Interview with Akeel Bilgrami

'Left needed now more than ever before'

Print edition : April 13, 2018
Interview with Akeel Bilgrami.

THE following is the second part of the interview with Akeel Bilgrami. The first part was published in the Frontline issue dated March 30, 2018.

Secularism is essentially a modern idea that originated in European circumstances where the epistemological premise and actual practice of secularism was based on the simple idea of separation of church and state. But in multireligious societies such as India, defining secularism both theoretically and practically gets difficult. Some say that secularism is pseudo and Western and not suited to India. Some others—and this is generally accepted—such as S. Radhakrishnan, and later the Supreme Court of India, characterised secularism as “Sarva Dharma Sambhava” in the Indian context. You go beyond that and bring the priority of political ideals while defining secularism. Is Indian secularism flawed? How would you define secularism?

The first thing we need to do is to distinguish between secularisation and secularism. “Secularisation” is the name of a process of social and ideational transformation. The process was first studied under that name by Max Weber. Weber used such terms as “disenchantment” to further elaborate the nature of the process of secularisation. This transformation was characterised in two different rhetorics—“the death of God” and “the decline of magic”. These different ways of characterising it were respectively tracking a decrease in belief or doctrine on the one hand, and religious practice and rituals on the other. Loss of belief in God or in the myths of creation and so on was one aspect, the doctrinal aspect of secularisation. Decrease in churchgoing and in religious dietary habits or pious habits of dress and so on was the other aspect, the practical aspect of secularisation.

“Secularism”, by contrast, is not the name for a general process of social and ideational transformation of this sort, but the name of a much more specific thing, a political doctrine. It’s not concerned with loss of religious belief and practice but is rather an attempt to steer the polity and its institutions and its laws away from the direct influence of religion. (Indirect influence is another matter. Where there is not much secularisation, there is bound to be some indirect influence of religion on the polity, but secularism seeks to prevent any direct bearing of religion on the polity.)

This distinction, even though it is important, is obvious. It is obvious because it is possible for a person to be secularist without being secularised. A highly devout (therefore not secularised) person can be completely secularist. Also, some place can be completely secularist without being much secularised at all—such as the heartland of the United States.

You rightly say that it originated in Europe—both secularisation and secularism did. And your question is about secularism in particular, not secularisation. In coming to understand what secularism is (as with all concepts of that sort) one has two tasks. One is the historical task of tracing genealogically its sources and rationale—when and why it emerged, what function it served, and so on. And the second task is to give an analysis of the concept, to define it or, if not define it, at least to characterise it in analytic terms. And we have to balance the historical and the analytical sides of our understanding. If one’s analysis or definition completely ignored the historical rationale of the concept, it would be just an arbitrary stipulation. One has to keep some faith with the genealogical sources in history and intellectual history as one applies the term at a later time and in different places. So, it’s a complex business.

Let’s ask what prompted the rise of “secularism” as a concept and a doctrine about politics and the law? Here is a narrative I have told in various writings, which I think abstracts from a lot of detail but nevertheless tries to capture a broad and minimal historical truth and a truth of conceptual history.

In 17th century Europe, with the scientific revolutions that came to establish what we call “modern” science, older ways of justifying the state and the exercise of state power that appealed to the “divine right” of the kings and queens who personified the state came to be viewed as outdated. As a result, at first, high philosophy was mobilised in what is called “social contract” theory to justify state power and this was done in different interpretations of the contractualist ground for the state by Hobbes and Locke. But these philosophical theories did not really resonate with ordinary people. Legitimacy for state power with a wider appeal had to be forged. So, a new form of justification of state power was sought, neither in theology nor in high philosophy, but in human psychology. What do I mean by that? Before I say what I mean, let me also point out another development just at that time, the spawning of a new kind of entity by the Westphalian peace, the nation, something for which a more centralised kind of state power was needed, integrating hitherto much more scattered locations of power. Slowly, this kind of state and this new kind of entity, the nation, were indissolubly fused, a fusion that was expressed by a hyphen, the nation-state. Now, to return to the matter of the justification of the state: as I said, there was a turn from divine right to human psychology. One had to create a feeling in the populace to ground the legitimacy of the state. But the feeling was not to be directly for the state but rather for the left-hand side of the hyphenated conjunction. It was to be a feeling for this new phenomenon called the nation with which the state was undecouplably joined, thereby legitimising the right-hand side of the hyphenated conjunction, the state and the exercise of its power over the territory of the nation. Only later, this feeling came to be called “nationalism”.

But the key question remains: how was this feeling generated in the populace of these newly emerging “nations” in Europe?

All over Europe, this was done by an absolutely standard method—finding and naming some segment of the population within the territory, declaring them to be an enemy, an external enemy within the nation, and declaring further that the nation was “ours”, “not theirs”. The Jews, the Irish, the Catholics in Protestant countries, the Protestants in Catholic countries… are all familiar examples of these targets. Much later, when numerical and statistical forms of discourse began to be used to study society and politics, terms such as “minority” and “majority” were coined and this strategy came to be called “majoritarianism”. Frequently the majorities and minorities involved in these nation-building exercises were religious ones. That’s Europe for you, Europe and its history of the rise and consolidation of nations. If you think what is happening in India today is uniquely ours, it really all started in Europe. The very idea of such nationalism is European.

Now, as a result of this religious majoritarianism, there were very often religious minoritarian backlashes against it and this gave rise to tremendous civil strife in European nations, and in the face of such strife it began to be felt that religion itself having such a political profile was the problem, even though the initial fault line lay in religious majoritarianism. And so it was that secularism emerged to correct this religious source of strife by steering religion out of the orbit of the polity and its institutions, steering it to places of personal life only or at most to sites of “civil society”, which was defined as the space of public life that was outside of the orbit of the polity and the law. That is the origin of secularism, a doctrine constructed to repair a very specific damage done by the pursuit of European ideals of nationalism.

UNSELFCONSCIOUS PLURALISM

So, are you saying India followed Europe in this trajectory?

That’s the interesting thing. Through much of the last century, it did not. It would be hard to spell out in detail what I mean by that—you may want to look at a long article I’ve written on precisely the question you are asking (It’s in the Oxford Companion to Indian Philosophy). Let me sum it up as best I can.

In it, I present the analysis above of the origins of secularism and I argue that the reason why neither Gandhi nor Nehru (yes, not even Nehru) talked of secularism at all through the long freedom movement (except a little bit in the 1940s) is precisely that they thought that the damage that secularism was constructed to repair had never occurred in India. They understood very well from Europe’s history the context in which secularism is relevant and they made it clear that India never provided that context because India had never gone through that process of nation-building that is peculiarly European. In other words, neither of India’s two most prominent leaders subscribed to secularism in those long years. There really is no difference between Nehru and Gandhi on this point. So the question is, what was their thinking during those decades of the freedom movement, if, for this reason I am giving, secularism was not central to their thinking?

I think if you take a careful look at The Discovery of India, Nehru’s view (and Gandhi was much more explicit on the matter) was that unlike in Europe, India’s unselfconscious pluralism of the last many centuries was never undermined by this form of nationalism. That book by Nehru is often misunderstood as being the Nehru who departed from his modernist outlook. This is a misunderstanding. What he was really reaching to say in it is that India’s so- called spiritual unity of the past must be understood as being deeply pluralist in both religion and culture. It was not a unity based on the exclusion of religions other than Hinduism but an inclusion of other religions and cultures in a completely unselfconscious pluralism. And, in his mind, this pluralist historical unity provided the ground for a freedom movement that would replay that pluralism in the theatre of anti-imperialist mobilisation, a mobilisation that would reflect that pluralism which included all religious groups. This would constitute a quite different nationalism from the nationalism in Europe. It would redefine nationalism as inclusionary anti-imperialism. And, as a result, secularism would be beside the point since secularism is relevant only when a quite different nationalism generates a damage that I presented in my remarks above, and which secularism is then introduced as a self-conscious political doctrine to correct that loss of this unselfconscious pluralism.

Now, of course, this interpretation of Nehru’s (and Gandhi’s) thought on these issues would only be confirmed or verified if their actions supported it. And in that paper, I look to their efforts at various moments in the freedom struggle to mobilise in this inclusionary way to confirm it—such as the Khilafat movement and the Muslim mass contact campaign, and the dynamic and progressive effects of these movements on Indian politics.

Hence, I would say that in pre-independent India, secularism did not loom large in the thinking or rhetoric of the main leaders of the freedom struggle except towards the end of that struggle when it was clear that in the acrimonies prior to Partition there was a kind of religious strife that was mimicking the European model. And I think that this fact that I am stressing (i.e., secularism not looming large as an issue in India in all those years of the freedom movement) is entirely in keeping with the historical rationale for secularism. In other words, the historical European context for the rise and relevance of secularism was simply missing in India, in the eyes of both Gandhi and Nehru.

OK, if that is the historical rationale for secularism, would you now say a bit on the analytical part of how to understand secularism? How would you define “secularism” in India? Do you agree that it is a different secularism?

No, I don’t agree with that. Amartya Sen said many years ago that secularism in India was not the Western idea of separation of church and state, but rather it was the idea of the state maintaining a neutrality and equidistance between different religions. (Actually, you quote Radhakrishnan, and apparently it was Radhakrishnan who had said it before Sen—as Irfan Habib pointed out to me. But I have only read Sen, and also Charles Taylor who has been saying the same thing as Sen though not about India.)

I don’t believe there is any peculiarly Indian secularism. I think these views are based on a misunderstanding and they don’t illuminate things either historically or analytically. There was indeed a lot of talk about neutrality between religions—you will find it, for instance in the Karachi Resolution of 1931 adopted by the Congress—but it was never intended as a definition of “secularism”. Not at all. What, then, is the relation between such talk of neutrality between religions and secularism? Well, in order to answer that you have to first turn from the historical points I’ve been making to give what you are asking for, an analytical account or definition of secularism.

In India, “secularism” came to be defined just as it was in Europe, but we have not been clear about what that definition is because existing definitions have too frequently relied on thoroughly misleading slogans and metaphors such as “separation of religion and state” or “wall of separation between religion and state”. In Europe, once religion, in the realm of the polity, became a target of secularist policy for the historically motivated reasons I have mentioned above, the familiar and celebrated formulation of a range of rights and constitutional principles became the natural and obvious source from which secularist policy sought to target and constrain religious practices from directly entering the orbit of the polity.

These were precisely the sources which became relevant in the Indian context after Independence, and talk of secularism was inevitable in the constitutional issues that came to be debated and resolved through the legal process in the reform of religious law in the Hindu Code Bill. Thus, in order to define secularism (whether in Europe or in India), we have to look at how all this was done and draw a definition out of it. Clearly, a definition that uses the metaphor of the wall of separation will not do since the state was violating or perforating that wall by interpreting and re-interpreting Hindu law in order to reform it. That makes nonsense out of the metaphorical definition of secularism since it would amount to violating secularism (by this metaphorical definition of secularism) in order to bring about secularist reforms of religion. That is why I think we should abandon the metaphor and the slogan of separation as confused and formulate things differently, giving a different analytic account of secularism that accurately models what happened in Europe—and in India during the 1950s.

How, then, would you define it?

As I said, you have to look at constitutions and lawmaking and reform, and when you do you will find that both in Europe (France does not quite fit the pattern, but let’s put that aside for now) and the United States and in India, two basic conditions were taken for granted in any analytical understanding of secularism. 1) There was a constitutional commitment to religious freedom, to freedom of religious belief and practice. And, 2), there was a constitutional commitment to certain rights and principles that did not mention either religion or opposition to religion—commitments, for example, to freedom of speech or to gender equality, and so on. And I have defined secularism by first specifying these two commitments and then pointing out that there was a third higher-order commitment which says that if there is any clash between these two first-order commitments, then commitment 2) must be placed before commitment 1). I call this a lexicographical ordering. It basically says that if any religious practice whose freedom to be exercised is granted by 1) clashes with any principle or right articulated in 2), then these latter principles or rights will have priority over that religious practice. That’s it. That’s the meaning of secularism—two first-order commitments and one higher-order commitment about how to order them. That’s exactly how religion’s direct influence on the polity was kept at bay in Europe and in Indian reforms, even while allowing quite a lot of religious freedom in constitutions. In this definition or characterisation of secularism, I have not said a word about any wall of separation, but instead tried to capture what that metaphor was very confusedly trying to get at.

Now, France—and also Kemalist Turkey—didn’t always quite fit this analytical characterisation of secularism, partly because they did not always have the same commitment to 1) above. Does this mean that my definition of secularism is wrong? I don’t think so because in failing to stress 1) both these countries crossed over from secularism to state-sponsored secularisation. And I am only trying to define secularism.

NEUTRALITY AND SECULARISM

So, what do you have to say about all this talk of neutrality and equidistance between religions that are said to define secularism in India?

I think that is just confusion. There was constant talk about such neutrality but it should not be used to define secularism. Secularism is secularism, whether here or in Europe, where it began. And this lexicographical ordering definition captures what is meant by it. This talk of neutrality is not an alternative definition of secularism, but rather it should be seen as a side-constraint on the only definition of secularism there is—the lexicographical ordering one.

What do I mean by a side-constraint? Well, when you apply or implement the lexicographical ordering that defines secularism, you must apply it neutrally and fairly to all the different religious groups, not favouring any.

So, for instance, the side-constraint was violated in Britain when in the case of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, the British government gave lexicographical priority to 2) (in particular the constitutional right to free speech) over the Muslim religious belief in censorship of blasphemy, but failed to give the same lexicographical priority to 2) when there was a demand from Christian groups led by Mary Whitehouse that Kazantzakis’ book The Last Temptation of Christ be banned for blasphemy. Rushdie’s book was not banned, Kazantzakis’ was. The state failed to show neutrality between Christianity and Islam and the side-constraint was violated.

So, I would say that the neutrality idea is only relevant to the implementation of secularism (as this kind of side-constraint), but it is not relevant to defining what is being implemented, secularism—which has only the one definition it has always had whether in Europe or here, captured in the lexicographical ordering idea.

MUSLIM PERSONAL LAW

You mention the Hindu Code Bill as a secularist move in India, but there has also been a great deal of discussion of Muslim personal law remaining unreformed to this day. How does that affect secularism in India? That does not fit your definition of secularism, does it?

Yes, that’s been the subject of intense discussion in recent decades. But it does not do anything to alter my view of what secularism is.

I think one way to interpret the refusal to reform Muslim personal law—in my view, the wrong way to interpret it—is to see it as a kind of granting of minority rights to a minority religious group in the domain of family culture. And many Muslim leaders in the Constituent Assembly debates did argue for leaving Muslim personal law unreformed on those grounds. But I don’t think their view is what carried the day. If it had, it would have been a repudiation of secularism in the lexicographical ordering sense that I am characterising it.

But, in fact, the refusal to reform Muslim personal law was not done in the name of granting minorities some special “rights to their culture”, as it is sometimes said. Rather, I think it should be seen as a kind of affirmative action move. That is a slightly misleading thing to say because the analogy with affirmative action is not perfect.

But, imperfect thought it is, there is a point to the analogy. What I mean is that because of what Muslims had gone through as a result of Partition (the trauma and the loss of their numbers to large-scale migration to Pakistan, loss of their zamindari in India, the inevitable loss of their language, and so on), it was argued that they should be allowed to retain their own personal laws until such time as they recovered their confidence from their trauma and these losses to be able to accept the state’s eventual reform of their personal laws.

This temporal qualifier makes it clear that the lexicographical ordering secularist ideal was not being put aside for Muslims by this concession to their personal laws (as it would have been if the concession was made in the name of giving them some minority right to their own culture), but it was only being put in abeyance for them (just as affirmative action gives certain advantages to minorities till such time as they are able to join the majorities in one or other respect, materially, psychologically…). So, nothing about granting them their own laws amounted to a repudiation in principle of the lexicographical ordering conception of secularism.

I don’t deny that there is a question now about how long this situation of unreformed laws has lasted. But the fact is: that question has been marred by the politics of Hindutva, which constantly raises this whole issue as a part of their general harassment of Muslims. And, in turn, when there is such harassment, the intended confidence that Muslims were supposed to have acquired over the years to eventually accept state reform of personal law, is precisely what they have not psychologically acquired.

In that paper of mine I mentioned earlier, I talk of the tremendous confidence that Muslims gained, especially in Bengal in the C.R. Das period (but really in many other parts of the country as well and at the level of all classes) as a result of the dynamic effects of the Khilafat movement. It is this confidence, engendered by the effects of these inclusive mobilisations, which prompted them to support all sorts of progressive policies—for example both on the question of women’s suffrage and on the reform of land tenancy.

If you compare the present ethos for Muslims in India with what Gandhi, Nehru and others were trying to create with such inclusive efforts as the Khilafat movement, you will get a sense of how far we have travelled from the nationalism of Gandhi and Nehru.

What would you say are the consequences of this major change in the kind of nationalisms in India from the period before Independence to the present? Is Hindutva nationalism a completely new thing or did it always exist?

You know I have rather strong views on this subject. First of all, let me just finish the line of thought I had started about secularism and then address this important question you raise.

I had said that secularism was and is relevant when there is a damage of a certain kind to be repaired. And I said that leave alone Gandhi, even Nehru argued that there was no such damage during almost the entire period of the freedom struggle, so secularism was irrelevant to the Indian context. This just follows from my point about the historical context for the relevance of secularism.

In fact, I would argue that the European model of nationalism only set in, in India, as late as the 1980s. The reasons for this are various and it would be too long to go into them in detail. But since the 1980s the European model of nationalism that I presented in answer to your initial question has been replicated in India, and, therefore, secularism is absolutely and centrally and urgently relevant in our time and place. If Gandhi were alive today, he would be the strongest voice for secularism, and he would be mobilising millions against this deplorable regime.

Now, to turn to your last question, in a way I’ve already answered it by saying that nationalism of the European variety set in in India only in the 1980s. But I know that there are a lot of people who say that Hindutva was already there in the 1920s and was present in the Mahasabhite element even with the Congress since then. And, of course, Hindutva ideologues now say that the Khilafat movement, which I was describing as a highly inclusive movement with dynamically progressive effects on Muslims, was in fact a disastrous communal mobilisation of Muslims that sowed the seeds of Muslim communalism. (Actually, this is said not only by the Hindu Right, it is also said by many secularists, including secular Muslims—I just recently heard Javed Akhtar make that claim. Even Jinnah said that sort of thing, though in Jinnah’s case it was really a fear of the mass politics unleashed by Khilafat that motivated him to say things like that.)

I think these views are quite mistaken. They are not good historical sense. When thinking of the historical past in these ways, I think we have to distinguish conceptually between two things, distinguish between what I would call “roots” and “antecedents”. There were, no doubt, antecedents of Hindu nationalism (and Muslim communalism) going back a long way. But those were not the roots of current Hindutva nationalism.

For something to be the root of some current phenomenon, one has to historically track an organic causal path from the earlier episodes and attitudes to the current events, but there is no such tracking that is or can be plausibly made by people who take this view of things.

THE HINDUTVA TURN

Can you say what was special about the 1980s that made possible the Hindutva turn that you say did not really exist in any deep sense before?

Well, there is a lot to say about that. It is a complex set of circumstances in which it emerged. It needs careful study and elaboration. I couldn’t possibly even begin to say all that needs to be said. But let me just say that one salient factor was the rise of a certain kind of caste politics as a consequence of the Mandal Commission report. This politics alarmed upper-caste Hindus and they used all the power of their ideological (and cultural) surround to start a concerted nationwide campaign to try and give the impression (a false one, of course) that Hinduism was not divided by very serious caste divisions as the aftermath of Mandal was exposing it to be. And in order to trump up a unified and undivided picture of Hinduism, they turned to exactly the European model—finding an external enemy within the nation, the Muslims, to be despised and subjugated. It was a very deliberate ploy and it was effective in transforming the relatively low-key Jan Sangh politics to the high-intensity Bharatiya Janata Party politics and the politics of the Sangh Parivar that we have been witnessing in these past three decades.

All this is being replayed right now, though it is not OBC [Other Backward Classes] but Dalit politics that is exposing how divided Hinduism is, so there is the same intensification of hostility against the Muslim external enemy to try and conjure a fake carapace of Hindu unity (even as Dalits too are being viciously attacked behind the carapace).

I also think we must be honest and admit to another more subtle and less conspicuous, but not negligible, factor that emerged just a little before the 1980s which helped later in the successes of Hindutva politics in the 1980s. We cannot deny that the Hindu Right in our country gained some moral high ground in the fallout of the mobilisations against the Emergency because they showed some courage in resisting Indira Gandhi’s Emergency regime in a way that the centre-Left (who were much more powerful then than they are now) certainly did not. Of course, it is a moral high ground they did not deserve at all because they have turned to an authoritarianism that is even more sinister than what we saw during the Emergency, so it has become clear that their motives in opposing the Emergency were quite cynical. But the perception of the Hindu Right as a potentially central force in Indian politics certainly did gain from the reputation they had gained during the opposition to the Emergency. And that potential came to be actualised a few years later.

There’s a lot more to say but I won’t try and say it now.

LEFT POLITICS AND CASTE

Can you speak more on the first point about caste? There is a great deal of agitation around caste issues again now. What is your position and what generally should the Left position on this kind of identity politics be? All these issues arose during the Mandal period and they are arising in a different form now, when the focus is more on Dalits. Is Left politics capable of accommodating caste identity politics?

This is a question that has dogged the Left for a long time, and though the issues are difficult, it is not as if there can be no clarity on what is at stake. Some on the liberal Left (for very different reasons from the upper-caste Hindus) opposed the Mandal Commission report, as you will recall. They were simply wrong. There is no need for the Left to oppose affirmative action of that sort. It’s a crass liberal qualm, showing no humanity or sympathy for historically oppressed people. In the West, it’s a kind of faux-liberal attitude that conservatives invoke. They invoke, like a mantra, all this ridiculous talk of “standards” and “merit” that will be abandoned by Mandal-style affirmative action in the reservation policy. I constantly heard it in Delhi drawing rooms when I was there during the Mandal period, including in some of my own family’s drawing rooms. I remember saying in a television interview in Delhi, when asked whether a merit-based form of employment and education would not be undermined by Mandal, that “such merit as I had, I exercised for about twenty minutes a month—for the rest, almost anyone could do what I did”. That is not just a flamboyant thing to say. I mean that entirely seriously.

This entire line of liberal thought is just tiresome scaremongering by the more privileged middle classes. It is just an expression of middle-class careerist anxieties about previously deprived people making inroads into their own prospects. There is no serious or convincing reason for opposing affirmative action of this kind. And the Left never really opposed it. It was only metropolitan liberal and liberal-left types who did, including students and prospective students (with careerist tendencies) of that class.

But putting aside Mandal itself, there is the rise of caste-based parliamentary politics in its wake that has dominated Indian politics ever since the Mandal period and it is undoubtedly an identity politics. And you ask: what should the Left’s general position on this be? I suppose you ask this because the Left has always stressed class identity over other forms of identity, even often arguing that other forms of identity parochialise politics in a way that class struggle does not.

I think the issues here are quite straightforward and not difficult to sort out.

It would be quite wrong to stress class identity over other identities if that amounts to a denial that there are other sources than class status or material inequality that give rise to the disrespect that some people show towards another. There are many other sources of disrespect, and (even though class and caste overwhelmingly do coincide) caste status is certainly an independent source of disrespect from class—and a very deep and pervasive one in our country, just as race is in the country of my domicile. These other forms of disrespect are deeply embedded in the practice of discrimination at different levels, including discrimination that lead to stark material inequalities, but not restricted to that. Such discrimination and disrespect often need to be addressed directly and not just indirectly via the general addressing of material inequalities in society, on which Left analysis often focusses and sometimes focusses too exclusively. Various forms of legislation can address it directly, as can various regional and local policies of upliftment, and, of course, affirmative action policy in one or other form is the most standard way of such direct address.

But having said that, the Left is certainly right about one thing. Let me get to it, by asking a question: If the gains that have been made in India for many backward castes as a result of caste-based parliamentary politics (or the gains that have been made on the race and gender front in many democratic capitalist countries) had deeply undermined capital or, to put it less abstractly, if they had deeply undermined the corporate stranglehold in these societies, including in India, would those gains have been allowed to happen? I think the answer has to be “No!” And if that is the right answer, then that is some kind of proof that class identity is, in some sense, more basic than these other identities of caste, gender, and race. Now, you could, of course, put this question in converse form: If the gains made in removing class inequalities had undermined Brahmanism or patriarchy or racialism and so on, would those gains have been allowed to happen? But the trouble is that I don’t have any confidence in how to go about answering this latter question, partly because the first clause of the question (the antecedent of the conditional, the clause which begins with “If…”) has so manifestly not been realised in fact. Perhaps the answer here again is “No”, but I can’t marshal the right form of evidence for that answer with the same assurance as I can about the previous question that reveals the more fundamental status of class over other categories.

DALIT MOVEMENTS

Can you speak more concretely to the political scene as you find it today? Earlier you had said in “Frontline” that we have a movement vacuum in India, and you said the Left cannot do anything just by itself at the moment and that a wide spectrum—united front—set of alliances was needed to fight what you described as the “compulsively authoritarian” and “neoliberal” government in power today. If that is the case, then what about the emerging Dalit movements? And what kinds of alliances or movements are needed to challenge the right-wing Hindutva politics?

Alright, first, just to express my abstract point in more concrete terms, and then answer your further question, it would be foolish to deny that measurable amelioration has come from caste-based parliamentary politics. When we look back a century or so from now at Indian democracy in this period since the late 1980s, we will observe that one of the real achievements of democracy (one person, one vote) in our country since Independence is that groups such as Lingayats, Yadavs and others, who had no power or prosperity hitherto, have gained some in recent decades. How can anyone resent such improvement in the lives of people without being mean-spirited? So, the point cannot be to deny that these advantages have accrued from democratic identity politics for people who never before had any status or material chances in life.

But no such gains have been made by Dalits and, in fact, their oppression has been intensified in the open season for it, that has been declared in the society at large by the very presence of this quasi-fascist government that is in power. It is very heartening that Dalits have shown real agency in fighting this oppression in the last two or three years.

Muslims, by contrast, have gone into their shells in fear of the menace that surrounds their daily life (it does not have to be overt violence against them, though as we know there is a great deal of that too, just the menace of the constant possibility of impending violence—something well-captured in a fine film by Nandita Das called Firaaq, if you recall—has struck terror in Muslims and they have withdrawn from fighting back as they did in the period after the Babri Masjid destruction).

But Dalit movements, in response to a series of recent episodes of brutality against them, have been one of the only bright things in the horizon of Indian politics. And someone like Jignesh Mevani’s mobilising words and actions have articulated more forcefully and elegantly, and less ponderously, the point I made above about what is correct about the Left point of view on identity politics and what is also importantly correct about caste identity politics, too, regarding the discrimination owing to sources other than class. He is valorously struggling to articulate an integration of what is right in both points of view and out of this might emerge a more vibrant politics of the Left. It is a quite fresh kind of politics because even as it articulates the “empowerment of oppressed castes” side of Ambedkar, it also at the same time articulates the “annihilation of caste” side of Ambedkar.

In that sense, it is a real advance on the caste-based politics that we know of from the post-Mandal period. I think the latter, by and large, only stressed the empowerment side. It was a politics of bargaining only and thus it remained an identitarian politics. What we are seeing today is something larger and that is really most encouraging.

Can you please say a little bit about the role for Left politics in relation to these emerging forces?

It has to be said that it is young leaders like Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar and others (and there are other small sparks such as, for instance, the farmers’ meet in Delhi in November 2017) who are showing more energy and initiative than many of the well-known Left leaders in parliamentary politics.

If the organised Left were to come out of its demoralisation and join these forces and movements in alliances both inside and outside of parliamentary politics, then a serious threat to the current regime’s wide sway could emerge.

To start with, the most local of issues, the total destruction of JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] that is going on, could be one immediate focal point of an extended strike and protest and movement in which political parties could be joining and supporting the youth much more in their honorable campaigns. What is being done to JNU is a particularly destructive manifestation of the general destruction of higher education institutions in India by the present government that can bring together protest movements not just among the mass of progressive students (as well as progressive faculty and administration) on the country’s campuses but also get the support of political parties; and this can eventually be integrated with a general campaign against this government on other fronts that are already under way, especially the Dalit movements.

Just ask yourself, how did the Left [in the U.S.] under [Bernie] Sanders gain a foothold and build that up to a nationwide momentum recently; how did Lula [Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] and [Evo] Morales do it some years ago in Brazil and Bolivia, how is [Jeremy] Corbyn doing it in Britain right now—precisely by finding actually existing focal points of this kind and integrating them so that they are not isolated efforts.

So, for instance, Sanders got overwhelming support from American youth by vociferously, and with assiduous grass-roots activism, taking up the ongoing issue of student debt, which is a major problem for them; and he took up health insurance, which is a major problem for not only the elderly but the marginalised immigrants and the impoverished classes generally…; and he took up housing issues, which have been a heartbreaking cause of suffering for so many ever since the foreclosures in the financial crisis of 2008; as well as general employment issues from that period that remain a problem for both young and middle-aged citizens, and he brought these different groups and ongoing issues together in an integrated nationwide movement, for these are nationwide problems even if they have local points of focus that can be addressed by local organisations.

So also in India, the attack on higher education, the policies that continue to create unemployment and impermanent and casualised employment, the appalling condition of health care, the chronically pervasive farmers’ and land issues, to name just a few, affect a wide variety of different groups that are waiting to be taken out of their isolation and brought together.

While the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] is busy doing its own sinister grass-roots work, the Left has not really shown that kind of organisational energy on these issues on which the wide span of such urban and rural mass suffering occurs.

The last major leader of the organised Left with any serious mass politician credentials was [V.S.] Achuthanandan. I’ve only mentioned movements, but within the domain of parliamentary politics there is also much scope for alliances. And these are essential in this particular moment in Indian politics.

The very fact that Congress did not field a candidate to combat Mevani, who stood as an Independent in Gujarat, is a sign that the Congress is willing to make sacrifices to make alliances with Left and progressive forces.

This is not the technocratic side of the Congress that was represented by Manmohan Singh and his economic advisers (one hopes they will never dominate that party again) but roughly the Sonia Gandhi side that stressed the unemployment and food schemes in the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] days and that led the opposition-wide agitation a couple of years ago against the Land Acquisition Act. This is not the side of the Congress that pays homage to Hindu sentiments just before elections, hoping to gain a few more votes. But it is a sizeable side of the Congress. And there is also the AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] and its offshoots as well as a range of regional parties.

There is serious scope in all of these to form alliances, but hard work needs to be done in order to make it happen. There is a defeated lassitude in the organised Left which has prevented them from doing the work needed to arrive at a common platform with other parties to fight for a wide range of representation in Parliament and in regional Assemblies wherever possible, working assiduously to formulate a common set of demands that these parties within such an alliance can all agree on, going back even more seriously than before to schemes for employment and food that they had forced the first UPA regime to take on (and adding to it schemes for health, education, housing, land issues, labour rights), and stressing secularism as well as the end of caste oppression. This sort of effort alone could recover the mass base for the organised Left that it once had. To fail to see this has no effect other than to make the Left even more irrelevant in the future.

It is time to get this wretched government out of power, not just to make occasional speeches and write occasional op-eds. And the Left has had a remarkable historical role in shaping Indian politics over the last century. It cannot abdicate that role now, when it is needed more than ever before in the face of an absolutely intolerable government, the likes of which we have never seen since Independence—criminal (there is no other word for it, this is a criminal government) in the violence it allows and encourages against oppressed minorities and castes, and criminal in the grotesque transfers of wealth it oversees from the poor to the elites, not to mention the large-scale criminal corruption of the corporate elites that has been going on with the support of this government, even as the government perpetrates a complete hoax about fighting corruption.

It is time to stigmatise these elites and this government as the real “anti-nationals” in the country, which they manifestly are, and to do so openly and without fear both in movements and in Parliament.

If the Left doesn’t show leadership in trying to forge a wide-ranging united front of opposition, such agency that has been shown by the Dalits will remain unsupported and begin to feel deeply betrayed.

It is unlikely that any other group than the Left can or will take the lead in drawing from the other parties, who could be natural allies, a common platform by which this can be done. It will need cooperative tact and hard resolve, organisational skills and grass-roots energy, something right now only being shown by Dalits and some student leaders.

But is there not going to be the standard objection that all these schemes for employment and food and health can only be pursued by first growing the economy and that growth is precisely what the Modi government is seeking? What would you say to that objection that is made by this government and its ideological supporters among economists?

I am not an economist. And it helps not to be one in order to recognise that economists shroud the justification of these criminal transfers I mentioned in high-sounding theories and jargon that precisely invoke the argument that you have just cited in admirably direct and simple prose in your question.

But I do know enough to say in response to that argument, that the kinds of schemes that we are talking about that increase the social wage of ordinary people actually produce growth (a quite different kind of growth, of course, than the bubble-generated growth of neoliberal economies, a growth that can be sustained rathero than end up in a crash). They increase the purchasing capacity of the vast mass of ordinary people and that in turns expands the market at home and that in turn increases the investment to meet it.

It is not for nothing that the period in the West in which this was tried and done (roughly the 30-year period after the end of the Second World War) was called “The Golden Age of Capitalism” with high rates of growth. This is a point so obvious and straightforward that you don’t need to be an economist to understand it. Anyone can understand it—in the plains of the Ganges, in the fishermen’s villages of Kerala, in the slums of Mumbai, in every corner of the land and by the humblest and least educated citizens.

It is the duty of the Left to spread this understanding to all those places and people, but the Left does not have the mass base to do it by itself, it has to make the necessary alliances and shape a common platform that is based on such an understanding, both in parliamentary politics and outside in movements. I am getting repetitive and sounding like Polonius, saying what every sensible person already knows.

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