Book Review: If England can function as a 'Christian' country, why not India as a 'Hindu Rashtra'?

In a provocative new book, the writer pleads for a modern ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in India and a new deal between Hindus and Muslims

Book Review: If England can function as a 'Christian' country, why not India as a 'Hindu Rashtra'?

Carol Andrade

Was a Western concept of religious neutrality ever suited to a country as deeply conservative and historically religious as India? Was the idea of declaring India a secular state really borne out of Nehru’s “innate liberalism”? After all, there were plenty of doomsayers who predicted that creating India as a secular state was destined to fail. Seventy-five years after Independence was declared, has this come true?

This is a crucial year for India, a year when we celebrate the diamond jubilee of Independence, though there are many who wonder whether “celebrate” is the correct phrase, given the political turmoil and the social roil in civil society. Indeed, the question uppermost in the minds of a large section of the thinking populous is whether we should call ourselves a secular nation any longer.

Constitutionally, there is no ambiguity about the kind of India imagined by the men who fought for Independence – a country where all religions must live in respect and harmony. Practically, however, the secular identity of the world’s largest democracy has always been on shaky ground, chimerical and mirage-like at best, naked and defenseless against the onslaught of an increasingly aggressive Hindu nationalism at worst.

These questions, arguments and debates around them are now offered up for further scrutiny in a compact volume by journalist, Wolfson Fellow and scholar of identity politics and Hindu-Muslim relations, Hasan Suroor.

Using history, contemporary politics and empiricism, he examines how India got to where it is, whether we can ever “go back” to “the way we were” (spoiler alert – we cannot) and how the way forward forces us to embrace truths about this all-important relationship that are mostly unpalatable.

Suroor calls himself “one of Salman Rushdie’s metaphorical ‘midnight’s children’, referring to those born around the same time India achieved Independence in 1947. So, he was born into a brand new country already riven by the terrible tragedy of Partition.

To be a Muslim at the time was to carry heavy baggage comprising trauma and the insecurity of a community trying to find its feet in the face of drastically changed circumstances, compounded in their case by the suspicion from the Hindu Right that they were actually enjoying the best of both worlds-- being part of the larger “ummah” with easy access to Pakistan, while, at the same time, secure in their homeland, where they had elected to remain. Nor was credit given for the fact that they had opted to stay back, resulting in uncertainty about their future.

This is not to say that there were no tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities before Partition. But, Suroor points out, the aftermath of Partition post-Independence exacerbated the issue. At its heart was the concept of secularism, with the usually “more vocal and belligerent” critics banging on about the worm at its heart – “the prioritizing of minority interests”. This is what swayed even liberal Hindus, leading to the present day seeming impasse.

Left liberal scholars, who were unashamed proponents of secularism 20 years ago even after the 2002 Gujarat riots, are now beginning to change their opinion that secularism is still the way forward. Prof Neera Chandoke, who contributed to the still optimistic ‘Will Secular India Survive?’ in 2004, was, ten years later, arguing about the need to re-examine the concept against the background of a “post-secular age” making its presence felt all over the globe.

Dr. Rajiv Bhargava of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, went a step further in 2020. In the annual Asghar Ali Engineer Lecture, he pronounced its doom and suggested “radical course correction” to save it. And it was not just Hindus of a certain persuasion who felt like this. Muslims did too.

One point that Suroor makes should be highlighted. He suggests that in its present form and as it has been practised over 70 years, secularism has benefited no one. In the face of sweeping and usually ill-thought-out reservations that are aimed at minority groups, the majoritarian groups have definitely missed out. However, so have Muslims who have been the victims of insidious forms of exclusivism as it has been practised, politically, economically and socially.

This is ironic, since Suroor assures readers that Muslims have no particular attachment to secularism “except as a constitutional guarantee against discrimination on religious grounds”.

That this particular guarantee has been a spectacular failure, beginning slowly from 1992 and the fall of the Babri Masjid, to the present day when there is no longer much pretence about the direction that our policy makers are taking this country, should be a wake-up call to those still living in that la-laland when Hindu-Muslim brotherhood was a fond hallucination.

So, what are the alternatives to a constitutional guarantee of narrow secularism that will allow us to hold on to the idea of India as a nation anchored in its past but looking forward to the future? Could it be a theocracy, unashamedly rooted in the idea that God guides the leaders and everything is divinely ordained, hence unquestionable?

While undoubtedly appealing to a thankfully smaller number even among Hindu nationalists, this is hardly going to help India govern the significant percent of its citizens who are not Hindu. Besides, think of the international optics in what is, after all, a global village.

Could it be a modern theocratic democracy which is not to be confused with the aforementioned theocratic state, along the lines of eastern Christian democracies or even Islamic ones like Malaysia or Bangladesh? Imagine what this would be like, urges Suroor – a modern Hindu state committed to democracy, with a state-sanctioned religion like the UK or Ireland, not governed by religious laws but modern principles of statecraft rooted in liberty, equality and brotherhood. “In fact”, says Suroor fairly early on in his book, most newly-independent democracies “are hybrid in nature and combine elements of majoritarianism with secular practices”.

What will it take for this reasonably happy state to come about, given that currently, both sides of the issue of secularism are not even debating it, never mind trying to find common ground on which to come to a consensus?

Suroor admits that for a happy outcome, it will be the Muslims who must walk a greater distance, because they have that much more to lose. Whether this will be enough for a majority community that has begun to see definite results from its sustained campaign of hate and divisiveness remains to be seen. Hate, it must be said, can be a heady potion.

(Carol Andrade is a senior journalist and media educator based in Mumbai) Disclaimer: Hasan Suroor writes a column in the National Herald from London

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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