Religion, caste, and State are key words in understanding India’s failure to mature into a full-blooded democracy. There is all-round failure of Indian State, in particular its executive and legislative wings. Judiciary still retains some credibility. Millions of Indians still look to it for succour. But given its lackadaisical style of functioning, and slow grind, it has also belied people’s expectations.
The pernicious nexus of religion with politics and the mindless use of it as purveyor of communal hate are matters of grave concern. The BJP’s Hindutva politics still remains the most abominable form of use of religion in politics. The cascading effects of globalization on religion have not received much attention in the media and in scholarly works. There are other issues as well relating to globalization and religion such as the continuing use of religion to peddle superstitions, obscurantism and irrationality, and international terrorism both state-sponsored and religion-centred.
The use of caste in politics, and the depravity and depredations of India’s political class reflecting the aberrations and absurdities of caste-based politics continue to undermine and slow down India’s transformation into a full-blooded democracy.
The State’s failure to see the education system in perspective and strengthen it from primary to tertiary levels, and the entry of private entrepreneurs into the education sector in a big way have already driven the system haywire. The recent decision of introducing reservation in higher education is likely to add to the problems of Indian education and to the confusion and frustration of the youth across the entire social spectrum.
Such and several other important issues which are indeed of nation’s concern have been discussed in the book.
Dr. P. Radhakrishnan
Senior Professor, Sociology
Madras Institute of Development Studies
Chennai 600020, India
Excerpted from Religion, Caste and State
At the time of India’s Independence about two-fifth of the Indian Territory and one-fourth of its population were under indirect rule in some 600 Native States headed by Princes, the most useful allies for the colonial government. The articulation of the aspirations of the people of the princely states for transition from autocracy to democracy, and of British India for liberation from colonial rule, the related struggles which were central to the freedom movement, the formation of the Independent Indian Union by integrating the princely states with British India, all are part of India’s recent history.
In this context, Ouwerkerk’s account of Travancore’s denouement before it joined the Indian Union (on this more in Part 1), and the ‘Kerala phenomenon’,1 should make the readers Janus-faced. That is, looking backward at the long agitation for full responsible government, and looking forward wondering whatever happened to the envisaged democratic governance, and how to work for it at least from now on.
To the question why the expected transition to democracy is slow even fifty five years after India’s adoption of a vibrant Constitution at least three answers are possible.
The first answer is though the popular movements for India’s independence in different parts of the country threw up leaders their democratic idealism did not survive them. That justifies the oft-made claim that despite the nation-building efforts of the first two decades after Independence when many of the leaders of the freedom movement were in the helm of affairs, the working of the Indian Constitution in the subsequent years has reduced Indian democracy to a fledgling sham.
The second answer is partly reminiscent of the following observations by Winston Churchill: 2
I am a good deal more doubtful whether democracy believes in Parliamentary institutions. There was a very fine article, which greatly impressed me, written by the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Hitchin (Sir A. Wilson) reminding us of the utter failure of all the Parliaments that have ever been set up in the East. We have only to look across the Channel in Europe to see how democracy tends in its present manifestation to be injurious to the Parliamentary system and to the personal liberties, which are dear to the Liberal heart. I should like to ask the hon. Member, does he call this Bill democracy? Is the communal franchise democracy? Is caste reconcilable with democracy? Is the idea of 60,000,000 untouchables reconcilable with any sort of democratic system?
The foundation of the democratic idea is that one man is as good as another, or better … Is it democracy to have indirect election – four or five men in a room, we were told, choosing the delegates of a great Province? The hon. Member takes us to task as to whether we believe in it. I ask him the kind of democracy he is voting for. Is it democracy to spatchcock into the midst of your central elected chamber one-third of the representation of the stewards and bailiffs of the hereditary Princes, who are autocrats? The hon. Member had really better go to the Liberal Summer School without delay and brush up his fundamentals, or else he will run a very grave risk of forfeiting his deposit.
We may not agree with Churchill whom we condemned as racist and imperialist when he said that independence would plunge India into chaos and ruin because Indians were unfit to rule themselves. All the same, it is necessary to separate the person from his ideas, inasmuch as at least four of the issues Churchill raised are still relevant to the political situation in India.
These are (a) whether democracy believes in parliamentary institutions – for even at the best of times and even in the best of democratic nations, democracy survives only through the rhetoric of expectations; (b) whether caste is reconcilable with democracy; (c) whether the idea of 60,000,000 untouchables [now a much larger number] is reconcilable with any sort of democratic system; and (d) whether it is democracy to ‘spatchcock’ into the midst of a central elected chamber one-third of the representation of the stewards and bailiffs of the hereditary Princes, who are autocrats, a phenomenon, which still prevails, though not exactly as Churchill said. Though (b) and (c) may appear overlapping, they are qualitatively different. The reference of (b) is to a rigidly caste-based hierarchical society. That of (c) is to the worst victims of this society whom Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, architect of the Indian Constitution, treated as a helpless minority placing them in the context of the tyranny of the majority, that is, the rest of the Hindus.
The third answer to India’s slow democratic transition is related to the diffusion of constitutional morality. Of this Ambedkar wrote (Government of Maharashtra 1994, Vol. 13: 61-2, 1210):
It is only where people are saturated with Constitutional morality such as the one described by Grote, the historian, that one can take the risk of omitting from the Constitution details of administration and leaving it for the Legislature to prescribe them. The question is, can we presume such a diffusion of Constitutional morality? Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realize that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic… However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it happen to be a bad lot.
The essays in Part 1 are on India’s slow democratic transition and democratic governance.
During the freedom movement and framing of the Constitution independent India was never ever expected to be a theocratic state. In fact, inasmuch as even Mahatma Gandhi, a devout Hindu, regarded religion as a private affair, the Constituent Assembly and the Constitution framed by it relegated religion to the private domain of the individual without in any way interfering even with the issue of religious conversions which has of late, and for overriding political considerations, been dragged into the public domain. To the extent religion found a place in the Constitution it was only for correcting certain historically situated socially and politically debilitating, deleterious, disharmonic, and dysfunctional accretions, anomalies, and malignancies, and to gradually usher in a harmonic society by merging the majorities and minorities through the solution proposed by the Constituent Assembly.
That explains the long and perspicacious debates in the Constituent Assembly on majorities and minorities, and the cautious and well thought out Preamble – the soul – of the Constitution:
WE, the people of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a sovereign democratic republic [later amended as sovereign, socialist, secular democratic, republic] and to secure to all its citizens: Justice, social, economic, political; Liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; Equality of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all Fraternity assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity of the Nation [amended later as unity and integrity of the nation]; in our Constituent Assembly this twenty-sixth day of November 1949, do hereby adopt, enact and give to ourselves this Constitution.
The intolerant, sectarian, rabid Hindutva, which has of late been stalking the political and public domains claiming to be the sole custodian of the Indian nation, is the result of the failure to implement the solution proposed by the Constituent Assembly. In fact, today the major threat to India’s development as a full-blooded democracy is this monster working through the politics of the Sangh Parivar and its political outfit BJP, whose political machinations might have put even Joseph Geobbels31 to shame.
The ‘Problem’, presented to the theme Uncertain Futures, in the November 2002 issue of the monthly journal Seminar, succinctly summed up the BJP’s persistent threat to India’s democratic culture and governance. As its observations fit well into a number of articles in this book, it is reproduced here:
Evidently, despite having survived for over three years, a sharp contrast of its earlier innings of 13 days and 13 months respectively, the ruling coalition continues to be marked by tensions with episodic crises rocking its shaky foundations. Recurrent stories of an apparent rift between the two top leaders, increasingly assertive role of the sundry organizations of the Sangh Parivar and the need to turn a blind eye to the perfidies of the allies have ensured a veritable collapse of even the common minimum agenda for governance, forget more complex policy initiatives towards restoring peace in insurgency areas or ensuring greater harmony in the region …
The task of forging a consensus – on policies, institutions and mechanisms – has been made more difficult by the BJP’s aggressive social agenda; its foregrounding of Hindutva and cultural nationalism has added to the insecurities of our many minorities, the most recent example of which is the continuing mismanagement of riot-affected Gujarat … Despite dozens of official and non-official reports on Gujarat 2002, few of those allegedly responsible have been charge-sheeted and convicted. Chief Minister Modi’s Gaurav Yatra, matched unfortunately by the rhetoric of the opposition, has deepened the climate of insecurity …
The overtly anti-minority, anti-Dalit sentiment is slowly, but steadily, acquiring anti-outsider undertones causing many professionals to relocate. That this is happening in a state perceived as well run, welcoming and investor friendly, all for ostensible short-run gains, remains a sad reflection on our democratic culture. (Pp. 12-13)
Here again, it is important to recall Ambedkar’s observations (Government of Maharashtra 1994, Vol. 13: 62-3):
In this country both the minorities and the majorities have followed a wrong path. It is wrong for the majorities to deny the existence of minorities. It is equally wrong for the minorities to perpetuate themselves. A situation must be found which will serve a double-purpose. It must recognise the existence of the minorities to start with. It must also be such that it will enable majorities and minorities to merge some day into one. The solution proposed in the Constituent Assembly is to be welcomed because it is a solution, which serves this two-fold purpose. It is for the majority to realize its duty not to discriminate against minorities. Whether the minorities will continue or vanish must depend upon this habit of the majority. The moment the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority, the minorities can have no ground to exist. They will vanish.
Ambedkar probably would not have anticipated that in striking contrast to the solution proposed by the Constituent Assembly, about three decades down the line the Sangh Parivar would distort this solution to Nazi-type purge and worse.
If the BJP succeeded to power at the Centre and in some states it is through the ‘incremental politics’ of the Sangh Parivar, and the use of Ayodhya for political mobilization to capture state power. When the BJP eventually managed to capture power at the Centre, proving the worst fears of all discerning and secular-minded citizens, it unabashedly used state power as part of a grand strategy to concretise its majoritarian communal agenda of establishing a Hindu Rashtra. Though the BJP has been out of power at the centre after the general elections held in 2004, and the Congress-led UPA government with Dr. Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister has brought in some democratic semblance to governance, as the principal Opposition and as a communal political outfit the BJP is still a major evil to reckon with.
In some sense, the framers of the Constitution were realistic enough to acknowledge that the transformation of a centuries old unjust social order of aristocracy and social rank, privileged high castes and despised low castes, Brahminic priesthood and intellectual hegemony, and so on, into an egalitarian society through rule of law and integrating the heterogeneous ensemble of myriad caste groups and multiple religious communities into one society with individual citizens as its unit as against social groups in the past, would be a long haul. As the religious minorities were latecomers on the social scene, Manu could not have ostracized them. So, the beginning of the understanding of the subversion of India’s democratic governance should be with Hindutva’s political manoeuvres of Manu’s misdeeds.
Part 2 begins with this, and goes into the menace of Hindutva, which has among other things, put Rama on trial after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, unleashed Nazi-type purge in different parts of the country, the worst form of which was in Gujarat, soon spreading the communal venom to states like Tamil Nadu, till recently known for communal harmony, where as though to outwit and outbid the trickster Narendra Modi in Gujarat, Chief Minister, J. Jayalalithaa, 4 went in for an overkill by enacting an anti-conversion legislation, much against the will of the people.
The cascading effects of globalisation on religion, religion-centred politics and vice-versa, belief-systems, and individual and social life have not received much attention in the media and in scholarly works. The article on religion under globalisation has to be seen in this light.
The article on Mother Teresa is also relevant in the context of religion and politics. For, in the ultimate analysis, superstition, obscurantism and irrationality, whether among Hindus, Christians, or Muslims, are major causes of social tension and inter-caste and inter-communal intolerance.
Stating that caste is the greatest Indian mystery known to modern writers, Vincent Smith (1919: 33-41) wrote in his 1918 critique of the report of the Indian Constitutional Reforms:
The caste of an Indian is not to him a matter of insignia to be worn or doffed at pleasure. It is bone of his bone and flesh of flesh… Prophecies or hopes of the weakening or disappearance of caste within a measurable period are futile. So long as Hindus continue to be Hindus, caste cannot be destroyed or even materially modified.
These observations go well with those of Ambedkar in his speech of 25 November 1949 on his motion for the adoption of the Constitution (Government of Maharashtra 1994, Vol. 13: 1217):
I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? … These castes are anti-national: in the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint.
It would have been impossible to abolish caste as an institution, which has survived for about 3,000 years, by legislation and at a stroke. So, as a testimony to constitutional pragmatism, the mandate was to ignore it in public life, make its socially outrageous, stigmatic, and seemingly discriminatory aspects illegal, and allow it to have a natural, albeit slow, death. Far from ensuring this, the state in Independent India as the upholder and defender of the constitutional values has encouraged the existence, persistence and exploitation of caste.
If what M.N. Srinivas said in the 1950s that with the coming of democracy (read the introduction of universal adult franchise), caste got a new lease of life, is being said now with greater vehemence, it is because of the very use of caste for vote-bank politics which among others, prompted the Vanniyars, the largest caste in Tamil Nadu, to demand a separate state.
The New Sunday Express in its introduction to my article ‘Vanniyar Vampire’ eloquently dealt with caste as a persisting social menace and a stumbling block to secularism and national unity:
Pattali Makkal Katchi leader Dr. S. Ramdoss’ call for a separate state in northern Tamil Nadu may have been only a trial balloon floated by the Vanniyar leader, or perhaps, as some have alleged, an attempt to resuscitate a flagging party by raking up a controversial issue. Be that as it may, the issue is a clear sign that 55 years after Independence, caste is still a factor to reckon with in Indian social and public life. Despite the reams written about the gradual dilution of caste identity with the onset of economic liberalization and urbanization, caste is still king; caste politics is alive and kicking. This should come as no surprise, for every one of us knows that elections are fought in India on the basis of caste, especially at the local levels. Many parties don’t even bother to conceal this.
The Bahujan Samaj Party, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Kerala Congress are avowedly caste-based formations, like Dr Ramdoss’ Vanniyar Sangham, to cite only a few instances. Even the major all-India parties, for all their protestations of a ‘secular’ outlook on caste, are aware of the strong caste loyalties at work; candidates are often decided on the basis of the caste composition of the constituency concerned. We’re Brahmins, Rajputs, Vanniyars, Vokkaligas, Kurmis and Reddys first; linguistic and other affiliations come later.
This is a damning comment on our failure to transcend caste loyalties, despite the best efforts of the makers of modern India to eradicate the evils of caste. But what should concern us even more – despite the fact that politicians cutting across the political spectrum have closed ranks to oppose Ramdoss’ call – is the possibility of demands being made to break up India along caste lines. It is fortunate that nobody else has done so, so far; the creation of Uttaranchal, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand was done on administrative grounds, not caste. Even the movement for a separate Telengana in Andhra Pradesh was inspired by other issues.
What is worrying about Ramdoss’ call for bifurcation of Tamil Nadu is that it could open the floodgates to similar demands by other castes. Forty-six years ago, the nation was reorganised along linguistic lines with disastrous results; we cannot afford a reprise along caste lines.
The essays in Part 3 look at the depravity and depredations of India’s political class in the context of Tamil Nadu, which reflect the aberrations and absurdities of India’s caste-based politics.
When a centuries-old hierarchical society is confronted by an egalitarian Constitution the magnitude of the socio-political tension and chaos it can throw up can be enormous.
With the electors, the overwhelming majority of whom have yet to learn what democratic governance is, voting their castes in the periodic elections; with most of those elected from among them who make up the legislature (Parliament and Assemblies) also lacking knowledge of what democracy is; with sections of the so elected comprising the Executive; it is only logical to infer that the Executive not only carries all the imperfections and inadequacies of the Legislature, but more importantly also confounds them with the articulation of the perfidies of power. More often than not, the Executive is obdurate and obtrusive, through among other things, its excesses, inertia, ineptitude, and intellectual and moral turpitude; and betrays its constitutional mandate to govern democratically.
While the resultant vicious nexus and vicious circle involving the electors, elected, and those in power is only to be imagined, democratic governance in India even at the best of times was a sham, working in tandem with the centuries old hierarchical social order with all its invidious discriminations. The victims have been predictably the electors themselves, especially India’s unwashed millions, who have been at the mercy of politicians, bureaucrats, middlemen, fixers, criminals, power brokers, and what have you.
Though it is in this context they turn for succour to the judiciary – the most important organ of Indian democracy – and the judiciary is expected to democratise the executive and its governance, it has been more in the nature of the god that failed.
The judiciary is a complex institution and not merely courts, judges and judgments. So placing it in perspective should mean critiquing the quality of the Bar and Bench, judicial processes, administrative set up, judgments, interface between litigants and lawyers, lawyers and judges, courts and politics, courts and corruption; understanding and prompting introspection about the judiciary, judicial psyche, judicial activism, the judiciary’s ever-expanding interface with the executive, the chaotic proliferation and prolongation of litigation; and so on.
As the lawyers, as a class, have their associations, one may wonder if it is not time for the litigants as a class, irrespective of on which side they are, to form their associations to take on both the Bar and Bench in a collective and organised manner.
Though I do not agree with Arun Shourie’s ideological postures, and his fabrications such as on Ambedkar and the role of Christian missionaries in India, which he has peddled for serious scholarly works, as I did in the case of Churchill I separate the person from his text. My reference is to Shourie’s documentation of the state of Indian judiciary with great eloquence, particularly in the context of issues concerning misuse of law, judicial delay, judicial inaction, verdicts unalloyed by contexts and facts, law in book v. law in action, ‘passing files’, judicial spins and jigsaws, blinkered vision of the judiciary, which is not even aware of its own enormous responsibility; more so, when its writ runs through the length and breadth of the country, and so on. To place the discussion in Part 4, on law and society, in perspective, it will not be out of place to draw upon some of his observations: 51
While the courts often give sweeping directions – ones that get bold headlines, ones that raise hope among citizens – they do not as often follow these up to see whether the Executive has carried them out. An important function of the courts is to proclaim ideals before society, to stretch the Executive so that it puts in the maximum possible effort. But it should be equally evident that if (a) rulings – or laws – are so far ahead of reality; or (b) if courts having decreed a remedy, do not follow up to ensure that it is being adhered to; they run the risk of compounding cynicism – about courts, about laws, about the Rule of Law. (P. 15)
a. A feature that strikes one as one sits listening to arguments in a court, as it does when one reads judgments, is that judges consider each issue as an issue in itself – isolated from the context of society, often independently of the consequences that it requires little imagination to see will follow from it. Furthermore, different principles, different encapsulations of a principle impress themselves upon the judges on different occasions… In judgment after judgment one comes across a determined effort to not let facts come in the way of the verdict … After all, judgments are replete with perorations. It is not that they adhere solely to matters legal: discourses on social philosophy, on sociology, on India’s history – rather, the dominant versions of these – are commonplace. Indeed, sometimes it seems that the particular case is the occasion that the judge has been waiting for to deliver himself of opinions on some subject: so little in the judgment turns on the oration. (Pp. 239, 252)
b. The judgments – for instance, those mandating equality, those striking down disciplinary proceedings because some ingredient of natural justice has not been complied with fully – are not being delivered in a vacuum. They are being delivered in times when rights mongering and grievance mongering have become the staples of public discourse. They are being delivered at a time when public life is in the hands of a weak political class. This combination has lethal consequences. (Pp. 239, 319)
c. In one judgment a court declares that it is the right of Ministers to determine how far and in what direction a criminal investigation shall be carried, and in another the same court, indeed the same judge decides to as good as monitor an investigation. In some cases a court delves into detailed facts, into facts that do not just bear on the case but on why a law was passed, and in another the same court lays down as a principle that facts are not to be considered once the legislature has passed a law.
d. The general tenor of rulings and their tilt have helped create an environment in which it is safer to pass files around than to take a decision, in which it is prudent to go through the motion of doing things than to actually do them. (P. 319)
e. What happens when the executive and the judiciary walk in tandem – the executive considering each concession it is making by itself, and the judiciary considering each issue that arises as a consequence in isolation?
f. How far is the executive responsible for bringing things to the current pass? Has it paid heed to repeated admonitions of courts that it desist from frivolous appeals? What is its record as a litigant? Why is it that institutions set up to do what the courts are routinely unable to do soon end up being just the clones of the courts they were intended to substitute?
g. The State structure is marked by – that should perhaps be, ‘marred by’ – kargozari, by the show of work, not work; (b) there is at all times much activity, but at most little movement; (c) the entire structure, the routines it goes through have become process-oriented, results count for little; (d) by now – within the governmental structure, in the legislatures, in the judgments of the courts – merit, efficiency, performance are so much at a discount as to be almost completely out of the reckoning; (e) the consequences of this are certain to be fatal whatever the sphere of State activity that gets infected by it; and (f) they would be even more swiftly fatal in commercial and economic activities of the State at a time when the position of the State is getting increasingly eroded by competition, by the lightning speed at which technology is changing. (Pp. 9-10)
The articles in Part 4 (and sections of some other parts as well) should give some idea of the sorry state of affairs in the Indian judiciary. In some sense it is because of the lack of judicial reach and robustness that the Sangh Parivar continues to stalk with its newfangled religion and politics, the Dalits continue to be victims of centuries old caste oppression, and at another level, an appeal against plagiarism by a Vice-Chancellor had to be addressed to the President of India.6
Though Part 5 is titled Nation’s Concerns, it does not mean that the preceding parts are not on these. However, the issues raised in this part merit special attention.
In a rapidly globalising world with technology threatening to penetrate every conceivable individual action and social space, India has much at stake. If the nation succumbs to the power-play of globalisation – the new face of imperialism – as it seems to be doing; its victims will be mostly the young and the disabled of the society. The essays in Part 5 are on some of the related issues.
The population of India’s mentally disabled and ‘physically challenged’ (that the use of different appellations for the mentally and physically handicapped does not serve even as a fig leaf to cover the State’s shame of gross neglect and ill-treatment of this section of society is a different issue) is the largest in the world. The issue of the disabled is not something which can be left to the Census Department, whose officials can seldom see beyond their nose, and to the central and state bureaucracies.
The concluding article on Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, President of India, is relevant for more than one reason. When Kalam assumed office as President, he gave much hope to the masses that unlike his predecessors he will usher in change. No doubt, his style of functioning is both care-free and of concern. None of his predecessors had the kind of influence he has on India’s young minds. But when quizzed why Kalam is a role model for them their answer is simple: His poor background, his struggle to rise in life, and his contribution to the development of India’s science and technology.
While all these are true and important, one crucial issue which Kalam has to address urgently and with abiding concern is strengthening the social fabric cutting across castes and communities. For in the absence of a strong social fabric in which every individual and every community counts, and recognises and respects the social rights of every other individual and every other community, mere development of science and technology may not add up.