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Mystic River

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Even supposing there was a strong "argumentative" tradition in India 3,000 years ago, was this the frail aqueduct through which the democratic stream finally moved? Such is the argument of Sen and (in a more fashionable formulation) of postcolonial scholars who scornfully dismiss the suggestion that the British presence had anything to do with the spread of democratic ideas and the rise of Indian democracy. This is, in my view, a form of mysticism. We may not like it, but there is no denying the impact of 150 years of British rule in India, which brought capitalism to the country and overwhelmingly determined the nature and character of Indian institutions.

About the Author

Tariq Ali
Tariq Ali is an editor at New Left Review. His latest book is The Duel: Pakistan on the Flightpath of American Power (...

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Sen accepts uncritically the historian Partha Chatterjee's argument that, in Chatterjee's words, the emergence of nationalism created

its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before its political battle with the imperial power. It does this by dividing the world of social institutions and practices into two domains--the material and the spiritual. The material is the domain of the "outside," of the economy...of science and technology...where the West has proved its superiority.... The spiritual, on the other hand, is an "inner" domain bearing the "essential" marks of cultural identity. The greater one's success in imitating Western skills in the material domain...the greater the need to preserve the distinctiveness of one's spiritual culture.

Here one discerns a retreat from the secular definition of nationhood espoused by Nehru and a slide into the murky domain of Hindu nationalism, albeit in an ultra-civilized fashion. In rejecting the heritage of Nehruvian socialism for its statism and affiliation with the urban middle class, "left-wing" postcolonial historians like Chatterjee have eerily converged in their arguments with right-wing Hindu politicians, who insist that the content of Indian nationalism has always been spiritual, i.e., religious, thus excluding India's large Muslim minority from the national community. (When the Hindu nationalist brigade in the United States mounted a disgraceful campaign two years ago against the Library of Congress decision to award a research fellowship to Romila Thapar, one of the most distinguished secular historians of ancient India, a majority of Indian historians on American campuses remained silent.) What is "one's spiritual culture" and "cultural identity" if not religion, even if lightly disguised as the Cow Protection League or the National Fund to Rebuild Mosques? Was it possible for nationalism to move in a more cosmopolitan than spiritual direction?

This raises the Gandhi question. Was it necessary for the Mahatma to use spiritual (Hindu) imagery and language to rouse the majority of the countryside from their torpor? Nehru and Tagore did not think so and argued heatedly with the old fox, but on this Gandhi would not budge. It was they who gave up, Tagore in despair and Nehru in the half-hope that the damage was reparable. But it wasn't, and it led ultimately to the fatal breach with secular Muslims, including Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. That there were other straws in the nationalist breeze was revealed time and time again in the wave of strikes that paralyzed the country in late 1945 and then again in 1946, when Muslim, Hindu and Sikh naval ratings united against the British and seized the ships, raising the banner of revolution. This was the most significant mutiny in the history of the British Empire. On the advice of Jinnah and Gandhi, the sailors surrendered "to India not the British."

The attachment to the "distinctiveness of one's spiritual culture" undoubtedly helped provoke the bloody partition of the subcontinent, but the institutions that provided the spinal cord of the new states owed little to spiritual traditions. They were British creations, and Parliament was not the only one. It certainly helped to unite India, but in neighboring Pakistan it is the army and, to a lesser extent, the civil service, both creations of the Raj, that have ruled the country. What happened to the "argumentative" tradition here? Taxila (near Islamabad) was, after all, the site of one of the world's first large (Buddhist) universities centuries before the Christian Era. It is not that most Pakistanis did or do not like democracy. A new imperial power decreed that the army was the most reliable guarantor of stability and order in the new country. Here Washington has been consistent. Only this year Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Islamabad, praised Gen.Pervez Musharraf and his regime--apparently secular and autocratic--as the model for the Muslim world. (Including Iraq?)

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