Home > 2016 > Idea of India: A New Agenda for Reclaiming Secular Democracy

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 27 New Delhi June 25, 2016

Idea of India: A New Agenda for Reclaiming Secular Democracy

Sunday 26 June 2016, by Sitaram Yechury

The following is the speech delivered by the CPI-M General Secretary at the EMS Smrithi, Thrissur, (Kerala) on June 13, 2016.

I am, indeed, very happy to be back at the EMS Smrithi. I am honoured to inaugurate this 2016 discussions on the ‘Idea of India: A New Agenda for Reclaiming Secular Democracy’.

‘Idea of India’ — The Backdrop

The emergence of Nation-States was integral to the long process of transition of human civilisation from the stage of feudalism to capitalism. This period also threw up in Europe, the struggle for the separation of the State from the Church. The triumph of capitalism over feudalism, at the same time, signified the separation of the political authority from the myth of a divine sanction to rule invoked by Kings and Emperors across the civilisations during the high time of feudalism. The agreements of Westphalia finally signed in 1648 laid the principles of sovereignty of the Nation- State and the consequent international laws and is widely believed to establish an international system on the basis of the principle of sovereignty of States; principle of equality between States; and the principle of non-intervention of one State in the internal affairs of another State usually referred to as the Westphalian system. Westphalian Peace was negotiated between 1644-48 between the major European powers. These treaties laid the basis for a host of international laws many of which remain in force today.

During the course of the defeat of fascism in World War II and the consequent dynamics of decolonisation, the people’s struggles for freedom from colonialism threw up many constructs regarding the character of these independent countries. For sure, such constructs arose out of a long struggle in individual countries against colonialism, including India, during this period.

‘Idea of India’ — Evolution

The concept of the ‘Idea of India’ emerged during the epic people’s struggle for India’s freedom from British colonialism. What is this ‘Idea of India’? To put it in simple terms, though conscious of its complex multiple dimensions, this concept represents the idea that India as a country moves towards transcending its immense diversities in favour of a substantially inclusive unity of its people.

Prof Akeel Bilgrami, in his introduction to a volume of essays containing revised versions of lectures on the relations between politics and political economy in India given at a seminar in 2010 at the Heymen Centre for Humanities at Columbia University, New York (a Centre that he chaired then), says about my observations on the ‘Idea of India’, then, the following:

“(This) might be viewed as an ideal of a nation that rejects the entire trajectory in Europe that emerged after the Westphalian peace. What emerged then (and there) was a compulsion to seek legitimacy for a new kind of state, one that could no longer appeal to older notions of the ‘divine right’ of states personified in their monarchs. It sought this legitimacy in a new form of political psychology of a new kind of subject, the ‘citizen’, a psychology based on a feeling for a new form of entity that had emerged, the ‘nation’. This feeling, which came to be called ‘nationalism’, had to be generated in the populace of citizens, and the standard process that was adopted in Europe for generating it was to find an external enemy within, the outsider, the ‘other’ in one’s midst (the Irish, the Jews, to name just two), to be despised and subjugated. In a somewhat later time, with the addition of a more numerical and statistical form of discourse, these came to be called ‘minorities’ and the method by which this feeling for the nation was created came to be called ‘majoritarianism’.” (Social Scientist, January-February 2011)

The RSS/BJP objective of replacing the secular democratic modern Indian Republic with their concept of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is, in a sense, a throw back to the Westphalian model where the Hindu majority subjugates other religious minorities (mainly Muslim: the external enemy within) to foster ‘Hindu Nationalism’ as against ‘Indian Nationhood’. This, in fact, represents a throw back to notions of nationalism that dominated the intellectual discourse prior to the sweep of the Indian people’s struggle for freedom. Such a State, based on ‘Majoritarianism’—their version of a rabidly intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’—negates the core, around which emerged the consciousness of Indian Nationhood contained in the ‘Idea of India’ as a reflection of the emergence of “a political psychology of a new kind”.

The RSS/BJP ideologues dismiss the ‘Idea of India’ as a mere idea—a metaphysical concept. They reassert as a given reality Indian (Hindu) nationalism, negating the epic freedom struggle of the Indian people. From this struggle emerged the concept of Indian Nationhood rising above the Westphalian concept of ‘nationalism’. The RSS/BJP today are spearheading the most reactionary ‘throwback’ to Indian (Hindu) nationalism as against the Indian Nationhood (the ‘Idea of India’) consciousness that emerged from the epic people’s struggle for freedom from the British colonial rule. Akeel Bilgrami asserts to this: “The prodigious and sustained mobilisation of its masses that India witnessed over the last three crucial decades of the freedom struggle could not have been possible without an alternative and inclusionary ideal of this kind to inspire it.” (Social Scientist, Volume 39, Number 1-2, 2011)

India’s diversity—linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural etc.—is incomparably vaster than in any other country that the world knows of. Officially, it has been recorded that there are at least 1618 languages in India; 6400 castes, six major religions—four of them originated in these lands; six anthropologically defined ethnic groups; all this put together being politically administered as one country. A measure of this diversity is that India celebrates 29 major religio-cultural festivals and probably has the largest number of religious holidays amongst all countries of the world.

Those who argue that it was the British that united this vast diversity ignore the fact that it was the British which engineered the partition of the subcontinent leading to over a million deaths and a communal transmigration of a colossal order. British colonialism has the ignomous history of leaving behind legacies that continue to fester wounds through the partition of countries they had colonised— Palestine, Cyprus, in Africa etc. apart from the Indian subcontinent. It is the Pan-Indian people’s struggle for freedom that united this diversity and integrated more than 660 feudal princely states into modern India giving shape to a Pan-Indian consciousness.

Role of the Left

The Indian Left played an important role in this process of the evolution of this ‘Idea of India’. Indeed, for this very reason, given the Left’s visionary commitments to the long struggle for freedom, the Left’s role is absolutely central to the realisation of the ‘Idea of India’ in today’s conditions.

Let me illustrate this with reference to three issues that continue to constitute the core of the ‘Idea of India’. The struggles on the land question unleashed by the Communists in various parts of the country last century—Punnapara Vayalar in Kerala, the Tebagha movement in Bengal, the Surma Valley struggle in Assam, the Worli uprising in Maharashtra etc.—the highlight of which was the armed struggle in Telengana— brought the issue of land reforms to centre-stage. The consequent abolition of the zamindari system and landed estates drew the vast mass of India’s peasantry into the project of building the ‘Idea of India’. In fact, such struggles contributed the most in liberating crores of people from feudal bondage. This also contributed substantially in creating the ‘Indian middle class’.

In today’s conditions, the issue of forcible land acquisition has acquired a very dangerous dimension. Subverting the Parliament legis-lation, many BJP-led State governments are implementing schemes which permit the indiscriminate acquisition of agricultural land forcibly dispossessing lakhs of farmers, aggra-vating the agrarian distress even further. The question of land, hence, remains a crucial issue for the Left, the most important political force that is today focusing on developing the agrarian struggles against the mounting distress and the neo-liberal policies that are intensifying the process of primitive accumulation of capital.

Secondly, the Indian Left spearheaded the massive popular struggles for the linguistic reorganisation of the States in independent India. It, thus, is chiefly responsible for creating the political ‘map’ of today’s India on reasonably scientific and democratic lines. The struggles for Vishalandhra, Aikya Kerala and Samyukta Maharashtra were led, amongst others, by people who later emerged as Communist stalwarts in the country. This paved the way for the integration of many linguistic natio-nalities that inhabit India, on the basis of equality, into the process of realising the ‘Idea of India’.

Even after the linguistic reorganisation of States, today, many problems and demands for smaller States reflect the lack of equality amongst the various ethnic identities that exist in the country, particularly in the North-East. These can only be resolved by ensuring that all the linguistic groups and ethnic national identities are treated equally with concrete plans backed by finances to tackle the economic backwardness of these areas; and having equal access to all opportunities. It is only the Left that sincerely champions this cause to strengthen the unity and integrity of India.

Thirdly, the Left’s steadfast commitment to secularism was based on the recognition of India’s reality. The unity of India with its immense diversity can be maintained only by strengthening the bonds of commonality in this diversity and not by imposing any uniformity upon this diversity like what the communal forces seek currently to do. While this is true for all the attributes of India’s social life, it is of critical importance in relation to religion. Following the partition of India and the horrendous communal aftermath, secularism became an inseparable element for the realisation of the ‘Idea of India’. The Indian ruling classes, however, went only half-way in meeting the Left’s objective of defining secularism as the separation of religion from politics. This means that while the State protects the individual’s choice of faith, it shall not profess or prefer any one religion. In practice, the Indian ruling classes have reduced this to define secularism as equality of all religions. Inherent in this is the in-built bias towards the religious faith of the majority. This, in fact, contributes to providing sustenance to the communal and fundamentalist forces today.

On this score as well, in today’s conditions, it is the Left that remains the most consistent upholder of secularism, spearheading the efforts to forge the broadest people’s unity against communalism and the steadfast fighter to defend the religious minorities; to ensure their security and equality as citizens of our country.

These are illustrative of some constituents of the ‘Idea of India’. The drawing in of the exploited majority of rural India; the drawing in of the socially oppressed people, especially those who continue to be subjected to obnoxious caste- based oppression and atrocities; the drawing in of the numerous linguistic nationalities; and the drawing in of the multi-religious Indian population, above all, the drawing in of all Indians in an inclusive path of economic and social justice, constituting the core of the inclusionary ‘Idea of India’, remains an unful-filled agenda. The struggles for realising these incomplete tasks constitute the essential agenda of the CPI-M and Indian Left.

Battle of Visions

The emergence of the conception of the ‘Idea of India’ was a product of the Indian people’s struggle. It arose from a continuous battle between three visions that emerged during the course of India’s struggle for freedom in the 1920s over the conception of the character of independent India. The mainstream Congress vision had articulated that independent India should be a secular democratic Republic. The Left, while agreeing with this objective went further to envision that the political freedom of the country must be extended to achieve the socio-economic freedom of every individual, possible only under socialism.

Antagonistic to both these was the third vision which argued that the character of independent India should be determined by the religious affiliations of its people. This vision had a twin expression—the Muslim League championing an ‘Islamic State’ and the RSS championing a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The former succeeded in the unfortunate partition of the country, admirably engineered, aided and abetted by the British colonial rulers, with all its consequences that continue to fester tensions till date. The latter, having failed to achieve their objective at the time of independence, continue with their efforts to transform modern India into their project of a rabidly intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’. In a sense the ideological battles and the political conflicts in contemporary India are a continuation of the battle between these three visions. Needless to add, the contours of this battle will continue to define the direction and content of the process of the realisation of the ‘Idea of India’.

Further, the Indian Left argued then and maintains today that the mainstream Congress vision of consolidating the secular, democratic foundations of our Republic can never be sustainable unless independent India frees itself from its bondage with imperialism and breaks the stranglehold of feudal vestiges. The Congress party’s inability to take the freedom struggle to this logical culmination became clear by its serving the interests of the post-independence ruling classes — bourgeoisie in alliance with the landlords, led by the big bourgeoisie. This, by itself, weakens the foundations of a secular democratic Republic. First, it relegates the anti-imperialist social consciousness that forged the unity of the people during the freedom struggle to the background, thus permitting and buttre-ssing a social consciousness dominated by caste and communal passions. Secondly, instead of strengthening an inclusive India, it progressively excludes the growing majority of the exploited classes. This is resoundingly vindicated by our experience during these six decades of independence. This provides the ‘grist to the mill’ of the communal forces, or the third vision, to strengthen itself exploiting the growing popular discontent against the policies pursued by the ruling classes.

A mere declaration of the creation of a secular democratic Republic and its reassertion by the Congress today, by definition, remains limited in its ability to realise this inclusive ‘Idea of India’.

There is another equally important factor that prevents the realisation of the ‘Idea of India’. The path of capitalist development being pursued by the ruling classes is one where there is an increasing collaboration with international finance capital and in compromise with feudal landlords. The Indian capitalist path of development, hence, is not along the classic lines of capitalism rising from the ruins of feudalism but in compromise with it.

The inability to eliminate the vestiges of feudalism means, at the level of the super-structure, the perpetuation of the social conscio-usness associated with feudalism and other pre-capitalist formations. The domination of religion and caste, integral to the social consciousness of pre-capitalist formations, continue to remain powerful in today’s social order. The efforts at super-imposing capitalism only create a situation where the backwardness of consciousness associated with feudal vestiges is combined with the degenerative ‘consumerism’ of today’s globalised capitalist consciousness.

The Caste Factor: The process of class formation in India, as a consequence of such circumscribed capitalist development is, thus, taking place within the parameters of historically inherited structures of a caste divided society. It is taking place not by overthrowing the pre-capitalist social relations but in compromise with it. This results in the overlapping commonality between the exploited classes and oppressed castes in contemporary India. Class struggles in India, therefore, can advance only through simultaneous struggles against both, economic exploitation and social oppression.

Thus, at the level of the superstructure, feudal decadence is combined with capitalist degene-ration to produce a situation where growing criminalisation of the society, coexists and grows in the company of such social consciousness dominated by caste and communal feelings. Instead of overcoming such consciousness for the realisation of the ‘Idea of India’, precisely these elements that are sustained and exploited by the ruling classes for their political-electoral benefits.

Such a reality provides the fertile ground which engenders the current Rightward shift in Indian politics buttressing the efforts for the negation of the ‘Idea of India’ and the erection of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in its place.

Fascism? Does all this mean the emergence of fascism in India? The most authoritative and to date scientific analysis of the nature and emergence of European fascism was made by Georgi Dimitrov in his penetrating address to the Seventh Communist International in 1935. He defined fascism as the “open terroristic dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialistic elements of finance capital”. The capturing of state power by fascism is not an ordinary succession of one bourgeois government by another but the substitution of one form of the ruling class state by another—bourgeois parliamentary democracy by an open terroristic dictatorship.

This came as a response, in Europe, of the ruling classes to the actual crisis that threatened its class domination. This was the case with the German monopoly capital, as a part of the global capitalist crisis of the ‘Great Depression’ that began in 1929, in the period preceding Hitlerite fascism. This threat emerged as a response to the crisis generated by the ruling classes’ own rule both from within its own camp as well as, and often simultaneously, with the challenge to its class rule by the toiling sections of the working people—the proletariat.

The situation obtaining in our country today is not similar to the period leading to the emergence of fascism in Germany. The threat of the immediate seizure of power by the proletariat is not yet on the agenda. Further, the crisis of the bourgeois-landlord class rule, notwithstanding the sharply increasing authoritarian tendencies, recently seen in the Uttarakhand developments and the undermining of institutions of parliamentary democracy, has not reached a stage where the jettisoning of parliamentary democracy by the ruling classes is on the immediate agenda.

Hence, the assumption of power by the RSS-led BJP does not mean the establishment of fascism in its classical sense. Undoubtedly, the RSS vision of its ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is a fascistic vision. However, if the RSS does succeed, then it is a qualitatively different situation. That, however, is the situation that the revolutionary forces must work to render as unrealisable. The present situation, therefore, can be more appropriately described by the fact that the crisis of the bourgeois landlord class rule has reached a stage where one section of the ruling classes, the most reactionary section, represented by the RSS/BJP and the Saffron Brigade, has succeeded in capturing state power, at the moment. And, they are vigorously using this to advance their vision of establishing a fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’.

However, there are striking similarities in the propaganda methods employed by European fascism and the RSS. The RSS/BJP today adopt fascistic methods of appropriation of popular symbols, create a false consciousness of deprivation amongst the majority community and appeal to extreme jingoism as their methods to advance. Dimitrov had said: “Fascism acts in the interests of extreme imperialists but presents itself to the masses in the guise of a wronged nation and appeals to outraged ‘national’ sentiments.” In order to present the RSS as such a champion, a false consciousness is created that the Hindus had been and continue to be deprived, while, at the same time, generating hate against the Muslims (taking the cue from Hitler’s rabid anti-Semitism) to the effect that they are responsible for such a ‘deprivation’ of the Hindus. To achieve its goal of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ it has perfected the Goebbelsian technique of ‘telling big enough lies frequently enough to make them appear as the truth’.

Georgi Dimitrov says: “It is in the interests of the most reactionary circles of the bourgeoisie that fascism intercepts the disappointed masses who desert the old bourgeois parties. But it impresses these masses by the vehemence of its attacks on the bourgeois governments and its irreconcilable attitude to the old bourgeois parties.”

Further, Dimitrov notes: “Fascism puts the people at the mercy of the most corrupt and venal elements but comes before them with the demand for ‘an honest and incorruptible government’ speculating on the profound disillusionment of the masses...fascism adapts its demagogy to the peculiarities of each country. And the mass of petty bourgeois and even a section of the workers, reduced to despair by want, unemployment and insecurity of their existence fall victim to the social and chauvinist demagogy of fascism.” (Dimitrov, Georgi, Selected Works, Volume 2, Sofia Press, 1972, page 12)

Dimitrov could well be talking about the RSS/BJP’s current campaigns and the people’s experiences with its control of the State since the 2014 general elections. This shows a chilling convergence with fascist methodology. Impor-tantly, this strengthens the grip of the ruling class hegemony, which requires to be urgently confronted.

Unless confronted, the very conception of the ‘Idea of India’ that we are discussing will be rendered redundant. At the same time, it is clear that the unity and integrity of our country and the unity of the social fabric of our immensely diverse society cannot be maintained unless the ‘Idea of India’ is fully realised. Such a realisation is only possible when the revolutionary forces in our country advance in order to beat back the current communal offensive that negates the ‘Idea of India’. This is the only manner in which the process of the unfolding of the ‘Idea of India’ can advance.

The Agenda

But then how can this be achieved? What constitutes the various elements of the agenda that must engage us in today’s conditions?

First, communalism divides the Indian people on the basis of their religious identity. This is not only detrimental to the security and livelihood of the religious minorities, but also undermines the unity and integrity of our country and people. By doing so, communalism disrupts the very unity of the most exploited classes in our society on whose strength alone the revolutionary movement can advance. The communal forces today, therefore, represent a lethal counter-revolutionary force in our country. This has to be vigorously combated and defeated by forging the broadest people’s unity.

The agenda that we are discussing today for reclaiming secular democracy requires, first and foremost, the strengthening of class and people’s struggles. The objective of such popular upsurges must be the strengthening of the Left and democratic forces in our country, which has to be based, in turn, on the basis of an alternative policy framework to the existing bourgeois-landlord class rule.

Secondly, there is a need to recognise the class-caste overlap that exists in our country today. Class struggle in India has essentially two elements—economic exploitation and social oppression. Class struggle in India, therefore, stands on these two legs. Unless both these aspects are simultaneously taken up by the revolutionary forces with equal emphasis, the class struggle cannot begin its walk forward, leave alone running ahead. Issues of social oppression centring around the obnoxious caste oppression will have to be a part of the new agenda as much as the issues against economic exploitation have traditionally been. This inte-gration of both these aspects is an important element of this new agenda.

Thirdly, the ‘Idea of India’ can never blossom unless the constitutional guarantee of equality “irrespective of caste, creed and sex” is scrupulously respected and implemented. Unless this is done, the confidence of the minorities in the Indian State cannot be strengthened. It is precisely playing upon this element of targeting religious minorities that the communal forces seek to consolidate their grip over State power. Championing the interest of the minorities is, hence, an important element of our agenda.

Fourthly, there are various popular and social movements that champion various important issues that need to be integrated in this struggle. Issues like environmental concerns are assuming a very serious dimension threatening the future existence of life on our planet. There are many others like the movements on the issues of children’s rights; for a universal public health system; for a security net to be guaranteed by the State for the old and disabled people; the movements against gender oppression and for gender equality etc. etc. A common ground must be found to integrate such popular social movements with the larger revolutionary and democratic movement. This is again an important element of this agenda.

In addition to this, there are many other aspects that would legitimately be part of this agenda whose final objective would be to consolidate the unity of our diverse people into a single force for creating a better India for our people and for our country by permitting the unfettered unfolding of the ‘Idea of India’.