Why Turkey’s authoritarian drift is unlikely in India

A few decades ago, the secular nature of the republics of India and Turkey was considered axiomatic. Not so any more.
Sunday 06/01/2019
Cover of Sumantra Bose’s “Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and the Future of Secularism.”
Unique insight. Cover of Sumantra Bose’s “Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and the Future of Secularism.”

“Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and the Future of Secularism” is a pioneering comparative study of major attempts to build secular states in which the constitutional identity and fundamental character of the state are not based on or derived from any religious faith.

A few decades ago, the secular nature of the republics of India and Turkey was considered axiomatic. Not so any more. In the latter a Sunni-Islamist majoritarian definition trumped a secular state that is dead in all but name. In India, majoritarian Hindu nationalism emerged as the country’s largest political force.

Sumantra Bose, scion of a famous Indian political family, writes “Secular States, Religious Politics” with deep insight and exceptional clarity. He stresses the similarity between the two non-Western secular countries in not being based on a Western-style separation of church and state but, rather, on an operational doctrine of state intervention in and regulation of the religious sphere.

The motives behind the establishment of secular states in the two cases were very different. Bose demonstrates that, while state-secularism took a culturally deracinated and deeply authoritarian form in Turkey, it assumed a culturally rooted and democratic form in India. The secular state in India has its flaws but, unlike the fatally flawed Turkish model, secularism retains relevance in the Indian context and is indispensable to its future as a democracy.

Bose’s book is all the more interesting in that it compares two countries whose majoritarian religions are different but whose models of state secularism stand in sharp contrast to the Western prototype. In both, the state has “acted as a nearly omnipresent and often intrusive regulating authority in matters to do with religion and over religious institutions, resulting in entanglement of the state and religion, rather than in separation.” In both India and Turkey, the state is legally and constitutionally empowered to do so.

The differences between India and Turkey run very deep, however. India remains a democracy; Turkey can today hardly be counted as one, if it ever was.

The Hanafi-Sunni definition of Turkish identity excludes large sections of the population: the Alevis, whose eclectic form of faith diverges from Sunni orthodoxy in many ways; and the Kurds, who together account for 40% of the population. As Bose explains “the Turkish republic’s chronic problem has been that the plural nature of its society is at odds with the nature of its state, which has been fixated on imposing an untenable homogeneity on all citizens and groups of citizens.”

It was promotion, in the 1980s, of a so-called “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” as the official ideology of the state by the all-powerful military that “provided a fertile context for the rapid growth of Islamic politics” just as the permissiveness of Indian secular leaders towards Hindu majoritarian politics “resulted in the meteoric rise of Hindu nationalism from the margins to the centre-stage of India’s politics in the 1990s.”

The Alevis prefer the imperfectly secular state to the Sunni Islamist conception just as India’s Muslims prefer the flawed Indian secular state to the Hindu nationalist alternative but it is “the anomalies and contradictions of the secular state that have enabled the unthinkable — the rise of avowed anti-secularists to the helm of the secular states of India and Turkey, Bose writes.

The genealogy of secular states in India and Turkey does have two salient differences that explain why the authoritarian turn in Turkey is unlikely to happen in India, Bose said.

In the latter, the founder of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, was convinced that a secular state “was both natural and indispensable, given India’s historical heritage of the coexistence of a multiplicity of religions. The rationale of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, was very different. In 1923, he declared ‘the war to establish a Turkish nation-state in Anatolia is over with ourselves victorious but our real struggle for independence begins only now — this is the struggle to achieve Western civilisation.’”

Half a century later, Kurdish novelist Yasar Kemal summed up the result: “For 200 years the Turkish intellectual has aped the West, imitated the West. An ape is not creative. It may look human but it is not creative. Since Turkish intellectuals have aped the West for 200 years, they have not made any contribution to humanity for 200 years.”

Add to that the deep chasm between a distant bureaucratic centre in Istanbul and Ankara and a vast periphery comprising the bulk of an essentially peasant society that carried through from the Ottoman Empire and you have the keys to the enduring success of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The modern Turkish republic never was a democracy!

The sheer diversity, size and complexity of India argue against a similar drift to that of Turkey. The roots of democracy are infinitely stronger and Bose is surely right to argue that “the best guarantee of secularism’s survival in India lies in a characteristic that is intrinsic to the Indian nation — its manifold heterogeneity. The Hindu nationalists remain, even in the age of ascendency, a vocal, ideologically motivated and highly organised minority. But, unlike Turkey, where a determined minority was able to impose its ideology of secularism on the country, the Hindu nationalist anti-secular vision can only be realised if it succeeds in demonstrating through the test of democracy that their vision does command the overwhelming majority they claim to represent.”

The moderately devolved nature of the Indian political system adds a further brake to an authoritarian drift, as does the sheer depth of intellectual and spiritual layers upon which Indians can draw from their history.

“Secular States, Religious Politics: India, Turkey and the Future of Secularism,” by Sumantra Bose, Cambridge University Press, 2018.