There is or should be an Indian way of thinking about the world. Over a critical mass of space and a respectable span of time, the Indian republic has built a track record and accumulated a store of experience that allows Indians to view the world through the lens of India’s modern history. An interesting view of the world has to be earned through originality and success. There is, for example, no Pakistani view of the world that is of any interest to, say, someone interested in state-building, because Pakistan borrowed ethnic nationalism from the West, tricked it out in Muslim motley and created an unstable, militarized, intolerant state. It is a derivative and dysfunctional state, valuable as a cautionary tale. General Musharraf sells Pakistan to the Western world as a “moderate, Muslim nation”. How can a self-respecting Muslim head of state do this' It’s tantamount to saying that Pakistan is a non-feral Muslim country.
This is not to claim that India has some automatic claim on the world’s attention, but merely to argue that Indian nationalism and the republic have been around long enough for Indians to begin talking out of their own experience, instead of nervously reaching for categories manufactured elsewhere which often don’t fit. It also means that when Indians think about secularism, nationalism, self-determination, the ‘international community’ and the ‘free world’, their history gives them a way of looking at these ideas that’s distinct from their original or default meanings. The modest but still substantial success of the Indian republic in creating a democratic, pluralist state allows Indians (and others) the space to consider that intellectual categories and policy prescriptions that pass as universal are often founded in provincial cultural practices.
Let’s take an example from outside politics, from Dr Spock, the intelligent lay parent’s guide to child-raising. I still remember the bizarre section where he used to tell parents that after they brought their baby back from hospital, they were to make her sleep in her own room in her own bed. They weren’t to pick her up when she cried because that was the only way she would get used to sleeping on her own. I’m sure Spock and his Western public had good reasons for wanting the baby to sleep on her own (the infant’s right to privacy, the exclusivity of the marital bed, the sleep-alone foundations of heroic individualism, whatever) but every Indian parent who read those pages knew that this was quite mad. We were entirely unsurprised by modern medicine’s discovery that babies who slept alone were more likely to be victims of cot death.
Just as paediatric prescriptions are often no more than Western baby-raising practices dressed up as scientific practice (when they actually belong to the realm of social anthropology), in the same way it is a mistake to use the categories of social and political thought without examining their provenance. This is specially important when it comes to the vocabulary of ‘progressive’ Third World thought.
Thus the critique of secularism in India for not being true to its original European meaning seems a bit besides the point when you stop to think that the separation of church and state has never been high on any list of India’s political priorities. The anxiety of Indian secularists to purge the state of pluralist religious observance is even odder when you consider that anti-colonial nationalism framed the nation as a menagerie of harmonious, equal communities. To accept secularism in India as a form of pluralist nationalism is not to lapse into jungly nativism: it doesn’t require us to believe that there is something uniquely tolerant about Indian cultural and religious traditions, nor that Indian secularism is underwritten by Hinduism’s natural eclecticism. Pluralist nationalism was founded on an inspired political bluff: that the Congress could speak for the nation-in-the-making because its membership reflected, in a zoological way, India’s human species.
First, the challenge of representing India to a hostile colonial state and then the trauma of Partition committed the republican state to pluralist democracy. Pluralism, to use a fashionable term, was written into the DNA of the Indian nationalism, into its Constitution, into its practice. A stratagem born of weakness (the early nationalist elite had no other way of demonstrating that they represented anyone but themselves), pluralism became the cornerstone of Indian political practice, because it legitimized the compromises essential for keeping hundreds of jostling identities aboard the good ship India.
This was the ultimate political goal: to keep the diversity of a sub-continent afloat in a democratic ark. Everything else was negotiable. The political culture of the republic consisted of the balancing of special interests, procrastination, equivocation, pandering, tokenism made into an art form, the servicing of special interests through selective affirmative action, in a word, democratic politics. Gender, language, religious identity, class and caste were all pressed into India’s political mill, but no one identity or principle was used consistently enough to satisfy its champions.
It is a political culture that approximately but demonstrably, worked. Not only has it worked, it allows us, in an incomplete way, an Indian view of the world. For example, when a ‘people’ elsewhere asks for self-determination (the Kurds, the Eelam Tamils, the Basque) an Indian should ask, what for' If the point of self-determination is to allow a ‘People’ to become a hegemonic majority in its own right, an Indian is entitled to say that whatever its rhetorical power, self-determination doesn’t seem like an emancipatory or interesting or original political idea. If a state with a majority of Kurds or Tamils is to be premised on Kurdishness or Tamilness, better that it not exist at all because Indians know from their own history that pluralist democracies can be worked despite terrible violence and they also know, from their neighbourhood and beyond, where ethnic nationalisms lead.
It isn’t a coincidence that the great contemporary exemplar of innovative, pluralist democratic practice is a country whose main political party is called the African National Congress. That South Africa should pioneer new forms of democratic healing in the form, for example, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, isn’t surprising either because like India, that country set out to draw a line under the violence and sectarianism of its tormented history to create a non-ethnic, non-racial, unvengeful republic. To achieve this it frequently disappoints both its following within South Africa and the international left that invested so much of its energy in the overthrow of apartheid. Like India, South Africa’s political class is accused of inconsistency and a lack of radical purpose. Like India, South Africa can point to a neighbour, Zimbabwe, to illustrate what happens to countries that cleave too purely to the politics of race and religion.
The achievements of India’s political culture and South Africa’s, are increasingly evident in a world threatened by sectarianism. The success of their experiments in pluralism gives us the opportunity to speak of the world in an original way. It would be provincial to refuse.