Left vs Right: The closing of the Indian mind

Citizen, State and the Social Contract  

The controversy surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act, the protests that have erupted as a result, and the response of the State — preventive detentions, shutting down internet and mobile messaging services, and the imposition of prohibitory orders across several cities in India — compels us to pause and ponder the future of our young country. There is a growing sense of disquiet that some of the cherished values of our own culture are more fragile than might have been hitherto supposed. 

The idea of ‘Vasudaiva Kutumbakam’, the world is one family; the abiding practice of tolerance, not merely for its utilitarian value to prevent sectarian strife, but as a moral imperative; the notion of liberty and equality as articles of faith and not mere letters of the Constitution; and human rights as inalienable, appear as elements in a great mutation. The strident monocultural view that the truth is one, a view consistently challenged before, stands in sharp contrast with the reality of the diverse and plural society that India is. The consequence of this dichotomy is all too obvious in many walks of life today.

Historically, there have only been two ideologies in India — the politics of the Left and that of the Right — contesting to capture mind-space in India. Independence brought with it the rise of a new State, classes, and rulers in search of pedigrees. The Left and its fellow travellers embraced the progressive revolutionary movements from across the world for inspiration, without, one might add, reading them in context, to soon discover that they were overtaken by events. The Right harked back to its traditional cultural roots drawing inspiration from what they believe was and might again be Ram-Rajya, and more than just metaphorically.

These diametrically opposed views provided the basis for the secularism-minority appeasement debate that has consumed the political class in recent years to the exclusion of all else, and created a specious division between those who see themselves as the liberal Left and the rise of the new ‘in your face’ Right. This is, at once, the cause and the consequence of the closing of the great Indian mind.

Locked as we are in this binary, scant attention has been paid to the transformation of both life and thought. Despite seven decades of freedom, for large swathes of people and vast geographies, there is no sense of progress, or at any rate movement out of inter-generational poverty and change in the quality of their lives. Advancing the organised province of scientific knowledge has received even less attention, just as discovering and understanding the laws that govern social change has suffered great neglect.

We are on the cusp of shaping the pace and direction of India’s future. Predictions about the future prospects as a country need to be rescued from the soothsayers who tell us that all is well and the citizens have nothing to fear; as well as from the interpreters of maladies who tell us all will be lost and the citizens must protest diabolical follies. Keep in mind, there are always three sides to an argument — yours, mine, and the facts. Shorn of the ideological underpinnings in the current political schism, one fact that stands out is the growing distance between the citizen and the State.

It is no exaggeration that the single most important movement at work in India today is State-driven nationalism, as distinct from national consciousness — the sense that citizens have of belonging to a nation. This, ironically, undermines the traditional values that we share as a society — pluralism, solidarity, tolerance. The focus should be on moving towards achieving the vision that India’s Constitution provides of a free, just, and fraternal society based on scientific knowledge and intellectually and morally ethical bases. But there are many challenges ahead.

India’s independence was what Antonio Gramsci might have described as “a passive revolution” — the transfer of political power without the concomitant socio-economic transformation. It was historically inevitable that following independence, the feudal roots of Indian society coalesced with the traditional bonds of kinship and religion on the one hand, while incorporating within its fold the Western-educated liberal intellectual class on the other to constitute a new ruling class. The obverse was that a predominantly rural and agrarian population, for the vast majority of which livelihoods was a struggle, became the ruled.

The Indian State, regardless of the government and its ideological underpinnings, has been characterised by a power coalition in which personal relationships — who one is and who one knows — form the basis for social organisation. This de-facto nature of the State has, over time, resulted in a limited access society in which there is little or no participation by citizens in the polity; opaque or less than transparent institutions structuring decision-making processes; the absence of impersonal economic and social rights; and often, the widespread use of coercion and/or violence to appropriate resources and goods. This has undermined the rule of law and, in turn, slowed the development of modern politics and a progressive society.

The human costs of this model of a limited access society are significant. The necessary condition to reverse this is to enable the development of social capital and effect a paradigm shift that will seriously challenge hitherto held notions of growth and welfare and the basis for access to economic and social opportunity.

While doubtless India will overcome the current set of challenges brought forth by the Left, the Right and the Centre, we must guard against the greatest risk of all — the closing of the Indian mind. If we succumb to that risk, we will prove Immanuel Kant right when he said, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” As a young country, we can ill-afford this. As the eponymous protagonist of the film ‘V for Vendetta’ says: “People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people.”

(The writer is Director, Public Affairs Centre) 

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