A policeman faces women in a protest march in Calcutta, India
The last month has seen a spate of bans enforced by various political and civic authorities in India. The state government of Maharashtra opted to ban the sale of beef ostensibly for economic reasons, while the central government banned the infamous BBC documentary India’s Daughter, as the filmmaker allegedly failed to obtain the necessary licenses. In addition, the film censor board enforced a ban on Fifty Shades of Grey across the country, and in a ludicrous policy move, the state government of Karnataka banned parties where foreigners are present unless the party is under police supervision. These newsbytes come on the heels of last year’s banning of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History due to pressure exerted by interest groups who saw its narrative as a flawed and hurtful representation of the Hindu tradition. Collectively, these events point to a growing illiberal sentiment among the political class and civil society.
This illiberal trend is especially concerning as, at the present time, the values that gird the modern Indian state are in extreme flux. The ideological churn is not in itself alarming; in fact it is exciting to witness the stirring of a national consciousness as the idea of the Indian state-nation is questioned and debated. Yet, the discourse is heavy with invective and polemic, with intolerance for other viewpoints evident across the entire political and civil spectrum. The various bans instituted by civic and state authorities are emblematic of this trend, as the default response is to artificially silence dissenting voices as opposed to refuting their arguments through debate or initiating a process of legitimate democratic negotiation.
The ideological churn that India is currently going through is evident when one examines the preamble to the Indian constitution. The preamble issues a clarion call that India is to be a ‘sovereign, secular, socialist and democratic republic.’ The events of the last decade have seen at least two of the above pillars challenged to varying extents. Secularism is perhaps the most contentious public issue in India at present, with credible right-wing intellectuals like Arun Shourie suggesting that in the Indian context, secularism should not enjoin a complete separation of religion and state. They argue that the concept is used as a tool to pander to minorities and create vote banks, and advocate that a commitment to pluralism, where the state accepts and respects all religions as equal, more closely mirrors the civilizational legacy of the Indian subcontinent. The discourse around the organization of religion and politics also involves fundamentalists of the Hindu and Muslim variety who reject both secularism and pluralism. Instead, they seek to align the state to a doctrine of monolithic cultural or religious nationalism.
Equally, India’s socialist past is also dying a slow death. Nehruvian socialism was the guiding compass of India’s economic policy until the liberalization of 1991, and the election of a pro-market, economically liberal government in the 2014 general election suggests that a second round of market reforms are around the corner. However, this shift away from a dirigiste economy to one where the state plays a regulatory role remains extremely contentious, with the contending views around the BJP’s Land Acquisition ordinance symbolizing the ideological cleavage.
The Land Acquisition Act was passed by the Congress Party in 2013 and it changed the norms for all land acquisitions by central or state governments. The Act sought to protect landowners by requiring that compensation should increase to four times the existing price in rural areas, and mandating that 80% of public support must be secured. However, the economically right-wing BJP seeks to facilitate land acquisition for factories, roads and housing projects. It has tabled an ordinance to amend the Act by tweaking various clauses to reduce barriers to land acquisition. Although lauded by industry interest groups, the ordinance has come in for a lot of flak, with various civic organizations protesting that farmers are being left vulnerable to the exigencies of the market. Yet, questions have also arisen over why the state should be involved in the market for land at all. Perhaps land should be bought or sold like any other commodity on the markets with the forces of supply and demand setting the price. This discourse over land acquisition is a microcosm of the larger debate that Indian polity and civil society is grappling with: a fundamental rethinking of the role of the state in the economy and how to reconcile India’s socialist past and statist present with the aspirations of an impatient younger generation which strives for social mobility and wealth creation.
Thus, the evolving debate around secularism and socialism makes it evident that the fabric of the political compact wrought between the civil government and the citizens of India in 1947 is in flux. Questioning the founding principles of a state is healthy as it ensures that those principles are not outmoded and remain relevant to the state’s continued evolution. Further, ideals can be changed or amended through public discourse, which is important as the founding values of a state need to echo in the public consciousness or else they have little meaning. However, the real problem is that much of the mainstream debate is little more than mudslinging and vituperative, partisan slander. The election campaign of 2014 was laced with acrimony, with Congress President Sonia Gandhi accusing challenger Narendra Modi of being “a merchant of death.” This tone of allegation and counter-allegation has not diminished since the new government assumed office last year, with the mainstream debate on issues like secularism and economic regeneration often little more than ad hominem attacks on key participants. After recently addressing a farmer’s rally to protest against the Land Acquisition ordinance, Congress scion Rahul Gandhi was termed as “mad” and an individual who “does not know the difference between wheat and maize” by BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj. This kind of malignant rhetoric is far more common than a process of political negotiation or constructive argument.
For India to benefit from this period of ideological flux, a reduction in political partisanship and the injection of a spirit of inquiry in public debate is required. The temperament necessary for democratic negotiation, accommodation and compromise is conspicuously absent, with the recent spate of bans symbolizing an intolerance for the other that has come to pervade the Indian political and civil society. It is this intolerance and unwillingness to accommodate other opinions that should be the true cause for alarm.
Rutvij Merchant is a senior at Northwestern University, studying Political Science and Economics.