Sunday, October 25, 2015
Media has dropped the mask of neutrality
Friday, October 23, 2015
Feeling Superior: India's dietary brinkmanship
Sunday, October 18, 2015
Culture wars: It's more a clash of lifestyles than a battle of ideas
By Swapan Dasgupta
In 1961, in a monograph woefully difficult to locate today, the Chicago sociologist Edward Shils studied the predicament of the Indian intellectual in the high noon of the Nehruvian era. His approach was sympathetic but his larger conclusions were not terribly flattering to a community that saw itself as the vanguard of India’s journey to modernity.
Despite its near-uninterrupted Brahmanical tradition of scholarship and sustained exposure to the West, India, Shils felt, “has not yet developed the traditions which are essential to intellectual life.” Despite possessing a significant intelligentsia, the orientation of the Indian intellectual, he felt, was “provincial.” Part of this was due to the drudgery of economic survival, the depressing environment of the universities and media, the prevailing anti-business ethos and the diversion of talent into the bureaucracy. But at the heart of the “insulted and injured” self-image of the Indian intellectual was the confusion over where he stood in relation to India. At one level, he observed, nearly “all of what certain Indian intellectuals refer to as ‘modern thought’ comes to them through England and the medium of English.” At the same time, there was the reality of life in a traditional—and largely—Hindu milieu. “It would not be an outlandish exaggeration to say that it is impossible for a Indian of Hindu descent to cease to be a Hindu.”
To Shils, this mirrored Jawaharlal Nehru’s amission in his Autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere… (In) my own country… I have an exile’s feeling.”
Shils penned his observations 54 years ago. Since then, India has undergone a massive transformation: the economic plight of the middle classes isn’t so dire; England has been replaced by USA as the new modernist Mecca; business is no longer an object of disdain; and the “Hinduistic traditionalist revival” that Shils so feared would occur after Nehru has become a reality. At the same time, in sheer numbers, the Indian intelligentsia has grown exponentially—with some intellectuals having acquired the prefix “public.” It has benefitted from more centres of learning, the growth of media and publishing, and, most important, to unhindered access to global currents. The Indian rendered inadequate by the shortage economy has evolved into a self-confident, if slightly cocky, citizen of a country that looks expectantly to a glorious Asian future.
Yet, Shils’ study isn’t entirely dated: the intellectual neurosis that he detected is still visible but it has acquired new and interesting—but not always palatable—dimensions.
In his study, Shils elaborated on the Indian intellectuals’ sense of disconnect from the wider environment and his attempt to overcome it through identification with an association with the broad Left. However, he also encountered an “excellent young historian, trained at Oxford, productive as a scholar… and himself head of a division in an important Ministry.” The gentleman told him: “I don’t feel out of touch with the people, they might feel out of touch with me but that is their concern, not mine.”
The identity of the historian is very thinly veiled. But what is interesting is that what seemed like the outburst of a poseur in 1961 has persisted and become a fashion statement in 2015. Five decades ago, and despite the fond England-gazing, intellectuals were mindful of the larger society in which they lived. Their intellectual individualism was invariably circumscribed by the prevailing ethos of the joint family or the community whose ethos demanded an exceptional measure of self-restraint. True, there were the odd group of bohemians (like the 19th century Young Bengal movement) for whom creativity and self-indulgence were happy partners but, by and large, these were exceptions. Most intellectuals respected society, even when they were inclined towards the avant garde.
The desire to break out of provinciality and embrace cosmopolitanism has, today, led to intellectual freedom being equated with iconoclasm, disregard for existing social mores and a show of intellectual insolence—bordering on snobbery—directed at those unable to appreciate the delights of permissiveness. Nothing is sacred—and certainly not the cow.
There is a culture war raging in India today. Alas, it is only nominally a clash of ideas and more about conflicting lifestyles.
Sunday Times of India, October 18, 2015
Thursday, October 15, 2015
Vitality in another guise
By Swapan Dasgupta
In an extract of his most recent book How I Stopped Being A Jew, published in the Guardian last week, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand expressed the hope “that the cultural distance between my great-grandson and me will be as greater or greater than that separating me from my own great-grandfather.” His wish stemmed from a sense of exasperation with fellow citizens of Israel. “I have the misfortune”, he wrote, “of living now among too many people who believe their descendants will resemble them in all respects, because for them peoples are eternal—a fortiori a race-people such as the Jews.”
Sand’s anger can be understood within the context of some of the debates centred on the over-Jewishness of Israel but it has a larger validity too. In the United States, there is concern—well articulated in Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? –at the steady erosion of the country’s Judaeo-Christian underpinnings caused by widespread immigration from non-European societies. All over Europe people discomfited by the changing cultural landscape resulting from population movements are voicing similar concerns. A nationalist backlash centred on opposition to immigration—and, by association, the multinational European Union—is visible in France, Hungary, Austria and even some Scandinavian countries. Deft economic and political management has prevented the problem from becoming a force multiplier in Germany and Britain.
Ever since the division of the united country in 1947, India has faced the economic and social challenges posed by population transfers. However, there is a significant difference: the movement of peoples have taken place within South Asia. There has been no significant grafting of peoples and communities from lands where the civilizational ethos is markedly different. The rising cosmopolitanism of Mumbai may have provoked a measure of resentment from the Marathi manoos and triggered a bout of political nativism. However, the growing numbers of Gujaratis, Tamilians or, for that matter, Hindi-speakers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar haven’t amounted to any worthwhile cultural dislocation. Their languages, cultural practices and, in some case, religious faith may differ but the over-arching reach of a common civilisation covers them all.
In India, unlike in the Israel Sand sees around him, there is no desperate desire to ensure that the future will not be terribly dissimilar from the past. Despite rhetorical flourishes celebrating the continuity of India’s antique civilisation, few, apart from those seeking a return to self-sufficient village communities, are wary of change. On the contrary, ‘change’ has become the new buzzword of Indian politics, resonating with politicians across the political spectrum.
This isn’t difficult to understand. Since the second half of the 20th century and, particularly since the deregulation of the economy in 1991, the pace of India’s transformation has been far greater than the previous 150 years. Three generations of Indians from the proverbial ‘midnight’s children’ have witnessed a greater transformation of India in their lifetime than the preceding six generations taken together. And judging from the wave of (sometimes unreal) expectations that have accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achche din promise, it would seem that India’s appetite for change—often used synonymously with betterment and aspiration—is never-unending. Even economists, otherwise accustomed to dealing with cold statistics, have observed the human energy that is driving India forward.
Apart from a discernible improvement in the living standards of most—but by no means all—Indians, the most visible change is the emergence of a political community spanning the whole country. This is not to imply that this community is undifferentiated and thinks alike: like in the US, there is a desi variant of the Blue-Red faultline. What constitutes the community is a broad acceptance of democratic, constitutional politics, the proverbial rules of the game. While the political process itself is fractious and argumentative, the evolution of a political community has contributed to an acceptance of common citizenship. In short, while the ‘idea of India’ is bitterly contested, the reality of India enjoys acceptability much greater than was the case prior to 1947. What, however, requires strengthening are the official and non-official institutions of nationhood, some of which remain either fragile or notoriously ineffective.
Yet, while the popular legitimacy of the state is widespread and the yearning for progress and change adds to India’s dynamism, there is a curious loose end. What Sand about the Jewish belief that its culture is (or should be) unchanging because “for them peoples are eternal” can also be said to be a Hindu belief. It was subliminal in the first few decades after Independence because it lacked both political articulation and space—and was, therefore, confined to a shrinking band of social conservatives. Since the late-1980s, however, the belief that India must safeguard its precious religious and cultural inheritance in the face of globalised modernity has struck a responsive chord.
In a little known monograph The Intellectual in India published in 1967, Nirad Chaudhury had quite accurately anticipated the trend. Then a resident of Old Delhi and a witness to the language stir and the anti-cow slaughter agitation that unsettled northern India in the run-up to the 4thGeneral Election, he observed that the intellectual ferment which began with Raja Rammohun Roy had “created a social class whose outlooks, ideas, behaviour, and social role are utterly different from those of the traditional and numerically stronger part of the middle class.” As democracy struck deeper roots, he foresaw a clash between the “new intelligentsia” and the “traditional Hindu middle class” that could only be resolved by the “complete subordination of the one to the other.”
Arguably, the notion of “complete subordination” was an overstatement. Yet, particularly after the election of the Modi government in May 2014, India has been witnessing a culture war that, in part at least, has its origins in the diminishing importance of the erstwhile “new intelligentsia” (also often referred to as the ‘Nehruvians’) and the ascendancy of a new group whose social assumptions are visibly different. This may explain the vicious (as yet largely verbal) wars that have erupted over issues such as Sanskrit, beef and the supposed truncation of artistic space.
It is interesting that the rise of a new, even assertive, Hindu identity in India hasn’t happened in an environment of economic decline but has followed the trajectory of India’s rising economic graph. The growing commitment to a nebulously defined Hindu way of life and the implicit dilution of ‘Nehruvian’ social assumptions has been combined with a near-fanatical commitment to global outreach, technology and managerial efficiency. Modi’s biggest fan following is not among old-style Brahmin pundits committed to the shastras but among restless and fiercely aspirational youth from non-privileged families. Their enthusiasm for a modernist future marked by smart cities and bullet trains is matched by aggressive nationalism and distaste for the effete and corrupt ways of the old, Congress-inclined elite. It is no accident that in his new avatar as an opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi is feverishly attempting to woo the same constituency by painting Modi as a man who has succumbed to the lure of the ‘suit-boot.’
The historian in Sand has got it wrong. The neighbours he so abhors don’t want their descendants to resemble them in “all respects” culturally. Israel is among the world’s most energetic start-up nations where technology and entrepreneurship have coalesced with spirited nationalism and a commitment to the Jewish inheritance. This implies great change, similar to what is happening in India. It is the hallmark of New Conservatism (or, if you so prefer, the New Right) against which is arrayed the champions of secular, post-national, cosmopolitanism.
The Telegraph, October 15, 2015
Sunday, October 11, 2015
The flawed logic of the award-returnees
By Swapan Dasgupta
Let me state at the outset that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for writer Nayantara Sahgal who I have had the privilege of knowing for the past 37 years. I have also had very convivial conversations with Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and culture apparatchik, during various literary festivals over the years. I may not have shared all their political likes and dislikes—and Sahgal has occasionally teased me about my “wrong politics”—but there is more to life than common voting intentions, or so I hope.
Therefore, when Sahgal takes it upon herself to publicly disavow her Sahitya Akademi award, a gesture that Vajpeyi and some others have emulated, the least I can do is to seriously examine the rationale of their protest. Regardless of whether they were right or were guilty of over-reaction bordering on grandstanding, it is unworthy to attach base motives to their symbolic assault on the Narendra Modi government.
I will, therefore, desist from echoing the charge in the social media that Sahgal is guilty of selective indignation: she received her award barely two years after the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As a public-spirited writer, Sahgal has been known to take stands. She had the courage to publicly oppose the Emergency imposed by her cousin at a time when other ‘liberals’ either willingly acquiesced or went into hibernation. Whatever else Sahgal may or may not be, she has a mind of her own.
Nor will I insult Vajpeyi’s undeniable credentials as a Hindi poet by alluding to his close association with the late Arjun Singh or pointing to the fact that all the public offices he has held—Chairman of Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), trustee Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, member ICCR and Chairman Lalit Kala Akademi—have been courtesy Congress governments.
Frankly, the political inclinations of individuals are irrelevant—unless, of course, they choose to make it relevant.
Returning a state award—to be distinguished from those who refuse the award in the first place—is not a casual gesture. Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and a further clutch of notables returned honours conferred on them during the Non Cooperation movement and Civil Disobedience movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi. In more recent times, the writer Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan in 1984, protesting against Operation Bluestar, but accepted a Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Apart from Singh’s understandable emotional outburst at the storming of the Golden Temple, the other protests, not even Tagore’s, weren’t necessarily centred on an event, although that may have been a trigger. In returning the honour conferred on them by the British Raj, they were questioning and challenging the legitimacy of the state that had honoured them. They were suggesting that British rule in India was illegitimate—a symbolic act of rebellion.
Sahgal, Vajpeyi and the others who returned their awards in the wake of the murder of two ‘rationalists’ and the beef lynching in Dadri were entirely right to be outraged. It is a sad day for India if individuals are targeted for their views, their faith or lifestyle. But the grim reality is that these things happens, and often despite the best efforts of the state. Last week, in an incident that was reminiscent of the Taliban attack on MalalaYusafzai Maoists in Chhattisgarh killed a teenage girl for daring to attend school; in Delhi, an extremely brutal rape brought forth street protests; and in West Bengal, political murders have become routine since the mid-1960s. These incidents can be multiplied and they bring no credit to the country.
However, if we were to react to each ugly incident by questioning the legitimacy of the state, India would descend into a state of emotional civil war. To protest against wrong is legitimate; but to extend that outrage into challenging the legitimacy of a state is to carry things a bit too far. There is a fundamental difference between the Indian state and the government of the day. We can oppose a government and even campaign to ensure it is voted out in due course. Sadly, we can’t build and rebuild an entire state apparatus because of seasonal shifts in the mood.
Sahgal and the others hate Narendra Modi, and in likelihood hated him ever since the day he entered public life. The reason may well be aesthetic. In the words of one of their intemperate advocates: “As our Prime Minister we have a man who can’t even be dignified by being called ‘uncultured’, but an ignorant egomaniac who has deliberately made a successful political career of being an enemy of culture wherever and whenever he suspects he may have found it.”
In normal circumstances, such vitriol would never have passed editorial muster in a mainstream newspaper. But these are exceptional times. So intense is the hatred of Modi—Sahgal called him a ‘fascist’—that the government’s alleged sins of omission have been merged into a disavowal of the Union of India.
In 1961, in protest against India’s takeover of Portugese-held Goa, a gifted poet by the name of Dom Moraes, then living in London, tore up his Indian passport before a TV camera. It was an act of puerile bravado characteristic of a man with an inflated sense of self-importance. But India forgave him and he flourished as a pickled socialite in Mumbai for the rest of his life.
I think, maybe quite unwittingly and in a fit of rage that comes naturally to writers and poets, there is a tendency to emulate Moraes. Modi may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he is an elected Prime Minister. Under him, there has been no institutional shift in democratic function—as Sahgal must have realised when she denounced Modi quite spiritedly at a function in Teen Murti House last August. Had India become ‘fascist’ under Modi, Sahgal would have met the fate that Nehru’s daughter reserved for her political opponents during the Emergency.
It is known that some people believe that protest is the dharma of the writer and poet. They may be right but that also makes these rarefied protests seem a matter of habit, cloaked in intemperate language.
Sunday Pioneer, October 11, 2015