Must liberals oppose Hindu nationalism?

Rather than opposing what cannot be defeated, it may be more profitable to focus on tempering its worst aspects

Written by Rahul Sagar | Updated: April 23, 2018 8:14:02 am
hindu nationalism, liberals, liberals and nationalism, right wing, leftists, indian express Rather than opposing what cannot be defeated, it may be more profitable to focus on tempering its worst aspects (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

In his recent column ‘Liberals and Nationalism’ (IE, March 29), Ashutosh Varshney writes that while liberals can tolerate “civic nationalism”, they are “opposed to Hindu nationalism because it is a form of ethnic nationalism” that is “hostile to minority religions”. With greatest respect for Varshney’s immense scholarship, this claim overestimates civic nationalism’s compatibility with liberalism and underestimates how Hindu nationalism could be made more liberal.

Varshney offers a textbook definition of civic nationalism writing that “civic nations allow citizenship and equal rights to all those born inside the territory of a state regardless of ethnicity, religion or race.” But textbook definitions rarely accord well with reality. Consider the Greek city states with their gods and festivals, the Romans with their omens and oaths, the Italian city states with their Guelphs and Ghibellines, and European states with their national churches. We may bemoan but should not gloss over the brute fact that the progenitors of civic nationalism were undergirded by religion, ethnicity, and race.

What of the contemporary world? The “examples that come closest to the concept” of civic nationalism, Varshney writes, are the US and France. It is hard to take this claim seriously. Pick a landmark text — Alex de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth or Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We — and the common refrain is that the American “creed” vitally depends upon a particular race, religion, and ethnicity. Then there is the history of American legal discrimination, which within living memory comprises the exclusion of “Asiatics” and the “Yellow Peril”. Is the Hindu nationalist who wants to ban beef really going to be impressed by a civic culture where evangelicals are one Supreme Court seat away from proscribing abortion?

Early Hindu nationalists were only too aware that even supposedly civic nations are fundamentally shaped by race, religion, and ethnicity. Recall the circumstances in which their ideas took shape. Like so many of their contemporaries, they recognised that India’s subjugation owed to her fissiparous tendencies. How, then, to achieve the unity required to secure and maintain liberty? Not being prone to flights of fancy, they examined the world around them and noted that established powers like Britain and France as well as rising powers like America, Germany, and Japan rallied their people by appealing to race, religion, and culture. This hard reality they firmly placed at the very heart of their worldview. Only religion, they calculated, could compel Indians to shed their debilitating parochialism and act in a concerted fashion.

Why did what was meant to be an integrative force became obscurantist on the one side and exclusionary on the other?

The obscurantism — the fascination with Vedic spacecraft for example — arose from an understandable desire to bolster self-respect. At first, this desire was well founded because India’s classical history is so rich. But before long the grating claim of Hindu prescience made its appearance. What was once a noble impulse has today become a rallying cry for the criminal and the unstable. We need not respond to this tragedy by dismissing the ancients as “Brahmanical” or “patriarchal”. Let us, instead, draw on the best of our history to criticise the worst of our present. Let us ask the Sangh Parivar: Is lynching fellow citizens what rajdharma teaches?

The exclusionary impulse in Hindu nationalism grew out of the notion that citizens are most willing to fight when their religion is at stake. This is why Hindu nationalists, most notably Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, were troubled by religions that forged bonds between citizens and outsiders. In his words, “everything that is common in us with our enemies, weakens our power of opposing them.” Hence his demand to cut off “even the semblance of a common worship”.

It is an error to think that this view is unique to Hindu nationalists, much less that it was inspired by fascism. The worry that religious bonds can subvert political authority has occupied nearly every canonical thinker from Plato to Rousseau. Just one example: John Locke, a founder of modern liberalism, argued in his Letter on Toleration that a ruler was not obliged to tolerate Catholics as they owed loyalty to the Pope. Few know that even today Catholics are barred from ascending to the English throne.

This recounting of Hindu nationalism’s foundations is meant to offer liberals a glimmer of hope. Since Hindu nationalism appeared in response to weakness, it can be challenged by showing how exclusionary and obscurantist politics actually weaken India. Let us press home the point: A country that divides its citizens and closes its mind will never become a leading power.

This approach, which concedes the importance of national power, will discomfit liberals of a pacific orientation. But what are the alternatives? To divide Hindus by supporting caste politicians whose influence depends on keeping their flocks ossified and dependent on patronage? To supplant religious conflict with caste conflict? These strategies may win an election or two but they will make liberals the foe of the constituency of the future — the educated and enterprising urban middle classes that savour prosperity and order.

The broader point is that liberals must come to terms with the fact that liberalism is under threat everywhere because individual freedom is only one among many competing human values. Over the past half century, liberals have compensated for their weakness in numbers by advancing their values through laws and institutions. Predictably, their opponents have responded by turning suppressed religious, racial, and ethnic preferences into political movements that have pummeled the law and subverted public institutions. This means that so long as liberals remain committed to political freedom and democracy in particular, they will routinely have their noses bloodied by the ballot box. Under the circumstances, rather than opposing what cannot be defeated — human nature — it may be more profitable to focus on tempering the worst aspects of it.

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