Meera Nanda had a piece in The Hindu (a secular newspaper), on May 22. Her point here, as in her earlier essays in Frontline, and again in her book Prophets Facing Backwards, is that legal secularism can only be sustained if Indian society as a whole is secularized from within. So in this editorial she calls on Indian intellectuals to make it their business to debunk the popular Indian interest in various kinds of superstitions (i.e., astrology).
I have two objections to the piece.
One is, is attacking superstition really the way to go? Superstitions have an odd way of quietly surviving the attacks of rationalists of all sorts. It's not a 'pre-modern' or 'oriental' thing: there are as many superstitious people here in the U.S. as there are in India. Somehow or the other, there are hundreds of millions of people who believe that the federal government guards alien carcasses on military reservations like 'Area 57'.
But quiet superstitions are not really such an acute threat to secularism. Most people, including politicians, are a little embarrassed by them, for good reason: people who aim to make their superstitions the basis of national policy usually expose themselves quite quickly as buffoons or lunatics. On this note I'm in accord with Nanda on saying 'sayonara' to Murli Manohar Joshi, who had been successful in introducing astrology to Indian universities, though I'm not so convinced that this really spelt the end of secularism for India's great public universities. And fortunately for us, governments rarely change constitutions on the basis of the superstitions of everyday people. I value legal institutions such as an independent judiciary and the constitutional republican system more highly than Nanda does. If anything it is the government of the United States, with its refusal to accept the hard evidence of global warming, and its arcane restrictions on stem-cell research, that seems to be overwhelmed by anti-scientific thinking.
Still, there is a valid question here, to which I admit I have no answer: what is the value of the secularization of mass-culture? Does it happen on its own, or does it help if intellectuals actively involve themselves in its creation?
My second objection to Nanda is perhaps not really an objection so much as a question of her characterization of Hindutva. Since Nanda is a historian of science, her definition of Hindutva tends to be science-centric:
Indeed, even a cursory reading of the voluminous writings of Murli Manohar Joshi, K.S. Sudarshan (or any number of RSS ideologues), David Frawley, Subhash Kak, N.S. Rajaram and the host of other apologists associated with the Ramakrishna Mission and Aurobindo Ashram can show that Hinduism's unique "scientificity" constitutes the central dogma of Hindutva.
Hindutva ideologues stake their claims to make "Hindu India" into a "guru of nations" on the notion that only Hinduism is compatible with modern science, while all the "Semitic" faiths have been proven to be false by modern science. Hindutva's self-serving and entirely fallacious equation of Hinduism with modern science — Hindutva's central dogma — can be summarised as follows:
Hindu dharma is rooted in the eternal, holistic or non-mechanistic laws of nature discovered "in a flash" of insight by the "Vedic Aryans." These laws have been affirmed by modern science and therefore, Hinduism is uniquely scientific. Because the Hindus live in accord with a scientifically proven order of nature which unifies matter with higher levels of spirit, they are more rational and ecological as compared to those of Abrahamic faiths who derive their moral laws from an imaginary supernatural being, and who treat nature as mere matter, devoid of spiritual meaning. Because Hinduism is so scientific, there is no need for an Enlightenment style confrontation between faith and reason in India. To become truly and deeply scientific, Indians — indeed, the entire world — must embrace the teachings of the Vedas and Vedanta.
She correctly identifies the basic principles of 'Vedic Science', as I've encountered it. But is science really so central to the ideology of Hindutva? Aren't cultural exclusivism and monocultural historical revisionism really the core principles? In other words, does someone like Joshi really stand in for the whole movement?
Partha Chatterjee in The Telegraph
[See an earlier post on Partha Chatterjee to get a sense of who he is]
Partha Chatterjee's op-ed in The Telegraph (Calcutta) generally follows the 'I told you so' reaction expressed by many on the economic left. However, unlike other critics who have interpreted the results as a referendum on privatization, Chatterjee avoids directly attacking the policies of liberalization and disinvestment, in favor of simply questioning the uncritical triumphalism with which those policies have been implemented in India in recent years. In contrast to the aggressive anti-globalization rhetoric of Arundhati Roy, Chatterjee has cautious statements such as the following: "There is little evidence to show that economic reform, much flaunted by the BJP in its campaign, is electorally popular — not even in the metropolitan cities where the BJP and its allies were routed." He directs his primary ire at the stock markets ("the herd of gamblers on Dalal Street"), not at the engineers of reform.
Chatterjee's op-ed takes an interesting turn when he moves to analyze the role of the Prime Minister at the center as a kind of 'Caesar':
Until the Eighties, it was widely accepted that the capitalist class in the cities shared power with the dominant land-owning classes in the countryside. Some analysts included the professional and salaried upper-middle class as a third element within this coalition of ruling classes. They shared power within the federal structure of the Indian state — capitalists had more influence over the Central government, the rural landlords over the state governments. They also shared power by virtue of the ability of the ruling Congress party to make complex, and often shifting, alliances between different social groups and classes at local, state and national levels. An important mechanism here was the position of the supreme leader — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. While individual Congress leaders were often identified with this or that caste group or local interest or business lobby, the supreme leader was like Caesar — standing above all particular interests, representing the party as a whole and, in the days when the Congress was the ruling party, claiming to represent the nation itself. Even though it produced an autocratic decision-making structure within the party and a culture of fawning sycophancy, the Caesarist leadership was crucial for the Congress to play its role as the political body managing the contradictory interests of the three dominant classes and steering their agenda through the treacherous terrain of electoral democracy. This structure fell into crisis after 1989.
Since 1989, neither the Congress nor any other party has ruled with a majority of seats. The new politics have essentially always been coalition politics. Any governing coalition is bound to attend directly to the demands of its class, caste, and ethno-regional constituencies.
In the age of local politics, competing national ideologies (i.e., Hindutva vs. secularism, privatization vs. socialism) do not drive governments as much as skillful handling of these local constituencies. A succession of Caesars was the only thing holding it together under the long dominance of the Congress before 1989, and it may be that a Caesar will again be necessary:
With Manmohan Singh at the helm, business circles are hoping that somehow he will keep charging ahead, regardless of Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ram Vilas Paswan or the left. But the Congress refuses to think of life without Caesar. It has made an astounding constitutional innovation by electing Sonia Gandhi as chairperson of its parliamentary party and authorizing her to nominate the leader of the parliamentary party. It sounds as though the prime minister of the country will hold office at the pleasure of Sonia Gandhi who is, of course, formally speaking, just another member of parliament. So the old structure is back in place. Only this time, it is a coalition government — something the Congress has never handled. Inside the alliance, members from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu will push relentlessly for concessions to farmers. Outside, all across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the backward and oppressed sections have coalesced into a social bloc whose self-identity is deep and sustained — this solidarity can last a generation or more.
[Update: More articles on Indian secularism: Ishtiaq Ahmed, on "The Roots of Indian Democracry"; Mahesh Daga on "The Atheistic Roots of Hindu Philosophy"; from Kuldip Nayer, on critiques of secularism and Nandy.]