By Swapan Dasgupta
The virulent outbreak of India’s “culture wars” prompts a return to a text that was once at the centre of a spirited controversy. In his 1959 Rede Lecture in Cambridge University in 1959, the physicist-turned-novelist C P Snow invoked The Two Cultures that were jostling for pre-eminence in post-war Britain.
At the top of the pile were the “literary intellectuals who incidentally while no one was looking took to referring to themselves as ‘intellectuals’ as though there were no others.” Blessed with a classical or liberal arts education, and dominant in the church, universities, media and the arts, they were the U’s—to borrow Nancy Mitford’s telling description of the linguistic class divide—of the intellectual world.
Then there were the scientists and those dabbling in applied science that lived in a separate world, quite unrelated to the “traditional culture” of the literary notables. The scientists were preoccupied with the future and blessed with a sense of optimism and a fierce can-do spirit. The engineers tended to be more conservative and absorbed in making things for which the present social order seemed trustworthy.
For Snow, who had a foot in both worlds, this separation didn’t augur well. The fact that the literary and scientific worlds were not even speaking to each other and, indeed, “just making faces” constituted a great “intellectual and creative loss.” He imagined a future where both Britain and the US would soon be challenged by a rapidly industrialising Soviet Union, China and even poorer countries. This was because the “literary” lot had “never tried, wanted or been able to understand the industrial revolution, much less accept it.” The “literary intellectuals”, he declaimed, “are natural Luddites.”
Snow wasn’t terribly original. In 1776, Adam Smith wrote about “two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or… the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by… people of fashion.”
The details of the two conflicting worlds described by Smith and Snow have changed unrecognisably over the decades. In late-19th century, the heyday of Britain, the “austere” system came to be identified with robust “Victorian values”—that Margaret Thatcher tried to unsuccessfully rekindle a century later. The “loose system” found favour with the likes of Oscar Wilde and, subsequently, the bohemians of the Bloomsbury set.
Fuelled by the colonial encounter, a similar polarisation in the elite world was visible in India—although the composition of the traditionalists and the modernists kept rapidly changing depending on the context. In the early-20th century, for example, the pre-Gandhian swadeshi notables were both wedded to traditional values and science. They found inspiration in Japan. Subsequently, Mahatma Gandhi was to reject science but yet embrace swadeshi. And Jawaharlal Nehru obsessed over a “scientific temper” and wanted no truck with those championing indigenous values.
In today’s India, some facets of the intellectual-moral divide are resurfacing with both sides in a state of non-communication, even hostility. Former President APJ Abdul Kalam was an inspirational figure to those who see the Indian future in terms of rapid GDP growth, ‘Make in India’ and technological advance. He was less fascinating to today’s “literary intellectuals” whose priorities are centred on social entitlements and individual rights. To them, the likes of Medha Patkar, the social libertarians and even the boisterous students of FTII are more in tune with the ‘idea of India’.
What has complicated the ‘two cultures’ phenomenon in India is the sharp disconnect in the arenas of power. The vision of a political future is, under Narendra Modi at least, being shaped by a blend of technology and cultural rootedness. At the same time, cultural and intellectual capital is vested in the hands of a social cluster that is at odds with this vision and even regards it as ‘fascist’. It is this mismatch that is conveying an impression of an India rocked by social unease. Modi has secured political power; he is yet to influence the old elite whose values are less austere and more “loose”. The dissenters have contested the moral majority but remain politically challenged.
Sunday Times of India, August 23, 2015