Wednesday, March 16, 2022

A "union of states"

A "union of states"

 (First Post, 12 Feb 2022)

According to Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, “India is described in the Indian Constitution as a union of states and not a nation. One cannot rule over the people of a state in India. Different languages and cultures cannot be suppressed. It is a partnership, not a kingdom.” Let’s see about that.

The terms “union” and “state” (in the Hindi text: rājyon kā saṅgh) are quite vague, especially for a juridical document: both can have several interpretations. A "union" can mean a federation, which is a sovereign state dividing itself in autonomous provinces; or a confederacy, a permanent alliance of sovereign states; and everything in between, with history often showing an evolution from the one to the other. Thus, Switzerland is effectively a federation but called itself at its founding Confederatio Helvetica. An effective confederacy at present is the political structure of the Eurasian landmass's western subcontinent, the European Union. As the Brexit has demonstrated, though to much surprise, a member state of the EU retains its sovereignty, including the defining right to secede. By contrast, the Indian Republic does not confer on its lower political units this right of secession.

A "state" usually means a sovereign country, but it can also mean a province within a country. It is very common for this class of words not to have a fixed meaning in regard of its dimension of sovereignty, e.g. "land" in German means a province, in Dutch a sovereign country, and in English it has no political meaning, merely signifying any non-maritime region. When appearing in a legal text, such words first require a definition. From the wording in India's Constitution, one can deduce that here the word “state” (rājya) means the political level below full sovereignty.



Trivially, today's Indian Republic is geographically the sum total of its states. Yet historically it is not correct to imply that India has come about by uniting pre-existing states, as "union of states" might suggest. It came into being as a successor-state to British India. Yes, much of its present territory consisted of theoretically independent states before the Transfer of Power in 1947,  the Princely States. But these did not negotiate with British India as equal partners who then decided to merge. Instead, by signing the Instrument of Accession, they gave up their (already theoretical) sovereignty to be absorbed into the Republic.


For better understanding, consider the contrast with the European Union. The EU consists of sovereign member states with their own political history, mostly with active nationalist movements that went as far as to foment war against each other. It took the horrors of two World Wars and the common fear of the Soviet Bloc to make them water down their sovereignty step by negotiated step in a common ever-closer union. Each state retained the right to veto common decisions, so that these required a consensus. In India, by contrast, in vital matters the centre can overrule the states.


A great advantage of having a united federation of semi-autonomous states rather than a conglomerate of sovereign states is that it dedramatizes what would otherwise become a cause for war: the redrawing of boundaries between the states. The reorganization of the Northeast into the "Seven Sisters", the creation of Andhra Pradesh in the 1950s or the Panjabi Suba in the 1960s, or the more recent bifurcation of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh, are the stuff that elsewhere wars are fought over. Yet under the umbrella of India, they became mere administrative procedures. Though pooh-poohed by Rahul Gandhi, the existence of a national level above the affected states is highly beneficial.


One thing Eurasia's southern and western subcontinents have in common is that in their founding statements they avoid the term "nation" to refer to themselves. In Europe this would be a denial of history, where nationalist passions and considerable blood-letting were needed for the unification of Italy and Germany, the independence and unification of the Yugoslav states followed later by this federation's disintegration, etc. The project of countering these old nationalisms with a new EU nationalism has only lived in a small Rightist fringe; the “nation” counts as but a relic from history. In India, by contrast, the idea of defining the Subcontinent's population as a nation has been alive in the Freedom movement, which was influenced by the contemporaneous European nationalisms, most explicitly through VD Savarkar's translation of Italian nationalist thinker Giuseppe Mazzini.


Indians have debated whether they form a nation, and if so, what kind of nation. The Nehruvians claimed India was a new nation, with Mahatma Gandhi as "father of the nation", and in need of "nation-building". This is in complete denial of history, when a sense of Indianness existed for millennia. So Gandhi himself had considered India an ancient nation with himself as its grateful son. The Muslim League applied the Ottoman division into millets, "nations", meaning religious communities treated as political units. The Left mostly preferred a fragmented India and invoked the European equation of nation with national language, e.g. the Bengali nation. Prakash Ambedkar thought that the attributes of nationhood apply to the castes: "Every caste a nation."

The present Sangh Parivar effectively espouses Gandhi's view (the asli Gandhi, not the naqli Gandhi who triggered this debate) that India is an ancient nation which includes every Indian. Nowadays it downplays its original Hindu identity and emphatically calls itself nationalist, forever intoning the mantra “unity”. But in an earlier stage, under MS Golwalkar, it taught that only Hindus (in the broad sense) form the nation, while the Muslims and Christians are mere guests. The reason was that only Hindus could boast of a civilizational continuity, whereas Christians and Muslims had historically rejected the culture they found here, or from which they converted, explicitly wanting to replace it with their own.


The main problem with asserting an Indian nationhood, as per Rahul Gandhi, is its diversity. This is a false problem, merely a higher magnitude of what every country has to deal with. Moreover, it is part of the genius of Hindu civilization that it can deal exceptionnally well with diversity. While there is always room for improvement, the present federal structure takes care rather well of the needs of its diverse demographics. All the way from Brussels, I dare say that in terms of a political structure doing justice to its own motto of "Unity in diversity", the European Union had better learn some lessons from the Indian Republic.



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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Questioning the Equality Statue



Questioning the Equality Statue


(First Post, mid-January 2022)



On 5 February 2022, the revered Prime Minister, Sri Narendra Modi, unveils a giant five-metal statue of the 11th-century founder of the Viśiṣṭādvaita Vedānta (“qualified-non-dualist conclusion-of-the-Veda”) philosophy and Ācārya of its concomitant Bhakti (“devotion”) practice, Śrī Ramānuja. Though the preceding philosopher Śaṅkara with his Advaita Vedānta (“non-dualist conclusion-of-the-Veda”) is better known internationally among intellectuals, in India he is more revered for his path-breaking organizational work in monasticism and temple worship, while it is Ramanuja whose devotional theism is far more entrenched in Hinduism’s religious orders and popular culture, including its variations in sects like the Nanak Panth (Sikhi) or the Swaminarayan community. In living Hinduism, which has many leading figures, he may not be such a household name as Shankara or Swami Vivekananda, but arguably his influence reaches the deepest.


This is a joyous occasion, we have no reason to minimize it. But, as is my wont, I leave it to others to applaud this event; I would rather offer a few critical observations.



1.    Gigantism

The Ramanuja statue is one of the largest in India, reportedly 216 feet high, standing on top of a 54-feet pedestal. It follows the trend set by Sardar Patel's statue in Gujarat, to which even overflying airplane pilots draw the attention of their passengers. But what purpose is served by this?

In the case of a political figure, one can understand that the public square is where he belongs. So, a century and more ago, national authorities strengthened their self-justification in the public's mind by visually commemorating those who had been pillars of their establishment. For a philosopher and religious leader, this overwhelming physical presence is less appropriate.


Secondly, making a statement about your ideological sympathies by means of a statue towering over the street view is rather obsolete, since our visual life has mostly gone into cyberspace. Statues belong to a past century, nowadays you can produce far more impressive images online.

Thirdly, why the gigantism? The best Hindu temples have an intimacy about them (as struck me especially in Ujjain’s HarSiddhi temple or in the present Kashi Vishvanath), and even the biggest ones are divided in compartments that reproduce this intimacy. They are meant for visits by families at times convenient to them, not for congregational worship fixed on Friday or Sunday. And they are meant for pilgrims, not the mass tourism that giant statues aim for.


A few years back, I was in Haridwar and Rishikesh, where a flood of the Ganga river had wrought some destruction, washing human constructions away. This included a recent giant statue of Shiva. The locals told me that this was Ma Ganga's way of showing her disapproval for this gigantism. A god doesn't need this kind of emphasis on his intrinsic greatness. In a way, it is disrespectful to his divine character. If you must, then make a giant statue of Patel, who after all cemented the Indian state, the ultimate authority sanctioning all these monuments. But Shiva can do without this, and so can Ramanujacharya.



2.   Trinkets

Whenever anything is done for religion, Leftists sourly object that the money had better been spent on prosperity-enhancing initiatives for the masses. Dharma-oriented people can take a leaf from the Leftists’ book and wonder whether the money spent on the statue (and to be spent on its upkeep in the future) could not have served a better purpose. Thus, local temples or Dharmic associations connected with those temples could have deployed more activity in the field of education, a field where Hindus are painfully absent compared to the Christian missionaries.

Since Modi came to power, many people have noticed with increasing consternation that several consequential legal anti-Hindu discriminations which could finally have been abolished by the BJP’s comfortable majority in Parliament, are on the contrary being perpetuated. The BJP not only left the existing inequality between Hindus and the minorities (who are given privileged autonomy by the Constitution, esp. Art.26-30) in school and temple management intact, it has actively thwarted attempts to correct this glaring inequality. When in 2018 BJP MP Satyapal Singh tabled a Private Bill to abolish these discriminations, it was not just cold-shouldered by his party; he was given a minor Minister’s post (bought off?) and nothing was heard of his proposal again.

Hindu places of worship are not autonomous, they are subject to or constantly threatened by nationalization and the siphoning off of their funds towards secular or even anti-Hindu purposes. This is highlighted by the race to the exit of the Hindu community by sects that want to invest in education and fear such government take-overs, such as the Arya Samaj, the Ramakrishna Mission or the Lingayats. Similarly, Scheduled Tribe communities who have a status in a grey zone part Hindu part separate, are embracing the non-Hindu side, affirming their local identities as Donyi-Polo (Arunachal Pradesh) or Sarna (Jharkhand), because they gain from a cool “aboriginal” identity and have everything to lose with a demonized and discriminated-against Hindu identity. The alternative to leaving the sinking ship of Hinduism is to remain loyal, but of such loyal Hindu temple associations I hear from local primary sources that they sometimes contemplate initiatives in education but call these off because of this same fear of a hostile take-over. Instead of glittering statues, they could use extra funds to finance their juridical defence under the present power equation; or better still, a BJP-piloted abolition of these discriminations so as to lift this fear.

Instead, apart from giving privileges to the minorities in the vain hope of catching their votes (or in the equally vain hope of a pat on the back from his revered  secularists), Modi has merely made a number of empty Hindu gestures. These include highly televised temple visits, conspicuous public works in Ayodhya and Kashi, or the recent unveiling of a Shankara statue in Kedarnath. But the legislative jobs for remedying the second-class status of the Hindus in India, which only his government is in a position to do, he has left undone. As a former confidante of Modi’s told me, the BJP merely wants to “keep the pot boiling”, throw Hindu-looking crumbs to the Hindus to earn their votes, yet give them nothing substantial.

The highly mediagenic unveiling of the Ramanuja statue follows the same pattern. Hindus love all the pomp and circumstance, regardless of whom it is dedicated to (hence no eyebrows were raised when Modi recently gave glittering presents to the dargah of the anti-Hindu ideologue and invasion-facilitating spy Muinuddin Chishti in Ajmer). Short of a high-powered campaign to raise their awareness of the discrimination they suffer, they won’t be up in arms about the disappointingly superficial performance of their Hindu government. Even if the BJP itself can’t convince the Hindu voters of any pro-Hindu commitment, it can count on the media: they will seize on any appearance by Modi in a religious setting to clamour indignantly that he is pursuing a Hindu Rashtra, an unearned reputation that only makes him more popular. It merely confirms him as the Hindu Hrdaya Samrat (“emperor of the Hindu heart”). Hindu jubilation after receiving yet another trinket only proves that a child’s hand is easy to fill.




3.   Egalitarianism


When honouring Ramanuja, the Government has taken care to give an ideologically useful name to the new monument: it will go by the name “equality statue”. In the 1960s the Jan Sangh, earlier incarnation of the BJP, veered into Socialist territory, rather explicitly in the case of leaders like Nana Deshmukh (whose slogan vikās/“development” is still central in Modi’s speeches), AB Vajpayee and trade-union leader Dattopant Thengadi, and even after the liberalization of the economy since the 1990s it hasn’t really vanished. In all three, this Nehruvian economic view went hand in hand with a choice for secularism: in both realms they simply followed the dominant ideology.

This is still the case today: the BJP, portrayed worldwide as fanatically Hindu, is in fact ideologically weak and ever-weaker. It has no ideological backbone and therefore turns with the reigning wind, or even dances to the tune played by its declared enemies. It has no self-respect but is a dedicated follower of fashion. Now, an international ideological fashion that even India can’t escape, is absolute egalitarianism.

So the great Sri Ramanuja is instrumentalized in the BJP’s egalitarian re-profiling. It emphasizes that Ramanuja assured everyone regardless of caste that he could achieve Liberation. Anyone can develop and cultivate devotion (Bhakti) to a God and intone His name as a Mantra.

This insight wasn’t all that revolutionary: none of the classics on Yoga (Katha Upanishad, Bhagavad Gita, Yoga Sutra, Yoga Vasishtha, Shiva Sutra etc.), demanding though they may be in terms of Sadhana discipline, excludes anyone from the spiritual path. Thus, one of the most constant inequalities in society is that between men and woman, yet already in the Mahabharata the nun Sulabha defeats king Janaka in debate with her argument that “the Self (Ātman) is not gendered”, so that women are equally fit for yogic achievement.  

It is claimed that some Brahmin circles did transpose the inequalities in society to the spiritual realm. If so, it was but an intermezzo in Hindu Dharma’s long history, always counterbalanced by the view that the Self is nirguna (“without qualities”) and neti-neti (“neither this nor that”). Indeed, that the worldly inequalities do not apply to the yogic sphere is the more orthodox, more Vedic position. Whatever else may be up for criticism in the Arya Samaj, its endeavour to root its egalitarian reformism in the Vedas has a basis in fact.

And yet, though this same age-old position was expressed by Sri Ramanuja, the modern-sounding name “equality statue” is infelicitous. It is unlikely that he had ever heard of egalitarianism, and it certainly wasn’t what occupied his mind. He concentrated on the Supreme, as did the many Bhakti sects centred around variations on his worldview. I suspect that his assuring all men of Liberation provided they do the right Sadhana made no difference to their societal status.

The Leftists, whom Modi has been imitating in his zeal for secular social justice, won’t be impressed. When Karl Marx and the first trade-unionists took their stand in then-Christian Europe, they faced a similar ideological obstacle: the Church instilled in its flock the sense that vis-à-vis God they were all equal. They all had an eternal soul, tainted by eternal sin, but capable of faith and of receiving God’s grace, regardless of their status in society. That was what Marx called the “opium of the people”: the belief in some higher realm endowed with equality which made socio-economic inequality bearable. As St Paul wrote: there is neither freeman nor slave, for all have been freed in Christ – but this was a poor consolation for the slaves, for it made no end to worldly slavery.

For the present purpose, the situation in Vedanta is not substantially different from that in Christianity. Yes, in a yogic perspective, all are equally endowed: man and woman, rich and poor, master and servant. But their spiritual progress doesn’t make them leave the class they belong to. It may Liberate them from their limitations, but not from their societal category. It doesn’t make them equal in any worldly sense.  



The statue of Sardar Patel, who like Otto von Bismarck in Germany was the “iron man” and the unifier of his country, is sensibly called the “Unity Statue”: his main legacy is indeed India’s unity. In Ramanujacharya’s life, equality is only an incidental aspect of his prescriptions for spiritual progress. Commentaries and papers have been written about him in the intervening nine centuries without dilating on equality. The pursuit of equality is a typically modern phenomenon, alien to Jesus and Paul, and just as alien to Ramanuja.

We've often seen Hindus make flattered claims to modern equality, only to collapse when critically questioned by outsiders. They may find themselves very clever in projecting this contemporary value onto their ancient tradition, but others see through this ploy. That's why we warn them to think twice before making such claims. Neither the Buddha, another much-acclaimed purported egalitarian, nor Ramanujacharya had the power to change lay society. They could influence their followers’ minds and organize their monastic orders, but that was the extent of their reach. From a modern perspective, a certain amount of equality was incidental to their real purpose, but this purpose was not equality. Contrary to what Ramanuja’s statue’s name might suggest, his goal was not equality but Liberation.

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