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Archive for the ‘Harkishan Singh Surjeet’ Category

The Monk and Haryana’s Assembly

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Haryana’s folk dances are vigorous and fiesty like its people. Photo credit:alchetron.com

Haryana wears its heart and mind on its sleeve. There is a lot of brawn and bravado but little guile here. Last week, the Haryana Assembly listened in rapt attention to a pravachan (teachings of a holy person) by a Jain monk. Alarm bells rang immediately in the citadels of prickly pseudo-secular vigilantism.

The Indian Constitution clubs Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists under the broader rubric of “Hindus”. So, the choice of a Jain monk, rather than a Hindu priest, to preach to the Assembly was a clever and far-reaching tactic to formalise the mix of religion with politics. Clever, because the minority Jain community is being used as a proxy for Hindu thought. Far reaching because, frankly, it was disturbing, coming from an overwhelmingly Hindu state, ruled by the BJP.

The politico-religious cocktail 

In these fractious times, an overt mix of religion and politics is unusual. The practice has been to keep religion distanced from the formal processes of the State, whilst discreetly extracting political mileage from religious discord. Secular fundamentalists cavil that unless the strictest oversight is exercised, in this God-fearing, Hindu dominant country, religion can creep into politics and governance, to the detriment of marginalised communities. They have a point. In earlier days, prayers on public occasions were explicitly secular. Holy men from all major religions were allotted time for doing their bit. But this tradition has waned during the last two decades. Hindus no longer feel obliged to be subdued, lest they offend minorities. This is a healthy development. Truth needs to be spoken and recognised before reconciliation can happen. Paying lip service to secularism, whilst practising a more partisan strategy, has done little for those away from the mainstream.

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1986 – Shah Bano – a Muslim, who had to fight a majority government, pandering to populist Islamic orthodoxy, for getting maintenance from a divorced husband, even after getting relief from a progressive judiciary.  

India: a “benignly Hindu” majority state

The “syncretic” culture of India is predominantly Hindu. We are more comfortable with Barelvi Sufi version of Islam than the more strident Wahhabi Deobandi type. This illustrates that strident, ritualised religion — whether Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or Sikhism, does not align with the benign and neutral constitutional provisions. Citizenship, not religion, is the primary identity of Indians. This is the essence of a modern, secular state.

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Haryana: Treading thorny paths

Haryana has initiated a novel experiment of democratising religion by inviting a never-before direct interaction between a religious leader and elected legislators. This has been long overdue. Legislators reflect voter preferences better than intellectuals. But their formal duties thrust them into an artificial bubble, which bars frank recognition of the extent to which religion both deeply divides and elevates India. Nothing wrong in puncturing the bubble. But the Haryana experiment will lack credibility as a “positive new beginning”, unless it promotes similar interaction with religious leaders of all denominations.

Religion can be inherently divisive, particularly in the highly-contested political environment of democracy. This is why Communist regimes stand out from other political parties, in that they steadfastly ignore religion. Harkishan Singh Surjeet, the wily politician and grand old man of the CPI(M), passed on in 2008. He was a Sikh. But at his funeral, there were no religious rituals beyond a spirited Lal Salaam. Contrast this with the traditional rituals which accompany the sendoff for other departed leaders.

The Indian “glue”: beyond religion?

Hum Hindustani poster

The overlay, mostly incipient but often explicit, between religion and politics, has been a fact in the subcontinent since Independence. Pakistan hived itself off into an Islamic state consisting of physically and culturally separated West Pakistan and Bengali-speaking East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Surely, the fact that Pakistan split subsequently, despite a common religion and that Nepal, despite being a predominantly Hindu state, holds its sovereignty dear, sufficiently illustrates that Hinduism is not the primary glue which binds India. India is predominantly Hindu. But significant political jurisdictions, where 32 per cent of our people live, are not. These states cannot ignore the salience of a plural polity. Nagaland and Mizoram are predominantly Christian; the Kashmir Valley is Muslim; Punjab is 60 per cent Sikh; 20 per cent of West Bengal, 18 per cent of Uttar Pradesh and 17 per cent of Bihar is Muslim; 19 per cent of Kerala is Muslim and 25 per cent is Christian; Goa is 26 per cent Christian.

Sanitize religion for inclusive democracy

Rather than hiding from religion as an identity, dealing with it upfront and sanitising it democratically, could have real value. The pseudo-secularist approach, driven by 1950s beliefs in modernity versus tradition as values, rather than processes, relies on insulating politics from religion as the right way to go. Nothing could be worse, if the ground realities do not reflect this belief.

Far from fading away, across the world, religion as an identity is fighting back. And this is true across all religions. The modern state needs to explicitly factor in the resilience of religion as a treasured personal belief. But just as surely, the State needs to enforce constitutional rights across all religions. In particular, the religious marginalisation of minorities, dalits, women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community come to mind. The available constitutional safeguards need to override religious biases against these communities. Upfront, visible confirmation of this intent by the leadership would be transformative.

If Haryana has this resolve then bridging the gulf between politics and religion makes eminent sense. If the moral fiber of politicians can be strengthened by religion, without diluting their constitutional commitment to safeguard the marginalised, the benefits of religious teachings far outweigh the costs. After all pragmatic Haryana filters all actions through the “value for money” lens.

But it is a thin line the legislators walk between legitimising naked majoritarianism — Haryana is 95 per cent Hindu — and spring-cleaning their minds as they run through the full gamut of multi-faith religious discourses in the Assembly. The stout bamboo lath (stick) that the archetypal Haryanvi “tau” (great uncle) is caricatured to carry is as useful to balance on a tight wire as it is to subdue dissent. It all depends on the intent with which it is wielded.

 

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Asian August 30, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/jain-monk-house-unhealthy-precedent-052

Bleeding heart liberals are social hypocrites

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Graphic credit: chloesimonevaldary.com

Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage — playing in Mumbai and Delhi — makes us laugh at ourselves by stripping bare the self-serving hypocrisy underlying socially acceptable roles. Bleeding-heart Indian social liberals would do well to see themselves in the mirror via this play.

Admittedly, we humans must get beyond our basically brutish nature. But the first step to doing this is not to be in denial about the brute within us. Narendra Modi baiters are particularly delusional about themselves.

For them Mr Modi is forever damned because of the Gujarat riots in 2002 and because he refuses to atone at the altar of “secularism” that Indira Gandhi embedded in the Constitution in 1976 along with the subsidiary altar of “socialism”.

We have, since 1990, correctly turned a Nelson’s eye to the latter as has the rest of the world. But liberals fear that both the right (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bharatiya Janata Party) and the left (communists), are so committed to their own political “ideology” that they aim to substitute liberal democracy with state authoritarianism.

The left has made itself redundant in India, so the real threat to liberalism is from the Modi government. The examples used to illustrate the increasingly “heavy hand” of the state are the clamp down on NGOs — Teesta Setalvad and Greenpeace; the attempt by the executive to reclaim the power to appoint higher judiciary; and current administrative practices like the “gag order” by home minister Rajnath Singh on officials hobnobbing with the press.

Are, then, Prime Minister Modi’s intentions subversive?

First, let’s consider the alleged attempt to misuse official authority to muzzle NGO critics.

Misuse of authority can only be assessed in two ways — either via the judicial process or via loss of public support, as happened resoundingly in 1977. Indira Gandhi was damned by the judicial process before being damned by the electorate post-Emergency.

In Mr Modi’s case, no adverse judicial outcome taints him. His significant popular mandate is likely to be re-endorsed in the Bihar state elections later this year. The Opposition has a majority in the Rajya Sabha and the judiciary remains generously tolerant towards public interest litigants. Both checks are working well. With respect to the “gag order”, post the RTI legislation, access to public information is institutionalised. Yes, news hounds can no longer get “breaking news” easily, but that is no great loss.

Second, when was India ever a social, liberal democracy? Mahatma Gandhi was a social liberal, like Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but the tactics he used show that the country was not. That is why he mobilised the majority via religious means — bhajans and kirtans.

By preferring Nehru as the de facto Congress leader to Jinnah (who was never much of a hard-core Muslim), the Mahatma bowed to his political assessment that the Hindu majority would not accept anyone except a co-religionist as their leader. This was good realpolitik and has been the broad political trend since Independence.

After Independence, none of the national parties — the Congress, the Janata Dal, leave alone the BJP — have ever had anyone other than a Hindu as their supreme political leader. The only recent exception is Sonia Gandhi of the Congress. But even her links into politics are exceptionally pucca, upper caste Hindu. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is meant to be areligious, has had only one non-Hindu — a Sikh, Harkishan Singh Surjeet — as its general secretary from 1992 to 2005.

Indians feel comfortable being led by those who are from their own social group. For national issues religion and caste are the bonding factors. For state level elections, caste is the major factor; at the village level it is sub-caste or clan. This is hardly a characteristic of a liberal democracy.

The liberal political elite do a great disservice by spinning the myth of a liberal India. A more honest assessment would be of India as a seething cauldron of competing social groups held in balance by quasi-colonial state power. Recognising oneself, as I said earlier, is the first step to reconciliation and reform.

In a democracy, numbers count. To protect itself, minorities either have to increase their numbers, as the Hispanics and blacks are doing in the US, or they have to stay below the radar while aligning broadly with the majority goals. The US, a land of immigrants, has no qualms about requiring everyone to be American — in language and in culture, such as it is. France is even less tolerant of cultural or linguistic deviance. In comparison, India adjusts to linguistic, religious and cultural diversity. But till the Hindu population is in a majority they shall dictate the music to be played, as they have done since 1947.

India has remained an “administered” democracy of the colonial style — the spirit is scarce but bells and whistles abound — albeit better administered than it was pre-Independence. Prime Minister Modi’s moves are merely a muscular rendition of what all directly elected Prime Ministers did prior to 1989. Thereafter, coalition governments diminished the stature of the Prime Minister, who, in terms of formal powers, is more powerful than the American President. Those who have been socialised only during the last two decades of “coalition dharma”, when listless governance was the norm, need not be alarmed at the vigorous use of the available constitutional powers.

Any real democracy merely reflects the norms and aspirations of the people. This is the central conundrum of the Arab Spring that ended up fanning radical Islam instead of modernising North Africa and West Asia.

Urban folks worry too much about the seeming frailty of Indian democracy. They also exaggerate the role played by the media, civil society and intelligentsia as the bulwarks against its demise. The real custodians of democracy are the enormous variety of vertically and horizontally arrayed social groups, each negotiating to safeguard its own special interests and societal norms. By their very presence they illustrate that there is a competitive market for political power in India. Unsurprisingly, as in any market, bargaining power in a democracy is with the majority. But every market has to be regulated to be efficient and equitable. That is what Parliament and the judiciary are expected to do in our system. If democracy ever dies, it is these two institutions which will be responsible, not the executive or the people of India.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age July 29, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/hypocrisy-socialist-liberals-635

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