Why have faith in the great Indian experiment

India’s pluralism, part of our living cultural memory, successfully inhibits religious adversaries from turning into permanent enemies

Published - August 15, 2021 02:09 am IST

Relief kits being provided to riot victims as part of a langar service, in New Delhi.

Relief kits being provided to riot victims as part of a langar service, in New Delhi.

India’s independence from colonial rule launched an unprecedented experiment of introducing democratic equality in a deeply diverse society. Scholars and political observers the world over predicted its failure. Successful nation-states and democracy require one language, one culture and perhaps one religion — how could democracy thrive in a poor, illiterate society with mind-boggling religious, cultural and linguistic diversity? Today, when brazen attempts are afoot to suppress such differences, it appears that the sceptics and pessimists were correct. But I remain unmoved. Even in these hopeless times, I have faith in the success of the experiment.


There are many reasons why I remain hopeful, but I focus here on two: one general, and the other India-specific. The general reason is that humankind benefits more from diversity than brute uniformity. No one person or group can develop the entire range of thoughts, practices and goods necessary for survival and flourishing. To fulfil constantly evolving human needs, different skills honed by sustained collective, inter-generational effort are required. When a group spends time on one set of skills, it necessarily neglects others. This means that any cultural group’s capacity to fulfil multifarious human needs is limited. Fulfilling all needs demands a pooling together of different skills and a high degree of mutual dependence and learning. The realisation of a better, richer life makes diversity necessary. Those who understand and endorse this are pluralists. Anti-pluralists, who deny and fight diversity, are doomed to lead a fractured, truncated life and may not even survive in the long run. Just as bio-diversity is necessary for the larger ecosystem, so is cultural diversity for the much smaller human world.

My second reason is to do with the character of India’s historically evolved collective unconscious, our deepest habits and temperament of respect and mutual acceptance. A particular variant of high-strung, deeply insecure modernists, masquerading as preservers of Indian tradition but imitating the worst European mode of nation-making pose a challenge to this. But my guess is that India’s age-old moral habits will prevail over this seemingly unifying but utterly claustrophobic and corrosive force.

Critics will immediately dismiss my statement as crazily utopian. Am I not making this claim by turning a few happy episodes into a character trait of a whole people? I do not think so. The extent and depth of religio-philosophical diversity in India or an enviable degree of peaceful religious coexistence in its past has been noted globally. Yet, contemporary scholars adopt two contrasting perspectives on this religio-philosophical coexistence. Some explain it by the unique quality of tolerance in Hindu culture that a surfeit of invaders took advantage of until some Indians said enough is enough. Others argue that Indian culture is no different from others, that it always contained a propensity to religious conflict, violence, persecution and, therefore, coexistence of different groups occurred because of an accidental balance of power, because no group was ever strong enough to rid society of others. The clear implication is that the moment any group acquires disproportionate power, it will eliminate other groups or reduce them to slavery. It is also argued that this balance of power in society was made possible by political expediency; rulers abhor social and political instability. So, peaceful coexistence in India was a result of balance of power between communities underpinned by political necessity.

I disagree with both views. That India’s past was also not always harmonious and rocked by religious conflict, violence and persecution cannot be denied. Hindus and Jains, Hindus and Buddhists, Shaivites and Vaishnavites and even Hindu ascetic orders fought and even smashed each others’ temples. Occasionally, political rulers such as the Senas in 11-12th century Bengal were extremely partial to their own Hindu sect. Those who came to India in search of wealth and territory, the Greeks, Sakas, Kushans and Huns, indulged in violence too. So did Muslims. But an average Hindu selectively remembers only the violence of Muslims. Worse, he forgets that not one but many Islams came to India, from cultural regions as far apart as Arabia and Mongolia, at different times and with differing motives. Only some came with religious zeal against idol worshippers. Some of these plundered and returned, others like Mohammad Ghori and Mahmud of Ghazni fanatically destroyed temples but stayed back to rule. If Persian sources are right, they forcibly converted too.

What an average Hindu also fails to remember is that most Muslim political adventurers fought other Muslim not Hindu rulers. After all, the much-maligned Babar defeated the Lodhis, not some Hindu king! Indeed, many new settlers, attracted to India’s pluralist imagination, adapted their beliefs and practices to be in tune with it. For many Hindus and Muslims, Allah became one of the many gods; others thought of Prophet Mohammad as an avatar sent down from heaven to restore righteousness, and for still others like the Ismailis, Ismailis, Ali, a cousin of Mohammmad, was the long-awaited 10th incarnation of Vishnu. Depicting Rama and Krishna as prophets, many made them an integral part of the Islamicate world. Rulers in this pluralist world frequently acted impartially towards everyone. In quarrels between Hindu and Muslims, Hindu rulers such as the one in 15th century Mangalore were quick to punish fellow Hindus when found guilty. In 1713, the highest Muslim Government official in Ahmedabad had to bear the wrath of some of his own co-religionists when justice prompted him to rule in favour of Hindus. The same spirit of impartiality made Muslim royalty mediate in sectarian disputes to bring together warring sects of Jains, Sikhs or Hindus. Royal patronage was extended to non-Muslims, modelled on a pattern set by previous Hindu, Jain and Buddhist rulers. For example, the Gorakhnath math in Jakhbar (in Jammu) received grants from virtually every Mughal ruler. So did the math in Gorakhpur.

I hope these few examples suffice to demonstrate that India’s pluralism successfully inhibited religious adversaries from turning into permanent enemies and encouraged peaceful cohabitation. It restrained the recurrence of religious violence. Hatred and demonisation of others is found in medieval Hindu and Muslim literature but in practice it disappeared as quickly as it materialised. Pluralism may not have always been formulated as a religious or philosophical doctrine but had become an integral component of our social imagination, present as tacit common understanding, as a default setting in our background. It is this moral imaginary, not timeless philosophical doctrines, time-bound balance of social power or political convenience that explains peaceful religious coexistence in India.

This unstated confidence in the value of cultural diversity and peaceful religious co-existence shaped the thinking of Gandhi, of several other leaders in our anti-colonial movement and the makers of India’s Constitution. Our social imaginary made religious violence, persecution and partiality of political rulers an aberration rather than the norm in India. This unspoken common mentality is too deep-rooted to vanish overnight. Sooner or later the Indian people will act upon it. This is why I continue to repose faith in the great Indian experiment that was launched on August 15, 1947.

Rajeev Bhargava is a political theorist and Director, Parekh Institute of Indian Thought, CSDS, Delhi

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