Saturday, January 14, 2006

Religious narcissism January 15, 2006

Last month I visited the ‘post-secular world’. I found myself sitting next to a group of white Americans on a train from Washington to New York, who told me blandly that I would go to hell because I believed in abortion and evolution. I had heard that Bush’s America had turned religious, but I could not imagine how much till that morning. I was their captive for three hours, and they decided to do their good deed and try to convert me to their faith.
Jurgen Habermas, one of the most influential thinkers in the West, explains religion’s return, especially in America, in Religion and Rationality: Essays on Reason, God, and Modernity. He says that people have traditionally found solace in religion when threatened, and the emergence of ‘post-secular societies’ is a reaction to terrorism after 9/11. The religious values of love, community, and godliness also help to offset the global dominance of an ethic of competitiveness and acquisitiveness in the capitalist workplace. In post-reform India too, I have noticed that the young are increasingly overwhelmed by the demands of work and material success, and have begun to seek refuge in various sects of bhakti.
This fundamentalist post-secular America is so different from the one in which I grew up. During my college days in the sixties I read the great modern thinkers and I learned that reason was superior to belief (Hegel); that God diminished man’s sublimity (Feuerbach); that religion was an ‘opiate of the masses’ (Marx); and there was no ‘future of an illusion’ (Freud) because ‘God was dead’(Nietzsche). I returned to India expecting the world to gradually turn secular with the spread of modernity. But the India that I came back to was, arguably, the world’s most religious place. I worried that religion made Indians passive and accepting, and turned them away from the pressing problems of society when we needed an active and engaged citizenry in democracy to fight society’s injustices. So, I turned for inspiration to the third goal of classical Indian life, to dharma or right conduct, rather than the transcendent goal of moksha. Dharma was secular while moksha was religious.

Over time I have discovered, however, that a secular life based on the noble end of dharma cannot substitute the mesmerising power of moksha. Secularism is a noble but limited ethic—I don’t think it can replace religion. In a similar vein, Habermas explains that many of our modern ideals, such as the intrinsic worth of all human beings that underlies human rights, stem from the religious idea of the equality of all men in the eyes of God. Religious idealism and biblical justice, he reminds us, also infused the civil rights movement in America in the 1960s. Were these invaluable religious sources of morality and justice to atrophy, he is doubtful whether modern societies would be able to sustain these ideals on their own. Religion's return, however, does present an undeniable danger and risk in a post-secular world. Hence, in a recent lecture, ‘Religion in the Public Sphere’, Habermas spoke about the commendable idea of toleration, which is the foundation of modern democratic culture. He called it a two-way street. Not only must believers tolerate each others' beliefs, but also the atheism of nonbelievers. Disbelieving secularists, similarly, must value the convictions of religious citizens. Only those religions who can suspend the temptation of theological narcissism--the conviction that my religion alone provides the path to salvation--are welcome in our rapidly changing, post-secular world.

A guide to clear thinking, January 1, 2006

We live in unusual times. Who would have imagined in 1991, when communism died and our reforms began, that fourteen years later the Indian republic would become hostage to the extraordinary influence of the Left? For almost two years now, it has been instructive to observe the mind of the Indian Left. And if one compares it to the Chinese communist mind, the result is a guide to clear thinking.

Both Chinese and Indian communists claim to be compassionate, but the Chinese version of compassion is tough while the Indian is tender. The Chinese invest in roads; thus they create opportunities for private investment, which in turn generates productive and enduring jobs. India’s communists create jobs through the Employment Guarantee Act, which they claim will also create roads. If the Indian strategy is implemented brilliantly—an unhealthy assumption, but let it pass--it will put money in the pockets of the jobless, but the roads will get washed away in one monsoon. China’s strategy will give their people world class roads but not money. Both strategies are based on good intentions--Indian communists give fish to the hungry; Chinese communists teach them to fish. The tender impulse gives quick relief to the suffering; the tough impulse cures the disease.

Indian communists prefer to protect the jobs and perquisites of the lucky few (about 8 % of Indians) in the organised, unionised sector. Chinese communists care about the unlucky many who don’t have decent jobs. Indian communists stall labour reforms, defend an unviable public sector, and advocate high interest on pensions. Chinese communists work hard to build exports and create an investment friendly climate. This means, for example, that Chinese entrepreneurs can lay off workers when demand falls. Indian entrepreneurs cannot do so, and thus prefer to invest in machines rather than be saddled with workers with lifetime employment. Therefore, the Chinese are creating millions of productive, new jobs, while Indians are protecting thousands of unproductive old jobs. Chinese compassion is tough while Indian compassion is tender.

Chinese communists select potential gold medal winners for their Olympic team. India’s communists fight for Ganguly’s inclusion in our cricket team. More to the point, India’s Leftists sacrifice merit in advocating reservations in education and jobs. Hence, China will not only win gold medals at the Olympics, but it will create a society based on merit and excellence.

As we begin a new year we are fortunate to have at the helm three admirable reformers to guide our nation. They have a solid track record of economic reform grounded in tough compassion. They know, for example, that all Indians will only benefit from reforms if India creates an industrial revolution based on the export of labour intensive, low tech manufactures like toys, shoes and garments. It is the only way to broad scale prosperity. In order to achieve this goal, however, we need at the minimum labour and power reforms. But our tender hearted populists oppose these stridently. On this first day of 2006 it is the nation’s fervent hope that our reformers will find the courage to resist the opportunism of our political class which masquerades as tender compassion. So, the next time communists try to hijack a reform, our reformers should ask them, would they rather be a tender-minded, compassionate father who presents his son with a bike on his birthday or his tough-minded compassionate neighbour, who insists on the long-term kindness of teaching his son the work ethic and makes him earn the bike?

The discreet charm of the Metro, Dec. 18, 2005

Sheila Dixit may be one of our best chief ministers, but Elattuvalapil Sreedharan will do more to knit the vast and disparate people of Delhi into one wholesome community. I rode in his Metro the other day and I came away convinced that we are about to create a new public culture in the nation’s capital. The Metro was clean, quiet, and efficient, as I had expected, but I also felt a sudden bond with strangers. For twenty-two minutes, as I rode in the comfort which the Mughal Emperor would have envied, I observed people recover some of the grace and friendliness that they normally reserve for relatives and friends. I felt connected to every person on the train. It was the same feeling I had as a child when I first rode on Mumbai’s suburban train in the 1950s.

As I came out on the street, however, my old fears returned. So did my revulsion for the filth around me. I felt separate instead of connected. The child inside the Metro had become an adult who felt the old status anxiety that I feel when I ride in my car, when I am more aware of differences with others than similarities. I wanted to stand away from the crowd than be a part of it. When public spaces are not kindly, you seek escape behind the barricade of your car or your gated home. When ordinary life lacks dignity, you run in search of physical and psychological cover. When you ride in a DTU bus you want to distance yourself and to feel superior to others.

Nothing could be nobler, more human than to feel deep inside that we are all one in every way that really matters. To feel this, however, you need to share unthreatening public spaces. Since we are not a culture of public squares and piazzas of say, the Mediterranean countries, we need to create other opportunities for rubbing shoulders with fellow citizens, and build empathy and respect for them. I sometimes get this nice feeling in a small town bazaar, but I usually feel this connectedness on Sunday afternoons when I am surrounded by picnickers in Lodhi Gardens. Sometimes when I am watching cricket on TV, I want to rush into the street and accost the first stranger to tell him about Pathan’s bowling. Music is also a great leveller, and I remember the same feeling at a Spic Macay concert years ago, listening to Malikarjun Mansur surrounded by hundreds of students.

Delhi’s Metro offers a great chance to change the city’s public culture. The best way to return the compliment to Sreedharan would be to encourage the new culture to spill out from below to above the ground. The challenge for Delhi’s government and its citizens is to make public spaces around the Metro clean and pleasant as well. Particularly old Connaught Place, where I used go as a boy to “eat the air” as we say in India. It will need more than the Metro, however, to create the new culture, Vyom Akhil, my friend in Orissa, reminds me. It will need educating boys not to urinate on the road, nor to halt their scooter in the middle of traffic in order to answer your mobile phone. But a new mode of transport is a powerful way to bring about a civic and democratic revolution in what has always been an unkind city. After all, Mumbai’s superior public culture originated, in part, in its better transport system.