Friday, February 12, 2010

India: Need for An Alternative Idea

There are times when I encounter a special book. A book which questions fundamental assumptions of my thoughts, the ideas I took as given. Over last couple of weeks, coincidentally, I encountered not one, but two such books. These, along with various experiences and reflections, allow me to think about the idea of India all over again.

The first among these is a travelogue. Benard Imhasly, a Swiss cultural anthropologist and someone who knows India quite well, has written a beautiful book - Abschied Von Gandhi - which I read in its English translation, Goodbye to Gandhi. Beautifully presented, this is an attempt to retrace the footsteps of Gandhi - from Porbandar to Champaran to Sevagram - and reflections on modern India from the vantage point of its Gandhian vision. I must not give the impression that it is a biographic commentary or hagiography in any sense, the author travels to Devdungari to see MKSS and its founder, Aruna and Bunker Roy, as well as to Manipur to meet the heroine of hunger strike, Sharmila Irom. Everywhere as he goes, he creates a detached, balanced assessment of the modern Indian state, its progress [as he travels around Cyberabad] and the essential conflict of India vs India, the old civilization versus the modern nation state.

This isn't new, it has surfaced so many times before in so many conversations. There are roughly four kinds of literature one can find on this conflict, which dwell on two different themes. One clear theme is that the two is actually one and the same. The old civilization has created the modern state. This is exemplified in most of the modern Indian political literature, dating back from the middle of nineteenth century, when Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay and his contemporaries started imagining a new India in modern nation state terms. This has arrived in the modern times with people like Veer Savarkar, Balgangadhar Tilak and Subhas Chandra Basu, who imagined the modern India with the glory of its ancient history. And, this is not just Hindu nationalist thinking. I remember reading M K Akbar who protested loudly about the British assertion [was it Judith Brown?] that the British colonial administration actually created India, and pointing back to the great tradition of Ashoka and Akbar in search of the Indian state.

The other theme in this two as one is the modern state triumphing over, and transforming, the ancient civilization. This is the reformist view of India [if we call the other traditionalist], as exemplified by Nehru's Discovery of India and the whole body of his thought and work. This idea is also deeply embedded in the whole liberal reformist cult in India, of late turning into triumphalism of New India pop and the stories of social dynamism, as exemplified in the Booker Prize winning The White Tiger and Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire [and the book, Q&A]. The theme today can be briefly described as 'India Arriving', the title of a popular book - a modern nation, essentially reconciled to its ancient traditions, demanding its rightful place in the world.

However, the cacophony of this dominant theme, and the variations therein, largely hide the alternative thinking about India altogether. I am talking here of a society ill at ease, where most people are still disenfranchised, desperately poor and worse, hopeless. From this point of view, the modern state is an anomaly, an imposition. For all its industrial progress, it is unable to absorb its teeming millions; for all the glitter of its cities, it is unable to hold the spread of the squalor of its slums. It is a country divided. To use Arundhati Roy's metaphor, it is as if one India has taken the bus to progress and left, leaving behind another India to perish in darkness.

The problem is that this theme is counter-intuitive, and against the trend. We are today living in the age of nation states, at least intellectually, and anything that questions that basic assumption is treated as blasphemy. This is point the second book I read dwells on - an excellent polemic written by Ashish Nandy, The Romance of The State. He suggests that the modern Indian state is deeply in conflict with its culture - the ancient Asian civilization that hosts it - and to survive, it must dwell on disenfranchisement, coercion and violence to spread its underlying message. From this point of view, Bernard Imhasly's story of Sharmila Irom assume a new significance; the Indian state keeps her in continued captivity and forced feeding to maintain AFSPA, a colonial law designed to disenfranchise fellow Indian citizens from the basic human rights and dignity. The state as an apparatus seems to have taken over the Indianness of our civilization, and its agents, in the name of modernity, undermined the freedom and dignity of all Indians that was the key reason to wage the struggle of independence.

I said there are four types of literature, dwelling on two key themes. So, there is - a slight variation of this angry view of modern state as an aberration. Let us call this the sad view, a deep desire to see modernity yet without the trappings of a coercive European format nation state. We can still call it the reformist view, which deeply distrusted the state but welcomed the liberation of thought from the constraints of traditionalism. While Gandhi would have tried to go back to the Ancient Indian Civilization and created a society based on the traditional village cooperatives, free of the coercion of a central state, the modern humanists would have proclaimed freedom from state coercion and uniformity and ushered in the individual human spirit in the context of a deeper, global humanism. This human spirit, following their formulation, would have been free of all coercion, of the state but also of tradition, and would have been empowered by modern science and universal human ethic to seek the greatest common good. The elements of this thought was embedded in the work of Rabindranath Tagore, a persistent critic of nationalism but yet a preacher of modernity, and have since then lived on within the realm of Indian regional vernacular literature.

One can argue that this all sounds Utopian, but free trade and nation states itself sounded Utopian a few centuries back. The social system and the countries we live in are surely products of our imagination, and the lack of it. I have previously argued that it is great ability of individual human beings to imagine systems counter-intuitively that keeps our society moving forward. Someone imagined nation state; someone imagined European Union. Someone imagined the Zionist state. Someone imagined Islamic Revolution. They all defied the gravity of traditional ideas and went beyond what was obvious at the time.

Similarly, it is time for us to think seriously about the alternative idea of India. I am not proposing an abandonment of the state as it is, and return to the village society or revert to complete individual freedom. But, instead of the coercive violence-based thinking that we have about the Islamic extremism, or Maoist insurgence, in India, we can possibly explore why the state we created is increasingly at odds with people it is supposed to serve. We can look at the whole worldwide phenomena of the weakening of the nation-states, not just in Western Europe, but also in the Middle East and North Africa, where an alternative violence-based model of non-state actors rising in alarming proportion.

If you are an optimist, you will know that all roads to future progress must lead through freedom - of thought, action and endeavour. It is the great benefit of scientific and social progress that we should be able to maintain a society without coercion or restriction, but by goodwill and commonwealth. Nation States were a tool of progress at a distant time in history; however, they have long stopped being so. Similarly, time has come for us to go beyond the idea of India as a mere nation state. We should not lose out on the future because we simply failed to imagine it.

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