people over abstractions
The ideas of India are not being torn apart. Taken as a constellation of plural ideas, they seem to be flourishing amidst all the contradictions, paradoxes and ironies. The fate of nation-states is much more fragile. Hiding behind the veneer of stability, solidity and force, nation-states contain within themselves the reasons for their eventual implosion or disintegration. It happens for reason one least expects. Nation-states are recent inventions and, like the nouveau riche, require a heady mix of insecurity, fear, neurosis and victimhood to justify their existence. The ideas of India, then, are intact. The same cannot be said of the nation-state of India.
To return to the question whether India is being torn apart, three assumptions need a careful examination to understand the role of religion in this real or imagined process of being torn. The first of these is the sense of finality with which the official Indian nationalism presents itself. Its votaries argue that there is something foundational about this version, that it is cast in stone, and that it is beyond doubt, criticism and reproach.
It has its own set of icons, rites, rituals, liturgy, chants, invocations, not to forget the periodic ritual sacrifices, comprising mostly of the blood of its own citizens. Everything that disrupts this narrow self-image of what we are is seen as unpatriotic, a betrayal of something that is assumed we all subscribe where any departure from it is perceived as seditious. All life is reduced to a single idea and a singular piety. While the official propaganda swear by clichés like `unity in diversity’, any real assertion of diversity and plurality invites the invocation of the `threat to the security, integrity and territorial sovereignty of the country’ cliché.
If official nationalism has an inherent undemocratic bias, it also rarely accounts for its own schizophrenia. It is intolerant to dissent while zealously guarding an official orthodoxy. Doing so, it allows corruption, poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, bad health services and dysfunctional public institutions but does not remotely term all these as threats to the religion of nationalism. A second assumption, therefore, lies in a mortal fear of conflict, struggle, disputation and contradiction. To contest and challenge the status quo seems akin to exhibiting bad manners and betraying a questionable upbringing. Increasingly, the ideas of India are reduced to a corporate idea – the picture of a sterile, boring and sanitized boardroom.
Any disruption of this ambience that smells of disinfectant and air freshener is viewed with horror and suspicion. It is a world in which democracy stands for noise, messiness and delay, a universe that loves the abstraction of India as a superpower by trampling over real people and over democracy.
A third feature that arises as a consequence of the worship of the religion of nationalism is a world of simple binaries. There is little place here for irony, paradox and complexity. In this either/or world, everything is reduced to a level of banality that replaces real debate and intellectual effort.
For instance, if I oppose the BJP, it is assumed that I must be a Congress sympathizer. If I find Narendra Modi unacceptable in every sense of the word, it will be taken for granted that I am a votary for Rahul Gandhi. If I oppose the criminality and the extra-legality of the Salwa Judum, it will be inferred that I must be a Maoist supporter. If I oppose crony capitalism, it will be easily assumed that I must be a Marxist. If I question an official national icon, it is certain that I will be called a Pakistani agent.
This is a lazy, indolent and judgmental universe that indulges in issuing moral certificates. In it, terms like politics, conversation and compromise are dirty words. Individuals in this self-assumed role of furthering an unreal absolute idealism become self-righteous, pompous, condescending and patronising.
Religion enters this world of official nationalism in a variety of ways. Firstly, it invokes arbitrary readings of religious texts and proffers the selectively chosen quote to legitimate the self-understanding and self-image of the official nationalism. The guardians of official nationalism might vehemently assert their secular credentials, but the legitimating device usually is a partial recourse to religion.
Therefore, what originates, for instance, as a self-image of the Hindus as being mild, non-violent and tolerant is interpolated on to all Indians. Any assertion that challenges this caricature is seen as anti-national and one that vitiates the foundational values of the official nationalism. The entrenched interest of a caste or a class transforms itself into a mythical spiritual unity. Dissent and heterodoxy are challenged by a call to respecting the traditions and the cultural unity of the nation. To ask `whose culture?’, `what traditions?’ is to run the risk of encountering hostility and violence.
A second feature of religion in the service of official nationalism is to increasingly convert the public space into entertainment in the garb of religion. Proliferation of temples and mosques, official sanction of religious festivities and events, the increasing popularity of mythological serials and books serve a subtle but certain role in legitimating the official nationalism. This is especially so when the boundaries of tradition, culture and the nation are consciously blurred.
Finally, there is the growing popularity of the new-age religious gurus and cults. These offer both entertainment and instant nirvana for the rich and the middle-classes. Rootless and unhinged individuals amongst these classes need justification for an easy, debauched and spineless life in this world and an assurance for a safe passage into the next world. They have neither the time nor the patience to deal with complex theological debates; all they need is a simple password for living their present lives unchallenged and unencumbered.
The poet Faiz asks the nation, seen as motherland, as to how many more blood sacrifices it would require in order to turn its pale cheeks rosy. He wonders how many sighs it would require for its heart to find peace and how many tears would be necessary to make your desert bloom (Tujh ko kitnon ka lahu chaheeye aye Arz-e-Watan/Jo tere aaraz-e-berang ko gulnaar karen; Kitni aahon se kaleja tera thanda hoga/Kitne ansoo tere sehraon ko gulzaar karen). In the answer to these questions lies the future of the ideas of India but also of the nation-state.
Jyotirmaya Sharma is Professor of Political Science
University of Hyderabad
and currently, Fellow, Lichtenberg-Kolleg, Goettingen, Germany