Sunday, October 17, 2010

Good politics is about prudence, not moral perfection

Two weeks have gone by since the Allahabad High Court pronounced a historic verdict on a property dispute that seems to go back at least five hundred years. The verdict says less about the law and more about our country which is remarkable for the extraordinary continuity of its traditions rather than their antiquity. We live at the same time in the first, the eleventh and the twenty-first centuries, and the court’s judgment has upheld this continuity and simultaneity of our historical lives. The verdict has ensured communal harmony but do we have reasons to worry that it might encourage demolition of other mosques on sites where there were pre-existing temples?

Nothing is quite perfect in the world and certainly not human beings. Well-meaning legal and secular fundamentalists, who have criticised this judgment, seek moral perfection in a pragmatic nation. Both Hindus and Muslims worshipped inside the 2.77 acre compound of the Babri Masjid--at least since the 19th century. This peaceful practice was disrupted in 1949 when someone placed idols of Ram inside the mosque as a political act. The judgment of the High Court has restored the plural situation which existed before this political act. Court verdicts are inevitably political but the best ones have kept us united and democratic. This verdict is a good example of prudence, the chief virtue of rulers according to Edmund Burke, because prudence eschews perfection.

Whether Ram was born in a particular spot is of little significance to me and given a choice I would have built a park on this disputed property. However, I respect the deep meaning it holds for others. The High Court judges have also shown consideration for this ideal of public dharma, which in fact gave birth to the Indian republic. India’s founding fathers came to this ideal from different inspirations--Gandhi from the Gita; Nehru from the deeds of Emperor Asoka, and Ambedkar from the Buddha. Such was the importance of this ideal that they placed it at the centre of the Indian flag as dharmachakra, the wheel of dharma. India cannot be understood without dharma, just as France cannot be comprehended without “√©galit√©” nor America without “liberty”.

The good Vidura says in the Mahabharata that in judging a ruler’s actions he looks to the results. If it benefits the people, it is an act of dharma; if it harms them then it is adharma. This is also the spirit behind the pragmatic verdict of the High Court. Unlike Yudhishthira, Vidura would agree to ‘sacrifice an individual for the sake of a village and a village for the sake of a nation’. Vidura is half brother and royal counsellor to the king of Hastinapur and he speaks from the experience of managing a state. In agreeing to sacrifice a person in order to save many, he has drawn a distinction between public and private dharma. The English thinker, Jeremy Bentham, went on to make this criterion famous in the 19th century via his Utilitarian slogan—‘the greatest good of the greatest number’.

Conquerors have come and gone in all countries. Each conqueror razed old monuments to build new ones. Christian shrines came up on pagan temples of Rome and Greece. Muslim conquerors built mosques on Hindu temples just as Hindus and Buddhist fought over their sacred spaces. It is the way of the world. We not unique and we should be relaxed about our history. Since some people are not, this historic judgment has prudently revisited history in order to close it without opening new wounds. It acknowledges the birthplace of Ram without holding anyone responsible for the destruction of a temple or a mosque.

The reaction of people has been mature, which is not surprising at a time of galloping economic growth and rapid change in our society. Indians have moved on--we are not less religious, but we care about other things now and have less appetite for the politics of religion. We are more self-confident and optimistic. For these reasons this verdict will not encourage demolition of other mosques, as some believe. The young, especially, have moved away from the politics of Ayodhya, which is a cautionary warning to the BJP about Hindutva’s relevance. It too should move on to more relevant concerns such as governance. There are more votes in promising judicial, administrative, and police reforms.

This is an important judgment for modern India and the people have responded in a mature and wise manner. By appealing to the subtle, pragmatic, and ancient art of dharma, it is a very Indian verdict. Those who have criticised it seek rational solutions when the vast majority of Indians are driven by belief. The High Court has wisely reclaimed the ancient ideal of public dharma, which is happily the proud foundation stone of our Republic.


Indi_doc said...

Gurucharanji, reading this blog was as pleasurable as your other pen-creations.

Your observation is, so far, the most satisfying and balanced commentary on the Ayodhya verdict. Your suggestion to BJP to avail better public support in non-religious issues is right on the head. Trust other regional parties also give heed to your experienced logic.

What will be the Supreme Court's stand on this matter, is to be seen.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
You have observed what many refuse to see. I hope the Honourable Supreme Court sees the case in the same light. Amen.
PS: Write more to educate those who can read and think.

Anonymous said...

What you describe as prudence seems to sound a lot like my "moral perfection". The comment about utilitarianism particularly resonated with me. I, however, am not very keen on conservatism. I always found it disturbing on a visceral level.

Anonymous said...

Mr Das
I hate you for making me fall in love at 34.

I am reading 'The Difficulty Of Being Good' these days.


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