Interrogating ‘Bharatiyata’: A Response to an Interview with Govindacharya

A close look at the seemingly progressive alignment of Bharatiyata with the post-liberal world order reveals its inherent inconsistencies.

K.N. Govindacharya. Credit: Twitter.

K.N. Govindacharya. Credit: Twitter.

In a recent interview with The Wire, K.N. Govindacharya articulated a new and improved ‘Bharatiya‘ framework with enormous ambitions, including a complete overhaul of the Indian Constitution. Whether this intellectual movement has the blessings of the current government or whether all’s well in the relationship between the ideologue and the prime minister is irrelevant for our purposes. What is clear is that the force of Govindacharya’s argument is ideological rather than everyday politics.

Perhaps the most remarkable element in the wide-ranging interview is the introduction of a new term to our blossoming political vocabulary: Bharatiya. Equally remarkable is the complete absence of a term we have come to expect from the parivar – Hindutva – which is mentioned by the interviewer but never by the interviewee. Are we to assume that Bharatiyata will supersede or supplement Hindutva, or is it merely Hindutva 2.0? Is the Bharatiya idea deliberately framed against the idea of India? Whatever the case may be, Bharatiyata as an idea is worth exploring.

Recasting the Hindutva message

Let’s start with the obvious question: what is Bharatiyata? The interview offers some clues:

Its genealogy comes from Rama, who is the “embodiment of Bharatiya values,” which reminds us of the idealisation of Jesus amongst political strains of evangelical Christianity and of Mohammed in political Islam. The Bharatiya has the best deal of the three, since his ideal is incarnated God rather than his son or his prophet. In the transformation of Rama from the Hindu “maryada purushottam” to the “embodiment of Bharatiya values” we have a new argument for building a temple in the disputed location: “for any nation, its values and embodiment of values have to be venerated and if that doesn’t happen, then civilisation doesn’t march.” In other words, it’s no longer a matter of hurt sentiments of a religious community, but that of civilisational progress.

So what is the basic structure of Bharatiya society? For one, the basic unit of that society is the family, not the individual, and since Govindacharya’s goal is to transform the Indian Constitution, he quotes the Cuban Constitution as a peer from which we can learn. Our current Constitution is flawed because it is “vague, non-specific and basically a continuation of western philosophies of Hobbes, Locke and Kant. It is individual-centric and focused on his physical wellbeing.” In other words, the Western liberal focus on the rights of the individual are in conflict with the Bharatiya focus on the primacy of the family. That focus on the human individual is also in conflict with the rights of nonhuman nature:

“I mean not just rights of the cow, but a holistic view of zamin, jal, janwar, jungle; for only in this protection lies the well-being of man. All the five must have sacred rights, and this should not just be rights-based but duty-based, and not just be components of state power.”

With the above statement, we see the potential power of the Bharatiya position: by aligning itself with a post-liberal order with its regard for climate change, environmental collapse and the welfare of nonhuman beings, it’s recasting the Hindutva message in expansive terms: not only does Bharatiyata have a distinguished lineage, it also presents a vision of human flourishing attuned to contemporary progressive concerns. Indeed, that vision is further articulated through its opposition to corporate cronyism, where he says “I believe corporates should be reined in for several reasons,” for otherwise “naturally questions arise in people’s minds.”

Paradoxically, a Western progressive will welcome much of this analysis. In that lies a direct challenge to the Indian progressive which can be put as follows: “while your colonised mind thinks in the categories of western and semitic imperialism, we have an indigenous framework with a sacred lineage that also happens to lie at the cutting edge of contemporary global politics.”

Seemingly progressive positions

It’s a remarkable statement that in a different context might well be articulated by an environmental theorist. Bhartiyata’s older form, Hindutva is no stranger to these seemingly progressive positions on environment and animal rights either. Hindutva – the Hindu way of life, adopted by the ruling party of India as its core ideology – has always touted the ancient Indian past as being inherently one with nature. However, in almost all the Hindutva discourses, the identities of Hindu and Indian merge; Hindus being the original people, everyone else being the outsider. As the Indian middle class and their aspirations grow, this idea might seem a little overtly regressive. Another important aspect of the Indian middle class is that they are influential in policy matters especially moulding public opinion. And the middle class is also the most affected by many of the social and public policy initiatives pertaining to the environment and development, the Delhi government’s odd-even scheme for instance.

This is where Bharatiyata can position itself as superior, more progressive than the Indian left, with its greater focus on caste and communalism than on environmental and nonhuman rights, more in tune with what affects the people the most, all while also drawing a sharp boundary between who counts as Bharatiya and who doesn’t.

It’s a subtle position. It’s also irredeemably flawed. While we can debate its blemishes on several grounds, such as the political background against which it has been positioned, we believe it’s best to debate it as the Bharatiya idea, an idea that sees itself as a genuine alternative to the liberal idea of India. The norms of debate dictate that we portray our purvapaksa in the best possible light. Our critique is similar to that of a biologist looking at creationism; while it’s perfectly clear that it’s driven by a Christian ideology, creationism is also wrong as science. Similarly, Bharatiyata is a flawed idea even in its most generous version.

Let us just take the most progressive claim in Govindacharya’s interview: “I mean not just rights of the cow, but a holistic view of zamin, jal, janwar, jungle.” Does Bharatiyata guarantee the outcome that’s being claimed on its behalf? We are skeptical. In order to see why, we can probe the concept along two lines: first, does the holistic view of Bharatiyata have the lineage that it claims to have? Second, does Bharatiyata have the capacity to address the modern challenges of protecting the rights of zamin, jal, janwar, jungle?

While the long tradition of Indian philosophical and moral literature has much to offer, it’s not unproblematic; to take just two prominent examples, both the Mahabharata and the Ramayana turn on the killing of deer by a major protagonist. Rama kills a deer (the rakshasa Mareecha in disguise) because Sita wants its golden hide. When Pandu is cursed by the dying deer-sage, he complains that it is within a king’s dharma to kill a deer by any means, either by bravery or by trickery. Would that constitute a “holistic view of janwar?” It is possible – though not easy – to pick and choose only those parts of the Indian traditions that support the Bharatiya idea, but that will only go to show that the idea is a modern one that’s being retrofitted. If so, why not dispense with the lineage?

Bharatiyata as an idea

Moving on to the capabilities of a potential Bharatiya idea, how might it go about addressing the challenges of climate change or environmental degradation, let alone ensuring the rights of non-human species? The interview has very few details that we might use to answer that question, but here’s one hint:

“Then (there is) the unique project in Kaneri, Kholapur, which presents the idyllic village life before the Mughals came, our advice is being heeded to.”

In other words, Bharatiyata is a revival of the old Hindutva refrain as well as a more conservative form of the Gandhian idea of Ramrajya with its focus on the village economy and harmonious social relations. When they were formulated, Gandhi’s ideas were critiqued by Ambedkar and others for glossing over rural injustice. They were also sidelined by the industrial model of development adopted post-independence. A harmonious village economy is arguably more relevant today with our concern about corporatised agriculture and environmental collapse. Even if we accept its value, is Bharatiyata the best modern formulation of the Gandhian village?

Let us start with Bharatiyata’s capacity to address the agricultural crisis. Water tables have fallen, rains are failing and glaciers are melting. While these problems severely affect the Indian farmer, they aren’t problems solvable by an Indian farmer. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how we can address them without learning from the scientific and technological understanding of complex systems that have little connection with Bharatiyata. Even if we want to end with a harmonious agricultural society based on simple living, the path to achieving that goal will have to address the actual complexities of the socio-technical world we live in today. Does Bharatiyata have the resources to grasp that complexity and will the middle classes in the cities, far from the farmer and the village ever embrace this?

Then there’s the hidden subtext of that harmonious society – whose harmony is being desired? How will this harmony be achieved? The fact remains that while Bharatiyata is an imagined history for a certain subset of the Indian citizenry, it denies the actual history of most others. How can we expect to create a harmonious society by negating the histories of a significant portion of the Indian population?

To conclude, even under the most charitable interpretation, Bharatiyata fails to address the promise of a peaceful India governed by an ancient principle with a modern, progressive twist. Despite setting aside the background of the Bharatiya agenda – we all know where it comes from – the Bharatiya idea is inconsistent and incomplete on purely internal grounds. In practice, the implementation of Bharatiyata will institutionalise discrimination and violence that go against the very goal it’s publicly claiming as its own. We worry that Indian progressives will term it “not even wrong,” that is, an idea not worth engaging, which is dangerous. Without debate, Bharatiyata’s proximity to power will enable its institutionalisation. It’s a bad idea that deserves vigorous criticism.

Rajesh Kasturirangan is adjunct faculty at Azim Premji University and the co-coordinator of the Mind and Society Initiative. Smitha Rao is an independent researcher.