Why India must allow hyphens

In this country, undifferentiated citizenship is an ideologue's or a philosopher's pipe dream with ghastly real-world implications

Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri admire Narendra Modi. They find my positions on Modi implausible, but worth engaging. I appreciate the invitation to an intellectual exchange.

Most arguments in support of Modi tend to be economic. Economically speaking, Modi's Gujarat is Guangdong-like, immensely successful and increasingly a darling of international and domestic investors. It is easy to admire Modi's economics. The speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce is the best speech I have heard on markets as a source of mass welfare from an Indian politician. The UPA's economic reformers have allowed Modi to steal the thunder of 1991.

To my mind, the unresolved and contentious issues about Modi are all political, not economic. Unfortunately, isolated exceptions aside, it is rare to find support for Modi embedded in political arguments. Every time I write a column or express a viewpoint online, Modi's supporters respond with comments that vastly exceed the bounds of basic decency. The relentless venom knows no embarrassment. Does Modi know that he presides over a mountain of crudeness and vulgarity online?

Partly in reaction, some of the best Indian commentators have begun to compare Modi's support base with that of European fascists in the 1930s. European fascism also emerged from the womb of majoritarian democracy and fury. My judgement is different. Modi of 2002 had fascism written all over his politics; he appears to have evolved. The RSS and VHP will seek to push him back, but he is astute enough to know that to rise nationally, he needs to move beyond 2002.

Gupta and Mantri situate their support for Modi in political arguments, not simply economic. But basic disagreements remain. They have made their arguments needlessly pedantic. The core issue can be easily summarised. "Our left-liberals," they say, "assist the state in slowing India's natural evolution from a discrete salad bowl to a composite, dynamic melting pot". A salad bowl gives ample political space to group identities: tomatoes, cucumbers, onions can all stay as tomatoes, cucumbers and onions, without spoiling the salad. A melting pot turns all ingredients into a single whole. Identity groups become undifferentiated individuals. Not Muslim Indians, Dalit Indians or Bengali Indians, simply Indians. There are three keywords here: left-liberals, salad bowls, melting pots.

Let us start with "left-liberals". It is a term marked by a rapidly disappearing anachronism. It described Jawaharlal Nehru best. Nehru was economically on the "left", but politically "liberal". His promotion of state planning, not markets, represented the former; his unflinching faith in democracy epitomised the latter. Except for a few nostalgic souls in the National Advisory Council, those still marching to CPM tunes, those admiring Arundhati Roy's travels to Naxal lands and a few more, no one today is against markets. My own position is that the post-1991 shift in India's economic policy was a monumental breakthrough, not only producing high economic growth but lifting millions out of poverty. Modi has by now become the poster boy of markets, though Manmohan Singh gave birth to the new economic era.

Gupta and Mantri lend the term "left-liberal" considerable imprecision. They see many more economic adversaries than there actually are. Very few oppose markets today. The bone of contention is whether markets alone would lead to mass welfare, or state intervention is also required. Liberals like me find markets necessary, but not sufficient. India needs greater play of market forces, but the government's welfare, regulatory and public-goods functions remain.

Let us now turn to "salad bowls" and "melting pots". Invented by Ashis Nandy, these two metaphors have had a lasting impact on how we think about the Indian nation.

Though often associated in popular mind with the US, scholars of nationalism are clear that France is the ultimate melting pot of the world. There are no hyphenated identities in France. Muslim-French, Jewish-French, Arab- French are not categories France allows; all have to be French in an undifferentiated way. In contrast, the US allows hyphens: Irish-American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Chinese-American, Indian-American are all accepted categories. Moreover, the term "minorities" is highly prevalent. There is no minority quota to be sure, but affirmative action is practised as an enabling provision. I routinely sit on admissions and fellowship committees, which consciously search for minority candidates.

America allows minorities to flourish. The White House celebrates Diwali today. Yet America remains strong as a nation. One does not have to become a France to acquire national purpose and strength. Since the 19th century, India has played with two ideas of India: one that sought European-style nationhood, built on uniformity; another that sought integration of minorities via recognition of diversities. Hindu nationalists have always sought the former; Gandhi and Nehru, whose ideas won out and were finally enshrined in the Constitution, thought accommodation of diversities would make minorities secure. They were not consciously thinking of the US, but their intrinsic understanding was that India was nothing if not diverse. They also thought that imposing uniformity would undermine India, not make it stronger. In India, undifferentiated citizenship is an ideologue's or a philosopher's pipe dream with ghastly real-world implications. It will unleash incalculable violence. Haven't we learned from the violent tragedies of Europe in the first half of the 20th century?

A singular national identity was also equated with masculinity by Hindu nationalists. Vivekananda, whose sayings Modi tweets, came to promote "three Bs" for Hindus: beef, biceps and the Bhagavad Gita. For Gandhi, as also Nehru, India's identity could be soft and feminine. For them, femininity was not a crippling evil; if anything, it was a sign of inner strength. One did not need beef and biceps to generate national resolve.

Does Modi want to integrate minorities by giving them space to breathe and feel Indian because India respects their belief systems? Or does he want them to be undifferentiated Indians, or Indians whose values would be defined by the majority community?

If Indians can be Gujarati Indians or Hindu Indians, why can't there be Muslim Indians or Christian Indians?

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for 'The Indian Express'

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