Subcontinental Homesick Blues

Subcontinental Homesick Blues

Nearly twenty years ago, in a village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, a young woman called Roop Kanwar was burned to death at her husband’s funeral pyre.


Nearly twenty years ago, in a village in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, a young woman called Roop Kanwar was burned to death at her husband’s funeral pyre. Kanwar, according to her in-laws and neighbors, had committed a voluntary act of “sati,” demonstrating her loyalty as a Hindu wife by following her husband beyond death. Sati has been illegal since colonial times, when Hindu reformers took the lead in convincing the British to ban the practice. Nevertheless, a shrine to Kanwar was set up in the village, and money began pouring in from people making pilgrimages.

In the near unanimous condemnation that followed from urban India, there was, however, one dissenting voice, charging critics of the sati incident with self-righteousness and ignorance. The voice belonged to Ashis Nandy, an intellectual notorious for his unconventional and often abrasive approach to prevailing opinion in India. In a series of provocative essays and articles since the 1970s, he has assailed every category of thought influencing his contemporaries–modernity, development, science, nationalism, history. Nandy is particularly scathing when it comes to secularism, and those who saw Kanwar’s death as a symptom of religious fervor seemed to confirm his understanding of secularism as a form of deracinated hubris that missed everything significant about India’s traditions.

Although the intervention earned Nandy a reputation as a covert right-wing Hindu ideologue, he is in fact a Christian, and his writings demonstrate unequivocally that he did not support Kanwar’s immolation. Having studied sati as a historical phenomenon, he was challenging the interpretation imposed upon it by the urban elites. His essay “Sati: A Nineteenth-Century Tale of Women, Violence and Protest”–included in Bonfire of Creeds, a recent collection of essays brought out by Oxford–makes the case that sati was an intermittent phenomenon, surfacing in discrete and fairly traumatic historical periods as in colonial Bengal, and related to a range of disruptions from food shortages to changes in property ownership. There was no single, homogeneous religious impulse behind sati, Nandy argued, and those who saw traditional village attitudes behind Kanwar’s death had a limited understanding of both tradition and modernity.

At the time, Nandy’s tirade against secularism found few followers among India’s intelligentsia. That secularism’s provenance was urban and elite was indisputable, but this was what made secularism the very basis of modern Indian identity. If modernity was desirable, so was secularism. Enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution and embodied by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, secularism was central to India’s idea of itself as a democracy, providing a vital point of difference from its theocratic neighbor Pakistan. Moreover, what gave Indian secularism its moral gravitas was not the Enlightenment idea of church-state separation but its role as guarantor of the equality of all Indian religions. Like multiculturalism in the United States, secularism in India was often more image than reality, but it insured a steady dissemination of the idea of national harmony.

By all accounts, Nandy has won his great battle against secularism. In the years since Kanwar’s death, secularism has been displaced from its habitat in urban households by an aggressive belief in a rigidly defined Hindu identity. With the simultaneous emergence of Hindu fundamentalism and economic neoliberalism, it has become possible for the Indian upper classes to uncouple secularism from the train of modernity, making it feasible for them to be admirers of both sati and the stock market. Since mass murder of Muslims, starvation deaths in Orissa, farmer suicides in Andhra Pradesh and large-scale impoverishment arouse barely any reactions in urban India, it seems apparent that Kanwar could safely be burned for the Hindu cause today without so much as a newspaper headline to record a protest.

One expects Nandy to have registered this change, particularly the fact that secularism has given way not to traditions of pluralism but to an outright program of hatred against minorities, ranging from episodes of organized violence to a steady stream of public denunciation. But although it is possible to find the occasional grudging (and somewhat belated) acknowledgment by Nandy that secularism once served “as an important public value and as an indicator of one’s commitment to the protection of minorities,” his recent writings give the impression of continuing the old battle, tilting at windmills long after the giants have departed.

An essay written after the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism and revised after the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in March 2002 argues, for instance, that extremist Hindu parties like the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena (forming a national government until their defeat in the elections this past May) are “two of the most secular parties in India.” On the surface, this is a puzzling claim. The BJP and the Shiv Sena may make occasional noises about being genuine secularists (much as American right-wingers claim to believe in racial equality when denouncing affirmative action), but their energies are largely directed at demonizing Muslims and promoting an exclusive notion of Hinduism. In calling right-wing parties secular, Nandy does not mean they are impartial about religion but rather that their use of religious symbols is subservient to the goal of state power.

“Even religious riots or pogroms are secularized in South Asia,” he writes. “They are organized the way a rally or strike is organized in a competitive, democratic polity.” Both religious and secular parties share the common objective of seizing and controlling the power of the state, and they are therefore equally steeped in the values of modernity, where the state is perceived as the ultimate arbiter of human existence. In Nandy’s view, there is no religious group that can escape secularism’s embrace; from this perspective, all fundamentalist groups, from Al Qaeda to the Christian devotees of rapture, are utterly secular entities in spite of themselves.

The oppressive nature of modernity is, in fact, the central theme running through all of Nandy’s work. Whether the specific critique is of secularism, the nation-state or Western science, taken together they add up to an impressive indictment of modernity–that narrative of progress brought to the subcontinent by colonialism and kept alive since then by an Indian elite and their mentors in the West. Over the years, this view–that many of India’s problems are caused by an imported modernity rather than by its seemingly static traditions–has gained ground among many postcolonial scholars, especially the group of Indian historians known as the Subaltern Studies collective. But Nandy has pursued his line of reasoning against modernity in an independent, even idiosyncratic manner, deriving his framework not from the theoretical underpinnings of Gramsci, Foucault and Derrida but by rummaging through history and contemporary events, using a mélange of psychology, sociology and cultural analysis to examine a series of liminal figures embodying the struggle between traditional Indian culture and Western modernity.

The most engaging of such figures are to be found in a group of essays collected under the rubric The Savage Freud, the very title indicating Nandy’s interest in the paradoxical relationship between the deep structures of Indian culture and the ideas introduced by the West. Among the most compelling accounts here is that of Radhabinod Pal, one of the two judges from colonized Asia to serve on the tribunal responsible for trying World War II Japanese leaders as war criminals. Pal delivered the sole dissenting judgment, an act that was apparently greeted with derision in the West and acclaimed in Japan and India. For Nandy, the cultural divide in the response to Pal’s judgment is also emblematic of the difference between a non-Western ethics and Western jurisprudence, and he uses the colonial background of India, the power struggles of international politics and the psychology of Pal’s upbringing to illuminate the nature of the judgment. Clearly admiring Pal for standing firm against the Allied view that war crimes had been committed only by the defeated, Nandy argues that “the emotional and moral background of Pal’s judgment at Tokyo was provided not by the culture of modern international law, but by his long exposure to the traditional laws of India.”

The reservoir of ethics to be found in India’s traditions is a recurring theme in The Savage Freud. In Nandy’s view, these traditions have prevailed in the face not only of colonialism but of the postcolonial transformation of the Indian state, which now embodies modernity no less than the West. “The Discreet Charms of Indian Terrorism” examines two hijackings, both carried out in 1984 by Sikh separatists on Indian Airlines flights. Nandy is particularly good at dissecting the media hysteria that immediately slotted the incident into a globally available framework of terrorism and violence. Using accounts provided by passengers of their interaction with the hijackers (one of whom even sang to the hostages), Nandy argues that “despite some low-level violence, the social world of the pirated IC 405 and IC 421 did not become a free-for-all or an amoral Hobbesian jungle.”

An amoral Hobbesian jungle is, of course, a virtual synonym for modernity in Nandy’s oeuvre. What is harder to pin down is the tradition opposed to this modernity, the tradition that provides an ethical framework for both judge and hijacker and yet is excluded by the modern Indian state. If there is a focal point for this Indian tradition in Nandy’s writings, it is provided by Gandhi and the body of ideas and practices associated with him. As opposed to the modernizing Nehru (dismissed by Nandy as much for his naïve ideas of technological progress as for his belief in secularism), Gandhi appears in Nandy’s work as a leader uniquely in touch with Indian beliefs and traditions.

Gandhi can indeed be considered a prescient critic of modernity. His rhetoric frequently invoked religion, ecology and rural India, and his anti-industrialism and hostility to the modern state inform much of Nandy’s work. But what makes Gandhi especially important to Nandy is his representation of an alternative narrative for postcolonial India, one where politics would be approached in an ethical rather than in an instrumental manner. This alternative narrative was not the one embraced by the Indian elites flush with the victory of independence from British rule; that would have involved dissolving the Congress party, which had led the anticolonial struggle, and it would also have meant rejecting the vivisection of the Indian subcontinent by accommodating leaders of the Muslim League (who were suspicious of the Congress Hindus, and quite rightfully so). Given the choice of two founding myths, Nehru and the Congress preferred the one most compromised by modernity and colonialism. What has followed in India since then, Nandy laments, is a logical consequence of that first mistake.

There are fundamental contradictions between East and West, tradition and modernity, past and present, Nandy writes. He admires Gandhi for seeing clearly into these contradictions and for stating that they could be resolved “primarily within the little traditions of India and the West…but almost entirely outside modernity.” But here, too, opposed to the sharp contours of the modernity that emerged victorious in the postcolonial state, one finds only a mystifying invocation of the “little traditions” that does nothing to indicate what those “little traditions” might be and how they might be used to fashion an alternative social order.

This is a crucial lapse, because one of the ways in which Nandy’s work contradicts his own precepts is that he seems largely interested in male, upper-middle-class figures who struggle with their competing allegiances to Western ideas and Indian traditions. In fact, even though Nandy has made some interesting forays into mass culture phenomena such as cricket and popular cinema, the mode in which he operates best is one of high culture, with his indigenous sources mostly confined to classical Sanskrit texts. This does not necessarily make him a Hindu apologist, as some of his critics have alleged, but it gives the reader scant evidence of the “little traditions” to be used against modernity.

It often seems as if Nandy, while arguing against the dominant view of India as an authoritarian, modern nation-state, has implicitly accepted the founding precept of this state: that the Indian subcontinent consists entirely of Hindus and Muslims. He may not agree with the accompanying corollary that Hindus and Muslims have unitary, exclusively religious identities, but these religious identities are nevertheless what he concentrates on, resulting in a noticeable silence about groups like the Dalits, indigenous tribal peoples, geographically peripheral populations in the northeast of India and the urban poor. The absence of these groups in Nandy’s work constitutes a remarkable evasion, and one that seems directly related to his reluctance to engage with issues of mass politics.

Such distaste for mass politics limits Nandy’s usefulness as a social critic and dilutes even his presentation of Gandhi as the most articulate Indian critic of modernity. Shahid Amin, a Subaltern Studies historian, has demonstrated superbly in his Event, Metaphor, Memory: Chauri Chaura 1922- 1992 that Gandhi could often be in active opposition to the little traditions of village India, as when he called off his agitation against the British to protest the killing of twenty-three policemen by the villagers of Chauri Chaura. The existence of such conflicts between Gandhi and the villages also leads us to what may be the most crucial aspect in Gandhi–his ability to engineer a coherent program of mass politics. In Nandy’s account, Gandhi appears as a victim and a critic of modernity, but not as an agitator and organizer, perhaps because that takes him too close to the “secular” strikes and rallies Nandy abhors.

Yet this may be the Gandhi most worth engaging with, given the uneven balance of power between populations, on the one hand, and governments and corporations, on the other. This is where a scholar like Partha Chatterjee, another member of the Subaltern Studies collective, displays a clearer understanding of the intricate relations between Gandhi and mass politics, as well as the continuing relevance of such politics in the Third World. Chatterjee’s new book The Politics of the Governed speaks of how “Gandhi’s words and actions are shot through by the parallel themes of unleashing popular initiative and controlling it at the same time,” but his interest in Gandhi does not preclude the criticism that Gandhian politics ceased to be effective after decolonization because it failed to present itself as “an alternative form of the modern state.”

For Chatterjee, this failure did not mean that non-elite Indians were content to remain passive objects of modernity. Much of his book, in fact, is concerned with the formation of what he calls “political society,” through which marginalized groups like squatters and displaced peasants have negotiated with the modern Indian state. Given this interest in mass politics, it is not surprising that Chatterjee’s book engages precisely with those possibilities not considered by Nandy, such as attempts by B.R. Ambedkar to organize an equitable space for the Dalits in a modern Indian state, or the experiments of the left in West Bengal to fashion progressive land reforms.

The political society discussed by Chatterjee is often limited to West Bengal, which–with a democratically elected leftist government in power for twenty-seven years–may be quite anomalous in the Indian context. Nevertheless, his book offers some hope in the attempts made by disenfranchised people to formulate an effective politics that refashions aspects of modernity and the state to their own needs. Chatterjee does not cover up the harsh inequities of the Indian state, now being speeded along by a rampant neoliberalism, but he gives us some idea of where, and in what form, these inequities may be challenged.

Nandy’s work, unfortunately, holds out little such hope. Even his more prescriptive essays, such as “Towards a Third World Utopia,” veer away rapidly from utopian possibilities into somewhat labored discussions of the dystopian “processes which give structured oppression its resilience.” Interesting insights notwithstanding, one hears an old, familiar ax being ground when Nandy starts pondering–via Adorno–over vulgar materialism as “an ally of the global structure of oppression.” And when he does speak of resisting this global structure in ways uncontaminated by modernity, the effect is curious:

The only way out, at this moment, seems to be that of the shaman. The shaman not as the heroic symbol of all non-co-optable dissent but the shaman as a more modest symbol of resistance to the dominant politics of knowledge, the shaman as one whose style of negation and whose categories do not make any sense centre-stage but always seem to touch the disempowered in the wings.

It is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that there is more than a touch of self-description in this image. For much of his career, Nandy has performed his role as intellectual dissenter admirably, demolishing platitudes about progress and modernity, forcing even vulgar materialists to reconsider some of their beliefs. It is equally clear that for quite some time now, the shaman has danced his way entirely offstage, so preoccupied with throwing off the oppressive shackles of modernity that he has abandoned everybody who might constitute a resistance to that modernity: audience, fellow shamans and, especially, the disempowered waiting in the wings.

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy