A spectre is haunting India — of heightened hatred, communalism and a retreat from knowledge, science and creativity. Left unchecked, these forces can engulf our better sense and harm India, not just in terms of society and culture, but even economic development and growth.
India has long been a poor country, inching up from what the World Bank officially labelled as “low-income” to the “lower-middle income” category in 2007. Yet we had a disproportionate presence in the world’s intellectual space, in the domain of culture, cinema, science and religion.
As a researcher working in Delhi in the 1980s, I remember going to international conferences and being surprised by the large presence of Indians. For a low-income country, this was indeed most remarkable. It was a tribute to India’s intellectual achievement and open-society character. As if this early intellectual investment was ultimately paying off, the Indian economy began to grow well from the mid-1990s, picking up steam in 2003 and again in 2005, after which it remained for several years on a high growth path, well over 9 per cent per annum, which took the country to the middle income cluster.
Unfortunately, in recent times, its global stature in the world of knowledge, science and culture seems to be eroding. A disproportionate amount of global news and writings on India is now related to cow slaughter, gau rakshaks, anti-romeo squads, banning momos, religious intolerance. There is a noticeable drop in India’s visibility in important global debates, from diplomacy and international economic and monetary policy to other urgent concerns of our time.
After Independence, India veered an unusual course. Whereas other poor countries were often dictatorial, trying to whip their nation into rapid growth, with some succeeding but most crashing into ignominy, India made some unexpected choices. India had little success in terms of the economy, at least till the 1990s, but it stood out as a poor country which was, nevertheless, a vibrant democracy. Visitors would get taken aback by the culture of free speech and the impressive and argumentative media. Indian university campuses were like American ones, and maybe more, where people freely debated controversial issues, criticised government, questioned religion. With the exception of 1975-1977, Indira Gandhi’s Emergency years, India never deviated from this path.
Whether this was the right sequence of choices for a newly independent nation may be debated. But what is certain is that India made the harder investments — free speech, openness to cultures from around the world, democracy — early. Now that India is growing well, these are great assets that can make it a vibrant society and also help make the economic growth sustainable. To destroy this capital will be folly.
This is why people, and most importantly political leaders, who want India to do well and flourish ought to sit up and try to change course before the damage becomes endemic. This new communalism and xenophobic aggression stems, paradoxically, from a sense of inferiority about one’s own community and nation. People suffering from this, sadly, begin to imitate the very nations and groups they castigate and criticise.
I remember years ago listening to a politician visiting my father ranting that too many Indian women wore western clothes, adding: “Why should we imitate westerners? They don’t imitate us.” I recall even as a child being embarrassed by how blatantly he was imitating the West.
The tragedy is that what the Hindu fundamentalists and bhakts are pushing India towards is a travesty of the original bhakti movement which began in Tamil Nadu in the 6th century, and stressed the personal nature of religion and emphasised the philosophy and syncretism of Hinduism.
In the mid-19th century, Karl Marx marveled at the remarkable resilience of Hinduism. Whereas in many developing countries, as colonialism spread, the early religions vanished, in India Hinduism withstood repeated attacks and domination. It was non-aggressive but strong. Every time the foreign powers left, there was Hinduism, sometimes a little wilted but ready to sprout again.
Growing up in a traditional Hindu household, I learnt to appreciate this. I was taught by my parents that the caste system, whether or not it is part of Hinduism, is detestable and ought to be rejected. But beyond this, Hinduism appealed because, like the ideas that emerged from classical Greece, the Vedas were imbued with a sense of philosophical wonder and mysticism, treating nothing as too sacred to question. With no central authority, Hinduism is meant to be an open religion, tolerant of diversity. The fact that in my early teens I concluded that the world as we see around us is logically inconsistent with the existence of the kind of God that most religions teach us, did not bother my older relatives, who were devout Hindus.
What we are doing now is attacking the religion from within. Marx may have been right about Hinduism’s resilience to outside attacks but what we risk now is irreparable damage by the very people who claim to be its champions. Hyper-nationalism is a manifestation of an insecurity about one’s place in the world, whereby you want to shape your country and religion in the image of the very countries and religions you claim to detest.
India deserves to flourish as an open multi-cultural society, in which people feel included, irrespective of their race, religion and sexual orientation. If we want to take on important moral causes, we should strive to end caste discrimination, repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which discriminates against gays and for that reason is immoral, and continue to work to raise the status of women.
Among the newly-independent nations of the last century, India stood out as a moral leader in terms of openness to race and religion, and Nehru carried this to the global stage. This was the vision that Rabindranath Tagore wove into his writings. It will be sad to see India retreat from this into narrow backwaters.
If this does not persuade the trolls, there is one more reason. The standard response of the trolls on social media to anybody who questions their ideology is to tell them to go away to Pakistan. Looking at the list of Indian intellectuals, scientists and thinkers who have come under this kind of attack, one thing is clear. If this advice is taken seriously, Pakistan will become the world’s highest IQ nation.