Scott Douglas Jacobsen: What was early life like for you? You have an educational background in Indian history. What is the nature of the progressive political movements in Indian history?
Rakshit Sharma: So far as my early life is concerned, it was that same as it would be for any other person coming from the same age group and class as mine. The only distinction though being my garnered interest in studying religion and an attempt to grasp the questions revolving around the same and God, of course.
I’d say it was also because of the kind of free atmosphere I was given, helped me shape and move through my ideas. No doubt I’ve gone through a radical change. From someone who was a staunch believer to a skeptic.
I was born and brought up in a humble practicing Hindu family, went to a Catholic school and had friends from other communities too. So, I kind of never had a strict atmosphere that could have dictated adherence to a singular truth and perhaps that also was my earliest encounter with dissent.
Now coming to your second part of the question, progressive movements in our political history. It depends what you mean by that. In a sense, our freedom struggle was quite progressive as it embodied great ideals of equality, liberty, justice, and fraternity. Plus, the constitution of our country, which might also call as a manifestation of our struggle and ideals secured this progressive ethos.
Developing a scientific temper is a fundamental duty for us Indians as a matter of fact.
Jacobsen: How does the political trajectory of India look in the past 5 years and look forward? Do things look to be heading in a more progressive or a more conservative direction?
Sharma: Communalism and Casteism aren’t new players so far as Indian politics is concerned. The very inception of free India took place after a bloody partition on communal lines. So, it won’t be wrong to say that India always had this challenge of getting rid of this baggage and push polity in a more inclusive and progressive sphere. But that doesn’t seem to have happened.
Initially, communal forces had a hard time, but things took a turn in the 80’s and the eagerly waiting communal block got the chance it was looking for. In hindsight, they have capitalized quite cleverly upon the socio-political conditions in the decade that also saw the assassination of 2 Indian Prime Ministers.
Since then, it has been an entirely different scene. And to help their cause, economic liberalization was also embraced in 92, thus creating a big middle class, generally consisting of Upper Caste Hindus, who form the target demographic of the BJP, the ruling party.
So far as trajectory is concerned, yes, we’ve lost on what we had been, though quite peculiarly, able to carry through.
That is the trust of religious minorities, Muslims in particular. Communal riots though had been a bitter reality of the Indian experience, and let’s also not forget that more riots have taken place under the Congress’s rule, which today portrays itself as the sole flag bearer of communal harmony, the feeling of alienation is something new.
A perception has taken roots in the psyche of minorities that the present disposition is destined to work to their loss and misery. And now jumping to the other part, whether India will tread a progressive path or otherwise. Truth be said, India is a country of contrasts. Too diverse for any sort of generalization and dynamics here change very fast.
Plus, we have the next general elections around the corner and as it’s imperative for any democracy, let’s hope people take the right step. The rest would be mere speculation. But, yes if it stays on the same path, unfortunately, the picture doesn’t seem to be something that would qualify as nice.
Jacobsen: How does the caste system alongside religion play out in the political scene within India?
Sharma: B.R Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution is said to have remarked that till caste remains a force in the social dynamics, politics isn’t immune to it. This has proved to be quite germane in the post-independence Indian political history.
Political parties across the spectrum, i.e., one way or the other capitalize on the caste factors. Be it open caste-ist agendas, hate speeches to polarise caste groups, special provisions to woo caste groups or even something as tacit as filing candidates that come from dominant caste groups in their constituencies.
Some are open about it and while others opt for the clandestine channels. But the truth is that a social reality as stark as caste is potent enough to decisively influence political processes. Every party has its pet vote bank, and the determinant here is unsurprisingly caste.
The sad state of affairs can be very aptly gauged by this oft-used taunting comment, “In India people don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste.” And as it stands today, nothing much seems to be changing anytime sooner.
Jacobsen: If you could take two figures within Indian political history with positive progressive impact on the political and social scene within the country, who are these two individuals? Why are they crucial to the development of the progressive movement within the Indian political scene?
Sharma: These two leaders, in my humble opinion, would be Jawahar lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India and Dr. B.R Ambedkar, the chairman of the drafting committee of the constitution. The former commands relevance for his efforts to usher India into the Modern Age through his prudent programme on Higher Education and Industry and the latter for his the remarkable work for the underprivileged sections of the people.
Both apart from being in politics were also men of great intellectual acumen and have numerous masterworks to their credit, which is also an intellectual storehouse for the Indians of the New Age.
So far as Progressive politics in India is concerned, these two have made great contributions. The ideals of Inclusiveness, Secularism, Social Justice, and Equality, were transformed from mere abstractions to spirit because of the genius of these men. Indian political scene thus owes a lot to these two men as regards progressive politics.
Jacobsen: Any final thoughts or feelings in conclusion?
Sharma: India is a country of great diversity and contrasts. Too complex to be generalized. And in its dynamic character, I lay my hopes for a better and more rational India.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Rakshit.