Shishir Tripathi | December 19, 2015
A noted political theorist, Rajeev Bhargava is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). Having taught political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University and University of Delhi for over two decades, Bhargava has also been the director of CSDS during 2007-14. His works on secularism and identity politics have evoked praise and criticism alike. He has formulated the concept of ‘principled distance’ – an alternative model of secularism more suited for a heterogeneous society like India. Shishir Tripathi caught up with him to get an in-depth understanding of the rising bigotry and intolerance in the country. Currently an affiliated faculty at Stanford, Bhargava replied to his questions through a series of mail responses.
A man is killed over a rumour of eating beef. Do you see it as an aberration or does it indicate something bigger?
Of course, it indicates something bigger and much worse. I cannot remember a single day in the past two years when an offensive and disturbing thought has not been expressed, some disturbing event has not taken place, and something awful has not been spoken against the country’s ethos of pluralism and secularism forcing me to hold my head in shame. An atmosphere of hate and intolerance has been building up for a long time that makes it possible for a mob to lynch a person on the basis of a rumour. Rumours can trigger violence only in extraordinary contexts in which a massive distrust and belligerence exists in the air.
In my view, there are four perpetrators of this crime: those who did the lynching, those who spread hatred much before the lynching, those who tried to cover up or justified it after the event, and finally those in power who failed to speak or act against it. It is all these surrounding acts of omission and commission that has made this lynching a far more serious issue. An individual tragedy has become nationally significant, and a social and political event has acquired an even graver significance because of what happened before and after the lynching.
How do you see campaigns like ghar waapsi or anti-minority speeches by several right-wing leaders? Are they only fringe elements?
They may be fringe elements but they have the power to vitiate the character of an entire society. A terror campaign is run by a small number of people but it forces a whole society to live in terror. Never underestimate the wickedness, hatred and malice of the fringe.
Rationalists getting killed, books and films getting banned… how do you analyse this increasing intolerance?
Intolerance is a mild term. There is a growth in the culture of violence and intimidation. It has become easy to silence individuals who raise their voice against all kinds of groups and associations with wealth and power or closed minds.
A host of writers have returned their awards recently. Is it a mere political expression or does it reflect growing discomfort against the attack on free speech and expression?
All Indians, including serious writers, artists and academics, are prone to giving a long rope to those who actively work against their best interests. But a time comes when there is collective feeling that a threshold is being crossed and it is time to speak up. A lot of these creative people feel that we have reached such a point. That is why you see this wave of protests. It gives expression to a much larger collective sentiment which the government ignores at its own peril.
The rise of Narendra Modi is seen by a section of people as a threat to ‘secular India’. Is this concern genuine or manufactured?
I wish I did not have to say this about a democratically elected prime minster of India, but it looks as if people’s worst fears about him are coming true. He has very little time to redeem himself. It is now or never.
Do you think India is a secular country even if we accept the definition put forward by Ashis Nandy and ignore the western way of defining it?
There are several issues here and each has to be understood. To begin with, secularism in India has three functions. First, to protect India’s religious diversity and to treat every religious group with concern and respect. This can be done best if the state apparatus is not captured by any one religious or philosophical group, no matter how big it is. Second, to ensure that members of every religious group get the same overall benefits, entitlements and protections, that there is no discrimination or illegitimate interference in the exercise of their rights as citizens. Third, domination on grounds of religion of vulnerable members of a religious group, such as women and dalits, by members of their own community is stopped. A secular state in India has to ensure that there is neither inter-religious nor intra-religious domination. Exercising these functions requires that the state does not permanently separate itself from religion but rather be allowed to keep a principled distance from all of them. It entails that in some contexts it keeps away from all religious groups, in other contexts it supports all religions and restricts or discourages malpractices within a religion. This makes Indian secularism very different from western notions where under conditions of a predominantly single-religion society (in the absence of religious diversity), the state first curbed the excessive power of the church and then worked out a friendly arrangement with it. So, we can see that Indian secularism responds to religious diversity, unlike the west where it responded to the powers of the church – a single dominant religion.
Now, scholars like Ashis Nandy and I have noted this distinctive character of India’s ethos and secularism. But then, Ashis sees the modern state itself as a big problem and wishes to keep it out of religious differences and conflict. He believes that religious groups have enough resources of their own to settle these differences. They say this because, like me, they also believe that India has a valuable political tradition of religious coexistence, a rich pluralist ethos underpinning the everyday life of ordinary people. For Ashis, Indian secularism means inter-religious tolerance. It follows that a steep increase in intolerance or persecution undermines Indian secularism. So, yes, even under Ashis’s definition, Indian secularism is in deep trouble today. India has a significant secular strand in its veins. But in the past century, there has been a strong reaction against this tradition and ethos as well. At the moment, there appears to be a big threat looming that this relatively new tendency will overwhelm a legacy that goes back several millennia.
But I believe that Indian secularism also needs to confront problems within religions. Ashis’s secularism is less sensitive to it. When it comes to some issues such as gender justice, the resources of virtually every religion are somewhat meagre and limited. So we need reform of religions as well for which civil society and the state need to come together. Unlike Ashis, I see no way of ridding the state. Since it is here to stay, we can only reform it through democratic practices. It is one of the consequences of our current focus on inter-religious (communal) issues that intra-religious issues get sidelined. India’s overall development depends as much on the peaceful coexistence of religious communities as it does in removing historically evolved obstacles to the freedom and equality of women, dalits, tribals and other valuable groups. If religious strife and persecution continues, there will be no focus on development for all. There are thus two dimensions of the tragedy unfolding.
Why are we still facing communal problems?
There are many factors that come together to create the problem: uneven economic development and underdevelopment, unemployment, urban alienation, agricultural crisis... I can go on. But four factors need to be mentioned along with these. First, a horribly misleading idea of ethnonationalism (that in India is known also as communalism) that has been borrowed blindly from Europe and grafted on to a rich, complex civilisation. An idea unfit for our country is being forced upon us. An idea of nationalism grounded in a single religion or language can only destabilise a multicultural society with its many diversities. Second, an education system which has completely marginalised humanity, thereby failing to equip the young with the ability to understand viewpoints and forms of life other than one’s own. Third, political manipulation of extremism of various kinds. Fostering extremism and hatred appears to have become politically useful. It brings rewards rather than punishments. Finally, allowing money and prejudice to distort the entire legal machinery. Prejudiced people can commit a crime and with the help of political patronage and money, they can walk away with impunity.
TN Madan in his essay ‘Secularism in Its Places’ argues that, “In the prevailing circumstances secularism in south Asia as a generally shared credo of life is impossible, as a basis for State action impracticable, and as a blueprint for the foreseeable future impotent.” Don’t you think it poses threat to peaceful coexistence?
Madan is speaking of certain militantly anti-religious conceptions of secularism and he is right about those variants. But even he acknowledges that there is need for some form of secularism in India. How can he be against peaceful coexistence? He comes from and is proud of a syncretic Kashmiri culture and bemoans its near disappearance.
Mahatma Gandhi believed that religion is inseparable from politics. It is a belief held by many. Your take?
Gandhi believed that some universal moral values must not be kept out of politics and more or less identified these values with his eccentric idea of religion. He was right that this form of religion should not be separated from politics. Without it politics becomes a tool of damnation, oppression and self-aggrandisement. But he was equally firm that a religion infected by the same vices of the will to dominate and oppress must be kept out of politics. So he had good reasons to hold both the views that religion and politics ought to be inseparable, and that they should not be mixed. Imagine if a bad form of religion was mixed with an equally ugly politics!
Reasonable pluralism can be a guiding principle for peaceful coexistence. But it can be ensured only when we at least have the capacity for genuine toleration and mutual respect. However, when things like dietary habits of someone becomes a reason for conflict, where do we find the solution?
In the short run, the problem can be tackled by strict enforcement of law. The state machinery should act solely according to our constitution. For what we are facing right now is not conflict but persecution of those who eat, dress and think differently from a small, violent section virtually protected and defended by the government. A firm action against anyone infringing the law or violating constitution principles would go a long way in dealing with this problem. Remember, Indian society has not become intolerant. A small section acts intolerantly out of bigotry or political expediency and the state machinery and perhaps the larger society tolerates it.