India pays lip service to a 19th century European idea that is of little relevance today
If Narendra Modi moves to Race Course Road this summer, India is set for an epic culture war. Even if he remains as cautious in office as he is being as a prime ministerial candidate, a future BJP-led government in New Delhi would chill India’s beleaguered liberals to the bone. They are already on the backfoot, since over the last ten years Congress has not shown the slightest interest in protecting, for example, the individual’s right to free speech. Nor has it reconsidered how a commitment to the separation of State and religion might be updated for the 21st century. The idea of offence and blasphemy in India remains old-fashioned, with both offenders and offended following an imported 19th century script. As the original Penal Code of 1860 states, imprisonment will be the punishment for anyone who ‘with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person’.
For decades now, the idea of personal liberty in the form of Nehruvian secularism and freedom of expression has failed to gain much popular traction. This is not to suggest any infringement of freedom of belief would ever be tolerated by India’s citizens, or that Indians lack the right to openly express an opinion in a way that remains forbidden in many countries, but rather that the current form of the debate remains elitist and abstruse, and is often confined to the English-language media. Thus a ban on a film or book may get reported around the world as an attack on freedom, but it will rarely draw an Indian crowd onto the streets. A dispute over the upkeep of the Dargah Shah-e-Mardan, on the other hand, will, for example, produce over 25,000 passionate protestors, as happened earlier this month in Delhi; but it will barely be reported in India and will be ignored internationally, as if it were of no consequence.
More than a century-and-a-half ago, when the mutineers of 1857 marched on Delhi, enraged at the injustice with which they were being ruled, John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor were busy writing the essay On Liberty. Mill tried to get round the inconsistency of promoting liberty only in what he called ‘mature’ societies by arguing that while British rule in India was admittedly despotic, it was held to the standards of representative government by the House of Commons. Like many 19th century European thinkers, Mill’s life was fatally bound up with the elite hypocrisies of Empire; he worked for more than three decades for the East India Company in London, and the opening line of his Autobiography states that he was ‘the eldest son of James Mill, author of The History of British India’ —a voluminous and influential book whose accuracy (with its talk, for instance, of ‘a general disposition to deceit and perfidy’ in a chapter titled ‘Of The Hindus’) was undone by the fact the author had never in his life been to India.
The younger Mill was, by the standards of his time, shall we say, liberal. In a footnote in On Liberty, he denounces British evangelicals for displaying ‘the worst parts of our national character on the occasion of the sepoy insurrection’. He objected to their missionary desire to spread the Christian religion to India’s Hindus and Muslims, calling it an ‘imbecile display’ to suggest ‘all who do not believe in the divinity of Christ are beyond the pale of toleration’.
Mill’s comparative radicalism on matters of belief and personal liberty should be seen in the context of Europe’s long religious persecutions. Just two centuries earlier in England, the mutilation and slaughter of religious dissidents was still a mainstream part of state and church activity. Lollards, Unitarians, Wycliffites or Quakers might have had their tongues slit or their bodies branded with red-hot irons. In Goa during the Inquisition, heretics and apostate Catholic converts would be executed. Europe’s torturers believed they were doing God’s work: in their rigour and zeal, they were not unlike today’s Taliban, convinced of their divine righteousness.
Only in the late 17th century had an idea developed in England that members of other faiths (and specifically Jews and Muslims) could be holy. The toleration of religious minorities—a negative liberty, allowing people to be left alone—became state policy. Freedom of thought and public discussion began, tentatively.
Mill (aided by Mrs Mill, though her name does not appear on the title page) took this a stage further in the 19th century: instead of toleration meaning the right to practice an alternative, dissenting version of Christianity, he proposed the toleration of individual liberty of conscience. So people would not merely have the right to freedom of religion, but, if they so wished, freedom from religion. The concept of apostasy, which needed to be punished either by torture on earth or by damnation in eternal hell-fire, was slowly disappearing.
In one sense, this profound and emotive philosophical argument was of no relevance to the majority of Indians, who were practising their local or family variants of Dharma. Hinduism had no set of regulations from which a person could apostasise, nor a clerical hierarchy that could impose sanctions. More importantly, India had no real historical tradition of religious killing. This is not to say it never took place: the ancient conflicts between Buddhism and Brahminism, forced conversions and the destruction of Hindu and Jain temples during the early Islamic invasions, or the strictures of caste control could all be characterised as violent. But the idea of killing heretics as a matter of religious duty forms no part of Hinduism.
So while the debate going on in Europe had social and political influence on groups such as the Arya Samaj or Brahmo Samaj, and on kaala paani-crossing individuals like Gandhi, it meant little to those who had never thought of tormenting apostates. Like the foreign taxonomies introduced in the 18th and 19th century which obfuscated Hindu practices into a ‘religion’, with terms like ‘priesthood’ and ‘deity’ that corresponded to Christianity, the term ‘toleration’ had little resonance in India. But where it was of vital and enduring importance was in the attitude the Indian state developed towards different religions after 1857, lasting up to the present day.
What passes for secularism in India—which in practice is often a system whereby political parties secure Muslim votes by wooing hereditary and religious leaders—has its roots in the shift away from reform and conversion in the wake of the great rebellion.
Queen Victoria, influenced by her well-educated German husband Albert, had an aversion to Christian bishops and a great dislike for missionaries. She even objected to her children’s governess telling them to kneel while saying their prayers in the evening. Why couldn’t they just lie in bed and pray? The settlement after 1857, with power passing from the East India Company to the British Crown, was a way to maintain British power at a time of weakness, but it was also a statement of Victoria’s own beliefs.
Against the advice of her ministers, Queen Victoria made amendments to a proclamation of future government policy, stating that from now on, nobody in India would be ‘in any wise favoured, none molested or disquieted by reason of their religious faith or observances, but that all shall alike enjoy the equal and impartial protection of the law; and we do strictly charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious belief or worship of any of our subjects’. This was—in an era when Britain still had legalised discrimination against Jews and Catholics—quite a step to be taking.
Individual freedom of conscience came first: missionary organisations quickly flooded Windsor Castle with letters of complaint, but Victoria did not budge. The toleration of the Indian state was guaranteed. More than 150 years later, the royal proclamation of 1858 forms the basis of India’s policy of freedom of belief. In Pakistan, the situation reversed: the state legally discriminates against heretics.
The difficulty with the shape that toleration now takes in India is not the theory, which remains admirable, but the practice. If artists are in trouble with outraged members of a religious group, they are at risk. If a film or a book is suppressed for spurious reasons by a politician or a court order, the state will do nothing at all to protect the right to liberty of expression. If Salman Rushdie appears at a public event, no ‘secular’ leader will go near him, for fear of contagion. A supposedly representative Hindu opponent of an academic book will use outmoded and imported Christian arguments against impiety, and ignore the expansive, eclectic traditions of Hinduism—in which devotion is too intense to be troubled by the petty misrepresentations of others.
A beleaguered liberal, asked what should be done about this impasse, will generally answer that the Indian state needs to intervene legally or physically at times of threat, and securitise the right to freedom of speech—while knowing this is a political impossibility. What seems to happen remarkably rarely (and much less, I think than it used to in the post-independence years) is direct engagement between the opposing sides of such arguments. It is striking that both Hindu and Muslim traditionalists complain privately of being excluded from any opportunity to discuss what it is that offends them, and feel they suffer if their command of English is shaky.
Except for TV debates, when the participants are usually not in the same room but shout at each other from rival squares on a screen, there is little exchange of opinion or attempts to reach common ground. In most places in India, you notice people whose dress or appearance signals a religious affiliation, but it is possible to attend a book launch, a film opening or a literary festival and see nobody (Sikh men excepted) who displays their faith. A century ago, Indian intellectuals travelling abroad were obliged to look like saints and promote ‘Eastern’ thought: today, if they want attention in the West, they are obliged to appear secular. This showdown, with its rival interpretations of liberty, can sometimes seem to be as much a class war as a culture war.
When it comes to electoral politics, the assertion of secular values is even more skewed. Indian Muslims still suffer from social exclusion, lack of secure employment and chronic tokenism.
Earlier this year, I spent time with a Muslim leader in central India who had an iron grip on his community: he, or his family, had control of access to places at an engineering and medical college, the opportunity for individuals to stand for election, and even the chance to start a business. If an outside politician wished to hold a meeting in the local areas under his control, they had first to seek the leader’s permission. In his own view, and it was not wholly without foundation, the power he wielded was necessary to protect the minority community from hostile communal forces.
He spoke of progress. Would it not be helpful, I asked, if India had a single law that applied equally to all citizens on matters such as marriage, inheritance and the adoption of children? Absolutely not, he answered, as I had expected. But the present divided system, a leftover from earlier times, significantly weakens personal liberty by subsuming individuals into a system of control based on compulsory group identity.
Indian Muslim women, for example, can still be divorced by the utterance of the triple talaaq. In many Islamic countries, this has been prohibited as archaic. Even across the border, the triple talaaq was abolished under the Pakistani Muslim Family Laws Ordinance in more liberal times in 1961. In India, it remains firmly in place.
If any of these myriad areas of contention are to be improved, the change has to come from what in India is perhaps inaccurately called the left: secularists, progressives, liberals and former and current communists. Were a BJP-led administration headed by Narendra Modi to try installing a uniform civil code, for instance, the country would turn into a sea of protest; coalition partners would fall away, probably bringing down the government.
A new theoretical framework is needed that speaks to contemporary India. The idea of liberty promoted by John Stuart Mill had its time and place, and arose out of a religious context that today makes little sense. India pays lip service to a 19th century European idea of toleration that is of little present relevance.