Sunday, December 23, 2007

Nehru Inverted: Building a Model for Theocratic Constitutionalism in India.

People have sometimes looked to India as an example of the possibility of constructing a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-religious state from out of a collection of culturally related peoples. Europeans, in particular, have been looking to pluralist, multi-ethnic states, other than the United States, to overcome current objections to a European state based on the “no demos” idea. (Mancini 2000, 60) (looking to the example of India and South Africa for multi-lingual, multi-ethnic democratic states). Elsewhere, I had once suggested that there has emerged within Asia an acceptance of state creation on the basis of democratic participation within a pluralistic polity. If Europe needed a model for the formation of a nation from out of a large group of related but politically separate communities, communities separated by language, religion, tradition, race, and traditions—it needed to look no further than the modern federal Republic of India. (Backer 2002).

In 1947 as India gained independence, most of the world questioned whether the new Indian state could survive. (Das 1992, 135). Indian nationalists—led by Mohandas Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru—aimed to unite British India and 562 princely states into a secular and democratic state. (Hardgrave 1993, 54-68). The new “Indians” spoke more than a dozen major languages and belonged to a multitude of religions. (Id.). European views regarding a nation of India were best characterized by John Strachey’s declaration, “there is not, and never was an India, nor ever any country of India, possessing according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no nation, no ‘people of India’ of which we hear so much”. (Strachey 1885, 5). Judging from the 19th century British and French models, India possessed none of the characteristics of a nation. The new nation lacked a common language, a shared historical experience, a common religious tradition and racial homogeneity, all of which were thought to be prerequisites for the formation of a nation. (Embree 1990, 61).

Early nationalists asserted that a national unity could be established whether it be through religion or secularism. The foremost Indian nationalists—Gandhi and Nehru—disagreed sharply over whether India’s national identity should be built around religion or the establishment of a purely secular state. (Chandra 1988, 522-524). Both of these Indian nationalists established secularism as a basic component of the nationalist ideology. Both Nehru and Gandhi believed that the objective of unification of the Indian people could only be realized by taking into account regional, religious, caste, ethnic and linguistic differences. While both leaders believed in the establishment of a secular state, they envisioned very different frameworks through which this vision would be realized.

Gandhi envisioned a role for religion in the new India and utilized religious symbolism in his campaign for independence. Gandhi refused to divide religion from the political realm and strove to refute the colonial charge that religion must keep India divided. (Khilnani 1997, 164)). Utilizing religious symbols that allowed him to be viewed as a religious saint among many of India’s religions (although the symbols were predominantly Hindu), Gandhi created an Indian identity based on swadeshi, a patriotism based on a reverence for every day India. (Id.).

While Gandhi’s Hindu-oriented freedom campaign brought independence to India, it was Nehru’s vision of secular state that lay the foundation of the new Indian republic. (Alam 1999, 147). Nehru adhered to the establishment of a strict secular Indian state. Nehru rejected European paradigms of a national identity and instead believed that an Indian identity could only emerge within the institutional and territorial structure of a state. “Nehru believed that an Indian identity could emerge only within the territorial and institutional frame of a state. A specifically Indian compromise was needed, and he saw strengths in this. That compromise was outlined in the practical adaption, after 1947, of the state into a distinctive model shaped by Nehru’s understanding of the Indian past: a model committed to protecting cultural and religious difference rather than imposing a uniform ‘Indianess’.” (Khilnani,1997, 167).

Nehru thus dedicated himself to the formation of an Indian identity, which protected religious and cultural differences rather than the imposition of a unitary ‘Indianess’. Nehru managed to create an Indian identity based on democracy versus ethnic, linguistic or religious criteria. (Khilnani,1997, 173). In The Discovery of India, written on the eve of Independence, Nehru characterized India as a place of cultural mixing and “an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.” (Nehru 1946, 38-39). From 1947 to 1964, Nehru carefully navigated India through the effects of Partition, debates over a national language and an increased push for states rights. (Khilnani 1997, 178-79).

Nehru ended his tenure as Prime Minister in 1964 but the Congress Party continued as the primary political party until 1996. However, the political landscape began changing considerably since the late 1980's and early 1990's when India witnessed a resurgence of politically organized Hindu nationalism. (Jaffrelot 1996, 1). Many have argued that Nehru’s model of secularism assisted the rise in Hindu nationalist sentiment. (Khilnani 1997, 183). Nehru and the founding generation sought to use a spec ific, ethnically based federalism as the tool through which unity and integrity could be maintained in a complex and multilayered plural entity. Muni 1996, 188). Starting in 1953, Indian federalism was reorganized on a linguistic basis. As the Commission Constituted to Reorganize States in the Indian Federation explained: “Linguistic homogeneity provides the only rational basis for reconstituting the state, for it reflects social and cultural pattern of living obtaining in well-defined regions of the country.” (Muni 1996, 185). Thus, early on, the use of language as a proxy for socio-cultural difference, and the embracing of the assumption that these linguistic differences were territorially based drove Indian federalism. Yet, the “elaborate structure of power devolution has combined with the linguistic basis of federal unity to facilitate the management of cultural diversity in India and help mitigate pulls toward separatism and disintegration.” (Muni 1996, 190).

At the center of this new religious nationalism is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the foremost Hindu Nationalist party in India. The nature of that nationalism is nicely crystallized in the BJP’s statement that “It has nothing against Muslim Indians - as distinguished from Muslim invaders. Its position on this issue has all along been: "Justice for all and appeasement of none". But it has no doubt that we were and are a Hindu nation; that change of faith cannot mean change of nationality.” (Bharatiya Janata Party Gujarat, Backdrop, Founder, Ideologue).

The symbolic and precipitating event in the rise of modern Hindu consciousness, and the construction of Hindu nationalism, can be attributed to the controversy surrounding the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. During the Mughal era, Emperor Babur constructed the Babri masjid (mosque) at the site revered as the place of Lord Ram’s birth. Ram is one of the central Hindu deities in Vedic Hinduism. Hindu theology tells that Ram was born in the town of Ayodhya in modern-day Uttar Pradesh. (Khilnani 1997, 52-54).

Since independence, Hindu nationalist parties have lobbied for the destruction of the Babri Masjid and construction of the Sri Ram Mandir temple. Finally, in 1992, Hindu nationalists destroyed the Babri Masjid. The ensuing riots killed thousands of Indian Muslims and prompted a surge if Hindu nationalism. (van der Veer 1996, 253-54 ). The Babri Masjid-Sri Ram Mandir confrontations continue through 2002—yet they do not serve as any indication that India will tear itself apart. Throughout the early 1990's the BJP had made small gains in national and state-wide elections and in mid-1996, the BJP won the national election. (Ludden, 16-17). However, since the early 1990's the strong tide of Hindu nationalism has weakened. After the 1993 election, the BJP relied less on ethnic-religious mobilization and focused more on social and economic issues. (Jaffrelot 1996, 533). During the late 1990's, in an attempt to widen their electoral base, the BJP modified many of their positions especially regarding language.

In the early 1990's, the BJP campaigned under the slogan of ‘One Nation, One People, One Culture’ (BJP Election Manifesto 1998). It was reported that this amounted to a pledge to remake India into a Hindu state by promoting the Hindi language, re-writing Indian history to exclude Mughal history and a general promotion of Hindu culture. Education initiatives stated that, “Curricula be Indianised and spiritualised and emphasise the teaching of Indian philosophy, including the Vedas and Upanishads in higher education. Sanskrit be made compulsory.” (Baweja 1998, 17).

One gets a sense of the nature of the difference in historical emphasis when one reads the Bharatiya Janata Party’s understanding of the historical context of which it forms a modern expression.

History is the philosophy of nations. And the Sangh Parivar has a very clear and candid conception of Indian history. Here was a great civilization whose glory spread from Sri Lanka to Java and Japan and from Tibet and Mangolia to China and Siberia. While it weathered the storms of Huns and Shakas and Greeks it wilted before the Islamic storms of the Turks. However, a 1000-year resistance saw this country bloodied but unbowed. Its civilization survived through the heroic efforts of the Vijayanagar Empire and of Shivaji, Rana Pratap and Guru Govind Singh and countless heroes and martyrs.

(Bharatiya Janata Party Gujarat, Backdrop, Founder, Ideologue). Whatever the reality of the rewriting of history, it was clear that BJP rejected traditional Indian ethnic constitutionalism.

In the name of "secularism", the Congress and the United Front parties have shamelessly pandered to communalism and indulged in "vote-bank politics". As a result, members of the minority communities have been reduced to nothing more than numbers to be played with at the time of elections. While these parties have gained, the minorities have lost-as also has India. The minorities have been cynically used for the purpose of garnering votes these past 50 years, but their socio-economic problems have remained unattended. The true meaning of "secularism", equal respect for all faith-sarva panth samadar- has been perverted by the pseudo-secularists into appeasement of regressive elements. (BJP Election Manifesto 1998, chp. 9).

More recently, however, the BJP has dropped most of their dominantly Hindu nationalist policies in place of social, economic and defense policies that encompass a wider spectrum of the Indian populace. (BJP, NDA Agenda for Development, Good Governance and Peace Manifesto 2004) Yet that is still done within the context of a sense of the universal application of a Hindu worldview, Hindutva, as a cultural rather than as a religious matter.

The BJP draws its inspiration from the history and civilisation of India. We believe that Indian nationhood stems from a deep cultural bonding of the people that overrides differences of caste, region, religion and language. We believe that Cultural Nationalism for which Indianness, Bharatiyata and Hindutva are synonyms -- is the basis of our national identity.

Contrary to what its detractors say, and as the Supreme Court itself has decreed, Hindutva is not a religious or exclusivist concept. It is inclusive, integrative, and abhors any kind of discrimination against any section of the people of India on the basis of their faith. It rejects the idea of a theocratic or denominational state. It accepts the multi-faith character and other diversities of India, considering them to be a source of strength and not weakness. It firmly upholds secularism, understood as Sarva Pantha Samabhav (treating all faiths with respect).

However, the BJP unflinchingly holds that differences in faith cannot challenge the idea of India as One Nation or undermine our millennia-old identity as One People. This is why, we rejected the two-nation theory on the basis of which our Motherland was tragically partitioned in 1947. Thus, Cultural Nationalism is the most potent antidote to communalism, divisiveness, and separatism of every kind, and a guarantor of our national unity and national integration.

(Bharatiya Janata Party, Vision Document – 2004). This is an elaboration of the notion of Cultural Nationalism within Hindutva (BJP, BJP Philosophy : Hindutva (Cultural Nationalism)) already declared in the 1998 Manifesto (BJP Election Manifesto 1998, chp. 2 (“Our nationalist vision is not merely bound by the geographical or political identity of Bharat but it is referred by our timeless cultural heritage. This cultural heritage which is central to all regions, religions and languages, is a civilizational identity and constitutes the cultural nationalism of India which is the core of Hindutva. This we believe is the identity of our ancient nation "Bharatvarsha"”)). India, it seems, will not be unmade, despite her history and traditional divisions. Yet India also serves as testament to the power to remake or create a national consciousness even where cultural, linguistic and religious difference are as great as those traits that these communities share in common.

It is with this in mind that one might better understand the tensions inherent in the recent election results in Gujarat. (Wax 2007). It appears that the BJP has just won an election in that crucial diverse Indian state. “It marks a big victory for controversial right-wing Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who is credited with pursuing successful economic policies.” (India's BJP wins Gujarat election, BBC News, Dec. 23, 2007). But Mr. Modi has been accused of supporting 2002 riots in that province that resulted in the death of more than 1,000 Muslims. (Wax 2007). “Modi hails from the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, and the race is being closely watched as a test of the party's Hindu nationalist ideology at a time when India's importance on the global stage is growing. It is also being watched as an indicator of the BJP's strength before general elections scheduled for May 2009.” (Wax 2007). Nevertheless, “The BJP won 117 out of 182 seats in the Gujarat Legislative Assembly, with Congress winning 59 and six seats going to the smaller parties, results from the Electoral Commission of India showed. It is the fourth consecutive BJP election victory in Gujarat.” (India's BJP wins Gujarat election, BBC News, Dec. 23, 2007).

The Indian elite is unhappy about this. "If Modi wins again in Gujarat, it puts a dent in India's commitment to diversity," said Shiv Visvanathan, a professor and analyst who tracks the chief minister. "It further polarizes society. India has the world's second-largest Muslim population, and it will send shivers when he wins. Modi's never even apologized to the Muslims for riots. A lot of people admire that, and he embodies Hindu pride." (Wax 2007). Most fault him for playing the religion card to get elected in 2002 in the wake of the terrible riots in that province. “"His constant refusal to discuss 2002 and insisting that this is all about development is really an order for silence," said Yogesh Chandrani, a Gujarati anthropologist. "So there is no public discussion of the prejudice against Muslims or the violence that occurred or the fact that an entire section of society is marginalized. The thing is, the middle class has fallen in line."” (Id.). And this elite should be wary, since BJ stands against everything at the foundation of the construction of the current Indian state apparatus. But so are the apparatchiks within the American state apparatus. Modi had been “denied a visa by the United States for "severe violations of religious freedom."” (Wax 2007).

Guilt by association has become a great measure of American policy, unless it suits us to look the other way. And when it comes to Hindu activism all the more so. “Modi was once a young member of the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha, or RSS, a member of which killed Mohandas K. Gandhi. After the riots, Modi won a landslide victory in 2002, tapping into long-festering tensions between Muslims and Hindus, human rights experts said.” (Id.). But Modi has come a long way, at least when it comes to media projection. “Modi speaks only about development, rarely mentioning the religious tensions that once got him elected. India Today magazine called this change the "most significant total transformation of a political leader in Indian politics."” (Id.).

It is no surprise that opinion varies by affiliation—both religious and status quo. “To his critics, Modi is a dangerous leader who stood idle during weeks of mob violence, known as "Gujarat's pogroms" in the Muslim community.” (Wax 2007). Indeed, “Mr Modi has been accused of failing to protect Muslims in the riots, which claimed the lives of 1,000 people.” (India's BJP wins Gujarat election, BBC News, Dec. 23, 2007). On the other hand, “to his admirers, Modi is a Hindu hero of machismo, especially for the middle class. He's religious, business-friendly, socially conservative, outspoken against affirmative action for Muslims and other minority groups, and tech-savvy.” (Id.).

And, indeed, it is Gujarat’s Muslim community, about 9% of the population, that feels the pinch of the BJP’s Cultural Nationalism policies. One report quoted a member of that community: “"I feel like a caged animal on display," said Mohamed Salim, a former rickshaw puller who witnessed the mobs killing his friends and neighbors in 2002. "The politicians, the human rights activists and the government all come to look, and nothing ever changes. There is no justice for Muslims in India, especially now. And no hope for the future."” (Wax 2007). Indeed, feelings run hot in this border province. “For victims of the 2002 riots, a Modi victory would be just one more symbol of injustice. "Since there is no justice and people are still voting for Modi, we are ignored, and we Muslims can never trust them," said Niaz Bibi, 50, a mother of three whose home was burned by Hindu mobs in 2002. "All of those who burned my house had been nourished by meals in my home. We used to be friends and neighbors. That's not the India I know now."” (Id.).

But it is a curious thing for religious people to speak of prejudice in an age and place where people are otherwise comfortable with the importance, even the predominance, of religion and religious values as the centerpiece of state creation. Consider, for example, that under American tutelage, the state of Iraq has, in some respects, enacted in its constitution the central elements of the more radical version of the BJP’s platform for transforming India, but without even the equality protections for religious and ethnic minorities in the state. (Backer, 2007). Religious transnational constitutionalism is now respectable. Its consequences, in terms of the excesses possible where populations are polarized rather than taught mutual toleration, is readily apparent in Gujarat. But it is wrong to point the finger at Hindu nationalism. That expression, even in religious terms, can hardly be considered on a par with that in neighboring countries neither known for their religious toleration nor sympathy for cultural diversity. In many respects, the BJP represents a benign version of a possible future of transnational constitutional orders whose framework has been constructed by te Iranians and the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is hardly fair to complain that what is appropriate in Muslim majority states is somehow inappropriate in Hindu majority states. . . . or in Christian or Jewish majority states. For those who have had in the construction of this transnational constitutional reality, this consequence may define a new baseline for state construction.

Reference List:

JAVEED ALAM, INDIA: LIVING WITH MODERNITY 147 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Larry Catá Backer, The Euro and the European Demos: A Reconstitution, 21 YEAR BOOK OF EUROPEAN LAW (England) 13 (2002), summary available (accessed Dec. 23, 2007).

----------, God(s) Over Constitutions: International and Religious Transnational Constitutionalism in the 21st Century, 26 MISSISSIPPI COLLEGE LAW REVIEW – (forthcoming 2007), (accessed Dec. 18, 2007).

Harinder Baweja, Failing the Test, INDIA TODAY, Nov. 2, 1998) at 17.

Bharatiya Janata Party Gujarat, Backdrop, Founder, Idealogue, available at (accessed Dec. 22, 2007).

----------, Vision Document – 2004, Our Basic Mission and Commitments, (accessed Dec. 23, 2007).

----------, Election Manifesto 1998, particular chapter may be accessed at (accessed Dec. 17, 2007).

---------, NDA Agenda for Development, Good Governance and Peace Manifesto 2004, (accessed Dec. 17, 2007).

----------, BJP Philosophy: Hindutva (Cultural Nationalism), (accessed Dec. 23, 2007).

BIPAN CHANDRA, INDIA’S STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE 1857 - 1947 522-524 (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1988).



Robert L. Hardgrave, Jr., India: The Dilemmas of Diversity, 4/4 J. OF DEMOCRACY 54-68 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, October 1993).

India's BJP wins Gujarat election, BBC News, Dec. 23, 2007, (Accessed Dec. 23, 2007).


SUNIL KHILNANI, THE IDEA OF INDIA 164 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997).

David Ludden, Introduction. Ayodhya: A Window on the World, in Contesting the Nation, p. 16-17.


JAWAHARLAL NEHRU, THE DISCOVERY OF INDIA 38-39 (New York: Doubleday, 1946).

JOHN STRACHEY, INDIA 5 (London, 1885).

Peter van der Veer, “Writing Violence” in CONTESTING THE NATION: RELIGION, COMMUNITY AND THE POLITICS OF DEMOCRACY IN INDIA 253-254 (David Ludden, ed., Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1996).

Emily Wax, In Tense Indian State, A Man for All Hindus Gujarat's Muslims Apprehensive on Election Eve, The Washington Post, Dec. 23, 2007, at A20 (Accessed Dec. 23, 2007).

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