December 10, 2015

India: Tony Joseph on the 'intolerance debate'

scroll.in - 10 December 2015

Why the 'intolerance debate' is far from over

The duelling statements of academicians ranged against each other show us why core issues are still crackling, and are bound to flare up again.
Photo Credit: A page from the manuscript Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India
Was it a battle over cuisine? Or an electoral tussle over Bihar? Or just a fight between an old intelligentsia on its way out and a new one on its way in? As a national debate consumed everyone’s attention over the last seven weeks, many interpretations were bandied about, even as news media focussed its attention on immediate causes rather than the underlying drivers.

Luckily, we have a handy tool that will help us cut through the media noise and get to the core of the controversy. This is a set of statements issued by three groups of academicians, two of them of the liberal persuasion attacking the government, and one of them of the right-wing persuasion attacking the attackers and accusing them of having dominated and distorted Indian history-writing so far. Being academicians, the two camps have crafted their statements carefully and robustly, which means these can be compared and analysed to see where the real fault lines lie.

(The links to the three statements are given below. It would be good if you read them, but this piece should hold even if you don’t:

The first statement by 53 leading Indian historians of the liberal persuasion, on October 29.

The second statement by 176 historians and social scientists from around the world, again of the liberal persuasion, on November 10.

The rebuttal to both statements by 47 Indian historians, archaeologists and other academicians of the right-wing persuasion, on November 17).

The first thing you can say after going through these statements is that this is not a mere “clash of lifestyles”, or a “culture war” as Swapan Dasgupta,  probably the sharpest intellect of the Indian right-wing after Arun Shourie,  has been trying to make us  believe. But that should come as no surprise, since Dasgupta’s  characterisation of the conflict as one between an elite intellectual class and the traditional Hindu middle class was always an obvious decoy, considering that his own right-wing “Anglophile” self is a card-carrying member of the elite he paints as the evil other.

And neither is this a kind of war of the snobs, as Chetan Bhagat, the popular English novelist, positions it – between “privileged kids” who speak English and “non-privileged kids” who do not. Bhagat, who wears his own elite upper class background on his sleeve, including his education (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi and Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad), seems genuinely baffled why he is not considered a literary genius and by characterising it as a war of the snobs, he is merely trying to map his own personal angst onto current national discourse.

What then, are the real issues? This article will argue that there are three areas where the 47 right-wing academicians disagree profoundly with the liberals; that their positions can be summed up in the following manner; and that these stances are driving the conflicts today.

1. Caste system is the organising principle of Indian society, and it has many positive aspects that ought to be highlighted

2. Indian history has to be rewritten so that it can be seen through the perspective of religious conflicts, and atrocities committed by Muslims and Christians in particular have to be highlighted

3. Vedic or Sanskrit civilisation needs to be seen as the exclusive source of all of Indian culture and its glory needs to be highlighted more

These conclusions follow naturally from a close reading of the duelling statements of the academics.

To begin with, the statements by the liberal academics made two basic points: one, that there is increasing intolerance as reflected in the assassination of writers and mob killings of people over issues of cow and beef; and two, there are attempts by the government in power to impose a “legislated and monolithic history” of India that seeks to glorify some aspects and denigrate others.

The implied suggestion is that it is the attempt of the government, and the right-wing in general, to push and popularise a particular version of Indian history that is causing a rise in intolerance and violence.

The right-wing rebuttal brushes off the charge of rising intolerance by branding it as a “political statement, not an intellectual or academic one.” It then goes on to lay seven specific charges of “abusive practices” against the liberal academicians themselves. It is these charges that give us the opportunity to sharply delineate what the differences are really about.

The most striking factor about the right-wing rebuttal is their choice of the very first charge. It is about the caste system, and its role in Indian society. This tells us something important. When the two opposite sides are ranged against each other and the intellectual battle is about to begin, caste is the issue over which the right-wing sounds its bugle.

Putting lipstick on the caste-system

Here  goes the full description of the “abusive practice”, accusation number one:
“A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasising its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.”

Take a minute to read that sentence slowly and reflect on it. See if you can locate the contradiction. As you will notice, the sentence begins with a complaint, that the opposing side has viewed “the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system”. The natural conclusion one would draw from this is that the 47 academicians think the caste system is not as vital to the evolution of Indian society as their opponents think it is.

An observer from outer space might think this is a valid argument, one that needs to be listened to and weighed carefully. But wait, by the time you get to the end of the sentence, the 47 have come to precisely the opposite position: “Indian society would have disintegrated long ago”, they say, had it not been for the "mechanisms of integration" that the caste system has. In other words, the caste system is not just vital, it is indeed the lynchpin of Indian society. And all that stands between one position and its diametrically opposite position within the same sentence are a mere five words that essentially make the point that the caste system’s "mechanisms of integration" have been neglected.

In other words, the real problem that the 47 have with the liberals is not the latter’s belief in the importance of the caste system in understanding Indian society, but their inability to see its good aspects – its "mechanisms of integration".

This is a peculiar position. All social systems of discrimination and exploitation, whether apartheid or slavery, have to have aspects of integration since a social system by its very definition has to make some parts of society work for the benefit of other parts. But you do not hear white historians in South Africa demanding that the "mechanisms of integration" of apartheid be acknowledged; or white social scientists in the US complaining that the positive aspects of slavery have not been emphasised enough.

But let’s leave that aside, and enquire what precisely these "mechanisms of integration" could be. Since the 47 do not give us any guidance on this matter, we have no option but to dig up historical evidence and listen to those who have indeed applied their mind to this topic.

Nobody explains the "integrative mechanism" of the caste system, and how it managed to survive for millennia better than BR Ambedkar, who spent a lifetime understanding it, and even coined a phrase to describe it: "graded inequality". Listen to him:
“In a system of graded inequality, there are the highest (the Brahmins). Below the highest are the higher (the Kshatriyas). Below the higher are those who are high (the Vaishyas). Below the high are the low (the Shudras), and below the low are those who are lower (the Untouchables). All have a grievance against the highest level and would like to bring about their downfall. But they will not combine. The higher is anxious to get rid of the highest, but does not wish to combine with the high, the low and the lower, lest they should reach his level and be his equal.  The high wants to overthrow the higher that is above him, but does not want to join hands with the low and the lower, lest they should rise to his status and become equal to him… In a system of graded inequality, there is no such class as completely unprivileged except the one which is at the base of the social pyramid. Even the low is a privileged class as compared with the lower. Each class being privileged, every class is interested in maintaining the system.”

Elsewhere, Ambedkar described the caste system as “an ascending scale of hatred and downward scale of contempt”.

Is this the “mechanism of integration” that the 47 think we need to acknowledge? But this is already acknowledged and accepted, not only in academics, but also in the larger theatre of politics, where even those organisations that vilified Ambedkar and were offended by his burning of the Manusmriti, are these days extolling his virtues and insights and holding Parliament sessions to honour him.

So could it be that the 47 are thinking not along the lines of Ambedkar, but more along the lines of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the founder of the Hindutva ideology, who made the following defence of the caste system, with cringe-inducing references to “noble blood” that fertilised all that was “barren and poor”? Here is the quotation which makes allusions to the rules regulating marriages between high castes and low castes which are allowed under certain conditions (anuloma vs pratiloma marriages):
“The ancient Ganges of our blood has come down from the altitudes of the sublime Vedic heights to the plains of our modern history fertilising much, incorporating many a noble stream and purifying many a lost soul, increasing   in volume and richness, defying the danger of being lost in bogs and sands and flows today, refreshed and reinvigorated more than ever. All that the caste system has done is to regulate its noble blood on the lines believed – and on the whole rightly believed – by our saintly and patriotic law-givers and kings to contribute most to fertilise and enrich all that was barren and poor, without famishing and debasing all that was flourishing and nobly endowed.”

So are the 47 academics of the same mind as Savarkar and his law-givers (such as Manu, one presumes) who “rightly” wanted to regulate the “flow” of “noble blood”? If they are, will they please stand up, and identify for the benefit of the lesser mortals who exactly are the people described by Savarkar as of “barren and poor” quality, as opposed to those who are “nobly endowed”? And also, what exactly is right about “regulating” the flow of “noble blood”?

Or could it be that the 47 eminent academicians agree with Har Bilas Sarda, the Hindu Mahasabha leader, Arya Samajist and indeed, eminent social reformer, who wrote  about the “hereditary genius” of the caste system in his book, Hindu Superiority, in the following manner:
“Hereditary genius is now a subject of serious enquiry amongst the enlightened men of Europe and America, and the evolution theory as applied to sociology when fully worked out, will fully show the merits of the system. In fact, the India of the time of Manu will appear to have reached a stage of civilisation of which the brilliant ‘modern European civilisation’ only gives us glimpses.”

The 47 would help the discourse if they clarify what specific integrative aspect of the caste system they want to highlight, and where they differ with Savarkar or Sarda in this, if at all they do. In the absence of that, an external observer would be led to believe that this attempt to give a polish to the caste system is linked to the desire of the Hindutva right-wing to reinstall the glory of the caste system, and weaken the existing Constitutional mechanisms for the protection of those oppressed by it.

It was only on September 20, for example, that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat asked for a review of job and education reservations based on caste, thus sparking off a political furore. On the social media too, right-wing thought-makers have been carrying on a campaign to revive the glory of the "varna system", as exemplified by this statement of a leading light of the right-wing, Rajiv Malhotra:
“As we have seen, the varna model can be an aid in analysing past problems, but it can also serve as a guide for achieving a balanced, multi-varna society today.”

The standard sleight of hand used by defenders of the Chaturvarnya or the caste system is to say that it was not hereditary to begin with, but they fail  to address the questions that naturally follow: How would varna or caste work in practice without the hereditary mechanism as the normal standard? Who would do the certification for the different varnas in the absence of the hereditary principle? And why is it important to “keep it alive” in the 21st century using mechanisms of social coercion instead of “annihilating it,” as Ambedkar had recommended?

This is the first of a three-part article.Part II: Reinterpreting Indian history and nationhood in terms of religious conflict
Part III:  The single-source theory of Indian civilisation 

Tony Joseph is a journalist and former Editor of Businessworld.