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Preserving India's democracy is not Hindus' job alone

Last updated on: August 16, 2016 10:37 IST

'The fabric of democracy is fraying,' says T V R Shenoy.
'It is being attacked not just by terrorists in Kashmir or by zealots in the North-East, but is being ripped apart even in Allahabad, in the Hindi heartland.'

The 291-feet flag in Hyderabad, Telangana


About a quarter of a century ago I played host to Girilal Jain, some time after he stepped down as editor-in-chief of one of India's largest newspaper groups. The Berlin Wall had fallen, German reunification was underway, and a nervous France was converting the European Economic Community into the European Union to contain Teutonic energies. My guest was openly dismissive of this last.

Drawing from Indian history, punching the air with his index finger for emphasis, the gist of his argument was that 'Kshatriyas' -- bureaucrats and politicians of all nations, not just the armed forces -- could never build a lasting union.

With the great mass of the people forced to concentrate on earning their daily bread, nation building, he proclaimed, was best left to 'Brahmins' and 'Vaishyas'.

Girilal Jain's thesis was that the 'Kshatriya' element of any society is always so consumed by petty politics that it would see power as an end in itself, finally alienating enough people to spark rebellion.

Political union had to follow the creation of a cultural union -- the task of the Brahmin elements -- and had to be sustained by the Vaishyas, who would ensure that everyone felt a common stake in it. He would not have been one whit surprised at Brexit.

The veteran was in his early twenties when India became independent, old enough to recall the cynicism among Western -- and Western-trained -- intellectuals about the continued existence of the Union of India, leave alone of Indian democracy.

This, he said, was erroneous because the Brahminical element had already created a cultural continuity that cut across language and topography.

Very simply, the fact that Kamakshi of Kanchipuram is the same as the Kamakhya of Kamrup made Sardar Patel's task of unification considerably easier. But if India had been a cultural entity for centuries and was forged into a political union between 1947 and 1950, the 'Vaishya' element -- economic unity -- lagged.

India was never an economic union, a fact only too clear to those unfortunates travelling between states. A pilgrimage, a wedding, a visit to a tourist attraction -- everything becomes a nightmare as commercial vehicles clog the roads while officials collect octroi.

The passage of the GST Bill through Parliament is a potential game-changer, replacing multiple state-level taxes with a single national tax. I write 'potential' for two reasons.

First, Constitutionally the measure must be approved by state assemblies too before getting the President's nod. Second, I have no idea if GST will lead to lower prices.

Similar promises were made when the VAT -- value-added taxation -- system was rolled out in 2005, and I don't remember its making any difference.

The prime minister placed the case for GST succinctly in the Lok Sabha: If India has a single railway system, a single postal system, and a single criminal code, why should it not have a single system of taxing commerce?

The logic is impeccable; is it enough?

The core of the Girilal Jain thesis was that cultural unity must precede, not follow, economic and political unity. Let us not fudge facts: The glue that holds India together is Hinduism, often described as 'a way of life', not just a 'religion'.

A central principle of that 'way of life' is respect for the opinion of another -- which, when you come right down to it, is the essence of democracy.

Let us not pretend for a minute that India would be the same if it were not principally Hindu. How many democracies are there west of India, from the Wagah border to the Mediterranean? Or ask the Tamils of Sri Lanka or the Muslims of Thailand what it means to live even in a Buddhist-dominated society. That rejection of Hindu values is at the heart of the chronic uproar in Kashmir.

Is it the only princely state absorbed into the Union? No, I myself was born a subject of the Maharaja of Cochin, whose realm was one of the 565 principalities welded together by Sardar Patel (with a lot of help from V P Menon).

Is it the only state whose people do not speak Hindi as their first language? The Eighth Schedule lists a whopping 22 languages -- and that still does not include English. Even that is an oversimplification; while technically 'Hindi', the Garhwali of the mountains of Uttarakhand and the Marwari of the deserts of Rajasthan are mutually incomprehensible.

Is it the only state that lies in the midst of the mountains rather than in the plains? The citizens of Himachal Pradesh or of Sikkim would laugh at such an absurdity.

The uncomfortable truth is that the Kashmiri claim to being unique rests on the fact that it is the only state with a Muslim majority. (Particularly since 1990, when terrified Kashmiri Pandits began to be chased out of the valley.) The frenzied chants of 'Azadi' ('freedom') are a distilled form of Jinnah's tenet that Muslims cannot live on equal terms alongside Hindus.

Calls for a separate state -- Telangana yesterday, possibly Vidarbha tomorrow -- are one thing because the agitations insist they want to remain in the Union of India. The stone-pelters in Srinagar desire a vivisection of India.

This contempt for common values is not limited to Kashmir. On August 7 this year the principal of a school in Allahabad, and eight of her colleagues, quit after the manager, Zia-ul Haq, banned singing the Jana Gana Mana on Independence Day. His reported justification is that the national anthem is 'un-Islamic.'

Maintaining India's democratic fabric cannot be the task of the so-called 'majority community' alone.

The fabric is fraying; it is being attacked not just by terrorists in Kashmir or by zealots in the states of the North-East but is being ripped apart even in Allahabad, in the Hindi heartland, in the city that is the 'home' of the Nehru-Gandhis.

Remove that cultural unity, and what do you have?

The Kshatriyas -- meaning the ruling class, not a specific caste -- shall revert to their old petty games. We had a foretaste of that in November 2015 when Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav raised the cry of 'Bihari ya Bahari' ('Outsider').

We can dismiss secessionists in Kashmir or Nagaland as operating on the fringes of India, we can dismiss hitherto obscure school managers in Allahabad as exceptions to the supposed 'Ganga-Jamuna culture', but Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav are in the heart of secular politics, are they not?

What happens when there is no overarching frame of shared cultural values?

From a political-military viewpoint the European Union makes perfect sense; individual members would crumble before Russia. From an economic perspective the European Union is a sensible way to ensure a market as large as that of an America or a China. None of that mattered when it came to the Brexit poll, and none of it seems to matter to large chunks of Europe alienated by 'Kshatriya' masters in Brussels and Berlin.

The GST Bill promises to further the economic union of India. We have entered the 70th year of our political union. Will that be enough when our cultural unity is under attack?

American schools start the day by asking students to recite the 'Pledge of Allegiance,' which ends with the words 'One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.'

Would it have the same fine ring if that read 'One nation under the taxman, with freedom from octroi and the same prices for all'?

T V R Shenoy