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K. Satchidanandan

The Idea of India: The Case for Plurality

The concept of plurality is central to any idea of India as a nation. We have had conflicts whenever any agency has tried to impose forms of religious, ethnic, cultural or linguistic hegemony in the name of unity. At the same time, however, we have lived happily for centuries with the idea of plurality, which to our people has been the very organic nature of their environment, natural and enriching like bio-diversity itself. This plurality is part of the very essence of our democratic polity.

Let me digress a bit to explain what I mean by democracy: The first condition for understanding democracy is to detach it from the instruments of the State and see it as people’s power. It is not the people who resist the power of the State, but the State that resists, constrains, contains and suppresses the power of the people through its institutions of law and order. True democrats speak of expanding the base of democracy, overcoming its constraints through popular action aimed at social justice, and going beyond its present limitations and curtailments of rights. But the enemies of democracy fear even the exercise of existing freedoms by the common people. They want to curb them further and confine their availability to the upper layers of society.

Jacques Rancière, the radical French thinker, in his treatise Hatred of Democracy (Verso, 2006) remarks how the “government of anybody and everybody” is bound to attract the hatred of all those who wish to govern men by their birth, wealth, or knowledge. “Today it is bound to attract this hatred more radically than ever since the social power of wealth no longer tolerates any restrictions on its limitless growth, and each day its mechanisms become more closely articulated to those of State action… State power and the power of wealth tangentially unite in a sole expert management of monetary and population flows. Together they combine their efforts to reduce the spaces of politics. But reducing these spaces, effacing the intolerable and indispensable foundation of the political, means opening up another battle field — it means witnessing the resurgence of a new radicalised figure of the power of birth and kinship. No longer the power of former monarchies and aristocrats, but that of ‘the peoples of God’”. Rancière takes the examples of radical Islam and the American evangelists, fighting democracy in different ways, and in our context it could well be the apologists of “Hindutva”. Democracy that is destroyed in the name of a holy book or religion, and the bellicose expansion of democracy into other countries using the power of weapons, are two sides of the same coin. Democracy is neither a form of government that enables oligarchies to rule in the name of the people, nor is it a form of society that governs the power of commodities. It is the action that constantly wrests monopoly over public life from oligarchic governments, and omnipotence over lives from the power of wealth. No institutional form can guarantee democracy unless it is constantly active and can wrench its power from its alienated forms.

This is where politics begins: to use Rancière’s phraseology, when “noise” is converted into language, and when men and women having the time to do nothing other than their work, take the time to prove that they are indeed speaking beings, participating in a shared world, and not furious or suffering animals. Thus the inaudible is rendered audible, the invisible becomes visible and what was animal noise becomes human speech. Political activity reconfigures the distribution of the perceptible. It resists “policing” of every kind and challenges the watching eye — the one we find in Bentham’s concept of  “Panopticon” that Foucault uses as a paradigm for the master’s omnipresent eye (in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of Prisons). The challenge to Indian democracy comes precisely from those sections that hate democracy as an idea, in spite of paying lip service to it or bowing before the steps of Parliament House. One needs to clearly distinguish hatred from critique. Critique is essential in order to expand the base of democracy and redeem it from hollowness. This hollowness is caused by the constant depletion of meaning, turning into a formal structure with no democratic content. We can see this continually happening to our democracy. Hatred, however, comes from a deep contempt for the people with their plural natures and aspirations. This is what forces the rulers to look at opposition as enemity and criticism as treason and conspiracy.

The hatred of democracy manifests itself in India chiefly in four ways: one, intolerance towards India’s religious, ethnic, linguistic, literary, philosophical and cultural plurality; two, the suppression of difference, silencing of popular and intellectual opposition and the consequent thwarting of the freedom of expression; three, the enfeeblement of the federal polity and increasing centralisation of power; and four, contempt towards those sections of the population whose welfare constitutes the very goal and measure of democracy, viz., women,  peasants, workers, dalits, adivasis, and religious, ethnic and sexual minorities.

While speaking of plurality, the contending notions of plurality must be noted. One of them is the market idea of plurality propounded by  globalisers and  champions of the neo-liberal economy, where it means no more than the diversity of consumer products. Ethnicity in their jargon is but a trademark, regions are  merely product-labels and tourist destinations, and people are  producers for a centralised market. Once products enter the market chain the producers are completely alienated from them, globalising what was till then local. Languages are meant only to reach the diverse clientele, with “copies” made available in different tongues.

The second is the “statist” idea of plurality, which is from the point of view of governance. The attempt is to make it “governable”. To some extent it is a colonial legacy as the British saw India’s diversity as an obstacle to governance. They attempted to divide the people in order to easily control them. In the “statist” idea, plurality is acknowledged, but formatted as manageable: While we have several hundred mother tongues, only 22 find place in the eighth schedule of the constitution, Hindi being given prime place as the “official” language (English being the associate official language), and we have linguistic states in each of which there are anything from 20 to 60 languages according to the recently concluded “People’s Linguistic Survey of India”. The State, whatever its intentions, ends up creating hierarchies among languages as well as regions, leading to identity wars. A forced unity inevitably leads to balkanisation. The great principle of federalism enshrined in the constitution is seldom reflected in the actual practices of governance. Regions in the northeast seldom appear in our picture of India, especially when it comes to the cultural discourse. Arts and literature are cleanly divided into classical, folk, and modern, a division legitimised through cultural institutions. In practice, however, they have all  taken from one another, proving the clean and rigid divisions to be unreal and arbitrary. Certain aspects of our diversity get overlooked in the creation of the “imagined community” of the nation (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s famous term), assisted by symbols. Plurality often becomes a colourful mask worn during spectacles like the Republic Day parade — a reductive, governable idea worthy of exhibition along with the nation’s military strength, with the masked “theyyam” (a ritual performance of Kerala)  behind a tank.

Political Hindutva does not even recognise this diversity except as an unwelcome and disturbing presence. It is built over the tomb of India’s pluralist ethos that believes in dialogue, exchange and debate. Anyone who tries to argue with its proponents will see that it is like talking to a wall that only hurls stones instead of putting forward reasoned counter-arguments. We see it on social media everyday: every criticism, even one made in the most rational and decent language, is countered with the worst forms of abuse by the self-appointed rowdy guardians of the Hindutva ideology.

Political Hindutva, let us not forget, despite its false claims to patriotism, is a colonial construct which borrows elements from Western Orientalism, the Judaic idea of religion, and the fascist ideas of cultural nationalism as manifested in Germany, Spain and Italy. Its murderous intent has been expressed many a time in recent history from Gandhi’s assassination to the destruction of the Babri Masjid; the Gujarat pogrom; several bomb blasts and manufactured riots; the silencing and murder of dissenting writers and intellectuals; isolation and even lynching of those belonging to minorities; persecution of tribal people and Dalits; the taking over and ruination of public institutions; selective action based on false accusations against non-governmental organisations; destructive interventions in autonomous bodies including universities; bans on everything from beef to books and labour strikes; calculated acts of censorship; labelling every dissenter as a traitor worthy of sedition charges; the shameless promotion of chosen corporate houses through loan waivers, subsidies and tax exemptions; and the brutal and blinding attacks on common people including children, as we are witnessing in Kashmir.

It is only proper to remember what Umberto Eco in his Five Moral Pieces calls “Ur-Fascism”. It is a kind of universal, omnipresent fascist trend with the following features, some of which  have been elaborated by Wilhelm Reich in his treatise The Mass Psychology of Fascism: the cult of tradition that considers truth as revealed or known, going against the grain of scientific thinking; rejection of modernism; action for action’s sake done without reflection; suspicion of culture and of intellectuals; seeing any dissent as betrayal; fear of difference and the consequent rejection of a pluralist ethos; appeal to the frustrated middle classes; a negative and exclusivist way of defining the nation that leads to xenophobia; the creation of an “other”, blamed for all that is wrong with the society; an obsession with conspiracies; and seeing pacifism as collusion with the enemy. This comes from a vision of life as a permanent battle that will finally lead to the lost “golden age” that never existed. Other features include: a form of popular elitism that results in scorn for the weak; machismo that condemns non-conformist sexual habits, and a contempt for women and sexual deviants; the cult of death (“Viva la Muerte” was the slogan of the Falangists of Spain) that prefers death to life which justifies their readiness to kill; qualitative populism that treats people as a monolith, and belief in some abstract “common will”, hence opposing all parliamentary governments; and the “newspeak” (a term George Orwell uses in his novel 1984) that sees everything in black and white, abhors all complex thinking and  strives to limit critical thinking.

It is not difficult to see these symptoms in transformed, veiled or diluted forms in the ruling Hindu right-wing in India. Hindu cultural nationalism is nationalism shorn of respect for regional identities and cultural differences on one hand, and of the socialist and internationalist dimension on the other. In its atavism, faith in racial and religious superiority, opposition to egalitarianism, its rootedness in the middle classes and its collaboration with capitalism, it is no different from Nazism. Outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal, Hindu Rashtra Sena, Sanatan Sanstha, Sri Ram Sena and Hanuman Sena take after the Nazi storm troopers. Their use of symbols like the lotus, ganga jal and semi-mythological figures like Rama remind one of the Nazi deployments of Nordic symbols. What the Jew was to the Nazi is the Muslim (and minorities generally) to the HMS-BJP-RSS-VHP. The Muslim (who could well be Christian, Parsi, Buddhist or Jain) is the first “other” to be held responsible for all the ills of the society and the sufferings of the majority. Add to this their vain, racist faith in their “Aryan” origins and you have the making of classical fascism modelled on Nazism. To top it all, the revelations about the Hindu right-wing’s terrorist activities under the cover of “Abhinav Bharat”, with its proven involvement in the Malegaon blasts (2008), the Mecca Masjid blasts (2007), the Samjhauta Express Bombing (2007) and the Ajmer Sharif Dargah blasts (2007) — that made even the Congress Prime Minister of India say that saffron terror was a worse threat to India than even the Lashkar-e-Taiba — and you have a perfect combination of fascism and terrorism.

The hegemony of the Hindutva ideology poses a great threat to the plurality of India’s civilisation and history, which is the basis of its cultural richness. The hegemony of a monolithic Brahmanical Hindu religion that challenges our religious plurality, and the belief in the “Aryan” origins of Indians (against Romila Thapar’s contention in her book Aryans that the word is no more than the name of a group of languages and that such a race never existed) threatens our ethnic plurality. The silencing of dissent on the environmental front in the name of “foreign funding” of NGOs, the mega-idea of “development” that helps only the richer sections of the society (all recent studies prove wrong the “trickle-down theory” of its proponents), and the dilution of environmental regulations go against the idea of ecological diversity. At the same time, on the intellectual and cultural front, various forms of surveillance and suppression, combined with the systematic destruction of liberal public institutions, are silencing the plurality of ideas and ideological debates. On the political front, one sees what Professor Anthony King calls “the theatre of celebrity” where all the ministers and bureaucrats are made to listen to the commands of one man who is supposed to have won the votes for the new regime. Linguistic plurality is already under threat with the false characterisation of Hindi as the “national” language and the proposed teaching of Sanskrit at the school level. Opposition from labour has also been silenced through the new anti-labour laws tested in Rajasthan and other states.

Lord Acton once said, “It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by a majority, for there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist”. Read this with Rosa Luxemburg’s famous statement in her arguments with Lenin that freedom means the freedom to oppose. Today, having an opposition is becoming more and more difficult and therefore exceedingly necessary, for without dissent democracy dies. While speaking of the 31 percent who voted for the BJP, let us also speak of and for the 69 percent that did not vote them. Since political parties have been abdicating their responsibilities towards the people, it is for the people to play the role of the opposition and re-educate the parties in the art of dissent. Writers and artists have a definite role to play in countering the fascist onslaught on the freedom of expression; it is a question of the very survival of art and literature and ultimately of democracy itself. This can be done both as artists and writers as well as citizens who want democracy and diversity to flourish in India — that is, through art and activism, or maybe a combination of both.