Brands of tolerance

November 21, 1997

IN THE NAME OF THE SECULAR: Contemporary Cultural Activism in India. By Rustom Bharucha. Oxford University Press, 197pp, Pounds 15.00. ISBN 0 19 564222 8.

In India secularism is a subject that arouses the deadliest controversy. Disputes over the role of religion in public life have led in recent years to thousands of deaths in Hindu-Muslim rioting. An episode which polarised opinions nationally and had particularly violent consequences was the demolition by Hindu fanatics of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in 1992.In the last decade, Hindu nationalism has grown in political strength to the point where the BJP, the party professing it, is the largest in parliament. Naturally, a large number of books have appeared to defend India's secular orientation. Rustom Bharucha's book is one of them.

It is a study of the ideological debates within Indian secularist intellectual circles in academe, journalism, agit-prop theatre and the arts. The tension between the different types of secularism in India is vividly conveyed in Bharucha's examples and critiques. On the one hand there is religious tolerance based on interpretations of traditional religious outlooks, and, on the other, a new brash, anti-traditional, anti-religious secularism embracing the latest western "culturally radical" influences. Advocates of the latter often suspect those of the former of abetting Hindu chauvinism indirectly through their continued reliance on the language and symbols of religion.

The book's usefulness is, however, vitiated by problems of language and philosophy. It is singlemindedly written in the approved language of post-modernism as patented by American academe. Nothing is said in ordinary English if it can be said much more obscurely in a specialised lingo with a passion for using polysyllables as frequently as possible. For instance, people do not just try various means to spread secularist values, they make "inventive creative interventions". And to say that self-professed secularists should question their own assumptions would be too simple for Bharucha, who puts it thus: "The amnesia of 'being secular' without feeling any obligation to define its guiding principles and limits is an ontology we can no longer afford." The uninitiated need to decode statements making the most ordinary of points.

It might be said in defence that some people enjoy this kind of linguistic decipherment. But there are also difficulties in Bharucha's philosophical method, which, in the approved post-modern way, purports to be based on a universal philosophical doubt. Social, political and economic structures are normally treated as "narratives" rather than as existing things with "essential characteristics". One gathers that, philosophically speaking, there is no reason to take the claims of any one of them more seriously that those of the others. Hindu nationalists are routinely ticked off for "privileging" notions of Indian history and society which imply a "judgmentalist", "monolithic" view of Hinduism. To do that is, of course, to commit the cardinal post-modern sin of "essentialising" Hinduism, rather than allowing it to be a host of diverse and pleasingly contradictory things.

It is a tempting strategy: after all, against ultimate philosophical doubt nothing can stand. But the approach creates difficulties for its adepts as soon as they have something to defend, as our author clearly does. For instance, Hindu nationalists might ask (some have) why critics such as Bharucha who oppose "essentialising" should find it necessary to "essentialise" Hindu nationalist ideology as retrograde and intolerant? Why cannot it, too, be seen as having an unlimited variety of possible meanings, stories, implications, many of them benevolent - as being healthily confusing postmodern stuff, in short?

Again, although the author frequently refers to capitalism as merely another "narrative", he nonetheless in several places gives it a very concretely exploitative label, referring to an IMF-World Bank "development mafia". Not much philosophical doubt there. Further, Bharucha excoriates many of his fellow champions of secularism for being unwilling, unlike him,to call Hindu nationalism "fascist". Perhaps they find the term, in this context, too "essentialist". Thus Bharucha abandons the weapon of relentless philosophical doubt where his sacred cows are concerned. This is the philosophy of Humpty Dumpty: words mean just what the author wants them to mean at any given time. Essentialising is OK - when he does it.

Moreover, the systematic downgrading of the reality of social structures by treating them as "narratives" undercuts the possiblity of any serious analysis of the social and economic conditions that have favoured the rise of militant religion in Indian politics. Bharucha and his ardent fellow secularists seem to be so busy digging their ideological patches that they have no time to take a look at the surrounding landscape of world politics.

There is no hint in this book that an important reason why Hinduism is able to make political headway in India because, unlike other nations, India lacks a linguistic basis of national unity. We are given the impression that India should simply be a neutral arena for virtually all cultural ideas, convictions and life-styles, with none "privileged" over others. Whatever may be said for this, it has to be noted that successful nations do need collective traditions going beyond a general agreement to disagree. For India, lacking linguistic unity, this is an increasing problem, in the solving of which the whimsical play of post-modern ideas is no help. Indeed, while many left-wingers spend their time squabbling in recondite polysyllables about whether the meaning of multiple diversities is "really" the same as the diversity of multiple meanings, the Hindu nationalists, using a less esoteric idiom, are getting on with winning mass backing.

Radhakrishnan Nayar is a writer on international affairs.

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