Monday, July 07, 2008

On Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male

Like a family impatient with the deadwood left behind by old tenants, the voluble essays of Mukul Kesavan's The Ugliness of the Indian Male and other propositions take up a set of subjects – Indian secularism, nationalism, history, cinema – which typically lend themselves to long-encrusted pieties, and refurbish them with a series of arguments and linkages that really set the brain ticking.

The particular pleasure of Kesavan's prose is that the drama of Indian history is enhanced, in his telling, by the drama of thought. The writing constantly asks questions to itself, wheels and roves in search of adroit juxtapositions or historical parallels, hammers away at key points. A historian by training and one of our sharpest columnists, Kesavan is also distinguished by the breadth of his expertise: he is equally at home on each of the subjects that make up what might be called the holy trinity of Indian public discourse: politics, cricket, and cinema (or more properly Bollywood). If cricket is by and large absent in Ugliness, it is because Kesavan’s appetite for the game is so vast, and his dismay with the game's governing body, the ICC, so total, that all his essays on cricket was siphoned off into a separate collection, Men In White, published in 2006.

The material of Ugliness is arranged much like the way a team traditionally built an innings in one-day cricket. Early on the tempo is more relaxed, the style of the play more various. Kesavan declares his disdain for Indian documentaries, asserts that the Indian male is not only born ugly, but hones that trait through regular practice (on which more later), dissects the various kinds of patriotism found in Hindi cinema. He can be seen attending a political rally in Uttar Pradesh, looking at statues in Madras, enjoying a junket in Australia, bathing in Istanbul. It is only in the last section of the book, "Politics", that his tone rises to a kind of slog-overs crescendo, with a constellation of high-octane arguments about the distinctive colour and character of Indian secularism and nationalism.

Kesavan's argument runs something like this. Indian secularism is not only highly unusual (all the neighbouring states in South Asia privilege one religious community or another), it is also confused, to its disadvantage, with the Western version of that practice. The origins of Indian secularism lie not in the battle to separate the church from the state, as in the west, but in our anti-colonial national movement, and in particular the strategies forged by the Indian National Congress.

Unlike the other provincial political bodies that sprung up in India late in the nineteenth century, the Congress from the very beginning was self-consciously and pluralistically "national", of a mind to represent all the classes, religions and communities of India on the common plank of anti-colonialism. "The uniqueness of Congress's nationalism," writes Kesavan,"is its near-complete freedom from mystical and mystifying notions such as blood, soil, or national essence which are the stock-in-trade of narrower patriotisms”:

The Congress, as its name suggests, saw itself as a cross between a party and a parliament (or at least an assembly of representative Indians). Typically, till 1939, members of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League could be members, even presidents of the Congress. For the Congress, being secular meant making different types of Indians equally welcome; secularism in this context was a way of being comprehensively nationalist. […] The emotional charge of Congress nationalism came from anti-imperialism – not the myth of a suppressed identity waiting to be born.
Even if, in the beginning, the Congress's pluralist definition of nationalism was strategic, designed to bring the largest number on board in a Noah's Ark kind of way, over the sixty years of the independence struggle it became something like a reflex. Thus it was that, despite the horrors of Partition, India did not go down the road of being a Hindu nation. Our secular constitution, in Kesavan's telling, enshrined this liberal and hospitable nationalism in law. Although the Congress itself has been unable to live up to its legacy, the historical triumph of the Congress, writes Kesavan, "is that every party must now lay claim to the virtue of being secular. The meaning of secularism can be contested (truly secular/pseudo-secular), but it is a value, like democracy, that no mainstream party can publicly repudiate.”

Because we don't fully appreciate the ingenuity of the Congress's construction of nationalism, argues Kesavan, we tend to confuse it with the more pedestrian, majoritarian ideas of nationalism that have forged nations around the world. Paradoxically, it is this race-and-religion conception of nationalism, which we bypassed, that is now advocated by a powerful force in Indian politics: the BJP and its allies. Although many secular Indians are horrified when their friends and family members support what they see as the bigotry of the BJP, the fact is that BJP supporters never think of themselves as communal, only as nationalist. And indeed, if we look at the history of the nationalist movements of Europe, it is possible to credit this argument. Hence,

Since the dominant sense of nationalism the world over is derived from the European experience, when a Hindu chauvinist arguing for the primacy of Hindi asks rhetorically, “Doesn’t France have a common language?”, the French example begins to seem a sound nationalist precedent for supporting Hindi. When he asks, “Don’t the English acknowledge that their culture and morality are derived from Christian values?”, this becomes a persuasive reason to support the demand that all Indians acknowledge that they are constituted by Hindutva. The proper secularist response to this is that the nationalism of Gandhi that won us our freedom as a nation state and shaped the pluralism of our constitution has very little in common with this hectoring, homogenizing patriotism. These derivative arguments don’t apply. They’re irrelevant because they aren’t rooted in our experience of the freedom struggle; they don’t emerge from our nationalist practice.
“For secular Indians, the dreadful track record of intolerant nationalisms [the world over] and their failure in containing secession or managing dissent is a gift,” Kesavan argues. "Instead of reflexively denying the BJP's claim to nationalism, secularists should ratify this claim enthusiastically. They should then distinguish it from the nationalism of Gandhi and the freedom struggle, and encourage an undecided public to study the self-destruction that BJP-like chauvinisms wreaked on countries misguided enough to harbour them" – in neighbouring Sri Lanka, for example, where an aggressive Sinhala majority and an embattled Tamil minority have been locked in a murderous conflict for decades. The day Indians accept that those in the majority deserve to have their beliefs and sensibilities deferred to by the rest – the prevailing climate in the rest of South Asia – our marvellous pluralist experiment will have foundered. "Invisibly, we shall have become another country" – that is the ringing close of Kesavan's book.

The density of Kesavan's engagement with these questions, and the sophistication of his responses in general, is perhaps intentionally absent in his irreverent title-essay. "Some years ago I was struck by the contrast between the beauty of Hindi film heroines and the ugliness of Hindi film heroes," he writes. The explanation for this is simple: Indian women are radically better-looking than Indian men. Indian women are, to Kesavan's eye, "delicate and vivid"; Indian men "coarse, dull, and squab-like". Their native ugliness is accentuated by their deficiencies of hygiene (nose-picking, crotch-scratching), hair (moustache-wearing, nose- and ear-hair growing) and other assorted personal and sartorial habits.

It seems to me that Kesavan has set up a slanging match here: responses to these assertions are likely to depend on whether the reader is a man or a woman. As for myself, I can only attest from that Indian women, even if they are more fastidious than men on the body-hair-removal score, are not the angels that Kesavan makes them out to be. Maybe those of his generation were.

In fact, if the ugliness of the Indian male resided only in the list drawn up by Kesavan, Indian women might actually be quite happy to have them, since some of these deficiencies are surface-only and can be reversed with a little grooming, and since Indian women too have grave defects of their own (which for reasons of space I can't go into right now). The real ugliness of the Indian male resides not in his face, but in his mind: in his willing or unquestioning endorsement of patriarchy and chauvinism. But Kesavan's jocular survey of surfaces and appearances, his refusal for a change to probe any deeper, makes for an sly variation in a first-rate collection of essays. The Indian male may be ugly, but in certain instances his writing is remarkably fine.

And here are some essays by Kesavan: "I, The Nation", "Three pivotal moments that shaped early nationalism in India", "How Pluralism Goes Bad", "No Escaping The Nation-State", "The Congress's pluralism became a reflex by the time of Partition", "One-Day Democracy", "Partition became inevitable once the Congress resigned in 1939", and "Memories of 1984".

A long interview with Kesavan from 1998 is here, and Kesavan's excellent cricket blog Men In White is here.

And two old posts on books of essays by Indian writers: "Amartya Sen's large India" and "Krishna Kripalani's faith and frivolity", and a review of Sumantra Bose's excellent book Contested Lands, which is among other things an examination of the temptations and the consequences of majoritarian politics around the world. And here is another old post on a writer greatly, and often annoyingly, stimulated by Indian pluralism, "Shashi Tharoor, banally in love with India", and a post on a somewhat more thoughtful and engaging commentator, "Mark Tully and India".

Kesavan's book is published in India by Black Kite, an imprint of Permanent Black (which publishes some great academic books, often in conjunction with university presses in America) aimed at the lay reader. Among their upcoming titles which might be of interest to you is Amit Chaudhuri's new book of essays: Clearing A Space: Reflections on India, Literature and Culture, which should be out next month.


Anonymous said...

Chandrahas, why did you use that metaphor of cricket? Kesavan may be a cricket writer or you may be a cricketer, but we don't expect metaphors like these from writers like you. It disturbed me so much that I couldn't read the rest of your article. Maybe you'll realise why if you reread your article from a readerly distance.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - You certainly are an immensely fastidious reader! I appreciate the sentiment, and agree that I could probably have done better than to invoke that cliched framework. Perhaps my beginning metaphor about new tenants in an old space was better?

The rest of the piece may not be bad either. So hit that one paragraph about cricket out of the ground for a six and read on.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the deadwood metaphor is really funny and it works well for Kesavan's take on secularism. Looks like Kesavan trips into a polemic while talking about nationalism.

Fastidious? Doesn't that adjective appear somewhere in the text. Hmm. It's all that surface vs. center argument. I wish I could trade my job with that of an editor, who after a few drinks would turn into a Butcher and would, with the help of his hacker friends, sneak in to your website to deface a paragraph. That'd be one 'marvellous pluralist experiment', I guess.

Chandrahas said...

Amit - I am afraid that while pluralist experiments are a great idea in politics, and even in drinking, they are not so in writing, and particularly not your idea, which might lead to your changing everything you didn't like about my work. Enough of this now! Say something if you like about why you disagree with Kesavan's interpretation of Indian nationalism instead.

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas, you have an amazing ability of squeezing words out of people who are often stingy with them. I don't completely disagree with Kesavan on nationalism. I agree that Indian nationalism never was and cannot be a product of "hectoring, homogenizing patriotism". It cannot be founded on BJP's Hindutva-fication or Congress' Hindification of the nation. Equally, I am afraid that "the nationalism of Gandhi and the freedom struggle" that Kesavan seems to endorse wouldn't work today because despite the Gandhis still lurking at the helm of things, I don't see a freedom struggle around the corner unless we manage to find clever bushy ways to declare ourselves at war with a nation or two.

I gladly buy Amartya Sen's argument in The Argumentative Indian, that Indian nationalism is rooted in "internal pluralism and external receptivity". I am now also reminded of what Sunil Khilnani wrote in The Idea of India that "the future of Europe is the present of India." Despite having tried, I have never managed to discover what separates me from my Bangladeshi or Pakistani friends. Language, of course, for the case of the latter - the same thing that separates me from almost a billion other Indians. It is, what Amitav Ghosh calls in The Shadow Lines, being "locked into an irreversible symmetry by the line that was to set us free - our looking glass border." And any South Asian's sense of nationalism is perhaps always going to be coloured by - what Ghosh says - "a special quality of loneliness that grows out of the fear of the war between oneself and one's image in the mirror."

Using Khilnani's analogy and Ghosh's metaphor, it may make sense to say that our nation is an union of South Asian states bound together, not by the adhesive of patriotism, religion, cultural and linguistic homogeniety, or the ghosts of a freedom struggle long dead, but by the fear of loneliness and the loneliness of fear.

Are we allowed to leave such never-ending comments on your space? And that too on nationalism when the national government is falling apart on national television? Forgive me because I swear I'll never to do it again.

Unknown said...

Amit - Now isn't that so much better that aiming beamers at cricket metaphors? I read your somewhat melancholy but very striking thoughts with the greatest interest, and am sure that the other readers of this site will do the same. I want to say you can leave not one but a dozen comments of that order.

It doesn't matter that you do so while the national government is falling apart (some would argue it has always been quite ramshackle). Perhaps we might interpret it as a sign that both the Congress and the Left have gotten over their fear of loneliness, and want to lock horns in electoral combat once again. I have never read Ghosh's book, but I want to do so now.

Anonymous said...

Indian secularism is closer to what has come to be known as ‘multiculturalism’ than its more robust French and American cousins. Successful nationalism-a coherent projection of power relatively free of ethnic rivalry-requires either homogeneity or as in the more admirable American case, a non-negotiable standard of values guaranteed by an otherwise secular constitution to all. Needless to say, India has neither. Almost everything is up for groupist compromise. The ‘nationalism of Gandhi and the freedom struggle’ so rightly beloved by Kesavan and others, on the other hand, wonderfully served the purpose of inclusively rallying people to the cause of anti-colonialism. It is not and never will be capable of serving an independent, poor and hugely unequal nation beyond the bare minimum of more or less keeping the peace, sort of like a political version of the Hindu rate of growth. We can all console ourselves with the theoretical beauty of diversity but it is unlikely we will ever be the sort of country that can educate itself in a generation or conduct a pragmatic foreign policy of basic self-interest shorn of stale delusions or even eliminate polio, for crying out loud! (screams like in a Munch painting)

Hari said...


I am glad Kesavan brings up this issue of plural nationalism. I think it’s a fascinating one and Ram Guha posits the same idea in India after Gandhi (I guess this isn’t surprising given Guha and Kesavan are good friends and have similar political views). Here’s my take: it’s slightly peripheral, rather long, and not restricted to India, so I leave it to your discretion whether to publish or not.

The role of the Indian National Congress was certainly important in determining India’s pluralism, but I think we also need to look well back in history to understand the roots of this form of nationalism. Actually it was in the same context that I mentioned the Mauryan Empire when we met. That empire covered virtually the entire subcontinent and seeded the idea of a united region that future empires would attempt to emulate, with varying degrees of success. These empires did something vital: by virtue of their logistical and administrative framework, they brought many ideas and cultures together. Imports from distant lands, material or otherwise, would have become very familiar during this gradual, millennia long commingling. But because these empires did not always last long and did not always cover large portions of the subcontinent, they allowed individual cultures to flourish. There was thus some glue to hold things together, but still great diversity.

China too benefits from its own long tradition of large empires, but for some reason its empires have contributed to greater homogenization, which is why it is able to mobilize resources on such a large scale even today. India, on the other hand, seems to have fragmented and coalesced continuously and in a manner that has sustained cultures and particularities, brought new religions and world views, while not allowing them to take flight entirely (with exceptions, of course). That’s why we are able today to witness a plethora of cultures and languages under one umbrella. This brings its own problems, as Rohit says above, but India is also a remarkable (and baffling) example of just what is possible.

But why did other regions of the world have a different trajectory? That’s the big mystery – geography can explain certain things but not all. I am stymied by the fact that Papua New Guinea, which boasts of astonishing diversity (as much language and cultural diversity as in India in a relatively smaller space), was never part of a larger empire (in fact even neighboring villages, only a few kilometers away had not not seen each other until recently). Neither were the tribes, federations and kingdoms of North America or sub-Saharan Africa before European colonization- individually they were sophisticated and complex but they never really expanded to emcompass other regions. In African nations, this has led to particularly acute problems, for their boundaries were drawn rather arbitrarily during the nineteenth century European scramble for the continent, and not on any templates from African history.

Anonymous said...

Groupist compromise? That's one way describing the business of democratic politics in an old, complicated country. The Americans achieved homogeneity through genocide (Native Americans)and exclusion (slavery). There's a great deal to admire in the American example but we have nothing to learn from that country in the matter of living together.

Anti-colonial nationalism isn't some feeble optional extra in contemporary India. It's the law of the land: the Constitution institutionalized that pluralist nationalism. It's why the BJP has such trouble with it.

Anonymous said...

I'm amazed that the debate on whether or not there is ONE culture constituting all Indians which began 80 odd years ago - is still raging. I'm also very disappointed that all Kesavan does is put forth more rhetorical ploys in support of his take on the debate.

Firstly, my own reading of the RSS literature suggests that they believe that there is a common thread running through all Indians irrespective of faith or caste or sex - you may call that thread Hindutva or X for all I care. It's not clear how this could be translated to mean that all Indians are homogeneous. Cultural psychology finds that there is a common thread running through Germany, France, England and USA. It is nobody's case that Germans, French, English and Americans are homogeneous. [Common thread means convergence in the ideas of who has agency in society, how much freedom ought an individual enjoy and so on]

Several indologists have suggested that there are commonalities in India between all the communities, that the Muslims and Christians here are more similar to the Hindus than to the Muslims and Christians of West Asia and Europe. Syed Naqvi for one has endorsed this claim.

Ignoring previous research, if Kesavan truly wants to refute this claim, all he has to do is poll a representative sample of Indians on 'n' items and poll say Japanese or Americans or Croatians and test if the within-group variance is more than between-group variance [using a Fischer test]. A principal component analysis could also be done to test how many independent components underlie Indian attitudes. Needless to say, more sophisticated tests can be conceived.

My point is simple: I don't see the point of all this abstract Nehru-style-theorizing-in the-air. If however, this debate was translated into an empirical question, then all of us could put our heads together and do something with it - something more constructive than merely slinging mud at the opposing camp.

Personally speaking, I don't yet see how the sangh parivar ONE culture argument is in contradiction to Amartya Sen's plural India. ONE culture can have many plural sub-cultures - as even MS Golwalkar acknowledges in A Bunch of Thoughts.

Kesavan also deplores the day the majority in India make the minorities defer to their wishes. But isn't that precisely what happens in every election? When the Indian constitution vested more legislative power to the Lok Sabha than to the Supreme Court, didn't the constitution in fact endorse the power of the majority to enforce its will? It almost seems as if Kesavan is arguing against democracy and arguing for a few elites like Kesavan running the country based on their ideas (or whims).

And as far as choosing between BJP and Congress is concerned, I find Arundhati Roy's point claim far more compelling than Kesavan's. She said once that choosing between Congress and BJP is like choosing between Tide and Aerial. :)

Anonymous said...

@uncertain: Taking Messrs Golwalkar and Co at their word is not advisable. The word Goebellian comes to mind, hyperbolic though it might be in this case.

@Mr. Kesavan: That pluralist democracy involves compromise is a commonplace, but there’s a thin line between mobocracy and democracy and we seem dangerously close to crossing it. When I refer to a standard of values, I don’t necessarily mean a Hindu standard, just an enlightened one. I think the repeated violations of freedom of speech in deference to ‘sentiments’, the abysmal presence of regressive personal laws and the perverse yet entirely logical competition for reservations all bode badly for national cohesion, and thus in my opinion, entirely preclude any consistent forward thinking vision of development.

Anonymous said...

Hi Rohit,

Why is taking Ms. Golwalkar and Co. at face value any more or any less advisable than taking Ms. Kesavan and Co. at face value? Is it your contention that prophets of "enlightened" values are any less Goebellian than those of allegedly regressive values? Let's not forget that divergent sets of values or axioms are incommensurate and therefore any statement proclaiming superiority of one set of values must necessarily be outside of the domain of logic.

Permit me also to intrude on your other conversation. This thin line between mobocracy and democracy that you paint in theory, is there any way of establishing the existence of such a line? Could you tell me how I could empirically (qualitatively or quantitatively) distinguish between a mobocracy and democracy? And if we can't distinguish between the two empirically, let's just stick to one term, shall we? - "Democracy".

I further suspect that this "enlightened" standard of values whose hegemony you seek in Indian life, is likely to be shared only by a very small minority in India. Since I am disinclined to rhetorically derogate those who do not subscribe to this "enlightened" standard, I am led to believe that in fact you're arguing for an oligarchy and not a democracy. Have I misunderstood you?

Sundeep Pattem said...

Surely it is meet and right that St. Golwalkar comes up when discussing the ugliness of the Indian male.

Hash, how come no link to your essay on Talking India?

Anonymous said...


I very much enjoyed your engaging review essay of Mukul Kesavan's book.

I have not read the book yet, but Professor Kesavan's argument seems to squarely challenge the generally accepted theoretical understandings of nationalism which treat anticolonial nationalism as a special case or variant of some more fundamental, universal process supposedly seen
in the history of Euro-America and imperfectly realized in the floundering states that dot the rest of the world on a map.

This reading proposes that Indian nationalism (as opposed to the narrow nationalism of the Hindu right or the pan-Islamism of the Muslim orthodoxy that struggles to place India as belonging to dar-al-harb or dar-al-Islam) is a distinctive movement and phenomenon deserving of theorization and analysis on its own terms.

I'd be interested in some of the implications of this argument and how Professor Kesavan addresses them in the book. If this is what marks Indian nationalism as unique, then this is what is essential to Indian political modernity, distinguishing it not only from the West but perhaps also from our South Asian neighbors. This also seems to clear out a position that is different from the Marxist-Left, Left-Nationalist view as well as recent interrogations of the disciplinary aspects of Indian nationalism.

On one issue (based on his response to your essay), I would respectfully disagree with Professor Kesavan. Yes, the US has a tragic founding history. But that does not exhaust what it has to teach, or exemplifies, about communities living together.

And the Indian nation-state is not without its share of tragic and violent exclusions at the moment of its founding, some of which have deeper roots in Indian society. (Colonialism was a tremendously violent rupture, which amplified and recast traditional sources of violence as well as unleashed a new set of sources of such violence. But it was not the only source of violence in Indian society.)

What Burke says about governments needing to draw a secret veil over their shameful origins holds as true of India as of any other society. And since independence, the Indian state has not shied away from exercising a kind of genocidal violence in various regions. One can see these actions as rooted in the practices of the colonial state which the postcolonial state inherits. In which case, is it not a failure of anticolonial nationalism that it could not transition from being an inclusive reason-against-state to a similarly inclusive reason-of-state?

There is another kind of history that can be written about the promise and failing of the American idea, just as there is another kind of history that can be written about the promise and failing of the Indian wager.

Rohit Chopra

Anonymous said...

uncertain-I suppose we should count ourselves lucky that Foucault and his band of relativists wasn't around when the First Amendment of the US constitution enshrining separation of church and state was passed. They would presumably have called it 'hegemonic' too.

Chandrahas said...

Sundeep - I laughed aloud upon reading your comment. Yes indeed - although we are, as far as I can tell, all Indian males, we have all taken Mukul up on the subject of secularism and nationalism, and ignored what he has to say about our tribe. I am now off to do a Google image search of St.Golwalkar.

Chandrahas said...

Uncertain - Let me make one or two of many points I am tempted to make.

One, you argue (and have argued on this space in the past), in defence of the RSS's viewpoint on India and the criticism that it has elicited from progressives and liberals, that "Let's not forget that divergent sets of values or axioms are incommensurate and therefore any statement proclaiming superiority of one set of values must necessarily be outside of the domain of logic." Whether we are or are not outside the domain of logic when think about this, we are certainly heading outside the domain of argument or engagement.

If we were really to concede that no one set of values is superior or more desirable than other, then what persuades you that the RSS has a worthy point? And why shouldn't your deadbat defence of your position also be used by the other side? Why criticise their values from what can only be the base-ground of your own ones?

This is not the only one of your statements that I find disingenuous. You say, "Firstly, my own reading of the RSS literature suggests that they believe that there is a common thread running through all Indians irrespective of faith or caste or sex - you may call that thread Hindutva or X for all I care. It's not clear how this could be translated to mean that all Indians are homogeneous." This suggests that RSS literature, as you call it, is only descriptive, not prescriptive: it is a study of Indianness on the ground, not a reccomendation of guidelines for greater Indianness or else second-class citizenship. Nor can we simply run "Indian" and "Hindu" together in the way you have done. This is a very benign view of the subject, and there is a suspicious evasion in your phrase "Hindutva or X for all I care". I think you must care.

I also think you are guilty of hyperbole (which is a kind of scaremongering and, therefore, falsifying) in your use of the word "hegemony" when you say, "I further suspect that this 'enlightened' standard of values whose hegemony you seek in Indian life, is likely to be shared only by a very small minority in India". As far as I can tell no one in this debate is seeking the hegemony of anything. So you might want to think about whether you are being fair to others - or indeed to yourself - with these casual slurs. Insofar as any definite standards are being invoked, they are those listed in our constitution, and those are not hegemonic principles from any point of view.

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas - Thanks for your thought provoking comments. Responses follow.

You raise a pertinent question when you ask on what basis do I find the RSS' point worthy. I find the RSS' point worthy because of my (as yet unsubstantiated) belief that their axioms are more in tune with ancient Indian culture than the liberal axioms which are an artifact of the particular history of west Europe. But my comments here are not to be taken as reflecting my personal likes and dislikes. I neither subscribe (wholly) to the RSS' point of view nor to the liberal point of view. In the absence of a meta-theory which tells me how to judge the superiority of one point vis a vis the other, all I can do is check if the arguments put forth by either side are logically consistent with their axioms - and it is in that spirit that I comment on this space. It is the liberal position that individuals and their collectives are free to hold opinions and it is the liberal position that disputes ought to be settled through reasoned discourse. It seems to me that criticisms made of the RSS are logically inconsistent with the above stated ideas. Strictly speaking from a liberal vantage, the RSS ought not to be derided, merely because a logical extension of their axioms leads to propositions which liberals dislike. Even so far as your essay and other comments are concerned, it is not clear that the RSS is being faulted for any error in logical inference. We flog RSS because we do not like many things it says. Therefore, I do not criticize Kesavan from the base-ground of my own beliefs (I do not have too many beliefs), but because his discourse seems inconsistent with the liberal frame he draws from.

You are right in pointing out that the RSS literature is not merely descriptive but also prescriptive. Research shows that usually descriptions are veiled prescriptions and many RSS pracharaks make statements that are direct prescriptions. Nevertheless, Kesavan and others seem to be disagreeing with the description itself and I observe that the description is more true than false and there is an empirical way to verify the description. What we do with the descriptions is, I believe, a separate and certainly an important debate.

Perhaps I am guilty of hyperbole, and certainly I enjoy dropping the term 'hegemony' because it is a trademark of a certain scholarship
which you and many others here disagree with. :) However, I refer only to the dictionary meaning of the word and no more. I disagree with you that your blog and this particular essay do not seek any hegemony - I believe they do (you almost talk of equality as an absolute). I also disagree with you that the Indian constitution is not hegemonic. I am amazed you could even make that claim. The Indian constitution is hegemonic in that it declares the dominance of certain ideas over others. It is also hegemonic because it reflects the vision of a certain socioeconomic minority within India.

Thanks again for your comments and I welcome your further engagement on these ideas.

Sundeep, Chandrahas - :) Yes, it is funny how most of us here picked only the political aspects of Kesavan's treatise. I guess we too are Very Serious men. :D

Anonymous said...

"That pluralist democracy involves compromise is a commonplace..." It isn't, actually. Nearly every American, intellectual or otherwise, finds the prospect of Spanish achieving a measure of official recognition, subversive and frightening. France's highest court just denied a north african Muslim woman (who speaks fluent French and is the mother of three French children)citizenship, because her absolute submission to her husband was deemed unFrench; burqas have been outlawed in more than one Dutch town, and in a more general way, the 'robust'secularism of the French that Thombre sees as exemplary, is systematically hostile to difference, in ways that an Indian, any Indian (with the exception of Golwalkar and his ilk), would find quite mad.

And with good reason. A country that contains a continent of differences and inequalities can't be democratically ruled by a political establishment which believes that one size fits all.

Take language. Nehru's language policy shamelessly fudges the matter. First Hindi is formally given pre-eminence, then English 'temporarily' retained, then the other language lobbies mollified by neutering Hindi: the provinces were allowed to communicate with the centre in English. Does it 'solve' the question of a 'national' language. No. But it isn't intended to. The whole point is to procrastinate, to defer, to buy time till hot button issues go cold. A pluralist nationalism ducks the task of defining the national 'self'. It improvises ways of avoiding the homogenizing definitions that western constructions of nationalism (which supply the default meaning of the term) press upon nation states.

"ONE culture can have many plural sub-cultures - as even MS Golwalkar acknowledges in A Bunch of Thoughts."

It's hard to know where to begin here. It's might be best to let Golwalkar speak for himself so we know where he stands on 'plural sub-cultures':

"From this standpoint sanctioned by the experience of shrewd old nations, the non-Hindu people in Hindusthan (sic) must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and revere Hindu religion, muyst entertain no idea but the glorification of the Hindu nation, i.e., they must not only give up their attitude of intolerance and ingratitude towards this land and its age-long traditions, but must also cultivate the positive attitude of love and devotion instead; in one word, they must cease to be foreigners or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen's rights.'

Golwalkar also admired Hitler's way with the Jews which he thought Indians could learn from:

"German national pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world b y her purging the country of the Semitic races--the Jews. National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well night impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindusthan (sic) to learn and profit by."

Golwalkar's We, Or Our Nation Defined is where these quotes are from. Golwalkar isn't attempting a description of India; he and the organization he built are trying to theorize (and work towards) a Hindu supremacist state. To accept Hindutva's premises is one thing- there's no law against harbouring unpleasant ideas; but to suggest that they spring from an academic thesis about the essential one-ness of Indians, a thesis that's been borne out by 'previous research' is disingenuous. A piece of advice: while making ideological arguments, it's a mistake to choose the anonymity of an online alias. It suggests an unnecessary furtiveness. In the plural India that Gandhi and Co built, we don't need samizdat: there's room for you.

Anonymous said...

Mukul, thanks to your comment, I could finally see the connection between Nationalism and The Ugliness of the Indian Male. It's St. Golwalkar, who in his attempt to embody the former actually embodies the latter. I wish I were a smarter reader.

Suresh said...


With respect to your examples about the US and France not tolerating differences, one can make the same case about India too. The Indian state is willing to tolerate "differences" so long as a group accepts that they are "Indians." And yet, in Kashmir, Nagaland and other places - even Tamil Nadu at one point - this is exactly the point at stake. Many Kashmiris and Nagas would deny that they are Indians and assert that they don't want that identity foisted on them. Note that the Government of India has not hesitated to use "force" if this basic tenet is not accepted.

So, all states have limits to which they can tolerate differences. But within those (self-defined) limits, pluralist democracies do involve compromises to a greater extent than non-democracies. I think this - if not commonplace - is very nearly so.

Now, as an Indian, I do find the actions of the French state or for that matter, the Turkish state inexplicable. The US is different in this regard because while there may be a fear of Spanish getting "official" status, the American state has not tried to legally prevent the use of Spanish. This is unlike for instance, Spain under Franco where Catalan was actually banned and its use punishable by law.

Anyway, all this raises an important issue: To what extent should pluralist democracies tolerate "differences"? I don't know the answer to this - if you have some thoughts, do share with us.

Anonymous said...

"With respect to your examples about the US and France not tolerating differences, one can make the same case about India too. The Indian state is willing to tolerate "differences" so long as a group accepts that they are "Indians." And yet, in Kashmir, Nagaland and other places - even Tamil Nadu at one point - this is exactly the point at stake. Many Kashmiris and Nagas would deny that they are Indians and assert that they don't want that identity foisted on them. Note that the Government of India has not hesitated to use "force" if this basic tenet is not accepted...
To what extent should pluralist democracies tolerate differences?"

This is the heart of the matter. In 'Ugliness...' I try to explain the Indian republic's attitude towards its borderlands in one of the essays. It's too long to reproduce here (buy the book!) but here's an edited version:

'If the Indian republic’s originality lies in its historical achievement in making diversity a democratic virtue, we should also acknowledge that its defects and cruelties spring from that same pluralist nationalism...

A sub-continental nation with inherited borders that refused to invoke a homogenizing essence to justify its nationhood was always going to feel insecure about threats to its territorial integrity. This would have been true even if the Congress had achieved an unpartitioned India. The Raj had made its nationalism cohere by giving it a target: its departure in any circumstance would have left a vacuum behind. But in an India that had suffered the violence of Partition and in a Congress whose reason for being had been challenged by the creation of Pakistan, a normal statist concern about secure borders flared into an existential anxiety about unity.

Pakistan claims Kashmir because as a Muslim state carved out of British India it thinks it has a right to Kashmir as a Muslim majority province. Israel, as a Jewish state, wants to annex large settler blocs of Jews on the West Bank to Israel and in return would be happy to give away bits of Israel that have concentrations of Arabs. Other nations dispute or defend territory on the ground of language. Indian nationalism refused the temptation of a single collective identity; as a result, the republic it created had no way of discriminating between borders that were negotiable and those that were written in stone. Not only were its borders were colonial and therefore arbitrary, being an ideologically pluralist state it couldn’t claim or trade away disputed borderlands going by the nature of the populations settled there. So it decided that every inch of its border was sacred and what it had, it held.

What the Indian state might have wanted to say in ideological defence of its claim to Kashmir would have gone like this: Kashmir should be a part of India because India is a new kind of nation that holds out the promise of diverse people living together democratically. But just reading the sentence makes it clear why this was unsayable: it reads like a boring good intention without the cachet of ‘self-determination’ or the fine resonance of ‘Muslim homeland’. Minus an ideological justification for India’s claim to Kashmir, India committed itself to sullenly defending an increasingly brutal status quo.

China solved its Tibet ‘problem’ by repopulating it with Han Chinese. It did this without embarrassment because its claim to Tibet was historical and frankly hegemonic. The nature of Indian nationalism and the structures of its constitutional democracy don’t allow ‘solutions’ of this sort. The history of republican India is the history of a state which, when pushed, will recognize every sort of identity—linguistic, tribal even religious—for the sake of pluralist equilibrium and political peace. You can see this happen in the formation of linguistic states, in the creation of a Muslim majority district in Kerala, in the segmentation of the North East into tiny states. But when it comes to its borders, India is dogmatically, even violently status quoist. It will deface every map that shows Kashmir with its ears missing, it will defend a glacier down to the last soldier, it will go to war with China (and endure humiliating defeat) in defence of a colonial border and it will inflict sickening violence upon insurgent nationalists in the north-eastern states. Every secessionist movement and every disputed border is, for this insecure heir to the Raj, a domino. Committed to the principle that the diversity of the sub-continent can be housed within a democratic state, it will let no one leave home.'

Unknown said...

I just came across this comment and it could have been been written for this thread! This is a Frenchman (Pierre, naturally) commenting on French unease with a German proposal to recognize minority languages under the umbrella of the EU:

"In the case of France, such pluralism (since the Revolution) has been understood as a major impediment to the exercise of liberty (properly understood). In brief, the French insistence on cultural and linguistic uniformity is seen as an essential condition for the effective participation of the citizenry in a republic because it allows the emergence of the follow feeling and universality of perspective that are touchstones for the legitimacy of republican government.

Many Frenchmen associate Federalism and linguistic pluralism with the atavistic, irrational and unjust class divisions and perceived arbitrary powers of the ancien regime."

So pluralism in the French view, isn't just primitive, it's BAD.(

Anonymous said...

I think Suresh has hit the nail on the head by asking how much pluralist democracies should tolerate differences. But since mere toleration should without doubt be a given, I would change this slightly to ask how much should the state succumb to the hegemony of differences, to borrow some of Uncertain’s handy terminology.I guess it is hard to complain about this said hegemony without sounding like a Hindutva-vadi, but it should be possible to decry the descent of diversity into fragmentation and mob entitlement without being accused of being one of Golwalkar’s ilk.

There is no question that notwithstanding their professed republicanism, France and Turkey are cases of a lapsed Catholic majority and a Westernised minority respectively, being entirely intolerant of difference. One only humbly refers to the US to suggest that a healthy diversity and order could conceivably co-exist (And yes I realize India is different, sui generis, more complex, post-colonial etc).

Anonymous said...

I'm happy to see that 'hegemony' is catching on :D

Mukul - Engaging directly with one as learned as yourself is a rare privilege. Responses follow.

1. I never claimed that the RSS' claim of ONE culture constituting all Indians stems from academic research. I did claim though that there is some research which backs that thesis and more importantly, there is an empirical way of testing the claim.

2. Your extracts from Golwalkar's book sound rather chilling - however they do not answer my question. My question being: on what logical basis (sic) do we compare (leave aside proclaim one as superior) Nehru's model of organizing society with Golwalkar's model of society? If we can't think of a logical basis, then I find the current deriding and derogating of Golwalkar as inconsistent with the liberal principle of "reasoned discourse" to settle differences of opinion. Moreover, in the absence of a logical basis, whoever has the might will have the right. Taking cue from Suresh and Rohit, who decides how much difference is tolerable? Perhaps both RSS and Nehru tolerate differences granted some core commonality - they disagreed with what commonality that is.

3. Sudheendra Kulkarni wrote a column in The Sunday Express citing several excerpts from Golwalkar's writings where it was less evident that Golwalkar wanted subjugation of non-Hindus to Hindus (as we understand these terms). I guess the devil lies in the detail of whether Golwalkar means "Hindu" to mean the same as we understand it today.

4. While these theoretical disputes are good, I am uncertain if here and now, in the practice of governance, there is any great difference between Congress and BJP.

5. I'm glad you believe there is room for me. In my experience however, I find that most of my liberal friends are as intolerant of my questions as my RSS leaning friends (one side calls me a Hindutvavadi and the other calls me Macaulay's child :)) )

6. I post anonymously for the same reason as journal editors send anonymous manuscripts to reviewers: Let no one be anything less than critical of what I write in the off chance that I'm someone famous and let no one summarily reject what I write in the off chance that I'm someone notorious. Nevertheless, I wouldn't attach too much importance to my anonymity.

7. I didn't realize I was making ideological arguments. I thought I was well within the narrative of logic. Perhaps that's not a contradiction.

I was looking at Dr. S. Radhakrishnan's Coursebook of Indian Philosophy where in the introduction he attempts to find an essential unity among the rich philosophical diversity of Indian/Hindu philosophy. Many attributes that he lists as common between different schools are similar to what you describe as Nehru's vision for India - Amartya Sen's "sweekriti" for differences among others. I sometimes wonder whether Nehru was also led by this ancient Hindu intellectual tradition.

Unknown said...

'Your extracts from Golwalkar's book sound rather chilling - however they do not answer my question. My question being: on what logical basis (sic) do we compare (leave aside proclaim one as superior) Nehru's model of organizing society with Golwalkar's model of society?'

An objection to genocide and ethnic cleansing as methods of 'organizing society'? A preference for politicians who don't approve of fascism? I know these are subjective positions from a Martian point of view (provincial, even), but they work on earth.

About the name: listen, no one's going to hold it against you. This is a Nehru-certified, non-Golwalkarian website: undeferential, non-bigoted, hospitable...

Suresh said...

My question being: on what logical basis (sic) do we compare (leave aside proclaim one as superior) Nehru's model of organizing society with Golwalkar's model of society?

What constitutes a suitable model for organizing society depends on the principles or axioms that one subscribes to; as in a mathematical system, the axioms themselves cannot be defended "logically" - they are taken as "self-evident truths."

So, both Golwalkar's model of organizing society and Nehru's model depend on certain (implicit) axioms. I am with Mukul in that I prefer Nehru's axioms to Golwalkar's, though I'd have phrased it less polemically :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank You Suresh, I completely echo your ideas. While I too lean towards Nehru's model, it appears that there is no logical basis for comparing Golwalkar's model with Nehru's and that's why all we have are rhetorical games supporting one deriding the other.

Thank You Mukul, you have provided added evidence in support of a very robust sociological phenonemon namely that in the absence of a logical basis, it is might (military, rhetorical, linguistic) that determines right. So much for reasoned discourse!

From the passages you quote, the leap to genocide and ethnic cleansing seems (to me) to be of faith rather than reason.

Speaking of Nehru's India, I was speaking to my grand uncle the other day who was an ICS servant in MP during Nehru's tenure as Prime Minister. He was telling me that they had instructions from "New Delhi" to keep tabs on all those who attended leftist meetings and left leaning 'sammelan'. And we accuse BJP of big brother syndrome.

As Foucault (which again seems to be a dirty word here) and others note, the state always sanctions violence against some sections of society. So what violence is legitimate and what isn't becomes a subjective and cultural concern even on Earth.

Lastly, and perhaps for the third time, Golwalkar's writings have to be seen in the context of the times when they were written (the 2 nation theory. disappointment with Khilafat movement among others). What bearing they have on today's times is not clear to me. BJP and Congress are closer to each other than to any other party on most policy issues.

Suresh said...


I am not sure where you want to take your point that there is no "logical" basis for ranking different models of society: it seems fairly obvious to me.

Note that if you take your point to extremes then you can justify societies like the former apartheid South Africa or even our own caste society. The Dutch Reformed Church (one strand of it) provided an elaborate justification for apartheid by appealing to a particular reading of the Bible. The orthodox Hindu philosophers provided, similarly, a defence of untouchability among other things, by appealing to a particular reading of the Vedas. In strictly "logical" terms, neither group could not be challenged. Those who challenged, for instance, the caste system (like the Buddha) did so by rejecting the axiom - the Vedas, or at least, the orthodoxy's reading of them.

Now, the question is: so what? Does this mean *any* model of society is justifiable? The way I see it, in our times, we have grown to think of certain values - equality, non-racism, non-casteism, respect for human rights and so on - as "self-evident." And yes, I prefer a society which adheres to such values than which does not. Nehru's vision, with all its flaws, comes much closer to this ideal than Golwalkar's vision, in my opinion. Do you disagree? If not, then what's your point? I repeat, what are you getting at?

I suspect this dialogue is not going to be productive. I have had my final say; I leave it to you to have the last word.

Anonymous said...

Chandrahas - I must complement you on creating a forum for such interesting and thought provoking dialogues (and in some cases monologues :D). Starting at the unit of analysis of a book or body of literary work, the conversations quickly ascend to matters of philosophical, sociological, rhetorical, global, and at the end of all the points and counter points, personally deep felt and meaningful matters.
I believe that is no mean achievement!

I wish you the very best for all present and future endeavours.

Anonymous said...

The comments were at first interesting to follow now they are jinxed by self-effacing sentimentality and close ended questions. I need to pick up Mr Kesavan's book to better understand his assumptions. Quoting Gowalkar would be the correct way to go, if the RSS wasn't subject to *any* forces of organizational change in the past 60 years. But its chiefs and mouthpieces have contradicted themselves comically on issues ranging from globalization to idol-worship. To deny it a local flavour and call it quazi-fascist flies in the face of facts and the same goes for Hurriyat or the Naxals etc. For all practical purposes breaking away from pledged dogmas would be the way to exorcize Indian polity of irrational fear-mongering.

Anonymous said...

Why have people not talked about how bad the title of the book is. It needs to be more appropriate with the theme of the book.

Chandrahas said...

Guys - First things first. I woke up this morning in London and had two samosas and a tall cold coffee for breakfast, which really set up the day.

Have any of you ever used The Body Shop peach handwash? It smells good enough to make you swoon, and I almost took a sip from the bottle.

The sunglasses I bought myself just for this trip have really improved the look of the world, and I daresay my own modest looks as well.

I may go out for a run in the park on Primrose Hill before lunch. All the girls in their summer dresses seem really beautiful. I am contemplating a short essay called "The Charms of the London Female".

And finally, thanks for all the great comments. If I haven't been able to respond to each one, I'm sure you'll understand why. But that doesn't mean that I'm not reading each one of them carefully - I am, particularly as I wait for the Google maps to load.

Anonymous said...

Suresh – I agree with you that this topic has been beaten to death and so I would like this to be my last word.

Before I explain where I'd like to take my argument, here's a brief context to my argument:

I believe we tend to apply good liberal principles rather inconsistently. To illustrate: We (rightly) try to defend the freedoms of MF Hussain, MSU students. However, when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee (circa 2002) said that certain 'madarsaa's along the WB-Bangladesh border were fostering anti India sentiments, something that many top Eastern Command army officers admit to in private, the Indian media and liberal lobby pounced on him and forced him to retract his statement. No Tehelka conducted a sting operation on any of the madarsas and so effectively, Buddhadeb rescinded and apologized based only on rhetorical arm twisting and no factual refutation. Similarly, woe betide anyone who dares to question The Aryan Migration/Invasion Theory. A certain JNU-DU cabal goes to great lengths to stymie any spirit of free inquiry on such occasions. The Hindu published a report “exposing” the “trash” in class IX (or X) NCERT History textbooks during MM Joshi's tenure as HRD minister; yet did not publish a point by point rebuttal of that report penned by Dr. Yvette Rosser (U of Texas). MM Joshi's idea to revive Vedic studies in Indian universities invited severe ridicule even before the syllabi was drafted, as if the idea in itself has no merit. The government of India has no qualms sponsoring Haj trips, but claims in the Supreme Court that “there is no evidence to believe Ram existed” - which is a problematic claim even without getting into allegedly hurt sentiments.

We tend to apply good liberal principles rather inconsistently. Not all attacks on freedom of speech and expression come from the BJP/RSS. Some of the above problems have their roots in Congress' decisions (and in few cases, Nehru's decisions).

Where would I like to take my arguments: We don't truly understand the way individuals and society function. A long term study of history shows that what's regarded despicable at one time finds acceptance at other times, what's considered legitimate and “self-evident” at some point is considered invalid at others (e.g., eugenics, alchemy, global warming, and so on). Different constituencies in India believe in different metaphors for India and Indians and not all of these metaphors are logically comparable. Instead of derogating those who do not agree with us, we could hear them out with humility and try and think critically about what they say, think from their axioms and not ours and show some “sweekriti” for what they might believe. This does not mean that we accept genocide or ethnic cleansing (though am not sure anyone in the BJP or the Congress suggested these measures) but this does mean that we allow people to question what we take to be “self-evident”. And ultimately in a democratic society, we allow people to take some decisions which has majority support, even if we dislike them. As some scholars say, post modernism does not have to lead to moral relativism, but to an understanding that all belief systems privilege some and condemn some and therefore when we adopt some beliefs, we're at least aware that who stands to gain and who stands to lose. Some more humility, some more open mindedness and less derogating – is where I'd like to take my arguments. Period.