In my previous two posts, I traced the roots of India as a civilization state and proposed a framework which would seek to retain modern India’s classical Anglo-liberal framework but embellish it with Dharmic values. In this third and final post, I will seek to demonstrate how these seemingly contradictory systems could be reconciled in a coherent Anglo-Dharmic liberal conservative framework. I will also analyse Indian domestic and foreign policy from a liberal conservative perspective. Before doing that, it is worth examining how liberal conservatism would deal with the third great tradition that has influenced Indian history: Islam.
The Muslim Question
The ledger of the Nehruvian state’s interactions with and treatment of Indian Muslims is decidedly a mixed bag. On the positive side, it is to the Nehruvian state’s credit that Indian Muslims were able to see themselves as full and equal participants and stakeholders in the Indian Republic. It is easy to underestimate today how difficult and challenging this would have been in the immediate aftermath of the partition and vivisection of India in 1947. It would have been easy to let hatred and vengeance take over in the aftermath of a bloody division. The Congress party under the stewardship of Pandit Nehru ensured that the better angels of our nature prevailed and the Muslims who remained in India were treated with tolerance and compassion. The basic framework of the Indian Constitution, in particular the golden triangle of equality, freedom and liberty, ensured full and equal citizenship and freedom of worship for Indian Muslims. The wisdom and sagacity of the founding fathers of the modern Indian Republic who were the architects of this framework must be applauded.
On the negative side, the Nehruvian state systematised a cultural separation of Muslims from the rest of Indian society. This was manifest most starkly in the decision to allow Muslims to retain Islamic personal laws. There were other mistakes made, including the deference given to the Mullahs (religious clergy) and other reactionary and regressive elements within the community, allowing them to become political arbiters between the Indian state and its Muslim citizens. These decisions have led to very real consequences: the educational and socio-economic backwardness of the community in modern India is partly due to the lack of reforms in madrassa education and the subordinated status of women in Muslim personal law. There is also an element of cultural alienation due to the denial of common Indic roots by a section of the Muslim community- another negative consequence of the policy decisions of the Nehruvian state. The blame for this lies squarely on the door of the Faustian bargains struck by the Nehru-Gandhi Congress.
Hindutva’s prognosis of the negative aspects of the Nehruvian state’s policies towards religious minorities has more than an element of truth to it. The problem, however, is that in their uncompromising suspicion (in some cases visceral hatred) of Islam, Hindutva ideologues seek to undo the positive aspects of the Nehruvian state’s treatment of religious minorities: the equality, freedom and liberty that is the bedrock of the Indian Republic. Liberal conservatism would seek to tread the middle path by eschewing the negative elements while simultaneously vigorously defending the classical liberal values that are the basic structure of the Indian state.
Let’s examine the liberal conservative approach to Islam in India at three levels: that of policy, politics and identity. At the policy level, liberal conservatism would strive towards policies such as a Uniform Civil Code and madrassa reform, making the regular Indian curriculum the bedrock of children’s educational experience. Islamic theological education would be an add on.
At the political level, liberal conservatism would seek to co-opt and include Indian Muslims as participants in its movement. There a number of outstanding Indian Muslim role models that liberal conservatism could point to, from the sciences (APJ Abdul Kalam) to the bureaucracy (Syed Akbaruddin) to the armed forces (Lt. Gen. Syed Ata Hasnain) to business (Azim Premji) to arts and entertainment (a phalanx of stars in the Hindustani classical music firmament). It is not my contention that liberal conservatism would appeal to all Indian Muslims. After all, in a democratic marketplace of ideas, factions ranging from Nehruvian left-liberals to the far-left to Islamists would all vie for influence. The point is that shorn of the reflexive hostility of Hindutva, liberal conservatism could, through genuine and respectful engagement, win over a good section of the Indian Muslims to its side.
Moving to the sensitive realm of identity, the path becomes a bit trickier to navigate. It takes two hands to clap- any consilience would require efforts from both Dharmics and Muslims. Liberal conservatives would seek to bridge the divide by making Indic philosophies more accessible. It should be possible for Indian Muslims to appreciate and relate to the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, learn Sanskrit, participate in festivals such as Diwali and Holi and take pride in Indic icons such as Lord Ram and Gautam Buddha, without relating these to the divine. A Dharmic civilization state should seek to actively encourage this. Here I tend to agree with Gaurav’s analysis of the Onam debate: the Hindutva insecurity complex in this respect is counterproductive. Social media wars between Hindutva and Leftist flamethrowers should not distract from the fundamental point: the celebration of Onam- with its Indic motifs and iconography- by Indian Muslims should be seen as a net positive from a conservative integrationist perspective. Indian Muslims should be encouraged to adopt the Dara Shikoh mindset: an openness and curiosity towards India’s Dharmic customs and traditions, unfettered by the rigidities of the Arabic cannon.
A liberal conservative state would also look to preserve and celebrate aspects of the syncretic Indo-Islamic culture. Anyone with aesthetic sensibilities cannot but appreciate the adab and tehzeeb– the gentleness and refinement- of Persianate high culture, or be moved by the grace of Urdu poetry and the energy and ecstasy of the qawwali. A millennium of interactions between the Indic and the Islamic has produced confluence in areas from language to music and food that is difficult to dissect. A liberal conservatism would regard the puritan instincts of some Hindutva ideologues as foolhardy and counterproductive. Take language, for instance. Indo-European languages show a spectrum of Sanskrit and Perso-Arabic influences in their technical vocabulary. Those in the north and the west, such as Sindhi and Punjabi, have more Perso-Arabic influences whereas those to the south and the east, such as Marathi and Bengali, have more Sanskrit influences. The most interesting is the Hindustani language, the lingua franca of the sub-continent. Traditionally, Sanskrit or Perso-Arabic vocabulary varied depending on regional and religious identities. For me, that is part of the beauty of the language. The fact that multiple words- pyaar and ishq (love) and sapney and khwaab (dreams)- can be unselfconsciously used to describe the same emotion, is a strength, not a weakness. The effort of Hindu nationalists to forcibly seek to “purify” Hindi (matched, it must be said, by equal efforts of Pakistani nationalists to “purify” Urdu) feels unnecessary.
In the liberal conservative worldview, culture is not zero sum: celebration of Indo-Islamic or syncretic Hindustani culture does not amount to denigration of Dharmic or Indic culture. Indeed, Indo-Islamic culture, as well local or regional cultures (Assamese, Bengali, Tamil etc.), would all be provided space to grow and thrive in a Dharmic civilization state. However, Dharmic cultural values would be the metaculture of the Indian state. By dint of history, demography and sheer impact on Indian civilizational consciousness, Dharmic culture would be primus inter pares: the first among equals.
Dharma in times of a liberal democracy
The constraints within which a Dharmic civilization state must operate have been laid out: the classical Anglo-liberal framework of the modern Indian state is to be retained and microcultures, including Indo-Islamic culture, are to be provided the space to flourish within the broad tent umbrella of a civilization state. Given these limitations, would there be meaningful space to create a Dharmic civilization state? How to square the circle?
To answer these questions, we turn to the eminent English legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart’s seminal work, The Concept of Law. Hart drew a distinction between law, custom and morality. Out of the three, it is the law which imposes hard obligations on society, the breach of which would lead to sanction by the state. The obligations imposed by custom and morality are softer. Although observance is typically voluntary, widely recognised customs and morals do influence and shape societal behaviour. Extrapolating these Hartian insights, liberal conservatism would seek to leave the Anglo-liberal legal framework- from constitutional to criminal to commercial laws- intact. The emphasis in the legal sphere would be reform rather than revolution. Liberal conservative policy would seek to shape a Dharmic civilization state outside the realm of hard law, by actively shaping custom, ethics and morality. This would also play to the strengths of Indic philosophical systems. With notable exceptions, Dharmic philosophers have been inward looking: focusing on character building at the individual level and providing ethical guidance to leading the good life. In any event, the Indic philosophies’ lack the depth in large areas of hard law would mean that any changes to Anglo-liberal legal system would be purely cosmetic (assigning Sanskrit names to English legal concepts, for instance) and therefore futile.
Some of the Dharmic cultural efflorescence can be achieved merely be the state getting out of the way. Under the guise of fighting majoritarianism, the Nehruvian state has kept Hindu institutions ranging from temples to schools under strict state control so as to prevent majoritarianism from taking root in the country. The stifling hand of the state has led to atrophy and decay. Here, classical liberal and conservative values converge to provide a way forward. A liberal conservative polity would liberalise Hindu institutions from state control, providing them with a level playing field with minority institutions, thereby allowing them to flourish. The state would only play a facilitative reforming role by promoting governance models that allow for wide participation of Hindu castes (especially traditionally backward castes) and women in the administration of these institutions. Freed from the state’s shackles, we can then expect the flexible adaptive nature of Hinduism to do its magic.
Liberal conservatism would also nudge society towards behavioural changes, starting with education at the school level. Dharmic concepts and values can be incorporated in a religiously neutral way in the school curriculum as part of Values Education. Children can be exposed to ethical and moral concepts such as ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness or honesty), daya (compassion) and shanti (peace or tranquillity). This could be done with increasing levels of sophistication tracking a child’s progress through school, using tools such as storytelling from the Panchatantra or the Jakata tales in primary and middle school and progressing to classics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in later years. Existing works such as the outstanding Amar Chitra Katha could be leveraged for this. This could be complemented by making the practice of yoga– both physical exercises (hatha yoga) as well as meditation- an integral part of the school curriculum.
At the university level, the situation of Indology or Indic studies in India is quite dire. The outstanding scholars of all the great classical languages of India starting with Sanskrit are based in universities abroad. The situation is equally grim in other areas of Indology including philosophy, ethics, historiography etc. There is a live tradition of scholarship in mathas (monasteries) but this ossified and far removed from the analytical rigorous of modern academia. Liberal conservatism would prioritise funding for Indology departments that would aim to meet global standards of academic integrity and rigour. There is much to learn from India’s ancient wisdom without descending into pseudoscience around genetic engineering and nuclear physics. The creation of a solid academic corps in the various fields of Indology within India is a prerequisite for India to be taken seriously as a civilization state.
An Indic civilization state would actively promote a Dharmic high culture through public broadcasting and other avenues of disseminating culture. It is clear that Indians love the retelling of the stories of their ancestors. A liberal conservative polity would encourage the retelling of our kathas through innovative means that appeal to each generation.
The Nehurvian state viewed India’s temple towns with embarrassment- at best, these were seen as a source of revenue for the state. They were allowed to rot in filth and squalor. A civilization state would view these temple towns and other places of religious significance as a key part of India’s cultural and spiritual heritage and place them at the heart of India’s tourism efforts.
Beyond the above, the state would promote a Dharmic worldview through other avenues. As Western science conquers the frontiers of traditional diseases, a lot of the new health challenges are linked to either mental health or obesity. Traditional Indian practices of meditation (Yoga) and medicine (Ayurveda) provide answers to many of the problems. A Dharmic civilization state would promote advances in these fields through research and development funding. Dharmic philosophies also provide answers to contemporary global problems linked to the environment and climate change. Harmony of man with nature has always been integral to the Dharmic worldview: the forest is integrally linked to the divine and the sacred and vegetarianism is encouraged. An Indic civilization state would use these concepts to promote sustainable development at home and project soft power abroad.
The Indian Ocean Strategy
India’s foreign relations are a tale of two geographies. In the north, amidst the Himalayas, there is conflict and strife with China and Pakistan in Ladakh and Kashmir. As we move south, we reach the Indian Ocean. With it come growth, opportunities and riches. If Indian history is examined from a civilizational perspective, the north has been the source of invasion and pillage- all of the pre-colonial invasions of India happened through the North West. To the North East, the Himalayas effectively walled India off from that other great Asian civilization state: China. The sea, on the other hand, was the pathway to the exchange of ideas, people and prosperity. The ancient Indians traded with their Gulf counterparts through Indus Valley times through the Harappan port city of Lothal (in modern day Gujarat). This tradition was carried on through ancient, medieval and early modern periods on both the east and west coasts. Kochi and Kozhikode on the west coast were, at different times, magnets of trade and prosperity. The influence of India’s eastern seaboard is even more dramatic. Through dynasties such as the Cheras, Pandyas, Pallavas, and in particular the Cholas, South Indian kingdoms spread Hindu-Buddhist values and Indic culture across South East Asia from Cambodia and Thailand to the Majapahit kingdoms of Java and Sumatra (present day Indonesia). These Indianised kingdoms of South East Asia were part of a vast Sanskrit cosmopolis when the Sanskrit language and Sanskritic ideas and motifs reigned supreme.
The ocean has also been the path to salvation in modern times. Indians have used their familiarity with the English language and the British system to find economic opportunities throughout the Anglosphere. Wherever in the world the British imperial flag was planted and the English language is spoken, a huge and successful Indian diaspora is sure to be found. Whatever the acts and omissions of British colonialism may have been, it would be hard to deny that Indians have benefitted immensely from the English connection in the post-independence era. These relatively recent cultural, linguistic and diasporic connections have to play a part in the Indian civilization state.
With its Delhi-centric view of history, the foreign policy of India has for the longest time been preoccupied with containing the influence of India’s terrestrial neighbours. The traditional view of the wider world was also clouded by vacuous notions of third world or anti-colonial solidarity, which has led to investing tremendous time and energy in random groupings such as the Non-Aligned Movement and BRICS.
The foreign policy of an Indian civilization state would view India’s allies and friends as part of four concentric circles. The first circle is the near abroad: our immediate neighbours other than China and Pakistan. Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka (BBNS) are essentially part of the Indian civilization state. This does not imply any attempt to erase their status as sovereign nation states. Rather, the idea would be to make borders irrelevant, in the manner of the European Union, with free flow of trade and services, and to a lesser extent, people. There would be differences between the BBNS nations. Clearly open borders with Bangladesh is not a possibility, although there should be maximum people-to-people contact, including a liberal visa regime for Bangladeshi students and professionals. With Nepal on the other hand, the goal should be the greatest level of integration possible. The land of Indic civilizational sites such as Janakpur and Lumbini cannot but have close ties with India. The arbitrary lines created by the British East India Company across Awadh and Mithila cannot hide the fact that ethnic Uttar Pradeshis and Biharis live on both sides of the border or that millions of ethnic Nepalis are either Indian citizens or live and work in the country.
The second circle is the Indosphere, defined by the India’s civilizational connection with Indian Ocean states. This would obviously include the nations of South East Asia. Besides the cultural and diasporic connections, there is also the geographic proximity. Myanmar is the gateway to India’s North East. People sometimes forget that Indonesia is just 150 kms away from India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Signing of a comprehensive Indo-ASEAN trade and cooperation agreement would, besides making good strategic sense, be a validation of our shared history. The Indosphere also extends westward, most obviously with the island nations of Maldives and Mauritius. But it arguably also extends to the Gulf Arab states. The ancient trade and cultural ties were continued during modern times when the British colonial link provided a strong bond between the two regions. The Indian rupee was the official currency of the British protectorate states of the Persian Gulf until the mid-1960s. The Gulf Arab elite used to send their children to study in prestigious boarding schools in India until that period. The link has been maintained through the Gulf oil boom beginning in the 1970s in the form of Indian migrant workers. Sandwiched between the neo-Ottoman civilization state being constructed by Erdogan in Turkey and the revolutionary Shiite civilization state that is the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Gulf Arab states, with little Sparta United Arab Emirates in particular, are India’s natural allies in a difficult region, partly due to these historic ties. For the Indian civilization state as well, from an historic as well as strategic perspective, Sunni Islamist Turkey (together with its proxies in West Asia and beyond) in particular is likely to be a menace- a civilizational rival with which we have little in common.
The third circle comprises India’s connections with the English speaking world. This includes not just the Western Anglophone nations, but also those in Eastern and Southern Africa as well as the Caribbean. The links are forged by the history of cultural and linguistic familiarity and the Indian origin communities in these countries, as well as by trade and foreign investment from these nations into India. The legal and political systems are also based on the British model and quite aligned. Countries such as Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom have been keen to court India as a strategic partner. From a liberal conservative perspective, it would make complete sense for India to shed its strategic ambivalence and embrace a leading role at the heart of English speaking democracies, leveraging institutions such as the Commonwealth.
The fourth circle are the alliances that have been built by independent India. These are not necessarily historic civilizational ties, but modern ones that are worth preserving. I would include nations such as Russia, Japan and Israel in this bucket. Beyond these are the European Union and a swathe of African and Latin American states with whom India enjoys friendly relations.
There are clearly some core similarities between liberal conservatism and Hindutva in terms of recognising the civilizational basis of the Indian state. The policies of the current regime have some clear areas of alignment with the ones I describe above, although I have not seen them articulated by its supporters in theoretically rigorous manner. India’s foreign policy in particular is moving in the right direction under the astute and capable stewardship of India’s current External Affairs Minister.
However, there are also some fundamental differences. Out of the four major faultlines in Indian society: caste, gender, region and religion, I would suggest that on the first three, I do not have many quibbles with the current regime in policy terms. Large parts of the Hindutva movement, including the top leadership, are actually reformist on caste and gender. They clearly are not as radical as Ambedkarities and feminists on these matters, but they are broadly in line with the national consensus around reform and evolution. Similarly on federalism, there has been a significant evolution in the Hindutva worldview and an acceptance of devolution of powers as well as linguistic diversity. There are a small minority of Hindu traditionalists (to be found across political parties, it might be added) who would like to turn back the clock on caste and gender. They are aware that they are fighting a losing battle, and will rightly remained consigned to the margins of public debate.
The area where there has actually been regression is religion. The hostility and suspicion towards Indian Muslims encouraged by the top leadership, the promotion of hardline fundamentalists to positions of power and the lack of strict action against rank and file activists indulging in blatant communalism simply cannot be overlooked. Equally, the regime is also not averse to using decidedly illiberal means, particularly but not exclusively in order to achieve Hindutva related goals. Illiberal arbitrary decision making was also evident during the demonetisation of 2016, a bafflingly irrational decision that cannot be supported on either classical liberal or conservative grounds. Fundamentally, the Hindutva movement does not have enough respect for the British model of constitutional liberalism that I regard as the bedrock of the modern Indian Republic. The suspension or violation of the rule of law, due process and fundamental rights is clearly unacceptable, no matter how desirable the ends are. Sacrificing these norms at the altar of revolutionary ideals is the mark of an illiberal radical regime not a liberal conservative one.
The above worldview leads to clear differences in how I view various socio-cultural policies of the current regime. For example, I am in favour of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on the grounds that it fulfils India’s civilizational responsibility towards Indic populations in neighbouring countries. The distinctions made for the purposes of the legislation are reasonable based on intelligible criteria and therefore not violative of the principle of equal protection before the law. In fact, I would have gone further than the CAA legislation does and make the legislation open-ended by jettisoning the 2014 cut-off date. Conversely, I am totally opposed to the National Register of Citizens on the grounds that it is based on the illiberal premise of every resident of the country having to prove its citizenship. Moreover, there are clear and justifiable concerns around its misuse against Indian Muslims.
Beyond the BJP, a liberal conservative worldview would have fundamental differences with other political formations in India. Even if the Congress were to somehow get rid of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the intellectuals within the party and the second-in-command have a decidedly left-liberal worldview. The the DNA of the party will therefore likely remain Nehruvian. Certain aspects of the earnest civic nationalism of the Aam Aadmi Party are admirable, but it is likely to stay on its current social democratic path rather than adopt a liberal conservative vision. Beyond that, the regional parties are venal, petty and corrupt family enterprises and not worthy of a mention.
The approach of a liberal conservative to current Indian politics can therefore be summed up by the Vedantic concept of Neti, Neti: neither this, nor that. The guiding principle would be a principled consistency and speaking the truth to power, with the hope of eventually reconstructing a more humane, dharmic conservative politics from the debris that will inevitably be left behind by the Modi-Shah-Yogi regime.
Towards a Sattvic Republic
Beyond the philosophical and political disagreements with the Hindutva movement, as a liberal conservative, I feel a deep temperamental disconnect. To paraphrase from George Orwell’s Notes on Nationalism, my liberal conservatism comes from a place of deep love for India and the Dharmic way of life, without any ill will towards other nations or ways of life. Hindutva ideologues, on the other hand, seem to view “Hindus/Dharmics/India” and “Muslims/Pakistan” as opposing teams engaged in a zero sum game, where any means used to advance the cause of their team, however amoral, are justified.
The victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 elections awakened some latent energies amongst Hindus. There is a heightened level of curiosity, fervour, love and reverence towards India’s ancient past. In Dharmic terms, India has moved from a long state of Tamas (sloth or apathy) to Rajas (energetic activity). Both liberal conservatism and Hindutva would recognize this as a positive. However, Rajas is essentially undirected value neutral energy. Like all such forms of energy, Rajas can be utilized towards creative or destructive purposes. Channeled properly, this Rajas can be converted into Sattva (goodness and positivity) and lead to a new Dharmic Renaissance that could shine a light on the whole world. The converse is too scary to even contemplate. It is my hope that these energies are used as a means to overcome darkness by creating light, the ultimate victory of Dharma.