Vol. XLIII No. 10 March 08, 2019

Epistemic Critiques of Hindutva

Prabhat Patnaik

AnchorIT is heartening to see that several intellectual critiques of Hindutva on epistemic grounds are beginning to appear now – one has come across a few online in recent weeks. The immediate shock of seeing the intellectual discourse in the country being swept aside by sheer brute force had a numbing effect; this effect is finally wearing off. But the critiques are from several different perspectives, and while it may appear churlish and even sectarian to distinguish between them at this stage, sheer self-clarification demands that we do so; indeed doing so has nothing sectarian about it.
One critique refers to the complete sense of certitude with which Hindutva positions are held, and the reluctance of its votaries to engage in any argument with others because of this certitude. This critique would hold that since one can never be absolutely certain of the truth of one’s own position, and since there is always a possibility that one may be wrong and that others may be right, one should always engage with the ideas of others. This argument derives the need to engage with others from the absence of certitude about one’s own position, seeing a virtue in the absence of such certitude.
To be sure one can never be certain about the correctness of one’s position, but a certain minimum threshold of certainty about one’s position is essential for any praxis. Seeing a virtue in the absence of certitude therefore can become an argument for eschewing praxis altogether. To critique the Hindutva forces on the grounds that they hold their views with certitude runs the risk therefore of degenerating into a critique of any certitude and hence any praxis, of being as critical of the Left as of the Right, and hence upholding a liberal non-interventionism which serves to preserve the status quo. After all when one opposes the caste system, or when one opposes patriarchy, one’s opposition is informed by certitude. Lack of certitude in other words is not always a virtue. On the contrary when Rabindranath Tagore had written his famous poem Ekla Chalo Re he was upholding the virtue of certitude.
To be sure it may be argued that opposition to the caste system or to patriarchy are ethical positions, and that while one may have certitude in one’s ethical positions, one should not have certitude with regard to one’s scientific positions. But this distinction itself, between ethical and scientific positions, cannot stand scrutiny. Even opposition to the caste system or patriarchy, and praxis derived from such opposition, requires a degree of certitude, and one cannot hold the absence of certitude to be a virtue without the risk of becoming a status quo-ist in these matters.
The basic difference between the Left and the Right lies in the fact that the Left necessarily engages with evidence, and with the ideas of others, even its opponents, including the evidence they put forward; and it does so, not despite the fact that it holds its positions with a certitude which enables it to engage in praxis, but precisely because of this fact. The need to engage with differing and even contrary ideas becomes particularly important for the Left because it is engaged in and committed to praxis, and it is of paramount importance for it to ensure that its praxis is not informed by wrong ideas.
In other words, to see a contradiction between certitude and engagement with evidence and the ideas of others, is the characteristic of a particular epistemic position, a liberal position which eschews praxis and is generally chary about disturbing the status quo. There is no contradiction between the two within an alternative epistemic position, the one that the Left subscribes to.This Left epistemic position is characterised by the fact that it seeks to interpret the world with a view to changing it, as Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feurbach had put it.
This thesis of course is sometimes misinterpreted as if the act of interpreting the world and the act of changing the world are two separate and unconnected acts; but the point of the eleventh thesis is to distinguish between two epistemic positions, one whose interpretation of the world is meant to inform praxis and the other whose interpretation of the world is no more than a speculation upon the status quo.
Within the former epistemic position, not only is engaging with evidence and with ideas of the others not in contradiction with praxis and hence the certitude that is required for engaging in praxis, but is actually essential for it. It is the only means of ensuring that the certitude itself is open to change.There can be no better instance of engagement with the ideas of others while holding firmly to one’s own position, than Marx’s Theories of Surplus Value which are sometimes taken to constitute Volume IV of Capital.
Hindutva of course does not engage with any other ideas, other than merely using derogatory adjectives for them, neither with the ideas of the Left nor with those of the liberals; its attitude is marked by bigotry, and unquestioning acceptance of the “revelations” emanating from the top. It can be critiqued from both the Left and the liberal epistemic positions. But within these two positions too, both critiquing Hindutva, there is an important difference which we must not lose sight of. A manifestation of this difference is the fact that the liberal critique of Hindutva which apotheosizes lack of certitude per se, and hence by implication lack of praxis to change the world, can fall into the groove of targeting both the Right and the Left.This liberal stance however derives from a specific epistemic position that is quite foreign to the Left, and is not the only possible epistemic position. Within the Left epistemic position, the certitude required for praxis does not preclude engagement with others’ ideas but necessitates it.
A second kind of critique of the Hindutva position that one comes across is its unwillingness to engage in discussions with others and arrive at compromise solutions. This again is a perfectly valid criticism, like the one discussed above which focuses on its total lack of engagement with other ideas; it also underlies, like the lack of engagement with others’ ideas, the inherent authoritarianism of the Hindutva position. But it too has to be interpreted carefully.
Amartya Sen in his Collective Choice and Social Welfare approvingly quotes the nineteenth century British author Walter Bagehot to the effect that democracy is “government by discussion”.This is not a very apt imagery since discussion suggests a consensus outcome which is impossible in a society with class antagonism. But, even if we accept the discussion imagery for a moment, any such discussion can at best be marked by a temporary political truce in the sense of agreeing to accept the rule of the government, while class struggle continues to go on, with the belief held by the force that wishes to change the social order that in the course of time its position will command greater public support and adherence. Discussion does not mean that the parties to such discussion do not have any positions of their own or abandon their positions as a consequence of such discussion in order to arrive at an agreement.
In other words, when the Left agrees to participate in a system marked by such “government by discussion” it does so not by abandoning its own Left positions but in the belief that its positions will get vindicated over time and acquire greater support than they currently enjoy. In fact typically in history when the Left positions have succeeded in acquiring greater support and popular backing, it is the opponents of the Left who have ceased to participate in “government by discussion” and tried to scuttle democracy, as was evident in Spain in the 1930s, in Chile in 1974, and at this very moment in several Latin American countries. But “government by discussion” does not mean that the parties to such discussion empty their minds of ideas while settling down to such discussion, any more than engaging with the ideas of others means that one abandons all one’s convictions and all one’s praxis.
Precisely because welcome intellectual critiques of Hindutva on epistemic grounds are now beginning to appear, it becomes essential to demarcate the Left epistemic critique from other critiques.