Jul 4, 2021 • 23M

#134 "Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani" Or "तथापि हृदय भारतीय अस्ति"? 🎧

Religion in India. Politics in Afghanistan.

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Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy. Audio narrations by Ad Auris.
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While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways.

Audio narration by Ad-Auris.  

India Policy Watch: प Se Pew. प Se Pluralism  

Insights on burning policy issues in India


I’m sure by now most of you would have seen the findings of the new Pew survey on religion in India. The report is here and the methodology is outlined here. The size of the sample chosen, the extensive field work done, the questionnaire used and the index devised to measure religious segregation are rigorous and thorough. This is a solid survey that should be basis for further academic work. It will be useful for Pew to publish the raw data soon for further research.

What The Survey Says About Us

My first reaction reading the findings was here’s a giant Rorschach test for all political commentators in India. What you might conclude from the report will reveal more about you than about India. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s a short summary of the findings if you found the report TL;DR:

  1. Indians believe they have religious freedom. Respecting all religions to them is an important marker to being truly Indian. It is also core to their own religious identity. Further they don’t see widespread religious discrimination around them.

  2. Indians value religious diversity. However, Indians of a religion see themselves as very different from others of a different religion. A few things therefore follow from here:

    • Stopping religious intermarriages is a high priority for everyone.

    • Substantial proportion of Indians (upwards of 30 percent) won’t like to have followers of other religions as neighbours.

    • A majority of Indians have almost all their close friends from within their religious groups

  3. A majority of Hindus conflate their religious identity with their national identity. They believe it is important to be a Hindu to be a true Indian (64 percent).

  4. Caste is still an important factor for cultural reasons. People don’t prefer caste intermarriages as much as religious intermarriages. But a surprisingly low proportion of Indians (below 20 percent) feel there is a lot of discrimination against SCs, STs and other backward classes. Even those in the ‘lower’ castes don’t feel so. Yet, most Indians don’t make close friends outside of their caste.

  5. There’s almost a universal belief in God. Religion is central to the lives of Indians. There’s limited evidence of ‘secularisation’ of the society with economic progress in the last 30 years.

  6. South is quite different from the rest of the country especially Central (UP, Uttarakhand, MP) and North in almost every parameter. Interestingly, more people from South feel there is caste based discrimination in society than Indians from any other region.

The 16-page report is rich on insights. Yet at its heart is that old feature about India that confounds those who study it.

A paradox.

Indians are tolerant of other religions but will have nothing to do with people belonging to them. Our affairs are our affairs. Your affairs are yours. Never the twain shall meet and we all live happily ever after. That’s pretty much it.

Predictably people have used this paradox in the findings to push what they believe is their truth. To some the report is a vindication of their belief that India continues to be an open, tolerant society. To others the report is a proof Indians are intolerant in practice while preaching otherwise. And it is getting worse.

Confirming My Priors

So, why should I be left behind? Why shouldn’t I use the survey to reinforce my priors? Let me do that before I write about the political frame to use to interpret the survey. Here’s my list of truths that will from here on be served by the findings of this survey

  1. The central paradox the survey reports has been true for the Indian society for centuries. I don’t want to lapse into romanticism but this is why people of diverse ethnic and religious groups settled here over time while retaining their identities. And this is why large parts of India could be under non-Hindu rulers (Buddhist, Jain or Muslim) for long periods in history while still remaining a Hindu majority land. This idea of ‘our religious affairs are ours, yours are yours” became the credo of the rulers too. This is not to say there wasn’t any religious persecution or proselytising in India. There was. But it never lasted long or spread wide to change the composition of its society. As they say, this paradox is a feature, not a bug. We might have a Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb but the two rivers don’t end up merging into one. We live together, separately. This is the secret of our longevity. Allama Iqbal, once wrote

    “Yunan-o-Misr-o-Roma sab mit gaye jahan se ab tak magar
    Hai baki naam-o-nishan hamara,
    Kuchh baat hai ke hasti mit’ti nahin hamari
    Sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara”

    Translation: The cultures of ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans have disappeared from the face of this Earth. But we still draw our tradition from the civilisation that flourished around Indus. We weathered many assaults from invaders, yet we didn’t lose our essence. There must be something unique in us.

    To me, the ability to live with this paradox is the uniqueness that Iqbal was looking for. I quote Iqbal here on purpose. I think he was one among the few original political thinkers to have emerged from the East in the last many centuries.

  2. We are a conservative society with streaks of liberalism. Not the other way around as we are often led to believe in certain sections of media and commentariat. I use conservative and liberal in the classical sense. We like to conserve what we think is good in us. The overwhelming belief in the religious rituals at key life events that shows up in survey is an indication of this. As is the aversion to intermarriages of any kind. If it has lasted so long it must be good, is a core belief. Surely, economic progress and urbanisation are changing our behaviour in public sphere. But we remain steadfastly conservative in private.

  3. We spoke about pluralism in the edition last week. I’m sorry to be quoting myself but it is appropriate here:

    The construct (value pluralism), popularised by Isaiah Berlin, allows for two or more incommensurable values to be held at the same time by a polity each of which may be true and still be at odds with one another. For Berlin, these differences are unlike a titanic battle between the right and the wrong; instead they are about accepting contradictions and differences in values which then deliver diversity and strength to a society.

    In the sense that Berlin thought of pluralism, I’d argue, we are truly plural. We can hold the two seemingly conflicting ideas of religious tolerance and communal separation of identities at the same time and live with the contradictions. Those looking to change this pluralism instead of trying to understand it are toying with something precious.

The survey is a valuable aid in understanding what constitutes the identity of an Indian. This is important for politics in India. After all, identity and ideology are the two axes on which Indian politics operates (Chhibber & Verma). The role of the state in recognising and advancing the rights of the minorities and the marginalised is an ideological dividing line. Some parties want a proactive role of the state. Others like the society to solve its issues. Electoral studies have shown a clear divide among voters on this which dictate their choices at the polls. The Constituent Assembly debated this vigorously and the Indian constitution leaned towards state taking a more proactive role on this. But the lurking suspicion all along was that the society wasn’t in favour of this. The survey results confirm those suspicions to some extent.

Framework For Classifying Societies

Over the past year, I have spent some time reading up on authoritarianism and the rise of majoritarian instinct in societies. I have come to develop a crude classification of a diverse society with one dominant identity group. There are a total of five positions a society could be in at a point in time:

  1. Tinderbox: This is the scenario just short of ethnic cleansing or civil war. There is visceral hatred for other communities in the society and there are historical grievances, real or imagined, that won’t permit even an uneasy truce. Things are on the brink and a mere spark is enough to engulf the society in flames either through state sponsored cleansing or riots.

  2. Under the thumb: There’s a simmering hate for the other in private but it is mostly couched in public. The other communities are seen as inferior and undeserving of an equal status. There is an institutionalised effort to suppress them or to show them their place. If this is achieved, there’s peace and stability but on the terms of majority community. Others will need to make peace with it. If they resist, it will take the society into the ‘tinderbox’ zone.

  3. Living together, separately: There’s a strongly held belief in equality of all communities. This is accepted by all and the public behaviour of people is consistent with this. But there’s a deeply held belief about the other communities being different from you. Therefore, there is no coming together of identities in the personal domain. There’s also an understanding that the dominant identity is the ‘true’ identity of the society and this is manifested in everyday practices though not enforced. We have discussed this scenario. This is what the survey tells about India of the present.

  4. Syncretism (later multiculturalism): The multiple identities blend into one another through kinship and social relationships to create a super identity that people hold dear over other identities. This is the American myth of being a melting pot blending immigrants and their cultures into one that originated from a play of the same name. Syncretism is the dominant cultural strand of such societies with willing efforts by everyone to forget, or diminish, collective histories, religion and culture. Over the last two decades, this idea has lost steam. It has given way to cultural pluralism or multiculturalism where the coming together of identities is achieved without the radical act of forgetting your past. Easier said than done.

  5. Global village: This is John Lennon’s Imagine territory. All the people sharing the world together as one happy family.

If I were to generalise (further), I’d suggest through human history ‘tinderbox’ or ‘under the thumb’ have been the predominant positions of societies. The advent of liberal democracies in the west nudged these societies gradually into the ‘living together, separately’ position till around 1960s. The civil rights movement and the strengthening of the ‘left liberal’ platform meant a move towards syncretism. Further deepening of identity politics brought in multiculturalism to the fore.

This is the ongoing tussle between conservative and liberal positions. Where should a society be? I’d say the natural state of a society is ‘tinderbox’ or ‘under the thumb’ positions. This is the Hobbesian view. The desire among liberals would be to edge it closer to ‘multiculturalism’ while the conservatives would like to be in the ‘living together, separately’ state. There’s some evidence to suggest India possibly has a longer history of being in the ‘living together, separately’ position than western nations. I say this despite caste oppression and violence being a stark reality in Indian society. Like the Pew survey shows even the members of the ‘lower’ caste don’t believe this discrimination exists as much as outsiders do. It is something I cannot get my head around.

But like Naipaul wrote at the beginning of The Bend In The River:

The world is what it is” .

The Constitution nudges India towards syncretism or multiculturalism but as the survey shows it is a bridge too far. It is easier to lapse to the ‘under the thumb’ position from where India is today than to transition into a syncretic society. In that sense, the political right has it easy. It can exploit the current position or dog-whistle for the less liberal position without losing electoral strength. The political left or the liberals have the more onerous task of not letting the society slide while nudging it forward towards a more liberal position. This is fraught with electoral risks. On identity, therefore, the right will hold sway. Of course, elections aren’t won only on identity. But it will help the right to keep it at the front and centre of all political debates. And we have seen they are good at it.

Matsyanyaaya: Afghanistan

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Pranay Kotasthane

Matsyanyaaya accurately describes what Afghanistan is heading towards. With the Resolute Support Mission (RSM) — a US-dominated support force — planning to complete the withdrawal process by September 11, another chapter in Afghanistan’s political journey is set to begin.

How did we get Here?

It’s easy to point out many mistakes with the benefit of hindsight but equally difficult to pinpoint the main cause behind a tragedy. The US military withdrawal too can be explained by multiple causes. Let’s trace the points of failure in reverse chronological order.

Failure point 1: The Doha Debacle

The US signing an uncharacteristically submissive ‘peace’ agreement with the Taliban only brought more violence to Afghanistan. While the agreement went to great lengths to refer to the Taliban as ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban’, the semantic acrobatics fooled none. It left the state of Afghanistan demoralised and gave a boost to the Taliban and its backers in the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. Even back then, this newsletter argued that:

“Essentially, the US has committed to a full-withdrawal over 14 months. But the Taliban has not conceded much at all. I do appreciate that a withdrawal was inevitable but the way in which this has happened, it seems to be another humiliating moment for the US.”


“To give any serious consideration to guarantees by a terrorist group that it would not support other terrorist groups indicates incompetence, short-sightedness, or both.”

Misguided Talks With the Taliban Won’t Bring Peace to Afghanistan, TheWire.in

These fears have come true. The agreement has only increased Taliban’s preference for violence. The lesson they took away was that violence delivers more than negotiations.

Failure point 2: The premature withdrawal of ISAF in 2014

The withdrawal of foreign presence in Afghanistan, in fact, started way back, in 2010. By 2014, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had transferred security provision at the district-level to an underprepared Afghanistan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF).

Apart from the obvious problem of corruption, the ANDSF was hobbled not by financial resources, but by a lack of human capital, poor leadership, and lack of training.

Meanwhile, a recent paper by Fetzer et al. shows that the Taliban took advantage of the vacuum created by this change of guard:

“We find a significant, sharp, and timely decline of insurgent violence in the initial phase – the security transfer to Afghan forces; we find that this is followed by a significant surge in violence in the second phase – the actual physical withdrawal of foreign troops. We argue that this pattern is consistent with a signaling model, in which the insurgents reduce violence strategically to facilitate the foreign military withdrawal to capitalize on the reduced foreign military presence afterwards.”

In other words, this is not the first time that a withdrawal is being bungled up in Afghanistan.

Failure point 3: The Inability to See Through Pakistan’s Double-Game

To get to the original sin of the US strategy, one has to go back even further. Even after 9/11, the US refused to see through the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s duplicitous game. Through some strange calculations, Pakistan became a US ally in the Global War on Terrorism, while also providing shelter to the likes of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leadership. Meanwhile, Pakistan also succeeded in getting the US to believe that the latter had to solve Kashmir and Afghanistan together, lest the South Asian nuclear tinderbox catch fire.

Over the last five years or so, the US has become much better in understanding Pakistan’s game. Yet, Afghanistan continues to bear the consequences of this strategic blunder.

How might the Future pan out?

What’s likely to happen next? To me, it seems that three scenarios are possible.

Scenario 1: A Power Sharing Arrangement between Taliban and the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan takes shape

This is the scenario that most countries are hoping for, and a possibility that many Afghans have reconciled with. And yet, this scenario seems unlikely. Taliban bombing spree through the last twelve months in Kabul and the continued attacks on security forces in the northern provinces suggest that it has no inclination towards a detente. Buoyed by the US withdrawal and the MJC’s support, the Taliban is more likely to aim for a complete monopoly over the use of force.

Scenarios 2a and 2b: The ANDSF defeats Taliban or vice versa

An outright military by either side also seems unlikely. The ANDSF doesn’t have the might to protect every inch of territory from the Taliban but it does have the capability to defend key urban centres. On the other hand, the Taliban is not a national movement and will face significant headwinds in provinces dominated by non-Pashtun forces.

Scenario 3: Return of a Civil War

Even if Taliban were to take over Kabul and overthrow the State, it will face dogged resistance from regional warlords, who are already shaping up to make a comeback. Husain Haqqani, writing for The Hill suggests that even the US should embrace this approach:

“That all is not lost in Afghanistan is exemplified by the willingness of Afghan civilians to form militias to resist the Taliban. The U.S. armed various Iraqi militias against ISIS, and there is no reason why a similar approach cannot be adopted in Afghanistan.

Of all the three scenarios, it is this one that seems most likely at the moment. In other words, peace will remain elusive, US withdrawal or not.

What About India?

Regardless which scenario plays out, the rise of the Taliban does not augur well for the India in the short-term. Taliban’s victory reaffirms the Pakistani military-jihadi complex’s faith in using terrorism as state policy, a lesson it might then apply against India with renewed energy. Second, India’s economic and diplomatic footprint will reduce. Indeed, this process has already begun with the closure of two consulates in Herat and Jalalabad. Third, given the close ties of the LeT, JeM, and the Taliban, there is a tangible fear that these forces will regroup in eastern Afghanistan, a hotbed of anti-India activities in the past. This could allow Pakistan to use terrorism against India while claiming that it has driven terrorists out of Pakistan. All in all, India’s reluctance to play a bigger role in Afghanistan earlier has meant that it is left with far fewer options at hand.

Engaging with some elements of Taliban might hold India in good stead if Scenarios 1 or 2b emerge. Nevertheless, given that Scenario 2 is more likely, India must prepare to help its friends, not just in the north but also to anti- Taliban forces in the south. India’s focus over the long-term should shift towards eliminating Pakistan-backed terrorist outfits’ relocation to eastern Afghanistan.

The long-term hope for India is that as the US reduces its presence, Pakistan will be left with the unenviable task of managing the volatile situation in Afghanistan. It will be drawn into the seemingly irreconcilable differences in the Afghanistan polity. The Afghanistan-Pakistan rivalry is an enduring one. Even though a much smaller state, Afghanistan retains asymmetric capabilities to hurt Pakistan. The victory for the MJC might turn out to be a pyrrhic one. All said, hope is not a policy. For now, India must contend with a re-energised Pakistani military-jihadi complex.

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Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters

  1. [Podcast] “Religion and Identity in Contemporary India”: The Grand Tamasha podcast where Milan Vaishnav discusses the survey with Neha Sahgal from the Pew Research

  2. [Video] Paul Collier, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at Oxford University on his book “Exodus: immigration and multiculturalism in the 21st century”.

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