FEATURE: Indian nationalists doing disservice to patriotism, says think-tank expert

NEW DELHI (ANN Desk) - Global political theory is in a time warp, incongruous with the realities of global politics. Scholar-writer-teacher Aakash Singh Rathore presents a compelling case for why Indian political theory needs to redirect its gaze. 

India is becoming increasingly intolerant. Voices of dissent are being crushed, there is increasing surveillance, and the debates over the making and unmaking of India are becoming shrill. 

In an interview to Asia News Network, Aakash Singh Rathore, who teaches Philosophy, Politics and Law in India and abroad, and is director of International Research Network for Religion and Democracy, explains these “rampant contradictions between actual economic and political practices versus the espoused rhetoric and ideology”.

Rathore believes we need to redirect the gaze of Indian political theory back upon the lived experiences of Indian political life – also the subject matter of his newest book “Indian Political Theory: Laying the Groundwork for Svaraj” (Routledge, 2017).

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Why this urgent need for an authentic Indian political theory? Is it possible to make sense, through multidisciplinary scholarly works, of this new India which is becoming increasingly intolerant?

It is not only in India; it is a global trend. People everywhere are feeling the pressures building from 30 years of rampant contradictions between actual economic and political practices versus the espoused rhetoric and ideology. Though we hear more rhetoric about freedoms, justice, transparency, equality, yet what we actually experience is surveillance, silencing, unequal justice, red tapism, nepotism, Kafkaesque administration...leading to an uncomfortable sense that getting on the 'right side' of power is the only way of getting by. 

We've witnessed the global financial meltdown, consolidating the dubious principle that profits are to be privatised while losses socialised, and its immediate reactions: the occupy movements, and then keeping in mind other factors, the Arab Spring, the anti-corruption protests in India, Green protests in Iran, right up to the umbrella movement in Hong Kong, and many others elsewhere. 

These are massive developments, in mutual tension with each other. The resurgence of intolerance is another part of this dialectic. It's reflected in Trump's America, in a Europe experiencing immigration crises, through Brexit. But global political theory is in a time warp, incongruous with the realities of global politics. What I undertake in 'Indian Political Theory: Laying the Groundwork for Svaraj' is to re-calibrate political theory, and set up a model – based on Indian political theory – for how this could be done.

Q. You talk of Svaraj and the the need to rescue Indian social and political theory from Western theorists. Aren't we then in the danger of falling into the same trap by embracing indigenous thought completely?

Indian political theory must not rely on 'Western' theory, whose toolbox of concepts has proved inadequate for addressing the ground realities of the Global South. South Asian countries, as also Latin American, numerous African, and others, are increasingly oriented toward nativism in their theory. 

At the same time, recent processes of democratisation (witness the Arab Spring) are haunted by resurgences of fundamentalism (in India, it's Hindutva nationalism). This book addresses a methodology useful for the entire Global South, precisely because this danger you mention is ubiquitous. It pursues thin svaraj (i.e. authentic autonomy) in a fully egalitarian and democratic vein without succumbing to the seduction of fundamentalism, which advantages the few at the expense of the common people.

Q. The emphasis on the return to tradition. How does one steer clear of hyper-nationalism, jingoism and fundamentalism?

If svaraj signifies a return to ‘tradition’, it must be a hybrid and evolving tradition, not one that excludes. To prevent it from being stultifying (e.g., hyper-nationalistic, reactionary), I introduce a principle of reform alongside the return; that is, that any 'traditional' modifications must benefit the least advantaged (this is known in mainstream political theory as the 'difference principle’).

Q. Do you think this wisdom – "only those changes that do benefit the least advantaged are legitimate" – will be acceptable in our hyper-casteist society?

We know India is socially hyper-casteist, making our system of reservation (positive discrimination, or affirmative action) a vital necessity. But looked at otherwise - from the constitutional egalitarian perspective - one can also say that India has the most robust affirmative action programme in the entire world. 

From the constitutional point of view, we see that the nationalists have done a disservice to Indian patriotism by siding with divisive casteism instead of championing India's uniquely progressive egalitarian revolution that has been captured in its legal framework. 

If, as the nationalists believe, we all need something to be proud of, then our exemplary concern for social justice could so easily fit the bill. Or, think of our recognition of third gender. India has begun to dismantle (slowly, to be sure) colonial institutions of gender normativity. 

I feel national pride when I land in India from an international flight, and see the box "other" next to "male" and "female" on the immigration card. What I am trying to illustrate here is that benefiting the least advantaged (the historically most disadvantaged) can be pitched as a unifying point of national pride.

Q. The difference between thick and thin svaraj. And why do you propose the latter?

In standard calls for a return to 'tradition', there is an assumption that the indigenous thought to which we return is available by historically leaping back over the era of colonisation. But then the tradition to return to would inevitably be that of the indigenous elites. This concept of svaraj is defined as a thick conception, which links it with exclusivist and essentialistic nationalism – like Hindutva. My alternative, thin svaraj, is a purely political conception, profoundly egalitarian and democratic. The model is inspired by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution, who also happened to be a so-called untouchable.

Q. Do you think there is room for Dr Ambedkar's legacy with mainstream thought becoming increasingly saffronised?

Indian theorists continue to work with categories and concepts alien to the lived social and political experiences of the common man, or everyday people. We need to decolonise Indian theory, and rescue it from the grip of Western theories. This is necessary for svaraj. But the true challenge lies in carving out a space for authentic autonomy in indigenous theory that does not get immediately filled in by thick saffron ideology. This is why this book is anchored in the egalitarian political philosophy of Ambedkar. Establishing this is the fundamental task of Indian Political Theory.

The rise of nationalist and fundamentalist thought in the Global South shocks all social scientists. Yet very few solutions have been put forth. As long as solutions emanate from the West and flow South and East, they will prove ineffective. My attempt is to treat thoroughly these developments and to offer a new solution, a model generated from the vantage point of the heart of South Asia.

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