The Crisis of Governance: What India can learn from America

We have been busy learning many a thing in adopting a Western lifestyle—among these consumerism, new means of environmental destruction and a fragmenting social structure—yet we haven’t emulated the American systems that are far more effective than those in India today—the systems of local governance. These systems of governance reflect a fundamental difference in the relationship between the people and the state between America and India, a difference that gets papered over in the talk about the “two great democracies.” In actual practice, these democratic systems have very little in common in terms of the accountability of the state to provide services to the people at large.

A few years ago, when I was living in Redmond in America, I misplaced my Indian passport. I queried the Indian embassy about issuing a replacement. They needed a police report documenting my missing passport. Having grown up in India, I was in a tizzy. From what I remembered getting a police report about anything at all was no easy feat even in the most pressing of matters—a process that required supplicating the sentries of the law, if not outright bribing them—let alone in a case where I was quite sure that my passport wasn’t even stolen but possibly just misplaced somewhere so that I was unable to find it.

With some trepidation I rang up the Redmond police department. What would I need to do to get a police report regarding a lost misplaced passport? Not a problem, they replied on the phone, an officer would be there right away. True to their word, within 15 minutes there was a police car at my door. The officer was polite and quickly wrote up the required report. “Is there anything else I can do to help” he asked after giving me instructions on how to obtain an official copy the report that he had written down. All I could do was to stare in amazement, so different was this experience from my expectations from India in dealing with the khaki agents of the state in India.

In April 2006, overzealous Haryana police lathi-charged people waiting to get inside for a cricket match between India and England outside the stadium in Faridabad, leaving a nine-year old girl and her mother, both holding valid tickets to the match, seriously injured. When questioned, the police chief declared that “the people needed to be taught discipline.” What exactly makes the police chief think that their job is to “teach lessons” using lathis to the general populace rather than be in the service of the people? The answer to this fundamental question of governance is not hard to find.

The Indian state remains a colonial state. The relationship of the officials of the government to the governed remains a colonial relationship. The colonial state, of course, was never designed for jan seva. It was designed for a singular purpose—the purpose of extortion—or how effectively to extract tax revenue from the people while keeping them under control with the power of force. After all, the official state representative at the district is still called the “collector.” Even though, after independence, there was an elected government at the very top, there have been few fundamental changes in the overall apparatus of the state that we inherited. The power of the viceroy was replaced by the power of the elected parliament and the cabinet of ministers at the very top. But the mechanism and attitude of administration and governance did not fundamentally change.

The American model was also, ironically, created by people migrating from Britain. However, the difference is that the American system was created by these British as a new model for governing themselves, while the Indian system was created by them for governing the “natives” who needed to be controlled and civilized. This difference is apparent in how local government operates in the United States and in India. In the United States civic power is far more decentralized and far more locally accountable. The Redmond police, in my example, report to the Redmond Mayor, who is elected by the people of the city. The Redmond police is not part of a huge state bureaucracy, as in India, where the police force is centralized at the state level, and everything reports up all the way to the Chief Minister. The reporting of the Redmond police ends at the Redmond Mayor, which creates far greater accountability to the local populace. There is also no overarching bureaucracy, such as the centralized Indian Administrative Service. The role of state-level administration is limited as are its powers and perks. The top administrative positions are filled by people who have risen from the ranks rather than from the civil services based class-structure perpetuated in the Indian administrative system.

Incidentally traditional systems of governance in India were also radically decentralized and local. Power devolved upwards from the village level. Villages or clusters of villages had their own systems for education, for managing public utilities such as water works—ponds, canals and catchments and other civic amenities and even for the management of land records and resolving disputes. The role of the king was relatively limited. This is why the boundaries of kingdoms could often changes without the general life of the people being affected. This local basis of power ensured that governance remained responsive to the people—unlike the case in modern-day India where a senior IAS officer lamented to me recently—“Even the transfer of a chaprassi gets pushed down from the Chief Minister.”

The other remarkable success of the American system is in public education. Growing up in the Indian middle class, it was an automatic assumption that parents would try to send their children to the best private schools they could afford or get into. No one would even want to visit a government school to consider it. When searching for schools for my children in the US I was surprised to find that government schools were at par or even better than many private schools. Again, the education system in the US is radically decentralized compared to India. Schools are governed by school districts that are at the level of cities or of a few cities. These school districts are governed by representatives directly elected to the school boards by the local residents. There is no overarching education hierarchy at the state level unlike in India, where such a hierarchy has essentially no direct accountability to the parents who would be paying taxes to run these schools and colleges and sending their children there.

There are far better lessons to learn from the United States than how to grow fat on pizza and put up billboards of under-dressed models. Understanding effective models of local governance is one of these lessons. Unless we are able to dismantle the colonial state very little will change for the ordinary people. It will be worthwhile for us in India to study these models so we can proceed towards dismantling the colonial state.

A version of this article was published in the Hindustan Times.

 

Copyright© 2008. Sankrant Sanu.

From Sulekha to Rupa: Invading the Sacred

About five years ago a New Jersey entrepreneur called Rajiv Malhotra wrote a column on Sulekha titled “RISA Lila 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome”—a provocative critique of prominent academics in Hinduism studies in the US. This sparked off a rather unique debate that spanned tens of articles and thousands of comments on Sulekha over the last many years. Many people found each other through this debate forming a very loose community interested in this topic. A new book “Invading the Sacred: An Analysis of Hinduism Studies in America” published by Rupa & Co chronicles this debate and raises serious questions about the state of Hinduism scholarship in the United States.

 

This publication of this book is a marker of change that has historical dimensions. Though this story has plenty of colorful characters from Rajiv Malhotra, the feisty entrepreneur who started Infinity Foundation, Balagangadhara (or Balu as he is called) the radical scholar and director of research group in Belgium that is developing a science of cultures, Wendy Doniger the reigning doyen of Hinduism studies occupying a prominent chair at the University of Chicago, Jeffrey Kripal, who traces a remote Indian ancestry and who wrote the book “Kali’s child” about Ramakrishna Paramahansa while allegedly struggling with his feelings and homosexuality and so on and so forth, that turn this academic quality book of scholarship into a must-read page turning thriller. Yet as in any historic story the characters and events are the nimitta, the vessels afloat on the ocean that allow us to see the movements of the enormous waves of change before they come crashing onto the shore. Let us gaze then at the waves themselves.

In Jawaharlal Nehru’s now-famous speech at India’s independence he said “a moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” Whether 1947 was the time and Nehru and his colleagues were the people able to express the “soul of the nation” is a different debate. It is not enough for a nation to simply be free of foreign rule if we are still in thrall of foreign modes of looking at the world and at ourselves. In his prescient book “Hind Swaraj”, published in 1908, Gandhi had suggested that his Indian interlocutor wanted “English rule without the Englishman.” This remark remained true of India’s first post-independent generations and, in many ways, remains true of India today. This is why this new book has special significance.

The first wave that Invading theSacred marks is the rising economic affluence of Indians and ofIndia. It is hard to do the kind of critique that the book has done if one is beholden to the Western academic establishment for one’s paycheck and career. While the story of India’s economic rise and impending development has already become over-told it is worth remembering that India is not developing, but re-developing. There is no economic “miracle.” In thousands of years of its history, the last 200 years is perhaps the only time that India was less affluent than Europe. As a civilization India hardly ever made a virtue of poverty. When we were producing ideas and practices of global impact—in the sciences, mathematics, astronomy and human existence, we were not a civilization struggling for survival amidst wrenching poverty—we had plenty of economic surplus so that matters beyond basic survival could be investigated. That time is again nigh and the Indian voices in this book exemplify that– and we need to go back to finding our own place, our own original thinking, on the world table. Even the last two hundred years or so, if you look at Indian thinkers that have had a global impact or following, it is inevitably those that have drawn deeply on their own civilizational wisdom—people such as Gandhi or Aurobindo, Raman Maharishi or, more recently, BKS Iyengar. All the other chattering voices, other than a few scientists of renown, have invariably had a parochial following and limited impact on the world stage. But we need to move from the rare bright light to a generation of scholars and thinkers able to move the world, as we have in the past. The time for that is now and economic affluence is an important condition for that to occur on a larger scale.

The second wave is the dynamics of the internet. About ten years ago I had likened the internet revolution to the invention of the printing press in the following way. Just as the printing press allowed for the idea that “the masses could read”—education in Europe prior to this had been largely confined to the aristocrats—the internet allows for the idea that “the masses can write.” It would be difficult to mount the kind of challenge the Sulekha columns, and now this book, have done for the establishment before the internet. The internet truly allows for the marketplace of ideas. Non-mainstream ideas can challenge established thinking and it is more difficult for the chowkidars of the establishment to keep challenging ideas at bay. The book is thus a true Sulekha success story where people and articles organically gathered around a compelling set of ideas such that their cumulative force could not be ignored. Microsoft felt compelled to change Encarta; the Washington Post, the New York Times and the University of Chicago magazine covered the story and Rupa and Co has finally comes out with a book, five years in the making, that includes many of the original articles and even blog comments from Sulekha plus a significant amount of new work done by the editors—Krishna Ramaswamy, Antonio Nicolas and Aditi Banerjee. Where the print publications were tightly controlled and the internet bloggers could be mere snipers and commentators of what goes on in print, the book completes that circle where the compelling blog gets republished, in toto, by a mainstream publishing house.

Finally, the internet can truly be regarded as a Hindu medium. This is only half in jest—the Indian traditions share many similarities with the internet. Whereas the large publishing houses represent centralized control the internet decentralizes power. There is no church. The Indian traditions have always allowed for this marketplace of ideas with no threat of heresy. There is no central authority to stamp ideas with official sanction or suppress others with the pain of death and torment. New teachers and teachings could thus always arise, and thrive, without persecution, mixing and commingling with the old. Invading the Sacred is in anthology of articles and voices of many individuals with their own points of view and style—who were not commissioned by any one organization or told to write what they did. Nor does the “defense” of Hinduism require a counter-church or centralized organization. The ideas, one seeded, were followed through by different individuals, on their own time and self-leadership just as TCP/IP packets get routed in different ways from origin to destination.

So for anyone who reads this book, or despairs about the current state of affairs of Hinduism or Hinduism studies or expects others to do something about it—the answer is simple. It is to ask “What can I do” because all change has happened as a result of individuals asking that question. The story and contents of Invading the Sacred can provide inspiration—as a reminder of how what you do can travel from Sulekha to Rupa and beyond, and become another part of this wave.

Book details

Invading the Sacred. Krishnan Ramaswamy; Antonio de Nicolas; Aditi Banerjee ed. 2007. Rupa and Co., Delhi.

To order or learn more about the book go to

Additional reading (including some Sulekha articles that find their way into the book)

RISA Lila – 1: Wendy’s Child Syndrome, Rajiv Malhotra.

RISA Lila – 2 – Limp Scholarship and Demonology, Rajiv Malhotra

Are Hinduism Studies Prejudiced? A look at Microsoft Encarta, Sankrant Sanu

India and Her Traditions: A Reply to Jeffrey Kripal, S.N. Balagangadhara

The Uses (and Misuses) Of Psychoanalysis in South Asian Studies: Mysticism and Child Development , Alan Roland

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Land of Equality, Part II

Read Part I

The Department of Social Division

I was now even more curious about this remarkable country of Ladnam. How did they come up with this system of victim ratings for all admissions and jobs? I figured the university would be the right place to find out – I asked a student for directions to the Social Sciences department.

“Head to the central square, you can’t miss it. All the red buildings are part of the department,” he said.

The Social Sciences department occupied the entire central square. As I walked towards it I found that it was the plushest part of the city that I had seen. There were dozens of multi-storied red buildings around the square, with some words etched in stone on the doorways. In the center was the large statue of a man dressed in a suit with the words below “Merit is a Myth.” The building entrances had other slogans emblazoned across the doorways – “Equal results, not equal opportunities”, “To treat unequals as equals only serves to perpetuate inequality”,  “Radical equality requires radical discrimination,” “Victims shall inherit the earth” and “Marching towards universal cellular equality.”

I entered the Department of Social Division and found it bustling with activity. I asked at the reception for the department head, introducing myself as a visiting journalist and was ushered into a plush office. Prof. PV Ghasin the department head, was a well-fed man with a distinct air of pompous self-importance.

“You are with The Times, The Foreign Times,” he said. “Very good, very good. Delighted. I have, of course, been often written about in the Ladnam Times and visited your country, sponsored by the Ladnam government. Our problems are very bad—it comes from being a very traditional society.”

“But now we have the most modern tools, big computers, imported social theories. We just need to fix all those people so that we can progress like the rest of the world. We are very backward you know.”

I asked him what his department does.

“We have been entrusted the most important job by the government,” Ghasin said. “We figure out new ways to divide society every day. Why, just the last week a student of mine came up with a new way to segment the data. We found that that women from the Drusba region, between the ages of 56-60, whose skin tone on Luschan’s Hautfarbental scale is between 11-12 and who were the youngest child in their family had an appearance rate that was 5.6% less than their victim-adjusted average on television soap operas broadcast in Nurja between 3-4pmon Sundays.”

“5.6 percent!” he repeated, his voice rising in excitement, “And here we thought we had already captured discrepancies of less than 2% in all 4th dimension segments.”

“Are you saying that every age-group, caste, skin-tone and gender must be equally represented in each soap opera?” I asked incredulously.

“Not each soap opera, of course. That would be silly. But on the average across all soap operas aired at any time, it stands to reason that without social discrimination and prejudice every segment must get equal coverage.”

“By the fundamental law of cellular equality,” Prof. Ghasin continued, with the tone of school-teacher restating the most obvious, “Every social segment must exhibit equal outcomes in all areas, however you slice the data. Any discrepancies are clearly due to some discrimination against that group. Ours is a traditional and backward society so we keep finding discrepancies as we slice the data. We think we have examined all possible segments, but a new discovery is always around the corner. This is what makes the field exciting.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘cellular equality’” I asked, “Does that mean everyone must be exactly equal at the cellular level – i.e. every human being must be identical in every cell?”

“No – it doesn’t mean that all, though that would solve a lot of our problems, wouldn’t it? The fundamental obstacle to a just society is that human beings are unequal in their attributes – their intelligence, their looks, their upbringing, their social environment and so on. However, the only true egalitarian principle is equality of results, which may require unequal opportunity or treatment so they eventually wind up equal.”

“But the question comes how do we ensure equality of results for everyone in all areas? On the one hand, the reality in our backward society is that every human being is unequal to others. On the other hand we are committed to true egalitarianism which can only hold if there is complete equality of results.”

“So we are constantly researching the various discrepancies in results.  Unfortunately, with our current state of the art it is not possible to ensure equal results at the individual level—perhaps with advances in technology something can be done to genetically engineer each person to be equal, but we are far from that today in our backward culture. So, we strive for equality of results at the cell level.”

“And what is a cell?” I asked again.

“Oh yes, I keep forgetting you are not from here. Everyone in Ladnam is keenly aware of cells. Everyone is in a cell.”

“Like a prison?” I suggested, trying to be helpful.

“No, no. Think of society like a big grid,” he continued, “Every dimension of difference is an axis on the grid. We start with the basic ones–age, sex, gender.  We then add all the ones specific to our backward society—like caste, income, region of origin, parental education, family status and so on. The smallest unit of discrimination is called a cell.”

“How many people are there in each cell?” I asked.

“We are trying to make all the cells roughly equal sized. Currently we have an average of 20,000 people per cell.”

“So, given that the population of Ladnam is about a billion people you have about 50,000 different cells,” I calculated.

“Approximately,” he said, “We would like to make the cell size smaller but it all takes time. We started out with just one dimension–caste. But everytime we segmented society we found that there were inequalities within that segment. So we kept dividing the segment further to provide further unequal opportunities to make the results be equal. In the example I gave you—of women from Drusba, between the ages of 50-60, whose skin tone on the LH scale is between 11-12 and who were the youngest child, we have a mere 12,567 or so. Each of those attributes is a different dimension—we are pushing the limits of cell size in current research here.”

“So what happens when you have made a new discovery” I asked.

“Well, it goes to the Department of Social Problem Identification or SPI. Axiomatically every discrepancy can be traced to one of five fundamental problems – casteism, communalism, genderism, familyism and geneticism.  The SPI must figure out what combination of these variables result in the particular discrepancy. Between you and me I think those academics are full of hot air.  We all know the problem is our traditional backwardness, no matter what combination of factors they use. But they hold a lot of fancy conferences anyway.”

“Then we correlate the data with Department of Outcome Analysis. This department comes up with new areas where cell discrimination may exist. The new breakthrough I mentioned earlier, regarding the Drusba women, came about from collaboration between my student and some researchers from Outcomes. Media Research is a hot field these days and they narrowed down to the 3-4 pm Sunday soaps on shows broadcast in the Nujra areas, as a possible place for discrimination against the Drusba. And they hit pay dirt!”

“So does the government take any action when you find some segment is performing better or worse than the ratio of their population?” I asked.

“Sometimes nothing happens for years. It is up to the politicians and they are all scoundrels. You must find the right interest group to pitch it to so that you can benefit from giving a preferential quota to them. Though now we have become very good at evangelizing new interest groups, what with the work done in the Department of Polarization Theories.”

“We are very happy when we can succeed in our small way in creating conflict, heh heh” he carried on with a self-satisfied laugh. “The creation of conflict is essential to the egalitarian mission.  We started with class conflict. Then community conflict. Then regional conflict. Then inter-family conflict. This department has been a pioneer in the creation of intra-family conflict. Our original breakthrough research on unequal outcomes between siblings of the same family led to quotas that had the remarkable effect of having families fight with each other on the dinner table over this issue. We ran an analysis that ranked each sibling by the order of the birth and found that older one’s performed, on average 2.9% better than the youngest ones on certain standardized tests. I am simplifying, of course, it was a pretty complex model since we took the sibling ranks of the parents and grandparents into account as well. This led to an entire dimension that multiplied the cells and more than doubled the total quotas based on sibling rank. As I was saying, this was a breakthrough in intra-family conflict. There were even murders of brothers and sisters just to change one’s sibling rank or suicides to help your sibling by changing their rank – a very middle class bourgeois impulse.  It is really satisfying when your research can make so much impact.”

“So you think quotas are essential for creating an equal society,” I asked.

“Oh that’s a very old debate that was resolved years ago. Occasionally some maverick still comes up with an idea other than quotas but that’s like changing the law of gravity at this stage. To provide equal opportunity without accounting for social, educational and family disabilities simply perpetuates injustice. We are driven by the mission to achieve total equality of results in every possible slicing of data like every modern society.”

“Do any quotas ever get removed?” I asked.

He looked puzzled for a moment as if he couldn’t understand the question. “You mean actually remove a quota? That is impossible. Once implemented there is a strong interest group attached to it. In fact the demand is always there to increase the quotas and the field of Outcome Analysis is constantly looking at different places where the quotas can be expanded.  They started with government jobs, then university admissions, then expanded that to government schools, then private schools and jobs, then sports teams, then movie stars, then quotas in buying land, then buying ordinary goods so that the goods people can buy varies with their victim rankings. There is now much pioneering work in media studies where each segmented group must get media coverage according to their victim status, which was passed into law some years ago. There is a new proposal that was initially controversial, but was finally passed where quotas have been extended for walks in the neighborhood park for different segmented groups. If you are interested I can provide you with some good references to read about that subject.”

“This is fascinating. In all my travels I have not seen a society with this kind of approach to egalitarianism. How far do you think you have achieved your goals?” I asked.

“Not at all. We still have rampant inequality—‘We Ladnams are like this only’ we say. It is all due to out traditional society. The problem is as far away from being fixed as when we started. Some say it is even getting worse. That is why we need more quotas. Besides nothing works in this country. No one does any work. For some reason everyone is obsessed by their victim rankings and their segments. Why the other day my daughter refused to invite a class mate to her birthday party because she is the third child of a twice divorced mother while both her own parents are only once divorced. The children need to know all this, of course, because the quotas for the once divorced and the twice divorced are different. Our dream to have a classless society is far away, but then all these problems are because of our entrenched traditions that have not changed for 5000 years. But we are applying the best research and technology to solve these problems.”

I pondered this. “So you say the quotas can only be expanded. The segmentation is not going away. Is there any way that you have to measure that what you are doing is actually taking you towards your goals of radical equality.”

“We already know nothing can ever change in this society,  it is all due to our static traditions” he said with a tone of certainty. “What is the point of gathering any data for that? Besides, all the data that we use in our segmentation and our policy implementations is over 70 years old and it has never been updated. It would be politically suicidal to update it now—can you imagine the chaos that would result?”

(to be continued)

[Read Part I:  Land of Equality]

Notes

 

1. “… the only true egalitarian principle is equality of results, which may require unequal opportunity or treatment for the initially  disadvantaged so that they eventually wind up equal in resources or rights.” Report of the Backward Classes Commission, Government of India, 1980, (popularly known at the Mandal Commission), Volume I, Chapter V.
2. “… equality of treatment suffers from the same drawback as equality of opportunity for to treat the disadvantaged uniformly with the disadvantaged will only perpetuate their disadvantage.” Ibid.
3. “… a large number of observations were recorded including tints of skin, eye and hair colours. For this purpose von Luschan’s Hautfarbentafel, Martin’s Augenfarbental and  Fischer’s Haarfarbentafel were used. The following measurements were taken :—    (1) Stature… (4) Maximum Head breadth, …(11) Nasal length, (12) Nasal breadth , (13) Nasal height or depth, … and so on.” Census of India, 1931,  Vol I, Part III. This “scientific” quest of measuring skin tones and noses of the people of India to determine caste relations was undertaken in the 1931 census, also the last census that enumerated caste. The Mandal Commission uses data from the 1931 census to determine the number of “backward castes” and hence the appropriate quota ratios.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

The Land of Equality, Part I

In my quest far and wide for a society that had achieved equality I reached the Republic of Ladnam. At the border, there was a big arched gate made of stone. On it were pasted large irregular plastic letters, some of which had fallen off, reading “M_rit is _ _yth.” Lounging around the gate were some disheveled border guards. They looked barely able to stand up by themselves, let alone stop anyone from crossing the border. The immigration clerk on the other hand, was built like a professional wrestler. But he was sitting behind a desk and apparently couldn’t understand a word of any language that any of the people in the line spoke. I watched as he would wave some people in, and others he would send back with hand gestures and some incomprehensible shouts. It was hard to know how he made these decisions since he could not understand what anyone said. As far as I could tell he was letting people in by random selection.

I stood patiently in the line wondering whether I would be lucky enough to be let in. To bolster my case, I adjusted my glasses and put on a suitably professorial and dignified look. To no avail as the clerk-wrestler, looking completely bored, barely glanced at me before sending me away with a perfunctory shout.

I was in despair as I turned back when I suddenly noticed the Chalu man approaching the line. I had met the Chalu man in my travels before. He was the man who always knew how to get things done wherever he went. If anyone had figured out the system in Ladnam, it would be he. As I watched, the Chalu man simply walked over the border past the immigration line ignoring the thin squeal of a lame security guard who hobbled one or two steps towards him and then gave up.

I was desperate to get in since I had traveled for many days with much effort to reach Ladnam. So I ran to catch up with the Chalu man, past the weak protest of the border guard.

“Um, how did you do that—skipped the immigration line and just crossed the border.”

The Chalu man seemed amused at my question. “Just as you did. I walked.”

“But don’t the border guards say anything?” I asked, still anxiously peering back.

“Just look at them – what can they do? This is how things work here.”

“But why do they have guards that are clearly unable to perform any useful function?” I asked.

“Nothing here functions,” he laughed. “People are not hired for their ability to do their jobs. Didn’t you see the sign at the gate when you entered? It said ‘Merit is a Myth.’ That is their national motto.”

“So how do they decide who to hire?” I asked.

“Don’t ask my why or how. I just know how to get around. Up ahead in their capital is their central university – perhaps someone there will know,” he said, “But don’t hold your breath, you may not find the smartest people there.”

~*~

The capital city was called Victim Nagar. It was fairly close to the border. As I entered the city I found that it looked really run down. The garbage was piled up in the streets, the roads were strewn with potholes and the buildings were crooked. I soon found my way to the university campus where I saw a long line of students, apparently seeking admission. All of them were holding sheets of paper in their hands with a large number, like a score, scrawled across the top.

I started chatting with a bright-looking student in line. I found her name was Sahaja.

“How do the admissions work here? Is that big number that everyone is holding their score on the entrance test?” I asked.

“Oh, that,” Sahaja said “That’s the victim rating.”

“Victim rating?” I queried.

“You don’t know about victim rating? Where are you from? In Ladnam everything goes by victim rating. You get one right when you are born” she said. “Throughout your life you gain victim points, and the more victim points you have, the higher your chance of admittance,” she replied.

“I am here just for fun,” she added. “There is no way I will get in. My parents studied in a college and we have a long tradition of education and scholarship in our community,” she explained with a self-evident shrug. “Besides, I had a happy childhood and am not even the youngest child.”

“And that’s a problem?” I asked incredulously.

Big problem. Can’t get anywhere with a happy childhood these days. Just my bad luck. You have to prove at least severe verbal abuse to get minimum points. Broken homes are the best. With a single parent raising a child.”

“Why is that good?” I asked.

“Oh because, studies showed that children raised in single parent households are at a disadvantage. So you get a victim bonus for that. I tried to convince my parents to get divorced, many do just to get the bonus, but they would have none of it. And yeah, your parents can’t be educated.”

“Your parents can’t be educated?”

“No, that doesn’t meet the educational and social backwardness criteria. And in my community we don’t have female infanticide so that doesn’t work either.”

“Um, what does female infanticide have to do with college admissions?”

“Well, it is a sign of social backwardness. Really looks good on the resume. O why, o why couldn’t they also do it in my community. Also, you could get really lucky and be arrested for it as well.”

“That helps?”

“Yes, you can get extra points for parents being in jail. There is this whole rehabilitation package. But you have to get really lucky to be arrested, most people who commit crimes never do.”

“And what about the youngest child thing?” I asked.

“I have no idea why, but they deduct points if you are older. There was a study that said that older siblings have a slightly higher chance of success than younger ones. So they had to fix that. At least I am not the eldest or I wouldn’t get anywhere at all. My older brother, who is unfortunately absolutely brilliant, breaks stones on the road next to the university.” A crease crossed her forehead. “And I was a pretty good student in school as well. It’s a problem many teachers’ children have.”

“Well, if you are really good you might still get in, can’t you,” I offered hopefully.

Sahaja looked as me as if I had landed from the moon. “Boy, you really are ignorant. Don’t you know ‘Merit is a myth’?” She said the last part like a slogan she had learnt to repeat blankly in school.

“If you do well in school, perhaps you were born intelligent, or maybe you had supportive parents, or you were self-driven, or you weren’t discriminated against or there were some other social or environmental factors that helped you succeed. What about all those kids who were born less intelligent than you or who did not have encouraging parents or a helpful social environment? That’s just a quirk of birth or upbringing. If they hadn’t had those things we would be all exactly equal. Is it their fault? Don’t they deserve to be treated better than others to compensate for the raw deal they got?”

“So then how do they determine who to admit?” I asked.

“Isn’t it obvious” she said. “Only the students with the lowest possible marks are admitted, of course, assuming they have otherwise good victim status – community, family and individual. Those that have the least possible marks have clearly been the most victimized, other things being equal. Everyday in class we were made to repeat the quotation from Ladnam, the father our nation—“‘Merit’ is largely a product of favorable environmental privileges and higher marks in the examinations do mean not that the examinee has higher intrinsic worth. Intelligence is merely a genetic and environmental result.” Thus the least intelligent have gotten the worst genetic and environmental deal. They alone, then, are truly deserving of college admission.”

“But how do they ever get employed?”

“It is the same thing for jobs. Only the least qualified for each job really deserve to be hired to do it since they have the greatest disability for it. They were subject to the worst environmental conditions for the job and are thus the most deserving.”

I finally understood why all the guards at the border were the way they were.

(to be continued)

Read Part II.

Notes

 

1.  “Merit’ is largely a product of favorable environmental privileges and higher marks in the examinations do mean not that the examinee has higher intrinsic worth. Intelligence is merely a genetic and environmental result.” From  Report of the Backward Classes Commision, Government of India, 1980.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

The Conversion War and Religious Freedom

The doctrine of religious freedom is enshrined in the UN charter under the declaration of Universal Human Rights and also in article 25 of the Indian constitution. Both these declarations state that the right to “change” one’s religion is a universal human right. The Indian constitution goes further by including the right to “propagate” one’s religion as a fundamental right.

Since the right to “change” and to “propagate” religion is given to all individuals it is assumed to be universal, fair and neutral. We argue in this essay that there are at least two distinct viewpoints that come from different types of religious traditions. Religious freedom, as currently defined, privileges one view of religion over others. This privileging, enshrined in law, has real-world implications. It is proposed that more balanced definitions of religious freedom would better promote religious harmony and religious diversity.

1. How the native traditions consider religion

“What is religion?” is a question that scholars still actively debate. For understanding religious freedom we need to examine the distinctions between two kinds of traditions that are classified as “religion.” In particular, there is a distinction between what African scholar Makau Mutua calls “proselytizing universalist faiths”[i] and other human traditions. Balgangadhara[ii] argues in detail that the concept of religion exemplified by the Abrahamic faiths is in an entirely different category than those of the other traditions. Differences in conceptions of religious freedom thus arise from the differences in category.

Here is what Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the last of the pagan prefects of Rome, when faced with official Christian persecution of the ancient Roman traditions, had to say in the 4th century C.E.:

“Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand to prosperity. The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment … Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians. …

And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. …  What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.”[iii]

Let us zoom forward a few thousand years, to another continent, the “New World” of the Americas. The chief of a Native American tribe offered this reply to a Christian missionary’s proselytizing sermon:

“The Almighty, for any thing we know, may have communicated himself to different races of people in a different manner. Some say they have the will of God in writing; be it so, their revelation has no advantage above ours, since both are equally sufficient to save, or the end of the revelation would be frustrated … the difference can only lay in the mode of communication.”[iv]

The remonstrances of the Native American tribes were, unfortunately, insufficient to save their traditions from assault by those that claimed theirs was the only true way. Regis Pecob, Member of the Pueblo Tribal Council presented the following testimony, included in the hearings on Religious Freedom before the US Congress in 1994.[v]

“For the Pueblo, this long road began with the efforts of the Spanish to forcibly impose Catholicism and destroy our traditional spiritual beliefs. We survived that campaign only at great human cost—in torture, in murder, in mutilation, in the destruction of whole communities.”

He quoted further a 1924 declaration of thePueblos:

“We have met because our most fundamental right of religious liberty is threatened. … the religious beliefs and ceremonies and forms of prayer of each of our pueblos are as old as the world and they are holy. … To pass this religion, with hidden sacred knowledge and its many forms of prayer, on to our children, is our supreme duty to our ancestors and to our own hearts and to the God whom we know.Our religion is a true religion, and it is our way of life. We must now tell how our religious freedom is threatened and denied to us.” [em. added]

Let us now consider a place far removed from the Americas.

“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu. But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”[vi]

This is Gandhi writing in Young India in 1928.

Oddly enough, none of these peoples considered defining religious freedom as the freedom to change their religion. Quite the contrary.  For them religion constituted the traditions and practices handed down by their ancestors. In this view it is equally absurd for someone to discard these traditions to adopt someone else’s religion as it would be to change one’s ancestors for someone else’s. Similar ideas of “religion” are found in the many native communities in India and throughout the world. If all people have their traditions and each is valid for them, why would one want to cause someone else to change? Indeed the freedom they sought was precisely the opposite – the right to pass on their traditions onto their children without interference and without being subjected to organized campaigns to get them to change.

2. What religion is

Let us now examine some quotes with a different perspective on this issue.

The International Mission Board’s page on “Mobilization for Missions” opens with the following quote:

“Declare his (God’s) glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.” Psalm 96:3 God wants Southern Baptists as a people to mobilize vast resources for reaching all people groups for Jesus Christ.” [vii][em in original]

The International Mission Board is very clear in its goals – its stated vision is to “to lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world (‘panta ta ethne’) to saving faith in Jesus Christ.”  This vision is apparently authorized by no less than God himself:

“We must realize that this is not our mission; however, it is God’s mission, and He has called us as His people to join Him in fulfilling that mission.”

Their aims are nothing short of the apocalyptic end of the world. As their documents proclaim:

“It is a vision that will be fulfilled, for Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, “The gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a witness to every nation and then the end will come.”

Is this some fringe missionary group? Hardly. The International Mission Board is an entity of the influential Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention in the United Stateswas formed in 1845 mainly to create mission boards. It boasts of over 16 million members and runs 48 Baptist Colleges and Universities. It counts several past United States’ Presidents among its members and its revenues from member contributions top $9 billion annually, in league with the largest corporations. President George W. Bush has addressed each of the Convention’s last four annual meetings.

The Baptists, however, do not view their missionary program as a program against religious liberty.  On the contrary, they claim that “Religious freedom was a distinctively Baptist contribution as formulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”[viii]. The Baptist views on religious freedom include “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power” [ix]precisely the kind of sentiment that finds expression in the Indian constitution.

3. A question of choice?

The secular idea of the freedom of religion, born of the European experience with religion, presumes that the right to belief and the change of belief without restriction or favor from the government is sufficient for religious liberty. In effect, it creates a competitive marketplace of religious belief.  This idea of a competitive marketplace of religion is, however, not a universal idea, but those of particular faiths. Thus these faiths are asymmetrically equipped to compete in this marketplace since others do not view religion as a competitive endeavor in a similar way. As a result the idea of “free choice” in this marketplace becomes highly asymmetrical in practice, favoring imperialistic proselytizing creeds over local traditions.

3.1 Competitive religion: The asymmetry of doctrine and motivation

The first asymmetry is the asymmetry of doctrines. For most of the native traditions the idea of preaching to others to get them to abandon their traditions and follow someone else’s is absurd. For the proselytizing creeds, to do so is a religious imperative, central to their faith.

The charter of World Evangelism is justified using Biblical quotes. “Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” reads the quote attributed to Jesus on the Joshua Project website.[x] This task is taken seriously and literally. The evangelical Joshua Project website’s charter is “Bringing Definition to the Unfinished task.” The Joshua Project was born out of the AD 2000[xi] movement with the goal to “plant a Church” amongst every people group by the year 2000. The co-chairman and godfather of the movement is the evangelist Billy Graham whom President George W Bush credits for his “born-again” conversion.  In 1995 the movement sponsored the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Seoul, South Korea where “4,000 Christian leaders from 186 countries, including India, gathered to draw up secret and covert (world) evangelical plans.”[xii]

Hundreds of seminaries and missionary colleges exist to teach strategies for evangelization—what works, what doesn’t work, how to prepare, how to leverage social and economic problems and issues, how to create multi-media marketing campaigns complete with personal customer testimonials and how to influence the media. The evangelicals are, in their own words, “mobilized for mission”, to “make disciples of every nation.”

The “Sonar” community of India recently got prime billing in the “prayer” site of the International Mission Board.

“Did you know that the Sonar people of Maharashtra, India, are the primary crafters of gold and silver Hindu idols? These idols are the most powerful stronghold that Satan has upon the Hindu worshipers in India and around the world. When the Sonar people embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, the subsequent change in their livelihood could have a huge ripple effect in the world of Hinduism. As one international Christian worker said, “When we reach the Sonar with the gospel, we will see the collapse of Hinduism.” Pray that the gospel would flow through and permeate the Sonar culture like molten silver fills a mold.”[xiii]

The idea that people would pray for the collapse of other religious traditions, branded as Satanic, highlights the distinction of doctrine between the two kinds of traditions.

For one side, that holds the views “to each their own” religion is not seen as a competitive enterprise, far less a war for outright global monopoly. They have not asked for this war. Many are not even aware that they are at war till it comes to their doorstep.  Non-Abrahamic traditions are neither tolerant nor intolerant towards other traditions. They are simply indifferent – to each their own, they hold. While for the proselytizing religions, conversion of others –is considered an essential component of advancing “God’s work.” The other traditions are, at best, preparations for conversion into the “One True Religion” and, at worst, downright Satanic. For the evangelicals, conversion is a moral position. It is not seen as an act of aggression on other traditions, but merely the benevolent saving of the heathens who would otherwise be condemned to hell. They cannot thus be, doctrinally, indifferent to these others. When combined with institutional mobilization, this becomes a global war for religious affiliation — the target no less than the eradication of all other religions that are seen as competitors keeping humans in the sway of Satan.

Thus the campaign for conversion is fundamentally unsymmetrical. The native traditions are grossly unprepared to fight this war. Unlike the mission organizations, they have not collected the demographics of their “opponents”, their sources of funds, their social problems, competitive analyses of their creeds, their strengths and weaknesses, the flaws in their marketing literature. They haven’t prepared their own list of target groups among the “non-believers.” They haven’t, because unlike the evangelicals, they do not consider all the other traditions of the worlds as their opponents and competitors. There is no doctrine within these traditions that supports the idea that all other people on the planet must be converted to their particular way.

Ironically it is secular ideas of the human right of religious freedom that are used to protect evangelical expansion against native traditions. Makau Mutua, writing about the African traditions, points out that “the (human) rights regime incorrectly assumes a level playing field by requiring that African religions compete in the marketplace of ideas.  The rights corpus not only forcibly imposes on African religions the obligation to compete—a task for which as nonproselytizing, noncompetitive creeds they are not historically fashioned—but also protects the evangelizing religions in their march towards universalization … it seems inconceivable that the human rights regime would have intended to protect the right of certain religions to destroy others.[xiv]

Similarly, the Asian Tribune puts forth a Buddhist perspective on conversions in Sri Lanka:

“The stubborn refusal of Western religious rights groups to see the conversion issue in its proper Asian context has seriously complicated the matter. Buddhism in Sri Lanka as in Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos and Tibet is inextricably linked to the country’s cultural and national heritage …

Instead, Buddhists allege that the West wants to impose on Sri Lanka the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting religious freedom under international law. But the problem is that this law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the State persecution and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another, according to Buddhist lawyers who are actively campaigning for the enactment of anti-conversion legislation. ”[xv] (em. added)

In other words, secular ideas of human rights to religious freedom protect religious groups from state interference – addressing the problems that Europe encountered, but not the issues faced in the Asian context. Thus these ideas do not account for conflict and repression caused by powerful well-funded global corporate entities seeking to eliminate the religious traditions of local communities.

Even if the native traditions were resourced and aware to respond to the evangelical activity, to be forced to respond to it is also a curtailment of their freedom. This is because a response to evangelical activity in kind will invariably turn the traditions into a mirror image of those religions and into a caricature of their own traditions i.e. they would have end up accepting the position of the proselytizing creeds that religion is a competitive endeavor and is a global war.  In a war, they would study how to bring the “fight” to the other side. So as the Baptists launched their mission to convert the Nagas, the Nagas would launch missions to convert the Baptists. The fact that they don’t is the fundamental difference between the two kinds of religious systems that leads to the asymmetry of motivation. As Swami Dayananda Saraswati writes in an open letter to the Pope:

“You cannot ask me to respond to conversion by converting others to my religion because it is not part of my tradition.  … Thus, conversion is not merely violence against people; it is violence against people who are committed to non-violence.”[xvi]

While the competitive view of religion is natural to the evangelical, to respond in kind makes native traditions into something that they are not. This is precisely why there is such conflict and ambivalence over the “re-conversion” activities of Hindutva in India. In responding to conversion by re-conversion, Hindutva forms itself into a mirror of the proselytizing religions. While ostensibly seeking to uphold the Indian traditions, it itself changes them into a competitive Abrahamic caricature in a way that makes most Indians deeply uncomfortable.

Thus evangelical activity takes away religious freedom from the native traditions on two accounts. To respond competitively would be to alter one’s traditions into competitive religions in the mirror image of the evangelizers—i.e. to treat the conversion game as a religious war for headcount. To passively fail to respond would mean the gradual erosion and destruction of one’s traditions.  This catch-22 occurs because the playing field of religious freedom itself has been defined based on the religious history and doctrines of one side.

3.2 No level-playing field: The Asymmetry of Power and Resources

The second asymmetry is the asymmetry of power and resources. When religious freedom gets defined simply as the non-interference of the state in religious activity it serves to privilege those private institutions that view religion as a competitive quest for monopoly and have mobilized enormous resources to this end. It thus favors organized institutional religions over those whose traditions don’t have a corporate charter. Evangelical Missions should best be considered local sales offices of large multi-national corporations. How large? The International Mission Board 2005 budget is $283.1 million (over Rs. 1200 crores). A similar amount in 2004 led to the “planting” of over 21,000 churches across the globe. The one-year revenue of institutionalized Christianity is estimated to be $260 billion dollars (2001) figures.[xvii] About a fifth of this, $47 billion, are allocated to global mission work every year, comparable to the entire annual net tax revenue of the government of India. Clearly we are dealing with a very well financed and well organized global enterprise. The business of conversion is big business. It demands results in terms of numbers converted. The well-publicized stories of “success amidst difficulty” sustain the fund-raising activities of evangelical groups.

The Joshua Project[xviii] tracks every “unreached people group” in the world, over 6 thousand at last count, providing detailed linguistic, demographic and targeting information. This project, started by a splinter group of American Evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, is “a large-scale intelligence operation that brought together American strategists, theologians, missionary specialists, demographers, technologists, sociologists, anthropologists and researchers to create the most comprehensive people group profiles in the 10/40 window…” The 10/40 window, denoting the latitudes on the globe considered the prime target for conversion, has India squarely in its sights. The information is so detailed that “the ethno-linguistic profiling … cannot even be matched by data with the government of India.”[xix] Its mission is “to identify and highlight the people groups of the world that have the least exposure to the Gospel and the least Christian presence in their midst. The Joshua Project shares this information “to encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic people group.”[xx] According to the Project overview “Mission agencies use the data to strategically determine where to send new church-planting teams.” Mission Frontiers magazine tracks the “progress” in reaching those people – between 1995 and 2000, 1200 additional people groups were subjected to a “Church Planting” movement in their midst.

Among the targets—the small “Akha” group in Vietnam consisting of a mere 3040 people following their ethnic traditions to the largest groups—the 13 million Sinhalese who follow Buddhism—only 4% of which have yet been converted according to the Joshua database. India contains the largest number of targeted groups. Sample targets – among the Buddhists – the 102,480 Bhotias in Sikkim, and the 47,030 Sherpas, the 162,210 Tibetan Buddhists and the 8,410,800 Marathi Nau Buddhists; the 3,165,200 Bania Jains; among the Muslims – the 9,796,100 Ansaris, the 6,938,600 Sayyids, the 894,690 Faqirs and the 112,420 Ganchis.  The tribal religionists are, of course, the easiest targets, many of them having already been “reached” – a remaining sample include the Mongpa, all of 850 people, following Tibetan Himalayan customs. The Sikhs are another major target – further divided into 58 groups, from the 11,581,200 Jat Sikhs to the 880 Assamese Sikhs.  Among the 1596 Hindu target groups – the 3.4 million Aroras, the 53.5 million Yadavs, the 6.9 million Nairs, the Sonar community of nearly 6.5 million people to the barely 14,000 Kashmiri Hindu Zargars.

To each of these thousands of target groups gets assigned church planting teams, missionaries, resources, funds, media support, Bibles in their language and dubbed versions of the “Jesus” film (with children’s versions), now available in a staggering 877 languages. No other global corporate multinational could come close to a marketing campaign of this breadth.

To imagine that the native traditions are “free” to compete in the well-resourced global onslaught is to ignore both the disparity of resources, and more importantly fundamental differences in the nature of the traditions. The idea of a “free market” of religions thus arises from and supports the competitive world view of evangelical religion.

Since the believers of evangelical religions consider missionary activity as part of their faith, such believers in high places can have a disproportionate impact over those of non-evangelical traditions. The report “George Bush Has a Conversion Agenda for India”[xxi] describes the US President as “probably the most resourceful and influential Christian Missionary ever.” While Bush Jr.’s evangelical beliefs get a lot of attention, this is certainly not a new phenomena in the US. Faith has always been a very important issue for American voters.  President Bush’s “Faith-based initiative” merely legitimizes direct monetary support from the US government to Christian groups. In 2004 alone, $2 billion (nearly Rs. 8,600 crore) dollars were paid by the US government[xxii], overwhelmingly to Christian groups, under this program.

The disproportionately Western influenced global media, working with secular ideas of religious liberty that support evangelism, is muted in its criticism and coverage of the plans and tactics of missionaries. On the other hand, rare instances of violent reaction to missionary activities get disproportionate worldwide coverage and attention.  The stories of alleged persecution reinforce the evangelical self-image of Christian martyrdom even when the resources at their disposal are far greater than the groups they target. While there is absolutely no justification for violence in a democratic society, current laws provide little recourse to the target groups to prevent missionary activities in their midst, even when it causes conflict and tensions within the communities.

For instance, Talom Rukbo, the father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh, remarked:

“The church–Christian missionaries–quickly capitalized on the innocence of our forefathers. They fraudulently convinced our people that we were barbarians and converted some into Christianity. … They declared that the converted persons must discard (1) the “animist” practices, (2) our festivals and that our Gods and Godesses were Saitan (evil spirits– Satan). …
Slowly this created frequent disturbances and social disharmony. The Christian missionaries were stooping to the lowest, most uncivilized means to tear social fabric of our society apart.”[xxiii]

Unfortunately the current human rights regime makes it very difficult for even democratically elected governments to restrict missionary activity.

3.3 Can one say “no” to missionary activity?

While there are laws to restrict intrusive commercial solicitation and deceptive marketing practices these do not apparently do not apply to the sales force[xxiv] of the religious multinationals.

Let us say a remote group in Arunachal Pradesh actually becomes aware of this conversion war in which they are a statistic on a plan. Perhaps they have heard of the consequences of this campaign for a neighboring village group and wish to preserve their traditions without interference. The panchayat or the democratically elected council votes to disallow missionary activity in their midst. What would happen?

Precisely the same language of “human rights” would then be used to target this tribe. Because the right to “change” and to “propagate’ religion has been made into a “human right” any law that seeks to curb missionary activity can then be ruled as a violation of human rights. This anomaly occurs precisely because of the fact that the definitions of religious freedom are not culture neutral. They arise from a culture in which religion has been viewed as a transferable “belief system” and a competitive evangelical enterprise. This definition affords little human rights protection from evangelical activity to those that do not hold these views of religion.

Just as a village may wish to pass such a law, can a state do it, can a country? The consequences can be readily seen in the debate on a bill for religious freedom that was recently approved by the Council of Ministers in Sri Lanka and is up for debate in the Sri Lankan parliament. While the bill prohibits conversions with the use of coercion or allurements, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has expressed “concern” urging the “Sri Lankan government to refrain from passing laws that are inconsistent with international standards.”[xxv] These international standards are precisely the human rights laws that are the subject of this discussion.

Numerous Christian organizations, including the World Evangelical Alliance are putting pressure on the Sri Lankan government to forestall the bill. Christina Rocca, the US Secretary of State, reportedly expressed “grave concern” over the proposed legislation to Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. “Ms Rocca has explained that the Department of State was receiving numerous representations from Senators and Congressmen about the Government`s move. During a previous meeting, The Sunday Times learns, Ms Rocca had warned that pressure was building up and this could have adverse consequences on US aid and trade concessions to Sri Lanka.”[xxvi]

Once the right to change religion and to propagate is made a fundamental human right without a corresponding right to not be asked to change or be subject to proselytizing activity the situation becomes one-sided. The state is now obligated to protect the missionary’s activities while no protection is afforded to the non-proselytizing community’s tradition so that they are not made targets of highly-organized and well-funded conversion campaigns.

4. “Change” of religion assumes exclusivity of belief

The premise of evangelical activity is the belief that theirs is the only true way and everyone else is, at best, in error if not absolutely demonic. This belief inevitably sets those who believe thus into conflict with everyone else.  It is not surprising that the primary principle under attack by evangelicals is the principle of religious pluralism.

“Good News for India” defines itself as “an interdenominational Christian organization that is committed to training, sending out, and supporting national missionaries to preach the Gospel and plant churches among the unreached people groups of the Indian subcontinent.”[xxvii] Good News forIndia runs the Luther W. New Jr. Theological College in Dehradun with several small satellite training centers in five north Indian states, over 163 churches, and several primary schools. The college was dedicated by the President of Word Vision, a global NGO associated with Christian evangelical activity. The aim of the college – to churn out “national missionaries” that are more cost-effective than Westerners.  Good News for India finds their methods of training “very effective in producing laborers for the harvest in India.” They offer accredited Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in missionary activity leading to paid career missionaries and boast of having “planted” 350 churches under the name “Christian Evangelistic Assemblies.”

Clearly, this group of evangelicals knows India well. That is why they list that their major challenge inIndia is the pluralistic Indian thinking.

“Anyone who is familiar with India knows that Indiahas always been a challenge to the Gospel. Hinduism that teaches, “just as all rivers lead to the ocean, all religions lead to God”, dominates the thinking of the masses. … Many Hindus revere Jesus as another god. Yet their eyes are blinded to the uniqueness of Christ.”[xxviii]

The goal then of evangelical conversion is to lift the “blindness” of pluralism to convert into an exclusive belief system. Indeed without that no conversion can take place. If it was simply the question of learning from another way, or accepting another way as true, one need not actually be “converted” to do that. All conversion is a conversion into exclusivism. For all those concerned with retaining India’s pluralistic ethos evangelical activity should thus be of particular concern. It is not surprising then, that after decades of successful conversion activity in Nagaland, the separatist groups that routinely use terrorist methods against their opponents have the exclusive slogan of “Nagaland for Christ.” This switch happens when exclusivism reaches a dominant position in a region. The long-term implications of exclusivist conversion should concern all those that wish India to remain a pluralistic and diverse nation.

The idea of “change” of religion from article 18 universal human right again comes from a culture in which multiple religious participation does not make sense. In testimony before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom,  Prof. Sharma of McGill stated “(1) That the concept of religious freedom articulated in article 18 presupposes a certain concept of religion itself, a concept associated with Western religion and culture; (2) That a different concept of religion … leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and (3) That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom … the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgement of religious freedom in actual practice…”[xxix]

According to the 1985 census in Japan, for instance, 95% of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76% of the same population also declared itself as Buddhist. Clearly, a significant fraction considered themselves multiple religious participants. Even in India, early British census takers were flummoxed by people happy to subscribe to multiple religions till they were coerced by the colonial census to choose one or the other.  This pluralism, deeply ingrained in the Indian people, finds expression as far back as the Rig Veda and the Ashoka pillars. Sharma states “If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion -significantly a British and therefore Western legacy -I would not be at all surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.”

However, Article 18 of the charter of human rights presupposes that one can only belong to one religion at a time. As Sharma continues, “If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.”

However, in the context of multiple religious participation a different idea of religious freedom would emerge – one that the Indian constitution and the Indian census do not, ironically, support – the freedom to profess multiple religions without being asked to choose one or to change into another.

Sharma concludes, “(In the Eastern context) … freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration need not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity.”

This explains the difference between evangelical activity and, for instance, the spread of Indian traditions. Indian traditions can best be regarded as practical learning traditions. They rarely required disavowal of existing belief or tradition. Learning traditions like the teachings of the Buddha could thus be accretive – as they were in China and Japan. To accept the message of the Buddha did not mean to consign one’s ancestors to hell or to reject existing community practices. This is quite similar to the way Indian Swamis brought the practice of Yoga to Americans in contemporary times, without any requirements of “conversion.” One could learn and do the practices of yogaasanas and meditation as a Christian, Muslim or Jew without any requirement to disavow one’s religion.

5. Towards a balanced view of religious freedom

There is a cultural conflict between two very different ideas of religion and of religious freedom. For one the “right to change” is central. To the other the right to retain or continue without interference from the state or from powerful global institutions is paramount. Current rights language favors the former and insufficiently protects the latter.  How do we move towards a more balanced view?

We do not suggest that the “right to change” should itself be taken away.  For instance, some schools of Islamic jurisprudence hold that apostasy by a Muslim renouncing Islam is punishable by death. This certainly does not support the spirit of individual freedom or enquiry. Similarly, we do not hold that tradition is itself immune from criticism or change. There is plenty of scope for individuals within or outside a tradition to criticize, change and evolve particular practices.

Yet, exploration, individual critique or specific reform is different from a systematic institutional effort aimed at converting all others and annihilating their traditions resulting in the destruction of entire cultural ecosystems. As Mutua writes, “Imperial religions have necessarily violated individual conscience and the communal expressions of Africans and their communities by subverting African religions. In doing so they have robbed Africans of essential elements of their humanity … The result … is a culturally disconnected people neither African nor European or Arab.”[xxx]

What would a charter of religious freedom look like if it were being defined by the “unreached” people, with knowledge of consequences others have obtained at the hands of the proselytizing creeds, rather than by the evangelical cultures? Perhaps it would read something like this:

“All peoples have the right to pass on their traditions to their children without interference, without being subjected to organized institutional evangelical activity by others. All peoples find their traditions of value – if not they can always abandon them or make changes. However, no one shall form an association with the express purpose of getting others to convert people away from their religion or to teach others to do so. All peoples have the right to the preservation of their culture and traditions and the right to be free of religious evangelism.

Every human being has the right to be free from being subject to the preaching of exclusive religious doctrines. Every person is free to participate in and learn from none, one or more ways to happiness and fulfillment without being asked to specify a religious identity or to convert from one to another.

No religious, political, social, religious or educational institution or organization will enable or have as its aims the systematic conversion of other people. The marketing claims of institutional religions aiming at conversion will be subjected to the same legal test as those of other corporate entities. Every individual is free to explore the religions and practices of the world without being subjected to systematic marketing and conversion campaigns.”

To test the asymmetry of the current definition one can predict that this new definition of religious freedom would be most objected to by specific groups – prominent among these would be evangelical Christians and their power base. Most groups that follow ethnic traditions throughout the globe, other than those that act as proxies for evangelical interests, or those that are attached to the presumed neutrality of “secular” definitions of religious freedom, would welcome the change. If anything, that is the clearest indicator of how the current definition of religious freedom is seriously asymmetrical in its assumptions.

Nothing in this formulation should be construed as restricting the freedom of any community to practice their faith privately and in congregations of fellow believers. At the same time such freedom should not extend to constraining the freedom of others to practice without interference.

Augmenting the human right to practice as well as change one’s religion with the rights of communities to be free of organized campaigns that aim to destroy the practice of their traditions by conversion into exclusive religious systems would provide a necessary balance for maintaining religious harmony and protecting cultural and religious diversity.


[i] Makau Mutua in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, A Deskbook. Published by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 2004. Chapter 28.

[ii] Balgangadhara, S N. The Heathen in His Blindness. Manohar Books.

[iii] Quoted from The Heathen in His Blindness.

[iv] An Indian speech in answer to a sermon, preached by a Swedish missionary at Conestogo in Pennsylvania. Early American imprints. Second series; no. 6535. American Antiquarian Society, 1966

[v] American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994. Hearing, Serial No. 103-92. Statement of Regis Pecob, Member Pueblo de Cochiti Tribal Council.

[vi] Young India: January 19, 1928

[vii]http://www.imb.org/missionspartner/mobooklet/mobintro.asp

[viii] http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp

[ix] http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp Notably, the Indian constituent assembly debates reveal that the right to “propagate” as a fundamental right was argued for vociferously by Anglo-Indian Christians.

[x] http://www.joshuaproject.net

[xi] See, for instance, http://www.ad2000.org andhttp://www.joshuaproject.net/index.php

[xii] Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

[xiii] This was in the prayer section of the International Missionary Board website on June 3, 2005,http://imb.org/compassionnet/ but was later removed after publicity on a site that tracks Christian missionary activity on http://www.christianaggression.com/item_display.php?type=NEWS&id=1117790952. It is still available at the Southern Baptist Convention prayer site http://www.sbcpray.net

[xiv] Makau Mutua, Chapter 28

[xv] Asian Tribune. May 3, 2005. Controversy over Freedom of Religion Bill: Buddhists to meet UN envoy today. http://www.asiantribune.com/show_news.php?id=14309

[xvi] http://conversionagenda.blogspot.com/1999/10/is-conversion-is-violence-on-hindus.html

[xvii] Source: World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press. 2001.

[xviii] http://www.joshuaproject.net

[xix] Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

[xx] http://www.joshuaproject.net/overview.php

[xxi] Tehelka, February 7, 2004

[xxii] http://www.washingtontimes.com/upi-breaking/20050301-044719-3828r.htm

[xxiii] Talom Rukbo the Father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh from a talk he gave called “The Truth Every Bharatiya Should Know”: (quoted in http://www.vnn.org/world/WD0302/WD21-7837.html)

[xxiv] Many of the missionaries are paid “stipends.” Colleges in India graduate native missionaries by the thousands who are then given a paid job with conversion quotas. So yes, this is a sales force.

[xxv] Srilanka

[xxvi] Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), July 31, 2005. US Warns Lanka on religious bill.

[xxvii] http://www.goodnewsforindia.org/about.htm

[xxviii] http://www.goodnewsforindia.org/about.htm

[xxix] Sharma Test

[xxx] Makau Mutua, Chapter 28

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Re-imagining Religious Freedom

The doctrine of religious freedom is enshrined in the UN charter under the Declaration of Universal Human Rights and also in article 25 of the Indian constitution. Both these declarations state that the right to “change” one’s religion is a universal human right. The Indian constitution goes further by including the right to “propagate” one’s religion as a fundamental right.

Since the right to “change” and to “propagate” religion is given to all individuals it is assumed to be universal, fair and neutral. However, there are at least two distinct viewpoints that come from different types of religious traditions. Religious freedom, as currently defined, privileges one view of religion over others. This privileging, enshrined in law, has real-world implications. It is proposed that more balanced definitions of religious freedom would better promote religious harmony and religious diversity.

Pagans’ View of Religion

“What is religion?” is a question that scholars still actively debate. For understanding religious freedom we need to examine the distinctions between two kinds of traditions that are classified as “religion.” In particular, there is a distinction between what African scholar Makau Mutua calls “proselytizing universalist faiths”1 and other human traditions. Balgangadhara2 argues in detail that the concept of religion exemplified by the Abrahamic faiths is in an entirely different category than those of the other traditions. Differences in conceptions of religious freedom thus arise from the differences in category.

Here is what Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, the last of the pagan prefects of Rome, when faced with official Christian persecution of the ancient Roman traditions, had to say in the 4th century C.E.

“Grant, I beg you, that what in our youth we took over from our fathers, we may in our old age hand to posterity??. The love of established practice is a powerful sentiment … Everyone has his own customs, his own religious practices; the divine mind has assigned to different cities different religions to be their guardians. … And so we ask for peace for the gods of our fathers, for the gods of our native land. It is reasonable that whatever each of us worships is really to be considered one and the same. … What does it matter what practical system we adopt in our search for truth? Not by one avenue only can we arrive at so tremendous a secret.”[3]

Let us zoom forward a few thousand years, to another continent, the “New World” of the Americas.The chief of a Native American tribe offered this reply to a Christian missionary’s proselytizing sermon:

“The Almighty, for anything we know, may have communicated himself to different races of people in a different manner. Some say they have the will of God in writing; be it so, their revelation has no advantage above ours, since both are equally sufficient to save, or the end of the revelation would be frustrated … the difference can only lay in the mode of communication.”[4]

The remonstrances of the Native American tribes were, unfortunately, insufficient to save their traditions from assault by those that claimed theirs was the only true way. Regis Pecob, Member of the Pueblo Tribal Council presented the following testimony, included in the Hearings on Religious Freedom before the US Congress in 1994.[5]

“For the Pueblo, this long road began with the efforts of the Spanish to forcibly impose Catholicism and destroy our traditional spiritual beliefs. We survived that campaign only at great human cost—in torture, in murder, in mutilation, in the destruction of whole communities.”

He quoted further a 1924 declaration of the Pueblos: 

“We have met because our most fundamental right of religious liberty is threatened. … the religious beliefs and ceremonies and forms of prayer of each of our Pueblos are as old as the world and they are holy. … To pass this religion, with hidden sacred knowledge and its many forms of prayer, on to our children, is our supreme duty to our ancestors and to our own hearts and to the God whom we know. Our religion is a true religion, and it is our way of life. We must now tell how our religious freedom is threatened and denied to us.” [emphasis added]

Let us now consider a place far removed from the Americas. 

“I came to the conclusion long ago that all religions were true and also that all had some error in them, and whilst I hold by my own, I should hold others as dear as Hinduism. So we can only pray, if we are Hindus, not that a Christian should become a Hindu. But our innermost prayer should be a Hindu should be a better Hindu, a Muslim a better Muslim, a Christian a better Christian.”[6]

This is Gandhi writing in Young India in 1928. Oddly enough, none of these peoples considered defining religious freedom as the freedom to change their religion. Quite the contrary. For them religion constituted the traditions and practices handed down by their ancestors. In this view it is equally absurd for someone to discard these traditions to adopt someone else’s religion as it would be to change one’s ancestors for someone else’s. Similar ideas of “religion” are found in the many native communities in India and throughout the world. If all people have their traditions and each is valid for them, why would one want to cause someone else to change? Indeed the freedom they sought was precisely the opposite – the right to pass on their traditions onto their children without interference and without being subjected to organised campaigns to get them to change.

The Missionary Religions

Let us now examine some quotes with a different perspective on this issue.

The International Mission Board’s page on “Mobilization for Missions” opens with the following quote:“Declare his (God’s) glory among the heathen, his wonders among all people.” Psalm 96:3 God wants Southern Baptists as a people to mobilize vast resources for reaching all people groups for Jesus Christ.” 7 [Emphasis in original]

The International Mission Board is very clear in its goals – its stated vision is to “to lead Southern Baptists to be on mission with God to bring all the peoples of the world (‘panta ta ethne’) to saving faith in Jesus Christ.” This vision is apparently authorised by no less than God himself:“We must realize that this is not our mission; however, it is God’s mission, and He has called us as His people to join Him in fulfilling that mission.”

Their aims are nothing short of the apocalyptic end of the world. As their documents proclaim:“It is a vision that will be fulfilled, for Jesus said in Matthew 24:14, “The gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a witness to every nation and then the end will come.”

Is this some fringe missionary group? Hardly. The International Mission Board is an entity of the influential Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist Convention in the United States was formed in 1845 mainly to create mission boards. It boasts of over 16 million members and runs 48 Baptist Colleges and Universities. It counts several past United States’ Presidents among its members and its revenues from member contributions top $9 billion annually, in league with the largest corporations. President George W. Bush has addressed each of the Convention’s last four annual meetings.

The Baptists, however, do not view their missionary programme as a programme against religious liberty. On the contrary, they claim that “Religious freedom was a distinctively Baptist contribution as formulated in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”8 . The Baptist views on religious freedom include “the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference Constitution.

A Question of Choice?

The secular idea of the freedom of religion, born of the European experience with religion, presumes that the right to belief and the change of belief without restriction or favour from the government is sufficient for religious liberty. In effect, it creates a competitive marketplace of religious belief. This idea of a competitive marketplace of religion is, however, not a universal idea, but limited to particular faiths. Thus these faiths are asymmetrically equipped to compete in this marketplace since others do not view religion as a competitive endeavor in a similar way. As a result the idea of “free choice” in this marketplace becomes highly asymmetrical in practice, favouring imperialistic proselytising creeds over local traditions.

Competitive Religions

The first asymmetry is the asymmetry of doctrines. For most of the native traditions the idea of preaching to others to get them to abandon their traditions and follow someone else’s is absurd. For the proselytising creeds, to do so is a religious imperative, central to their faith.

The charter of World Evangelism is justified using Biblical quotes.

Go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” reads the quote attributed to Jesus on the Joshua Project website.9 This task is taken seriously and literally. The evangelical Joshua Project website’s charter is“Bringing Definition to the Unfinished Task.” The Joshua Project was born out of the AD 200010 movement with the goal to “plant a Church” amongst every people group by the year 2000. The co-chairman and godfather of the movement is the evangelist Billy Graham whom President George W. Bush credits for his “born-again” conversion. In 1995 the movement sponsored the Global Consultation on World Evangelization in Seoul, South Korea where “4,000 Christian leaders from 186 countries, including India, gathered to draw up secret and covert (world) evangelical plans.”[11]

Hundreds of seminaries and missionary colleges exist to teach strategies for evangelisation—what works, what does not work, how to prepare, how to leverage social and economic problems and issues, how to create multi-media marketing campaigns complete with personal customer testimonials and how to influence the media. The evangelicals are, in their own words, “mobilized for mission”, to “make disciples of every nation.”

The “Sonar” community of India recently got prime billing in the “prayer” site of the International Mission Board.

“Did you know that the Sonar people of Maharashtra, India, re the primary crafters of gold and silver Hindu idols? These idols are the most powerful stronghold that Satan has upon the Hindu worshipers in India and around the world. When the Sonar people embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, the subsequent change in their livelihood could have a huge ripple effect in the world of Hinduism. As one international Christian worker said, “When we reach the Sonar with the gospel, we will see the collapse of Hinduism.” Pray that the gospel would flow through and permeate the Sonar culture like molten silver fills a mold.”[12]

The idea that people would pray for the collapse of other religious traditions, branded as Satanic, highlights the distinction of doctrine between the two kinds of traditions.

For one side, that holds the views “to each their own” religion is not seen as a competitive enterprise, far less a war for outright global monopoly. They have not asked for this war. Many are not even aware that they are at war till it comes to their doorstep. Non-Abrahamic traditions are neither tolerant nor intolerant towards other traditions. They are simply indifferent – to each their own, they hold. While for the proselytising religions, conversion of others is considered an essential component of advancing “God’s work.” The other traditions are, at best, preparations for conversion into the “One True Religion” and, at worst, downright Satanic. For the evangelicals, conversion is a moral position. It is not seen as an act of aggression on other traditions, but merely the benevolent saving of the heathens who would otherwise be condemned to hell. They cannot thus be, doctrinally, indifferent to these others. When combined with institutional mobilisation, this becomes a global war for religious affiliation — the target no less than the eradication of all other religions that are seen as competitors keeping humans in the sway of Satan.

Thus the campaign for conversion is fundamentally unsymmetrical. The native traditions are grossly unprepared to fight this war. Unlike the mission organizations, they have not collected the demographics of their “opponents”, their sources of funds, their social problems, competitive analyses of their creeds, their strengths and weaknesses, the flaws in their marketing literature. They have not prepared their own list of target groups among the “nonbelievers.” They have not, because unlike the evangelicals, they do not consider all the other traditions of the worlds as their opponents and competitors. There is no doctrine within these traditions that supports the idea that all other people on the planet must be converted to their particular way.

Ironically it is secular ideas of the human right of religious freedom that are used to protect evangelical expansion against native traditions. Makau Mutua, writing about the African traditions, points out that

“the (human) rights regime incorrectly assumes a level playing field by requiring that African religions compete in the marketplace of ideas. The rights corpus not only forcibly imposes on African religions the obligation to compete—a task for which as nonproselytizing, noncompetitive creeds they are not historically fashioned—but also protects the evangelizing religions in their march towards universalization … it seems inconceivable that the human rights regime would have intended to protect the right of certain religions to destroy others.[13] ”

Similarly, the Asian Tribune puts forth a Buddhist perspective on conversions in Sri Lanka:

“The stubborn refusal of Western religious rights groups to see the conversion issue in its proper Asian context has seriously complicated the matter. Buddhism in Sri Lanka as in Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos and Tibet is inextricably linked to the country’s cultural and national heritage …

Instead, Buddhists allege that the West wants to impose on Sri Lanka the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting religious freedom under international law. But the problem is that this law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the State persecution and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another, according to Buddhist lawyers who are actively campaigning for the enactment of anti-conversion legislation. ”[14] (emphasis added)

In other words, secular ideas of human rights to religious freedom protect religious groups from state interference – addressing the problems that Europe encountered, but not the issues faced in the Asian context. Thus these ideas do not account for conflict and repression caused by powerful well-funded global corporate entities seeking to eliminate the religious traditions of local communities.

Even if the native traditions were resourced and aware of how to respond to the evangelical activity, to be forced to respond to it is also a curtailment of their freedom. This is because a response to evangelical activity in kind will invariably turn the traditions into a mirror image of those religions and into a caricature of their own traditions, i.e., they would have ended up accepting the position of the proselytising creeds that religion is a competitive endeavor and is a global war. In a war, they would study how to bring the “fight” to the other side. So as the Baptists launched their mission to convert the Nagas, the Nagas would launch missions to convert the Baptists. The fact that they do not is the fundamental difference between the two kinds of religious systems that leads to the asymmetry of motivation. As Swami Dayananda Saraswati wrote in an open letter to the then Pope:“You cannot ask me to respond to conversion by converting others to my religion because it is not part of my tradition. … Thus, conversion is not merely violence against people; it is violence against people who are committed to non-violence.” [15]

While the competitive view of religion is natural to the evangelical, to respond in kind makes native traditions into something that they are not. This is precisely why there is such conflict and ambivalence over the “re-conversion” activities of Hindutva in India. In responding to conversion by re-conversion, Hindutva forms itself into a mirror of the proselytising religions. While ostensibly seeking to uphold the Indian traditions, changes them into a competitive Abrahamic caricature in a way that makes most Indians deeply uncomfortable.

Thus evangelical activity takes away religious freedom from the native traditions on two accounts. To respond competitively would be to alter one’s traditions into competitive religions in the mirror image of the evangelisers—i.e., to treat the conversion game as a religious war for headcount. To passively fail to respond would mean the gradual erosion and destruction of one’s traditions. This catch-22 occurs because the playing field of religious freedom itself has been defined based on the religious history and doctrines of one side.

The Asymmetry of Power

The second asymmetry is the asymmetry of power and resources. When religious freedom gets defined simply as the non-interference of the state in religious activity it serves to privilege those private institutions that view religion as a competitive quest for monopoly and have mobilised enormous resources to this end. It thus favours organised institutional religions over those whose traditions do not have a corporate charter. Evangelical Missions should best be considered local sales offices of large multi-national corporations. How large? The budget of the International Mission Board 2005 is $283.1 million (over Rs. 1200 crores). A similar amount in 2004 led to the “planting” of over 21,000 churches across the globe. The one year revenue of institutionalised Christianity is estimated to be $260 billion dollars (2001 figures).16 About a fifth of this, $47 billion, are allocated to global mission work every year, comparable to the entire annual net tax revenue of the Government of India. Clearly we are dealing with a very well financed and well organised global enterprise. The business of conversion is big business. It demands results in terms of numbers converted. The well-publicised stories of “success amidst difficulty” sustain the fund-raising activities of evangelical groups.

The Joshua Project17 tracks every “unreached people group” in the world, over six thousand at last count, providing detailed linguistic, demographic and targeting information. This project, started by a splinter group of American Evangelist Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, is “a largescale intelligence operation that brought together American strategists, theologians, missionary specialists, demographers, technologists, sociologists, anthropologists and researchers to create the most comprehensive people group profiles in the 10/40 window…”

The 10/40 window, denoting the latitudes on the globe considered the prime target for conversion, has India squarely in its sights. The information is so detailed that “the ethno linguistic profiling … cannot even be matched by data with the Government of India.”18 Its mission is “to identify and highlight the people groups of the world that have the least exposure to the Gospel and the least Christian presence in their midst.

The Joshua Project shares this information “to encourage pioneer church-planting movements among every ethnic people group.”19 According to the Project overview “Mission agencies use the data to strategically determine where to send new church-planting teams.” Mission Frontiers magazine tracks the “progress” in reaching those people. Between 1995 and 2000, 1200 additional people groups were subjected to a “Church Planting” movement in their midst.

Among the targets—the small “Akha” group in Vietnam consisting of a mere 3040 people following their ethnic traditions to the largest groups—the 13 million Sinhalese who follow Buddhism—only 4 per cent of which have yet been converted according to the Joshua database. India contains the largest number of targeted groups. Sample targets – among the Buddhists – the 102,480 Bhotias in Sikkim, and the 47,030 Sherpas, the 162,210 Tibetan Buddhists and the 8,410,800 Marathi Neo Buddhists; the 3,165,200 Bania Jains; among the Muslims – the 9,796,100 Ansaris, the 6,938,600 Sayyids, the 894,690 Faqirs and the 112,420 Ganchis.

The  tribal religionists are, of course, the easiest targets, many of them having already been “reached” – a remaining sample include the Mongpa, all of 850 people, following Tibetan Himalayan customs. The Sikhs are another major target – further divided into 58 groups, from the 11,581,200 Jat Sikhs to the 880 Assamese Sikhs. Among the 1596 Hindu target groups – the 3.4 million Aroras, the 53.5 million Yadavs, the 6.9 million Nairs, the Sonar community of nearly 6.5 million people to the barely 14,000 Kashmiri Hindu Zargars.

To each of these thousands of target groups gets assigned church planting teams, missionaries, resources, funds, media support, Bibles in their language and dubbed versions of the “Jesus” film (with children’s versions), now available in a staggering 877 languages. No other global corporate multinational could come close to a marketing campaign of  this breadth.

To imagine that the native traditions are “free” to compete in the well-resourced global onslaught is to ignore both the disparity of resources, and more importantly fundamental differences in the nature of the traditions. The idea of a “free market” of religions thus arises from and supports the competitive world view of evangelical religion.

Since the believers of evangelical religions consider missionary activity as part of their faith, such believers in high places can have a disproportionate impact over those of non-evangelical traditions. The report “George Bush Has a Conversion Agenda for India”20 describes the US President as “probably the most resourceful and influential Christian Missionary ever.” While Bush Jr.’s evangelical beliefs get a lot of attention, this is certainly not a new phenomenon in the US. Faith has always been a very important issue for American voters. President Bush’s “Faith-based initiative” merely legitimises direct monetary support from the US Government to Christian groups. In 2004 alone, $2 billion (nearly Rs. 8,600 crore) dollars were paid by the US Government21 , overwhelmingly to Christian groups, under this program.

The disproportionately Western influenced global media, working with secular ideas of religious liberty that support evangelism, is muted in its criticism and coverage of the plans and tactics of missionaries. On the other hand, rare instances of violent reaction to missionary activities get disproportionate worldwide coverage and attention. The stories of alleged persecution reinforce the evangelical self-image of Christian martyrdom even when the resources at their disposal are far greater than the groups they target. While there is absolutely no justification for violence in a democratic society, current laws provide little recourse to the target groups to prevent missionary activities in their midst, even when it causes conflict and tensions within the communities.

For instance, Talom Rukbo, the father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh, remarked:

“The church—Christian missionaries quickly capitalized on the innocence of our forefathers. They fraudulently convinced our people that we were barbarians and converted some into Christianity. … They declared that the converted persons must discard (1) the “animist” practices, (2) our festivals and that our Gods and Godesses were Saitan (evil spirits— Satan). …

Slowly this created frequent disturbances and social disharmony. The Christian missionaries were stooping to the lowest, most uncivilized means to tear social fabric of our society apart.”22

Unfortunately the current human rights regime makes it very difficult for even democratically elected governments to restrict missionary activity.

Can One Say “No”?

While there are laws to restrict intrusive commercial solicitation and deceptive marketing practices these apparently do not apply to the sales force23 of the religious multinationals.

Let us say a remote group in Arunachal Pradesh actually becomes aware of this conversion war in which they are a statistic on a plan. Perhaps they have heard of the consequences of this campaign for a neighbouring village group and wish to preserve their traditions without interference. The panchayat or the democratically elected council votes to disallow missionary activity in their midst. What would happen?

Precisely the same language of “human rights” would then be used to target this tribe. Because the right to “change” and to “propagate’ religion has been made into a “human right” any law that seeks to curb missionary activity can then be ruled as a violation of human rights. This anomaly occurs precisely because of the fact that the definitions of religious freedom are not culture neutral. They arise from a culture in which religion has been viewed as a transferable “belief system” and a competitive evangelical enterprise. This definition affords little human rights protection from evangelical activity to those that do not hold these views of religion.

Just as a village may wish to pass such a law, can a state do it, can a country? The consequences can be readily seen in the debate on a bill for religious freedom that was recently approved by the Council of Ministers in Sri Lanka and is up for debate in the Sri Lankan parliament. While the bill prohibits conversions with the use of coercion or allurements, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has expressed “concern” urging the “Sri Lankan Government to refrain from passing laws that are inconsistent with international standards.”24 These international standards are precisely the human rights laws that are the subject of this discussion.

Numerous Christian organisations, including the World Evangelical Alliance are putting pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to forestall the bill. Christina Rocca, the US Secretary of State, reportedly expressed “grave concern” over the proposed legislation to Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United States. “Ms Rocca has explained that the Department of State was receiving numerous representations from Senators and Congressmen about the Government`s move. During a previous meeting, The Sunday Times learns, Ms Rocca had warned that pressure was building up and this could have adverse consequences on US aid and trade concessions to Sri Lanka.”25

Once the right to change religion and to propagate is made a fundamental human right without a corresponding right to not be asked to change or be subject to proselytising activity the situation becomes one-sided. The state is now obligated to protect the missionary’s activities while no protection is afforded to the non-proselytising community’s tradition so that they are not made targets of highly-organised and well-funded conversion campaigns.

The Exclusivity of Belief

The premise of evangelical activity is the belief that theirs is the only true way and everyone else is, at best, in error if not absolutely demonic. This belief inevitably sets those who believe thus into conflict with everyone else. It is not surprising that the primary principle under attack by evangelicals is the principle of religious pluralism.

“Good News for India” defines itself as “an interdenominational Christian organization that is committed to training, sending out, and supporting national missionaries to preach the Gospel and plant churches among the unreached people groups of the Indian subcontinent.”26 Good News for India runs the Luther W. New Jr. Theological College in Dehradun with several small satellite training centres in five north Indian states, over 163 churches, and several primary schools. The college was dedicated by the President of Word [World?] Vision, a global NGO associated with Christian evangelical activity. The aim of the college – to churn out “national missionaries” that are more cost-effective than Westerners. Good News for India finds their methods of training “very effective in producing laborers for the harvest in India.” They offer accredited Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in missionary activity leading to paid careers as missionaries and boast of having “planted” 350 churches under the name “Christian Evangelistic Assemblies.”

Clearly, this group of evangelicals knows India well. That is why they list that their major challenge in India is the pluralistic Indian thinking.

“Anyone who is familiar with India knows that India has always been a challenge to the Gospel. Hinduism that teaches, “just as all rivers lead to the ocean, all religions lead to God”, dominates the thinking of the masses. … Many Hindus revere Jesus as another god. Yet their eyes are blinded to the uniqueness of Christ.”27

The goal then of evangelical conversion is to lift the “blindness of pluralism to convert into an exclusive belief system. Indeed without that no conversion can take place. If it was simply the question of learning from another way, or accepting another way as true, one does not actually need to be “converted” to do that. ll conversion is a conversion into exclusivism. For all those concerned with retaining India’s pluralistic ethos evangelical activity should thus be of particular concern. It is not surprising then, that after decades of successful conversion activity in Nagaland, the separatist groups that routinely use terrorist methods against their opponents have the exclusive slogan of “Nagaland for Christ.” This switch happens when exclusivism reaches a dominant position in a region. The long-term implications of exclusivist conversion should concern all those who wish India to remain a pluralistic and diverse nation.

The idea of “change” of religion from [Article 18 of the Universal Human Rights Declaration again comes from a culture in which multiple religious participation does not make sense. In testimony before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Prof. Sharma of McGill stated “(1) That the concept of religious freedom articulated in article 18 presupposes a certain concept of religion itself, a concept associated with Western religion and culture; (2) That a different concept of religion … leads to a different concept of religious freedom; and (3) That unless human rights discourse is able to harmonize these two concepts of religious freedom … the clash of the two concepts might ultimately result in the abridgement of religious freedom in actual practice…”28

According to the 1985 census in Japan, for instance, 95 per cent of the population of Japan declared itself as followers of Shinto and 76 per cent of the same population also declared itself as Buddhist. Clearly, a significant fraction considered themselves multiple religious participants. Even in India, early British census takers were flummoxed by people happy to subscribe to multiple religions till they were coerced by the colonial census to choose one or the other. This pluralism, deeply ingrained in the Indian people, finds expression as far back as the Rig Veda and the Ashoka pillars. Sharma states “If the Indian census-takers did not insist that one can only belong to one religion – significantly a British and therefore Western legacy – I would not be at all surprised if the Indian religious statistical reality began to resemble the Japanese.”

However, Article 18 of the charter of human rights presupposes that one can only belong to one religion at a time. As Sharma continues, “If one believes that one can only belong to one religion at a time, then it stands to reason that religious freedom would essentially consist of one’s freedom to change such affiliation by the voluntary exercise of choice.”

However, in the context of multiple religious participation a different idea of religious freedom would emerge – one that the Indian constitution and the Indian census do not, ironically, support – the freedom to profess multiple religions without being asked to choose one or to change into another.

Sharma concludes, “(In the Eastern context) … freedom of religion means that the person is left free to explore his or her religious life without being challenged to change his or her religion. Such exploration need not be confined to any one religion, and may freely embrace the entire religious and philosophical heritage of humanity.”

This explains the difference between evangelical activity and, for instance, the spread of Indian traditions. Indian traditions can best be regarded as practical learning traditions. They rarely required disavowal of existing belief or tradition. Learning traditions like the teachings of the Buddha could thus be accretive – as they were in China and Japan. To accept the message of the Buddha did not mean to consign one’s ancestors to hell or to reject existing community practices. This is quite similar to the way Indian Swamis brought the practice of Yoga to Americans in contemporary times, without any requirements of “conversion.” One could learn and do the practices of yoga asanas and meditation as a Christian, Muslim or Jew without any requirement to disavow one’s religion.

Towards a Balanced View

There is a cultural conflict between two very different ideas of religion and of religious freedom. For one the “right to change” is central. To the other the right to retain or continue without interference from the state or from powerful global institutions is paramount. Current rights language favours the former and insufficiently protects the latter. How do we move towards a more balanced view?

We do not suggest that the “right to change” should itself be taken away. For instance, some schools of Islamic jurisprudence hold that apostasy by a Muslim renouncing Islam is punishable by death. This certainly does not support the spirit of individual freedom or enquiry. Similarly, we do not hold that tradition is itself immune from criticism or change. There is plenty of scope for individuals within or outside a tradition to criticise, change and evolve particular practices.

Yet, exploration, individual critique or specific reform is different from a systematic institutional effort aimed at converting all others and annihilating their traditions resulting in the destruction of entire cultural ecosystems. As Mutua writes, “Imperial religions have necessarily violated individual conscience and the communal expressions of Africans and their communities by subverting African religions. In doing so they have robbed Africans of essential elements of their humanity … The result … is a culturally disconnected people neither African nor European or Arab.”29

What would a charter of religious freedom look like if it were being defined by the “unreached” people, with knowledge of consequences others have obtained at the hands of the proselytizing creeds, rather than by the evangelical cultures? Perhaps it would read something like this:

“All peoples have the right to pass on their traditions to their children without interference, without being subjected to organised institutional evangelical activity by others. All peoples find their traditions of value – if not they can always abandon them or make changes. However, no one shall form an association with the express purpose of getting others to convert people away from their religion or to teach others to do so. All peoples have the right to the preservation of their culture and traditions and the right to be free of religious evangelism.

Every human being has the right to be free from being subject to the preaching of exclusive religious doctrines. Every person is free to participate in and learn from none, one or more ways to happiness and fulfillment without being asked to specify a religious identity or to convert from one to another.

No religious, political, social, religious or educational institution or organisation will be permitted to have as its aims the systematic conversion of other people. The marketing claims of institutional religions aiming at conversion will be subjected to the same legal test as those of other corporate entities. Every individual is free to explore the religions and practices of the world without being subjected to systematic marketing and conversion campaigns.”

To test the asymmetry of the current definition one can predict that this new definition of religious freedom would be most objected to by specific groups – prominent among these would be evangelical Christians and their power base. Most groups that follow ethnic traditions throughout the globe, other than those that act as proxies for evangelical interests, or those that are attached to the presumed neutrality of “secular” definitions of religious freedom, would welcome the change. If anything, that is the clearest indicator of how the current definition of religious freedom is seriously asymmetrical in its assumptions.

Nothing in this formulation should be construed as restricting the freedom of any community to practice their faith privately and in congregations of fellow believers. At the same time such freedom should not extend to constraining the freedom of others to practice without interference.

Augmenting the human right to practice as well as change one’s religion with the rights of communities to be free of organised campaigns that aim to destroy the practice of their traditions by conversion into exclusive religious systems would provide a necessary balance for maintaining religious harmony and protecting cultural and religious diversity.

Footnotes

1. Makau Mutua in Facilitating Freedom of Religion or Belief, A Deskbook. Published by the Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief, 2004. Chapter 28.

2. Balgangadhara, S N. The Heathen in His Blindness. Manohar Books.

3. Quoted from The Heathen in His Blindness.

4. An Indian speech in answer to a sermon, preached by a Swedish missionary at Conestogo in Pennsylvania. Early American imprints. Second series; no. 6535. American Antiquarian Society, 1966

5. American Indian Religious Freedom Act Amendments of 1994. Hearing, Serial No. 103-92. Statement of Regis Pecob, Member Pueblo de Cochiti Tribal Council.

6. Young India: January 19, 1928

7. http://www.imb.org/missionspartner/ mobooklet/mobintro.asp

8. http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp

9. http://www.joshuaproject.net

10. See, for instance, http:// www.ad2000.org and http:// www.joshuaproject.net/index.php

11.Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

12.This was in the prayer section of the International Missionary Board website on June 3, 2005, http://imb.org/compassionnet/ but was later removed after publicity on a site that tracks Christian missionary activity on http://www.christian aggression.com/ item_display.php?type=NEWS&id=1117790952. It is still available at the Southern Baptist Convention prayer site http:// www.sbcpray.net

13. Makau Mutua, Chapter 28

14. Asian Tribune. May 3, 2005. Controversy over Freedom of Religion Bill: Buddhists to meet UN envoy today. http:// w w w . a s i a n t r i b u n e . c o m / show_news.php?id=14309

15.http://conversionagenda.blogspot.com/ 1999/10/is-conversion-is-violence-onhindus. Html 16.Source: World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press. 2001.

17. http://www.joshuaproject.net

18. Tehelka, “Preparing for the harvest…”, February 7, 2004.

19. h t t p : / / w w w. j o s h u a p r o j e c t . n e t / overview.php

20. Tehelka, February 7, 2004

21. http://www.washingtontimes.com/upibreaking/ 20050301-044719-3828r.htm

22. Talom Rukbo the Father of the Donyipolo Movement in Arunachal Pradesh from a talk he gave called “The Truth Every Bharatiya Should Know”: (quoted in http://www.vnn.org/world/ WD0302/WD21-7837.html)

23. Many of the missionaries are paid “stipends.” Colleges in India graduate native missionaries by the thousands who are then given a paid job with conversion quotas. So yes, this is a sales force.

24. http://www.uscirf.gov/mediaroom/press/ 2005/july/07132005_srilanka.html

25. Sunday Times (Sri Lanka), July 31, 2005. US Warns Lanka on Religious Bill.

26. http://www.goodnewsforindia.org/ about.htm

27. http://www.goodnewsforindia.org/ about.htm

28. http://www.uscirf.gov/events/hearings/ 2000/september/panel1/SubPanelA/ 09182000_Sharma_test.html

29. Makau Mutua, Chapter 28 Copyright © 2002-2010.

Sankrant Sanu. All rights reserved

TEACHING PLURALISM AND TOLERANCE

Building on Our Own Traditions

“Aap Hindu ho ya Muslim?” (Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?)

It was an innocent question asked by Salma,* a pretty ten-year-old girl studying in a village school in the outskirts of Jaipur. She addressed it to Naren, a young college student and aspiring journalist, who accompanied me to Jaipur as part of our survey of village schools. We talked with the students in this two-room school for a little while and were delighted to have seen fresh, young faces with their enthusiastic questions.

Naren was surprised that he was asked this question. The issue of Religion had not come up even though it appeared from the names that many of the children in the school were Muslim.

“Aap hi bataao, aapko kyaa lagtaa hai?” (You tell me what you think?), parried Naren.

Pat came the answer.“Aap zaroor Muslim hoge, kyonki aap ache ho.” (You are good; you must be a Muslim.)

This was such an unusual experience for Naren and me that we later raised this incident with Sandeep,* an avowed leftist, who was running the school. I expected Sandeep to be as appalled as we were at the child’s comment and interested in talking to the children about it. His answer proved to be even moresurprising to us. He suggested that it would not be secular to teach children about respect for the religious beliefs of others and the fact that good people are found among practitioners of all religions, because it would go against their beliefs.

Pluralism, a Hindu Belief?

Unfortunately, Sandeep does no appear to be unique in having these ideas of secularism. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, criticises a Supreme Court judgment on teaching mutual respect for religions in schools in the following words:

‘There is a misplaced sense that toleration requires that citizens respect each other’s religions. This stems from confusion…There is something dangerous about thinking that a tolerant society requires respect for people’s faiths. Toleration requires a respect for their rights. The test of whether you respect other’s rights comes only when you think that they might beup to something fundamentally different or strange.’ (“Living with difference”, The Hindu, September 14, 2002)

He finally dismisses the idea of pluralism, that multiple paths exist, as a “partisan description of the religious experience, and should not be seen as neutral amongst religions.” Some “liberal” Indian intellectuals label presumably teaching about religious pluralism as partisan because it is considered as a “Hindu” belief. Ironically this stance would find good company among right-wing evangelical Christians in America who routinely criticise religious pluralism as a liberal flaw.

The question for us must remain whether we will build a more harmonious, tolerant and just society by teaching all Indian children to respect different religious traditions and the fact that good people are found among adherents of different religions, or is that as Mehta claims instead, “in the long run such beliefs are as damaging as saffronisation.”

In this essay, I use “pluralism” and “plural society” as one that accommodates people with different beliefs, and the secular state as one particular system to maintain a plural society. The ideas of a secular state arose in European thought as a result of their experience with religious exclusivism and the close control that the centralised Church maintained on religious and non-religious thought. Religious wars dominated the history of mediaeval Europe. The Roman Catholic Church enshrined the principle of religious exclusivism to the extreme, not only the belief (still held by most Christian denominations) that Jesus was the Only Way, but “Extra Ecclesiam Nulla (“There is no salvation outside the Church”). Anyone promulgating a doctrine other than that approved by the Church could be tried for heresy and executed. As the power of influence of the Roman Catholic Church spread, native pagan traditions, as well as earlier versions of Christianity, such as Celtic Christianity and Arianism, were wiped out.

The Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century challenged papal authority. This led to a century of religious strife in Europe between Catholics and Protestant denominations when hundreds of thousands of people were killed. The smouldering tip of this conflict can still be seen in the ethnic-religious Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Ireland, and the separation of Catholic Ireland from the United Kingdom in 1922. The other end of the conflict of religious exclusivism can be seen vividly in contemporary events across the world where mutually exclusive ideologies are battling for supremacy in what is being described as the “Clash of Civilisations.”

The birth of ideas pertaining to religious tolerance in Europe, religious pluralism and ultimately the separation of religion and state arose out of their experience with religious intolerance. This religious intolerance was a natural outgrowth of religious exclusivism – the idea that there is only One Way, and that One Way is controlled or determined by a particular church, tribe or book. Thus, the liberal struggle in the Age of Reason was precisely against the ideas of religious exclusivism and authority, and the resultant foreclosure of free thought and speech in the name of curbing apostasy and heresy.

The European Experience

In the Islamic world, the Shia- Sunni conflicts and the persecution of Sufis, Bahais and Ahmediyas arise from doctrinal exclusivism. The Indic view, by contrast, developed differently. The pluralism of paths and viewpoints is an essential Indic viewpoint, found as far back as the Rig Veda, that states: “Ekam Sat,Vipra Bahuda Vadanti” (Truth is One, the Wise describe it variously)—a principle that was broadly accepted among followers of religions of Indian origin like Hindu, Buddhist, Jains and Sikhs and some others such as the Bahais. This is slowly being understood throughout the world in the Unitarian Church, among some liberal Christians and Muslims, and among humanistic groups such as the United Nations where Kofi Annan used a Rig Veda quote to point to a great and ancient teaching of religious pluralism that can offer succour in the world of religious conflict based on exclusivist doctrines.

A clear exposition of these ideas of pluralism in ancient India is also found in EmperorAshoka’s rock edicts from the third century BC.

‘Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honours both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honours them with gifts and honours of various kinds. But Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, does not value gifts and honours as much as he values this— that there should be growth in the essentials of all religions. Growth in essentials can be done in different ways, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others…

Therefore contact (between religions) is good. One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of the- Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.’[emphasis added] What a wonderful statement of religious pluralism!

 

Respect for Diversity

The idea of mutual respect of panths, or paths, became part of Indian philosophical traditions, encapsulated as “Sarva Dharma Sambhava, Sarva Pantha Samadar.” (Each one’s duty is of equal value, each path worthy of equal respect). This idea did not result in the homogeneity that Mehta dreads. On the contrary, it allowed for tremendous diversity and dialogue, far more than that which existed in Christian Europe or exists in America even today. This diversity confounds us even now when we try a simple exercise like defining what Hinduism is.

This allowance for diversity is what permitted even atheistic schools of philosophy to exist in India without persecution (there are hardly any such examples in Europe in the Christian era, till after the Age of Reason). India also sheltered communities like the Jews, Syrian Christians and Zoroastrians, fleeing from persecution in Christian and Islamic societies, even while they preserved their faiths. This is the same tolerance and quest for Truth that allowed new gurus, teachers and paths to arise in Indian society – such as Buddha, Mahavira and Guru Nanak—without being condemned as heretics and crucified.

Religious Exclusivism

While free enquiry and debate were encouraged, the idea found in the Ashoka rock edict as well as repeatedly in Indian scriptures is that “speech matters” and it is by no means free. To speak sweetly and to encourage mutual respect will foster harmony. By contrast, speech, education and propaganda thatfosters the spread of religious exclusivism will inevitably cause conflict in society – and this is vouchsafed by even a rudimentary study of the history of the world.

The European struggle for freedom of thought and speech was born in an environment of religious control by a centralised authority. Anyone outside church authority who challenged existing doctrines could be guilty of heresy that could cost them their life. In many ways Indian society evolved beyond this to discover that any sincere quest for Truth needs to be respected and at the same time anyone can be challenged to a debate. This can happen because there is a shared goal— to discover what is true. When there is religious exclusivity and belief that there is only One Way and all others are condemned to hell, there can be no debate – the only option is to convert or kill.

Eroding our Social Contract

Contemporary Indian secular thought, in simply regurgitating Voltaire and other European thinkers, forgets the conditions they faced at the time and which they were fighting against. Instead of building on the traditions of Indian pluralism, as well as our own traditions of active debate and discourse between different paths, they instead decry teaching religious pluralism and mutual respect. This in turn directly or indirectly; supports the growth of religious exclusivism and intolerance. At the very least we have to question why we appear, in many ways, nostalgic for religious harmony and why 50 years of secularism appears to have only widened the cleavage between communities—a cleavage which is considered to be ‘spreading’ to rural areas.

This must tell us that there was an existing principle and idea, separate from elitist secularism, that allowed for harmony even in rural communities not exposed to secular doctrines. We see this when we understand that Sarva Pantha Samadar – mutual respect for other ways – is not only a statement but also a civil contract that has deep resonance in our society. It is easier for Pat Robertson to get away with calling Prophet Mohammad a terrorist on prime-time television inAmerica than it would be for Togadia to do so here in India. To break this civil contract is to further polarise the society along religious lines. Thus, every time a madrassa teaches that only Muslims are good people and the rest need to be converted; every time a right-wing Christian evangelist in India proclaims their need to “save” the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Sikhs who are living in darkness; and every time a Hindutva proponent points fingers at an allegedly homogenous Indian Muslim community as a Pakistani Trojan horse, we erode our social contract. Similarly, organisations like Sabrang Communications and SAHMAT, that could play a positive role in teaching pluralism, do very little to produce material that would teach the Salma’s of India about respect for other paths to help build communal harmony. Instead, they follow arrow partisan agendas geared more to serve or oppose particular political interests and groupings rather than building a harmonious society. In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi’s approach was to sing Ishwar, Allah tere naam—an approach that would no doubt be reviled as assimilative by many of the Indian intelligentsia of today.

Assimilation through Violence

Western societies have evolved to a civil understanding of their own kind of secularism, something that was a result of their particular history. In this history, people had become conditioned to accept the ideas of centralised laws (determined by the controlling church) handed down from above. Furthermore, as a result of their Christian histories,Western societies had already been homogenised in beliefs to a far greater extent than India ever was. Their history ofreligious conflict had also brought the idea of tolerating (in the beginning) Christian dissent, and (later) other minorities, as long as doing so did not threaten the foundations of the State. In actual practice, despite the spread of liberal ideas starting from the 18th century, countries in Europe and America underwent a couple of centuries of nationalistic consolidation all the way into the 20th century around the idea of a nation-state – a period in which religious and ethnic minorities were either persecuted or forcefully assimilated till they were no longer perceived as a threat.

Universalism and Pluralism

Ironically, Indian pluralistic and universalistic thought, in the form of translations of the Bhagvad Gita and the Upanishads (first in Persian and then into European languages by the late 18th century), played a positive role in the development of European liberalism. It also influenced a wide range of Western intellectuals in the process of questioning the dominant influence of the religious exclusivism promulgated by organised Christianity. These people ranged from Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche to Tolstoy and Emerson and from Voltaire to T.S. Eliot and Thoreau.

In contrast to European history, India has a much better record ofpluralism. Indian pluralism has involved a civil contract of mutual respect and co-existence between communities, and relied on that principle to build a harmonious and heterogeneous whole. Of course, it had its own problems, such as casteism. However, there is broad intellectual consensus that caste-ism is a problem and there are laws to tackle it. Religious exclusiveism is, however, a different problem that Indian intellectuals have been unwilling to tackle – one that inherently sets communities against other communities based on ideology. Indian pluralism on the other hand worked to harmonise different philosophies at the level of civil society even when intellectual debate continued. By contrast, the secularism proclaimed by many Indian intellectuals, and exemplified by Mehta’s article does nothing to directly and positively create a civil or ideological harmony and a common narrative. Instead, it encourages extreme viewpoints and thus relies on the military apparatus of the State and its monopoly of force (“rule of law”) to keep from violence the proponents of different ideologies that are, a priori, taken to be intellectually irreconcilable.


Immunity to Reason?

The idea that religious exclusivism must not be challenged is often justified by saying that as a “belief” it is immune from rational challenge. However, if liberals throughout history took the same stand on beliefs, then no one would have challenged Southern Baptists and other Christian sects on slavery and racism and there could be no law passed that made prohibitions on Dalit entry into Hindu temples illegal. The fact of the matter is that religious beliefs have always been subject to challenge and have also been subjectto change as part of negotiation in society.

Just as the prohibition on temple entry (or racism) was challenged on the basis of a belief in the equality of people irrespective of caste boundaries, this is taking the same approach of teaching the equality of people across religious boundaries—and it challenges those that teach otherwise. Also, the realisation that religious exclusivism has been a key reason for religious conflict in the world- is borne out by a study of world history. To refuse to stand up for religious pluralism is to refuse to cherish possibly one of the greatest teachings that India could give to the world —a teaching that may be our best hope for religious harmony.

By refusing to challenge religious exclusivism, the current Indian intellectual approach favours ideological extremists. Since civil compromise and conciliation are not favoured in protecting extreme ideological stances, the self-proclaimed leaders that emerge from this approach are those that hold that the interests of their community are different and unique. Thus representing a community’s interests is defined as maintaining separateness and “nonassimilation” into the mainstream and the intellectual opinion provides cover for this. While teaching pluralism still allows considerable leeway in practising one’s own way of relating to the divine, it challenges the religious tenets that teach children that relating to the divine is exclusively available only to the members of one community.

What are Our Choices?

In India we have a choice to base our secularism on the long traditions of Indian pluralism, articulated as far back as thousands of years ago in the Rig Veda and the rock edicts ofAshoka or on the oretical European intellectualism. Secular ideas of tolerance appealed to us and we remained a plural society because of our traditions of pluralism and despite the fact that European intellectual secularism was understood and put in place by only a small English-educated elite inIndia. Other former British colonies, with a similar elite, have not succeeded in remaining secular Nonetheless, we are already seeing the cracks in the elitist secularism as we begin a search for our own expression of a pluralistic system. In doing so we have the choice to look at our own deep traditions of Indian pluralism or continue to apply theoretical eighteenth century European ideas, generally out of context. In the first case, we would actively teach pluralism andIndia. Other former British colonies, with a similar elite, have not succeeded in remaining secular. Nonetheless, we are already seeing the cracks in the elitist secularism as we begin a search for our own expression of a pluralistic system. In doing so we have the choice to look at our own deep traditions of Indian pluralism or continue to apply theoretical eighteenth century European ideas, generally out of context. In the first case, we would actively teach pluralism and mutual respect (the roots of which still exist deeply in us) to all our children and intellectually challenge the ideologies of doctrinal exclusivism that have brought so much grief and conflict to the world. In the latter case, we would continue to insist that the State protect religious exclusivism and we shall provide intellectual cover for it. We will in fact proclaim, as Mehta does, that teaching pluralism is, instead, what is dangerous.

The former approach, where we teach pluralism and challenge exclusivism, has ample room for heterogeneous viewpoints while moving our society towards harmonious co-existence. The latter approach, which aims to protect exclusivism, and denounce mutual respect for religions as insufficiently secular, will naturally and inevitably lead to greater religious exclusivism and polarisation in society. Our only hope will then be to, at some point in the future, develop a military state apparatus strong enough to keep the fighting dogs at bay, or replicate the cycle of European history. In Europe, one or the other creed of religious exclusivism triumphed. We should, if we tread that route, be prepared for the centuries of religious and sectarian warfare that followed it, untill a new model for maintaining harmony in a plural society becomes internalised by the people at large.

Copyright (c) 2002-2010. Sankrant Sanu. All rights reserved.

Are Indians Corrupt?

In his recent Republic Day address, Indian president Abdul Kalam spoke about what has become a hot topic in India today. He said:

“…There are only three members of the society who can remove corruption… They are father, mother and elementary school teacher.”

The implication of his remarks is that widespread problem of corruption in India is ultimately a problem of moral character. President Kalam is not alone in these views in India: in fact, it is a common assumption.

It cannot be denied that the average citizen encounters more petty corruption in India than in the United States. If this corruption is a factor of relative moral character, then this must imply that Americans possess a higher moral character than Indians, which results in the United States having a lower degree of corruption than India. Examining data like the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International[1], we find that a number of countries ravaged by European colonization show up as some of the most corrupt. It must then be concluded that the people in all these countries are moral imbeciles, who can’t distinguish right from wrong and haven’t been taught so by their parents and teachers.

While President Kalam is right that parents and teachers play a key role in building the values of a child, we argue here that widespread corruption in society is not simply a function of morality. The phenomena of what is seen as widespread corruption is a failure of the systemrather than simply of individuals, and it is in the transformation of the system that we must seek primary remedies.

Are Indians Immoral Or Is It The System?

Firstly, let us examine the question of morality. If it is indeed the case that corruption is a result of character flaws of Indians rather than problems with the system, then this character flaw must be widely seen even when Indians are removed from the Indian system. However, we don’t find that Indians in America, for instance, are perceived to be especially corrupt. They are generally regarded as honest, hard-working entrepreneurs, employees and citizens. How is it that the same mothers, fathers and teachers, who have presumably failed in India, appear to have not done a terribly bad job when their children land in the US? Are our friends and neighbors in India really so much less moral than the people we meet in the US? Is high morality the prerogative of a particular race or religion?

That is, if individuals with similar backgrounds appear to act differently within two different systems, understanding the difference in the two systems is likely to provide clues to understanding the difference in perceived corruption in India and the United States.

A Moral Issue Or A Legal Issue?

Let us take a classic example in India of petty corruption. I have applied for a phone but the telephone linesman is demanding a payment to install it. (Recent changes have made this example somewhat dated, but that will allow useful insight.) This bribe demanded by the linesman appears to be a clear instance of corruption. Yet, one may argue – isn’t this a straightforward business transaction? [6]I’m paying for a service to the lineman and he is installing the phone. On giving the payment, I am certain that the line will be installed, it would be very unusual for the fellow to run away with my money. So, on one level, this business transaction has a high level of integrity – and in that sense, the linesman doesn’t appear to be fundamentally dishonest. On the other hand, one can argue that this is clearly corruption because he is already getting paid by the government to perform this service and he is not doing his job.

But, what if we legalized that? What if the government made a regulation that the linesman could collect a fee of five hundred rupees per line that he installs? The same transaction is taking place but we have now privatized it and we would no longer call it corruption. Has the integrity of the person changed or have we merely changed the rules? Are we defining corruption simply within the bounds of legality or can we determine right and wrong beyond those bounds?

Let us take another example. Top public accounting firms in America have come under a cloud for taking consulting assignments from the companies that they were auditing. There was no law to prevent this, but after Enron broke out, this became a major scandal. It was clear that the paid consulting assignments to the auditor were a legal tactic to “grease the wheels” of the audit and this was a practice that was widely being done in corporate America. Even though this was legal, can we deny that this is a form of corruption? If we examine the moral basis, public auditors were obligated to report on corporate accounts to the shareholders and the public. Accepting paid consulting assignments from the companies one is supposed to monitor to possibly give a more favorable picture of the accounts can only be seen as a clear instance of high-level bribery.

Similarly, many of the major financial services firms in the US are being accused of inflating the stock ratings of companies that they were doing business with to the detriment of their retail clients. Internal communications in the brokerage firms showed that analysts put out buy recommendations on stocks that they did not think would perform well, simply because those companies were giving them investment banking business[2]. Aren’t the payments that the corporate clients make to the analyst firms a form of bribery for illegitimate ratings? If we were considering the moral rather than simply the legal implications of the fact that this was done by nearly all the top financial services firms, would we then be forced to admit that there is widespread corruption in corporate America?

Certainly, this becomes even more apparent in the political space. Cronyism and handing out large defense contracts to companies that have been campaign contributors has been part of the course in Washington. Money readily changes hands in Washington at the instance of special interest groups and multi-million dollar lobbying firms to buy influence. Legislative outcomes cater to the influence of big money. While this might not have the on-camera impact of a Bangaru Laxman accepting money for “the party” from the fictitious defense firm in the Tehelka setup; yet the difference might well be attributed to a lack of sophistication in comparison to the Washington counterparts rather than to any fundamental difference in morality.

Yet, even if we accept that the perceived difference in corruption between India and the US is not a question of relative morality, it is an undeniable fact that petty corruption does exist at a much higher level for the common citizen in India than in the US. If Indians are fundamentally no more “corrupt”, as a character flaw, than the people in America, why is the actual experience of the common man in India in getting basic government services like obtaining a telephone line or getting a police report filed so significantly different than the experience in America? Understanding this is a key to solving the problem of corruption that engages so many commentators in India.

Examining the System

The first major difference between the US and India is in the systems of governance. Traveling extensively in rural India, I find that the relationship and attitude of the people to the government is still that of a colonizing power, not something that either belongs to them or is in touch with their aspirations. After living in the US for many years, it is clear that there is a far higher degree of ownership and accountability of the local government to the local communities. Furthermore, the common citizen, for most of his or her needs, interfaces with the government in the local city or township rather than at the state or the national level. Power and accountability are devolved to a much greater level to the local administration. Also, American enterprise is far more privatized than is the case with India and there is less involvement of the government in daily life.

By contrast, in the Indian system, power is centralized to a much greater degree at the level of the national and state governments. Further, the centralized colonial state apparatus, right from its inception, was never designed to serve the people. As an example, the government official at the district level was called a collector, his primary role in the system was extortion, not service. Similarly, the power of the police apparatus devolved downwards as a means of control of the local population for the benefit of the rulers, not as an arm of the community for its own protection and service. The laws themselves were created and imposed in a top-down manner – and these laws were both alien to the people (the Indian penal code today is still based on the penal code created by the British in 1860, with a basis in the British system) and were created and directed for the benefit of the ruler, not the ruled. This included laws that outlawed many of the traditional sources of livelihood of the people, including textile manufacturing and metallurgy, as well as forms of traditional medicine to further the economic interests of the British.

Furthermore, even in the administrative structure, there was a clear class system. To implement the system on behalf of the rulers was the Indian Civil Service (later the Indian Administrative Service) that was originally only open to whites. Later on, the ICS also included an elite section of Indians who had been “made white” – i.e., who had gone through the colonial system of education and been indoctrinated to identify themselves with the rulers rather than the ruled. The layer of native Indian clerks and “sepoys” at the bottom were often enforcing rules and laws that they did not believe in on people who did not understand them. These natives could, of course, never rise up to the ranks of the officers or aspire to join their class.

At the top of this system was the Viceroy, drawing his authority from the Queen of England. It was a centralized and alien power structure, sprawling like a gigantic bear on the aspirations of the people. An understanding of this system and its origins is very relevant to understanding India today. This is because, despite independence and democracy, the administrative system of India remains completely continuous with colonial India (and completely discontinuous with pre-colonial India). While at the top layer the authority of the Viceroy was replaced by the authority of the elected cabinet and the Parliament, the entire structure of the government administration essentially remains colonial in its origin and attitudes.

The system in America was, ironically, also started by people who were originally English. The dramatic difference comes from the fact that America was a colony of settlement, while India was a colony of exploitation. In America, the natives were largely exterminated since the wealth of the land lay mainly in its natural resources and not in the produce of the natives and the systems of governance that evolved were what the settlers chose for themselves. In India, the wealth lay mainly in the output of the locals. The system was designed not for the settlement of the English, but for the most efficient exploitation and control of the Indians for obtaining the local produce via extortive taxation to be carted away to England

Thus, in America, the police force, for instance, evolved from the need of local communities forself-policing. Thus, as in the settlement of the West, a sheriff would be appointed by the community from within the local populace to maintain order. Thus the sheriff was a member of the community, not an imposed elite, enforcing the laws of the central rulers. In some ways, the American experience allowed for an even greater community involvement and accountability than England since it was difficult to have centralized authoritarian control in a far-flung land with different groups of settlers, even though the overall Anglican system rested on a strong belief in a centralized “rule of law” enforced and created by the authority of the Church and the Sovereign Ruler.

While coming back to the problems in the contemporary Indian system, it is worth examining briefly the system that existed in pre-colonial India. It appears that this system was far more community-based in terms of village and jati laws than the colonial system. Even during the Mughal rule, though there were some centralized laws, the law-making and enforcement authority of the local communities were largely left undisturbed. Further, a large percentage of the local revenue remained with the local community by which local civil services – such as water resource management, education and order — could be maintained. The local community, in many respects, devolved power upwards, to greater aggregates, rather than having a centralized power structure devolve power downwards[3]. In colonial times, this equation was reversed with much of the local produce being taken away by extortive British taxation, causing local institutions to decay. Furthermore, a centralized system was steadily imposed that took away the power from local communities and concentrated it into the hands of government officials.

As we mention below, this system remained largely unchanged post independence, though people like Mahatma Gandhi realized the harm that the destruction of the local community had caused. While there have been some reforms in the system, in the form of the Panchayati Rajact, yet more progress remains stymied by the fact that the panchayats have very little relative authority and control over the sources of revenue, which remain in the hands of bureaucrats.

From Colonization to Socialism

The post-independence socialist system further strengthened the approach of an essential patriarchic system – where the state knew best and private enterprise was something to be controlled by spools and spools of red tape.

Along with the politicians, the popular media projected the image of the corrupt, greedy, rapacious businessman, colluding with the corrupt politician and cruelly suppressing the people. The difficulties faced by an honest businessman in the legitimate and necessary enterprise of creating wealth for himself and for the nation were rarely appreciated. In the book, `India Unbounded’, Gurcharan Das, former CEO of Proctor and Gamble India, documents the insanity of the license raj that sought to reduce business to the same level of low-performance as the government. You could actually be penalized for producing efficiently or more than the allotted quota.

Even now, despite some liberalization with respect to business, there is a dramatic contrast between the ease by which one can set up a new business in the United States as compared to India. In the former case, the state is geared to assist you. In the latter case, it is often standing in the way.

Finally, both the colonial period with its widespread poverty and the breakdown of job security in traditional occupations, as well as the controlled economy of the socialist period led to the creation of a culture of scarcity. This culture of scarcity itself led to a desperation, an attitude of every man for himself, a need to break the symbolic and literal queue and get in front, since it was doubtful whether staying in the queue would get one served at all.

Thus, to the inherited colonial system was added the license raj with its opposition to private enterprise, where the rules were not designed to serve the people and encouraged a culture of scarcity where one had to circumvent the rules to succeed – and we were headed into the inevitability of what we call corruption.

The Creation Of A Parallel System

So, what does all this tell us about corruption? The first and foremost idea we must realize is that the people and the state, for well over a century, have been antagonistic to each other. The colonial government apparatus has been designed to control the people, not to support them. For the common people, the business community and even the lower-level government functionaries, the system has been both incomprehensible as well as an obstacle to their needs and desires. In this situation, the system is something that needs to be overcome and avoided rather than something to be abided by. A huge amount of creativity and energy of the people is thus expended in finding ways to circumvent the system rather than support it.

Furthermore, there is little or no performance accountability within the administrative system. It is very difficult to fire corrupt or non-performing employees, and very few rewards for honest and conscientious employees within the system. As a result, corruption is a form of subverting the system, both by the employees as well as by their customers, the general public – by creating an unofficial, but functioning system of private transactions in lieu of the dysfunctional and often antagonistic official one from the perspective of the people. This is one aspect of understanding why a large number of countries that show up at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index are former colonies.

Why is the unofficial system functioning? Going back to the telephone example, making a payment to the linesman will ensure that the work is done. The linesman will probably himself have a system of “revenue-sharing” with other officials and employees, as a result of which a parallel system and economy is created. What are the characteristics of this economy? That one’s job will get done relatively efficiently, that the bribe-receiver will be accountable to the bribe-giver, and the people who are more productive in this system will make more money than the people who are less productive. In other words, this system partly restores the very characteristics of accountability, efficiency and recognition of performance that should be part of any well-functioning system and which is largely missing in the official system.

This does not imply that all is well. There are plenty of problems with the parallel system, including the fact that there is a high degree of overall inefficiency in having two systems — and this ultimately is debilitating and costly for the nation. Over times, it erodes the very foundations on which the institutions of the state rest. But before we can talk of eliminating or minimizing this parallel system of bribe taking and giving, it is critical to understand the real problems with it.

One of the biggest problems with the colonial apparatus of government is that it is a corruptingsystem. That is, it is a system that is more challenging for an honest individual than for a dishonest one. How is that?

Let us take the example of an honest telephone linesman. He goes about his job installing a telephone line without demanding a bribe. The problem is that he now becomes a threat to the revenue of the unofficial system. This means that he will be targeted by his peers who are operating within the unofficial system and in the likely case of his boss being part of the “cut”, he will get transferred to some other, less privileged location, so that the unofficial system can continue unhindered. Obviously, he will also be making less money than his peers. All in all, the system will make it both harder and much less attractive for him to remain honest – that he does so will be as a result of the sheer force of his will.

Similarly, for the ambitious businessman interested in growing (and thus creating jobs), the system has stood as an obstacle. He had to succeed despite the system, not because of it. Are Indian business people fundamentally dishonest? I would say not. In fact, business in India has traditionally relied on a very high degree of trust – with word of mouth agreements often standing in lieu of signed contracts. It is this high degree of mutual integrity that has enabled Indian traders to control a majority of the world diamond trade today, for instance. Yet, like the government employee, the successful businessman has been penalized by the system, making him complicit in its corruption.

Thus, rather than fundamentally corrupt individuals, we have a corrupting system – a system in which it is more difficult and less rewarding for someone to be honest than to be corrupt. A well-functioning system is one in which exactly the opposite is true – the cost of being dishonest is far greater than the rewards of being honest. A corrupting system is corrosive to all that encounter it – it literally breeds corruption and transforms honest people into corrupt people over time. Ultimately, this corrosive system completely dissolves the integrity of the official system – to survive at all, one needs to start playing by the unofficial rules. Of course, the unofficial rules soon need their own enforcement mechanisms and the money power starts combining with muscle power. This raises the importance of non-state enforcers and the spiral into criminality begins. One can see a higher degree of such breakdown in places such as Bihar, for instance, where parallel “senas” and private justice have replaced even these non-functional state institutions.

Why then have we tended to study corruption largely as a symptom of social morality and culture? We need to remember that the larger system also consists of the institutions of education and media, all of which relate very differently to the people in the Indian context than in the United States. There is a noticeable difference between social science programs in India and the United States in how they study their own societies. The Indian elite intelligentsia tends to study their own society largely through colonially inspired categories and lenses. As such, it is programmed to construct cultural blame for criminal acts in a way that academics in the United States are not[4]. This creation of culture blame (and culture shame) is a phenomenon found in most colonial societies. It was an original construction of the colonizing powers that set up and controlled the institutions to make the natives easier to rule by having them accept the cultural superiority of their masters (and the relative inferiority of their own). Social science studies in India thus show continuity from colonial times and institutions and a disjunction from the people at large.

A Culture Of Entrepreneurship?

If there were a cultural generalization that can be drawn about the Indian response to a non-functioning and antagonistic system, one would hazard the generalization of Indian entrepreneurship.

Even in a repressive state-controlled economy, entrepreneurs like Dhirubhai Ambani managed to circumvent the system and succeed. People such as JRD Tata, stymied by government control at home, established industrial enterprises throughout South-East Asia. Indians that migrated throughout the world demonstrated a talent for entrepreneurship – from low-tech hotels and restaurants to the high-tech software revolution.

We needn’t look only at large entrepreneurs, but at small ones as well. The unorganized sector – small businessman, traders and others — remains a very large part of the Indian economy and employment base. From the vendors boarding buses at strategic stops selling knick-knacks to the mushrooming STD operators, people found creative ways to innovate.

In fact, large hierarchical institutions have rarely been part of the Indian ethos, whether in religion, government, or even private enterprise. Our religious ideas themselves were entrepreneurial and not controlled by large centralized hierarchical institutions, unlike Western Christianity. Our pre-colonial laws themselves were highly diverse, localized and community-based rather than all of them being handed down and enforced by a single central authority. Even functions such as the maintenance of land-records were not state-run, but managed by private individuals – the dependence of their livelihood on their reputation for honesty assured the integrity of the system. A network of specialist contractors rather than monolithic institutions managed even large projects, such as the construction of fabulous buildings or the manufacture of ships. In contemporary times, the now famous Mumbai tiffinwalas, profiled in Forbes, distribute 175,000 tiffins a day exceeding Six Sigma quality of delivery, based solely on a network of private operators[5].

So, we are no strangers to either free enterprise or small government. Corruption can then be regarded as forced, perverse manifestation of this spirit or even a form of dissent in the context of an alien and antagonistic system. If the system were changed to support and harness this entrepreneurial spirit rather than stymie it, the sky is the limit to what we can achieve.

Towards Change

How then do we create change in the system so that it is more responsive to the people, more fulfilling to the employees and more effective for the nation? The following steps should be considered, in order of importance:

    • 1. Reducing the size of the government and privatizing non-essential functions.
    • 2. De-centralizing government functions away from large hierarchical bureaucracies and creating greater local accountability.
    • 3. Simplifying laws, rules and procedures, taking into account the actual needs and practices of the people and creating a greater focus on customer service in public institutions
    • 4. Simplifying taxation, reducing duties on property taxes and property transfers and creating greater transparency and “buy-in” for the use of tax-proceeds by devolving more taxation and spending to local administration from the center and states
    • 5. Tackling campaign finance reform – realizing that elections today involve large expenditures and creating rules for legal campaign contributions that take this into account while reducing the influence of criminal/black money
    • 6. Creating a clear performance-based reward system within the government to create greater incentive for honesty and performance
    • 7. More effective enforcement and prosecution of the remaining corrupt personnel to increase the cost for the corrupt

The first fact to realize is that the answer is not more rules and larger bureaucracies, but a more transparent, accountable and responsive system. One option there is simply greater privatization where market demand and competition will drive accountability. The telephone example is again a good one. If we are fundamentally corrupt, why is it that we do not have to pay a bribe in India to get a mobile phone? How would the situation have been different if mobile phones were to be a government monopoly instead? The answer is simple – in the case of competitive private enterprise, it is in the interests of the private operator to provide greater customer service – it is only in a monopoly where these interests are divergent. Some of these aligning of interests can also happen in semi-private models. In a recent journey on a local bus in Delhi, I was pleased to find courteous service and the conductor making sure that I got a ticket. Later I was told that the driver and conductor now get a percentage of the proceeds and both the quality of service and the revenue that is collected by the government has gone up as a result.

Secondly, a restructuring of government function needs to happen so that there is far greater local accountability. Let us take the example of education. Currently, appointments and administration of teachers for schools are centralized at the level of the entire state. This means that accountability flows into the state level bureaucracy that is itself only accountable to the ministers. Since the ministers are elected, it turns out that the loop of accountability to the consumers is closed only at the highest level. This is inefficient and frustrating at all levels. The teachers find that they are subject to arbitrary transfers by bureaucrats, the end consumers are not in the loop at all of teacher accountability or performance, the ministers find themselves deluged with personal requests for low-level appointments and the bureaucrats find themselves at the mercy of politicians. I recently met one of the senior-most bureaucrats in the state of Rajasthan with a reputation for honesty. A visit to his house showed that he had a very simple lifestyle. However, he was despondent about his lack of ability to make change. “Everything in this system is delegated upwards,” he said. “Even the transfer of a chapprassiwill come as an order from the minister.” Clearly, the system serves no one well.

In contrast, the accountability in the US in areas of day-to-day contact of citizens, such as education or the police force, is usually far more local. School boards operate at a city or school district level. The boards are elected and accountable to the parents. Similarly, the mayor of the city and the local police chief are the highest level of authority that concern the citizens in most local matters – not state level police chiefs, secretaries or governors.

The importance of having a more performance oriented government system can also not be over-emphasized. A job that is satisfying and rewarding is itself an incentive not to look for other avenues of gratification. I was recently talking with a government executive engineer who had been posted at the Bhakra-Nangal Dam for many years. I was surprised to learn that he was a civil engineer. When I asked what work was there for a civil engineer on a dam that was constructed several decades ago, he replied laconically, “There is no work.” This is a sad commentary on the affairs of the government – what kind of performance will such a system monitor?

Taxation is another area of reform. Land and property transactions as well as local retail sales remain areas of high black money generation. There was a time when capital gains on sales of property were as high as 66%. No one in their right mind, after holding property for twenty years, would pay 66% of it in tax to the government – especially when the government appeared as a black hole of antagonistic incompetence, serving very little useful purpose. While this has been reduced, property transfers still remain expensive transaction with high stamp duties. Devolving more taxes down to the local community level, where the benefits of the government expenditures are both more visible and more accountable, will also help in this regard.

It is also worth noting that greater prosecution of corrupt officials has been placed last in this list even though it often receives the greatest emphasis from anti-corruption crusaders. This is because enforcement, while necessary, will remain ineffective in tackling the magnitude of the problem in the absence of systematic reform. At the present time, community activism can yield better long-term results when directed towards crafting a more responsive system than simply pursuing a few high-profile enforcement cases.

Similarly, continuing to harp on corruption as simply a moral problem without addressing first the issues of systemic reform exacerbates the problem of corruption rather than helping it. This is because if the problem is that we are corrupt, it becomes very difficult to change anything, since it is obviously very difficult to change who we are as people. It is no surprise that in the light of this belief, very few people in India believe that we can fix the problem of corruption. Realizing that much of it is a problem of the system can be an empowering and actionable idea, even while the road may be long.

It is worth remembering that, even with all the problems in the Indian system, it still survives and functions because there remain a remarkable number of honest people trying to do their jobs, despite all the difficulties and disincentives. It is this honesty that we must build on and nourish as we create a blueprint for deep, systematic changes.

Beyond Systematic Corruption: Re-Examining Individual Morality

While in this article we have discussed the systematic origins of petty corruption, this is not meant to imply that values are not important. It also does not imply that fixing the system will create some kind of utopia, where no corruption or criminality will occur. However well functioning the system, there will always remain criminals and outliers – no society is free from that. A dysfunctional system, however, makes it easier for criminal tendencies to come to the fore. Also, the survival of the parallel system, profitable to vested interests, is always in conflict with those that seek to uphold the primary system and not play by the rules of the secondary one. Thus the parallel system creates its own forms of extra-legal enforcement, where criminal elements readily find room, to ensure its survival.

Reforming the system can go a long way towards a different relationship between the people and the state, where it makes sense for most people to play by the rules. However, as we mentioned earlier, even societies like the US where rules are generally not set up in opposition to the people, the problem of corruption remains. Also, in any situation, there are always criminal elements that will tend towards making the quick buck irrespective of the system. Reform of the system is unlikely to change these people, but it changes the tolerance of the system towards these elements.

To tackle these kinds of corruption, which goes beyond systematic reform, we would need to return to the question of values that president Kalam spoke about, literally what a society learns to value. If excessive, unbalanced materialism becomes the over-arching value, with all means considered legitimate to get it and no training in self-control, then it is inevitable that there will be corruption in society. But tackling this is a question of inner transformation, where it is recognized that the legitimate human strivings for artha and kama need to be guided bydharma.

Certainly in the traditional Indian context, the teachers and the parents transmitted values. The teacher was interestingly called acharya, a word that is based on the root achar, or conduct. Thus the transmission of values was by personal example and conduct of the teacher, not by “moral science” lessons. Values were embedded in the role models of daily life.

The other form of transmittal of values is via stories and exemplars. Stories that were told by grandparents and parents during childhood also have a positive role in the creation of values. Finally, the example set by parents as well as those portrayed as “successful” role models to emulate is certainly also important. In the contemporary world, mass media is a very powerful force in the creation of samskara. In a responsible society, mass media would recognize this role rather than view its role solely as “anything goes” entertainment, blindly aping western mores or measuring its success in purely materialistic terms. But this is ultimately a matter of awakening to responsibility, not ham-handed government censorship.

So, once the systematic problems are tackled, we will be at the level of the “developed” world in terms of corruption. As we mentioned earlier, the developed world is certainly no exemplar as far as morality goes. To go beyond this, one comes back to the messages of the rishis on inner transformation. This inner transformation is ultimately what can enable us to go beyond greed, avarice and a consumerism that obsessively seeks satisfaction outside oneself to move towards “santosh”, a santosh that is ultimately the basis for the elimination of all corruption.

Notes:

[1]www.transparency.org

[2]Wall Street faces prospect of criminal charges, http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,3604,689537,00.html

[3]For a picture of Indian society in pre-colonial and early British times, the mult-volume Collected Works of Shri Dharampal are highly recommended.

[4]An interesting example is the fact that prevalent spousal killing for insurance money in the United States is not dissimilar with spousal killing for “dowry” in India. The former is not tracked or studied as a crime attributed to “culture” in the US while the latter is studied solely in that category in India. Similarly, “abortion” is treated in liberal discourse in the US as a matter of “a woman’s right to choose”, while in Indian liberal discourse it is labeled as “foeticide”, to emphasize its relation to murder, and studied as a culture-attributed crime. Similarly, marriages under 18 are studied as the phenomenon of “child marriage” in India and labeled as “evil” in scholarly writing. A similar phenomenon is studied as “teenage marriage” in the US. Interestingly, even in the case of “child marriage” in India, the consummation of the marriage almost invariably happens post-puberty in India so the phenomena are not dissimilar. Interestingly, states such as Massachusetts have a legal age of marriage as low as 12, and nearly 15% of marriages in the US took place in the 15-17 age group (1970 figures).

[5]http://www.forbes.com/global/1998/0810/0109078a.html

[6]This example was first given to me by Prof. S. N. Balagangadhara in a discussion. His inspirational insight into this topic is gratefully acknowledged.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Should education be compulsory?

The proposed Education Bill 2003, up for debate in parliament, seeks to make primary education “free and compulsory.” This enabling legislation, which will give effect to last year’s decision to make education a fundamental right, is a noble goal, but its implications for contemporary Indian conditions must be understood alongside this intention.

The first question is “Who are we compelling”? The law is aimed both at state authorities to provide universal education, and also at parents and guardians to “cause the child to attend an approved school.”

But what kind of parent withholds his or her child from school, and why? These parents are unlikely to be those that have written this bill or are reading this article. More likely such a parent will belong to the rural or urban poor. Why do some of these parents not send their child to school? According to the Public Report on Basic Education in India (PROBE) survey (Oxford University Press, 1999) parents in even the most backward states want their children to be educated. In rural Uttar Pradesh 92% of the parents considered it important for their girl children to be educated, the ratio rising to 100% when asked about boys. In Bihar, the figures were 88 and 99% for girls and boys respectively.

If that’s the case, what prevents parents from sending their children to school and achieving nearly universal education today? As PROBE states, “for one thing, motivation for education need not be the same as motivation for schooling: parents may be convinced of the value of education, and yet feel that the schooling system fails to provide much education”. Further, the report notes that “even if parents are keen to send their children to school, they may be unable to do so for various reasons: lack of facilities, high costs of schooling, need for the child at home, and so on.”

The report provides the example of students in rural Madhya Pradesh: Nandu is 10, and has been to school for four years. He can make out individual letters but cannot pronounce a single word. His elder sister, who dropped out after class 3, cannot read either. Nor can his friend Chena Lal who is in class 5. Chena Lal has confirmed what Nandu’s uncle knew already: sending Nandu to school has been a waste of precious time and money. The Education Bill recognizes some of these problems, but its goal remains compulsory school attendance, rather than any measure of expected learning.

Parents face other constraints to sending their children to school too. Despite schooling being “free” parents incur additional costs, such as for textbooks, clothes or travel. Often, they may need older children for domestic chores such as looking after younger siblings while they are themselves at work, or for helping in farm work. In our large population, even a small percentage of such parents could number in the millions.

Creating a compulsory system, without addressing primary factors such as teaching standards and parental constraints will create another law that is directed at the people rather than for them. This could in turn lead to harassment from authorities, with the under-privileged sections bearing the maximum brunt. It would create further scenarios for corruption and extortion such as for falsifying school attendance records.

A further question relates to apprenticeships, where some children might learn a traditional family occupation as the source of their future livelihood, rather than attend a non-functioning school. Should the state force a child to attend a formal school, when s/he may instead be obtaining skills for gainful employment in a different way? This question is especially vital to rural students, who even after schooling often encounter a debilitating language shift for higher education and often find the urban employment system relegating them to chaprasi-hood in the organized sector. Again, the central question is: who should decide – the parents and children, or the State?

Alternative schooling is also applicable to some parents and children who are not poor. Even in affluent countries, some parents prefer not to send their children to regular schools for a variety of reasons – religious, social or family related – and prefer instead to “home-school” them. Later these students may be qualified to enter the mainstream education system by taking some standardized proficiency tests. Compulsory schooling may thus become an infringement on civil liberties, restricting parental choice over their child’s upbringing and education and replacing it by the edict of a State dictating education through its system of recognized schools.

These factors must be considered before a proposal for compulsory schooling is passed into law. It may be better instead to put into place a system that creates universal opportunity rather than universal coercion. This includes raising the quality of state-run schools, working flexibly with parental constraints, including long-range career planning for joining the workforce and having clear metrics and accountability for learning, rather than simply school attendance.

© Sankrant Sanu., all rights reserved.

Why India Is A Nation

Introduction

One of the oft-repeated urban myths that sometimes pops-up in conversation even among many educated, well meaning Indians is that India as a nation is a British creation. The argument goes roughly as follows – India is an artificial entity. There are only a few periods in history when it was unified under the same political entity. It was only the British that created the idea of India as a single nation and unified it into a political state. A related assumption, in our minds, is that the developed Western countries have a comparatively far greater continuity of nationhood, and legitimacy as states, than India.

This urban myth is not accidental. It was deliberately taught in the British established system of education. John Strachey, writing in `India: Its Administration and Progress’ in 1888, said “This is the first and most essential thing to remember about India – that there is not and never was an India, possessing … any sort of unity, physical, political, social or religious; no Indian nation.

To teach this self-serving colonial narrative obviously suited the British policy of divide and rule. That it still inanely survives means that it is worth setting to rest.

Title

In this essay, we establish that Strachey’s colonial narrative is demonstrably false. Not only is India a coherent nation but, in fact, there are few countries on the planet that are more legitimate nation-states than India. That some of us don’t see this clearly only reflects how we have accepted the colonial myths as well as failed to study the history of the rest of the world.

The Modern States and Their Origins

The concept of nation-states, i.e. that the aspirations of the people that constitute a nation are best served by a common political entity is considered a relatively recent idea in Europe from the 18th century. Nationalism led to the formation of nation-states and modern countries. This development was followed up with a gradual hardening of state boundaries with the passport and visa regime that followed it.

Note that the concept of nationhood is based on the idea shared by a set of people that they constitute a nation. This idea or feeling may be based on common ties of a people based on their culture, common descent, language, religion or other such attributes. The state constitutes a group of people inhabiting a specific territory and living according to a common legal and political authority.

The modern nation-state, as it exists today, is a new development for the entire world, and not just for India. Mediaeval Europe, for instance, was divided politically into many small principalities, the boundaries and sovereignties of which changed frequently[2]. Many of the countries as we know them today got established in the 19th and 20th century, and the boundaries of these changed throughout the 20th century – in the two World Wars, border disputes and the turmoil in Eastern Europe.

The United Kingdom was not really united till the act of Union in 1702 when England (including Wales) and Scotland came together. Even then they retained different laws and (even more crucially in European nationhood) retained separate national Churches. In 1801, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed. In 1922, Ireland broke off as an independent country resulting in the present political formation – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Thus the UK in its present political state, if that is the criteria to be used, is not even a hundred years old.

Across the Atlantic, the picture is even more stark. In 1700, the British colonies were spread barely over the area that comprises the few North Eastern States, less than 10% of the current geographical areas. The diverse Native American tribes that inhabited the area of the present day United States could not be said to have comprised a nation, and even if they did, the current United States neither considers itself as a continuity of the native culture, nor are its people primarily descendents of the natives. Even in 1776, when America declared itself a separate state from the British, its area was a small fraction of the area it has today, mainly constituting the states on the East Coast. Only in 1845 did Texas and California, among its largest states, become part of it as a result of a war with Mexico. Washington State gained statehood in 1889, Hawaii in 1900. Thus the United States in its present political and geographic conception is barely 100 years old as a state and, at the maximum limit, as a political entity is about 250 years, with many annexations and a civil war in between. No state or kingdom existed on its boundaries before that in history.

If you take Mexico, the story is better, but not much. While it has greater continuity from pre-colonial times than the United States because of the Aztec Empire that existed for about a hundred years before the Spanish Conquest, the Aztec never controlled all of present day Mexico. No other conception of nation-hood, such as shared religious beliefs, united the other areas of Mexico with the Aztec ones. Furthermore, while present day Mexicans take pride in their Aztec heritage and use symbols from the Aztec nation on their flag, they have largely lost any direct cultural continuity of either language or religious beliefs from pre-colonial times. Spanish has very nearly wiped out the native languages and 95% of Mexicans are now Christians and described as `Hispanic’. i.e. of the Spanish culture.

Similarly, Africa and South America mostly constitute of state boundaries carved up by colonial rule. The present boundaries of the African states were largely carved out by treaties among the European nations between 1884 and 1899 in meetings held in Europe with no African representation into the process! While there had been some kingdoms like Ghana and Mali in earlier times that were politically united, the boundaries of current African countries rarely map to the territories of historical kingdoms.

In short, if we take the legitimacy of current nation-states on the basis of centuries of common continuous political rule over the same geographical boundary and inhabited by the same people, then practically no country on the planet meets this criteria. Simply put, shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries legitimize virtually no country in its present form.

To understand nationhood then as it is supports the modern nation-state, we thus must search the roots of nationhood first and foremost in the conception of nationhood, i.e. did a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation?

Understanding Indian Nationhood
Geography

The first element of Indian nationhood draws from its unique geography. India is one of the few countries that can be located on a physical map of the world, even when no political boundaries are drawn. It is worth taking a deep breath and looking at the map below, reflecting on the significance of this geography before we go further.

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Fig 1: India’s geographical unity

The Indian peninsula and vast plains are bounded by the ocean on three sides and the land stretches to the highest peaks of the Himalayas in the north. The vast sweep of the land ends in the East with the mountainous border with Burma. In the West, just past the Indus, the mountains come downwards towards the ocean again forming a natural boundary.

Early civilizations all developed on the banks of great river systems – Egypt on the Nile, Mesopotamia on the Tigris and Euphrates, the Chinese on the Yangste Kiang. Thus civilization developed on the great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain – one of the richest river-soil-climate systems in the world; and on the Narmada and Cauvery. And because of the ease of access in this land throughout the ages, there was an enormous interchange of thought and ideas, people and customs, and there developed a culture that is distinctly Indian, and at the same time incredibly diverse.

The culture’s distinctive nature evolved precisely because the unique geography facilitated it. The large mountains and bodies of water separated it from surrounding cultures to give it its distinctiveness. The low barriers to movement within this land mass ensured an ease of access to build a coherent whole. This ensured that the exchanges that took place within this large separated petri dish were much deeper and longer lasting than those that took place with those from without. Hence was created a unique and diverse civilization.

Political Unity

Among the earliest political consolidations, even by the dates of present colonial scholarship, was under the Mauryas from the 6th century BC to the 3rd century BC, when most of India was under their rule.

After the Mauryas, there was repeated political consolidation of large parts of India, even when all of it was not under a single rule. The Kanishkas consolidated the north from the Hindu Kush Mountains to Bihar and south to Gujarat and Central India. The Satavahana Empire, considered to be founded by high officials of the Mauryas, consolidated the south and central parts.

The Gupta Empire again politically consolidated the area from Afghanistan to Assam and south to the Narmada, possibly exerting political control even further down south. Samudragupta led an expedition all the way down to Kanchipuram in present Tamil Nadu. While the southern areas were not formally part of the Empire, they were quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tribute to the Emperor. The only other major comparable empires in the world of this size at the time were the Chinese and the Roman.

Note that it would be a thousand years after the Mauryan Empire was established and even much after the Gupta Empire that the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century AD would first move into the region that would later be called England. It would be nearly five hundred more years before the territory of England would be consolidated as an independent political entity. Only much later would there be attempts at unity of `Great Britain’. The `United Kingdom’ that includes Scotland, Wales and Ireland, as we mentioned earlier, is only a recent political artifact.

After the Gupta Empire, the Chalukya-Chola dynasty consolidated most of India in the south, leading expeditions even up to the north of the Ganges river.

Later on, much of India would be consolidated again under the Mughals, and after the Mughal empire disintegrated, by the British.

So while the British were the last power, before the current state of India, to administratively consolidate its territory (as well as to divide it up as they left), they were by no means the first ones to do so.

Even when multiple kingdoms existed, these kingdoms were not like the countries of today with a passport and visa regime needed to cross and all kinds of regulations on movement of goods and people. A continued exchange of ideas, people, goods and scholarship took place throughout the sub-continent, largely unmindful of the boundaries of kingdoms.

Furthermore, the territorial boundaries of India were largely maintained. There were few, if any, times before the British came when large parts of India were consolidated into kingdoms that were centered outside it. There were no significant long-lasting kingdoms, for instance, that ruled from Persia to the Ganges plain, or from Burma to Bengal, or from China or Tibet to Delhi. There was a separateness and integrity to this land, unlike European countries or even Europe as a whole. For centuries, the Romans consolidated north Africa and southern Europe into one contiguous centrally ruled empire, as did the Ottomans after them. Central Asia became part of one external empire or another.

Even in the case of the British, when all of India became part of a larger empire centered outside it for the first time, it was clear that it was distinct from Burma, for instance, even though they were contiguous land areas ruled by the British. And thus the freedom movements in Burma and India were separate. Burma and India did not become one after their respective independence, nor was there any call by Indian or Burmese nationalists to do so.

Thus there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms.

The Idea of India

This then becomes our second question – is the idea of India as a unit a new idea brought by the British or did it exist long before the British came? Did the people of this vast land recognize that they were linked together? Did they share a common story of their civilization, of their Indian-ness, their Bharatiyata? Remarkably, the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha orAryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years in our stories, thousands of years before there was an America or a Great Britain or a Mexico or France.

From the Manusmriti, we learn of the land of Aryavrata stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans. Without the idea of Bharata, there could have been no epic called the Maha-Bharata that engaged kings throughout this land of Bharata. The story of Mahabharata shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context and inter-relationships, from Gandhari, the wife of Drithrashtra who came from Gandhara, (spelled as Kandahar in present-day Afghanistan), Draupadi from Panchala (present day Jammu and Kashmir), all the way to Arjun meeting and marrying the Naga princess Uloopi on a visit to Manipur in the east (from where he gets the `Mani‘ or Gem). Interestingly, Arjuna is said to have gone on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east when this happens, showing the current North-East was very much linked in this. Finally, Krishna himself is from Mathura and Vrindavana (in UP) though his kingdom itself is in Dwarka (Gujarat).

Similarly, the story of Ramayana draws the north-south linkage from Ayodhya all the way down to Rameshwaram, at the tip of which is finally the land of Lanka. Note that it is not, for this particular thesis, important that the stories are historically accurate. What we are interested in rather is whether the idea of India or Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata as a culturally linked entity existed in the minds of the story-tellers and ultimately in the minds of the people to whom these stories were sacred. And these stories were then taken and told and retold in all the languages of the people of this great civilization, till the stories themselves established a linkage among us and to the sacred geography they celebrated. This sacred geography is what makes northerners flock to Tirupati and southerners to the Kumbha Mela.

And the diffusion of these common ideas was certainly not only from the north to south. The great Bhakti movement started in the 6th and 7th centuries AD had its roots in the south in the Tamil and Kannada languages. Even while the boundaries of kingdoms changed, enormous cultural and religious unity continued to take place across India. It started off with the Alvars and the Nayanars (Tamil, 7th to 10th century AD), Kamban (Tamil, 11th century), Basava (Kannada, 12th century) and moved on to Chaitanya Mahaprabu (Bengali, 15th century), Ramananda (15th century, born in Allahabad of south India parentage, guru of Kabir, 15th century), Raskhan (16th century), Surdas (Braj, 16th century), Mirabia (Rajasthan, 16th century), Tulsidas (Avadhi, 16th century), Nanak (Punjabi, 16th century) and Tukaram (Marathi, 17th century), among the many. All these together weaved a garland across the land that spoke again of our common truths, our common cultural heritage.

The Bhakti movement retold our ancient stories in the language of the common people, in Marathi and Bengali, in Avadhi (present day UP) and Bhojpuri (present day Bihar), in Gujarati and Punjabi and in Rajasthani. We can marvel at the cultural unity in India, where while theBhakti poets initiated the great movement for devotion to Shiva in the south, the erudite philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism was being developed coevally in the north. Or that Kamban in the south was the first poet to take the story of Rama to the major regional languages, and Tulsidas, much closer to Ayodhya, came centuries later. Or that the great Krishna bhaktaChaitanya was celebrating his devotion to the King of Dwarka in Bengal while Tukaram sang praises of Lord Vithal in the west. An immense body of pan-Indian worship revolved around the triad of Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti in their various forms – whether as Rama, Krishna, Sri Venkateshwara, Sri Dakshinamurti, Jagdamba, Durga Mata or Kali. These common stories were told and retold without the mandate of any central church and seeped through the pores of the land of Bharata, forging a shared bond, unlike any other seen on the planet.

It was this idea of civilizational unity and sacred geography of India that inspired Shankaracharya to not only enunciate the mysteries of the Vedanta but to go around setting upmathas circumscribing the land of India in a large diamond shape. While sage Agasthya crossed the Vindhya and came down south, Shankracharya was born in the village of Kalady in Kerala and traveled in the opposite direction for the establishment of dharma. If this land was not linked in philosophical and cultural exchanges, and there was no notion of a unified nation, why then did Shankracharya embark on his countrywide digvijay yatra? What prompted him to establish centers spreading light for the four quadrants of this land – Dwarka in the west (in Gujarat), Puri in the east (in Orissa), Shringeri in the south (Karnataka) and Badrinath (Uttaranchal) in the north? He is then said to have gone to Srinagar (the abode of `Sri’ or the Shakti) in Kashmir, which still celebrates this in the name of Shankaracharya Hill. What better demonstration that the idea of the cultural unity of the land was alive more than a thousand years ago?

And yet, these stories are not taught to us in our schools in India. We learn instead, in our colonial schools, that the British created India and gave us a link language, as if we were not talking to each other for thousands of years, traveling, telling and retelling stories before the British came. How else did these ideas travel so rapidly through the landmass of India, and how did Shankracharya circumscribe India, debating, talking and setting up institutions all within his short lifespan of 32 years?

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Fig 2: Ideas of India: Shankaracharya and Shakti

These ideas of our unity have permeated all our diverse darshanas. We have talked aboutBhakti and Vedanta and the epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But this idea of unity was not limited to particular schools. They were equally present in the tantric schools that exerted a tremendous influence on popular worship. Thus we have the legend of Shakti, whose body was carried by Shiva and cut up by Vishnu, landing in 51 places throughout the landmass of India that are now the site of the Shakti Peetham temples. The body of Shakti, or so the story goes, fell all the way from Neelayadakshi Kovil in Tamil Nadu to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, from Pavagadh in Gujarat to the Kamakshi temple in Assam and 47 other places.

Why would the story conceive of these pieces of Shakti sanctifying and falling precisely all over the landmass of India, rather than all of them falling in Tamil Nadu or Assam or Himachal (or alternately, Yunan (Greece) or China, or some supposed `Aryan homeland’ in Central Asia) unless someone had a conception of the unity of the land and civilization of Bharatavarsha? Whether these stories are actual or symbolic, represent real events or myths, it is clear from them that the idea of India existed in the minds of those that told these stories and those that listened. Together, all these stories wove and bound us together, along with migration, marriages and exchange of ideas into a culture unique in the story of mankind. A nation that was uniquely bound together in myriads of ways, yet not cast into a mono-conceptual homogeneity of language, worship, belief or practice by the diktat of a centralized church, intolerant of diversity.

And this unity as nation has been with us far before the idea of America existed. Far before the Franks had moved into northern France and the Visigoths into Spain, before the Christian Church was established and Islam was born. They have been there before Great Britain existed, before the Saxons had moved into Britannia. They have been there while empires have fallen, from when Rome was a tiny village to when it ruled an empire that rose and collapsed.

Thus the Arabs and Persians already had a conception of Hind far before the Mughal Empire was established. If we suggest that their conception of Hind was derived only from their contact with Sindh in western India, why would the British, when they landed in Bengal, form the EastIndia Company, unless the conception of the land of India (a term derived from the original Hind) was shared by the natives and the British? They used this name much before they had managed to politically hold sway over much of India, and before they educated us that no India existed before their arrival. Why would the Portuguese celebrate the discovery of a sea-route to India when Vasco de Gama had landed in Calicut in the south, if India was a creation of the British Empire?

The answer is obvious. Because the conception of India, a civilization based in the Indian sub-continent, predates the rise and fall of these empires. True, that large parts of India were under unified political rule only during certain periods of time (though these several hundreds of years are still enormous by the scale of existence of most other countries throughout the globe) such as under the Mauryas or the Mughals. But those facts serve to hide rather than reveal the truth till we understand the history of the rest of the world and realize the historic social, political and religious unity of this land. We are not merely a country; we are a civilizational country, among very few other countries on the planet.

Some Other Civilizational Countries

While we occupy the rarefied space of countries that have as much legitimacy and continuity as civilizations, it is worth examining a few others civilizations that have lasted. The country of Greece is one such country. However, Greece as a contemporary state was established in the 19th century, coughed up by the Ottoman Empire as it was breathing its last. Over the centuries, Greece has not existed as an independent political entity, having been absorbed by the Roman Empire and assimilated into the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Ironically, the rise of contemporary Greek nationalism can be traced to the late 18th century, when Greek students studying in Europe came to realize that their civilization was actually highly regarded in western Europe. This resurgent pride about the ancient Greek civilization formed the basis of the movement to establish the modern Greek state even though there was no political continuity between the two entities.

If the continuity of political unification is the criteria that is used to define the legitimacy of a country, then Greece is far less legitimate than India, and other countries around the globe are even less so. The boundaries of the contemporary Greek state do not match with the original Greek Empire. Furthermore, even ancient Greece constituted of politically independent city-states, united more by the feeling that they belonged to the same culture, rather than having political unity. So clearly the measure of political unification, even when it did hold true for large parts of India over the ages, is not the relevant criteria, but the idea of a shared culture and civilization.

The only other continuous civilizations that come close to India as legitimate nations are nation-civilizations like Egypt, Iran and China. But Egypt, though old, having been assimilated in various empires and conquered first by Christianity and then by Islam, hardly retains much contact with its ancient traditions, languages or indigenous religion. Similarly Iran, the inheritor of the Persian empire which reached its peak in the 6th century BC, was assimilated into other empires and finally conquered by Islamic Arabs – it retains little of its Zoroastrian roots, though it retains its pre-Islamic language, albeit in Arab script. China is the other civilizational nation that can claim to have a legitimacy and continuity similar to India. However, for most of its history, Chinese civilization developed and concentrated in the Eastern plains. Consolidated rule, either political, social or religious/ideological over the entire vast area that present-day China occupies is relatively recent. Indian Buddhism obviously had a huge influence on China. Interestingly, despite communism and the Cultural Revolution, Chinese intellectuals have sought to link the roots of present day communist ideology with the teachings of Confucius.

So there we have it. India is one of the few nations of the world with a continuity of civilization and an ancient conception of nationhood. In its religious, civilizational, cultural and linguistic continuity, it truly stands alone. This continuity was fostered by its unique geography and its resilient religious traditions. Unlike any other country on the planet, it retained these traditions despite both Islamic and Christian conquest, when most countries lost theirs and were completely converted when losing to even one of these crusading systems. The Persians fell, the civilizations of Mesopotamia and Babylon were lost, the Celtic religion largely vanished, and the mighty Aztecs were vanquished, destroyed and completely Christianized. Yet Bharata stands. It stands in our stories, our languages, our pluralism and our unity. And as long as we remember these stories, keep our languages and worship the sacred land of our ancestors, Bharata will stand. It is only if we forget these truths that Bharata will cease to be. That is precisely why the British tried to hard to make us forget them.

Purva-paksha: the opposing side

Indian scholarly traditions often presented opposing viewpoints with the thesis. Here are some objections that may arise.

Objection #1

 

What you are calling the Indian civilization is actually the Sanskritic civilization of the Aryans who were invaders.

There are many theories about migrations of people into the Indian sub-continent. Some contend that a tribe of people called the Aryans migrated from somewhere in the Middle East or Central Asia. Others contend that no such migration took place and the Aryans were original inhabitants of the Sindhu (or Sindhu-Sarswati) region. Still others hold that `Aryan’ was never an ethnic term but the word `Arya’ in Sanskrit basically means a noble person.

In any case, practically all countries that exist today were settled by migrants. The Saxons, the Franks and the Visigoths were all migrants to western European countries such as present day England, France and Spain. North America was recently settled (or more accurately, usurped) by migrants. Even the Native Americans in North and South America are considered to have migrated from Asia 30,000 years ago. At some point in history, it may be that all people came from Africa. Clearly, using this criterion, all nations of today are illegitimate.

So the validity or lack thereof of a particular Aryan migration theory, even assuming such a migration ever actually took place, does not concern us. Suffice to say, that even those that subscribe to the theory of an invasion or migration place the date no later than 1500 BC. By contrast, the Saxon reached present-day England in only the 5th or 6th century AD, about 2000 years after the hypothetical Aryan migration — yet England is considered an Anglo-Saxon country and no one wastes a whole lot of energy arguing otherwise or creating political factions representing the `pre-Saxon’ people. That a hypothetical Aryan invasion 3500 years ago is still relevant to our politics shows the absurd divisions created in our minds by colonial theories, intended to keep us fighting amongst ourselves on artificial boundaries.

So, regardless of whether there were such a people as Aryans or whether they came from the outside, our interest is in the fact that the people who have inhabited India over the last 3000 or more years formed both a conception of Indian nationhood and a distinct civilizational continuity.

Our hymns sing glories of the Himalayas, not of the Caucuses. Our stories talk of the Vindhyachal not a mountain in the Central Asia. We sing of the Ganga and the Cauvery, not the Amu Darya. Thus for thousands of years the people who have lived in India have celebrated its sacred geography. Regardless of their origins in pre-history, our ancestral people made the land of India their home and wove stories around its features.

Objection #2

 

Isn’t India simply like all of Europe, sharing some common history and religious ideas but no more?

Parts of Europe came under the rule of the Roman Empire and later the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. None of these Empires held sway over all of what is the territory of Europe today. Rather, their areas of control were largely around the Mediterranean Sea – parts of southern Europe, northern Africa and the Middle East. There has also been some uniformity of religion in Europe imposed by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. But, there has been no empire of Europe. Eastern, western and Scandinavian Europe have had substantially different histories and cultural, linguistic and ethnic origins.

There is a more significant difference. The land of India has been thought of and considered a sacred whole by the people of India in a way that is simply not true of Europe.

As the Shankracharya of Kanchi said recently, for thousands of years, Indians throughout the land have woken up in the morning and sang a hymn celebrating the holy rivers of Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari, Sindu, Saraswati and Cauvery as part of nitya kriya, or daily worship.

gange ca yamune caiva, godAvari sarasvati
narmade sindho kAveri, jale’sminn sannidhiM kuru

Thus our hymns and religious stories not only share common themes, heroes and deities, they also uniquely link us to this particular land in a way Christian stories do not link to the land of Europe. There are no hymns that Europeans sang that spoke of the land from the Urals to Scandinavia or from the Arctic Ocean to the Mediterranean as one. No one sang devotional songs listing all the major rivers of Europe, east to west. The idea of Europe is like another continent, like Africa or Americas – with some shared geography and history but no historic conception of the integrated whole as a unity that was recognized among all the common people.

Thus there have been no religious stories of Europe linked to its particular boundaries and capturing the common fealty of the people, unlike the story of Shakti being dispersed over the land of India in peethams that millions of people visit, or the sage who set up mathas in the four quadrants of the land, or who wrote the Mahabharata, or who wrote of the land of Bharatvarshaand Aryavrata. So there is a unity to India, an Indian nationhood that is far greater than any shared similarities between Europe.

Objection #3

 

If the British hadn’t been here, wouldn’t we be a bunch of fighting kingdoms?

The British certainly contributed to the political re-unification of the land, just as the Mughals had done before that. But they re-unified politically an existing civilization entity. This entity had existed long before they came, had been politically re-united in the past and will exist long after they have gone.

The British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilization. But the British also divided and partitioned us, not only physically but also mentally. They also impoverished us and planted many seeds of divisive scholarship that cut us from our roots and our sense of nationhood.

There are many entities today who would see us become a bunch of fighting states, all the easier for political, religious and economic conquest. But a division of India is like cutting a human body. We are already bleeding from the cuts inflicted 50 years ago. Eternal vigilance is the price of our freedom. Telling our common stories, the core of our nationhood.

Objection #4

 

You are excluding Islamic contributions and Indian Muslims from your definition

This essay is about finding the historic roots of the Indian civilization and defining who we are as people and as a nation. We have had many migrants and invaders. While Islam has contributed to the Indian civilization, our roots are much older than when Prophet Mohammad first appeared in Arabia in the 6th century AD, so our civilization cannot be defined by Islam. Alexander the Greek came to our shores, so did the Kushans and Mongols and Persians and Turks. All of them added their contributions to our civilization as we did to theirs. The Mughal Empire helped in our political re-unification. But none of them define who we are.

We had the great Chinese civilization towards the north and the Persian civilization towards our west. Each of them influenced us as we influenced them. But because the Chinese came under Buddhist influence from India does not mean that they cease to be the Chinese civilization, an entity with a distinct cultural flavor and history from India.

Similarly, the Persians and the Turks came in many waves and contributed to Indian culture, even as we did to theirs. This does not mean that our civilization suddenly became Persian or Turkish. Some of these people settled in India, some of them brought a new religion called Islam and converted some of the existing people. All those who ultimately accept India as their homeland are accepted as Indians, for we have been a welcoming land. It would be a strange case indeed if conversion to Islam led people to deny the roots of their civilization. Do the Persians cease to be Persians, now that they are Muslims?

Islam does not define nationhood. If it did, the entire region from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan would be one country. Iran and Iraq would be one large Islamic country, rather than separate entities based on Persian and Babylonian civilizational roots. Indonesia and Malaysia would be one country.

Thus the civilizational roots of India belong to all Indians, Hindus, Muslims and Christians. Indonesian Muslims don’t trace their civilizational roots from Arabia, but from the Indonesian culture developed over the centuries. As Saeed Naqvi writes, the Ramayana ballet is performed in Indonesia by “150 namaz-saying Muslims under the shadow of Yog Jakarta’s magnificent temples for the past 27 years without a break” — Indonesians can apparently celebrate their civilizational roots without conflict of their being Muslims. There is no reason that Muslim Indians feel any differently unless led by the creation of fear or sustained demagoguery to believe otherwise.

Objection #5

 

Indian Muslims are Arabs, Persians and Turks, not originally Indian

Some Indian Muslims are descendents of Persian, Turks and others. Many more are descendents of people who have been in India for thousands of years. In the Indian Muslim caste system, the invaders were considered higher castes than the natives and tracing one’s `foreign’ status often yielded greater prestige, leading more people to identify themselves thus[3]. As late as the early 20th century, some Indian Muslims continued to identify themselves as `Hindu Mussalmans’ (as they might have been called) to census takers marking the civilizational, rather than religious (in a separative sense) meaning of the term Hindu[4].

In either case, it is somewhat irrelevant. Even the Persians and Turks who settled here in numbers came here far before America, for instance, existed as a country. The Indian civilization has assimilated many people into its bosom and there is no reason that the descendents of the Persians or Turks who migrated to India can be considered any less Indian as result.

Objection #6

 

You say that Islam is not the basis of nationhood, yet Pakistan is founded on the very premise. Your geographical conception of India includes present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. Do you want to create an ‘Akhand Bharat’ and re-unite India by force?

Pakistan is an entity with no civilization basis. In an attempt to create one, Pakistani history textbooks teach that Pakistan was established by Babur as `Mughlistan'[5]. However, Babur was a Turk of Mongol descent and the majority of people that live in Pakistan today are certainly not descendents of Turks or Mongols nor is their civilisation Turkic. Pakistan’s crisis of identity emerges primarily from the rejection of their ancient civilizational roots in the name of `religion’. Till they can reconcile to their roots, they will remain a rootless nation, preserved per force by the state apparatus as long as it lasts.

The idea of Bharata certainly goes from Kashmir to Kanyakumari and from Sindh to Manipur. However, the idea of re-uniting Pakistan or Bangladesh to India is unviable at this point in history. The best one can hope for is that the people of Pakistan and Bangladesh themselves become aware at some point of their deep civilization roots that have been taken away from them in the name of religion.

Objection #7

 

India is not a `Hindu rashtra‘, you are trying to make India into a Hindu rashtra.

The interest of this essay is in establishing what is true, not in any political flavor of the day. In the multi-century big picture, particular political movements or systems of government will come and go, but the history of our civilizational roots still needs to be understood and articulated.

Our reading of history certainly does not support Hindu rashtra as a religious concept that means it is only for those people who are currently called `Hindus’ as a religious term. Classically, Hindu has been a civilizational, not a religious term, nor is it exclusive. `Hinduism’ is different from Abrahmic religion in this regard.

Surprising enough, even the article in Encarta on nationhood recognizes that:

“India is a nation in which the Hindu religion served as the cohesive traditional element in uniting peoples of various races, religions and languages.”

Has Encarta been saffronized? Or is it merely stating the obvious, albeit in a westernized framework? That there is no India without what has been called `Hinduism’. This by no mean implies that all the people have to `convert to a religion’ called Hinduism to be Indians. It also doesn’t imply that those who worship Allah or Christ as a religious idea are inherently lesser citizens or disloyal. Rather, it is simply recognition of the civilizational heritage that links us together as a nation.

In contemporary times, the civilizational term Hindu has been replaced by the term Indians. The roots of the Indian civilization, when the concept of the land of Bharata or Aryavrata was articulated and absorbed by the people of this land, are thousands of years old. Even though much of what constitutes these roots is now classified as `Hinduism’, which is unfortunate and limiting, the wide diversity of our civilizational beliefs and quest for knowledge and understanding cannot be confined to a religious dogma or belief system — it belongs to all Indians. Furthermore, pluralism is a basic principle of Hindu thought, which leaves plenty of room for other beliefs in the framework of mutual respect – as long as these beliefs are not directed at destroying the roots of the very civilization that holds them.

Certainly, those that are called `Jains’ today have stories that refer to Krishna, the `Sikh’ Guru Granth Sahib has hundreds of mentions of `Rama’ and many Muslims are quite happy to acknowledge their roots in the Indian civilization. Hundreds of Indian Muslim poets have celebrated their civilizational roots – Abdul Rahim Khan-e-khan wrote poems in praise of Rama, in Sanskrit; Justice Ismail of Chennai was the leading authority on Kamban Ramayana; Kazi Nazrul Islam wrote powerful revolutionary poetry in Bengali replete with references to Kali. In recent times, the script for the entire Mahabharta epic was written by Masoom Raza Rahi; and who can ignore the inspiration that our Gita-reading president Abdul Kalam from Rameswaram is providing to the nation.

Similarly, Indian Christians can be both Indian and Christian without denying their cultural roots. Says Fr Michael Rosario, who teaches Indology at St Pius: “As an Indian priest, Indian spirituality is my heritage and culture.” Fr Michael Gonsalves goes a step further: “We must substitute the Old Testament of the Bible with Indian history, scriptures and arts. For us, the Holy Land should be India; the sacred river the Ganges; the sacred mountain the Himalayas, the heroes of the past not Moses, or David, but Sri Ram or Krishna.”

All these people have had no trouble in reconciling their reverence to Allah or Jesus without denying the civilizational heritage that binds us together.

The converse of this is also true – that the way to break us apart is to systematically deny and denigrate our civilizational roots. This is exactly the tactic the British used.

Thus the evangelical Baptists preaching in the North East have over the last few decades told the Nagas that they don’t really belong with the Indian civilization – despite the fact that they have a place in our stories as far back as the Mahabharata, when Arjun goes on a pilgrimage to the holy places of the east and marries the Naga princess Uloopi. Similarly do Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya, Assam and the other states in the North East.

The situation in Kashmir, spurred on by Pakistan, is a surviving artifact of the two-nation theory even while Kashmir has always been a significant part of the Indian story, its religion and philosophy. The Khalistani separatist movement is also the outcome of decades of colonial scholarship that continues till today to prove that Sikhs are completely different from the `caste-ridden’ Hindus and emphasizes the separateness rather than the common roots. While the Khalsa panth was clearly established as a separate path, the teachings of Guru Nanak can be placed very precisely in the Bhakti tradition while keeping to the idea of a Nirguna Brahma.Guru Granth Sahib is liberally saturated in the philosophical and religious streams of Indiandharma, yet contemporary scholars continuing the colonial tradition often fail to educate people about this. The root of all movements to break India are ultimately found in denying the religious and cultural unity of the Indian people – whether it be found in movements inspired by colonial scholarship, communism, pan-Islamism or evangelical Christianity.

Objection #8

 

I am not religious, but am a patriotic secular Indian. Why is all this relevant today? I am uncomfortable with the idea of religion defining our nation – we are a secular country.

The idea of being `religious’ is ultimately a western idea. In the Indian tradition, there were atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, like Charvaka, all of which get lumped under `Hinduism’. Obviously, if we take the Abrahmic idea of religion, atheistic religion is absurd – you can’t really be a ‘Christian atheist’ or a `Muslim atheist’ – not so long ago you would be hung for heresy. Hinduism is a colonial term for the rich banquet of the dharmic traditions that cannot be combined under the framework of religion. Indian civilization is a much broader concept than narrow restrictive dogmas that define religions.

A secular state is a system of government. We have embraced secularism precisely because of our long civilizational history of accepting plurality of thought and worship. This is how it must remain. However, secularism does not define nationhood in any way. There are plenty of secular states. What is unique about us is that we are Indians with a history of civilization rooted in our religious and cultural ideas. That is why we are a nation today, not because of secularism. If false notions of secularism prevent us from understanding the roots of our nationhood, we will all be the lesser for it.

But to get back to the question, nations are born, but are also made. If we fail to understand our common civilization, we will ultimately fall prey to those that seek to destroy us – by convincing us that we have none, that India is a British construction and so on. The effect of this will not only be a separation from the Indian state, but from the Indian tradition. To see the devastating effects of this, consider that we are still paying the price of our first partition based on accepting colonial ideas and still struggling with its wounds.

If India gets split up into different countries, we will all lose – there will be more wars, more armies, and all the lines we draw will be artificial and straight across our hearts.

Every child in America in a public school recites an oath of allegiance every morning in front of the American flag. They obviously take their nationhood seriously, even as they are a young nation. While we are old as a civilization, we are young as a country. Our education is based on colonial scholarship. Nationhood is ultimately a feeling of being one people. To strengthen this feeling and being resilient to divisive propaganda, we need to see that every child in India is educated about why we are a nation, lest we forget why we are together.

© Sankrant Sanu 2002-2010. All rights reserved.