Harsh Madhusudan, Rajeev Mantri speak to WION about their book, the one that PM Modi endorsed on Twitter

Written By: Sonal Gera WION
New Delhi, Delhi, India Published: Nov 26, 2020, 09:50 PM(IST)

Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri Photograph:( WION )

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For authors Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri, a recommendation from PM Modi served as a validation of their hard work and the distinct political philosophy they harbour for modern India.

In modern India, there cannot be a bigger endorsement than what comes from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So when he, on one fine day, tweeted about a certain book that he was left impressed with, the world, along with India, took notice.

For authors Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri, a recommendation from PM Modi served as a validation of their hard work and the distinct political philosophy they harbour for modern India.

Their book 'A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State' is an essay on what India has been lacking in past few decades, and what it needs to do come on par with the more developed nations of the world. The authors, through their book, give their audience an essential reminder that India is a civilisational State and not just a post-colonial entity.

PM Modi said in a tweet that he had read the book and recommended it to his followers. He wrote, “Over the past few days, I have been reading, ‘A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State’ by two bright minds @harshmadhusudan and @RMantri. Their work makes rich contributions to intellectual discourse. I hope you read it too…”

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"Our book is about political philosophy and public policy, so there could not be a bigger recognition than the Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi himself, reading and recommending it. We did not expect PM Modi’s praise for our work. We are grateful that he took the time to engage with the ideas we presented in the book, and it goes without saying that has increased the effective audience of the book multifold," the authors told wionews.com, in an exclusive conversation. 

The name of the book is particularly interesting. Because every person has his/her own understanding and idea of what India has been and what it should be. So how does their idea of new India stand to influence people differently?

"The idea of India we espouse is not one that is definitive or exclusive, and it is as descriptive as it is prescriptive. It is one of 'individual rights in a civilisational state', which is also the subtitle of the book. It builds on the ancient ethos of India - Dharma - while contextualizing it for the present times. After Partition and Independence, India formed a Republic which still emphasised group rights and identities in the eyes of the State while underplaying the ancient heritage of the land and its peoples," they said, adding, "India chose a hypocritical, inefficient and corrupt economic model while declining to ally with the leading democracies of the era in the name of postcolonialism. Our book is meant as a corrective, but we welcome critiques and new ideas. India is ancient but the republic is new. Similarly, our cultures are old but our citizens are young. We try to reconcile that."

Talking of critiques, for the better part of seven decades after India achieved its Independence, the Nehruvian idea of the country held sway in its polity. And any criticism of the way India has been functioning can be attributed to that period of time. The authors partly agree.

They said, "Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his colleagues -- initially including Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, BR Ambedkar, SP Mukherjee and C Rajagopalachari -- had a very challenging task when India became independent. Nehru’s governance paradigm had three key pillars of socialism, non-alignment (that eventually placed India in the Communist camp during the Cold War), and a politically convenient distortion of secularism. This paradigm was carried forward by his daughter, grandson and in a different version his granddaughter-in-law but it did not succeed in building a secure, prosperous India even as decade after decade rolled on after 1947.

"Yes, there was much progress in absolute terms but compared to people's aspirations and many other similarly placed countries, India did not quite succeed. That is fairly obvious even though we can quibble on the details."
 
But didn't the class difference and the basic way of governing came as an extension of the monarchy and British rule that were there till India gained its Independence?

"To some extent, yes, they did. But this too was a failing of -- or choice of -- those who led India after Independence. In many ways, the new elite decided -- perhaps, subconsciously -- that it wanted to replace the colonial elite," Madhusudan and Mantri said.

The young authors consider the lack of awareness among people of India as one of the major challenges towards achieving the ultimate goal.

"We think a key challenge will be simply for people to learn about the issues from first principles. The issues need to be discussed threadbare, and another key challenge will be achieving an exchange where all sides approach each other with respect when debating these critical national issues. Important topics in areas as diverse as economic policy, national security, historiography, the freeing of Hindu temples and schools, personal civil laws, gender equity and so on need to be discussed with scholarship," they told wionews.com.

Harsh Madhusudan added, "We are against political correctness for the sake of it, but we must also work towards more sensitivity without totally giving up on wit and the occasional barb. Some excusable mistakes will be made but we can collectively make present day India worthy of its heritage again."

In every democratic system of the world, the opposition plays the most important role -- to question the governance. But the recent victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies have decimated the concept.

Does India feel the lack or need?

"Every democracy should have a robust opposition. However, opposition can come from many sources, not just from political parties although that is also necessary. India in any case has federalism and a bicameral legislature. We feel that any BJP-led government is additionally kept in check by its own supporters. That is the power of a movement committed explicitly to ideas - the focus stays on the policy and political objectives of the movement. The philosophy is the north star. Contrast this with political parties that are essentially crowds around a family," the authors said.

So has the Indian National Congress failed to capitalise on its foundation?

"Unfortunately, there is nothing Indian or National or Congressional about the Indian National Congress anymore - pardon our reference to the famous quip about the Holy Roman Empire. The Congress is a party that has strayed very far from its roots, which is why the people of India are rejecting it. To remain relevant, the Congress will have to make ideological concessions and reinvent itself," Madhusudan and Mantri said.

An excerpt from the book -- On Kashmir, Pakistan and Karl Popper -- has particularly caught everyone's attention for the juxtaposition of political views it stands to represent.

It says, "There is an inherent tension between, for example, support for absolute free speech and other liberties and the dystopia that may be caused by irrational and possibly violent intolerance of the chronically intolerant. Ideally, we would not like this tension to exist and prefer individual rights to be fully guaranteed by the State at all times. But there are cases where the exercise of such individual rights can lead to the demise of the very State that is supposed to protect these rights. How then does one square the circle once again?" (The excerpt is given at the end of the copy.)

Experts have partly agreed, and begged to differ too. At the same time.

To this end, the dynamic authors explained, "Karl Popper is among the greatest philosophers and thinkers of all time, and one of the key ideas he postulated, and which we have presented in the book, is that one should not tolerate those who are intolerant beyond a point. He also talked about historicism but let us focus on the insight that liberalism should not be used to destroy the conditions that enable that liberalism to survive and thrive.

"Admittedly, the question of when the transitional point threatening the openness of societies occurs is subjective, and that is what we try to debate in the book. In most stable areas and normal conditions, where there is no de facto war-like situation, we would like near-absolute freedom of speech alongside an increase in state, policing and judicial capacity. Importantly, the lack of blasphemy and apostasy as concepts in our Dharmic heritage provide strong support for this position."

They added, "But Popper's key point remains that ultimately freedom cannot be used to subvert freedom itself. In 1863, US President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War, when he was leading the fight to preserve the American republic and end the scourge of slavery. India too should preserve this civilisational republic of ours and defeat any theocratic or separatist designs that some groups may have. To that extent, it does not matter what some intellectuals or commentators may say here or abroad."

The book 'A New Idea of India' constructs and expounds on a new framework beyond the rough and tumble of partisan politics. It has been authored by Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri, and the foreword has been written by Sanjeev Sanyal.

Madhusudan and Mantri's partnership has been over a decade long.

"We connected first on social media just before the 2009 general election campaign. We have known each other for over a decade now and have collaborated on over fifty articles and essays," Rajeev Mantri said, adding, "Sanjeev Sanyal has been a mentor and friend to both of us, and he along with the bestselling author Amish was instrumental in encouraging us to write this book. Their support gave us a lot of confidence to pursue the project. When we finished the manuscript, Sanjeev Sanyal was the first person we thought of when we thought of the Foreword, and we were delighted when Sanjeev agreed to do so."

'A New Idea of India: Individual Rights in a Civilisational State' has been published by Westland, and is priced at a little over Rs 600. It's Kindle edition is also available on amazon.in -- at the price of Rs 499.

Harsh Madhusudan and Rajeev Mantri aim to release at least one Indian language translation of the book next year.

EXCERPT: On Kashmir, Pakistan and Karl Popper

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote in his classic work The Open Society and Its Enemies that if we want to see tolerance thrive, it is very important that we do not tolerate intolerance beyond a point.

I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.

There is an inherent tension between, for example, support for absolute free speech and other liberties and the dystopia that may be caused by irrational and possibly violent intolerance of the chronically intolerant. Ideally, we would not like this tension to exist and prefer individual rights to be fully guaranteed by the State at all times. But there are cases where the exercise of such individual rights can lead to the demise of the very State that is supposed to protect these rights. How then does one square the circle once again?

Let us go from the abstract to the specific and consider the case of Kashmir. The issue there is much less complicated than has been made out by umpteen talking heads and commentators, who cannot see the obvious reality right in front of them due to their desire for political correctness.

The Kashmir valley, an area of about 4,000 square kilometres, has an overwhelming demographic dominance of Sunni Muslims, a dominance that was secured by the violent and brutal expulsion of Kashmiri Hindus from there in 1990. The area being adjacent to Pakistan, a few want to secede from ‘Hindu’ India in the name of their religion.

The media often conflates this relatively small area with all of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, which has a total land area of over 222,000 square kilometres. There are obviously geographical, historical and legal factors that can be debated about this region until the cows come home, but the fundamental sore point for Pakistan is, how can a Muslim-majority border region be a part of India and not of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan?

How should India react to Pakistan’s revanchism? One school of thought says let us not hold any people, even if within a small valley, against their will. But then, what would be the implications of a second religious partition for India? It would imply that a minority that becomes a majority in an Indian state can never be truly Indian, and this may cause further fissures within the rest of India.

This is not just a hypothetical scenario. Demographic changes in Kerala, West Bengal and Assam are moving in that direction, as census data from 2001 and 2011 show. In West Bengal, the Muslim population increased by 21.8 per cent between 2001 and 2011, compared to 10.8 per cent for the Hindu population. In Kerala, the Muslim population increased by 12.8 per cent between 2001 and 2011, compared to 2.2 per cent for the Hindu population. In Assam, the Muslim population increased by 29.5 per cent between 2001 and 2011, compared to 10.9 per cent for the Hindu population.

Should India just wait for that to happen? Obviously not. No State would tolerate that, and the civilisational state of India, that is Bharat certainly would not. For Bharat is nothing without Dharma, as Sri Aurobindo said in his 1909 Uttarpara speech80 before he retired to a life of spiritual exploration.

It is important to contrast the secessionist demands of the Sunni Muslim Kashmir Valley with such demands in, say, Catalonia (Spain), Scotland (United Kingdom) or Quebec (Canada). Any successful secession in the latter cases would result in a new nation–state within the broader West. In the first two cases, the new countries would be within not just the West but also within the European Union. Even a free Quebec would almost certainly be absorbed into NAFTA’s successor trade framework and the NATO security grouping. There is a civilizational logic to these inclusions and exclusions. Turkey, for example, could never enter the European Union and is plausibly going to leave NATO as well.

The renowned British philosopher Roger Scruton remarked while building on the work of constitutional jurist Jeremy Rabkin, ‘The nation–state has been the greatest guarantor of freedom in the modern world, precisely because it establishes a territorial, rather than religious, jurisdiction. It is this that enables the nation–state to treat citizenship, rather than creed, as the criterion of membership.’81 Still, his view must be seen in the European historical context of medieval religious wars.

It is important to belabour this point—if Northern Ireland unites with the Republic of Ireland and breaks with Union of England and Wales (and perhaps Scotland), as is plausible in the next few years,82 it is partially because of demographic changes (for the first time in centuries probably Catholics outnumber Protestants), but also because of ideological changes, namely, the Republic of Ireland as part of the larger civilisational entity of the European Union and in keeping with the zeitgeist of secular modernity, has given up draconian restrictions on abortion and has had a mixed-race prime minister from the LGBT community.

No heretics are of course being killed, and there is no de facto concept of religious speech being declared as blasphemous by the State. With the sharp edges gone, the two Irelands can focus on the commonalities of their shared ethnolinguistic, Christian and now liberal heritage, egged on by the decision of Brexit.

Seen from this civilisational framework, any new Western country would simply mean a rearrangement of internal civilisational boundaries akin to the creation of a new state such as Telangana or Jharkhand within India. On the other hand, the so so-called freeing of Kashmir—whether through ‘azaadi’ or formal merger with Pakistan—would mean the loss of territory to a hostile civilisational unit. That is the reality.

Let us, for a moment, see Kashmir as Northern Ireland, Pakistan as the Republic of Ireland, and India as the United Kingdom (in which case, the rest of India is Great Britain). Some people can argue that for demographic and geographical reasons, Kashmir (more specifically the Valley districts) should go to Pakistan. But there are many objections to this. First, the Partition was never about a one-to-one mapping to religious demographics even though that was the broad principle. Second, Pakistan is not like the Irish Republic in this thought experiment.

Pakistan has not even remotely experienced any period of secular–liberal Enlightenment which would make the minorities, including many Shias and Muslim liberals, in the Valley comfortable about joining that setup (and even independence would be practically joining Pakistan, given the Valley’s landlocked geography). Third, even if Pakistan were to miraculously go through a genuine secularisation process, the principle of self-determination applies significantly less to a democratic, pluralistic setup such as India’s as compared to a theocratic or authoritarian one.

If the United States can sacrifice around 6,00,000 of its young men in the sparsely populated 1860s and temporarily suspend civil liberties to preserve the Union and break the back of slavery, India can, and will, fight to keep the Union and defeat theocracy. Finally, quite simply, Kashmir is integral to India’s civilisational heritage, given its millennia-old Hindu and Buddhist history.

FUN FACT: Within minutes of the prime minister posting the appreciation tweet, the mentioned website crashed due to unexpected traffic.

Rajeev Mantri informed he was working with the hosting service providers to fix the server. He wrote, “The book website linked to by the Prime Minister has gone down due to the surge in traffic, we are working with the hosting provider to fix it! Please bear with us.”

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