There seems to be some anxiety among the intellectual class about doing their duty and being critical of the lapses of the ruling dispensation

When a government with the kind of formidable majority that Narendra Modi commands takes office, and when such a government signals that it intends not just regime change but also system reform, we know that we have entered a zone of moral and political uncertainty. In such a historical conjuncture when the Nehruvian paradigm of statecraft is seen as constituting the problem and not the solution, i.e., when it is not the historical good fortune that we had been brought up to believe it was, and when many respected public intellectuals are now speaking out against Nehru’s legacy, the time has come for us to bring key concepts into the public discourse. These concepts must be drawn from our own civilisational resources and must satisfy the condition of being both native and modern, if what was said during the campaign is to be seen as not just rhetoric but an honest realism.

Universal and specific

Of the concepts available for consideration, none has a greater relevance than the concept of dharma. It has both universal reach and context specificity. Innumerable books have been written on it and the best we can do here is to merely offer the starting point for an ensuing debate. Dharma is both religion and a code of righteous conduct. V. Kutumba Sastry, relying on P.V. Kane’s monumental History of the√ Dharmas´a¯stra, in a paper titled “Semantics of Dharma” presented at a seminar at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, on Dharma: The Categorical Imperative, offered a list of meanings that invite our analytical attention. Dharma refers to the “upholder or supporter or sustainer” (Rgveda, I. 187.1 and X. 92.2); as “religious ordinances and rites” (Rgveda, I. 22.18, V. 26.6, VIII. 43.24 and IX); as “fixed principles or rules of conduct,” (Rgveda, IV, 53.3, V.63.7, VI. 70.1 and VIII. 89.5); as “merit acquired by the performance of religious rites,” (Atharva Vv√eda, XI. 9.17) and as “the whole body of religious (and moral?) duties” (Aitareya Bra¯hmana, VII. 17).

These keywords — upholder, supporter and sustainer, fixed principles, rules of conduct, merit acquired — are capacious words that need to be probed in today’s setting. What does being an “upholder and sustainer” imply? Seen from one perspective it can be read as inclusive, accommodating, ethically firm and committed to educating the other within a dialogic mode. This is because that which needs to be upheld is complex and diverse, and anything other than being accommodative would propel us into a spiralling conflict. Is accommodation of diversity then the only way of being an “upholder and sustainer”? Seen from another perspective, a narrower one, upholder is the inquisitor whose mission it is to see that there is behavioural conformity with a set of codes. Here, the upholder is the khap panchayat which believes that its diktat be strictly implemented since it is the basis of community sustainability. Similar questions can be asked of the other keywords so that the public implications of the concept of dharma can be examined for our own times. Is “fixed principles” suggestive of moral firmness, in the face of situational fluidity, a virtue to be applauded, such as Gandhi’s calling off the civil disobedience movement after policemen were killed, or does it refer to moral obstinacy such as the moral policing by the Taliban and the Shiv Sena?

Duties and ‘merit acquired’

In the list of meanings offered by Kane a new dimension is brought in by the idea that Dharma refers to “the merit acquired” by the performance of duties. This goes beyond the behavioural injunction of the other meanings and its linked consequences, to the reward that follows. What does such merit consist in? Who recognises and awards it — self or society? Is it the satisfaction that comes from promoting a public good or is it the gratification that follows the defence of a just cause? Is it the public acclaim that one receives from working for a good society or is it the social power that accrues to one who is regarded by the public as being of saintly disposition? Dharma’s time, it seems, has come for political theory in India today.

Two areas where we can begin our explorations immediately are Raj dharma and Buddhi dharma. The first entered our public discourse when Atal Bihari Vajpayee used it in 2002 although at that time its features were not extensively discussed. We thought we knew what was being referred to. In today’s world when system reform is being attempted let me dilate on three conditions of Raj dharma that the government must satisfy. The first is appointment to the council of ministers. If dharma is “merit acquired” then those who shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the months preceding the election had not acquired such “merit” and hence were not eligible to be rewarded with office. This is particularly so in the case of the central civil service officers (CCS), i.e., the IAS and IPS officers who took premature retirement to contest the election. While it is right that they be given tickets and be permitted to contest as citizens, rewarding them with office would be highly disruptive of Raj dharma regarded as the “rules of conduct.”

Civil service rules provide for a “cooling off period” for every officer. No one is exempted. This is to ensure that she acts impartially in office and does not use office for personal and partisan ends. No CCS officer can stay in a central posting indefinitely and none has the power to abrogate the rule. They must return to their less glamorous postings after the power posting term is over. There is even a maximum period for such foreign service. This is Raj dharma seen as “fixed principles or rules of conduct.” When senior CCS officers resigned prematurely and stood for election, hoping for reward after the results, since they were privy to the intelligence reports of the outcome, they threatened the entire system of impartiality. In future, such a calculus of self-promotion would become the new norm. By not rewarding them the government passed the first test of Raj dharma. It passed this test also by not rewarding technocrats and those who did not stand for election. Rajya Sabha members if they have earned merit, are eligible for office. The case of the retired Chief of the Army Staff is, however, in a grey zone since rewarding him may politicise the Army with grave implications.

Upholding impartiality

The second test of Raj dharma is the impartial pursuit of all offenders. By constituting a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to recover the black money allegedly held by the corrupt, some in Swiss banks, it has sent out a good signal. If the creation and hoarding of black money is what has held us back as a nation, then the SIT will render a great service by identifying the offenders and prosecuting them. Will the government allow the SIT to work impartially even if its key supporters in the business community come under the SIT’s scrutiny? The government has passed the first part of the second test by constituting the SIT, Raj dharma as “upholder and sustainer and supporter.” Will it pass the second part of the second test of moral duties?

Scientific temper

The third test of Raj dharma is to respect Buddhi dharma. On this test it is early days yet. There seems to be some anxiety among the intellectual class about doing their duty and being critical of the lapses (if any) of the ruling dispensation. The sooner we all realise that Raj dharma and Buddhi dharma are consanguineous, since for a sturdy culture of Raj dharma we need a strong presence of Buddhi dharma, the better it will be for India. The government must send out a strong signal that it respects the performance of Buddhi dharma. For example, the Prime Minister could make a statement that U.R. Ananthamurthy is a national institution and even when he is critical he is to be treasured. Nehru would have done this. In the absence of such a sign from Mr. Modi the pursuit of Buddhi dharma will be tentative. Public intellectuals appear today to be very cautious. Some have publicly re-examined their decades old epistemological moorings turning their back on scientific temper and secularism. This is worrisome, for either they were superficial scholars earlier or they are anxious scholars today.

The hard question that scholars must ask is: how does one respond to what one regards as superstition? Must it be challenged using all the tools available to one, from anthropology to psychology, or must one show it respect as belonging to a different meaning system from one’s own? Some scholars are now suddenly showing respect to superstition in the name of cultural relativism. Is the work of great rationalists such as Dr. Abraham Kovoor and Dr. Narendra Dabholkar all in vain? Does one remain quiet when the Taliban opposes the pulse polio campaign in the name of religion and does one remain indifferent to the many godmen (some of whom are in jail) who, claiming to offer cures, sexually exploit women by using religion? When the monsoons are poor this year, as predicted, will we recommend havans or cloud seeding? These are questions of a Nehruvian paradigm of scientific temper.

Hard questions must also be asked of those who mock what they call pseudo secularism. Are they advocating that the secular idea be abandoned, endorsing a state that is not equidistant between all religions? Do they support the idea of the state adopting the cultural practices of the majority religion because doing anything else would be appeasement of the minorities? Will Baba Ramdev’s views on homosexuality be officially adopted? Let us ask these hard questions in the true spirit of Buddhi dharma. And if dharma is at the core of our Indic civilisation then we must be true to both Raj and Buddhi dharma. Is relentless questioning the dharmic way? Or is it not?

(Peter Ronald deSouza is professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.)

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