Saturday, February 8, 2014

The moral-relativism of India's neo-secularists

Introduction: AAP the New Party

There is much criticism of the hypocritical actions and 'U-turns' of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in New Delhi after it seized power with the support of the Indian national congress. Much of this is justified. Their:
a) inattention to governance, dangerous calls for a referendum in border states,
b) a membership consisting of a few misguided pro-capitalist elements, naive alternative-seekers, amongst a crowd of Marxist activists, and
c) rapidly mutating behaviors,

is slowly but surely made India uncomfortable and nervous. One quality of AAP is undeniable. On the surface, all of (a)-(c), when taken in combination, represents a new politics. The AAP portrays this novelty as a positive feature, and it's ability to accommodate diversity as an example of its flexible thinking. The Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's life before AAP, as well as the antecedents of other leaders of the party is now being scrutinized, and the picture is not very pleasant. When the extent of its Ford-Foundation links become fully public knowledge, AAP will be in further trouble. It is worth examining the ideological banner under which such anarchist elements have rallied to.

AAP's Guiding Philosophy
Let's briefly set aside for now their economic/political orientations, and focus on their core DNA. What is the fundamental "chip" inside that drives the AAP machine? We must be indebted to senior ex-AAP member Surajit Dasgupta, the whistle blower who has given us a ringside view of what happened in the AAP prior to its Delhi 'coup'. In particular, let us focus on the passage where Surajit notes (emphasis mine):
"...The problem was with the AAP’s erroneous understanding of the fundamentals. The name of the committee for Muslims figured under the topic, secularism! ...

how do we plan to reach a different destination by traversing the same path as that of faltering political parties before us and the British Empire that looked at Indians as separate electorates? ..."

Yogendra Yadav, AAP ideologue, responds.
we have to avoid three ways of being secular: 

... Congress [secularism] which is often about selective appeasement of minorities
...BJP secularism which wants to reduce the formal equality before law just to a formality
...communist secularism that treats anything religious as untouchable. 

We need to evolve a principled approach that can relate without any guilt to religious and cultural symbols and discuss the material and community related difficulties of any community whether it is majority or minority..."

Surajit responds:
"... I have no objection whatsoever to addressing the concerns of Muslims under our project of social justice. In fact, I shall extend all-out support to such endeavours. My case is that it should not be masqueraded as secularism. "

Yadav rejects this statement and justifies this approach citing: might wish to refer to Rajeev Bhargav's body of work on [secularism] that argues that Indian secularism has its distinct identity and that is not necessarily a problem..."

"... is a big tactical blunder Kejriwal committed by inviting Yadav and outsourcing policy to him.
... The party continued with its policy of multi-communalism, undeterred by the corrective suggestions members and supporters kept sending to it"

Thus, ignoring protests, Mr. Yogendra Yadav chose for AAP,  Rajeev Bhargava's new model of secularism based on the state "maintaining a principled distance" from various religious groups. This, he claims to be superior, fairer, and also a wholly indigenous alternative to the Congress/BJP/Marxist way. In particular, it claims to be better than what is universally recognized as pseudo-secularism of India since independence. We will argue that AAP's secularism, like Congress' secularism is just as anti-Hindu, and in fact, makes things worse.

Secularism has been universally rejected by Indian thinkers
Bhargava's body of work on an 'Indian secularism' has gained a lot traction within India's westernized intellectual circles, as well as in some parts of the west. In fact, Bhargava has been presenting these ideas as a universal solution for communal harmony based on a neo-secularism formulated by borrowing from the best principles of India and the west. His ideas are motivated by the failure of 'secularism' to solve India's communal problems (Bhargava's many essays on this topic invariably start from the events of December 1992). What may be surprising to some is that the total failure of secularism in India has now been accepted by at least five different groups, including:
(i) Marxists like Bhargava and the JNU-AAP ideologues,
(ii) so-called Gandhian proponents like Ashish Nandy,
(iii) the Indian nationalist parties, as well as(iv) objective thinking academic scholars like SN Balagangadhara, and
(v) dharmic intellectuals like Arun Shourie and 'Being Different' author Rajiv Malhotra.

All these thinkers have exposed the inherent flaws of secularism in their writings from diverse viewpoints. In particular, the last two groups of thinkers have in different ways, provided rigorous logical reasoning to explain why secularism or its derivative variations (in its most 'genuine' form) are guaranteed to fail in India, even if it is implemented as intended.

A common reason for all these groups rejecting secularism for India can be traced to the Abrahamic origins of secularism and the context in which it was created and is applicable to, i.e. to prevent Abrahamic institutions from running a competing government that undermines the rule of the land, aka "separation of church and state". For example, S.N. Balagangadhara constructs convincing and consistent logical argument to show that:
b) Secularism can never be neutral when it has to deal with an Abrahamic religious community and an Indian religious community

b) Secularism in India favors Abrahamic proselytizing religions over Indian ones, and consequently,

c) this western/christian model of secularism has not just helped, but has been the primary and active culprit in inciting communal violence in India.

The extensive body of work of Rajiv Malhotra on this topic represents the most comprehensive, and original Indian thought (dharmic perspective) and intellectual contribution in this area in recent times, and is very briefly touched upon at the end of this essay.  This work is already having a remarkable influence in positively shaping the course of Indian society and politics and will be covered in-depth in a future post.

Alternatives to Secularism: Go Indian
Similarly, each of these aforementioned five groups offer alternatives to secularism. Interestingly again, all their alternative claims (including, interestingly those of the Marxists) are openly derived from an Indian basis, which is quite remarkable. At this level of analysis, it sounds promising: Indian thinkers across the board have recognized and then rejected the Abrahamic-western model of secularism and have opted for an Indian replacement. But what does this replacement look like?

- Bhargava does not reject secularism altogether but proposes a 'redefined secularism' or a neo-secularism that he claims is suitable for the Indian context, which essentially allows for temporary suspensions of secularism ostensibly in the interest of fairness and neutrality.

- self-styled 'Gandhians' offer 'Sarva dharma Sama bhava'

- Indian nationalist groups (e.g. pre-Modi BJP) propose Hindutva as an alternative

- Balagangadhara does not propose a clear alternative but indicates that a solution is available within Indian traditions of pluralism that upheld communal harmony for centuries prior to colonial rule

- Arun Shourie noted that the world 'secularism' has been prostituted, and suggests 'pluralism' as an alternative in a recent NDTV panel discussion with Barkha Dutt. In recent times, it appears that he has spoken publicly about 'mutual respect' being preferable to 'tolerance', which is the critical idea tied to the approach of:

- Rajiv Malhotra (independent non-Hindutva Hindu scholar), who provides an in-depth analysis of the contradictions of secularism, and why a 'dharma sapeksha' society is a viable and sustainable alternative for India, in his book 'Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism'. His new book 'Indra's Net' emphasizes that such an 'Open Architecture' based on mutual respect is critical to maintaining India's unity in diversity. This approach is not bound to any particular religion, and appears to be the most preferable approach.

But first, to understand AAP's DNA, we have to study Bhargava's model which is claimed to be derived from an Indian perspective.

Bhargava's Neo-secularism: a gift to the West

There are pros and cons to the Bhargava model. The 'pros' being an attempt to present an Indian way (albeit "Indian" is limited to a post-1947 world) and a grudging recognition of the potential within Hindu tradition. A fatal flaw of this model is induced by Bhargava's seemingly desperate attempts to maintain the illusion of a neutrality of 'secularism' despite recognizing its western origins and Christian context for which it was designed. He proposes several ingenious modifications to work around this problem to create a more workable model.

His first failure is the inability to grasp the irreconcilable differences between the nature of the truth claims of history-centric religions (e.g. Abrahamic) and dharmic systems like Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. (which, as SN Balagangadhara mentioned earlier is the key reason why secularism can never be neutral in an Indian context (although SNB uses the less precise word 'pagan' instead of dharmic, which is Rajiv Malhotra's more correct terminology). Rajiv Malhotra's BD provides a more comprehensive comparison of these different truth claims by examining them from a dharmic perspective. He coined the phrase history-centrism to characterize Abrahamic truth claims, which when implemented in practice as a claim of exclusivity, are incompatible with an inclusive, open architecture based on mutual respect. It stands to reason that any modification to "classical" secularism that ignores these fundamental differences will not be neutral either. The modifications introduced by Bhargava include:

a) the state adopting maintaining a principled distance from all religious communities "which entails a flexible approach on the question of intervention or abstention, combining both, dependent on the context, nature or current state of relevant religions"

b) the state adopting a contextual secularism which "recognizes that the conflict between individual rights and group rights or  between claims of equality and liberty or between claims of liberty and the satisfaction of basic needs cannot always be adjudicated by a recourse to some general and abstract principle. Rather they can only be settled case by case and may require a fine balancing of competing claims".

This results in a "multi-value character of  secularism [as opposed to a binary separation of church/state] makes it inherently unstable and necessarily  ambiguous but that this instability is inescapable and given the context in which it is meant to work, this vagueness is a virtue."

Unfortunately, a combination of (a) and (b) without addressing the inherent bias within secularism that skews it in favor of Abrahamic religions only worsens the situation for dharmic religions, because Bhargava allows the state to negotiate with Abrahamic institutions (e.g. Church) as needed, while also allowing the state to essentially dictate to pluralistic dharmic systems like Hinduism which never had a centralized law-making institution in its traditions that competed with the law of the land. In other words not only will a prejudiced (original) secularism be unnecessarily foisted on dharmic systems like Hinduism, when it was totally unnecessary to do so in the first place, it will additionally augment this by mandating that an secular Indian state act as a proxy quasi-Hindu law-making institution for Hindus from time to time to prevent incoherent groups of Hindu traditions from misbehaving due to the "caste system, arguably the central feature of Hinduism". Therefore "in Hinduism, the absence of an
organized institution such as the Church has meant that the impetus for effective
reform cannot come exclusively from within. Reform within Hinduism can hardly be initiated without help from powerful external institutions such as the state
".  One cannot but ask Bhargava if he has bought into the neo-Hinduism myth that was invented by a group of missionary scholars in the west and was emphatically debunked in 'Indra's Net'. The net result is not principled distance as intended, but an unprincipled and increased proximity to Abrahamic religions. Why does this happen?

Bhargava's second failure: moral relativism
One reason is that Bhargava has:
a) misappropriated, mangled and relabeled portions of the contextual ethics of dharma into an ill-defined and ambiguous notion of "contextual moral reasoning" - a vagueness that he himself has recognized in his exposition, and sees as its strength
b) erased its Hindu origins to make it palatable to his westernized peers and pass it off as some original contribution

Using Rajiv Malhotra's terminology, these two steps result in the digestion of the nuanced contextual ethics of dharma into western secularism.  Without fully understanding how dharma-based ethics works, Bhargava has bypassed the universal pole of Indian ethics, i.e. the 'Samanya dharma' completely, retaining only the contextual pole. Dharma works well because of the usage of the universal pole as the definitive scanner that scrutinizes the motive when contextual deviations are requested.  This is explained in detail by Rajiv Malhotra in his book 'Being Different':.
".. The frequently levelled charge of moral relativism against this [dharmic] contextual morality is inaccurate, because the conduct and motive are considered consequential in judging the ultimate value of statements. The degree of common good is the universal standard, and the well-being of all creatures, in terms of non-harming (ahimsa), is the highest truth. For the Buddha and for the sages of the Mahabharata, non-harming is the universal ideal ('ahimsa paramo dharmah') and truth, the highest dharma ('satyan paro nasti dharmah'). The contextual morality serves the universal morality and is an individualized expression of it. In other words, the contextual dharma applies the principles of higher universal dharma of benevolence and compassion to specific contexts

Thus, dharmic thought offers both universal and contextual poles – not just the latter, as that would be tantamount to moral relativism..."
An additional reference is the set of essays of Sandeep Balakrishna that critique A. K. Ramanujan's work on this topic. Historian-scholar Sandeep Balakrishna in a series of essays in 2008:
1. Dissecting contextual morality (part 1, part 2)
2.  'Dharma 101' series

examines the differences between dharma-based ethics versus the "unipolar contextual morality" trap that western thinkers (like Bhargava here) fall into.

Bhargava's contextual morality specifies no unambiguous anchoring within a universal moral reasoning that will deter unprincipled interference. He rejects dharma-based solutions, as evidenced by his reference to "filth" in India's traditions and the erase of the dharmic origin of his ideas, leaving its user with no clear universal guidance. Mutual respect is not even mentioned opening the doors to communal tension with a neo-secular government acting as the capricious policeman. Consequently, Bhargava's interpretation gives the state the right to tactically cherry-pick and make motivated choices (e.g. votebank politics, populism, foreign support) on when to and when not-to deviate from dharma. In the case of Abrahamic religions, their powerful globally-networked institutions headquartered in the west or middle-east can and will mount a vigorous defence to thwart any interference, whereas the decentralized open architecture of Hindu/Buddhist/Sikh/Jain traditions are left relatively vulnerable to such intrusions. Thus, implementation of AAP's contextual secularism of Bhargava opens the doors wide to moral relativism in the Indian context.

Breaking India

This unipolar contextual morality and resulting moral relativism is the core 'doctrine' that the founding fathers of AAP have adopted. It's now famous 'U-turns', rejection of national interest, alignment with adharmic forces and distancing themselves from dharmic peoples, invariably followed by a justification of these actions, may well be a reflection of the moral-relativism in these context-dependent actions. If the Indian National Congress practiced pseudo-secularism (which is really no better than 'genuine' secularism, as we have seen already), AAP has chosen a contextual secularism that is open to moral relativism. It appears that the more sophisticated the secularism model, the more anti-Hindu it is, and the more justifiable these actions seemingly become.

All these ideas are being bandied about ignoring the undeniable fact that  dharmic religions have been at the receiving end of ethnic cleansing pogroms and depraved indifference of colonial rulers in several parts of India for the last several centuries that has resulted in catastrophic geographical and demographic losses that dwarf the Jewish holocaust and the genocide of the Native Americans. All these adharmic models being proposed ignoring the fact that the open architecture of dharma has been the sole working exemplar for sustainable communal harmony in the history of the world. Yet, every such secularism model is justified on the never-materializing threat of the oxymoron of Hindu fundamentalism and the reductionism of the ever-evolving and self-reforming open architecture to either a fossilized Smriti or a neo-Hinduism myth. Not surprisingly, Koenraad Elst has severely condemned the Bhargava model that has now been embraced by the AAP:
"...In fact, India is not a secular state at all. Casanova is a well-meaning but unforewarned Westerner swallowing and reproducing what he is spoon-fed by Bhargava. The latter is a cunning representative of India’s rulers, who has an interest in pretending that India practices “secularism”, and that anything that might seem unsecular to Westerners is due not to a defect in India’s secularism but to the observers being Westerners who don’t understand India’s unique approach to secularism. Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

... India does not satisfy a minimum definition of a secular state (which means Bhargava and all the other self-described secularists are wrong)..."

One can only wonder how many of AAP's members have been seduced by this "progressive Indian" version 2.0 of secularism.

Let us now apply Rajiv Malhotra's analysis presented in his book 'Being Different' to decipher AAP's DNA.

1. The Aam Aadmi party in its current form is dharma-nirpeksha, just like the Congress. 
Proof: Whereas the original movement of Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev was dharmic (dharma ~ that which upholds, sustains, and maintains in harmony), i.e. arose from a sustainable grass-roots movement to solve problems common to people of all faiths, the AAP has digested this movement by misappropriating the goals, embraced a virulent version of secularism, erasing its entire dharmic basis, thereby making it dharma-nirpeksha, i.e. indifferent to dharma. It follows then that AAP's objectives are unsustainable and prone to adharma and corruption.This is an entirely predictable outcome of embracing dharma-nirpeksha governance methods. Those who foolishly believe that secular parties will somehow reform themselves for India's sake first need to educate themselves by reading the essays and books linked above.

2. The AAP is also anti-Indian. 
Proof: It maintains strong and open links to the Ford Foundation that features prominently in the 'Breaking India' book of Rajiv Malhotra. Ford Foundation has never denied its links to the CIA. This angle has been investigated in-depth by any websites and agencies, including intelligence personnel, so we will not cover this very important topic in this post.

3. Secular parties are an example of an unstable, synthetic unity
Proof: The diversity of groups like the AAP does not enhance but weaken's India's unity since their constituent ideologies are all exclusivist. Consequently, any alliance formed by these contradictory power-centers can only be based on the temporary notion of mere tolerance rather the sustainable mutual-respect that promotes an integral unity within diversity. Such alliances are one of tension-filled convenience that limit such secular parties to being an inherently unstable entity held together solely by unprincipled internal compromises. The promotion of AAP and similar clones to a national stage therefore represents a clear and present danger to India's unity.

This concludes our analysis of Rajeev Bhargava's model of secularism that AAP's ideologues have adopted. We conclude with a brief postscript on a viable alternative to such secular or overtly religious models.

Postscript: A dharma-sapeksha society based on mutual respect.

Rajiv Malhotra's book "Being Different: India's Challenge to Western Universalism" provides detailed and logical arguments for why a dharma-sapeksha society based on mutual respect is the best available alternative to secularism for India. 'Indra's Net' presents this an 'open architecture model'. In other words, it demonstrates the a dharma-sapeksha open architecture based on mutual respect represents both a necessary and sufficient alternative to the biased incumbent model of secularism. In fact, Bhargava's essays on secularism run into a road-block when he talks of inter-religious dialogue because of his limited understanding of the differences between their truth claims, which can be resolved elegantly and fairly based on the dharmic concept of mutual respect. Readers are referred to Rajiv Malhotra's books on this topic to understand the complete picture.

Dharma is a universal law of the cosmos that was discovered in India, which is not limited to any religion, location, or sect in India and is thus acceptable to all. A society without dharma is unsustainable. The state as well as the religious and a-religious communities, as well as every individual entity (including the environment and animal life) in India will interact in an open architecture on the principle of mutual respect and ahimsa (the principle of minimum harm). This bi-directional respect is far better placed than the uni-directional mode of mere tolerance on the basis of which secularism and history-centric faiths interact in the western societies.


  1. Long read, but you have sustained the narrative rather well. Cogent arguments, clear conclusions!! Thanks

  2. Excellent Analysis.... Yes, every guy/gal who was peddling what was selling then (sickularism) will now switch wares to exploit Dharma.... While it is important to allow for 'redemption' (like what RoL folks say), it is also important not to fall for their "neo-" formulations...

    May the Force be with you!

  3. About Dharma is a universal Law - Are we sure it is? Lets hear a voice from the past: This difference is highlighted in the famous conversation between French traveler Fran├žois Bernier and some Brahmins in 1671 when he tried to introduce them to Christianity: “They pretended not their law was universal; that God had only made it for them, and it was, therefore, they could not receive a stranger into their religion: that they thought not our religion was therefore false, but that it might be it was good for us, and that God might have appointed several different ways to go to heaven; but they will not hear that our religion should be the general religion for the whole earth; and theirs a fable and pure device."

    So our pandits in 17th century said, our law isn't universal. Now in 21st century why are pretending otherwise?

    1. pls read & understand what dharma means, properly, rather than the very superficial (i.e. v poor) understanding exhibited by Bernier, on which the question hinges. There are two references in this blog on dharma ethics. One is Rajiv Malhotra's 'Being Different', the other is Sandeep's essays.


      "Hindus pointed out repeatedly that different religions are suited to different temperaments so that different nations have different religions."

      From the dialogue with Bernier, & even from the above reference from Sh.Sita Ram Goel's book its clear that Hindus or at least Brahmins believed their religion is NOT for ALL. Secondly, a Kshatriya's Dharma is very different from a Brahmana's Dharma different from a strI's dharma. Since that is the case, how can Dharma be universal?

    3. your understanding of dharma expressed here is incomplete falling into the same trap as Bernier. Since you've come to such a superb site like VoiceOfDharma, request you to take an extra step and go thru the two references. that should answer the question for u.