In 2016, India marches towards what is recognised as the new dawn of economic prosperity and political power. In this interview with Ajaz Ashraf, renowned political psychologist Ashis Nandy speaks on the future of India, based on his reading of its past and present. Excerpts:
Let me take a broad sweep of things. First of all, India no longer has a vision of its own. Its vision is the vision of many developing societies around the world. It is a homogenised, predictable future which has been sold to us as a universal cure for poverty, indignity and backwardness in general. In other words, our own futures have been stolen.
All developing societies, including China, have now accepted that they are backward. Our future is exactly the same as the future of all standardised nation-states. It is a new vision for them as well, except that their vision is 300 years old. We have now joined the bandwagon. India, therefore, doesn’t have a distinctive future.
When you talk of India having accepted the universal vision, are you referring to what you call the “urban-industrial vision”?
Yes. It is an acceptance that is not even a critical acceptance. In fact, it is an unqualified acceptance. Mind you, this was not the creation of the Bharatiya Janata Party. India had already changed before it came to power.
Perhaps the BJP’s rise is a result of India having changed.
That’s right. They can deliver the urban-industrial vision more ruthlessly, or at least seem to do so. To repeat, the vision of all ambitious, so-called Southern countries—Brazil, India, China etc—is exactly the same.
Our hero is (Singapore’s first prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew. He’s so popular that one is afraid of saying he was one of the last despots, the last votary of “developmental authoritarianism”. Take the East Asian Tigers. I have argued that they were not only tigers but also man-eaters. All of them had despotic regimes. If you want spectacular development, then be prepared for a high degree of authoritarianism.
Is India headed that way?
In India, this movement began with Mrs Indira Gandhi in the mid-’70s. But what we did by default—not because we had thought through it—we do now (by design). When C.N. Annadurai (one of the architects of the Dravidian movement and former Tamil Nadu chief minister) declared that Tamil Nadu wanted to be a separate country, nobody called him a traitor or attacked him in Parliament or organised countrywide protests. Not even the Jan Sangh (the BJP’s earlier incarnation). They knew that when people are angry, in distress, they say things which must be ignored.
The same thing happened with Mrs Gandhi, who ultimately had to sign an agreement with Laldenga. He died when he was Mizoram’s chief minister. He was given a state funeral. One who used to call himself Gen Laldenga and led a rebel army against India became patriotic Laldenga.
These defaults are no longer available to us, because someone or the other is going to take political advantage of it. My second point is that not only have our visions been stolen, the range of politics in India has narrowed drastically.
Will it get even narrower, say, by 2050 or 2100?
It can’t get narrower than this.
Is it because there are no alternative visions available to us?
That is right. Whatever alternative visions there are, these are confined to the margins. In one sense, people like Medha Patkar or Claude Alvares or Vandana Shiva don’t feel defeated because they are powerful men and women who hold on to their visions. But apart from a fringe element, hardly anyone thinks of them as visionaries. Nor does anyone think of them as even politically relevant.
Are we then trapped in a peculiar circumstance in which we don’t have choices, but only the chance to examine the consequences of having a homogenised vision?
Choices? Well, I often say that if a person in India or China dies after living a virtuous life, he doesn’t go to heaven—he goes to New York.
We can’t even talk, as we used to earlier, of many of the environmental problems we encounter. We don’t have the courage to admit that most of our mega-dams have not delivered. Only four of the eight dams planned under India’s first multipurpose dam project, the Damodar Valley Corporation, were built. It costs us more to maintain the DVC than what it delivers. Take Bihar, where, without dams, only 15 per cent of it would get flooded every year. With dams, the percentage has grown to more than 30 per cent.
Ecological sensitivity was built into our lives over the centuries. Nobody talked of ecology or environment, but the traditional fear of it, the magicality attributed to nature, protected us (by preventing us from disturbing nature). All these have been declared as mere superstition—and shelved.
We no longer have the concept of future generations. We are now like that American wit who said, ‘Why should I think of the future. What has the future done for me?’ Every Indian wants to have his or her life—whether your car guzzles petrol or releases particulate matter, it doesn’t matter. The superior courts are taking a position. They have some vision. But everyone else is only thinking of how to beat the laws and find loopholes in them.
We are waiting to do that. Actually, wherever they are not concentrated in numbers, as in Nagaland and Mizoram, we will just finish them off. One-third of all tribes in India are tribes only by name. They have been dispersed, atomised, and individualised. They have joined the proletariat. In fact, the programme of proletarianisation of tribals, directly or indirectly, is built into the manifesto of every party, including the Left. They want equality for the tribes, not separate existence. They want justice—but what is their concept of justice is very different from that of the tribals.
One of the results of this is the Naxalite movement. The second Naxalite movement, unlike the first one, is not an urban phenomenon. It is the rebellion of tribals, only some urban youths have joined them.
Do you think that by 2100, India will be more like America than India?
By 2100, India will be more like an American slum to the nth degree, a poor man’s America. Even to become that, we will have to pay a price in terms of shrinkage of our liberties.
In what sense?
“The vision of all ambitious, developing nations is the urban-industrial vision. Our hero is Lee Kuan Yew, one of the last despots.”
Even in universities you are now facing difficulties in saying what you want to. It is becoming difficult to deviate from the developmental vision even in newspaper columns. It has become difficult to articulate radical diversities, for which India was known. Even our traditions are diverse. For instance, there are millions in Tamil Nadu and north Bengal who are Ravana-worshippers and who observe Ramnavami as a day of mourning. What is wrong about it? In Sri Lanka, Ravana’s brother, Vibhishana, is worshipped. Himachal Pradesh has temples to Duryodhana, the villain of Mahabharata. Nobody took offence.
But we are now being homogenised in the manner of Protestant Christianity—(that is akin to saying) ‘Let us have a religion’. We didn’t have a religion as such. What we had were dharmic traditions.
That reminds me of what you once wrote, “Hindutva is an attack on Hinduism, that Hindutva is an ideology for those whose Hinduism has worn off, and that Hindutva’s triumph will mark the end of Hinduism”. Are we headed in that direction?
Yes, the Hinduism that we see around us today is not 2,000 or 4,000 years old. It is just 150 years old. It was born in urban India, under the new political economy that the British Raj introduced. The reference point was Protestant Christianity, not Catholicism, which is relatively more open. I come from a Protestant family. I know today’s Hinduism is that.
The first generation of RSS pracharaks—men like (Hindu Mahasabha leader) B.S. Munje and (RSS founder K.B.) Hedgewar—took their inspiration from the Ramakrishna Mission (which was influenced by Christianity). Swami Vivekananda (Ramakrishna Mission’s founder) was himself a very different person. He did not speak of Islam and Muslims as villains.
What are the basic attributes of this new Hinduism? A homogenised religion?
“The Hinduism we see is just 150 years old and was born in the urban India of the Raj. Its reference point is Protestant Christianity.”
Once you endorse nationalism (typically, one country, one religion, one language), you don’t even have to discuss it (religion). I think it was (Ernest) Gellner who said you don’t have to read the texts of nationalism because all nationalisms are the same. Savarkar recognised it. He did not believe in anything (religious). He refused to give a Hindu funeral to his own wife and said that there was nothing sacred about the cow. He also made fun of (RSS’s second sarsanghchalak) Golwalkar’s fondness for rituals. Savarkar is the real father of the emerging India. Gandhi is now the stepfather.
Getting back to your essay, do you think Hinduism will fight its battle with Hindutva?
Yes. There is always a tacit force in Hinduism which rebels against this kind of disjunctive imposition. Civilisation never bends down, it always incorporates and digests (what is sought to be imposed on it). Civilisation can destroy a state without saying a word. It must be remembered that the Indic civilisation is different from the Indian nation-state, which is a European concoction just 300 years old.
I have this confidence that it is just not possible to mobilise India into a homogenised nation. Tagore said there is no nation in India. That is why he wrote the English word ‘nation’ in Bengali. But he had 12 to 15 Bengali words for patriotism. Indians are patriotic. But patriotism is often confused with nationalism.
The nation is a demand for homogenising the people, leaving the individual face-to-face with the state. There is no interface—no community, no religion, no sect, no caste, no trade union, simply no intermediary structures. There is just the individual and the state in the ideal nation-state system. I don’t think Indians will go for this beyond a point.
So you feel a challenge to this idea of nation-state will emerge from Hinduism itself.
Do you think caste could be fighting Hinduism’s battle?
Caste has been so discredited and so heavily politicised that you shouldn’t be talking of how caste is influencing politics, but how politics is influencing caste. But caste does resist Hindutva. That is why Hindutva-wallahs are against caste also. But a wider vision, an alternative vision, will come through sects and diversified belief systems.
Do you see signs of it now?
Every believing Indian is a sign of that. Hindutva has flouted some of the fundamental canons of Hinduism. For instance, each person has private gods and goddesses, his family has its gods and goddesses, his community has its gods and goddesses, his village has its gods and goddesses, his sect has its gods and goddesses.
In addition, they have their personal preferences—and though they may not worship some gods and goddesses, they don’t wish to antagonise them. Whether they identify with them or not, whether they believe in them or not is irrelevant. For instance, Hindus like to go to dargahs and the Golden Temple. This Hindutva can’t stop. This is a completely different game.
If Gandhi were to come to India in 2050 or 2100....
“There is just the individual and the state in a nation-state system. It’s not possible for India to be a homogenised nation.”
Major philosophical positions don’t simply die out. They automatically emerge in some situations. Do not forget that the major heroes of the post-World War II world have been Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama—they are the people who approximated, directly or indirectly, to the image of Gandhi. They did not necessarily read Gandhi to take the position they did. Nor did Polish trade union leader Lech Walesa, whom the Poles called, “Our Gandhi”. You can’t efface or kill the Gandhian strand. It will continue as a minority stand. Perhaps a catastrophe will produce...
Not Gandhi, but hundreds of variations of him. Then only can it become a mass movement. You will not have to wait till 2100. It will come earlier. This is because we have entered the last cycle of climate change. Some kind of limits to human greed and consumption will have to be put in place. Once I tried to count the number of shades of lipstick available. I stopped after counting till 1,200; I just couldn’t handle it. I don’t think our retina is capable of even registering 1,200 shades. Yet we continue to produce more shades.
Personally, I don’t think we can return to a pastoral way of life. But the limits of the urban-industrial vision have been crossed. It is not reversible. It is as bad as that. When the crunch comes, you will have to impose limits on using the resources of the Earth for the survival of at least your children and grandchildren, even if you are not thinking of the future.
In 2100, what would Ambedkar be like?
Unfortunately, even though Ambedkar opted for a religion that has tremendous congruence with the Gandhian past, he was a very modern man. He definitely wanted some version of the urban-industrial vision. He certainly did not look beyond it.
You wrote an essay on happiness. Will Indians in 2050 be happy?
It will be demanded of them to not be unhappy.
So how happy India will be in 2100?
Right now, Indians are mostly happy. Poorer countries generally are. Bangladesh was quite high on the list of happy countries, so was Nigeria. Indians are on the higher side too. The current figures will not change so easily. Therefore, there will be a public demand to be happy. So if you are unhappy, you are a traitor. If you are unhappy, you will become a class enemy, as it happened in the Soviet Union. Unhappy people there were sent to psychiatrists.
Are we headed that way?
I am afraid there are efforts to push India in that direction.
(Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid)