Hindu dharma is implicitly at odds with monotheistic intolerance. What is happening in India is a new historical awakening... Indian intellectuals, who want to be secure in their liberal beliefs, may not understand what is going on. But every other Indian knows precisely what is happening: deep down he knows that a larger response is emerging even if at times this response appears in his eyes to be threatening.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Deconstructing Indian Secularism II by Rudra on Sulekha

by Rudra on Sulekha

I had thought I would write that one piece Deconstructing Indian Secularism on Indian secularism and be done with the topic. Barkha Dutt's article had struck a chord and I was compelled to write. In the aftermath of the first article (wading through the labyrinth of comments and watching the “ping-pong” of p-secs vs. Indicists) and seeing several “strawmen” being murdered in various discussion threads on Sulekha, I feel inclined to write a follow-up.

Ever since I resumed writing on Sulekha, I also started participating actively in the debates that ensued in the wake of certain types of articles. What I observed is that there was a clash of ideologies – certain assumptions each side (I think this is generically a bipolar debate) seems to make about the other (I must admit, I focused on the primary contributors on each side). I will try to put together in the next few paragraphs an analysis (and a distillation) of the debate (per my understanding). If we are to consider what's happening on Sulekha as being a serious phenomenon that has the ability to build guidelines of conduct, thought and ethics for the future generations (I happen to think that is quite a possibility), we should try and understand these “issues” as best as we can.

Indicism: Movement or Mania?

Of late (the past two or three years), I've noticed a sudden surge in the public visibility of the Indicists and their points of view. Maybe it's just me – since I've only grown interested in this sort of a topic for the past couple of years – but a previously silent community (albeit a minority by numbers) are speaking out aloud about this now. This might be misleading in general (since Indicism isn't really an antithesis to Indian secularism), but maybe the jarring reality of pseudo-secularism is trickling into the psyche of the masses.

There are a few possible reasons why all these people think that Indian secularism is farcical.
  • It could be possible that these people have been completely brainwashed (into thinking that Indian secularism is not really secularism) by a vicious ideology, or that these people are caught up in a mass mania that Indian secularism is farcical.
  • perhaps, Indian secularism really is farcical.
Let us investigate each of these possibilities a little more closely, shall we?

Brainwashed by Ideological Conditioning?

An oft-repeated charge against the Indicists is that they are like the Nazis of Nazi Germany. That there's a hidden agenda in their actions and thoughts – that they want to cleanse India of the minority communities (especially the practitioners of Abrahamic religions). The general categorization of these Indicists is either as “Saffronites” or as “Hindutva-vadis” (both of which have negative media-spun connotations to them). This phenomenon of malignment and discreditation goes so far as to brand a scholar or intellectual who tries to study “positive” aspects of ancient Indic culture/philosophy to be a chauvinist and/or a fascist.

Some common accusations against Indicists by their detractors include:

1. The Indicists are trying to uphold/revive an ideology (they call it various names, ranging from Hindutva to fascism to racism) which is chauvinistic in nature and against the ideal of “secularism” that they believe in.

2. Indicists try to project Indic traditions as somehow being scientific (in a modern, Western science kind of way).

3. Indicists try to prop up the ideology by repeating and/or manufacturing history.

4. Indicists are somehow trying to suggest that casteism was not a bad practice and they are somehow trying to revive a “caste-based” society.

5. Most Indicists are actually “brahmins” and/or other “high-caste” Hindus who are trying to revive their “casteist hegemony” in the various streams of Indian society.

Looking at each accusation as shown above in more detail, here's what is really the case:

1. According to most Indicists (based on their essays and such), there seems to be a common belief that there has been a carefully planned misrepresentation and malignment of Indic history and its civilizational/socio-cultural narrative during its centuries of colonial subjugation. The justification for this misrepresentation of history was multi-faceted – but the driving motivations behind this phenomenon were a misguided sense of European cultural supremacy and an effort to “civilize the savages”, a misguided sense of theological/religious supremacy and an effort to “spread the good word”, and an effort to demoralize/undermine the native culture and civilization in order to meet these objectives.

So in effect, what these Indicists claim to be doing is an attempt at dispelling confabulated myths about Indic culture and Indic civilization by discarding the European (colonial) narrative of it thereof and going back to ancient accounts as stored in the various Indic traditional accounts – such as the Vedic texts, Buddhist scriptures, philosophical treatises, historical accounts, etc. As a result of this effort/initiative, people who have limited knowledge and/or respect for these matters tend to feel threatened and immediately draw analogies with Nazism and other forms of fascism.

2. The worldview being arrived at by physicists who deal with physics outside of the realm of Newtonian/Classical physics – for example, consider quantum physicists – seems to be in line with the worldview of the ancient Indic philosopher-seers (rishis). The metaphysical framework that the ancient rishis used often times led to descriptions of reality that are very identical to what modern quantum physicists arrive at via their metaphysics, experiments and such. When a Western physicist affirms this in public, he/she is acclaimed as a champion for truth (eg: Fritjof Capra) or relegated to the backwaters of academia, but when an Indian says such a thing, he/she is immediately accused of trying to equate the ancient Indic philosophical/metaphysical frameworks with modern science. What would be noteworthy is that these modern Indians (Indicists) are perhaps as well trained in Western science as their Western counterparts. While the Western scientists are applauded (or at worst ignored), their Indian counterparts are rebuked, reviled and branded cultural chauvinists, saffronites or Hindutva-vadis.

3. The Indicists are very often trying to reinterpret history and knowledge using non-European tools (as opposed to European tools which our systems have inherited as a result of centuries of colonialism). What is considered to be a tool to study “other” cultures (via scientific methodology) today -- “anthropology” -- historically was (and perhaps still is) the effort to study non-European (non-Western) cultures with standards and measures which were purely European/Western in nature (with presupposed opinions about the supremacy of Western culture, Western ethics, Western morality, Western sciences). Much of what is known about Indic culture and Indic civilization is the result of such “anthropology”. What the Indicists are trying to do is rebuild from scratch (in some cases) these obviously misguided “facts” that were arrived at using Western anthropology.

4. In course of reanalyzing and reinterpreting historical data (based on scriptural commentaries etc), Indicists have come to a conclusion that the ancient Indic concept of “varna” wasn't really meant to be what the horrendous “caste system” had become in course of time. A recent essay by Prof. Subhash Kak The Colours of Mind drew a lot of flak online. This is an example of how a harmless interpretation of historical information (which could well be accurate) gets misunderstood to be assigned ominous underlying motives by the detractors. While the Indicists are not (in most cases at least) saying that the caste system is/was somehow justified as a result of their analyses, they are often misunderstood and perhaps their detractors pick on this and harp on and on about the “casteist” mentality of the Indicists. Directly tied into this, is the next assumption (which after making the rounds of two newspaper columns and/or editorials and uttered by a few “respectable” secular warriors in India starts getting treated as gospel truth) that the Indicists are trying to revive a caste-based society.

5. The previous point shows how an obviously harmless analysis of historic data gets misconstrued into suddenly labelling all Indicists as somehow being “Brahminical hegemons” or some other “upper-caste” hegemons. While it is true that some Indicists might feel that the concept of “reservations” as practiced in India is wrong and say in public that “two wrongs do not make a right”, it would be presumptuous at best and slanderous at worst to insinuate “hegemonical” motivations behind these.

We can summarize the following as a result of the paragraphs above:

The phenomenon of Indicists researching and publishing their findings (in the absence of an academic medium that lets them do their research and share their knowledge in an official status) is definitely not due to “ideological brainwashing” or a result of some mass mania. The stance of the Indicists seems to be based on cogent and reasonable analysis of historical records (of confabulation of Indic history and misrepresentation of Indic civilizational/socio-cultural knowledge) and prevalent intellectual and socio-cultural parameters. While Indicism should stand in its own light – purely because it is the phenomenon of studying, living, learning Indic traditional knowledge – the hysterical opposition it faces by the “secular” faction of Indian intelligentsia automatically makes it a candidate for comparative analysis and a reactive membership – and while that is unfortunate, in my opinion, it is well worth the effort to develop a solid intellectual and ethical defense of this paradigm.

However, let us not forget that we haven't really stepped into the swamp called “religion” yet – and that is in reality the main bone of contention. After all, secularism does mean “separation of the state and church” (in our case religions)!

Theology, Religion and the State

“But why then,” the smart reader might ask, “does the Indicist elicit such vehement opposition from the intellectuals in India? In what way does the process of reinterpreting history, dispelling misconceptions become an antithesis to the secular fabric of India?”

Dear reader, the answer lies in the nature of the modern Indian state and its political system! Allow me to elaborate...

The very fabric of the modern Indian state – a child of the British system inherited from the “Raj” era, is a reiteration of the European definition of a modern “secular democracy.” Given the historical background of Europe (and the West), the requirement for secularism (i.e. separation of state and church) was well justified, since the church is reputed to have taken an antagonistic stance towards science, intellectualism and the inquisitive nature so inherent in mankind. So, when the Indian state was envisioned (several decades before its actual birth), these thoughts were factored in. In India though, similar incidents happened only with the advent of the Muslim rulers (exceptions are noted to be Emperor Akbar and his descendant Dara Shikoh). Prior to that, per Indic tradition, knowledge (under that banner falls science, technology, medicine, yoga, philosophy) had always been a coveted treasure. Kings and Emperors are reputed to have had the prestige of their courts being decided by the level of pundits they employed or provided patronage to. Indic society worked on a set of ethical ground-rules (on an aside, the caste system of the recent past could be considered to be the mutant child of these ethical ground-rules). The teacher/scholar was given the highest position in society – a natural testimony to the primacy of knowledge (and no, this isn't a pipe-dream for the reinstatement of “Brahminical hegemony”). While some of the factual renditions of these ethical ideals might have been aberrations, there were such ideals and the adherence to them, none the less. After independence, especially with the “elimination” (via partition) of the majority of those who were most likely to have looked back wistfully at the “Islamic Rule age”, the idea of a pure secular state (as a fulfillment of the Western ideal of secularism) wasn't that bad either. It was only when the powers-that-be, who enshrined their “secular” ideals in the Indian Constitution, came up with this half-baked mutant of a creature that wasn't a complete separation of state from the theological/religious bodies that the problems really started.

Digging deeper...

Due to the overly Indic (non-Abrahamic) nature of the Indian populace, there had to be “special” checks and balances in place to ensure that the Abrahamic minority were treated with equanimity and justice. While such fears were unwarranted, they were understandable – especially in the wake of the bloody post-partition massacres (on both sides of the border). So when special concessions were doled out in the name of religious background, it was still understandable (perhaps not desirable, but understandable). The biggest loophole that the founding fathers of the Indian nation left in the Constitution they built lovingly was a result of their inability to anticipate the lowliness and “creep” factor of the future elected representatives of the nation. They perhaps assumed that the following generations of politicians would be at least as honorable, venerable and intellectually adept as they themselves were. But in reality, that breed of politicians never really came back into Indian politics. Even if there were rare individuals in the subsequent history of Indian politics, they never really got to see the light of day, since they were quietly (and quiet gleefully) buried under the filth of the politics of religious posturing. The fact that they intertwined religion with statecraft, resulted in the condemnable practice of “votebank” politics of today, and with each passing day this habit/behaviour is reinforced. Today's politicians (irrespective of their political affiliations) all resort to this type of posturing. Their motto is simple – put the fear of communal oppression in the masses and garner the votes.

To come to the point without further “jousting”, the ulterior motivations of these votebank politicians lies in the suppression of new information about certain aspects (only particular aspects) of Indic history and knowledge systems. Since it is common knowledge that the only Indic traditional systems worth anything had all developed in the pre-Abrahamic days of Indian history, reassessment/reinterpretation of those periods automatically become subversive ideas – since, after decades, nay centuries, of deglorifying Indic heritage (and demoralizing Indians), the heirs of the British Raj do not have a choice but to suppress the truth. And that is why, dear reader, there is such vehement opposition to Indicist revivalism. In reality, in India today, the only political group other than those who are considered “right-wing”, with any worthwhile intellectual moorings, are the communists. Since these communists (and their ideological addicts – claiming not to be communist overtly but following every tenet of communism, albeit the Indian flavor of it, covertly) are already committed to their ideological dogma, they will do anything in their capacity to prevent Indicism (and the findings as a result of this movement thereof) from taking roots. As a result you see blatant partisan “disinfection” efforts (they call it de-saffronization) by the present government (undoubtedly at the behest of their communist partners) in the field of academics and other social branches!

While it is true that the nature of the Indian state and its political system cannot be repaired without eliminating the communists (and by elimination I don't mean mass executions or anything of that sort – I mean ideological/intellectual elimination), the Indicists would do well to learn from the mistakes of their “accidental nemesis” (the pseudo-secularists). By being faithful to the truth and by refraining from politicizing their work (understandably difficult), they would in effect gain more and more public acceptance and popularity.

One might be given to wonder why I emphasize so much on history. The reason is very simple – without properly studying history, one cannot know where one is coming from, and what would be a good place to go. The events of the past directly affect our present and future, as does the understanding/knowledge of the past. While it is easy to gripe about isolated grievances (by either side), it is only by keeping the larger picture in mind that a reasonable and ethically accurate analysis of anything can be made.


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