India’s future does not lie in a highly mythologised past


India’s secular old order has never seemed so fragile as in the month since Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister on a manifesto that promises a return to “civilisational consciousness”. His BJP government is not threatening to declare a Hindu state. In fact, it explicitly pledged before the election that all religions will continue to coexist in India. But “civilisational consciousness” is widely recognised as code for the dominance of a homogenous, Hinduised idea of India. Even so, it’s a fair bet that the word “secular”, which was inserted into the constitution 29 years after independence from Britain, will remain in place. But it will be a beguiling fiction, yet another article of Indian hypocrisy.

Indian secularism now appears destined to be ignored. How can it be otherwise when India is being called to a grand renaissance, a “continuum” of civilisational consciousness untainted by foreign ideas? This is dangerously exclusivist, regardless of whether it can ever be achieved. Taken together with references to building the Ram Temple and cleaning the Ganges river for India’s “spiritual and physical well-being”, it’s obvious that the Hindu belief system will be the foundation for a resurgent India. And it’s reasonable to assume that secularism has been dismissed, for all practical purposes, as a soul-­destroying indulgence learnt from the western world.

The “secular magnificence” EM Forster once discerned in India may be fading fast, now that even its liberal intelligentsia is so demoralised as to publicly denounce the flaws of the Indian brand of secularism. In a craven mea culpa, for instance, a well-known liberal sociologist recently decried the clubby “snobbishness about secularism, treating religion not as a way of life but as a superstition”. But Mr Modi, he ruefully admitted, managed to show up secularism as “a hypocrisy … a staged unfairness which treated minority violations as superior to majoritarian prejudices”.

The reference is to Indian politicians’ routine misuse of secularism as a tool to privilege disparate religious groups in exchange for votes. This has enabled various administrations to distribute largesse widely but with strategic depth. For instance, an annual subsidy for pilgrims trekking through Jammu and Kashmir’s difficult mountainous terrain to Amarnath, one of Hinduism’s holiest shrines, and Haj flights for Muslims at government expense. Rather than a strict separation of religion and state, as in the US, India’s secular creed has been the accidental product of the state’s union with temples, mosques and churches.

But returning to a Hindu civilisational consciousness may not be the solution. For starters, it mili­tates against the principle on which a liberal democracy is founded: that there is no privileged citizen.

More importantly – and this should be crucial for pragmatists like Mr Modi – it does not make particularly good sense at this crossroads in history.

This is not 1954, when the US introduced the words “under God” in its pledge of allegiance to the flag and the republic. The change is still occasionally challenged in the lower courts and even though there is no compulsion to recite the pledge and no punishment for failing to do so, it seems an odd addition for a country that constitutionally enshrined a wall of separation between church and state back in the 18th century. But there was a very real reason for the change. It needed to differentiate itself from the atheism practised by the Communist state. It was, as President Dwight D Eisenhower declared at the time, a way of strengthening “spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war”.

America’s sudden reaffirmation of religious faith didn’t win the Cold War, but it probably helped recast a severely political struggle over the ideology of markets and money in the easy colloquialisms of a morality play.

A demonstrably Hindu-conscious India would not receive any such ballast in a world that grimly battles extremist Islam, especially with the Pakistani badlands uncomfortably close. Add to that the risk of alienating 150 million Muslims at home – a simply enormous number nearly five times the entire population of all the Gulf Arab states except Iraq.

But even if it were the right time for India to cleanse itself of foreign ideas like secularism, could it ever be done? Mr Modi’s proclaimed linguistic nationalism puts English outside the charmed circle of languages suitable for an Indian prime minister to speak on the world stage, so he will probably not be seen dipping into Salman Rushdie’s 1995 novel The Moor’s Last Sigh. But it might be useful. Moraes, the book’s deformed narrator, is exceptionally hybrid, embodying India’s glorious plurality and eclecticism. His mother comes from a Portuguese line, his father from a community of Cochin Jews, and there is the additional genetic drama of possibly illegitimate descent from Boabdil, the last Moorish sultan of Granada. I am, says Moraes, “a stewpot… I was – what’s the word these days? – atomised. Yessir: a real Bombay mix”. For a time, Moraes serves a fascist politician named Raman Fielding, who battles to purify India of “foreign influences” but never quite manages to rid himself of his love for cricket.

It is a salutary tale. No Indian leader would be able to “purify” cricket-mad India even though the sport is a quintessentially English import. Nor could Indians be cured of their habit of drinking tea, which was introduced by the British from China.

It may be equally pointless to cast India’s future in terms of how fast it can reverse into a lost mythologised homogeneously Hindu world.

Rashmee Roshan Lall, the former editor of The Sunday Times of India, is now a freelance writer based in Haiti

On Twitter: @rashmeerl