In my previous post, I sought to demonstrate the chain of continuity that has been characteristic of Indian civilization. I also posited that the current political dispensation in India- whose support base can be loosely characterised as “woke Hindutva”- is normatively undesirable. In this post, I build upon my previous arguments to propose a framework I call “liberal conservatism”, which could conserve and promote India’s civilizational heritage within a liberal democratic system.
The limitations of classical liberalism
During the high noon of the post-Soviet Pax Americana era (1990s and 2000s), two books on political philosophy were particularly influential. The first was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, which broadly argued in favour of the Hegelian notion of a progressive march of history leading to a global convergence based on free markets and liberal democracy. The other was Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations which argued that the battle between capitalism and communism would be replaced by a new clash between competing values, customs and traditions of different civilisations. The Huntingtonian thesis was severely criticised at the time. The Fukuyaman idea of a global neoliberal hegemony captured the zeitgeist and seemed inevitable.
In hindsight, the Huntingtonian insight of divergence based on civilizational values has proven to be quite prescient. The idea first gained popularity in China in the last decade. China sees its unique political institutions and public culture as an outcome of Chinese values that have evolved over the centuries. These include Confucianism and the network of social commitments called guanxi. The notion has since become widely popular and adopted by countries as disparate as Russia and France.
Neoliberals can argue- with justification- that the framework of free markets, rule of law and individual rights has made the awesome material prosperity since World War II possible. However, what classical liberals miss is the very human craving for identity: the need of every society to define a higher purpose based on the ethos and mythos of that society. It is an eternal and universal aspect of the human condition epitomized by Macaulay’s famous poem:
How can man die better
Than facing fearful odds
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his Gods?
This lesson was learnt the hard way by the other great secularist materialist philosophy of the twentieth century: communism. It is now being learnt by free market capitalism. The current travails of the West: the decadence and the crisis of confidence, can be attributed to mistakenly assuming that free markets and liberal democracy are sufficient conditions for a content society. Even the United States with its creedal commitment to classical liberalism has struggled to fill the vacuum created by the eclipse of its dominant White Anglo Saxon Protestant culture. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The space vacated by a mature and hallowed high culture with its basis in Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian civilization is being filled by populist charlatans espousing vacuous ethnic nationalism or by woke ideologues motivated by cultural relativism, Marxism and post-modernism.
It is clear that the liberal democratic framework that the British bequeathed to India is a necessary but not a sufficient basis for a stable society. It provides an excellent basis for civic peace and prosperity but do not answer the existential questions around purpose, meaning and values. I would propose that looking at India as a civilization state could provide us with some answers.
India as a civilization state
India fits squarely within the definition of a civilization state. In my previous post, I had argued that the bedrock of Indian civilization are Dharmic values, customs and mores that have shaped it since antiquity. I won’t belabour the point further other than to highlight that the shared civilizational consciousness in the land between the Himalayas in the north and the Indian Ocean in the south is attested to by both natives and visitors alike through the ages, including Faxian, Al Biruni and Abu Fazl.
That then is the theory. The great legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin used the concept of hard cases to describe matters or disputes at the edges that do not fit neatly into established precedent or doctrine. Hard cases can prove to be very useful analytical tools to help clarify theories. In our case, we shall look at the “hard cases” of Kashmir and Nagaland (a province in North East India) to help further clarify the distinction between the modern Indian nation state and the Indian civilization state.
Despite being on the geographical periphery, Kashmir has an exalted position in Indian history as the land of poets, philosophers, seers and saints. The land of the Sharda Peetham, the Martand Sun Temple and Shaivism. In modern times, it has given India outstanding administrators, judges and scholars. Besides the outstanding natural beauty of the region and the fact that it is contested by arch-rival Pakistan, a key factor that disappoints Indians is that many residents of a region that has been fairly central to the Indian imagination no longer identify with its civilization. One way to highlight my point is the difference between legal and civilizational claims of India in the Kashmir dispute. The area of civilizationally Indic Kashmir (even including the historically equally Indic Potohari-Punjabi Mirpur area) controlled by Pakistan is actually quite a small part of the overall disputed region controlled by Pakistan. The much larger region under Pakistan’s control is Gilgit-Baltistan. However, from an historic, ethnic, linguistic and cultural perspective, “Gilgit-Baltistan” holds little resonance for the ordinary Indian. The distinction between Pakistani Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan quite neatly exemplifies the differences between a juristic and a civilizational conception of a nation state.
The states of Assam, Manipur and Tripura in North East India were Hinduised and Sanskritised in the medieval period. Beyond these reside several hill tribes in the frontier zone between India and Burma who had very little contact with Indian civilization until relatively recent times. The largest amongst these are the Nagas- a people with a distinct culture, cuisine, language and traditions spread across the state of Nagaland as well as some adjoining areas of the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur. Lacking much contact with Dharmic (or indeed Islamic) civilization, these animistic tribes were easily converted to Protestant Christianity by British and American missionaries during the colonial period. While Nagaland is legally and constitutionally a part of the Indian Republic, it would be very difficult to argue that the Nagas (along with other some other North East hill tribes such as the Mizos) are part of the Indian civilization state. This critical difference between the Nagas and the Kashmiris explains the more rational and transactional approach taken by the Indian state while dealing with the Nagas.
The frontiers of a civilization state are not fixed. One of the most fascinating and underappreciated facets of North East India is how the frontier zone between India (Assam) and Tibet- previously called the North Eastern Frontier Agency and now the state of Arunachal Pradesh- was incorporated into not just the Indian Republic but into Indic civilization. Through the untiring efforts of Hindu organizations amongst others, the people of the state are amongst the most integrated in North East India. Between the Tibet-influenced Tawang area in the west and the Naga-dominated Tirap region on the eastern edge of the state, a large number of tribes and communities have been heavily Indianized. Conversely, since the partition of India in 1947, Indic civilizational consciousness has steadily declined in West Punjab, Sindh and East Bengal (Bangladesh). In West Punjab and Sindh in particular, a historical outlook which views the period before Muhammad bin Qasim’s invasion of Sindh as characterized by ignorance and superstition has led most people in those regions to self-consciously identify with the peoples of Central and West Asia rather than their ethnic and cultural cousins across the border.
The Anglo-Dharmic framework
The significance and impact of British colonialism on Indian polity and society is self-evident. From the legal and administrative systems to the language of higher education and business to governing norms and values to the massive Indian diaspora in the Anglophone world, there are scarcely any aspects of Indian life that have been left untouched by the colonial encounter.
The foundations of the modern Indian nation state were not laid at independence in 1947 or with the ratification of the Constitution of India and creation of the Indian Republic in 1950. They were laid following the failed Indian Rebellion in 1858 when the British Government sidelined the buccaneering cowboys of the East India Company and took direct control over their Indian Empire. What followed was the establishment of a classical liberal state along British lines and a series of dialogues, negotiations and arguments between Indian elites and their British overlords over the governance structure of the Indian state. The process lasted nearly nine decades, from the initial Indian Councils Acts of 1861 and 1892 to the Morley-Minto Reforms of 1909 and the Government of India Act of 1935. Viewed from this perspective, the Constitution of India is a conservative document that continued the trajectory of the previous Government of India Act of 1935. Even the genuine leaps forward such as the fundamental rights of equality, freedom and liberty and universal adult franchise were logical culminations of earlier reforms rather than radical breaches from the past.
The Anglo-liberal framework with its focus on the rule of law, democratic accountable government, separation of powers and a professionalised administrative state has embedded itself in India over 160 years. While clearly a British import, it has adapted rather well to Indian conditions. I would argue that this is not particularly surprising. The classical Dharmic tradition of samvad: tolerance, dialogue and debate between different schools of thought, as well as the inherently flexible and adaptive nature of Hinduism provided more fertile grounds for the Anglo-liberal framework to thrive in India compared to other colonised states.
In my view, this Western- specifically British- framework has broadly served India well and is worth conserving. It is not possible for any civilization to succeed in the modern world without, in Niall Fergusson’s words, “the Killer Apps of the West”. The reactionary and insecure Hindutva mind-set towards the “foreign” must be rejected. Instead, Indians must seek to adopt good ideas with humility from wherever we find them following the Rig Vedic motto: Aa no badraaha kartavyo yanthu vishwatahah (आः नो भद्राः कर्तव्यो यन्तु विश्वतः). Let noble thoughts come to us from every side.
Instead of a wholesale revolution, what is required is an embellishment of the existing framework with Dharmic values. In Marxian terms, adapting a Dharmic superstructure to the Anglo-liberal base. The lens of a civilization state is a useful one for looking at an Anglo-Dharmic framework. A civilization state would look at pre-Westphalian models of Empire for inspiration, where a dominant and overarching high culture is confident and capacious enough to accommodate diverse smaller cultures within its umbrella. This provides a better framework to accommodate Dharmic values within modern Indian polity as compared to the Westphalian nation state model, whose puritan instincts militate towards either secular nationalism (the Nehruvian model) or Hindu nationalism (the Hindutva model).
In my next and final post on this topic, I will look at how this liberal conservative Anglo-Dharmic framework translates into Indian domestic and foreign policy. In particular, I will examine how this framework would seek to accommodate the third great tradition that has greatly influenced India: Islam. Finally, I will also look at the prospects of liberal conservatism in current Indian politics.