I listened with interest to Brown Pundits’ recent podcasts with Gaurav and Tony on the current state of Indian politics. I could relate to some of their agonies and predicaments, although I profoundly disagree with some aspects of Tony’s worldview. Slapstik’s recent post Indian woke wears saffron also contains some good insights on the nature and roots of the current Hindutva movement. In this post, I have picked on three strands of Slapstik’s argument: the comparison between Hindutva and woke culture, the genesis of the Bhakti movement and the nature of the leadership of the Indian National Congress both before and after independence.
While I share Slapstik’s assessment of the importance of the Bhakti movement, I do not regard the Bhakti movement as a radical rupture from the pre-Islamic Dharmic traditions. I also argue that by only highlighting the role and influence of the liberal modernist elements of the Indian political leadership in the colonial and early post-colonial periods, Slapstik overlooks the equally if not more salient part of the leadership that sought its inspiration from the country’s indigenous Indic heritage. In doing so, I seek to highlight the deep and abiding roots of India’s Dharmic consciousness that is characterised by cultural continuity.
In my next post, I take these arguments forward and suggest that this abiding consciousness and cultural continuity makes India a civilization state. I argue that it is incumbent upon the Indian state to conserve, protect and promote Dharmic culture and values. Building on my criticism of woke Hindutva, I propose a framework that goes beyond the binary of Nehruvian secularism and Hindutva. This middle path- what I call liberal conservatism- provides a normative framework for those who seek to conserve and promote India’s Dharmic sociocultural heritage without compromising on liberal democratic values.
Hindutva and woke culture
I fully agree with Slapstik’s observations on the similarities between Hindutva and woke culture. I share his distaste for the behaviour and reflexive anti-intellectualism of many of its ideologues and cheerleaders. The lack of tolerance for any viewpoint that deviates even marginally from their viewpoint is another similarity between the Western and Hindutva woke crowd. I agree that the current followers of various other ideologies in India- from the left-liberals to feminists to Islamists- also display woke characteristics. Perhaps this is partly a function of the social media age we live in. However, by virtue of their sheer size, volubility and access to power, woke Hindutva is particularly dangerous.
The combination of intolerance and nastiness towards contrary viewpoints and gratuitous bigotry, especially towards Muslims, that characterises woke Hindutva is not edifying. When this ideology is internalised by those in power, it becomes more insidious than that. Just like their far-left counterparts, these ideologues are unafraid to use arbitrary power against those they disagree with: the cancellation of Atish Taseer’s overseas citizen of India status and the incarceration of Dr. Kafeel Khan due to his anti-Citizenship Amendment Act speeches are cases in point. They also take a completely instrumentalist view of power and politics: no quarter is conceded or fault acknowledged even in very clear moral cases as long as the ends i.e. the fulfilment of ideological goals are achieved. For example, there cannot be a moral framework in which state inaction against cow vigilantes involved in street violence against Muslims accused of eating beef can ever be justified. Yet, by engaging in obfuscation and whataboutery, woke Hindutva has enabled a culture of impunity where the state chooses not to enforce the rule of law against street criminals.
I also agree with Slapstik that the response to this will test India’s institutional resilience. But the solution is a bit deeper than this. At a philosophical level, it involves a recognition of a basic social contract by all sides. This covenant has its basis in the foundational principles of the Indian Constitution: the fundamental rights to equality before the law, freedom (including freedom of expression) and life and liberty. A state which fails in its duty on these counts should be criticised and shamed by all sides, and ideologues who justify or worse cheer a government’s failings on these counts should be banished from the public square.
Since public discourse has become tribalistic- an outcome I regret as it precludes the possibilities of compromise and nuance- I will use a sporting analogy to drive home my point. The basic social contract is a bit like a sporting contest where everyone is passionate about their “team”, but equally recognises that the contest must happen within the rules of the game. Anyone who breaches this basic framework is shown the metaphorical red card. This framework gets its legitimacy from the very foundation of the modern Indian Republic. It was ratified by a Constituent Assembly representing a swathe of Indian opinion, from the socialist left and the conservative right within the Indian National Congress, to socialists, federalists, Ambedkarites and Hindu nationalists outside of it. All political dispensations have over the years failed in some ways to maintain this framework. The current dispensation is simply the latest and amongst the most egregious. The starting point would be an effort towards a consensus whereby public intellectuals and others in public life maintain a principled consistency on this matter, calling out breaches regardless of the identity of the culprit.
Beyond this basic framework that must be acknowledged by all, there is inevitably a parting of ways. As a liberal conservative, the two areas which define my thinking are the role of the state in the economy and the direction the state should provide to sociocultural life. As regards the former, I would argue for a market-based economy circumscribed by the rule of law and sensible regulation. As this is not relevant to the current debate and has been elaborated by many including yours truly elsewhere, I will focus my attention on the latter. This is where we come to Slapstik’s insight into the Bhakti movement and the roots of Indian identity and nationhood.
The Bhakti movement and roots of Dharmic identity
Slapstik’s observation as regards the pan-Indian spread of the Bhakti movement – both in geographic and social terms- is again accurate. However, it gives the impression that the movement was sui generis. It overlooks the deep reservoirs of socio-cultural experience and memory which had permeated the length and breadth of India which this movement drew upon. It is true that the Bhakti movement did help expand the Dharmic faith in the periphery, particularly in North East India. The kingdoms of Assam, Manipur and Tripura were all Hinduised and sanskritised in the medieval period. However, in the core region, the impact of the movement was regenerative rather than revolutionary.
It is a mistake to view Indian theology and liturgy exclusively through the lens of stratification: the subjugation of a vast laity by a select few castes, with the Brahmins at the top. A more accurate reading of the history of Indian religion is one of confluence. The abstract philosophical musings and spiritual enquiries of the Vedic and early Upanishadic rishis and rishikas were not just superimposed on an unwilling population. Instead, these doctrines interacted in multiple ways with the pre-existing deep rooted folk traditions and wisdom of the populace to produce, by osmosis, five distinct but interconnected schools of thought. I call these the Five Spokes of Dharma: Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, Buddhism and Jainism. The first three traditions tend to draw from or connect to the Vedic and Upanishadic doctrines, whereas the latter two tend to distinguish themselves from those doctrines. However, that is a moot point for the purposes of this argument. The more pertinent point is that each of these traditions had deep organic roots and widespread resonance with vast sections of the populations across the length and breadth of India by the time of the Islamic invasions.
Even if the institutional apparatus (e.g. certain temples or monasteries) were captured by the Brahminical clergy, at the fundamental spiritual level, even the traditions that reconciled to Vedic and Vedantic authority were always more democratic and egalitarian. There are obvious recognisable examples across these traditions that one can point to: the great Vaishnavite epics of the Ramayana and Mahabharata built upon folk wisdom and traditions. These were narrated by bards and wanderers across the land outside of the institutional religious structure. Their key deities, particularly Krishna, have humble pastoralist beginnings and a consistently universalist message. Likewise, the Shakta traditions of worship of the divine and eternal feminine energy by visiting sacred shrines have deep and organic prehistoric roots. Most of these shrines were always open to and accessible by the masses. Perhaps the most interesting and instructive example is that of Shiva. There is evidence of his importance as a deity even in Indus Valley times. As a yogi and ascetic, Shiva is above and beyond caste, and certain doctrines of Shaivism are not just universally accepting and accessible, but positively radical even by modern standards.
There are two other important points that further explain the latter success of the Bhakti movement. The first is the argumentations and interactions between the various Dharmic schools led to rigorous and profound doctrines across a range of areas of philosophical enquiry: from theology and metaphysics to ethics and eschatology. The Bhakti movement drew from this wellspring of philosophical depth. It is this analytical rigour which helped Hinduism survive against the odds, where other polytheistic traditions failed. The final point is the pan-Indian nature of these Dharmic traditions, which was sustained by a shared language of theology and liturgy (Sanskrit) and more importantly, by pilgrimage sites across the length and breadth of the land, which created a sacred geography and shared civilizational consciousness. This helped create a set of common habits, mores, customs and traditions which would hold India in good stead in the centuries to come. There is literal physical evidence across the subcontinent to back this thesis. The map below, for example, shows some of the Shakti peethams (shrines revered in the Shakta tradition) and the mathas (monasteries) established in the wake of the yatras (journeys) of the eighth century philosopher-theologian Adi Shankara, who consolidated and propounded the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.
The civilization that was thus forged over nearly two millennia before the Islamic invasions went beyond ethics and religion and permeated every aspect of sociocultural life- from art and archaeology to dance, language and music. This essential nature of India as a civilization state is consistently underestimated by left-liberal and Islamist critics of India, who then feign surprise when their favoured predictions about its resilience do not pan out as expected.
Dharmic thought and practice may have ossified by the middle ages when the Bhakti movement emerged. But in reviving it, the Bhakti movement drew upon the deep foundational roots amongst the proletarian masses as set out above which, while under some duress from the Islamic incursions, had never quite withered. This arc connecting ancient Dharmic India to the medieval Bhakti movement would continue during the colonial period and beyond.
The nature of the Indian freedom movement
Slapstik is partly correct in his assessment that the Congress leadership was “reformed (and deracinated)” and “in awe of the Empire” which then carried over “that reforming/civilizing role into independent India”. This was true of the founding members and the early leadership in the late nineteenth century. Men such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Madhav Govind Ranade and Surendranath Banerjee were dyed in the wool metropolitan liberals from Bombay and Calcutta. This is also true of the Nehruvians who came to dominate politics in the 1950s and 60s. However, it misses the clearly Hindu conservative roots of the nationalist leadership in the interregnum. The Swadeshi movement in the early twentieth century was led by Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, and Bipin Chandra Pal- the eponymous Lal Bal Pal drawn from the Punjab, Bombay (Maharshtra) and Bengal respectively. Each of these leaders, whose roots may loosely be described as provincial bourgeoisie, were explicitly motivated by Dharmic ideals and the Hindu civilizational ethos. This is exemplified by their co-option of the imagery of Bharat Mata- the personification of India as a mother goddess. It can be convincingly argued that the nationalist movement genuinely gained traction with the masses under their leadership and not that of the earlier liberal elites.
These leaders were followed by the Mahatma. While Gandhiji is the first amongst equals in the Indian freedom movement and therefore above the fray, it is hard to escape the extensive use of Hindu motifs and imagery in his discourse. Concepts such as ahimsa (non-violence), Ram Rajya (ideal state), dharma (duty) and karma (good deeds or action) are explicitly Dharmic (in his case Vaishnav-Jain) in their roots, inspired by his Gujarati Bania upbringing.
The Congress leadership on the eve of independence was also preponderantly Hindu conservative. The grassroots membership was even more so. Two out of the triumvirate that surrounded the Mahatma- Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and C. Rajagopalachari (a.k.a. Rajaji)- his heart, hands and head respectively- were on the right of the party. Gandhiji chose his heart as his successor and the party went along with it, but at time, this was by no means a foregone conclusion. Even with Pandit Nehru firmly in charge as the prime minister, the Hindu conservatives were by no means completely sidelined, at least in the initial years of independence. Stalwarts from the right of the party, such as Rajendra Prasad, K.M. Munshi and Govind Vallabh Pant, held key positions and continued to have influence on the national debate as evidenced during the reconstruction of the Somnath temple in Gujarat. However, Pandit Nehru’s personal popularity with the masses, aided by events such as the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by the Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse, ensured that the Nehruvian consensus largely prevailed within the Congress, and by extension, nationally.
In the first few decades after independence, the conservative movement outside the Congress was splintered into two factions: the cultural nationalism of the Jan Sangh (the precursor to the modern BJP) and the liberal conservatism of the now defunct Swatantra Party. The Swatantra Party was founded and led by the outstanding philosopher, polymath and politician Rajaji. Stifled by the Nehruvian takeover of the Congress, this former congress stalwart started this new liberal conservative party when he was nearly eighty. These conservative parties accounted for 10-20% of the national vote in the first few elections. There is of course no way to objectively measure the conservative vote that continued to go to the Congress in those decades as the de facto party of the freedom struggle. It is fair to say that while the Nehruvians may have dominated the academy, English language media and other organs of culture in the metropolitan areas, the average Congressman and Congress voter at the provincial level was a cultural conservative.
The history of the Indian right since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement in the 1980s is well known, so I won’t elaborate on this here. The point above is merely to highlight that the idea of India as a civilizational state with roots in antiquity and the notion that we should look at these roots for inspiration never lost its allure even during the supposedly halcyon days when the Nehruvian Idea of India dominated Indian politics. The current Hindutva movement is not a flash in the pan that emerged in the 1980s, but merely the latest manifestation of Indic civilizational consciousness, albeit with a radical illiberal edge.
What if the Congress and by extension the Indian state was controlled by the conservative right rather than the Nehruvians after independence? Despite some genuine achievements of the Nehruvian state, including the establishment of institutes of higher learning and a culture of accommodation and respect for India’s diversity, one cannot help but think that the country would have been better served if men like Patel and Rajaji had taken the helm. While counterfactuals are always debatable, I would submit that a liberal conservative state that would have nurtured Dharmic values and a path of gradual grassroots led reform would have led to a better outcome than the securalist-socialist dirigisme of the Neuhrivan era. For one, it would have occupied some of the political space claimed by the Hindu nationalists, pre-empted some of their grievances and perhaps even co-opted and channelled the remarkable community spirit and energy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates towards purely positive endeavours such as Seva (community service), stripped of the ugly Hindu chauvinistic elements.
While it is not possible to recreate history, the counterfactual does provide some ideas for a direction that the political opposition to Hindutva could take. In my next post, I will build on these ideas to develop a framework that seeks to conserve India’s civilizational genius while shedding the rough edges of Hindutva. I call this liberal conservatism.