Saturday, January 16, 2016
Flawed inheritance: Games of mobilisation
Friday, January 8, 2016
Why the 'nation' fell silent on Kaliachak
By Swapan Dasgupta
Last Sunday morning, even as the country’s attention was focussed on the terror attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, another drama was unfolding in the Kaliachak area of Malda district in West Bengal. A mob, whose numbers are estimated at anything between 50,000 and over a lakh, first attacked the local police station, drove out the small police force, set fire to all the records in the thana and then proceeded to attack shops and set fire to as many vehicles it found in the vicinity. Although no one was killed in the mob violence—it can hardly be called a riot since there was no retaliation—the damage to property was considerable.
The mob, whose composition was exclusively Muslim, had gathered at the call of an obscure organisation, was apparently protesting against some disgusting comments by a Hindu extremist made a month ago in Uttar Pradesh, for which the culprit had been promptly arrested and jailed. Offensive as those comments undeniably were, there was no reason why the Muslims of Malda—one of the many Muslim majority districts of West Bengal—should feel exceptionally aggrieved enough to direct their ire at the local administration. But then there was no reason why a Muslim gathering in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in August 2012 should have felt so particularly agitated over the fate of the Rohingyas in Myanamar to go on the rampage in an Indian city. On that occasion too—when a martyr’s memorial was vandalised—the mobilisation had been at the call of an obscure organisation, albeit one with a history of promoting radical Islamism.
Subsequent police inquiries have suggested that the violence in Kaliachak had been masterminded by criminal elements—particularly those involved in contraband drugs trafficking and the distribution of counterfeit currency—that have made the area its centre. It would seem that the area has increasingly become a no-go area for the local police because the criminal groups have taken full advantage of the West Bengal government’s known reluctance to do anything that could be interpreted as offending minority sentiments. This is the same logic that explains the ease with which criminal networks thrive in some Muslim ghettos in Kolkata and neighbouring South 24 Parganas. In the 1980s, a diligent police officer was lynched by a criminal mob in Kolkata for daring to take his law-enforcement job a bit too seriously. And Kaliachak had witnessed open-air gunfights last year as criminals waged quasi-political turf battles.
The immediate aftermath of the Kaliachak violence has been two-fold. First, the local police and administration have been so totally intimidated that it is unlikely there will be any meaningful action against those who engineered the violence last Sunday. The fact that the organisers took shelter behind a religious cover has only served to drive home the administration’s helplessness, and more so because the West Bengal Assembly elections are due in May this year. With the Congress—which still has a large presence in Malda district—trying to drive a political bargain with two courtiers—the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress—the Muslim politico-criminal elements chose an opportune time to flex their muscles.
Secondly, while the violence in Kaliachak was not a riot in the accepted sense of the term, it was also tangentially directed against the Hindu minority. There are media reports that Hindu-owned shops in the bazar bore the brunt of the organised vandalism. This targeted violence has meant that the Hindu population in Malda, as well as neighbouring Muslim-majority districts, now live in a state of intense insecurity. Although it may be rash to suggest that what we are witnessing is the creeping creation of autonomous Islamic republics along the border with Bangladesh, it is important to recognise that such threats exist in the long-term, particularly if the state government turns a blind eye to the problem.
It is worth acknowledging that the authorities in Bangladesh have repeatedly alerted the Indian authorities of the dangers posed by Bangladeshi extremists who have taken refuge in West Bengal ever since the Awami League government turned the heat on them.
It is entirely possible that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee does not endorse the growing militancy among a section of West Bengal’s Muslim population. Unfortunately, she has done precious little to tackle the problem. Maybe she is mindful of the disaster that struck her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for his attempts to counter an incipient Islamist threat. She must also be aware of the dire political predicament of Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi who has to enter into either a formal or informal understanding with Badruddin Ajmal of the United Minorities Front of Assam to compensate for his loss of support among the Assamese Hindu population.
However, Mamata cannot be singled out for her cynical capitulation to organised communal politics. What the Kaliachak incident also demonstrated—as has many other unpublicised incidents in West Bengal involving abductions and denial of religious rights—was the increasing reluctance of the Bengali intelligentsia to raise awkward questions centred on Muslim politics. Just as Taslima Nasreen found little support for herself among the bhadralok intellectuals of Kolkata, the embarrassed silence over Kaliachak has exposed the double standards of secular ‘group-think.’
No two incidents are alike but even if a fraction of the outrage over the Dadri lynching in Uttar Pradesh had been showered on the vandalism in Kaliachak, it would have sent a salutary message. Alas, the resounding silence, including that of the ‘nation’ (meaning Delhi) media has served as an encouragement to some of the more extreme communal elements in the Muslim community. They will not be mistaken in believing that they can get away with just about anything.
Asian Ge, January 8, 2016
Thursday, January 7, 2016
Being a conservative: Reconciling the eternal India with the changing India
By Swapan Dasgupta
And the Ploughman settled the share
More deep in the sun-dried clod:
‘Mogul, Mahratta, and Mlech
from the North,
‘And White Queen over the Seas—
‘God raiseth them up and driveth them forth
‘As the dust of the ploughshare flies in the breeze;
‘But the wheat and the cattle are all in my care,
‘And the rest is the will of God.’
[Rudyard Kipling, ‘What the people said’]
One of the prescribed Bangla texts during my middle school years was a short essay by a writer (whose name escapes me after so many years) describing his visit to a corner shop. He recalled the loving care with which the venerable shopkeeper, in between serving customers, instructed his grandson. Returning to the same place some decades later, the writer was surprised to see the same shop and what appeared to be the same grandfather teaching his grandson. On inquiry he discovered that the grandson he had observed in his youth had now become a grandfather and was doing what his grandfather had so lovingly done: transmitting knowledge over the generations.
To the writer, this experience resonated with symbolism and meaning. To him, this was the essence of an India that despite outward change was essentially unchanging at the core.
The notion of an eternal India has fascinated both natives and foreigners over the ages, but particularly since the encounter with post-Enlightenment Europe. Despite his own unwavering commitment to the Empire and even the “White man’s burden”, Kipling was convinced that the modernist impact on India was only skin deep and that “a life as full of impossibilities and wonders as the Arabian Nights… [exists] outside of our own English life…” His ‘What the people said’ written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was, in effect, an assertion that British rule in India was a passing show—the proverbial ripples on the surface that leave the depths unmoved.
This imperial belief in Indian exceptionalism—a body of thought that runs from Warren Hastings in the 18th century to Lord Curzon in the 20th—was also echoed in Indian society. The idea of an India uncontaminated by destructive Western science and technology may have originated from different sources, but there was a silken thread that linked the Sanskrit pundits in the 19thcentury who abjured all “useful knowledge”—a euphemism for English education—and Mahatma Gandhi who believed that India’s future lay in self-sufficient, self-governing villages and not in the creation of a desi Leviathan.
In the contemporary language of insolent modernity that abounds in the media, the loose commitment to an eternal and unchanging India is almost certain to be greeted with derision and mockery. Terms such as ‘conservative’, ‘traditionalist’ and ‘reactionary’ have been used almost synonymously to distinguish this amorphous body of thought from nobler ideals, encapsulated in terms as ‘modernist’, ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive.’ In recent times, expressions such as ‘right wing’ and ‘communalist’ have also been added to the list of sneer words. In a world that is knocking at the doors of a largely incomprehensible post-modernism, almost any body of thought that stems from pre or non-Enlightenment traditions are almost certain to be ghettoised in a Jurassic Park.
The assumption of intellectual superiority by those who flaunt the self-conferred label of ‘public intellectuals’ has scaled new heights with the victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 general election. Even the halting conversation that once existed between the divergent political and intellectual currents in India appears to have come to a halt. Those upset by Modi’s victory and the rise of an Indian ‘Right’ have shed their internal disagreements and forged a common front aimed at not only preventing a recurrence in 2019—a perfectly legitimate political endeavour—but to deny the new government any legitimacy and space for governance. The revolt of the intellectuals against perceived ‘intolerance’ has bred a counter-intolerance of all ideas that are deemed offensive to an arbitrary and, often, excessively Nehruvian ‘idea of India.’
Indeed, what is being witnessed is something fascinatingly bizarre: the almost total repudiation of democracy in the name of superior sensibilities. There are certainly precedents for those professing to be avant-garde to opt out of all conversation with the mainstream. But for those who before May 2014 represented the cultural and intellectual establishment to become petulant as an organised group following a defeat in a free and fair election is quite unique—and all in the name of defending democracy from the barbarians. In terms of churlishness it ranks several notches higher than the denial of an honorary degree to the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (also a distinguished alumni) by the dons of Oxford University in 1985.
Since ‘progressive’ and ‘modernist’ thought were elevated to the heights of an unofficial national philosophy, the Indian mainstream has been hostile to all those who questioned the fundamentals of Nehruvian nation-building. This did not include the adherents of the 57 varieties of Marxism whose divergences were generously accommodated within a broad church. However, this generosity didn’t extend to what was loosely dubbed the ‘Right’, or more particularly the cultural Right.
One of the principal targets of ideological engineering was history. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of individuals such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, R.G. Bhandarkar, G.S. Sardesai, R.C. Majumdar and others, including a clutch of British scholar-administrators, the study of Indian history had tried to blend documentary rigour with literary flourish—basically the emulation of Carlyle, Macaulay and Gibbon. This was essentially work in progress because the traditional Hindu sense of ithihas was impatient with the distinction between facts, chronology and mythology. More to the point, the early initiatives in history writing took place outside the institutional framework of the universities and, consequently, involved a lively engagement between scholars and interested sections of society. Also, while the influence of European scholars was discernible in the approach of historians, the emphasis was on empirical rigour rather than any ideological construct. Indian historians were principally engaged in recovering the past from collective amnesia. If there was a political purpose, it lay in establishing the richness and antiquity of India’s heritage.
This world was seriously unsettled after 1969 when the Congress led by Indira Gandhi outsourced its intellectual outreach to Marxists. Fuelled by lavish state patronage and control over university departments, the country witnessed an organised re-writing of Indian history and the slow replacement of empirical rigour with theorising. Variants of economic determinism replaced narrative histories, making the subject abstruse and inaccessible. The old masters were dubbed ‘communal’ and removed from reading lists, replaced by the dense prose on ‘modes of production’, ‘feudalism’ and ‘syncretic thought.’ Eclectic thought was replaced with regimentation and tentativeness with ideological certitude.
A collateral casualty was the systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems, particularly Sanskrit. Already beleaguered by the 19th century imperial onslaught, the post-Independence repudiation of classical studies led to a complete reordering of intellectual value systems. Apart from the enforced banishment of serious Sanskrit scholarship—whether religious or otherwise—to enclaves in the West, Nehruvian education policies heralded the creation of many generations of Indians completely detached and disengaged from the thought processes that had moulded the society of their ancestors. The ‘scientific temper’ came to mean unfamiliarity with India’s intellectual inheritance.
In this intellectual greenhouse, professing to be either ‘Right’ or ‘conservative’ was always daunting since it meant being exposed to sustained hostility and, occasionally, ostracism.
Social exclusion was never a problem I had to encounter in the mid-1980s when I joined journalism after a longish stint in the United Kingdom. For a start, being right wing was considered a harmless oddity and equated with an admiration for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were systematically redefining economic policy and international relations. By then, with Rajiv Gandhi at the helm aggressively promoting a post-Indira Gandhi modernity, there was a general recognition that the Indian state had over-reached itself and was progressively becoming dysfunctional. Under the circumstances, being sceptical of an over-bearing state wasn’t necessarily viewed as blasphemy.
In another sphere, the 1980s also marked the beginnings of a general dissatisfaction with the turgid history writing of the Congress-Marxist establishment. Already discredited thanks to their close association with the Emergency, the Nurul Hasan-spawned history establishment encountered a serious intellectual challenge from the Subaltern Studies group. Detached from the old Left, the early Subaltern historians broke new ground on two counts. First, they brought a new perspective into the study of historical documents and re-injected empirical rigour into historical studies. The subalternists explored folklore and even religious beliefs to get a better sense of the moral economy of the past. Secondly, in arguing against recreating history from the perspective of dominant sections of society, they enlarged the scope and range of historical inquiry to cover ‘subaltern’ groups—the hitherto voiceless.
In hindsight, the Subaltern Studies series exposed the severe limitations of the official ‘Left’ and ‘secular’ approach to India’s past. However, because the attack was seen to be coming from a fraction of the Left and because its interventions were completely detached from wider political tremors—the Naxalite movement was by then history and China was in the first stages of embracing market capitalism under Communist guardianship—it was accorded an indulgence that has since not been extended to other dissidents. Quite unwittingly, the subalternists created cracks in the ideological edifice of the Congress-Left establishment.
By 1989-90, the years that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spectacular response to L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, the indulgence extended to me transformed into outright, unrelenting hostility. There were good reasons for this mood shift.
First, the Ramshila pujas that were observed in some three lakh villages (the Home Ministry estimate was two lakh) and the ecstatic response to Advani’s rath yatra from Somnath clearly indicated that were certain impulses in Hindu society that hadn’t been killed off, but were merely dormant and awaiting a trigger. This alarmed both the political establishment and its supportive intelligentsia. Initially their responded with denial but as the scale of the response became apparent and threatened to blow away the V.P. Singh government, the mood changed to outright hostility. I recall that a Times of India reporter who had reported the outpouring of emotions in Gujarat during the rath yatra was asked by an unofficial kangaroo court convened by secular worthies at Delhi’s Press Club to explain his reportage.
Secondly, the Ayodhya movement became the occasion to initiate a long overdue debate on the meaning of Indian secularism and the version of Indian history that had been approved by what Arun Shourie mockingly described as the “certifying authorities of secularism.” The many histories and assessments of the Ayodhya movement and the “saffron surge” have almost all been written by scholars who see it as a dangerous turning point in Indian politics. Consequently, what has been ignored is the huge intellectual flowering of an alternative narrative that resurrected facets of India’s political and nationalist inheritance that had been deliberately underplayed over decades. Girilal Jain’s The Hindu Phenomenon published shortly after his death in 1993, but now, alas, out of print, gives us a glimpse of the energies—both intellectual and political—released by the Ayodhya movement. Yet, a larger sympathetic study that also delves into the impact of the Ayodhya movement on the popular imagination is overdue.
For me, Ayodhya was a professional turning point. As perhaps the only columnist in a mainstream English-language publication with sympathy for the movement, I became a special target. A group of historians from JNU and Delhi University petitioned the Times of India asking it to desist from publishing my articles, suggesting they were better suited to the Organiser. Many of the editors were inclined to agree but my fortnightly columns were published intact and without any form of censorship. The reason, as the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma suggested to me once was simple: “the readers are anxious to hear the other side.”
The heady emotional fervour of the Ayodhya soon waned and more mundane concerns such as elections—three general elections between 1996 and 1999—took over. However, Ayodhya made it possible for some of us to mount a sustained intellectual challenge to the one-sided portrayal of India’s past and present. Today, despite being in a minority, there are many more individuals presenting what might be loosely called a ‘Right’ and ‘conservative’ perspective—although not all of them write in the English language. The social media, despite some of its rough edges, has added a much-needed support system in which alternative narratives can thrive.
Yet, despite the fact that the Ayodhya movement and the corresponding rise of the BJP as an alternative ecosystem broke the Nehruvian monopoly over the public discourse, complications persist. The end of Left domination over the intellectual airwaves has been followed by the emergence of self-professed liberals who have taken up cudgels against the Right. Although much less doctrinaire than their Marxist predecessors—they are, for example, much more inclined to accord faith and even theology a contemporary validity—the liberal polemics are peppered with generous dollops of condescension. For the Indian liberal, the ‘other’ is invariably neo-literate, crude, lacking intellectual pedigree and philistine. The country’s most high profile liberal, Ramchandra Guha—with whom I have the warmest of personal relations, dating back some four decades—has argued that the Right not only lacks intellectual rigour but that the Modi government is perhaps the most “anti-intellectual” of all regimes.
At the heart of the derision is the belief that there is no worthwhile ‘Right’ and ‘conservative’ tradition in India. At one level, there is a case for clarification. Apart from C.Rajagopalachari, the founder of the erstwhile Swatantra Party, who used to describe himself as a conservative, non-socialist politicians seem disinclined to see themselves as either ‘Right’ or ‘conservative’. Preferring the term ‘rashtravadi’ (nationalist) to other labels, they have argued that these terms, being principally European in origin and context, are inapplicable to India.
They are not the only ones. Many of the doctrinal shorthand terms that emerged in Europe and the United States had, in many cases, no worthwhile conceptual and linguistic equivalents in the Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit. In his Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire, Chris Bayly alluded to the unsatisfactory translation of ‘liberal’ as udara and liberalism as udarvad. I encountered the same difficulties locating conservative and conservatism in Indian languages. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, to whom I presented the problem, appreciated the problem and suggested seeing conservatism in oppositional terms: anudar panthi as the opposite of liberal, rudhivaadi as opposed to progressive, a-samanta vaadi as anti-egalitarian, and so on. All in all, a not very satisfactory solution.
This lack of a clear-cut binary divide had profound implications. In the context of India, Bayly has suggested that, at least until the 1920s, “liberalism and neo-conservatism were joined at the hip from birth.” In part this stemmed from the all-round recognition that with British rule India had lost its sovereignty. Almost all the public intellectuals of the 19th and early-20th centuries were preoccupied with how to recover and establish India’s self-esteem. On this question their paths deviated—and principally on the question on which facets of the past to conserve and what to ether discard or reinvent—but without necessarily locating them firmly in either the liberal or conservative camp. Indeed, the mismatch between their personal lives and their stated beliefs were often so glaring that one historian has described it as “neurotic.”
The common theme of national recovery produced different responses. Bhudeb Mukherjee who wrote a counter-factual history of India in the aftermath of a Maratha victory in Panipat over Ahmad Shah Abdali, for example, believed that the sense of patriotism shown by the British was the result of “observing codes appropriate for their country and their faith.” For Indians this could only mean doggedly pursuing the way of life prescribed by the shastras. For Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who in Anandamath saw in the British conquest a much-needed Hindu respite from Muslim tyranny, Hindus had to eschew ascetism, abstruse philosophical speculation and all ritual embellishments accumulated over the ages; they had to evolve a dharmic code based on niskama karma (selflessness).
Yet, despite divergent emphasis, there were three broad themes that established the parameters of conservative thought.
First, Indian conservatism was inherently suspicious of individualism—its point of departure from the liberal emphasis on personal freedoms. It was the conquest of self and its merger into a larger corporate mission that formed the basis of the different expressions of “non-political patriotism.” Hence the stress on building charitra (character)—a theme that runs through Marathi historical plays, Jadunath Sarkar’s diagnosis of Mughal decline and the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. An energised political culture, it was presumed, was prefaced on the self-discovery of a people. This theme resonates strongly with the RSS whose self-image is that of a cultural organisation.
Secondly, India’s conservative tradition elevated the idea of India into one of godliness. The unity of India, its sacredness and its destiny were intertwined as never before. Bankim Chandra whose Vande Mataram popularised the deification of the nation was quite clear this was an invented tradition: “The ancients had made a mistake by submerging patriotism into the higher love of all created things and the balance had to be redressed.” On his part, Savarkar took the divinity of India a step higher by declaring it to be both the punnyabhumi (holy land) and the matribhumi (motherland)—a problematic formulation that excluded the followers of non-Indic faiths from the embrace of nationhood, though not citizenship.
Finally, this heady blend of loss—the thousand years of servitude—and a revitalised feeling of Hinduness had an overriding shortcoming: the lack of inclusiveness of some minority faiths. The BJP attempted to fill the gap by invoking a loose sense of cultural nationalism, with Hindutva forming a central, but not exclusive, element of nationhood. However, the suspicions of Indian conservatism being exclusionary persist. And it is an issue that conservatives must address as it moves into the next phase of its expansion and evolution.
To me what is important is the recognition that conservatism is not a doctrine or even an ideology: it is not universal. It is, at the end of the day, an approach to change and a constant endeavour to understand the evolving common sense—detached from both impulsiveness and fashion. Reconciling the eternal India with the changing India must remain the conservative priority.
Open magazine, New year double issue, January 11, 2016