India is changing – fast and on the run. Consider first, the distance Modi’s BJP has traveled from being a pro-business, pro-markets, pro small government, quasi “liberal” party in 2014 to becoming indistinguishable from the left in terms of its devotion to “welfarism” and large government. Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee said as much recently in an Express Adda in Mumbai.
This transformation is unexceptional in a country where one fourth of the population remains poor and public services fail to protect those in the bottom half of the income demographics from lapsing into poverty due to emergencies, disasters and external shocks.
For far too long now, we have taken the political passivity of the bottom half for granted and continued to cynically “manage” them politically using the social pressure tactics of caste or religion, raw State muscle or patrimonial, symbiotic relationships.
No party accepts that this exploitation should continue. Nor is anything done to break out of the status quo. The reason is obvious. To stir the pot would be like opening a Pandora’s Box of hidden maelstroms. To its credit, the Modi government has chosen to do exactly that by questioning our shallow commitment to “secularism”.
How many degrees of separation from the norm does it take to be secular?
Per the eminent political theorist, Professor Rajeev Bhargava the four principal variants of secularism are reflected in the US, France, the UK and India. In the US the State deals in an even-handed manner with all religions because religious freedom – including in some extreme cases, refusing medical aid or the right to bear firearms- is part of individual liberty, a principle very dear to them.
France is rabidly pernickety in cleansing the State and the public space from “religious” and often even “new and unfamiliar cultural” symbols. Hence the occasional outrage at a Burkha clad bank-teller or a Burkini on the beach.
The UK, at its befuddled best advocates secular rights for citizens even though the State has an in-house Church. It is unlikely a Hindu, a Muslim or a Buddhist could marry into the Windsor royal family anytime soon – though don’t be surprised – now that a curl has been introduced into the Royal genes, anything is possible down the road! The UK has an unrivaled record of creating a multi-racial, multi-cultural society better than any place else, excepting possibly Canada. And that could be one reason why the Sussex Royals want to relocate there whilst remaining within Her Majesty’s Dominions.
India’s secular constitutional credentials
India is secular on paper but in a deeply flawed manner. Religion is entrenched in society and State actions get similarly colored. Our constitutional devotion to secularism dates back just to the last three generations of Indians. That’s not much considering our recorded history dates back more than 3 millennia. Add to that the inefficiencies inherent to a resource starved government which stokes competitive acquisition by cohesive groups of access to public goods and the need for significant restraint by the majority community so that minority grievances do not go unattended, becomes obvious.
How minorities fare in secular India
The Parsis, have created a self-sufficient ecosystem which they share sparingly with others to induce good relationships. Buddhists have remained below the radar. The Sikhs have trodden a compliant path after the great denouement of the Khalistan movement. Christianity was in the cross hair two decades ago but that seems past now – though western learning, culture and food habits are being looked at askance by the “nationalist” BJP, much as imported “chiffon” became emblematic of colonialism during the freedom struggle.
“Hinduness” can be a glue
India has a poly-religious culture. But the headline keynotes are Hindu. This undercurrent of Hinduism comes to the fore at State events where Hindu gods are propitiated– to the exclusion of the gods of other religions; army units with a history going back two centuries continue to draw soldiers from traditional recruiting areas defined by religion reinforcing traditional identities. And now the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 bars Muslims refugees from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan from the right to naturalization whilst welcoming Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis.
Not all Hindus agree that in trying to set “right the past” – if that is ever possible – an optimum course has been charted by the government. Whether in economics or in politics India has a habit of reverting to the mean and shuns dramatic, big bang reform.
Our poverty, the dilapidated state public infrastructure and our empty treasury militate strongly against our rocking the social boat of co-existence. An actively pro-Hindu policy has consequences.
Sinking differences is a national priority and an economic necessity
Consider that the Union government already spends slightly more than 28 percent of its current revenues or 2.7 per cent of our GDP on security – three fourths on defence and the rest on domestic security. Expenditure by the state governments who are mandated to maintain law and order, detect and prosecute crime and do most of the heavy lifting for servicing local public security needs, is additional to this spend. The Union Government’s spend is primarily for border patrolling; armed riot police; national intelligence gathering; syndicated crime detection and prosecution.
Compare this with the relatively paltry Union Government spend on Health and Education – where it similarly shares the constitutional mandate with state governments – of 8 per cent of its current revenues or 1 per cent of GDP.
This is not to say that the outlay for the security sector is wasteful. Security is a core sovereign task whilst the private sector can provide health and education services. But surely the national priority should be to preserve and deepen the existing inter-faith bonds across social groupings to deepen and preserve an organic peace.
Fundamentalism out of sync with the times
Why must we adopt an “eye for an eye” strategy to retaliate against hate crimes committed against Hindus overseas. Even in the ultra-conservative Islamic state of Saudi Arabia, the winds of liberalization are gently introducing change. Militant Islam is not a template exportable to any modern nation.
No Indian would ever object to resettling of persecuted, overseas Hindus in India. After all, as the government says, where else can they go except to Nepal or India. This is high minded and perfectly in keeping with our socially conscious constitution.
What is puzzling is the compulsion to deny the same privilege to Muslims who might have emigrated from India post-independence. Extending the privilege of “coming home” to those who might have once emigrated, irrespective of religion, would have been in keeping with the spirit and glue of “Hinduness” encompassing anyone who belongs to this great land and chooses to adopt it as their karmbhoomi. Political gamesmanship alone does not a great nation make, much less a great power.