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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Culture wars: It's more a clash of lifestyles than a battle of ideas

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1961, in a monograph woefully difficult to locate today, the Chicago sociologist Edward Shils studied the predicament of the Indian intellectual in the high noon of the Nehruvian era. His approach was sympathetic but his larger conclusions were not terribly flattering to a community that saw itself as the vanguard of India’s journey to modernity. 


Despite its near-uninterrupted Brahmanical tradition of scholarship and sustained exposure to the West, India, Shils felt, “has not yet developed the traditions which are essential to intellectual life.” Despite possessing a significant intelligentsia, the orientation of the Indian intellectual, he felt, was “provincial.” Part of this was due to the drudgery of economic survival, the depressing environment of the universities and media, the prevailing anti-business ethos and the diversion of talent into the bureaucracy. But at the heart of the “insulted and injured” self-image of the Indian intellectual was the confusion over where he stood in relation to India. At one level, he observed, nearly “all of what certain Indian intellectuals refer to as ‘modern thought’ comes to them through England and the medium of English.” At the same time, there was the reality of life in a traditional—and largely—Hindu milieu. “It would not be an outlandish exaggeration to say that it is impossible for a Indian of Hindu descent to cease to be a Hindu.” 


To Shils, this mirrored Jawaharlal Nehru’s amission in his Autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere… (In) my own country… I have an exile’s feeling.” 


Shils penned his observations 54 years ago. Since then, India has undergone a massive transformation: the economic plight of the middle classes isn’t so dire; England has been replaced by USA as the new modernist Mecca; business is no longer an object of disdain; and the “Hinduistic traditionalist revival” that Shils so feared would occur after Nehru has become a reality. At the same time, in sheer numbers, the Indian intelligentsia has grown exponentially—with some intellectuals having acquired the prefix “public.” It has benefitted from more centres of learning, the growth of media and publishing, and, most important, to unhindered access to global currents. The Indian rendered inadequate by the shortage economy has evolved into a self-confident, if slightly cocky, citizen of a country that looks expectantly to a glorious Asian future. 


Yet, Shils’ study isn’t entirely dated: the intellectual neurosis that he detected is still visible but it has acquired new and interesting—but not always palatable—dimensions. 


In his study, Shils elaborated on the Indian intellectuals’ sense of disconnect from the wider environment and his attempt to overcome it through identification with an association with the broad Left. However, he also encountered an “excellent young historian, trained at Oxford, productive as a scholar… and himself head of a division in an important Ministry.” The gentleman told him: “I don’t feel out of touch with the people, they might feel out of touch with me but that is their concern, not mine.” 


The identity of the historian is very thinly veiled. But what is interesting is that what seemed like the outburst of a poseur in 1961 has persisted and become a fashion statement in 2015. Five decades ago, and despite the fond England-gazing, intellectuals were mindful of the larger society in which they lived. Their intellectual individualism was invariably circumscribed by the prevailing ethos of the joint family or the community whose ethos demanded an exceptional measure of self-restraint. True, there were the odd group of bohemians (like the 19th century Young Bengal movement) for whom creativity and self-indulgence were happy partners but, by and large, these were exceptions. Most intellectuals respected society, even when they were inclined towards the avant garde


The desire to break out of provinciality and embrace cosmopolitanism has, today, led to intellectual freedom being equated with iconoclasm, disregard for existing social mores and a show of intellectual insolence—bordering on snobbery—directed at those unable to appreciate the delights of permissiveness. Nothing is sacred—and certainly not the cow.


There is a culture war raging in India today. Alas, it is only nominally a clash of ideas and more about conflicting lifestyles. 

Sunday Times of India, October 18, 2015


Dushyant said...

Some of the nationalism of Indian intellectuals is a reaction to their unhappy feelings about the inferiority of their country to other countries, it is an effort and desire to see it elevated in its achievements and its status. This uncomfortable sense of national inferiority accounts for the often clich├ęd praise of India which Indian intellectuals often put forward in public and which seldom finds expression in private conversation - and which is much more observable in Indian intellectuals abroad than in Indian intellectuals in India.

Anonymous said...

If Indian intellectuals respected society in the 1950's it was because of an acute awareness that despite their disdain for India, its traditions and its large mass of "cow-worshippers" they would never be accepted by westerners as their equals. The world then was patently racial and their own experience in western countries made clear to them which identity the west expected them to possess. It was this that made them closer to India. Today that racial feeling in the west has receded though not disappeared and the "intellectuals" see an opening which they hope will allow them to disavow their Indian connections. But for those that live in India it is very hard, if not futile, to express this disavowal; hence their extreme frustration and venom with which they calumniate the BJP and hindutva. The closest proxy to the west in Indian public life has almost always been the head of the dynasty of the Congress party (Pt Nehru called himself the last Englishman to rule India). Hence the intellectuals' closeness to the Congress.

These intellectuals are really the most ignorant. They should know that if the west and western culture is strong today it is because they have not hesitated to defend and even propagate it with the sword. So militancy and intellectualism had a symbiotic relationship there. Edward Bulwer-Lytton coined the famous saying "The pen is mightier than the sword". But that is true only for a brave race proud of its "indegenous" culture. For cowards, the pen is the only sword!

Anonymous said...

Totally agree...would any of these writers have returned their awards that they recieved from Britain or US just because they thought "state has failed" (lot of american intellectuals thought at times about US on multiple occasions that it suppressed freedom of expression) .Majority from intellectual class in india have always craved for recognition from the west, to an extent that it has sometimes dilluted the issues of extreme national interests...this needs to change, enough of this decadent bhadralok...

Haris V.P said...

Have hardly come across a more spot on observation than this, considering the perspective

Haris V.P said...

Have hardly come across a more spot on observation than this, considering the perspective

Haris V.P said...

Could have made this a lot shorter if the author has decided to avoid the laborious sweetening up tactics, while fuming all along, which is the case anyway. It is obvious that the "Superio" camp is getting continously hit where it hurts