‘The middle class wants development backed by authoritarianism’

on Monday, June 30, 2008

Amid rows of books in the Delhi office of political psychologist Ashis Nandy is a painting that’s striking in its sordidness: the head of a dead politician enveloped in a floppy garland, surrounded by numerous tags displaying his numerous identities. Ever the political dissenter, Nandy is back in news after the Ahmedabad- based National Council for Civil Liberties filed a case against him for his article, Blame the Middle Class, published in The Times of India in January, analysing Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in the Assembly elections. The charge against Nandy is “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth and language”. Some 178 academics and intellectuals have signed a statement to protest the case against Nandy (http://www.sacw.net/FreeExpAndFundos/ defendNandy16June08.html). In an interview with TUSHA MITTAL, Nandy explains how modernity is devastating India.

How has your understanding of India changed over the years?

Like every other Bengali from Calcutta, I had a political edge to everything I did, but little empathy for the world outside the cities. Theoretically, I might have been committed to the people of India, but in practice they were an abstract category. Things began to change dramatically when I came to the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. We studied politics empirically, and I realised its pervasive presence in Indian social life, how much of a pace-setting agency it really is. A second major change came with the Emergency. Neither my political studies nor my understanding of Indian politics had prepared me for it. It was a shock. Then, I began to look for new ways of looking at Indian politics. My discovery of Gandhi happened at that time. I had always disliked Gandhi: his allegiances had looked primordial; his style a deviation from our idea of cosmopolitanism; his politics anti-modern. But I rediscovered Gandhi. I became more sceptical of the Indian state, which was modelled on the colonial state that had ruled us. I saw that the categories that dominated Indian politics had no openness to the experiences of a majority of Indians. Often, as with terms like ‘secular’, they could not even be translated into vernacular languages.

Would you say the secular project in India has failed, that we have failed to merge ground realities with our idea of liberal secularism?

Absolutely! Secularism is a tool to achieve certain goals of tolerance and amity. It has not been able to touch the heart of most Indians, who have found it flawed, an abstraction used for political purposes only. I think we would gain much more if we entered it through the various cultural and religious traditions of India to confront the forces fomenting communal conflict. They are actually anti-Hindu and anti-Islam. They will destroy these faiths in the arrogant belief that they can defend them. We don’t defend faiths; faith defends us. In fact, the people often called religious fanatics usually did not care about religion. They were modernists who wanted a European- style nation state in India. They considered Gandhi primitive because he brought into politics ideas such as fasting and nonviolence. Gandhi was the counter-modernist who said that modernism was an intrusion in Indian culture and could only devastate India culturally, economically and socially, [that] it is intrinsically hostile to India’s environment, local knowledge systems and diversity. Ethnic and religious conflict is a pathological expression of modernity, not of tradition. The way modernisation is conceptualised leads to genocides; an enormous degree of violence; the demolition of civilisations.

Can you give an example?

I did a major study on sati, the first in contemporary times. I showed that sati epidemics primarily occurred when a community was under attack. For example, sati in late 18th and early 19th century was a direct product of the colonial political economy, the kind of collapse of traditional norms then taking place in India, the monetisation of the economy and human relationships. Half the cases of

Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Sati took place in Calcutta and its slums not in villages.

In your article, ‘Gujarat: Blame the Middle Class’, you talked about how development has de-civilised society, leaving only a shrinking space for the life of the mind.

This is a product of democratic processes. The people entering the middle class do not have middle-class values. They only have middle-class incomes. They have neither the traditional nor the modern concept of cosmopolitanism. They have just risen in the social hierarchy. They have only middleclass consumption.

What are these middle class values?

Some degree of tolerance and the ability to live with minority views which are different from yours; some acceptance that you do not protect divinities, that divinities can protect themselves.

You have used the term ‘cultural desert’ for Gujarat.

Gujarat has produced an intellectual culture where some of the finest minds, thinkers, writers, artists don’t feel comfortable at all. Perhaps it is not America but Singapore that is their utopia, at least in the short run. They want Singapore-style development. Even though they won’t admit it, they are looking forward not only to Singapore-style malls but also to Singapore-style authoritarian prime ministers. Large numbers of the middle class are now perfectly willing to sacrifice large sections of the society for the sake of development. In most countries, spectacular development has been associated with spectacular authoritarianism. Not only Singapore, China is a very good example. The enormous diversity of India has always troubled modern Indians. They think some degree of homogenisation imposed from above is the perfect remedy for India’s ills. They think they are the strict school teachers who can teach the rest of India how to behave when the government takes away land for SEZs, when it builds mega dams. They want to shut their eyes to what development really means. They are its beneficiaries and feel it must be protected at all costs.

What is your idea of a post-secular world?

Everybody predicted the demise of religion in the 19th century. Yet, at the beginning of the 21st century, we find religion stronger than ever. It has re-emerged from its isolation and marginalisation in a big way, taking advantage of the democratic process. Unless we learn the language of religion and enter the people’s mind through that path, we have no way of truly influencing their choices. That’s why one of the most creative persons of our time, Gandhi, said that people who say religion and politics have nothing to do with each other understand neither religion nor politics. Other creative persons who may or may not call themselves Gandhian follow that method. The Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King — they have all used religion very creatively. In India, people like Baba Amte and Sunder Lal Bahuguna never attacked religion; Swami Agnivesh has never put away his saffron robes. When you talk of saffronisation, it offends most Hindus. Saffron is not the colour of extremism. It is the colour of renunciation — sanyasis wear saffron. Extremists have hijacked it because we allowed them to; they have hijacked it even when they don’t believe in it themselves. [VD] Savarkar was an atheist. He didn’t believe in Hinduism but produced the bible of Hindutva. Hindutva is a political ideology while Hinduism is a form of faith. Ideologies enter when faiths become weak and do not have a meaning for people. Hindutva is a way of using Hindu sentiments politically to push towards the development of a Hindu nation state. The concept of a nation state is not Hindu. It is a 19th-century European concept, but Europe is moving away from it while we continue to cling to it. As Rabindranath Tagore once said, India trying to build a nation is like Switzerland trying to build a navy.

What prompts people who were once part of the Left to turn to the BJP?

Psychologically, the Leftist and the Hindutva ideologies are not far from each other. They offer the same kind of closure, the feeling of having reached an absolute truth by which to live. People who have faith don’t usually have strong ideologies. But many Indians also have blind faith in ideologies because they feel if they don’t have the support of an ideology, the meaning of life will collapse.

What about young Indians?Are they clinging to ideology as a means of security?

Like our politicians, the young are increasingly getting de-ideologised. They don’t understand Hindutva but they have picked up its slogans as ideology. They cling to it with the passion of a lover because without that clinging, they feel they will not be able to call themselves Hindu, because otherwise they are going out and downing beef hamburgers. Alternatively, they are moving towards a new, generic version of Hinduism obtained from gurus. This flooding of the market with gurus has also come from this need. You could be a Malayali working in Himachal Pradesh. You have no access to your own village gods and goddesses, to the Malayali version of Hinduism with which you have lived — it doesn’t even make sense to you anymore. Then you take a generic version of the faith [from the gurus]. Somehow it gives you solace, a feeling that you are part of the Hindu community.

So are we losing Hinduism’s diversity?

Hinduism is becoming a faith in the way that Christianity in many parts of the West is a faith. That wasn’t our concept of religion. Today, there are many in India willing to fight for the cause of India to the last Indian. Exactly as in Islam: they are many willing to fight for Islam until the last Muslim. They despise Muslims for not participating in the struggle and don’t care how many of them die. Because they have very little compassion for Muslims, their compassion is reserved for the vague idea of Islam. Similarly, in India you will find a lot of people who have a vague idea of what India is — they have a statist, mechanical concept of India and of Hinduism, and they are willing to sacrifice a million people to achieve that end. But the Indian state is the Indian culture and that extends from South Vietnam all the way to the borders of Persia.

What about Islam in India? How has it changed over the years?

We are seeing an Arabisation of Islam in India. At one time, Indian Muslims were proud that their Islam represented the best of the world’s traditions. But they are increasingly losing that confidence, as a direct product of 19th-century European scholars who claimed that West Asian Islam was the real Islam while other strands were influenced by local religions. These scholars endorsed fundamentalist Islam as the real Islam. The hijab, for example, was introduced in Indonesia by Western-educated women because they felt the Islam of their parents was not good enough. The same thing is happening in India. Muslims are virtually in uniform with skull caps and kurta-pyjama.

What are some of the biggest challenges India is to face?

How do we stop the fact that our economic and social vision is very close to writing off the bottom 10 percent of our society. We would be happy if they were all dead. How do we find people who will use the language of religion to re-enter the public imagination, someone who will re-enter as a person, articulating principles in direct continuation with his or her religion, without practising the dominant slogans of the pack. There are many, even our finance minister, who seem to believe that “development” and industrialisation are the way out of poverty, as that is the only model of social change they have learnt. America consumes 30 percent of the world’s resources with only six percent of its population. But we are not six percent of the world’s population. To become America we will have to kill off everybody else in the world and consume all the world’s resources and even then we will not have the American standard of living. According to a prediction, the Ganga will die out in 28 years. Something like that will probably awaken the consciousness of the people.

Why is the space for dissent shrinking?

Their own conviction in their being right is so small. Because they are themselves not convinced that what they are doing is right, they look at all dissent as an attack, not only on their ideas but on them directly. You are planting the idea in their mind, making them think that they could be wrong — that is their fear.

You’ve called history an overrated discipline. Why?

Every community of India has its own history, not only in terms of jati puranas but their own mythic history: memories handed down for generations. There are many ways of constructing the past, history is only one of them. But with this passion for history that came to India in the 19th century, everything has been “historised”. That, I think, has diminished us. Today, history is a major part of the knowledge industry, but that no longer enhances us. This search for truth about the past closes many pasts.


From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 26, Dated July 05, 2008




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By Tusha Mittal
With a case filed against him for publishing a critical analysis of Modi's victory in Gujarat, Ashis Nandy explains how modernity is destroying India READ »













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