An interesting debate has broken out over the Idea of India in the Op-Ed pages of The Indian Express.
Two apparent supporters of Narendra Modi – Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri, the former a fund manager and the latter a venture capitalist – have proposed that the Idea of India must allow our salad-bowl identities to ultimately coalesce into a dynamic melting pot where narrow communal identities start congeal into a broader Indian identity that goes beyond caste, religion and ethnicity (Read their arguments here).
Their point is that the Left-liberal elite, which has captured the high seats of academia and public pulpit, retards the progress of Indians towards Indianness by creating artificial barriers to achieving a greater commonality of identity. Hence we have a bogus secularism that tries to protect minority identities while debasing so-called majority institutions. In the process, the Indian state stokes majority resentment, but does not end up helping the minorities either.
They ask: “The prevailing intellectual consensus that affords special rights to minority groups manufactures resentment in the majority community. This consensus offers no comment on realities like state control of Hindu places of worship. It correctly brands as ‘communal’ an assertion of majority group rights that manifests itself in episodes like the banning of beef or banning voluntary conversions, while tacitly accepting similar rights for minorities in the name of ‘protection’. Is this secularism?”
Their conclusion is that many liberals are essentially illiberal. They write: “Labelling those asking for individual rights over group rights as ‘radical’ liberals or ‘extremist’ troglodytes, while claiming oneself to be a ‘moderate’ liberal, may be an effective rhetorical stratagem, but it is a specious argument.”
The duo also critique the Left-liberal lumping of majority communalism with garden variety nationalism, and allege that this cabal helps the state retard the process towards a more common identity. The Left-liberals do this on the assumption that majority communalism is worse that minority communalism, and also wrongly equate the loony right’s views with nationalism. Thus nationalism itself has become a bad word. They point out: “Many of the mainstream right's ‘controversial’ demands — for a uniform civil code and repeal of Article 370, for example — are not "communal", but liberal and nationalist.”
One may add that some communalists may use these demands to veil their communal demands, but then no idea will not have its vicarious backers. An idea is not invalidated by who backs it. There will be people backing an idea for the right reasons and those for the wrong reasons. Slavery in America was aided by the need for cheap Afro-American labour in the rapidly rising industrial north of the US, but does this mean the abolition of slavery was wrong?
Ashutosh Varshney’s arguments in favour of a salad-bowl India is stuffed with red herrings and half-unconvincing answers. (Read his full article here)
Varshney sets out to bat for the salad-bowl Idea of India by launching off on Narendra Modi, but this is unnecessary because any argument where you bring in Modi leads to an emotional response – for or against. While it is fair to ask Modi to spell out what his Idea of India is – majoritarian, salad bowl or melting pot – it is not important to Varshney’s case, which lies in contrasting the European ideal of nationhood with the American one.
According to Varshney, the European idea is one of cultural uniformity, with the French typifying this attitude in the extreme. He says: “There are no hyphenated identities in France. Muslim-French, Jewish-French, Arab- French are not categories France allows; all have to be French in an undifferentiated way. In contrast, the US allows hyphens: Irish-American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Chinese-American, Indian-American are all accepted categories.”
America, he believes, allows “minorities to flourish. The White House celebrates Diwali today. Yet America remains strong as a nation. One does not have to become a France to acquire national purpose and strength.”
One wonders what Varshney is trying to say or prove here. By this yardstick, India is as good as America. In India, minorities have indeed flourished, if you were to look at Sikhs, or Christians or Jains. The minorities who haven’t are Muslims, and the reasons have to do with recent post-partition history, where the Muslim middle class and elite opted for Pakistan, leaving behind an impoverished mass who became easy prey to the Congress’s politics of protectionism. The Congress wanted votes, and not development for Muslims. And this is what they finally got. More than Hindutva, it is the “secular” nationalism of the Congress variety that has to shoulder the blame for Muslim backwardness in India. It is an open question whether Muslims in India would have benefited by dehypenating their religion – without in any way abandoning its practice as free individuals of a democratic state – from their citizenship.