The Idea of India

When the ‘fascist’ Narendra Modi was coming close to becoming India’s Prime Minister, intellectuals told us that he would be a threat to the very idea of an inclusive and democratic India.  Amartya Sen declared that he cannot be part of an India which has Modi as its PM.  Modi is now PM, but nowhere does it seem that he has to abandon the idea of India in order to pursue his agenda.  Instead many proponents of the idea of India have become Modi-supporters.  Sen himself now says that Modi is no reason to leave the country!

One major votary of ‘the idea of India’, Ramachandra Guha, informs us that Rabindranath Tagore used the phrase in a letter to a friend in 1921, writing that “the idea of India is against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others, which inevitably leads to ceaseless conflicts”.  Be that as it may, the point I will pursue here is this: if ever there was any hegemonic claim which is enormously difficult, almost impossible, to expose or unpack, then ‘the idea of India’ is one.  The Thatcherite idea of ‘There is no alternative’ (TINA), for example, would pale in terms of its hegemonic effects and vice-like grip.  The idea of India is indeed part of what Perry Anderson called the ‘Indian ideology’, even though his critique of this ideology proved woefully inadequate.

The idea of India performs a remarkable feat with utmost dexterity: pushing a right-wing agenda (like the defence of private property) through progressive, left-wing values and proposals.  The Indian constitution, on which the idea of India largely rests, is so replete with values like democracy and even social transformation that it needs enormous critical acumen to cut through its many radical-sounding layers.  Large sections of the left pathetically compete with each other and render liberals jobless in trying to don the mantle of being the true defenders of this idea and the Indian constitution.

Like firing from somebody else’s shoulders, Indian elites early on in the 1940s managed to get their constitution drafted by a radical leader of the oppressed castes, none other than B. R. Ambedkar who otherwise was up against this ‘upper caste’ elite.  Ambedkar joining the Constituent Assembly backed by the upper caste elite was a tremendous ‘achievement’.  This one stroke allowed the Indian elite and capitalist class massive leverage and made their hegemonic claims, now penned by a radical, appear as the truest and most genuine of intentions.  Both Dalits and the left were streamlined, if not bought over.

Imagine, the racist structure in the USA got someone like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King to draft the constitution of the USA, without of course really changing oppressive race relations — that would be a very clever and intelligent racist structure, indeed!  Now the very fact of a constitution supposedly ‘intending’ to do away with racism would mean that racism gets re-presented in a new way: actually existing racism would now be seen as a ‘deviation’ from the constitution, or from the intent of the ‘founding fathers’ of the constitution.  The focus would be to realise the ‘vision’ of the ‘fathers of the constitution’ rather than fighting racism per se.  The reality of racism gets underplayed, undermined.  This logic is better practiced in India.

Let us have a closer look at one key component of this idea of India embedded in the Indian constitution — secularism against communalism (meaning mostly Hindu majoritarianism).

A secular constitution now meant that communalism or attacks on minorities would be presented as a deviation, a violation of the constitution.  The reality of communalism is underplayed as it gets presented as deviation from the normal.  Communalism is cognised as a discursive displacement, a violation, not really that pervasive since it ‘normally’ does not exist.  Communalism is not about what actually exists in society but is like a second-order effect which one gets when the constitution is violated.

Hence till today the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 engineered by the ruling secular Congress or the 2002 pogrom of Muslims backed by Narendra Modi who is the Prime Minister today (and innumerable ‘small’ massacres or riots) would never be ‘enough’ to account for the persistence of communalism as a normal feature of Indian society, and not just the handiwork of a narrowly defined ‘Hindu right-wing’.  There have been approximately 60 major communal riots since 1961.  A huge majority of them took place under the rule of the ideologically secular Congress and very few under the ideologically communal BJP.  Anyone can see that communalism is an internal moment of secularism and not a deviation from it — but the defenders of the secular-democratic idea of India deny this.  They present secularism as the way to defeat communalism.

No amount of ’empirical evidence’, massacres and progroms, is enough to drive home this point so long as communalism is understood as ‘deviation from secularism’.  A positively existing secularism is already assumed, such that the struggle and the progressive movement must be directed towards defending this secularism — defending something which is non-existent!  Many of the people’s movements for secularism are seeped in the ideological mystification of the idea of India.

How does one fight communalism, in this formulation?  Of course, by ‘strengthening our secular constitution’ rather than directly fighting communal forces!  Thus, when in the Bombay of the 1960s the right-wing ‘fascist’ Shiv Sena directly attacked and decimated left-wing forces, the left ran to the police and law enforcement agencies for protection, pretty much repudiating the struggle on the ground — they thought that they should struggle within the constitutional norms, uphold secularism and not fall into the trap of the right-wing to lure the left into a fight outside the limits of the constitution.  The left ‘sincerely’ upheld the constitution only to lose the battle.  The constitution is the perpetual price the left happily pay for their perpetual defeat and deep decline in India!

The more communalism intensifies the more fervently one is expected to stick to secularism.  Secularism created its own conditions, its own necessity by redefining communalism as a deviation from it.  This has led to a downward spiral, now ending in a pathological attachment to secularism and the idea of India.  It is only now with new forces within the Muslim minority like the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM), who reject official secularism, that this spiral is being checked.  MIM claims to fight communalism directly and not through the mediation of secularism.  But this ‘break’ has come from the right-wing rather than the left.

For Marx, capitalism does not just exploit ‘labour’, but it transforms and produces its own ‘labour’, what Marx called labour power.  Based on this formulation, Marx showed that capitalism produces its own reality rather than just distorting it.  This is how the idea of India operates: not by hiding or concealing the true reality or actual conditions, but by rearticulating them, creating its own ‘reality’: the reality of communalism as deviation from the idea of India, from secularism and the constitution.  Not communalism but violation of the constitution becomes the real problem.  Secularism transforms communalism in its own image.  Secularism becomes hegemonic, in a way which denies the dominant nature of communalism in Indian society — a point I had made earlier in “Hegemonic Secularism, Dominant Communalism: Imagining Social Transformation in India”.  In their own way, forces like MIM have realised this ideological duplicity of Indian secularism.

The idea of India is not incomplete or defective.  It does not suffer from a lack as such.  It is a full and a perfect discursive machine, reproducing ‘reality’, and thereby making itself indispensable in the cause of justice, democracy and equality.  It is presented as a radical intervention in the grim realities of India, for example, reducing inequalities in a deeply divided and unequal society.  That inequalities did not come down at all and in fact increased since Independence in 1947 is a fact which even its votaries cannot deny.  But by promising to reduce inequalities, creating trust in this promise, such that radicals too were inducted in its project, it produced serious hegemonic effects.

The idea of India created conditions for its own relevance, in such a way that any other progressive path, any other left-wing approach, would now be criminalised, repressed — so that Nehru’s commitment to social justice in the famous Objective Resolution of the Constituent Assembly could go hand-in-hand with sending the army to crush to the Telangana peasant rebellion.

There is just one word for the idea of India: pernicious.

Saroj Giri teaches political science at the University of Delhi.