Opinion: India needs a new modernismhttps://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-needs-a-new-modernism/

Opinion: India needs a new modernism

This project will be fraught and dangerous. But the defence of India’s republican ideal requires more than nostalgic appeals to our supposedly tolerant heritage.

Mohammed Akhlaq, Mohammed Akhlaq Dadri, Dadri lynching, communal riots, communal violence, caste conflicts, Indian express, express column
For an idea to be legitimate in a republic, its foundations must rest on reason — not beliefs. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

In May, 1916, a crowd gathered in Waco, Texas, some of it made up children on their school lunch-break, cheering as 17 year-old, mentally-disabled Jesse Washington was castrated, and his fingers cut off, before he was burned to death over a slow fire for two hours. Parts of his charred body were sold as souvenirs. Local photographers sold post-cards of the event: “This is the Barbecue we had last night”, one reads, in faded brown ink, “my picture is to the left with a cross over it”.

Muhammad Akhlaq, slaughtered last month in the name of the cow, wasn’t the first victim of the communal conflagration that’s scorching large swathes of India—and he hasn’t been the last.

The cow-protection campaign is the most visible element of the violence. It isn’t, however, the only one: dozens of neo-fundamentalist cults, mainly drawn from the Hindutva movement, but also Sikh and Muslim communities, have all claimed lives in recent months and years.

Like the great tide of racist lynchings—driven by the need to build white solidarity across class in a time of dramatic demographic, economic and political change—this neo-fundamentalist tide serves deep social needs. Nostalgic appeals to India’s traditions of tolerance will not, and cannot, address the crisis.


Instead, India’s liberals have a far larger task: to bring to India a republican political culture centred around citizenship, and a norm-based civil life.

“England” Karl Marx noted in his now-unfashionable 1853 essay on colonial India, “has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history”.

The signs of a society in the process of an epic reordering have been around us from the moment of independence, evidence that the great upheavals wrought by capitalism are still far from spent: struggles over caste, class and identity have raged uninterrupted.

From authority structures within families to the status of women: capitalism has, broken the most basic build-blocks of India’s civic life. In 1957, the scholar R Datta Choudhury noted that “the traditional joint family remains, by and large, the most common characteristic of Indian family”. Inside a generation, the demographer JP Singh has noted, the norm has reversed; even where the joint family exists, he notes, it does so “in a nominal or skeleton form”.

India is seeing the emergence of a giant cohort of dependent elderly, at precisely the same time record undereducated young people are struggling to find work. The country needed to be creating a million jobs a year; it cut 5 million in the high-growth years of 2004-5 and 2009-10.

To this, we may add a society where brutality is the warp and weft of everyda life. Half of all Indian children, official data shows; report sexual abuse; seven in ten violence. The scholar Antonio Gramsci noted that Fascism arose in a society “where mothers educate their infant children by hitting them on the head with clogs”.

His description of pre-Fascist class relations also rings true in modern India: “each year several dozen workers fell in the streets; and peasants were sent to pick grapes in some places with muzzles on, for fear they might taste the fruit”.

Liberals seeking to address hate-politics need to speak to these experiences—and provide a road-map to a livable future. Experiences of states from South Korea to Cuba tells us that a robust state, providing services like education and health, is key to a successful transition to modernity. India, though, just doesn’t have the capacities to do so. This vacuum creates a society where the violence is seen as the upholder of order against anarchy. This is the tie that binds the communal rioter with the ethnic-religious insurgent and, indeed, the caste gang-rape.

Figures produced by New Delhi-based analyst Ajai Sahni tell the story. The United States federal government has 889 employees per 100,000 population; India’s Union government has just 295, overwhelmingly non-executive. Local and state government employees in the United States number 6,314 per 100,000; Uttar Pradesh has 352; Bihar, 472; even Gujarat, 1,694. The public service providers India needs just don’t exist.

India’s police-population ratio, at 150:100,000 population, is similarly anemic, contrasted with the typical levels of over 250:100,000 in most Western societies—societies, it bear mention, that are far more orderly. Even India’s ratio of active-duty troops to population, at 1:866, is far below China, with 1:591, Pakistan, with 1:279, or the United States, with 1:187.

The Indian state’s capacity to dispense justice is even worse than its feeble ability to ensure order. India has about 1.2 judges per 100,000 population; the United States 11; China 17 and Germany: 25

For the practice of politics, the anaemia of the state has had practical consequences. Power has contracted out to community-level tyrants, whose kingdoms draw legitimacy from tradition—not the law.

These tyrannies co-exist in a state of permanent warfare, each waging battles of attrition without end, to shore up group boundaries; to signal to the state their power; to unite followers through the ritual shedding of blood.

For decades now, the State has worked to institutionalise this system—playing High-Inquisitor amongst a mosaic of warring groups. Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code allows prosecution of “whoever destroys, damages or defiles any place of worship, or any object held sacred by any class”. Section 295A permits punishment of whoever “insults or attempts to insult … religion”. That people kill for cows ought not surprise: the law, after all, long ago conceded that a man who eats a cow is a danger to the people.

Tolerance-centred responses concede legitimacy to hate politics, granting it virtue if only it would temper its practice. The hate-fuelled mob Bisada, after all, would have to be admitted to be virtuous if only it tolerated Muhammad Akhlaq. It also denies to liberalism the right to challenge, even provoke—hard-won rights key to building a new society.


“We live in a difficult time”, the scholar John Verges wrote to the great humanist Desidarius Erasmus in the midst of the Inquisition, “it is dangerous either to speak or be silent”. That is true—but silence, Indians know better than most, is the beginning of a certain path to perdition.