The need for a new agenda

The core of the “idea of India” is to reclaim secular democracy by winning the battle between Reason and Unreason.

Published : Jul 22, 2015 12:30 IST

M.A. Jinnah flanked by Sir Nizam-ud-Din (Home Minister, Bengal government) and Sir Sikander Hayat Khan (Punjab Premier) at the All India Muslim League's working committeee meeting in Lahore.

M.A. Jinnah flanked by Sir Nizam-ud-Din (Home Minister, Bengal government) and Sir Sikander Hayat Khan (Punjab Premier) at the All India Muslim League's working committeee meeting in Lahore.

Secularism is often understood in the narrow confines of religious tolerance. I would begin by suggesting that the term secularism, in the Indian context, embraces a much wider meaning than only being related to religious tolerance. However, inter-religious harmony and tolerance are an important element of the larger concept, which concerns us today, of the “idea of India”. This idea of India emerged during the epic people’s struggle for India’s freedom from British colonialism. What is this idea of India? To put it in simple terms, though conscious of its complex multiple dimensions, this notion represents the idea that India as a country moves towards transcending its diversities and divisions in favour of a substantially inclusive unity of its people.

India’s diversity—linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural, etc.—is incomparably vaster than in any other country that the world knows of. Officially, it has been recorded that there are at least 1,618 languages in India, 6,400 castes, six major religions (four of them that originated in these lands), six anthropologically defined ethnic groups; all this put together being politically administered. A measure of this diversity is that India celebrates 29 major religio-cultural festivals and has probably the largest number of religious holidays among all countries of the world.

Those who argue that it was the British who united this vast diversity ignore the fact that it was the British who engineered the partition of the subcontinent leading to over a million deaths and a communal transmigration of a colossal order. British colonialism has the ignominious history of leaving behind legacies that continue to fester through the partition of countries they had colonised —Palestine, Cyprus, [countries] in Africa, and so on, apart from the Indian subcontinent. It is the pan-Indian people’s struggle for freedom that united this diversity and integrated more than 660 feudal princely states into modern India giving shape to a pan-Indian consciousness. The Left had played an important role in this process of the evolution of the idea of India. Indeed, for this very reason, given the Left’s visionary commitments to the long struggle for freedom, its role is absolutely central to the realisation of the idea of India in today’s conditions.

Struggles on the land question Let me illustrate this with reference to three issues that continue to constitute the core of the idea of India. The struggles on the land question unleashed by the communists in various parts of the country—Punnapura Vayalar in Kerala, the Tehbagha movement in Bengal, the Surma Valley struggle in Assam, and the Warli uprising in Maharashtra, among others—the highlight of which was the armed uprising in Telangana, which brought the issue of land reforms to centre stage. The consequent abolition of the zamindari system and landed estates drew the vast mass of India’s peasantry into the project of building the idea of India. In fact, such struggles contributed the most in liberating crores of people from feudal bondage. They also contributed substantially to creating the Indian middle class.

It was the Left that spearheaded the massive popular struggles for the linguistic reorganisation of States in independent India. The struggle for Vishalandhra, Aikya Kerala and Samyukta Maharashtra were led, among others by people who later emerged as communist stalwarts in the country. This paved the way for the integration of various linguistic nationalities that inhabit India into the process of realising the idea of India.

Further, the Left’s steadfast commitment to secularism was based on the recognition of India’s reality. The unity of India with its immense diversity can be maintained only by strengthening the bonds of commonality in this diversity and not by imposing any uniformity upon this diversity. While this is true for all attributes of India’s social life, it is of critical importance in relation to religion. Following the partition of India and the horrendous communal aftermath, secularism became inseparable for the realisation of the idea of India. The Indian ruling classes, however, went only half way in meeting the Left’s objective of defining secularism as the separation of religion from politics. In practice, the Indian ruling classes have reduced this to define secularism as equality of all religions. This, in fact, contributes to providing sustenance to the communal and fundamentalist forces today.

These are illustrative of some constituents of the idea of India. The drawing in of the exploited majority of rural India; the drawing in of the numerous linguistic nationalities; and the drawing in of the multi-religious Indian population, indeed, constitute the core of the inclusionary idea of India.

Battle of Visions The emergence of the conception of the idea of India arose from a continuous battle between three visions that emerged during the 1920s on the conception of the character of independent India. The mainstream Congress vision had articulated that independent India should be a secular democratic republic. The Left, while agreeing with this objective, went further to envision that the political freedom of the country must be extended to achieve the economic freedom of every individual, possible only under socialism.

Antagonistic to both these was the third vision, which argued that the character of independent India should be defined by the religious affiliations of its people. This vision had twin expressions—the Muslim League championing an “Islamic state” and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] championing a “Hindu Rashtra”. The former succeeded in the unfortunate partition of the country with all its consequences that continue to fester tensions till date. The latter having failed to achieve its objective at the time of Independence continues with its efforts to transform modern India into its conception of a rabidly intolerant fascistic “Hindu Rashtra”. In a sense, the ideological battles and the political conflicts in contemporary India are a continuation of the battle between these three visions. Needless to add, the contours of this battle will define the direction and content of the process of the consolidation of the idea of India.

Further, the Left argued then and maintains today that the mainstream Congress vision can never be sustainable unless independent India frees itself from its bondage with imperialism and breaks the stranglehold of the feudal landlords. The Congress party’s inability to take the freedom struggle to this logical culmination became clear as it was serving the interests of the post-Independence ruling classes —bourgeoisie in alliance with the landlords, led by the big bourgeoisie. This, by itself, weakens the foundations of a secular democratic republic. First, it relegates the anti-imperialist social consciousness that forged the unity of the people in the freedom struggle to the background. Secondly, instead of strengthening an inclusive India, it progressively excludes the growing majority of the exploited classes, as we shall see later. This is resoundingly vindicated by our experience during these six decades of Independence. This provides the grist to the mill of the communal forces, or the third vision, to strengthen itself by exploiting the growing popular discontent against the anti-people policies pursued by successive governments.

Separation of state

and religion

Professor Akeel Bilgrami, in his introduction to a volume of essays containing revised versions of lectures on the relations between politics and political economy in India given at a seminar in 2010 at the Heymen Centre for Humanities at Columbia University, New York (a Centre that he chaired then), says about the idea of India that I articulated then (the essence of which I recapitulate here today):

“What Yechury is articulating here might be viewed as an ideal of a nation that rejects the entire trajectory in Europe that emerged after the Westphalian peace (negotiated between 1644 and 1648 between major European powers. These treaties laid the basis for the emergence of nation-states; sovereignty concept; hence, international laws among nations). What emerged then (and there) was a compulsion to seek legitimacy for a new kind of state, one that could no longer appeal to older notions of the ‘divine right’ of states personified in their monarchs. It sought this legitimacy in a new form of political psychology of a new kind of subject, the ‘citizen’, a psychology based on a feeling for a new form of entity that had emerged, the ‘nation’. This feeling, which came to be called ‘nationalism’, had to be generated in the populace of citizens, and the standard process that was adopted in Europe for generating it was to find an external enemy within, the outsider, the ‘other’ in one’s midst (the Irish, the Jews, to name just two), to be despised and subjugated. In a somewhat later time, with the addition of a more numerical and statistical form of discourse, these came to be called “minorities” and the method by which this feeling for the nation was created came to be called ‘majoritarianism’” ( Social Scientist , January-February 2011).

The evolution of the idea of India, whose essence was to seek the fostering of an inclusive nationalism was primarily based against imperialism/colonialism during the freedom struggle. It, however, had also to be firmly based against all forms of pre-capitalist exploitation and their social formations. It was the Left that carried forward the core of this understanding with real conviction in its uncompromised and unqualified form. Such an inclusive idea necessarily had to have the economic inclusion of the vast majority of our people.

As articulated above, such inclusiveness in terms of agrarian reforms, a federal polity and the separation of state and religion continue to remain the core that can permit the realisation of the idea of India.

Apart from the third vision that we spoke of above, the Congress vision of a mere declaration of the creation of a secular democratic republic had to, by definition, remain limited in its inability to realise this inclusive idea of India.

The Indian bourgeoisie and its leadership, Indian monopoly capital, due to the compulsions of its narrow social base had to align itself with the landlord sections in order to maintain its class rule in independent India. This in itself set in motion a new set of contradictions that continue to determine the content and direction of India’s socio-political and economic development. Such an alliance meant the inability of the ruling classes, on the one hand, to break decisively from the economic stranglehold of imperialism (progressively jettisoning anti-imperialist consciousness fostered by the freedom struggle) and, on the other, eliminate the vestiges of feudalism and its grip over Indian people and its economy. This latter aspect found expression in the continued narrowness of the domestic market despite the recent burgeoning of the middle class. Historically, nowhere had capitalism developed, or could develop, without decisively eliminating feudal relations of production. Such a compromise with imperialism on the one hand, and landlordism on the other, in independent India could not lay the complete basis for the flourishing of economic development as required by the Indian bourgeoisie. All efforts at super-imposing capitalism on feudal structures did not and could not yield the desired result of eliminating the vestiges of feudalism. This is evidenced by the fact that the “Green Revolution”, despite all efforts by the ruling classes, remained confined to a few pockets, mainly the erstwhile “ryotwari” settlements under the British rule. The consequent narrowness of the domestic market, as reflected in the low levels of purchasing power in the hands of crores of people, as a result of the inability of the ruling classes to effect a thoroughgoing agrarian revolution through radical land reforms, restricted the pursuit of the capitalist path of development that the ruling classes sought.

Inclusionary vision

It must be noted that apart from the Communist party, there were other enlightened people outside of the Left forces, who articulated an inclusionary vision of the idea of India.

The tallest among such people is Dr B.R. Ambedkar. On November 25, 1949, while commending the draft Constitution for approval, Dr Ambedkar said:

“On 26th January, 1950, we are going to enter into a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics, we will be recognising the principle of one man-one vote and one vote-one value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man-one value.

“How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?

“If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has laboriously built up.”

The resolution of such contradictions, however, appears more remote today than at the time of our Independence. This means the pushing back of the idea of India. Reclaiming secular democracy means the reassertion of advancing the idea of India, today.

In addition to the contradictions of the ruling classes’ path of economic development that we noted above, there is another, an equally important factor. The inability to eliminate the vestiges of feudalism meant, at the level of the superstructure, the existence and perpetuation of the social consciousness associated with feudalism and other pre-capitalist formations. The impact of communalism and casteism, integral to the associated social consciousness of pre-capitalist formations, continues to dominate the social order. The efforts at super-imposing capitalism only create a situation where the backwardness of consciousness associated with feudalism is combined with the degenerative competitive aspect of capitalist consciousness.

The process of class formation in India, as a consequence of such circumscribed capitalist development was, thus, taking place within the parameters of a historically persistent caste-divided society. It was taking place not by overhauling the pre-capitalist social relations but by compromising it. This resulted in the overlapping commonality between the exploited classes and the oppressed castes in contemporary India.

Thus, at the level of the superstructure, feudal decadence was combined with capitalist degeneration to produce a situation where growing criminalisation of society coexists and grows in the company of caste and communal feelings, which are exploited by the ruling classes for their political-electoral purposes.

This is reaching an ugly dimension in the current context where this lethal combination of feudal decadence and capitalist degeneration is distorting the democratic content of Indian polity. Apart from the unscrupulous recourse to the exploitation of caste and communal prejudices among the Indian electorate, through the creation of “vote bank” politics, the vast majority of people are denied opportunities of informed democratic choice making. Brazen criminalisation engendered by this lethal combination is finding the ugly expression of money and muscle power increasingly dominating the electoral process. Thus, the democratic content of our polity as envisaged in our republican Constitution is seriously undermined robbing the people of all potency to contribute to the creation of the inclusive conception of the idea of India.

Such a regression in the march of India towards the realisation of the idea of India is today being spearheaded by the proponents of the third vision—the RSS/BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. The unstinted support of large sections of the Indian bourgeoisie, particularly the leadership of the ruling classes, the monopoly bourgeoisie, should not come as a surprise in such an enterprise.

The corporate world’s cries for profit maximisation reach a crescendo in periods of intense economic crisis such as the current global crisis. They seek a “strong” leader who is “decisive” to take actions that can facilitate their predatory profit maximisation drive. Pre-eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm in Age of Extremes says that the point about big business “is that it can come to terms with any regime that does not actually expropriate it and any regime that comes to terms with it… fascism has some major advantages for business over other regimes”. He lists various advantages, among them being the elimination of labour unions, the weakening or defeat of the Left, which lead to an unduly favourable situation to emerge from the great depression of the 1930s in Europe.

With little signs of reversal of our domestic economic slowdown and with the global economy continuing to falter, the yearning of India Inc. for profit maximisation needed such a “messiah”. A year after the 2014 [parliamentary] elections, such hopes are fast fading. There is much historical evidence of how the global big business, particularly the United States corporate giants, had played an important role in the rise of fascism in the wake of the economic crisis and the 1929 Great Depression, displaying a similar yearning for a “messiah”.

It, however, must be noted that the situation obtaining in our country today is not similar to the period leading to the emergence of fascism in Germany. However, there are striking similarities in the propaganda methods. Georgi Dimitrov, in The United Front, provides a scientific analysis of the nature and emergence of fascism in Germany. He says, “Fascism acts in the interests of extreme imperialists but it presents itself to the masses in the guise of the champion of an ill-treated nation and appeals to outraged national sentiments.” Further he says, “fascism puts the people at the mercy of the most corrupt and venal elements but comes before them with the demand of an honest and incorruptible government. Speculating on the profound disillusionment of the masses fascism adapts its demagogy to the peculiarities of each (situation).”

Dimitrov could well be talking about the RSS/BJP’s current campaigns. They brazenly defend misgovernance and corruption. They exponentially betray their election promises. They openly advocate furthering the agenda of neoliberal economic reforms and, in the bargain, get the approval of international finance capital. Thus, they increasingly collaborate with international finance capital. Its [the BJP’s] relentless campaigns on the core agenda of Hindutva continues to sharpen communal polarisation in the name of correcting “outraged national (read Hindu) sentiments”. A chilling convergence with fascist methodology.

Regressive project

For such a regressive project to succeed in India, central is the RSS/BJP’s effort to replace history with Hindu mythology and philosophy with theology. The first of these is apparent in all the ridiculous statements and assertions being made by the RSS spokesmen patronised by this BJP government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had brazenly asserted that the Hindu God Ganesha was the product of great scientific heights achieved in ancient India in the field of plastic surgery that could implant the head of an elephant on a human body! Undeterred, he went on to claim advances in “in-vitro fertilisation” or “test-tube babies” in the character of Karna in the Mahabharata! Apart from many such preposterous assertions, this BJP government is systematically re-working the syllabus taught to our students and youth and appointing Hindutva ideologues to various positions in higher education. The instances are too numerous and need no narration.

At a philosophical level, however, the effort is to resurrect irrationalism. Georg Lukacs’ seminal contribution, Destruction of Reason , in the form of the critique of philosophical irrationalism needs to be recollected in the Indian context today. Lukacs traces, among others, Germany’s path to Hitler in the realm of philosophy. He began writing this book when Hitler was in power and published it at the height of the Cold War. His central intention asserts “irrationalism as an international phenomenon in the imperialist world”.

Irrationalism, by its very definition, is an ideological trend hostile to Reason. Its main objective, in all its manifestations, from the days of European enlightenment to today’s imperialist globalisation is to challenge the power of Reason in human affairs and its capacity to provide knowledge about reality. Knowledge, at any point of time, can never explain the whole reality. However, irrationalism negates the dialectical relationship between reality and knowledge. Objective reality is, as Lukacs says, far more richer and complex than our knowledge of it. Hence, there is always, at any point of time, an ontological conflict between thought and being. Thus, at any given moment, one is always faced with certain problems which cannot be immediately resolved. Irrationalism, in essence, is based on the assumption that unsolved problems are, in fact, unsolvable. Hence, its conclusion that one cannot obtain rational knowledge of the entire reality. The entire reality can only be grasped with “faith” or “intuition”, considered a higher sort of knowledge. Through the ages in philosophy, this assumption continues to recur.

Critiquing such philosophical postulates, Lukacs demonstrates that dialectics provides a clear solution. This is, in a sense, a triumph of materialism over idealism in philosophy. What cannot be reasoned at any point of time cannot lead to the conclusion, as idealism does, that what cannot be reasoned is not knowledge. And, hence, attributable to some supra rational mechanism like “faith” or “heavenly”. Lukacs underlines an important aspect saying: “one determining factor of irrationalism is …clearly evident, … in the eyes of reactionary bourgeoisie, one of irrationalism’s most important task is to provide men with a philosophical “comfort” the semblance of total freedom, the illusion of personal autonomy, moral and intellectual superiority—while maintaining an attitude that continually links them with the reactionary bourgeoisie in their real dealings and renders them absolutely subservient to it.” [For further details see Azad Zaidi’s book review in Social Scientist , April 1984.]

The age of unreason It is such philosophical irrationalism that permeates all aspects of India’s sociopolitical-cultural life under this RSS/BJP government today. This is, simply put—Unreason.

It is Reason today to seek the realisation of the idea of India by working for an economic agenda that seeks inclusion. It is Unreason to implement neoliberal economic reforms under collaboration with international finance capital that seeks to subjugate the Indian economy to its predatory profit maximisation. Apart from negating the anti-imperialist national consciousness and reducing India as a subordinate ally of imperialism, such a trajectory vastly widens the hiatus between the two Indias—impoverishing the poor and enriching the rich. An exclusivist agenda as opposed to the inclusive vision of the idea of India.

It is Reason today to work for the socio-economic inclusion of the marginalised sections of our people like Dalits, tribals, religious minorities and women. It is Unreason today to promote and protect such exclusion (patronising khap panchayats, for instance). It is Reason today to seek reservations in the private sector. It is Unreason today to speak of merit divorced from socio-economic realities.

It is Reason today to seek “equality of all citizens irrespective of caste, creed or sex” as our Constitution assures. It is Unreason today to deny this equality as Dr Ambedkar warns. Such denial of equality is the consequence of the current economic policy trajectory.

It is Reason today to seek the separation of religion from state. It is Unreason today to promote aggressively communal polarisation promoting exclusiveness instead of nurturing inclusiveness. Such Unreason directly attacks the constitutionally guaranteed right to religious minorities, robbing them of security of life and opportunities and making them vulnerable to communal assaults.

It is Reason today to foster values promoting the idea of India. It is Unreason to poison our education system, in addition to restricting its universal access, through negating rationalism and scientific temper. It is Unreason to seek the replacement of our rich syncretic culture with Hindu mythology.

It is Reason today to seek the inclusive unification of our people by celebrating our rich diversity. It is Unreason to impose a uniformity upon this diversity through a Hindutva hegemony.

It is Reason today to work for the prosperity of all. It is Unreason today to vigorously promote crony capitalism and its associated mega corruption in high places.

It is Reason today to develop pan-Indian nationalism for realising the idea of India. It is Unreason to invoke nationalism for Hindu consolidation and hegemony of the ruling class.

Such a list can go on and on. The new agenda for reclaiming secular democracy means the triumph of Reason in this battle against Unreason. This is the core of the idea of India.

Indian Left is committed to discharging this responsibility for the realisation of this idea of India by working to mobilise the strength of the Indian people’s unity in struggles to win this battle between Reason and Unreason.

Sitaram Yechury is general secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist). This is the text of the 4th Chintha Raveendran Memorial Lecture delivered by him in Kozhikode, Kerala, on July 4, 2015.

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