Books: Profile

Ashis Nandy: Nothing Is Sacred

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After having interpreted India with amazing intellectual clarity for more than half a century, Ashis Nandy remains an outsider even at an active 80

Ashis Nandy: A Life in Dissent | edited by Ramin Jahanbegloo and Ananya Vajpeyi | Oxford University Press | 384 pages | Rs 750

INDIAN INTELLECTUALS LOVE silos. Before anyone has pigeonholed them into some category, group or class, they quietly classify themselves. Then begins the war for India’s ‘soul’, with the learned men (and women) aligning themselves with some or the other political party, in effect leaving them as mere adjuncts in a bigger game: the pursuit of power.

Far from all this, in the very city where this din is at its most grating, a diminutive 80-year-old is busy in his own demolition game. For a person who has observed much of Independent India closely, Ashis Nandy has strong opinions. He forcefully questions reigning ideas that lie at the core of what has been done in the country. And he has much to say—from dams that caused more havoc than development to political ideologies. Oxford University Press recently released a collection of essays (A Life in Dissent; edited by Ramin Jahanbegloo and Ananya Vajpeyi; 384 pages; Rs 750) that underlines this voice of dissent.

It is hard to classify Nandy intellectually, except in one way: his strong link to ideas that have roots in the Indian soil. This has been a source of controversy for long. Leftists and Modernists alike have criticised him. One Leftist critic went so far as to say, “The most intransigent of these anti-secularists—the one who would not hesitate to describe himself as such, is Ashis Nandy. He is also the most uncompromising in his hostility to history, to the project of modernity, and the one most determined to read Gandhi as an anti-modernist.” Such criticism was in vogue in the 90s when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was on the ascendant and any questioning of secularism as a Western idea alien to India was met with hostility and seen as coming close to support for the ‘communal’ party. Two decades later, this kind of astringent criticism has lost much of its substance: Far from being unconcerned with ‘communal’ politics, Nandy dubs Hindutva as artificial and far from the original and genteel Hinduism, turning the tables on his Leftist critics.

So where does he see himself on the political spectrum, on the left or the right?

“Whatever may be your metaphor and whatever may be your publicly stated ideological position, that position does not go the same way or enter into public discourse and particularly the minds of the electorate. It takes a different kind of shape,” he says in his book-lined office at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS). But if left and right can’t serve as a demarcation for politics, won’t that allow religion an entry, the paramount fear in intellectual India today?

Pat comes the answer: “In India, religion is already a strong force, as faiths are alive. There are people who use religion very mechanically as an ideological position. That is a trivialisation of religion. Unlike Europe or elsewhere, in India religion has much deeper roots with cultures and with each other. So those who are talking in left-right terms, their ideologies are also very thin.”

Ideology Nandy argues is something for public consumption by a small sector of the population. It is a political metaphor and totally unlike religious faith that has deep roots within people. “People take it not with a pinch but a bucketful of salt. There is now a political class with a lot of money and for whom politics is a vocation. You cannot capture this reality with a left-right distinction,” he adds.

Far from being unconcerned with 'communal' politics, Nandy dubs Hindutva as artificial and far from the original and genteel Hinduism, turning the tables on his Leftist critics

If religion is out, as is that distinction, what is the basis for organising politics? Nandy makes an interesting argument, one that few will believe today.

“Ethics. Political ethics is a different kind of ethics from private ethics. I believe there’s another way to configure political ethics in India. We have not deciphered it. But people have an intuitive sense of it. We may not understand that as we have been brainwashed into looking at politics from different categories. But if you can reach out to the people and take their words more seriously or respectfully, then you will normally get an idea of what they are thinking.” He offers two interesting examples that transpired in close succession in the last century. In 1977, Nandy says, most intelligence agencies gave Indira Gandhi a very high probability of return. But when the votes were counted, she was out. “This was not about left or right, people said ‘What she did was wrong’ and they acted on the basis of what they thought was right.” Yet, barely seven years later, when she was assassinated, the same people gave her son the largest electoral mandate in Indian history.

“People felt that assassination is not our way of doing politics, whatever may be the cause,” he says.

These are not conventional assessments of historical events. But then there’s nothing conventional about Nandy. He has long argued that poverty alleviation in India is a boondoggle that has deprived the poor of their agency to act in accordance with what they want. If anything, such schemes have made the poor more hapless as ‘development’ reaches the nooks and crannies of India, forcing people who lived in their habitats into urban India and miserable lives.

So how did India come to such a pass whereby all ‘schemes’ and ‘development ideas’ ended up causing more harm than good? It is here that Nandy stands the farthest apart from the usual understanding of India’s intellectual history. Most contemporary thinkers and ideologues have imbibed Western ideas as ‘natural’ and ‘universal’, and India perhaps needs its own theories and ideas.

“Our elites were brought up or pushed through a pattern of education that made them totally mindless mimics of the West. And I am not only talking of the classical Anglicised elite we like to talk about. I am also not talking about the first two or three generations of Marxists mimicking the way Lenin or Stalin sneezed,” he says. “They borrowed the mid-19th century theories of social change mechanically without thinking. And that manner of thinking had a clear cut social evolutionary thrust. Even if they work, we have to be very careful about utilising them because immediately we have to classify cultures, civilisations and even small communities in evolutionary terms, some as backward, some as advanced, some as developed and some as underdeveloped.”

One look at the map of contemporary India and the continuing legacy of Nehruvian ideas shows that Nandy is not off the mark. But at the same time, hearing his ideas is unsettling. At one level, Nandy does an effective job of demolishing ideas, concepts and categories that come packaged with Western education as imparted in India. This is evident when one looks at stories and narratives built every day about Indian politics in a polarised age. To a number of people, ideas such as ‘secularism’ and the left-and-right distinction comes naturally and there is no reason to question these ideas. But even the crowd that disavows that distinction—and there are a substantial number of believers in ‘Indic values’ among new conservatives who dot social media—would have a hard time believing that mere ethical distinctions can power contemporary politics in India. But if it won’t be ethics—which is Nandy’s preferred answer—what will it be?

There’s no clarity there. Might there be room for some local anti-enlightenment thought? If one looks at India’s raging culture wars that are so intimately linked to the pursuit and acquisition of power, there’s little space for that. One nativist prophet, Gandhi, tried that a long time ago, but somewhere that tradition disappeared into nothingness. There are bhajan-kirtans on designated days, almost like the religious-agricultural calendars of yore, but nothing more. His powerful followers abandoned him while he was alive. The truth is that Nandy-like argumentation cuts across so many cosy and neatly built ideas, ideologies and narratives that to accept it in toto—or even substantially—calls for too much intellectual demolition with too little brick and mortar to build something new. The intellectual current that he represents—anti-Western and one that abandons much of the apparatus of rational thinking from that part of the world—has few takers. It will remain one of those traditions that illuminate so much, for a while, and then disappear for the lack of a following.