When a card-carrying secular intellectual challenges the secular orthodoxy of our time and it draws a blank by way of a response, you know that secularism is indeed in a deeper crisis in India than you imagined. Either smug in its ever-shrinking cocoon. Or resigned to its defeat. Or both.
The intellectual is Abhay Dubey, a well-known scholar based at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), with an impressive body of published work. He is a trailblazer for doing social science in Indian languages and a familiar commentator on television. Once a card-carrying Communist, he is known to be a fierce critic of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) politics, unlikely to defect to their camp. The challenge to secularism comes from his latest book, Hindu-Ekta banam Gyan ki Rajniti [Hindu Unity vis-à-vis Politics of Knowledge, published by Vaani Prakashan] that was released in February this year, at the height of anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act movement. This is the first detailed, well-researched yet provocative book-length critique from a secular perspective of some of the most cherished beliefs of Indian secularism.
In any other country, such a publication would have triggered passionate political debates, responses, and rejoinders. Nothing of that kind happened in the last six months. I have not been able to locate a single serious review so far.
An inconvenient truth
The initial non-response could be a function of language. Abhay Dubey writes in Hindi, and rather demanding Hindi at that (I had to consult dictionary a couple of times). You can’t hold it against him, unless you believe that he must dumb-down to the level of babalog Hindi understood by the English-speaking elite. But it is not hard to see why his argument has not travelled to the secular intellectuals that he critiques. This underlines his point about the disconnect between the English speaking middle-class world of liberal-secular ideology and the rest of India.
The deeper reason for silence around Dubey’s book could be that it confronts us with an inconvenient truth. It leads us to conclude that if the secular project stares at a historic defeat, it has no one else to blame. It is silly to think that secular politics has been defeated just by some clever and devious political machinations of Narendra Modi or Amit Shah. In the last instance, Dubey holds that the defeat of secular politics is a defeat of secular ideology. This ideology drew and started believing in a caricature of its adversary, floated self-serving myths about the past, subscribed to formulaic understanding of the present and trusted reluctant warriors and non-existent allies to fight the battle for secular India. Dubey holds a mirror to us: the harsh truth is that this defeat is very well earned. We can’t refute his argument, for we know it to be true. Yet we can’t accept it, for it unsettles our ready-made map of the world we inhabit.
What secular historians get wrong
Abhay Dubey must be commended for picking up the courage to say that secularism tripped itself by systematically misunderstanding the Sangh Parivar. The arrogance of the Westernised Left-liberal-secular elite made them dismiss the intellectual lineage of Hindutva ideology because it drew inspiration from a religion. This hubris made secular ideologues overlook basic facts about the Sangh Parivar: that it draws upon the social reformist tradition within Hinduism, that its exclusion of Muslims has been successfully complimented by a campaign to include lower-caste Hindus, that it has successfully negotiated its way with modern constitutional democracy, that by demonising it as merely Brahminical and Fascist, we mislead ourselves and fail to understand the reasons for the rise of this ideology. The book prepares us to take on the real adversary, not just a straw-man.
This is related to the complacent reading of India’s past and present that secularists have perpetuated. Dubey’s book shows us how secular historians had convinced themselves and everyone else that ‘Hindu’ was merely a statistical majority, that the deeper diversities this label covers were more salient, that, therefore, a project of Hindu consolidation was ruled out. This led to the lovely yet lazy belief that the existence of pluralism, composite culture and the moderating logic of democratic politics would negate the possibility of Hindu majoritarianism. Dubey alerts that such a reading distracted us from recognising the historical truth that the self-description of “Hindu” evolved much before colonialism, mainly in reaction to then ruling political identity of the Muslims, that Hindu unification is a long term structural process aided by modern society, modern law and the logic of modern competitive politics. By moving from ‘politically correct’ language to a historically correct account, this book helps us understand why Hindutva ideology has become commonsense and why secularism appears anti-Hindu.
No wonder, this distorted understanding led to a myopic politics. Abhay Dubey points out the well-known weaknesses of secular politics: exclusive focus on defence of minority rights, inability to speak against minority communalism with the same force as Hindu communalism, and the tendency to gloss over Congress’ inconsistencies and failures in upholding secular principles. He also makes bold to question many other secular political strategies: the idea of an imminent revolt against ‘Brahminism’, ‘bahujan’ unity as an antidote to majoritarianism, dependence on dominant OBC castes and better-off communities within Dalits to carry out the project of social justice and fight for secularism, or the assumption of Dalit-Muslim unity. The failure of these strategies is for everyone to see. You may not agree with all of Dubey’s critique, or with his historical interpretation in each case. Yet the book’s project of identifying and confronting the weaknesses of secular ideology and practice at this moment of its worst crisis must become a project of our times. This would be painful, but willingness to face it is a sign of confidence, evading this is a sure sign of death.
Abhay Dubey provides us with a resource to undertake this project. He identifies alternative but overlooked voices within the secular camp that cautioned against such simplistic understanding and short-sighted politics. He draws upon historian Dharma Kumar, sociologists Satish Sabarwal, Imtiaz Ahmed and D.L. Sheth, political scientists Suhas Palshikar and partially Rajni Kothari and Rajeev Bhargav as sources of an alternative understanding that is prepared to look at the inconvenient facts and proposes a more nuanced course of action. We need to take this quest further to Mahatma Gandhi’s own candid engagement with the Hindu-Muslim question, to Rammanohar Lohia and his followers, and even to Right-leaning thinkers like Dharmpal and Nirmal Verma.
Any such attempt would obviously invite the charge of kowtowing to the powers-that-be, if not of being a closet Hindutva supporter. The author anticipates this reaction and offers a mature response: “If so, I would overlook [such a reaction] as a product of despair born out of the continuous defeat of liberalism and secularism in our public life.” The only way to respond to this historic setback is to face up to the mistakes of secularism and do a course correction. Abhay Dubey has started this conversation. Let us hope that this early silence would be followed by vigorous debates. An English translation of this book could be the first step in that direction.
The author is the national president of Swaraj India. Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.