be on voluntary (including financially induced) conversions and cow slaughter/beef consumption in India?

Why would he endorse (if he would) coercion against fellow citizens who are exercising their individual liberty without physically harming or financially defrauding other citizens? It is telling, for example, how in the discussion about the right to convert others, we forget about the right to be converted   (very similar to how in the debate about allowing foreign retailers to sell wherever they want, we forget about taking away the rights of domestic customers to buy from wherever they want).

Moving on, what would his position be on the many more medieval-era mosques in India that are undeniably made on the ruins of ancient temples? Would his understanding of justice be retroactive over such long periods of time? If so, why just property disputes related to religious places. Why not temporal ones too? Beyond what date, do we take a stand – and say this is it, not going any further back when it comes to property disputes? Would drawing Hindu goddesses in nude or burning their images be punished by imprisonment or worse?

What about caste discrimination? Our Dharmashastras discriminated on the basis on caste. Do we substantially revise them – and Sandeep does not oppose revisions – but then if we do revise them, we revise them based on what normative framework of ethics and values? For example, the Vishnu Smriti says that the Brahman can have four wives, the Kshatriya three, the Vaisya two and the Sudra one. On what basis can this be justified, and equally importantly on what basis should it now not be justified (I am assuming my opponent would not defend the above)?

The Manusmriti says “It is declared that a Sudra woman alone (can be) the wife of a Sudra, she and one of his own caste (the wives) of a Vaisya, those two and one of his own caste (the wives) of a Kshatriya, those three and one of his own caste (the wives) of a Brahmana.” In simpler language, so-called higher castes could marry women from so-called lower castes but not vice versa. Matrimonial hierarchy and bans combined with polygamy – sounds familiar to me. Also mentioned, “Twice-born men who, in their folly, wed wives of the low (Sudra) caste, soon degrade their families and their children to the state of Sudras” and “A Brahmana who takes a Sudra wife to his bed, will (after death) sink into hell; if he begets a child by her, he will lose the rank of a Brahmana” – concepts that I have personally heard from Hindu holy men.

Even our classics on statecraft (just as classics of all civilizations) e.g. Arthashastra, has some gaping holes. Consider excerpts “Whoever kills an elephant shall be put to death…Whoever brings in the pair of tusks of an elephant, dead from natural causes, shall receive a reward of four-and-a-half panas.” Ignore the debate about animal rights or the death penalty – just look at the inane juxtaposition of incentives. One kills a certain animal and in turn gets killed, but if one brings body parts of the same animal that has died of natural causes (how does one verify that) and get rewarded. Such policies are designed to have “unintended consequences”.

My aim is not to cavil selectively. I do not even want to explore the more infamous quotes such as “molten lead is to be poured into the ears of the “low born” who dare to hear the recital of the ‘written word’ from our ancient books. There may be a contextual misunderstanding here and there, but today’s Hindu nationalists are, at least in their self-image (and this is indeed partially true), actually the vanguard of creating a casteless society. Was this prompted by political and religious threats, or a realization that the social system we had was immoral irrespective of any temporal considerations?

Moreover, the implication that Hindu society was always truly secular is also partially a myth. Even a benevolent or tolerant king giving extensive patronage to some panths and less or no patronage to others – certainly benign by standards of most other societies of their time – would not pass off as neutral or fair-minded today, or in accordance with the rule of law. Yes, it was a different political system and the line separating the king’s personal wealth and the state’s was not always clear. But I wonder when those who give examples of “that Indian king funded both Vishnu and Baudh panths” realize how irrelevant at best that precedent is for a modern-day Indian government.

Debating history and philosophy – while crucial – can obscure more than illuminate. Let us discuss actual policies that would evolve from our conception of what is correct – whatever we call it – because said policies would and do actually impact the daily lives of citizens. But on semantics, I would nonetheless say this – if my opponent does not actually differ substantially on policy, then why support words like Hindutva, which even if it means a non-discriminatory cultural nationalism for some, sounds like naked majoritraianism to others. Not just to most Muslims and Christians, but also many Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs – and of course, to many Hindus too.

In a nation where a million mutinies are taking place simultaneously, where age-old notions of caste, religion and gender are transforming, the notion of a Hindu state has many determined opponents, opponents who are as patriotic as any other Indian. The idea – as mentioned on these pages by somebody else – that “we are Hindus, we aspire to be Indians” while rhetorically stirring for some, again conflates an identity at birth with a voluntarily explored spirituality. This is the direct outcome of seeing Hinduism through territorial, and not philosophical lens, as I have written about in my previous articles.

Indic exceptionalism in the world of faith, a world dominated by Abrahamic ideas, is real and something to be celebrated. But the celebration must be humble. The notion that there is nothing to be learnt from others is a counter-productive one.  St. Augustine played a big role in reconciling Greek philosophy (which was indeed more influenced by Indian philosophy than Euro-centric historians let us know) and Christian theology, thereby reinforcing a pragmatism that eluded some other societies.

Baruch Spinoza, celebrated by Jews even today, was in some of his metaphysical endeavors a student of Vedanta without perhaps knowing so. Before Ghazali laid the curse of literalism on the Islamic world, the Mutazilis managed to say loudly that the holy book could not have been co-eternal with God. Yes, Turkish economist Timur Kuran blamed Islamic rigidity for “the long divergence” of the Islamic world with the Western. But the point is that even in the Abrahamic world, there is immense heterogeneity and dynamism.

The fact remains that the “Judeo-Christian Western world”, more accurately the Greco-Roman world refined through the sieves of Renaissance, religious civil wars and a beautifully impersonal capitalism, has some important things to teach us just like we have a lot to offer to others. The question is not who has or had more to offer, but who can absorb faster whatever is good without losing their identity. As Gandhi and Tagore used to believe, “…let the winds of the world blow through the doors and windows of my house but I will not be blown away.”

Alex Von Tunzelmann wrote in a wonderful fast-paced book “Indian Summer” – “The notion that the ‘British race’ had a monopoly on freedom and democracy was unsupportable with regard to the lengthy traditions of public debate, heterogeneous government and freedom of conscience that had existed for centuries in the Indians of Asoka and Akbar. If anything…the British army was always on hand to give succor to each imperiled tyrant…And so imperialists were able to perfect a classic piece of doublethink: railing against what they called “Oriental despotism” on one hand, while propping it up with another”.

While Hindu nationalists (correctly) support such statements, yet many of them also end up decrying this very liberty as a Western value! It seems they have confused Indic exceptionalism, and instead internalized the very Orientalism they have been working to refute.

To summarize, we should lay down policy differences on the table – as that would substantially contribute to clearing the semantic cloud overhanging on this debate. And, if the policy differences are not substantial between me and my opponent, then why implicitly or explicitly endorse words in the political sphere that exclude many citizens? In this semantic (or Semitic?) egotism, I hope we are not losing sight of much more important matters. On the other hand, if policy differences are substantial, then my opponents should have the courage of their conviction to defend them holistically and not opportunistically use the language of liberty when it suits their partisan or indeed philosophical ends.

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AGAINST THE MOTION: Sandeep Balakrishna

First of all, thanks are in order to the fine folks at CRI, my fellow-debater Harsh Gupta, and to readers who I am given to understand, responded in large numbers. It’s quite heartening that a genuine spirit of debate continues to exist in this age and day when blind camp-slotting and the resultant name-calling seem to be the norm.
The best place to begin my critique of Harsh Gupta’s position is to start at the end of my own position, against the motion, which concludes thus:

As we have seen, this variety of secularism continues to wreak untold damage upon the nation. In spite of being politically independent for 65 years, majority of Indians have little or no understanding of what secularism really means. If this by itself is not a decisive proof that secularism is wholly alien to India’s millennia-old civilizational consciousness and values, it is at least proof that a non-free, a non-secular India was better integrated and less divisive than it is now under the unwritten state doctrine of secularism.

Reading Harsh’s exposition has only strengthened the conviction I have in my position. Harsh’s arguments display the same—I dare say, classic—fallacies that I have found in most similar critiques. While several of his points miss the forest for the trees—and vice versa—he does present some reasonable and strong arguments.
To begin with, he chooses “restrictions on voluntary conversions and cow slaughter” as example of advocating majoritarian policies. In my original argument, I had at length examined the genesis and origins of the concept of secularism as a political philosophy and concluded that it stems from and is applicable in a Christian context and that therefore, problems will arise if it is applied as a universal solution. Equally, I had traced the origins of Hinduism and the kind of moral, ethical, and political philosophy it spawned.

In other words, before one even begins to think about advocating any majoritarian or minority-friendly/unfriendly policy, it is essential to understand the nature of the two.

This essentially implies that even if a Hindu voluntarily converts to Christianity, it poses a challenge given the inherent nature of Christianity. One of the goals of the newly-converted is to convert others of his ex-religion (or non-Christians). Additionally, history is a reliable witness to show us that missionaries, since the time they set foot in India, indulged in conversions by force or fraud or both. Equally, this history tells us that such conversions have for the most part resulted in hurting Hindus. The living proof of this can be found in the Christian-majority North East and the conversion-wrought inter-community tensions in Orissa. Such tensions didn’t exist even forty or fifty years ago in these regions.

Therefore, when it’s clear that if one faith is doctrinally inimical to another and the latter happens to be in the majority, it is in the self-preservation interests of the majority that such conversions be outlawed.

Now, I am in complete agreement on Harsh’s note about the American First Amendment and his argument that “a genuinely secular polity should not indulge in any positive or negative discrimination based on any citizen’s religious faith, or lack thereof.” But this is a partial doctrine, one that arises purely in a different political, social and religious context. Several Founding Fathers and Constitution-drafters were terrible Christian fanatics who agreed to the principle of Church-State separation as a matter of expediency given the fact that their individual denominations would always clash with that of the rest. This resonates with my original note about the competing truth-claims of Church denominations in Europe. In sharp contrast, I have shown in my previous argument, how the Hindu notion of secularism implied honouring even non-Hindu faiths—even those inimical to Hinduism. (In fact, history has recorded no incident where abuse of Hindu gods was punished by Hindu rulers.) Now that centuries of history have shown how this proved dangerous to the very survival of Hinduism, it is an issue that needs to be seriously rethought.

This doesn’t mean discriminating against or treating minority religions badly—it simply means devising policies to ensure that the majority is not sacrificed at the altar of ill-conceived secularism or a mistaken notion of humanism. Post-Independence India is the best example of the former and today’s Europe and America of the latter. The kind of defining freedoms and policies of the US, which Harsh (rightly) holds in high esteem, is, as we are witnessing, powerless to prevent—and worse, punish—the increasing instances of Islamic bigotry and fanaticism.

Harsh Gupta’s example of Turkey’s secularism—and where it now stands—in his enumeration of various flavours of secularism in a way bolsters my point. Now here is a country, which was once the centre of an all-powerful bigoted Caliphate, which threw it away under Kemal Pasha’s leadership, and which now seeks to return the same forces of bigotry to power. This simply proves the fact that when religions hostile to the fundamental values of freedom mount a determined opposition, few things can stop its triumph.

Harsh’s argument also reflects this in a way but goes astray when it holds that “[Y]et, these forms of quasi-secularism are clearly preferable to, say, present-day Islamist theocracies.” Clearly, “preferable” doesn’t mean that it’s right. Also, it is a poor comparison—it is akin to claiming that it is preferable to allow a free run to the atrocities of the local hoodlum because he’s not Hitler. We can notice the same quality when Harsh claims that “India is thankfully very much secular compared to a Pakistan.” The only question that needs to be asked is: since when did Pakistan claim it was a secular nation notwithstanding Jinnah’s pronouncements? It wears the “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan badge rather proudly. To put it rather bluntly, where secularism as a social doctrine is concerned, India cannot be compared to any nation. Consider this: it took hundreds of years of bloody and recurring denominational conflict for Europe to evolve the secularism doctrine—and this was in a continent populated people of pretty much the same racial descent separated only by language and Church denomination—whereas India despite various bloody upheavals, despite hundreds of sects within Hinduism, tens of languages, coupled with Islam’s onslaught has managed to remain intact.

Harsh next makes the same error as do the avowed secularists in the media and elsewhere when he mentions that “the present-day sporadic Islamist violence juxtaposed with claims of Muslim victimhood justified by leftists… creates a (in my view, false) sense of siege.” One only wishes the word “false” was not in braces. The siege is real because since Independence—and as I showed in my original submission—the Indian state has bent backward to do two things: first, to accommodate every outrageous demand put forth primarily by Islamic zealots and second, to turn a blind eye to extreme acts perpetrated by these zealots. Both these have been at the cost of and detrimental to Hindus, and this list is pretty long. Asaduddin Owaisi’s provocative speech recently on the floor of the Parliament, unthinkable even a decade ago, and the Azad Maidan riots are just the latest examples of this phenomenon. On the other side, a succession of Constitutional amendments and laws has in a way, rendered Hindus powerless in their own homeland. Surely, all this does fit into the definition of a “sense of siege.” Sita Ram Goel’s well-researched book, Hindu Society under Siege is a good source providing the list of instances of how this siege came about. It was published in 1981 and since then, this list has only expanded.

Next, Harsh turns to an examination of Hindutva, which he claims is the albatross around the BJP’s neck. And makes the same errors that most Hindutva critiques make.

First, most Hindutva critiques are derived from secondary sources and are therefore for the most part are unreliable. The fact that agenda-driven critiques are far more copious than genuine ones compounds the problem. Now, there are two ways to embark on a truthful critique of Hindutva: one, a thorough, faithful reading of the most important primary sources and two, a thorough, faithful reading of Koenraad Elst’s two-volume magnum opus, the Saffron Swastika, which in my opinion has the last word on the subject.

Second, like the other critiques, this one too makes gross generalizations, a direct consequence of the first.
The one thing that marks out Hindutva is the fact that—apart from Savarkar’s exposition—most of the discourse is characterized by a crude and unsophisticated exposition of its ideas resulting from a lack of clarity of thought which itself is the result of a sense of inferiority. It is most of all, a product of its time.

And so when Harsh remarks that “[B]y Hindutva, I mean the political philosophy that at a macro-level seeks recognition from the state of India being a Hindu country and at a micro level, supports policy restrictions such as those on voluntary conversions and cow slaughter…” it is quite clear that the author has uncritically accepted the received wisdom on an important subject. We have already dealt with the voluntary conversions issue—cow slaughter is a separate discussion topic which space constraints do not permit here.

The next point that Harsh makes is equally interesting: “In general [Hindutva] is uncomfortable with more than 200 million Muslims and Christians being full and equal citizens of India…” This is the regurgitation of Savarkar’s line that minorities be treated as second class citizens in India, an idea again, a product of its time. Even the most diehard adherents of Hindutva today subscribe to this view. If anything, Hindutva-subscribers hold that—to put it bluntly—Muslims are bad but Islam is good while the reality as we’ve seen earlier, is just the opposite.

Harsh also commits yet another classic error I have come across in Hindutva critiques—holding a fringe group/person as the spokesperson of the entire ideology. Given Subramanian Swamy’s decades-long political, ideological, and positional flip-flops, given the fact that he hasn’t identified openly with the BJP, the Sangh Parivar, or Hindutva, it is curious why Harsh considers him as a representative voice. Even if we accept Harsh’s note about him, the obvious question that arises from the Hindutva camp is this: What about those Muslims who still say “ladke liye Pakistan, haske lenge Hindustan (we got Pakistan after fighting but we’ll take Hindustan with a smile)?”

And therefore, Harsh’s next statement that claims that “[G]iven these ground realities, I reject a non-political interpretation of Hindutva as dubious, and indeed misleading as it tries to adopt the metaphysical beauty of Hinduism and other Dharmic religions for public consumption…”

We’ve already shown that the realities Harsh mentions are the products of uncritically applying received wisdom. But to be fair, Harsh has a point here. The separation of Hindutva and Hinduism while it is true is only partially true. Also, there “non-political interpretation of Hindutva” is a clever smokescreen. Hindutva is a political philosophy which seeks to restore the once-glorious Hindu society founded on Hindu values. However, the more undesirable aspects of this philosophy have been blown out of proportion and made to appear as if they are its defining and representative traits. This is one of the biggest failures of Hindutva, a failure that stems from the aforementioned lack of clarity of thought. However, rejecting it outright without studying these aspects—indeed without studying what Hindutva seeks to actually accomplish—is also a sign of intellectual laziness. Indeed, nothing prevents Hindutva votaries to re-examine their positions and goals, nothing prevents them from refining the philosophy. Equally, nothing prevents its honest critics from doing a closer, deeper examination given the fact that this is how knowledge grows.

In his zeal to reject Hindutva wholesale, Harsh commits the same error he accuses Hindutva adherents of making when he says on the one hand that “I also reject the idea that “western” political concepts would not apply to India as wrong given that we are already using a British parliamentary system” and “. this debate is…more complicated than about using complicated Sanskrit words, which no one uses anymore, or throwing charges of deracination on those one disagrees with.”
If Indians took the pains to study and master an alien language—English—and to study, debate, and finally adopt an alien political system in 1947, surely, it must not take much to invest the effort required to learn those complicated words in a language native to India. More so because it holds the key required to approach this and related topics with the rigour and seriousness they demand. Because no one uses something anymore doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Indeed Harsh’s charge itself is—there’s no other way to say this—born out of ignorance. In fact, almost all the terms used in Parliament, State assemblies, and in our central and state administrative machinery are Sanskrit derivatives. The term Sabha in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha is nearly 5000 years old and till date retains its original, Sanskrit meaning and usage. The same goes for Sabhadhyaksh, Rajyapal, Koshadhyaksh, Pratinidhi, Prajatantra, Sadasya, Prakat, Kshetra, Bahumat, Vaad, Sankhya, Samaan, Sachivaalaya, Vidhi…Every Indian has the complete freedom to use English equivalents but majority Indians—whether in the Government or outside it—use native words. This is a daily reality.

Also, because we are using the British parliamentary system doesn’t automatically imply that we’ve adopted everything wholesale. And equally, because we are using that parliamentary system, we are still stuck with archaic, meaningless, and even ridiculous laws. Wouldn’t that make a case for rejecting Western political concepts?

I agree with Harsh that this is a complicated debate but every debate calls for a sense of balance and a reasonably accurate grasp of things at a deeper and wider level. I’m not imputing imbalance to Harsh but his critique of Hindutva stands on shaky grounds, his understanding of Hinduism is only partial. This is why his application of the Western concept of secularism leaves a lot to be desired.

As a closing instance, when he claims that “Hinduism is not a territorial concept, it is a worldview – maybe not theological in the Abrahamic sense, but nonetheless a set of beliefs, guidelines and attitudes, however flexible,” he’s partially correct. But the word “theology” has no application in the context of Hinduism. Hinduism is, in the memorable words of Professor M. Hiriyanna, “a treatise on values” aimed at achieving a philosophical goal, and not merely a worldview. Moreover, the set of beliefs, etc., have been flexible as he correctly observes, but they have been periodically revised and updated to meet the needs of changed times and situations but the philosophical goal underpinning them has remained constant.

Secularism is a lofty concept, a noble end in itself to be pursued for its own sake. But as I demonstrated in my original submission, it is applicable only when specific conditions exist—like medicine. My conclusion here is the same as it was earlier: secularism is wholly alien to India’s millennia-old civilizational consciousness and values, and a non-free, a non-secular India was better integrated and less divisive than it is now under the unwritten state doctrine of secularism.