Sunday, May 28, 2006

Talking India with Ashis Nandy

The intellectual Ashis Nandy has written a series of excellent books on Indian nationalism, the Indian state, and Indian traditions, but perhaps nowhere is he as lucid and accessible as Talking India, a wide-ranging conversation with the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo.

It is to Jahanbegloo's credit that he has done his homework so well and set the scope of his questions so wide. Among the matters on which he questions Nandy are India's encounter with colonialism, on the spheres of the religious and the secular in India, on India-Pakistan relations, and on India's experience of six decades as a modern nation-state. Nandy's searching responses lay before the reader all kinds of unorthodox oppositions and parallels, and present surprising connections across disparate walks of life.

Amongst the most interesting lines of thought that emerge from Nandy's responses to Jahanbegloo's questions concerns the question of what India is. He makes a distinction between India as a three-thousand-year-old civilization, home to hundreds of diverse cultures, and India as a modern nation-state seeking a degree of unity among its citizens. Indian civilization, in Nandy's felicitous formulation, "can be considered to be simultaneously a conversation and a confrontation among cultures that are big and small, powerful and weak, known and obscure, high or low, respectable and disrespectable, lovable or despicable."

But the Indian state is a much narrower and meaner entity, if not in conception then in spirit. It is not just the case, Nandy argues, that the Indian nation-state has modelled itself after the colonial state, and "consistently retained a touch of imperiousness". It is also that state-centric thinking among general citizens blinds us to civilizational links with our neighbouring countries, and makes us think of them instead as "small-time states" or pesky neighbours. The demands and passions of nationalism sit uneasily with older formations. "We share some of the most important markers of civilization with our neighbouring countries but we have to treat them as foreign countries and they have to treat us as foreigners," writes Nandy. "We have learnt…that nation-states must have unique national cultures. We are willing to radically alter our civilization to become proper nation-states."

And nowhere in South Asia is an example of a civilization torn into two by national borders more visible, of course, than in the case of India and Pakistan. In the course of Nandy's analysis of India-Pakistan relations since 1947 there appears a beautiful metaphor of an estranged couple:

The Indian attitude to Pakistan is very strange. Very few want to know about Pakistan; only a few seem curious about what is happening there. Yet, most Indians think they know everything about Pakistan. Almost the same thing can be said about Pakistan. I don't think many Pakistanis know anything about India, except probably about Indian films which, I am told, they like. But every Pakistani thinks he knows India. So many of my Pakistani friends say that when they bring their children to India, the first thing their surprised children say is, "Look, they look just like us and they speak like us".

It's a love-hate relationship on both sides. It's almost as if the bitterness came from the splitting of a joint family, and each one was terribly, curious and nostalgic at the same time. Like a couple who are divorced after being deeply in love. Both claim that the divorce has been good for them, but both are bitter and curious about what the other is doing - what vegetables, furniture, or books the other buys in the market, and what he or she does with the children and the house. And both sides are constantly looking for evidence of how bad the other is. The venom is partly a defence against recognizing how much emotional cross-investment there is in each other.
" It's almost as if the bitterness came from the splitting of a joint family, and each one was terribly, curious and nostalgic at the same time…. And both sides are constantly looking for evidence of how bad the other is" - all this is very shrewd.

Nandy has always been a vociferous critic of religious chauvinism and hysteria, but that has not prevented him from being acutely interested in, say, the Hindutva movement. In a prescient essay written in 1991, "Hinduism vs Hindutva", Nandy argued: "Hindutva is an ideology for those whose Hinduism has worn off. Hindutva, if it wins, might make Nepal the world's largest Hindu country. Hinduism will then survive not as a way of life or the faith of a majority of Indians."

In "Obituary of a culture", an essay written in the wake of the Gujarat riots of 2002, Nandy explains how Gujarat " was being prepared for such an exorcism for a very long time". Among the most interesting passages in this essay is Nandy's account of a face-to-face encounter with Narendra Modi, then a small-time RSS functionary, more than a decade before the riots. He writes:
Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up [for] the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence… I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told [Achyut] Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.

These startling observations remind us how we have yet to see a proper biography of one of India's most dangerous men, and so we are yet to really understand who he is, where he came from, what he did in the days of his youth, and how he came into his own.

But one of Nandy's most salutary qualities is that he is an acute reader and critic not just of religious fundamentalism (and, let us admit, it is not difficult to be such a critic) but also of what he calls secularist dogma and irrationality. Nandy does not see the idea of "secularism" now employed by the Indian state and many of its intelligentsia, which extends to India the idea of secularism that emerged from the fractious quarrels between the church and the state in eighteenth-century Europe, as having the power to contain communal conflict in India. In fact, he suggests, what is thought of as communal conflict today is in a fundamental sense also an example of secularized violence. Religious riots are not spontaneous eruptions but carefully planned and controlled by interested parties, mostly in urban areas.

Nandy argues that "secularism" today is imposed practically by degree; it is not part of the lived reality of Indian people, and in fact it expresses a kind of contempt for religion. In an essay published in 2004 in Outlook, "A Billion Gandhis", Nandy wrote:

The concept of secularism emerged in a Europe torn by inter-religious strife, warfare and pogroms, when the resources for tolerance within traditions were depleted and looked exhausted. This has not happened in India, not even probably in most of South Asia. In India, a huge majority of riots—indeed nearly all of them—take place in the cities…[I]n the last 50 years, less than 4 per cent of all riot victims in India have died in villages—where nearly 75 per cent of Indians stay; more than 96 per cent have died in cities, where 25 per cent of Indians stay.

To go to an Indian village to teach tolerance through secularism is a form of obscene arrogance to which I do not want to be a party. These ideas of tolerance in ordinary people and everyday life are tinged with popular religious beliefs, however superstitious, irrational and primitive they may seem to progressive, secular Indians. In a democracy, people will bring their values into politics, whether we like it or not. Instead of imposing on them an idea that makes no sense to the non-English-speaking majority, why can’t we learn from and build upon indigenous concepts that have worked in real life over the centuries? If secularism only means the traditional tolerance of South Asia, why do we need an imported idea to talk about that local tolerance?
As Nandy says even in Talking India, neither Ashoka nor Akbar nor Kabir, though beacons of inter-religious understanding, would have thought of themselves as "secular". "Secularism," as he argues elsewhere, "is not communal amity; it is only one way of achieving such amity", and perhaps not the best way for India. His Tocquevillian message is that in a democracy, secularism "needs support in human passions". This double critique of religious extremism on the one hand and secularist excess and snobbery on the other is amongst the most searching interventions made by an Indian scholar to our contemporary deabtes upon these issues.

My only complaint with this book is that Oxford University Press has packaged and priced it as an academic book, rather than as a book for the intelligent layman, which is what it is. As a result, none of the major bookshops have it on prominent display; in fact many don’t have it at all. This is a pity, for as an analysis of India's past and present it Talking India a worthy companion volume to Amartya Sen's recent The Argumentative Indian, and deserves to be just as widely read.

Here are two other good essays by Nandy: "Unclaimed Baggage", written after the Gujarat riots of 2002, and "The ambivalence about Gandhi", about our difficulties with Mahatma Gandhi's legacy. In this interview with Smitu Kothari, Nandy speaks insightfully about modern-day ideologies of development. And here is another relevant essay by another good Indian thinker, Gurcharan Das, "Privatise Secularism".

In a shocking incident, Jahanbegloo was himself arrested on a charge of so-called "espionage" by Iranian authorities late last month while on his way to India. The writer Rasool Nafisi has a piece about the meaning of Jahanbegloo's arrest here. For some of Jahanbegloo's writing, go to this piece on the website openDemocracy, in which he exchanges thoughts with the American philosopher Richard Rorty on the question of whether the American dream can also belong to the world.

And finally an old piece from last year: "Amartya Sen's large India".


Space Bar said...

Reading your post and the passages you’ve quoted from Nandy and his critique of ‘secularism’ as it is understood in India, I can’t help feeling that we’re so circumscribed by the languages we use to understand concepts.

‘Secular’ has such specific connotations in English; it is in fact, a negative definition—that which is not religious; of the laity. What word in any of the Indian languages would be analogous to what ‘secular’ means? I’m not sure that such a word exists. Perhaps that ought to tell us something very important about ourselves both as a civilisation and as a nation-state.

Anonymous said...

Ashis Nandy is the perhaps the only person I know whose response to any question--on religion, on the quality of fish one is eating, on an author, or on the history of a small railway town, anything at all--is both difficult to predict and never less than interesting. It is sad but not surprising that dogmatists, from the right and also from the left, have not given him his due. He is our most brilliant and provocative thinker.

TheQuark said...

The link for 'A billion Gandhi' is either currently not available or broken.

You can use : ''

But this requires username and password, membership is not free here