Vaad-Prativaad: Secularism is Important to a Modern India III
Welcome to the third and final round of Vaad Prativaad (Round I may be found here and Round II here). CRI apologises for the delay in initiating this round – logistics are a tricky business when blogging is a mere hobby! In this final round, each participant will defend his/her view from the the critique of his/her opponent in the second round. The moderator will then offer closing remarks on the debate and the three parts will be thrown open to the readers. Please direct your questions and/or comments to the authors in the specific part of the debate only. The authors reserve the right to respond, owing to the less convenient format.
FOR THE MOTION: Harsh Gupta
I would like to again thank the moderator and my opponent for an educative debate. I would also like to thank the CRI readers for their feeback, their interest, and above all their patience. I read my opponent’s detailed counter-argument and I am struck by (what seems to me to be) a few red herrings that he perhaps unintentionally deploys. He is unfortunately also, if you will, very liberal with his assertions about my ignorance on a range of subjects. This is certainly as true as any allegation can possibly be – my opponent has perhaps forgotten more than I have learnt about Hinduism and Hindutva. I am still reading, learning and occasionally tweaking my opinions. But, thankfully, my opponent has also been very catholic with some specific criticisms. So let us examine a few of those and then summarize why I continue to support secularism and oppose Hindutva – including any minor change in my positions as these engagements have progressed. That after all is, or rather should be, the ideal aim of any such process in this season of debates.
My opponent begins by saying “As we have seen, this variety of secularism continues to wreak untold damage…” and here he refers to the Nehruvian pseudo-secularism, which I have repeatedly pointed out is not secularism. You may disagree with my definition and prefer somebody else’s but in any case, that is not the secularism I am arguing for – something which should have been very clear by now. Hence, I fail to understand why my opponent continues to bring this up when we both disagree with the Indian leftist establishment’s understanding of secularism. Just to paraphrase my old definition of secularism, I believe it is a sub-set of classical liberalism whereby individual citizens should have the freedom to believe and propagate anything so long as it does not infringe on others’ individual liberties, and that the government or the state should not be normatively attached to any religious belief system.
Then my opponent continues by saying that a “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”. Perhaps a majority of Indian have little or no understand of what constitutional republicanism is either. And this may or may not be “decisive proof” that constitutional republicanism is wholly alien to India, but – even granting that for argument’s sake – since when is it so glaringly obvious that something is not to be adopted only because it was hitherto alien?
Now this was just the semantic confusion part, and hence relatively innocuous. I am glad I got my opponent to take a concrete policy position though – he argues against voluntary conversions of individual Indians, and I quote him now, “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…such conversions have for the most part resulted in hurting Hindus” Maybe conversions do hurt Hindus, maybe they do create new tensions. But I fail to spot the hop, the jump and the skip from condemning something, being aware of someone’s designs….and using the state to stop said ostensible designs? This implicitly assumes that the Indian state is for the protection of the interests of Hindus, which is the very premise under debate. Talk about circular reasoning!
Moreover, if one were to accept my opponent’s premise (I do not) then – and this is very important – who decides what helps or hurts Hindus? So far, a party almost singularly sympathetic to my opponent’s viewpoint on issues such as conversions, beef consumption, Ayodhya Mandir etc has never even reached 30 percent vote share in a 80 percent Hindu country. This seems to suggest that concrete and conspicuous state policies favoring Hindus over others perhaps is “alien” to a very large number of Hindus, and may hence constitute “decisive proof” against Hindutva-at-the-state-level and sympathy for a more classical liberal/secular point of view when it comes to such “communal” issues. Then again, it may suggest no such thing, but I am merely using the logic of my opponent.
Then my opponent indulges in more non-sequiturs unfortunately: while the American First Amendment is good, but it was written by those happening to be Christian fanatics and their constitution was more a result of expediency and not conviction. All this might be true, but how does that change one’s opinion of the First Amendment today is something I fail to understand. Then he suggests rethinking Hinduism’s honouring of other faiths, even those which were inimical to Hinduism. That certainly pours some cold water on his other claims – previous and subsequent, correct as they indeed largely are – that Hinduism is tolerant and hence secularism is redundant.
As I tried to show in my second piece, Hinduism while having sublime beauty in its metaphysics has an awful discriminatory on-the-ground history. This is most obvious along the axis of caste, though some could credibly argue something similar on the topic of gender too – (that Hinduism is better than some other religion when it comes to women’s rights or other issues is hardly a consolation prize). These uncomfortable facts give me pause whether a Hindu state would be secular and liberal enough. And now that some people like my opponents are losing patience with such tolerance – is even more reason for a genuinely secular state, not less.
Of course my opponent says that this does not mean treating other religions – or their followers, more accurately- in any discriminatory manner, and again I believe his sincerity of purpose. But this does not quite answer my original questions on what basis can we order fellow Indian citizens something along the lines of “thou shalt not convert”, or “thou shalt not be converted”, or “thou shalt not kill some of your animals and/or eat them”, or “thou shalt not pray at the remaining mosques that were built by invaders on the ruins of temples centuries ago”. My opponent then implies that strengthening certain religious ideologies are clearly counter-productive. On this point, if I interpret him correctly, I agree with my opponent’s views or what I understand to be his views.
Yes, the central identity schism of South Asia is the Hindu-Muslim problem, as Lala Lajpat Rai called it. There has indeed been an ongoing war on Indian (not just Hindu) civilization – for more than a millennium – by what can be called Political Islam. Partition was just the latest important battle in this seemingly never-ending war here whereby the forces of separatist Islam consolidated their gains, when they realized that further victories – at least conventional ones – were not feasible in the foreseeable future. With Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist heritage and scientific-artistic civilizational bequests being lost in Pakistan it is understandable that some Hindus with a meta-historical sense feel “under siege”.
This hurt is exacerbated when actual humans – minorities in Pakistan and Bangladesh who were “Indians” just a few decades ago – are killed, kidnapped or exploited in various ways. Worse, the very mention of such losses is often denounced more vociferously than the actual atrocities themselves. But even with respect to Pakistan, while the clash-of-civilizations thesis has a lot of truth in it, we must not forget that we liberated Bangladesh in 1971 under the military leadership of a Jew and a Parsi (Currently, besides a Sikh CM we have an Anglo-Indian Air Force chief, a Muslim Foreign Minister and a Muslim Vice-President). The civilizational war here is therefore, and this must be repeated, not between Islam and Hinduism per se, but between Islamism and liberalism (a liberalism that is today as Indian as it is Western). In the 1965 war, soldiers like Abdul Hamid paid the highest price at very young ages fighting for India against a country that, if one goes by the logic of Hindutva-waadis, they were supposed to have sympathies for.
More importantly, in the modern republic of India where almost four out of five Indians are Hindus, the sense of siege is – I continue to maintain – exaggerated and often for political purposes (just like minority victimhood is exaggerated and milked for votes). More importantly where there are real problems of Islamist violence (in Kashmir, Assam and Kerala – for instance) the issue is again not that we do not have a Hindu state of sorts, but that we do not have a truly secular state. In Kashmir, advocating for the repeal of Article 370 is by all means a liberal and secular stand. While federalism, decentralization and provincial autonomy is important, these should be afforded to all states and they cannot come at the cost of internal barriers to commerce and migration. Similarly, the issues of illegal migration in Assam and elsewhere, as well as violence and coercion in the name of religion by anybody can and should be dealt through strictly secular lenses. India needs to have a uniform civil code too, as advocated by our Constitution – and again, this is a secular demand.
Another point that readers must consider, the positions that I espouse here are in many ways realistic and not radical, and indeed already accepted by the BJP – it is just that unfortunately their rhetoric has at times failed to catch up with some of their official stands. The BJP pledge reaffirms “Positive Secularism, (Sarva Dharma Sama Bhava) and Value-based politics…Secular State and Nation not based on religion.” Yes, the BJP, like all political parties, is required by the Constitution to support secularism and socialism, but the BJP’s agenda has gone far beyond nominal support for secularism. The Ram Janmabhoomi movement is the exception when it comes to policy formulations and in any case it is now a property dispute that the Supreme Court will decide.
Reading my opponent has certainly given me a more nuanced appreciation of the various ideologies involved, and while I continue to find Hindutva to be essentially a political project, I do think an exclusively socio-cultural Hindu revivalist movement could be useful. Yes, when the Congress party and other pseudo-secularist groups uses the state to indulge in religion-based appeasement, pushing back is required no matter what names are used to describe such a resistance. But the idea that the Indian right must push beyond a secular state’s level-playing field to create a deterrence through competing majoritarian politics does not seem appealing to me even in in an amoral sense.
Even ignoring the many Sikhs, Buddhists and other groups who do not see themselves – fortunately or unfortunately – as Hindu, there are far too many caste, linguistic and other ideological divides within the Hindu community for a majoritarian agenda to be sustainably victorious. More importantly, even ignoring the above divisions, there is a large number of moderate Hindus who simply do not want a substantive “Hindu state”. There could be a few voters who would jump from Ram to Marx (to deliberately exaggerate a bit) because the BJP and allied groups do not push for a Hindu state, but I would wager more Hindus would leave the BJP’s “white umbrella” because of such a blatantly majoritarian move. In any case, my opponent has not presented numbers to prove the opposite case.
It is critical to realize that Indian Hindus are not against static, homogeneous groups – increasingly ideas and narratives matter more than demographics. That is why the obsession with Christian conversions, “love jihad”, and other such issues stump me. Many Indian Christians retain “Indic” first names and Indian culture more broadly, and there is no real modern-day Christian equivalent of Sharia (despite real but isolated problems like Christian homophobia etc) – so what really is the issue if we have more Indian Christians? As long as conversions are voluntary, and Hindu revivalist movements indulge in a healthy competition to win back “souls” (to use evangelical terminology) why should we want the Indian state – which is what secularism is concerned with – to be a Hindu partisan? A Gandhi-Nehru-Vadra, a Reddy, an Antony and a Soni in the Congress party may fail to impress me for a dozen reasons – but religion is not on the list yet (except to half-seriously note that the Congress has adopted tokenism so aggressively that we may soon need Hindu heterosexual male “upper-caste” quotas!)
In the 19th century, Christians – with the winds of colonialism at their back – had tried to aggressively badmouth Hinduism to gain converts; that failed, and today while no love is lost in the hearts of Christian fundamentalists for Indian spirituality, they really do represent a far smaller number within the Indian and global Christian community than many Hindu “nationalists” would have us believe. The obsession with “love jihad” on the other hand (I am not saying my opponent is concerned with this issue, just that I have noticed many on social media who do not like secularism, indeed are) is positively puerile and ripe for a Freudian psycho-sexual analysis – I am sure a few Muslims do “trap” some Hindus to convert them, but many times it could simply be love without the jihad between two young Indians with different religions just being a co-incidence.
While the Indian Muslim community has had a proportionately faster rise in numbers – partially because of a higher birthrate, and partially because of immigration from Bangladesh – I think what matters is not whether the Muslim population is at 15% or 20%, but how integrated it is. There, with gradual economic liberalization, rapidly rising female education across communities and based on my own personal experience working with NGOs in Rajasthan, Delhi and Bengal, a majority of young Indian Muslims genuinely consider themselves Indians in a way perhaps their parents and grandparents did not.
The problem is not the exact number of this or that community – a higher number in some ways could be a blessing – but how widespread religious extremism is in any community. What is needed is higher economic growth and a complete eschewing of identity-based policies, something that BJP Chief Ministers (including a few unfairly maligned ones) continue to work hard for and substantially achieve, showing that the NDA’s reformist, moderate rule was not just an aberration – despite the backsliding on reforms since Vajpayee’s exit. An Indian right that can at the state/policy level follow strict secularism while at a purely social, non-coercive level continue its cultural project for infusing Indians with a sense of history to combat the propaganda of colonialists, communists and communalists that there was no India before 1947 – that is what we need.
Finally, it is important to realize that India’s moral case in Kashmir, India’s soft power around the world, and India’s relatively effortless undercutting (at an ideological level) of separatists within and hate-mongers without is dependent on Indian being – and being seen as – a fundamentally pluralistic and tolerant nation. Not a nation where being a non-Hindu is somehow seen as being second-class, which is what a Hindu state would imply. Not a nation where a Hindu cannot become a Christian or a Muslim because another Indian comes and offers him a mix of mental and material succor. Not a nation where one cannot badmouth the Bhagwad Gita or disparagingly paint Goddess Sita. India does not need a proactive Hindu vanguard in the Abrahamic mould because this will end up making India more divided and Hinduism less universal. Instead we need to take identity completely out of our policies, our schools, our jobs, our tax code, our personal code – and this must include caste identity politics also over time.
I would humbly suggest that secularism has been the biggest force-multiplier for the Hindu cause in many centuries. The Hindu society by and large simply does not want to dominate or convert, and hence by being inclusive – despite obvious problems in the Nehruvian execution – it has managed to keep intact most of its objectives. Instead, by being genuinely non-threatening it has managed to divide its old political foe (the Islamists, into three countries and many more groups, without specifically intending to do so) and finally win peace after many centuries to develop its own destiny. Looking at the forest instead of the trees, both moral and realpolitik imperatives largely coincide here. Why propose revolutions, when evolutions would do?
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AGAINST THE MOTION: Sandeep Balakrishna
Harsh’s critique of my original submission was mostly on expected lines and displays several characteristics commonly seen in the Left/Liberal commentaries on the subject. And my response too, is in the interest of exploring our disagreements.
One of the first charges that anybody taking a traditional/native position while debating secularism faces is that of being an exceptionalist/exclusivist. The other term that’s typically used is “oriental” and derivatives thereof. These terms are really meaningless and serve little function apart from sounding scholarly. Harsh’s tagline uses both with predictable results. Harsh wants to separate “Indic exceptionalism from internalized Orientalism” to arrive at a discussion of “policy differences to understand philosophical differences better.” The reverse is actually true: to understand policy, it’s essential to first understand philosophy.
That said, Harsh seems to have completely misread my piece and at places has imputed meanings which didn’t exist in my submissions. I shall examine these one by one.
Harsh says that I do not really critique “true” secularism or liberalism and that my statement that “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.”
I don’t see what the giveaway is. The original motion set by the CRI folks was this: Secularism Is Important to a Modern India. My critique has adhered to this motion: I’ve consistently argued that secularism is a concept alien to India and that even if we do adopt “true” secularism as is understood by the West, we will still be imposing values derived from a Christian worldview in the guise of secularism. Curiously, he accepts the chain of my argument examining the origins etc of secularism, Hinduism as a religion not in the Abrahamic sense, etc, yet claims that I haven’t critiqued “true” secularism. Equally puzzling is his claim that he “was still not clear where my opponent stood on the actual motion.” This becomes clear when we examine his understanding of the motion. To quote: “the role of the Indian state in a citizen’s life, especially seen through the prism of religious identity.” This wasn’t the actual and complete import of the original motion. Harsh’s understanding of the motion is therefore partial.
Next, Harsh asks us to move “beyond semantics and explore policy disagreements.” This is a tad problematic because if we accept the fact that every word is an idea, we must take extreme care and caution to first clarify semantics—a poorly or ill-defined word causes immense problems. More so in the realm of policy, politics, the state, the individual’s relationship with the state and so on. A classic case is the word itself that generated this debate in the first place: secularism. Therefore, unless Harsh clarifies his position on semantics, I see no reason to move forward.
However, in what follows, Harsh seems to have picked up Hindu-specific and specific Hindu grievances to make his case in the form of a series of questions. Although these stem from the aforementioned faulty premises, some answers are in order. Harsh’s questions and my answers will I hope, serve to illustrate the vast worldview-differences.
To answer his questions about a state guided by Dharmashastras, conversions, beef etc, I would again point him to my earlier articles where I had specifically elaborated on the nature of Abrahamic religions (to wit, conversion from one sect or denomination within Hinduism to another doesn’t technically count as conversion) as the reason to argue against conversions from Hinduism. This is not the same as coercing citizens but a pragmatic policy of preventing potential social discord and preserving the majority religion. Unless Harsh wants to argue that it’s ok to sacrifice the majority religion on the altar of a misplaced notion of individual liberty. This, especially when it is becoming clear that basing a political/social system solely on individual liberty and democratic values has failed to prevent the rapid surge of Islamism in Europe and America. Islamism has used these very values to sabotage these nations from within. This then is the long-term consequence of allowing conversions—both voluntary and otherwise.
As for my position on the mosques built after destroying Hindu temples, I’ve already discussed it in detail on my blog two years ago in the context of the Ayodhya judgment. To sum it up, here goes: first, there is such a thing as a nation’s cultural heritage, which is inextricably linked with, and determines the value system and lifestyle its people follow. Which is the reason they need to be preserved at all costs. Temples—among other things—constitute this heritage as far as India is concerned. Within this defining heritage fall things that are regarded as the most prized cultural possessions: the temples at Ayodhya, Kashi, and Mathura, which were destroyed fall into this prized realm. Other, similar temples too can lay claim to this status—the numerous temples in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala, Gujarat, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh are good examples of this. And it is therefore a legitimate claim by Hindus to ask for the restoration of these prized cultural heritages. Indeed, even during the height of the Ayodhya movement, all that Hindus demanded was the restoration of Ayodhya, Mathura and Kashi temples, and not all temples destroyed by medieval Muslim invaders. This is not retroactive justice—it is restoration of what was destroyed historically. The restoration of the Somanath temple is a good example of how this can be done amicably.
That said, Harsh’s characterization of prized elements of a shared cultural consciousness as a property dispute is very telling. It is the gulf that separates an India still rooted in her traditions and an India that understands her own country through a primarily Western prism. This Western prism is also what poses questions like the one Harsh asks about drawing Hindu Gods and Goddesses in the nude. There are thousands of nude art done by Hindus themselves since time immemorial. Far from burning or defiling them, even the most devout Hindus worship such art. I leave it to Harsh’s intelligence to discern the reason why say, M.F. Hussain’s art evokes such anger while the former evokes reverence. Questions of punishment etc won’t even arise once that reason is discerned.
When we next look at Harsh’s critiques on caste, statecraft and related areas, we find that he quotes selectively—despite his claim to the contrary—and provides no context for those quotes.
For this reason, I will not attempt to respond simply because the examples he quotes, the texts he refers to, and his understanding thereof is way off the mark and is eerily similar to what we find in Marxist expositions on the subject. Just a couple of lines on the issue: Why does Harsh use Vishnu Smriti to talk about caste while pretty much all Smritis have detailed and variegated expositions on caste? Equally, Manu Smriti is not applicable to Kaliyuga. But more fundamentally, there is no equivalent word in Sanskrit or in any Indian language for caste. The word “Varna” cannot be translated as “caste.” What’s also disappointing is the fact that Harsh seems to think that his thesis is somehow valid because some Hindu holy men echo his own biases without telling us what the credentials of these holy men are that qualify them as experts on the subject.
Next, of all the things in Arthashastra, Harsh finds just one prescription and brands it as inane without going into the context of why such a prescription was necessary. Of course, one could look at the laws of any country and find plenty of such inane prescriptions. It’d suffice to point Harsh to http://www.dumblaws.com, an encyclopedic site that lists all…er…dumb laws in the United States classified by state, city and county. Equally, why doesn’t Harsh talk about the same Arthashastra, which provides elaborate safeguards to protect elephants, and rare flora and fauna. Indeed, every Indian state’s forest department has an equivalent of what’s called an Abhayaranya, a concept that was first given by Kautilya.
It’d also help if Harsh gave the source for “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.” Merely quoting it without attribution is not good form. On such prescriptions, for the record, there’s also a quote in the selfsame Manu Smriti—because Harsh uses that text to base his critique—which provides for inserting hot coal into the throat of a Brahmin who drinks alcohol. What does that say about upper “castes” ill-treating the lower “castes?” In reality, these harsh punishments were in reality, mere deterrents. There’s really no record of such punishments being actually implemented in ancient times.
From here, Harsh makes even more unsustainable claims. Consider this: “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?”
When Harsh talks about today’s Hindu nationalists, who is he actually referring to? Without providing this information, it’s pretty much fair game to tar all Hindu nationalists with the same brush. This apart, what is Harsh’s basis for claiming something like a “realization that the social system we had was immoral irrespective of any temporal considerations?” This mischievous question is a common refrain of Marxist literature: large numbers of Hindu society converted to Islam, which they saw as a savior from the oppressive Hindu social order. This claim is unsustainable looked at from whichever perspective—historical, political and social. Indeed, the continued existence of Hindu society owes tremendous debt to the so-called lower-caste Hindus.
As I mentioned in my previous rejoinder, the discourse originating from organized Hindu nationalism is rooted in inferiority complex. Their claim—which Harsh repeats—of creating a casteless society emanates from uncritically swallowing the British pill, which blamed the caste system for all ills of Hindu society. If indeed the “caste system” was evil, what explains the fact that it bound the Hindu society together for thousands of years and the fact that it continues to survive, and the fact that our elections are fought precisely on this platform?
Equally unsustainable is Harsh’s claim that “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.” because of three reasons. One, Harsh provides no evidence whatsoever to show why this was partially a myth. Two, because what Harsh seeks is a “perfect” state where the state is everything to everybody in the context of both place and time. And three, Harsh is indulging in backward projection—of judging the state of affairs in a time long past using today’s standards. Although he admits the last point obliquely, the fact is that there was no concept of a separate personal wealth of the king and that of the state. Everything in the treasury belonged to the state and not to the king. The luxuries he enjoyed were in the capacity of a custodian. These are fundamental concepts available in any introductory book on Indian polity/statecraft.
Next is an even fallacious claim that “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.” In which case why even use the selfsame modern-day concepts to examine what that Indian king did? If you do, then apply the same standard to both. The usage of the word “funded” is also quite telling. A king didn’t “fund” different panths: he extended patronage, which has an entirely different connotation, one I hope I don’t have to explain.
Harsh then claims that “[d]ebating history and philosophy…can obscure more than illuminate.” I’d have to use the same terminology that he did: it is a giveaway in this regard because contrary to what Harsh claims, these debates illuminate more than they obscure. There’s a reason why the highest degree awarded in any field is the Doctor of Philosophy. Sure, policy impacts the daily life of people but what informs policy? And no, policies don’t evolve merely from our conception of what is correct. Policies evolve from considerations of precisely such things as history, tradition, and folk customs. Indeed, our tribal policy—if you can call it that—has gone to hell simply because these factors weren’t considered. On the other hand, I can point Harsh to the Vivekananda Girijana Kalyana folks who have done stellar work in making tribals prosperous and at the same time, have kept them rooted to their homes and allowed them to preserve their age-old customs and traditions. But Harsh returns to semantics and questions the necessity to “support words like Hindutva.” It appears he hasn’t fully read or understood my earlier pieces on the subject in this debate. And I’m loath to repeat them again and again. But his objection is as irrational and ignorant as it stems from a need to please everybody, as evidenced by this statement: “why support words like Hindutva, which even if it means a non-discriminatory cultural nationalism for some, sounds like naked majoritarianism to others. Not just to most Muslims and Christians, but also many Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs – and of course, to many Hindus too.” What gives away Harsh’s ignorance is the fact that Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs are all part of the Hinduism. They are offshoots yes but every single tenet of these sects can be traced back to the core teachings of Hinduism. And even if it sounds majoritarian, so be it. Why does Harsh repeatedly use “majoritarian” in a negative sense? I hate to volunteer a reason but I suspect it’s because his understanding of the term in a negative sense derives from what European and/or Arab majoritarianism did historically. In this, he is guilty of what I’ve repeatedly stressed: there was no equivalent condition at any time in India.
Harsh’s point about not viewing Hinduism through a territorial prism but through a philosophical one is nothing new. It’s laudable but it isn’t practical given the multi-pronged threats Hinduism faces today. To view Hinduism solely through a philosophical lens requires a society and a nation that sustains such a condition. Given the same “million mutinies” that Harsh refers to, these mutinies have resulted in a highly-divisive Hindu society where castes are pitted against each other by emphasizing irreconcilable differences rather than that which sustained them for so long—a feeling of oneness despite differences. Without that society, without that nation, the philosophical lens that Harsh prizes so much will be lost for good. Valuable bits of our heritage have already been lost forever—the Harikatha tradition is on its last legs, the tradition of impromptu poetry in Sanskrit and other Indian languages is all but gone, the Therukootu is but a pale shadow of its former glory, the wandering Sadhus who did much to spread and preserve this same philosophical lens are now given the status of beggars, there has been next to zero innovation in our classical music in the last 70 years, our temple tradition has been reduced to people praying for health, children, money, and career growth…the list is endless. The necessity for viewing Hinduism through a territorial lens (while I don’t accept this characterization, I’ll use it for the sake of convenience) arose from the fact that for over 1000 years, Hindus have been steadily losing territory that was once theirs. And they’ve been losing territory in the same proportion that their declared enemies have wrested from them. To argue against the defence of whatever territory remains still in their possession defies commonsense. And because Harsh lays tremendous emphasis on policy, here goes: a defence and/or foreign policy that doesn’t take these aspects into consideration is bound to be disastrous. There’s nothing semantic about what I just described.
Equally, Harsh’s analogy of Augustine reconciling Greek philosophy with Christian theology is flawed. Christian theology is in a line just this: it is a “philosophy” which begins with Lord God whose existence is a product of hearsay and whose study is termed as “theology.” What Augustine—with due respects—did was to attempt to appropriate a highly-evolved Greek philosophy into the realm of an irrational belief system. The same comment applies to Harsh’s exaggeration that “even in the Abrahamic world, there is immense heterogeneity and dynamism.” The said heterogeneity and dynamism are more exceptions than rules. There are literally a handful of Abrahamic adherents who actually got away with criticizing their Gods and their holy books.
Harsh’s closing paragraphs make his stand emphatically clear. He consistently uses Western thought-models and categories to examine native traditions and discourse. Where he cites native traditions, he seems to unerringly choose only those that are disagreeable or inane as if nothing else exists in a civilization more than 5000 years old. And even these examples are hardly representative and his sources, selective and questionable. Why for instance, doesn’t he use the Indian method of reasoning (Tarka and Nyaya) to examine Western traditions? In singing paeans of capitalism, why doesn’t he mention the fact that till mid-18th century, India dominated world commerce? Why doesn’t he mention the fact that India imported mostly luxury goods while it exported necessities (cloth, spices, food items, etc) to the rest of the world? What part of this is not “beautiful capitalism?” What does this state of affairs say about the economic and other policies that various Indian kings implemented? And why single out only Ashoka and Akbar as if this tradition of free intellectual discourse didn’t exist under any other king? Why not the Kushans, Pushyamitra Sunga, Samudragupta, Chandragupta Vikramaditya, Skandagupta, Veera Ballala, Raja Bhoja, Pulakeshi II, Proudadevaraya, Krishnadevaraya….? Because the quote is from a book written by a certain Alex Von Tunzelmann, a Westerner who gloats superficially about India. This is not to be unduly harsh but to illustrate a phenomenon I’ve repeatedly come across: the psychological need of a class of Indians who will say good things about their own country provided such good things are endorsed first by a Westerner.
In his closing argument, Harsh asks us to “lay down policy differences on the table.” A fair point, but a point that jumps the gun because a policy will only be as sound as the philosophy that underlies it. He again repeats the point that policy will clear the “semantic cloud” while I take the exact opposite stance. Words have meanings. Unless they’re explicitly, unambiguously defined, no progress can be made. Stating something as misleading as endorsing “words that exclude citizens” doesn’t help matters—neither in semantics nor in policy.
It’s still unclear why Harsh’s refrain of policy whereas the motion was about the semantics of secularism followed by the implications of secularism as state policy. I believe my arguments have addressed both. Therefore, Harsh’s charge of opportunism is rather unfortunate despite the fact that my arguments have focused on the motion at hand, despite the fact that I’ve used sufficient evidence and consequential reasoning to back up my assertions and despite the fact that I’ve taken it upon myself to clarify several points where the burden of proof fell upon him.
Nobody has monopoly over the language of liberty just as everybody has the liberty to accuse their opponents of opportunism—it’s a nice escape route when faced with paucity of evidence.
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Moderator’s Comments: I’d like to thank both the participants, Harsh Gupta speaking for the motion, and Sandeep balakrishna speaking against the motion, for sharing with us their considered views on a topic that is critical to the social well-being of India. This first Vaad-Prativaad has, in many ways, done an exemplary job in underlining the differences of views between the two sides. But even more importantly, Harsh and Sandeep have both explained the underlying philosophies of these differences. The debate about secularism is then, simultaneously, about 1. semantics, 2. historical grievances, 3. INC’s brand of “sickularism,” 4. what specifically constitutes Hindu beliefs, and 5. the validity of non-Indic ideas. I do not wish to summarise the debate for you – to do so would only detract from the clarity with which ideas have been expressed on both sides. However, I will leave you with a few more questions:
- What is the statute of limitations, if there is one, for past grievances?
- How can we understand Hinduism? While the ancient texts speak with one tongue, there is no doubt that practice has not matched inspiration.
- What is the validity of any idea, Eastern or Western? The latter may not apply, but given the change in society, the former might not either. Does it not become incumbent upon us to think these things through and judge based upon contemporary situation and merit?
- Neither participant disagreed that the INC has made a mockery of secularism. The question then arises, should we even bother to repeat that example? Any idea can be manipulated, but a susceptibility to be manipulated is only a testament to human ingenuity, not the success or failure of an idea.
- Secularism, we are informed, comes in many flavours – French, Turkish, Chinese… Is there an Indian secularism? Should there be one? What would such a concept look like?
Once again, I thank the participants on behalf of CRI and its readers for an informative debate. The curse of the middle class person is the difficulty in finding time to read and ponder on important issues, and Harsh and Sandeep have both generously allowed us all to save some time by giving us the benefit of their learning. Thank you everyone…good night, and good luck!