The discussions on Ayodhya seem to have settled into the familiar polarised camps — the Hindutva-Bharatiya view (IE, August 4, Manmohan Vaidya, ‘A temple for Bharat’) that sees Ayodhya as symbolic of Indian civilisational values versus the secular view (IE, August 4, Suhas Palshikar, ‘August 5’) that sees Ayodhya as destructive of the constitutional-republican foundations of modern India. Such polarisation has created more heat than light for ordinary Indians and allowed both sides to evade responsibility for the real challenges we face today.
These challenges include a continued ambivalence towards economic liberalisation and the resulting growth slowdown (much before the pandemic), the need to shrink the public sector and reduce unhealthy dependency on part of citizens on the state, the ongoing criminalisation of our legislatures, the politicisation of caste and the tolerance by local authorities of the poor state of education and health.
For Ayodhya to be more than symbolic, and not merely destructive, we must find a middle-ground — one that both reaffirms the Bharatiya tradition and returns the Indian republic to its constitutional foundations.
The Ayodhya verdict comes at a crucial turning point in our post-independence history — the collapse of the Congress confirms that our affair with socialism was ill-conceived, but our rejection, in the name of secularism, of the Mahatma’s call for a return to India’s dharmic tradition has created an ethical vacuum. We have indulged in a costly detour that has weakened our democratic institutions all around. A genuine constitutional-correction is needed if India is to be put on the path of real reform and sustainable progress. As a first step, we ought to remove the words “Secular, Socialist” inserted into the Constitution in 1976 — words that B R Ambedkar had strongly opposed inserting — and return it to the original definition of India as a “Sovereign, Democratic Republic”. Such a correction would embrace the basic principles of Ramrajya, Swarajya, and Swadharma that the Mahatma, along with a long line of Indian thinkers prior to Independence, believed should inform the nature of the Indian state and its relationship with citizens. A return to these principles is needed if ordinary Indians are to see beyond the current polarised debate that has only served the political interests on both sides.
At the heart of Ramrajya is the Upanishadic ideal of individual self-governance — of Swarajya guided by Swadharma and ahimsa. For Gandhi, Ramrajya and Swarajya were the same. He saw individual adherence to these behavioural precepts as a necessary condition for good governance by the community or the state. His test for Ramrajya could only be met in terms of individual conduct — whether that of a Brahmin or a minister. For example, Gandhi viewed the campaign against caste discrimination as part of an individual’s moral self-betterment required if the goal of Ramrajya was to be achieved. Critics who confound Ramrajya with an imaginary theocratic state, or dismiss Gandhi’s views as utopian, fail to consider the real-world, secular consequences of ignoring the Upanishadic behavioural precepts — namely the rejection of an approach to reform centred on the individual. As a result, caste discrimination has come to be defined in terms of political and socio-economic conflict between groups with set identities — an approach that has failed to rid Indian society of caste discrimination while hardening the very identities it hoped to overcome.
The call for Swaraj was neither a mercantilist prescription for protectionism nor for a welfare state to meet the basic needs of its citizens. It was a call for reducing the individual’s dependence on the state. Gandhi saw the dominance of the state as undermining progress. Thus, both Tagore (in his 1904 essay, ‘Society and State’) and Gandhi rejected the British welfare-state model, fearing that state-led schemes would weaken individual commitments to their respective duties, and undermine the ability of communities to self-provide for their basic needs, including education, water, and sanitation. In 1931, Gandhi blamed the large drop in literacy rates in India on the imposition by the British of a state school system that would supplant the self-sufficient, private fee-based system of village-schools. Ironically, the latter had proven to be an efficient and affordable basis for mass literacy in Europe almost a century earlier.
If we are to uphold Swarajya, we ought to support rather than handicap the poor in their search for meaningful education wherever they find it. Especially today, seeing how the poor have taken upon themselves to pull their children out of free but failing public schools, and are enrolling them in relatively better performing fee-based private schools being set up by local communities — in slums and poorer neighbourhoods — across India.
The ideal of Swadharma highlights the moral commitment made by an individual to her work. The secular ideology of state socialism instead rests on a schizophrenic view of the individual that divorces the public good from its moral basis in an individual’s Swadharma. That excessive control by the state has undermined the moral commitment to work and led to a corruption of Swadharma in all spheres of public and private activity in India, would not surprise Gandhi; nor would the criminalisation of the legislative branch of government and the tolerance of violence that has accompanied the growth of state power. Gandhi urged us instead to build our individual moral commitments in every sphere of work, while constraining the role of the state to the minimum. For Ayodhya to be more than symbolic, and not merely destructive, we must not remain satisfied with the construction of a physical temple to Ram. We have to take the steps needed to bring about a genuine Ramrajya for future generations of Indians.
This article appeared in the print edition on September 4, 2020 under the title ‘The road from the temple’. The writer is with the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, American University, Washington DC.