‘Ramachandra Guha’s aggressive secularism : His problem with the cow’

published on December 12, 2012

Javed Anand of Communalism Combat came up with a happy phrase : Ramachandra Guha’s aggressive secularism. He said this approvingly in contrast to what he saw as the Congress’s lukewarm secularism during the current run up to the Gujarat elections. He made this observation during a program on NDTV. However, it provided a solution to the riddle of Guha’s liberalism/secularism, which surfaced in his work India After Gandhi (2007). In that work which is largely an historical chronicle Mr. Guha has a loosely structured narrative of events and personalities after the Gandhian period (as the title indicates). In chapter 24, perhaps the weakest part of the work, he attempts an overview of the Sangh Parivar and its activities within the context both of the Ramajanmabhoomi movement (ending with the demolition of the Babri Masjid) and the Sangh’s devotion to the cow.

The historian is unsympathetic to this devotion to the cow. The present writer finds this puzzling. Mr. Guha is disapproving of M.S.Golwalkar’s insistence on the care and respect for the cow. In today’s world the trend in health circles is vegetarianism. Not a day passes by without the medical establishment warning about the dangers of red meat in one’s diet. Simultaneously there is an excessive consumption of beef which requires large inputs in the shape of land and feed for cows. Brazil, one of the largest meat exporters to the western world has encroached considerably on its foreste land in order to raise cattle for beef consumption. India is the third largest exporter of beef and here it is the Middle East that is the client. From Bangladesh cattle thieves take cattle from India and export the meat. The cattle population in India is steadily decreasing.

Most importantly, the suffering of the hapless animals has been well documented in the video ‘Their Last Journey: Cattle Trafficking to Kerala’ (this video may be viewed at Haindava Keralam.com).

In such a context one would expect a thoughtful historian (and one interested in environmental issues as Mr. Guha is or used to be)writing in 2007 to be cognisant of the importance of the cow in Indian culture. Neverthless, Ramachandra Guha is carried away by his prejudice against the Sangh. What motivates this talented author and historian ?

Part of the answer is in his own autobiographical reference in the book Patriots and Partisans where he refers to his family having discarded the sacred thread and whole heartedly embracing secularism. Why casting off the caste symbol of the sacred thread should lead one to the neglect of the cow and the problems associated with the suffering of the dumb animals (the horrors of halal killing of cows is well known) is not the type of question that a secularist, especially an aggressive secularist is likely to ask. This indifference brings ‘secularism’ a bad name and indeed Indian liberalism/secularism is a mish mash of undigested ideas.

The mystery clears up somewhat when one reads Guha’s book Makers of Modern India. The reader should be informed that this is not a theoretical examination of these historical figures. It is a collection of excerpts from 19 politician- thinkers ( as Guha describes them)and provides a service to the general reader who may not get to read their entire writings. There is once again a loose theoretical scaffolding of sorts which is thematically the secular narrative. Prior to each excerpt the author has a brief set of observations.

The familiar names are there : Ram Mohun Roy, Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Gokhale, Syed Ahmed Khan, Jotirao Phule, Verrier Elwin et al.

It is in the last chapter one understands Mr. Guha’s predilections. It is devoted to excerpts from the works of a relatively unknown figure, a Hamid Dalwai (1932-1973) whom Guha describes as the last ‘modernist’ of India. Dalwai, unlike Syed Ahmed Khan, did not secretly favour the Muslim community. His goal was the complete secularisation of both Muslims (his own community) and the Hindus. He advocated women’s rights and the education of Muslims in general in a modern rationalist tradition. As for the Hindus he called upon them to become dynamic and in doing so they would also carry the Muslim population along with them, rather than cater to their obscurantist ideas. Hence, a united front of liberals.

However, for the Hindus to become dynamic they have to shed their own obscurantist views, namely the caste system and the CULT OF THE COW. This is not the place to go into an extended discussion of the caste system erroneously so called. The proper word would be ‘jati’ and this system arose from the exigencies of economic life in ancient India. The jati system was a guild type of system and was the basis of India’s famed economic prosperity. It is not clear whether it is still the basis of India’s entrepreneurial activity. The economic writings of S.Gurumurthy and Professor Vaidyananthan of the Indian Institute of Management (Bangalore) would indicate that the jati system is still the basis of much of it. Throwing that out might end up as throwing the baby out with the bath water. It would,ofcourse, fit neatly into the liberal economic plans of opening the door to FDI (Foreign Direct Investment).

The iniquities of the caste system such as the treatment of the lowest castes, the former Untouchables (now Dalits), are certainly to be condemned and no organisations have been as active in eradicating this social evil as the very Sangh Parivar organisations that the Indian liberals fulminate against. The affirmative programs by the GOI are also to be considered and the recent book by Dr. Rakesh Bahadur Equality and Inclusion : Progress and Development of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes In Independent India (2010) can be usefully referred to.

So, while Hamid Dalwai can be taken seriously on some aspects of the caste system his views on the cult of the cow have to be firmly rejected in their entirety. Ramachandra Guha does not do that and to that extent his secularism morphs into an ‘aggressive secularism’ which all Hindus must reject without hesitation. This is neither modernism nor dynamism but a retreat into atavism.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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