Monday, January 30, 2017

The Indian Imagination

Is it important to have an independent Indian imagination?

The question may be too obvious and too jarring at the same time. Too obvious, because the imagination of the Indian Republic was derived from the colonial imagination of India, and the new Republic did not just inherit the colonial laws, polity, ceremonies and buildings, but also its language, geography, ideas and conceptions of itself. But too jarring at the same time, because it is obvious that independence is good and dependence is bad, and the question is attempting to open a debate that is already settled in most people's minds.

But independence of imagination is not like independence as a nation state, decoupling the bureaucracies and changing the personnel. It is also different from shifting the power structure, replacing one elite by another. An independent imagination may involve a reinvention of knowledge, questioning what is valuable and how should one look at the world. This is disruptive, but also, in a way, implausible for a secular nation state. Because if one has to re-imagine, one has to find a basis, acceptable to people of the community, that such knowledge can be based on. And, since the identification of the nation-state itself is based on the colonial imagination - closely following its cartographic and political delineations (and in case of India, its partitions and imposed divisions) - there is really no basis to construct an Indian imagination, without that of the colonial knowledge.

Except, indeed, in religion. The view, fashionable now even among the English educated, that only Hindu religion can unify India is based on the dissatisfaction of the Indian imagination as a derivative of the colonial form, and the absence of any other alternatives. This can be deemed as a failure to evolve an Indian imagination in the seventy years since the Colonial administrators left, and indeed it was. But the key was perhaps the lack of resolution of the question above - was it important to construct a new Indian 'knowledge'?

The answer to that, for the leaders of Independent India, was negative. Their mission was to create an independent modern country, based on a vision of modernity very European in nature. For them, it was both an act of construction, creation of a new civic republican imagination, and abandonment, of the tradition, ignorance and superstition, and of an eclectic combination of the local and the modern. This combination, for them, was the basis of new Indian knowledge - an unique blend of freedom without hatred, independence without disconnection and modernity with perpetual identity. And at the core of this enterprise was the rejection of the ridiculous - those mythologies of ancient aeroplanes and rituals of cow urine - which were at odd with this modern vision.

But this has now come a full-circle. If English language seemed to be the only common thread holding India together - how else would South and North Indians converse - at the time of Independence, today Indians have run out of options other than the Hindu religion, though this excludes more people than it encompasses. The rituals are back - the foul smell of cow urine may even feel tolerable for it brings the missing connection with the village - and even a new imagination is being built around the sacred geography of Hinduism, along those rivers, pilgrimage tales and mythical battlegrounds. All this represents a new independence, an architecture of imagination free from contamination, a going-back in time without the corruption of history.

This may seem like freedom. However, going back to the question at the start of this conversation, it is important to think what we give up to have these new concepts. For one, we give up republican and secular liberty, in the quest of return to older certainties and identities. The ideal of social mobility, however European it may be in origin, may have meant better life for many, and the re-invocation of the past may bring back not just the belongings of the old times, but also its bondage. The hard truth - that one can not really go back in time and the nostalgic sweetness of the past can not be recreated - is not fully recognised in the quest for this independent imagination.

It seems end of the time for the secular, liberal imagination of India, which has been superseded by this quest of 'true' identity. It is fair to recognise that the original vision has imploded, irreversibly perhaps, into the politics of vote bank of self-serving politicians. However, under the slogan of 'true Indianness' hides a new temptation, not of historical memory but of amnesia, and not emancipation but exclusion.

Independence from the past is not possible, and therefore, should not be the point of imagination and action. Rather, it is a reasoned engagement with the past, to meet the aspirations of the present generations, that allows us to construct a future of progress and prosperity.

 


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