Why India shifted rightwards

Leading American political theorist critiques Nehru’s state-sponsored model of secularism


Ashish Mehta | August 7, 2015

A short tract by Michael Walzer, a leading political theorist better known for his masterpiece ‘Just and Unjust Wars’, should be of interest to the Indian readership. The American public intellectual poses the question that has become all the more relevant lately: How do we explain the shift from the values and ideals that won India independence to a different set of ideals that took over three-four decades later. Simply put, in 1947 Gandhian and Nehruvian secularism was the order of the day, but by the late 1980s Hindutva had started gaining an upper hand. How do we explain this shift?

Curiously, a similar shift has been seen in two other nations that won freedom around the same time. The author states the problem thus: “My project in this book is to describe a recurrent and, to my mind, disturbing pattern in the history of national liberation. I will discuss a small set of cases: the creation of three independent states in the years after World War II — India and Israel in 1947–48 and Algeria in 1962 — and I will focus on the secular political movements that achieved statehood and the religious movements that challenged the achievement roughly a quarter century later.”

In other words, it’s the story of how India failed Gandhi. Today’s India, Israel and Algeria “are not the states envisioned by the original leaders and intellectuals of the national liberation movements, and the moral/political culture of these states, their inner life, so to speak, is not at all what their founders expected”.

In his tentative theorisation, Walzer turns to vast literature on the question – in India’s case, starting with Ashis Nandy’s critique of top-down state secularism, and also referring to the work of Partha Chatterjee, Akeel Bilgrami, Martha Nussbaum, Rajeev Bhargava and others. Thus, what we have is a highly charged-up discussion, even if it is within space limits (the book is based on three lectures by the author).

Among the various explanations discussed, the main strand is that the founding fathers and their freedom struggle had failed to entrench those values deep down in society, leading to the washing away of the surface. Paraphrasing Bilgrami, Walzer writes, “For the national liberationists, secularism was an external standpoint from which Indian society could be transformed. The secularist project didn’t emerge from society itself; it wasn’t the product of internal arguments and negotiations.” He quotes Aditya Nigam to argue that Hindu (and Muslim) orthodoxy was “never defeated in open battle in society at large”.

That conclusion is, of course, debatable. More interesting – and relevant – answers would come from the way the secular project was unfolded by the state, especially after Nehru. An argument can be made that Indians at large had put a tentative faith in Gandhi’s secularism, and even Nehru’s, but the “vote-bank politics” of the Indira-Rajiv years made secularism hollow, creating a void that Hindutva was only too eager to fill. Still, Walzer’s thesis, cutting across three nations, makes a valuable reading. It should start a conversation.



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