What is your definition of an Indian liberal?
Indian liberals believe in freedom of speech, relative positive discrimination. Not a state-sponsored definition of equality for all but certainly special rights for underprivileged people, emancipation of women and intercultural harmony. An important part of liberalism that is now forgotten is the impersonal, role-bound functioning of public institutions, be it the universities, courts, bureaucracy and finally, as I say in my ‘Preface’, the refusal of intellectuals to identify exclusively with a political party.
Is Nehru, an important figure in this collection, your ideal Indian liberal?
Not really. I say at the end of that essay that there are some Indians who are as great as Nehru: Vallabhbhai Patel, Ambedkar, Rajagopalachari, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay. And some Indians who are greater: Gandhi and Tagore. Sometimes, I’m mistakenly referred to as a Nehruvian and that’s only because in comparison with the demonising of Nehru by the Left, the Right, all parts of the spectrum, I have some nice things to say about him. I think he’s a considerable figure. Had he retired earlier in 1957 or ’58, his reputation might have been judged more kindly.
You write in an essay about these great leaders that laid the foundation for Indian pluralism and how it was inevitable that future politicians would be lesser figures, would only represent a part of someone like Ambedkar rather than the whole. But would you say our politicians are even more diminished than anticipated?
Absolutely. In India After Gandhi, I end by saying that a democracy has to be founded by visionaries and it can be led in mid-career by mediocrities. That judgement was made six years ago and I think it was an excessively optimistic judgement because now we have our worst in mid-career: people who are malign, or sectarian, or divisive, or just outright corrupt. On the whole, clearly there has been a precipitous decline in the quality of our political leadership, but it’s compensated by the vigour in the media, in civil society, in the entrepreneurial classes. It’s not as if India is bereft of leadership in other fields, and yet somehow not in politics and public life. That’s worrisome.
So this is not Nehru’s Congress party but Indira Gandhi’s?
Yes, this is Indira Gandhi’s creation. The only thing is that the likes of Patel left behind an all-India organisation. Rahul Gandhi can only be an all-India leader because of all the groundwork done by Congress organisers from the ’20s all the way down to the ’60s and ’70s. It’s just very, very sad that all of it has been reduced to ‘Mummy’ and ‘Daddy’ and ‘Dadi’.
In the first part of your book, you talk of the importance of the intellectual maintaining distance from politics. Is it a particular problem in India that intellectuals are too closely linked to political positions?
I think it’s a problem globally, not just in India. Everywhere there has been this tension between intellectuals who ally very closely to the State and intellectuals who on principle oppose the State. Of course, intellectuals are citizens, thinking people, and will have political and social views, but I think it’s problematic for writing. I have a long essay on the great Eric Hobsbawm in the latest Economic & Political Weekly, which talks about how brilliant, original and insightful his work was when he wrote on the 18th and 19th centuries. But when it comes to the 20th century, particularly the period after 1917, because of his obsessive loyalty to the idea of socialism in the Soviet Union, he distorts history in many ways and that has to do with the fact that he’s a loyal party member.
One of the people I greatly admire, who’s quoted here and there in this book, is Andre Béteille. He has lived the life of a scholar. He hardly appears on television, he does not hang around with powerful people, nor does he say, “I am a great champion of the oppressed”, but he has consistently and diligently followed his calling which is that of a scholar and analyst of Indian society and Indian politics. He resists the seductions of Delhi. I don’t have a moral backbone as strong as Béteille’s. If I’d been in Delhi, I may have also succumbed to the lure of some party cause, so I’m lucky I live in Bengaluru.
You write in these essays about patriotism being hijacked by the Hindu Right Wing and disavowed by the Left, which looks to other countries for its lead…
Something which Tagore taught us and which Gandhi particularly, and to some extent Nehru carried on, is that you can be open to all cultures of the world. It’s not that the Indian tradition has all the answers. Our constitution draws on French and American examples. And yet you must have a commitment to the land you live in and to nurturing its institutions, to making life for its citizens more bearable. The Left and the liberals have allowed the Right Wing to hijack patriotism, which is why I say, in the first essay in my book, that I refuse to call the Sangh Parivar Hindu nationalists. They are Hindu chauvinists. Someone on television called Bal Thackeray an Indian nationalist, but his idea of Bombay doesn’t include Muslims, Christians, South Indians and on and on.
The idea of Indian nationalism as defined by people like Tagore and Gandhi did not privilege a single language or religion, nor did it privilege a common enemy. The BJP thinks the idea of India is bashing Pakistan, or that the answers are all in our scriptures. Patriotism does not mean close-mindedness. It’s a shame that liberals and Leftists have ceded the ground of speaking for this country, its culture, its democratic traditions and allowed the Right to hijack it, or allowed the Congress party and one family to hijack it. This is why I wanted to emphasise that I am a citizen of India. I am not a citizen of the world. I’m an Indian democrat.
But the accusation thrown at people like you, who write in English, speak mostly English and teach in English, is that you are a citizen of the world, a cosmopolitan…
Yes, well, that accusation does have some merit. A close friend asked me which of these essays I personally found most satisfying and, for me, it is ‘The Rise and Fall of the Bilingual Intellectual’. My cosmopolitanism is somewhat rootless. The greatness of someone like Ambedkar was that he was at once totally Marathi and totally Indian. Likewise with Gandhi, Gujarati and Indian; Tagore, Nirmal Bose; or Irawati Karve, Ananthamurthy, Girish Karnad, they’re phenomenally rooted in their local culture but they’re not closed. Now, you have either rootless cosmopolitans like me or you have Indian-language intellectuals who really don’t have a capacious vision of the world.
You begin that essay with an anecdote about Mukul Kesavan and his father, the many languages his father speaks, and the difficulty Mukul and you have in expressing yourself in any other language…
The interesting thing is that there are some Indian writers, young Indian writers — I know at least two — who are very gifted and quite brilliant intellectually, who come from even more cosmopolitan backgrounds than me. Both these writers were educated extensively abroad; I, at least, had my education in this country. Yet these writers came back and willed themselves to become fluent in Indian languages. These two are Aatish Taseer and Aravinda Adiga. It’s a great effort to learn a language when you’re 25 or 30 but they’ve done it. Taseer’s Urdu is absolutely flawless, he’s now learning Sanskrit. Adiga has taught himself Kannada and Tamil; he acquired a serious, scholarly understanding of Kannada to get a window into the literature. I admire that because I think it’s important in a country like ours, which has multiple languages, to recover the bilingual or multilingual fluency of past generations.
I just want to go back to this idea of chauvinism, which you list as one of the enemies of India. Can you talk about what you see as major threats to the idea of India?
The enemies of India are, for one, this notion that India must be defined by one religion and one language: Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan. It’s an Indian nationalism that mimics Pakistan or mimics Israel, also defined by one religion, one language and one enemy. It reduces and homogenises India and must be resisted. That’s on the Right. On the Left, you have the Communist idea of a one-party totalitarian state that goes back to Independence and the insurrection launched by the Communist Party of India in February 1948, which sought to overthrow the new Indian State and has been episodically resurrected in the 1960s and now again by the Naxalites. The Centre has uncertainly tried to battle both of them.
It’s a shame that liberals and Leftists have let the Right, or the Congress and one family, hijack the ground to speak for this country
Another enemy of India, or critique, is that we are an artificial entity cobbled together and we have to break up. So the Tamils in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s said, “We don’t want to be part of India.” The Mizos and the Punjabis said the same, but all were finally reconciled and were able to find, on the whole, a dignified space in a larger, cosmopolitan idea of India. Secession or the desire, the will to separate continues in parts of Kashmir, parts of Manipur and parts of Nagaland, so that remains a challenge, to reconcile their ethnic identities, their national aspirations with this larger nesting place called India.
We also have newer problems: corruption, inequality and environmental degradation. These are, I believe, the six major challenges. In the opening essay, I make the point implicitly though I should make it explicitly, that not only are we a very reckless and daring political experiment, but we are also very young. We are 65, that’s it. America, 90 years after it was created, had a bloody civil war in which more than a million people died. So we are still, in a sense, finding our way.
I’ve heard you make this point about India as a “reckless, daring experiment” in a lecture in the US, in the context of India’s aspirations towards superpower status. What do you make of these aspirations?
Obviously, we need to have an active foreign policy. We need a high class army and navy to protect our borders. We need to assert our claims to permanent membership of the UN Security Council. I think the Security Council has to be reconfigured so that Brazil, South Africa, India get seats and France and Britain are kicked out. There’s no logic at all to their presence, either demographic or any other, and they should be replaced by one seat for the European Union. So I’m definitely not an isolationist. I’m not saying India should cut itself off from the world. But I think claims to superpowerdom or to expanding our global footprint are premature when we have so many internal problems that serve to distract us.
Moreover, anyone who raises these internal problems is seen as a party-pooper, a naysayer. Because we’re a young, new, complicated political experiment with all these simultaneous revolutions going on, I think India would do better to pay much more careful attention to the fissures, the fault lines within. The goal should be to make India a less discontented place, make its citizens happier with themselves than to take on the world.
Shougat Dasgupta is Literary Editor with Tehelka.