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There has always seemed to be some resentment among the non-Anglicised nationalists of India at the usage of Western terminology to describe India and her history. Western vocabulary is particular to the European historical experience, the argument ran, and the untranslatability of many core concepts of Indian culture means that India deserves her own frame of reference and cannot merely be a European Other. One can sympathise with this argument, but unfortunately, little has been done – at least in English – to further substantiate it with data and reasoning.

One term that has become louder as the political fortunes of the allegedly Right Bharatiya Janata Party have swelled is “civilisational state.” There does not appear to be much theoretical analysis of what this term means except that it is advanced as an alternative to the Western idea of the nation-state. The recent political upheavals around the globe are held as examples of the failure of the nation-state and – as in the case of the wannabe Caliphate – a call for civilisational ties over narrower, national ones. Furthermore, it is posited that the nation-state paradigm, at least as imagined by Benedict Anderson, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Ernest Gellner, Eric Hobsbawm, or Anthony Smith, does not quite hold with India. Finally, the post-modernist trope of the novelty of the nation-state is dragged out – a concept so new and invented can surely not be suited to capture an old civilisation like India?

Unfortunately, many theories emanating from the Right can do with a little subjection to the fires of scholarly debate, particularly from different perspectives. The notion of a civilisational state, for example, is not only terribly flawed but it is also not original. The strength of the idea lies in its ambiguity more than in its merit and like the other intangible it is supposed to replace – nation – its supporters rally behind it for they can imbue the label with whatever they want it to mean.

First, the definitional problems of “civilisational state” – when Indian nationalists on the Right of the political spectrum use that term, it is a safe assumption that they imply a state based on Indic culture, or more accurately, dharma. Contrary to popular belief, dharma is not religion; it is a wider set of social practices and customs that have governed life in South and Southeast Asia. While dharma may not satisfy a legalistic standard of definition, that is so by design. However, a state is a legalistic entity – how is one to marry an amorphous ‘civilisation’ with a legalistic ‘state’? More crucially, does this mean that India should have territorial ambitions over other states in South and Southeast Asia who are also a part of the same dharmic culture? Is an open-border union like the European Union envisaged by this civilisational Indian state? And if not, what is the basis of the Indian state that is merely one stump of this common dharmic culture?

Second, the idea is certainly not new or unique to India. Civilisational states have had very little success historically. The Greeks, for example, who saw themselves as a civilisation and everyone else as barbarians, were a fragmented and fractious lot that spent more time warring against each other than against common enemies; despite Islam’s protestations about an ummah, the fact is that they have never been a united civilisational state. Just like the Greeks, Muslims fought against each other as often as they fought infidel “outsiders.” Christianity also tried its hand at a united civilisational state and even fought an ill-conceived war in the Middle East in the name of their faith. However, it too left little to show for all the effort. More recently, the Ottoman sultans tried to bind his subjects to a common non-Turkic identity but that was also not meant to be.

The one possible exception to this rapidly familiar trend of failed civilisational states is the Roman Empire. However, this too is an imperfect example and there are too many difference between India and Rome to get into here. Rome certainly followed the Greek example of self-barbarian recognition, but what united Romans more than a single, even heterogenous, culture was law and the force of arms. The civic culture of Rome was very different from India’s dharmic past though both do qualify as civilisational in a sense.

Third, what does civilisational state actually mean for quotidian life? What are its policies, what are its values, what are its citizens – or is it subjects – meant to do to follow its guidance? Unless this is clear, there is little value in discussing alternatives to the West or to the nation-state; one cannot merely be against something but has to be for something too. It is in the concretisation of this idea of civilisational state, one suspects, that the difficulties will arise. For example, Alasdair MacIntyre is one of the foremost scholars of Aristotelian politics and virtue ethics, which he advocates as a healthier mode of being than the modern liberal state. However, the most intractable problem for MacIntyre is that modern society does not reflect ancient Athens. We do not live in city states where the voting population is not more than 100,000 men. Scalability becomes a problem for even what is in many ways an intriguing suggestion. Similarly, even if the political order of ancient India was an exquisite balance of duties, responsibilities, and rights, even if law & order was rarely threatened, that system worked in a different time and may not apply to India today.

Fourth, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations seems to have had its misprint in the minds of civilisational state theorists. Yet what they hold as examples of civilisational reordering is wishful thinking in the minds of a minuscule minority. The Caliphate, for example, has its enemies among Muslims as well as among infidels; furthermore, many of the groups who have sided with the terrorists have done so for selfish material reasons rather than any spiritual or historical-civilisational awakening. The case of Turkey being refused membership in the European Union is similarly misunderstood – though there is no doubt that some in Europe see a religious chasm separating them from Ankara, many raise legitimate concerns about the vast difference between Turkey and Western Europe in terms of social, political, and economic freedoms. Interestingly, despite the accusation that religion factors into decision-making in the EU or in the lives of Europeans, church attendance has been seeing a steady decline over the past fifty years. And not to point out the obvious, but despite the formation of a customs and currency union, European states are still having trouble letting go of their individual national identities. Civilisational statehood, it seems, is a potent political and social force only in the minds of its advocates.

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If the advocates of civilisational statism intend to argue for the establishment of India as a Hindu country, they should do so without subterfuge or masking their motives in obfuscation. After all, there is nothing sacrosanct about the Indian state as it is now and it is indeed true that Western theories of nationalism based on language, religion, and ethnicity fail to adequately describe India. Perhaps those ideas of the nation are inadequate because India is a meta-nation. No matter, these are ideas to be discussed openly and fiercely. But for now, “civilisational state” does not seem to hold water.


This post appeared on FirstPost on December 08, 2014.

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