Liberal & secular India: An idea that misread history?

Anjum Altaf

The overwhelming triumph of the BJP in the recent elections is being interpreted by many as the death of a liberal, plural and secular India. This is a misreading of history.
Two distinctions are relevant. First, while post-1947 India was indeed characterised by the ideas of liberalism, pluralism and secularism, these were ideals towards which Nehru wanted to move the country, not necessarily what India was actually like. Second, the long sweep of social history being unaffected by arbitrary dates on the calendar, there is no compelling reason to base our understanding of India solely on what transpired after 1947.
Setting aside the ideas of India that marked the times of Ashoka or Akbar, in the decades leading up to 1947 there were at least three other ideas of India in competition with Nehru’s. As articulated by Sunil Khilnani in his excellent book The Idea of India, the oldest among these was Savarkar’s Hindutva conceived as far back as 1923. Then there was Gandhi’s idea of a village-based, anti-industrial society and Patel’s idea that preferred market capitalism to Nehru’s Fabian socialism. While Gandhi’s idea was swept aside as utopian, and Patel’s early death left his vision without a champion, it was Nehru’s pre-eminent position in the negotiations for Independence that enabled him to impose his vision on a Congress whose underlying sympathies were actually more attuned to Savarkar. It is a fact that liberalism, pluralism and secularism resonated very little with the mass of the Indian population. Nehru’s was really an elite project, launched without any consultation with the population and over the sentiments of
the rank and file of the Congress Party. As Khilnani summed it up succinctly, “Most people in India had no idea of what exactly they had been given.”
The second distinction, that of the continuity of social history, was reflected most clearly in the prophetic words of Ambedkar articulated in 1949: “Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Ambedkar was referring to the India that had existed for centuries, an India not only undemocratic but deeply hierarchical and unequal, characterised by a social exclusiveness almost unparalleled in human experience. To turn this unequal society, whose very basis was found on exclusiveness, into an inclusive one was an outlandish ambition. Dr Ambedkar knew that well when he made the profound observation that “democracy was not a form of government: it was essentially a form of society” and warned: “How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will do so only by putting our political democracy in peril.”
Sunil Khilnani has noted that the social structure in India was even impervious to urbanisation: “Unlike in Europe, where city air was expected to loosen the stifling social bonds of traditional community and to create a society of free individuals, the cities organised by the Raj’s policies reinforced contrary tendencies in Indian society. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, caste groups, paradoxically began to emerge as collective actors and to conflict with one another in the city itself, the putative arena of modernity.” It is the unequal, hierarchical, exclusive and undemocratic India that has asserted itself with a majoritarian vengeance in the most recent re-election of the BJP. The short-lived attempt to transform India into a liberal, plural and secular polity has failed with the thin top-dressing, an epiphenomenon courtesy of the Raj and its education of the leading personalities in the struggle for Independence being finally washed away for good.
The social structures of the subcontinent, where there has been no social revolution of the kind Ambedkar identified, are reasserting themselves as the effects of the British interregnum fade away. One has to credit the late poet Fahmida Riaz for being among the first to understand these realities when she told Indians almost 40 years ago that they were no different from Pakistanis — tum to bilkul ham jaise nikley / ab tak kahan chuppe they bhai. In hindsight, this should have been no surprise since social history is not altered by artificial lines in the sand.