Category Archives: Indian Politics

Ashis Nandy on intolerant politics

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image from: ipcs.org.au

… those who pass as politicians today and our knowledge-proof babus have proved themselves incapable of understanding the subtleties of public communication. They are not literate enough to know what role free speech and free press play in an open society, not only in keeping the society open but also in serious statecraft. In the meanwhile, it has become dangerous to demand a more compassionate and humane society, for that has come to mean a serious criticism of contemporary India and those who run it. Such criticism is being redefined as anti-national and divisive. In the case of Arundhati, it is of course the BJP that is setting the pace of public debate and pleading for censorship. But I must hasten to add that the Congress looks unwilling to lose the race. It seems keen to prove that it is more nationalist than the BJP.

It is the hearts and minds of the new middle class—those who have come up in the last two decades from almost nowhere and are middle class by virtue of having money rather than middle-class values—that both parties are after. This new middle class wants to give meaning to their hollow life through a violent, nineteenth-century version of European-style ‘nationalism’. They want to prove—to others as well as to themselves—that they have a stake in the system, that they have arrived. They are afraid that the slightest erosion in the legitimacy of their particularly nasty version of nationalism will jeopardise their new-found social status and political clout. They are willing to fight to the last Indian for the glory of Mother India as long as they themselves are not conscripted to do so and they can see, safely and comfortably in their drawing rooms, Indian nationalism unfolding the way a violent Bombay film unfolds on their television screens.

Hence the bitterness and intolerance, not only towards Arundhati Roy, but also towards all other spoilsports who defy the mainstream imagination of India and its nationalism. Even Gandhians fighting for their cause non-violently are not spared. Himangshu Kumar’s ashram at Dantewada has been destroyed not by the Maoists but by the police. I would have thought that writers and artists would be exempt from censorship in an open society. As we well know, they are not. The CPI(M) and the Congress ganged up to shut up Taslima Nasreen by saying she was not an Indian. As though if you are a non-Indian in India, your rights don’t have to be governed by the Constitution of India!

There are times when a national consensus is neither possible nor desirable…

What is it about the culture of Indian politics today that it allows us to opt for a version of nationalism that is so brutal, self-certain and chauvinist? Have we been so brutalised  ourselves that we have become totally numb to the suffering around us? What is this concept of Indian unity that forces us to support police atrocities and torture? How can a democratic government, knowing fully what its police, paramilitary and army is capable of doing, resist signing the international covenant on torture? How can we, sixty years after independence, countenance encounter deaths? Could these practices have survived so long and become institutionalised if we had a large enough section of India’s much-vaunted middle class fully sensitive to the demands of democracy?

The answers to these questions are not pleasant. We know things could not have come to this pass if those who are or should be alert to these issues in the intelligentsia, media, artistic community had done their job. Here I think the changing nature of the Indian middle class has not been a help.

…the future of censorship and surveillance in India was very bright. It’s not only the government that loves it but a very large section of middle-class India too would like to silence writers, artists, playwrights, scholars and thinkers they do not like. In their attempt to become a globalised middle class, they are willing to change their dress, food habits and language but not their love for censorship. We should thank our stars that there still are people in our midst—editors, political activists, NGOs, lawyers and judges—to whom freedom of speech is neither a value peripheral to the real concerns of Indian democracy nor a bourgeois virtue but a clue to our survival as a civilised society.

Read more here

Realpolitik over Real Politics

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That uneasy feeling has been around for some time. That the proletariat is not focus for CPM any longer. The Party now says yes. My, my, my. When will the party also begin to notice the rest of the rust? Say, that there has been no real theorising suitable for the times in which the meaning of labor itself is so bewilderingly new. Too much realpolitik seems to have led the Party away from real politics!!

Undergoing a rectification exercise to root out “alien class influences” from within its fold, the CPM has concluded that there is “erosion in the primacy” of its working class outlook — reflected also in the fact that 70 per cent of its leaders are from the middle class and other sections — and that electoral alliances with “bourgeois parties” are proving to be a source of “corrosive” influence.

It notes that while 75 per cent of the party’s membership comes from the working class, poor peasants and agricultural workers, in the leading committees only around 30 per cent belong to these classes. “70 per cent come from the middle classes and other sections. This provides the basis for alien class influences,” it says.

“There is erosion in the primacy of the working class outlook of the party. This stems from a reformist outlook, parliamentarism and tendency to adjust to bourgeois values. There are instances of leaders decrying working class struggles and strikes. There is weakening of the links with the masses at different levels of the party.”

Full report in Indian Express

Caste, Anti-Colonialism, Indian Nationalism

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The term ‘Independence Struggle’ that names a cluster of discursive practices (associated with nationalism and anti-colonialism) in 19th and 20th centuries cannot be taken as unproblematic or as referring to practices with a singular politics. The phrase assumes that the struggle is for independence that is lost. This would mean that prior to the event of colonisation ‘independence’ did exist. For whom did it exist? The term would suggest that the entity on behalf of which this independence struggle is carried out was, if not a unified whole, at least a continuous field. That is, ‘India’ as such has to be ‘freed’ from the British because it has been enslaved by the British. Now, what is this India? It is most commonly seen as a territorial unit and the people within it. The people within this territorial unit have lost independence, which has to be recovered, is the logic here. The question is: whose independence was lost? If it had to be recovered, from whom? Secondly, what has to be recovered – the lost political agency or cultural agency? Both questions bring in the issue of whose independence was lost and in which spheres. No doubt, colonialism was bad, had to be opposed and defeated. But in asking questions about the nature of the recovery, sense of loss and fields of sovereignty to be wrested, one would be able to examine diverse implications of the idea of independence in the context of the notions of nation as well as the discursive practices of nationalism.

As some of the socio-cultural actions in the 19th and 20th centuries suggest, the aim to achieve independence was not always solely from the British. Therefore, the event of loss and the structures of loss of independence were various in the discourses of differently inflected nationalisms. One example is the anti-caste/ anti-brahmin nationalism, which considered colonialism as an opportunity that had accelerated the mobility of the lower castes and had loosened the grip of brahminism, thus providing a historical opportunity for the lower castes to obtain independence from the brahminical order.

Seen thus, independence struggle was multifarious not merely because of the differences in approach to anti-colonialism but because the very notion of independence, the loss that has to be amended, varied. Broadly, the logic of recovery in the discourses of independence struggle may be divided into two streams. One is internal recovery – recovery of independence from the ‘internal’ coloniser, i.e. the brahminical patriarchy. The second is external recovery – recovery of independence lost to the ‘foreign’ coloniser. The internal recovery logic mounted its critique in the socio-cultural field wherein the shift in the political power to an agency beyond caste had not broken down the structures of caste slavery. The external recovery logic mounted its critique in the political field wherein the political power had to be recovered from the coloniser. In both, there were massive importations from the European knowledge systems to strengthen their case.

What is significant is the engagement between these two. The critique of brahminism forced the critique of colonialism to restructure itself. The latter felt the need to employ the terms of modernity and borrow from the culture of the coloniser to restructure itself though it hardly ever completely accepted the former’s demand for a total revision. Thus the modernising/ reformation attempts were not merely responses to the exposure to western culture but also a response to the internal critique.

Independence was being claimed on different grounds and also different kinds of independence were pursued. The external critique claimed for political independence – reserving the right to socio-cultural restructuring to itself, as Partha Chatterjee (NF) shows – while internal critique aimed at socio-cultural independence from the very forces of the external critique and questioned their programme of restructuring the internal sphere. This meant that different notions of the nation were in operation in terms of what is lost, what has to be recovered and what has to be constructed and reconfigured.

The response to modernity in the internal critique was largely non-resistant as modernity offered means of emancipation – for example, industries provided new employment outside the obligations of caste, rationalism provided the platform to challenge the metaphysics that held the system of caste in place. The internal critique on the other hand was selectively resistant to modernity.

To put it briefly: the notion of nation informing the various standpoints in the socio-political activism in 19th and 20th centuries in India were different and the notion of independence sought was also of diverse nature. The independence struggle was not a monolithic mass aspiration. What proceeds from this is that the socio-political activisms were diverse in their content, form, modality, target and representation. Different politics, different aspirations, different structures of feeling and experiences, different notions of past and future, and hence different histories inform the plurality of the socio-political action that often is seen as one. The extent to which the categories coloniser and colonised need to be fragmented is suggested in the view that ‘India’ was being constituted differently: ‘India’ the object of nationalist discourses, the past of this ‘India’, the notion of independence, the future contours of ‘India’.

Shah Rukh Khan and identity politics

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One can talk about the public debate on that ugly events linked to the security check on Shah Rukh Khan. The passion seems to have been spent. Dust settled as it were. National pride no more staked on the incident. So one can talk about it better in public. I say ugly because it was difficult to be heard in the noise made about the incident.

from: google images

from: google images

Upfront let me say: there was nothing wrong in the former President or a popular star being frisked. There is everything wrong in going to the town tom-toming about how hurt you are that someone checked you in the airport. True, ex-Prex didnt personally make an issue. I am talking about everyone who did. I dont want to pretend that it was totally a creation of the media. Even if the controversy surrounding the two personalities may have been media circus, the structure of feeling is very common in India of which we regularly find evidence.

The issue is not what Shah Rukh or ex-Prez felt. The issue is why the people of India tend to associate national pride with issues of privilege. Not being frisked is a privilege. Seeing such a privilege as matter of national pride does not enhance anybody’s IQ. In fact the brouhaha perhaps harmed the image of India more than anything else.

Why should the identity of India be invoked in an issue so obviously related to security protocols. If the officers were less than civil to Shah Rukh, then it is a matter of significance. If their reason for delaying him and asking him strange questions were related as Shah Rukh said to his name, it is a grave matter. But, none of this necessitate the invocation of national pride; national identity. That Indian government felt it necessary to respond, is a sign of how sensitive we are to the world’s reaction to us.

from: google images

from: google images

Such reactions only indicate that as far as the national identity is concerned, whatever that may be, however much doubtful we are of it, in India there is so much of anxiety. Why is the society in India, the civil society, the media, the bureaucracy, the ruling class etc, so anxious that the world see us exactly as we wish ourselves to be seen?

I think right now the biggest challenge we are facing is not so much naxalism but nationalism. The monster invoked as an anti-colonial and integrating strategy is now coming to our grief as it is giving rise to so many nationalisms. The million mutinies are really nationalism taking deeper roots in our society.

Tipu Sultan, Kannada Nationalism and Communal Design

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D. Shankar Murthy, a minister in the Karnataka Government, initiated a public debate surrounding Tipu Sultan. I do not have access to all the opinions expressed in this debate. I have followed some of the debate in the Kannada daily, Vijaya Karnataka. It does seem a royal sling match, with Kannada writers and intellectuals reacting to each other with the readers throwing in their bit.

The moot question is whether Tipu Sultan deserves to be respected in Karnataka. The minister apparently said something to the effect that Tipu was against Kannada and hence Kannadigas should not bother about him much. The debate of course makes Tipu’s religious faith the core issue. One set of opinion, expressed in detail by the novelist S. L. Bhairappa, is that he was anti-Hindu, anti-Kannada, and was no way a patriotic figure; another set of opinion, with Girish Karnad holding the brief (he has a play on Tipu, published recently), which says that the anti-Tipu sentiments are a sign of the growth of Hindu fundamentalism in Karnataka.

Both parties take antagonistic positions and hence it is not really a discussion. As it is with these issues, there would be no final word on it. Controversy about the Datta mandir resurfacing again, this debate may end soon, with media busy with things more juicy.

It is true that the question involves the issue of historical interpretation. But, I would be interested in the question of the interpretation of the history of such a controversy. The historical debate, if competent historians participate, may or may not conclude. (Btw, a group of historians from all over
India, have released a public statement asserting that Tipu was not anti-Kannada; but the opposite party wouldn’t hear any of it, as they would term these historians as leftists). But, we can see some reasons why such controversies are generated and sustained by media and other vested interests. Few would really bother about whether or not Tipu was anti-Kannada, and some would say, if he was, so what, and if he wasn’t so what. I think, political class in Karnataka are smelling elections. So the frying pan is hot. It is useful if polarizing issues such as Muslim Tipu vs. Kannada or
Belgaum for Karnataka kind of issues are on the top of peoples mind. I suspect, with the kind of noise on Kannada gaurava, border issue etc. the present dispensation will rush to the electorate soon. There is something apart from the elections coming, I think, something more ominous: communal riots.

Oh! These political gimmicks. And look at us, taking their baits and troubling our little heads over the crumbs of sensationalism that they throw at us. Recently somewhere, there was a report on how Karnataka is presently the site for
Gujarat experiment. No wonder, there is a hurry to invoke the Muslim kings and their anti-Kannada stances. After all, in Karnataka, only Ram cannot wean the electorate; mix Ram with Kannada nationalism, lo, you have a heady mix for some bloody drama on the street. Even as I write this I think tools for the street fight are getting readied. In the Tipu sultan debate righitists are busy with complaints about Muslims who speak Urdu at home and not Kannada. Surely, if the B.J.P. gets its Ram + Kannada nationalism right, as Mody did in his second innings, they can almost get the assembly maths right.

Shame has no limits when power play is in full swing. Kill, oh! Kill, for the elections are near. That seems to the real ‘mantra’. 

Performative Production of the State in India

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Akhil Gupta has this article titled ‘Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics and the
Imagined
State’ in Zoya Hasan edited book Politics and the State in India (Sage,
New Delhi, 2000). In this article he examines the way people construct the state through various practices including corruption. I found this article extremely interesting as it couples solid field work with fine theorization. The very idea of viewing how people imagine the state into being performatively is great. His is a nuanced reading of his field work data which attends to local history, culture, social set up as well as resonances of relationships. I think it is important to not see corruption as the same everywhere and always (it wont lead us anywhere). There is much sense in following Gupta’s approach and study the performative production of corruption, state, and the relation between state and subjects. If your interest includes state, corruption, performativism, any or all of these, I think you would find Gupta’s article interesting.

An excerpt: “At the local level it becomes difficult to experience the state as an ontically coherent entity: what one confronts instead is much more discrete and fragmentary… it is precisely through the practices of such local institutions that a translocal institution such as the state comes to be imagined.”

Akhil Gupta points out that western categories of civil society and state as well as private citizen and public servant become inadequate to describe the lived realities in India as one finds boundaries being blurred such that the function of public servant need not transpire only in the rationalizes locations of the offices; and the interaction between the civil society and state may continuously be revised on the basis of various factors.

I have only picked a few bits of the many fine ideas to be found in this article. Check it out, folks.

Caste and Identity Politics

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In the post-independence period in Indiaon the one hand there has been erosion in the caste system so that in certain quarters and certain fields the power of this abominable system has decreased; on the other, we see the caste organization being revitalized. This paradoxical situation has been attributed to the policy of reservation policy by some thinkers (not those who are against this policy, but co-travelers). They feel that this policy while enabling the oppressed social groups upward social mobility, also gave an impetus to a process by which many social groups declared themselves as a caste group (while they were seen to belong to a sub-caste earlier), and made claims on the beneficial policy. At the same time, those social groups outside the ambit of this policy felt threatened by the emergence of lower castes into areas of social and political spaces that they traditionally held with themselves, began to mobilize themselves and work for the benefits of their members. This may be seen reflected in the profusion of ‘mats’ (religious seats) and matadheeshas (seers). These twin processes related to the reservation policy have discounted the little progress made in the direction towards abolition of caste.

This argument, offered by those who support the reservation policy yet note the existence of such a sociological situation, is tenable, but within limits. Because, I feel that while this may be true, what has led to the entrenchment of caste interests on the part of the upper castes is also the very idea of losing the traditional power. Social mobility of the oppressed social groups thus has led to a reorganization of the caste hegemony wherein the upper caste social groups find new ways of defending the perpetuation of their domination. See for instance the religious fundamentalism which I believe did much harm to the solidarity of the anti-caste forces in the society. From the ethico-judicial sphere where the power of caste was contested, move towards identity politics was the gift of the religious fundamentalism. Also interesting is the manner in which the exponential growth of religious fundamentalism takes place at the same time as the emergence of the oppressed social groups into the political sphere in a decisive manner, something that was made possible by the reservation policy.

This paradox thus has meant that the goal of annihilation of caste is more or less dispensed with in favour of identity politics. It is this which has created a situation where more efforts at improving the socio-economic conditions of the oppressed social groups would also mean the postponement of the abolition of caste. If the various parties involved in this complex social issue continue to stick to the politics of identity, the goal of a casteless society that Ambedkar and others had set for us to achieve might remain unrealized.