|India: State, history and self|
Like other similarly-placed countries in the South, India relates to the global political economy and the global mass culture of our times mainly through its modern political self. When India resists these global orders, the resistance is expressed and legitimised by this self; when India opens itself up for globalisation, that opening up, too, is mediated by the same self. India’s modern self scans, assesses and adapts itself to the demands of the outside world; the self processes the outside world for the consumption of Indians and the Indian experience for the rest of the world. The world usually knows India the way modern Indians, in collaboration with specialist western scholarship on India, have constructed India. Orientalism is frequently a joint ‘dream work’ where the defences and cultural ‘armour’ of the West are matched by the self-representation and self-engineering of the modernising non-West.
These processes tend to get telescoped into the personalities of the social actors involved and the modern Indian is often in dialogue with himself or herself when seemingly in dialogue with the outside world. From social and religious reformer Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), popularly known as the father of modern India, to filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1920-1992), probably the last larger-than-life figure India’s encounter with colonial West has produced, even the most ardent modernists have had to engage in that dialogue, often with mixed results.1 Sometimes, this dialogue is established through a tremendous effort of will, almost an exercise in self-creation. Satyajit Ray has described in painful detail how he discovered the Indian village as an urbane, highly westernised Indian while making a film trilogy that was to paradoxically become for world cinema the last word on the Indian village. As this example shows, such implosive dialogues may be anguished, but they also allow highly creative use of the experience of living in two cultures.
Amost remarkable part of this dialogue with the self is its autonomy from what are commonly believed to be the traditional Indian definitions of state, political authority or political leadership. Despite the immense fascination for Kautilya, within India and outside, the Arthashastra has not shaped the contemporary Indian’s political self-definition. The political history of ancient or medieval India and the conventions of statecraft unearthed by that history have influenced Indians even less. Though a galaxy of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh dynasties ran large empires and though their histories have been grist to the mills of national and subnational chauvinism in recent times, on the whole, they too have not left any significant trace behind in memory. Ashoka is a more vital presence in Sri Lankan politics than in India. Though the names of Rana Pratap and Guru Govind Singh are ritually invoked in Hindu nationalist propaganda, no recent, mainstream Indian politician has been influenced in the least by them. Even as metaphors, these figures are marginal to contemporary Indian public life. (The case of Shivaji is slightly different because he has become identified with regional and non-Brahminical caste pride in Maharashtra.) If the cadres of the Hindu nationalist parties bring up these names to bolster their moth-eaten, 19th century colonial interpretation of Hinduism, other modern Indians reject them as cultural baggage that deserves to be respected only from a safe distance.
Apart from the colonial state, the only other state that has left some memory traces behind is the Mogul empire. That is partly because during the early years of the Raj, the style of governance and the culture of politics (especially the frame of legitimacy) were recognisably Mogul in some respects, and were designed to be so.2 Till the middle of the 19th century, the British in India were not only called ‘nabobs’, they continued to rule India with one eye on the conventions of the Mogul empire, the other on European ideas of statecraft. Even the official language of the Raj was Persian for about 75 years. The culture of the state for a long while after that reflected not merely the influence of British political thought but also the culture of the first 75 years of the Raj. Bernard Cohn’s work on the ‘codification of ritual idiom’ under the Raj has a tacit narrative dealing with this bifocal vision: how the British defined themselves in India and how they sought to link this self-definition to the idea of the state in the ruled. For instance, the Darbar of 1911, Cohn suggests, replicated the Mogul court rituals in many ways and sought to derive consent for the Raj by systematically invoking Indian ideas of rulership.3 The coronation of King George V was simultaneously a Mogul coronation.
But by the 1860s this culture began to get cornered by an increasingly assertive, utilitarian ideology of the state that linked up with the expectations from the state in the more articulate, politicised sections of the Indian people. It is this second concept of the state that has evolved into a quasi-Hegelian imagination in contemporary India, with two identifiable features. First, the concept is heavily dependent on nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxon texts on the state and their social evolutionist legacy, and second, that dependence has been defined more by texts than by the practice of statecraft in Europe. As a result, the ideal state in modern India carries with it a touch of purism and fear of clumsiness, ambiguity and the dirty imprint of life. At the same time, there is paradoxically a defensive attempt to define statecraft as a dirty, hard-eyed, masculine game of realpolitik which Indians, especially idealistic, romantic Indian critics of India’s external policies and nuclear and security choices, cannot fathom.
Also, in the years in which India’s modern political identity was being formed, the only real-life experience of the state to which modern Indians were exposed was the imperial British-Indian state. Hence the idea of the state that dominates modern India is that of an imperial state, run now by modern Indians well-versed in Anglo-Saxon theories of the state. For many Indians, statecraft means a centralised command structure; a condescending welfare system for the poor and the powerless; an apparatus for impartial arbitration among permanently squabbling tribes, castes, religions, language groups and regions; and for the slow and steady inculcation in the citizens of the spirit of Baconian science. Hence also the modern Indian’s desperate belief that he or she stands between the wolves in the global nation-state system and the vulnerable sheep in the form of the irrational, uninformed majority of the Indians.
The picture does not change dramatically when religious chauvinists begin to speak of a Hindu state. That state, too, remains quasi-Hegelian and associated with deep fears that ordinary Hindus would not be able to sustain it. Indeed, the Hindu nationalists’ hatred for the Muslim is matched only by their contempt for the Hindu. They would like to herd the Hindus, too, like cattle towards the bliss of a well-defined nationality, hitched to a national security state modelled on the 19th century European concept of the state. The Hindu nationalists are plaintively waiting for a Hindu Bismarck to emerge who will forge a 19th century nation-state at the beginning of the 21st century, to liberate the semi-westernised Hindus from the non-Hindus on the one hand and the infra-Hindus on the other. Even the ideology of Hindu nationalism, supposed to back up such a state, is pathetically dependent on European nationalism of the kind popularised by the likes of Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) and Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72), who wrote of culture as the soul of a people and whom many Hindu nationalists in colonial times adored as much for their ideological fervour as for their maudlin tone.
A more clinical way of narrating the story would be to say that middle-class India has stabilised its modern self by internalising the 19th century colonial ideology of the state. Such a self has limited space for some of the new currents of political culture — especially some of the lesser known editions of the state in Europe and North America that have allowed them to partly transcend the gory history of wars and conquest in recent years. The frozen concept of the state in modern India includes frozen European ideas of nationality, nationalism, progress, rationality and secularism, even a concept of a desirable society built mostly on once-popular ideas of European thinkers and their second-hand Indian versions. Bertrand Russell, H. G. Wells, Harold Laski, Christopher Caudwell, Maurice Cornforth and Rajani Palme Dutt have survived much longer in the warmer, grateful climate of the tropics than in the cold, forgetful intellectual environment of Europe and North America.
Such an imagination of the state also includes a reactive component. Many Indians have during the last hundred years worked hard to establish that Indian cultures had traditionally included the cultural prerequisites for the sustenance of a modern state in India-from Baconian rationality to post-Reformation secularism. Once these previously repressed themes are rediscovered, their argument goes, whatever contradiction between tradition and modernity exists in India will dissolve, as has reportedly happened in countries like Japan.4
In this way of looking at the past, British rule was a godsend to the modernisation of India, retooling the natives and jettisoning the ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘degraded’ aspects of Indian heritage as so many liabilities. The various brands of religious and ethnic nationalists have done one better. Modelling themselves on European nationalists, they have actually tried to subvert the organisational frame of the Indian heritage and reconstruct it according to the needs of a modern nationality. If the record of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh looks abysmal in the matter of India’s freedom struggle, it is because Hindu nationalism discovered early that silence, if not direct collaboration with colonialism, paid handsome political dividends. Such collaboration left it free to pursue its agenda against the minorities on the one hand and non-modern and non-modernisable Hinduism on the other. The record of Muslim nationalism in South Asia, even the more liberal kind represented by Syed Ahmad Khan, mimics in many respects its sworn enemies among the Hindus.5
Ashis Nandy, political psychologist and social theorist, is a Fellow of the
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi