Identity politics: Why liberal is really illiberal in India

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.”


DU student protestors against Narendra Modi. Reuters

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.

As for the US celebrating Diwali in the White house, surely Varshney knows that in India politicians have done this for as long as one can remember. Holi, Christmas, Iftar parties and other Indian festivals are always considered important for political messaging in India.

Varshney also assumes that America allows for easy hyphenation. While America is a nation of immigrants, the fact is for nearly two centuries their nationalism was defined by WASP – White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Now, with the new immigration, American demographics will be less White, less Anglo-Saxon. Hispanics, Muslims, Hindus, Chinese and Blacks will soon make America a less White nation.

In this situation, right-wing America is trying to redefine its civilisational ethos as Judeo-Christian (a la, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations) in order to include more of the immigrants in the honorary White category. The rabid-right is questioning President Obama not about his colour, but whether he is a closet Muslim.

But the new Whiteness of America is questionable. Indian Americans, despite prospering in capitalist America, find that they can rise politically in America only by seeking religious cover. Rajiv Malhotra argues that Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is one such example. He wrote recently in Firstpost: “Jindal never loses an opportunity to downplay and deny his Indian and Hindu roots, unlike African-Americans or Hispanics who, upon entering powerful positions, remain fully anchored to their respective communities, crediting those communities for the nurturing they provided.”

Malhotra also argues that the US is now seeking to expand the idea of Whiteness to other communities outside the old WASP consensus, but this still excludes Hindu Indians. He writes: “The definition of who is White has changed over time. The Irish, Poles, Greeks, Italians and Jews ‘became White’ after much struggle. Whiteness may have expanded in scope over time, but rejects those, like Hindu-Americans who fall outside the Judeo-Christian religious group. Can the Hindu-American remain a Hindu and ‘become White’?”

Varshney needs to reassess whether America really is that inclusive a salad bowl as he thinks it is.

He also tries to pit Gandhi and Nehru against Hindu nationalists – forgetting that there is no single definition of Hindu nationalism. Hindu nationalism comes in a variety of hues – from the malignant and self-defeating Bajrang Dal variety to the softer hues of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s Bharatiyata (instead of Hindutva) to Gandhi’s strong preference for a Hindu identity that protects all religions in India.

Varshney’s salad-bowl Idea of India would thus want Indians to be Muslim-Indians, Christian-Indians, or Gujarat-Indians, and not just Indians. Which is fine, but then why not include caste too in this hyphenation? Why not Mahar-Indians, Jatav-Indians, Brahmin-Indians, Yadav-Indians?

The truth is the core Idea of India – the one that predated modern India by centuries – has always involved hyphens, and the hyphens go beyond religion to caste and jati.

This is why BR Ambedkar wanted to end caste. But Varshney never mentions him when he talks of hyphenation. Ambedkar strongly advocated inter-caste marriages and inter-dining in order to eliminate the hyphens.

Caste survived in India because we took the hyphen route to identity and keeping the peace. As I have noted before, “in the west, diversity was treated as a threat, and thus met with annihilation and destruction. The Americans annihilated the Red Indians, the Australians massacred the aborigines, and so on.” The west ensured uniformity by practicing brutality. Ambedkar, quoting 19th century French historiant Ernest Renan, confirms that brutality and extermination were key to homogenising society. ‘Unity is ever achieved by brutality. The union of northern and southern France was the result of an extermination, and of a reign of terror that lasted for nearly a hundred years.’” He could have said much the same about America or Australia. But not India.

Clearly, hyphens are superior to uniformity enforced through brutality. However, there is no need to artificially hyphen any community as an act of policy.

If you hyphen too much, you get virulent caste politics and Pakistan. If you compulsorily dehyphenate, you get violence anyway. If you just avoid hyphens, you won’t get a unified national identity on Day One, but it will emerge over time. Not by violence and the creation of artificial common identities, but an entirely new one forged by demographics, urbanisation, capitalist economics, and the natural tendency of communities to work out simple arrangements to live and let live based on one fundamental principle: universal human rights for all citizens.

I believe Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri scored over Varshney in their argumentation that what liberals think is liberal may actually be illiberal. And possibly a-historial and not- so useful in the Indian context.

India does not have to be either salad-bowl or melting pot. If it merely lets identities be, we will get to a natural universalism that is neither salad-bowl nor melting pot. That is the real Idea of India.

Updated Date: Feb 13, 2013 17:16 PM

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