Total Pageviews

Follow by Email

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Vitality in another guise

By Swapan Dasgupta

 

In an extract of his most recent book How I Stopped Being A Jew, published in the Guardian last week, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand expressed the hope “that the cultural distance between my great-grandson and me will be as greater or greater than that separating me from my own great-grandfather.” His wish stemmed from a sense of exasperation with fellow citizens of Israel. “I have the misfortune”, he wrote, “of living now among too many people who believe their descendants will resemble them in all respects, because for them peoples are eternal—a fortiori a race-people such as the Jews.”

 

Sand’s anger can be understood within the context of some of the debates centred on the over-Jewishness of Israel but it has a larger validity too. In the United States, there is concern—well articulated in Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? –at the steady erosion of the country’s Judaeo-Christian underpinnings caused by widespread immigration from non-European societies. All over Europe people discomfited by the changing cultural landscape resulting from population movements are voicing similar concerns. A nationalist backlash centred on opposition to immigration—and, by association, the multinational European Union—is visible in France, Hungary, Austria and even some Scandinavian countries. Deft economic and political management has prevented the problem from becoming a force multiplier in Germany and Britain. 

 

Ever since the division of the united country in 1947, India has faced the economic and social challenges posed by population transfers. However, there is a significant difference: the movement of peoples have taken place within South Asia. There has been no significant grafting of peoples and communities from lands where the civilizational ethos is markedly different. The rising cosmopolitanism of Mumbai may have provoked a measure of resentment from the Marathi manoos and triggered a bout of political nativism. However, the growing numbers of Gujaratis, Tamilians or, for that matter, Hindi-speakers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar haven’t amounted to any worthwhile cultural dislocation. Their languages, cultural practices and, in some case, religious faith may differ but the over-arching reach of a common civilisation covers them all. 

 

In India, unlike in the Israel Sand sees around him, there is no desperate desire to ensure that the future will not be terribly dissimilar from the past. Despite rhetorical flourishes celebrating the continuity of India’s antique civilisation, few, apart from those seeking a return to self-sufficient village communities, are wary of change. On the contrary, ‘change’ has become the new buzzword of Indian politics, resonating with politicians across the political spectrum. 

 

This isn’t difficult to understand. Since the second half of the 20th century and, particularly since the deregulation of the economy in 1991, the pace of India’s transformation has been far greater than the previous 150 years. Three generations of Indians from the proverbial ‘midnight’s children’ have witnessed a greater transformation of India in their lifetime than the preceding six generations taken together. And judging from the wave of (sometimes unreal) expectations that have accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achche din promise, it would seem that India’s appetite for change—often used synonymously with betterment and aspiration—is never-unending. Even economists, otherwise accustomed to dealing with cold statistics, have observed the human energy that is driving India forward. 

 

Apart from a discernible improvement in the living standards of most—but by no means all—Indians, the most visible change is the emergence of a political community spanning the whole country. This is not to imply that this community is undifferentiated and thinks alike: like in the US, there is a desi variant of the Blue-Red faultline. What constitutes the community is a broad acceptance of democratic, constitutional politics, the proverbial rules of the game. While the political process itself is fractious and argumentative, the evolution of a political community has contributed to an acceptance of common citizenship. In short, while the ‘idea of India’ is bitterly contested, the reality of India enjoys acceptability much greater than was the case prior to 1947. What, however, requires strengthening are the official and non-official institutions of nationhood, some of which remain either fragile or notoriously ineffective

 

Yet, while the popular legitimacy of the state is widespread and the yearning for progress and change adds to India’s dynamism, there is a curious loose end. What Sand about the Jewish belief that its culture is (or should be) unchanging because “for them peoples are eternal” can also be said to be a Hindu belief. It was subliminal in the first few decades after Independence because it lacked both political articulation and space—and was, therefore, confined to a shrinking band of social conservatives. Since the late-1980s, however, the belief that India must safeguard its precious religious and cultural inheritance in the face of globalised modernity has struck a responsive chord. 

 

In a little known monograph The Intellectual in India published in 1967, Nirad Chaudhury had quite accurately anticipated the trend. Then a resident of Old Delhi and a witness to the language stir and the anti-cow slaughter agitation that unsettled northern India in the run-up to the 4thGeneral Election, he observed that the intellectual ferment which began with Raja Rammohun Roy had “created a social class whose outlooks, ideas, behaviour, and social role are utterly different from those of the traditional and numerically stronger part of the middle class.” As democracy struck deeper roots, he foresaw a clash between the “new intelligentsia” and the “traditional Hindu middle class” that could only be resolved by the “complete subordination of the one to the other.”

 

Arguably, the notion of “complete subordination” was an overstatement. Yet, particularly after the election of the Modi government in May 2014, India has been witnessing a culture war that, in part at least, has its origins in the diminishing importance of the erstwhile “new intelligentsia” (also often referred to as the ‘Nehruvians’) and the ascendancy of a new group whose social assumptions are visibly different. This may explain the vicious (as yet largely verbal) wars that have erupted over issues such as Sanskrit, beef and the supposed truncation of artistic space. 

 

It is interesting that the rise of a new, even assertive, Hindu identity in India hasn’t happened in an environment of economic decline but has followed the trajectory of India’s rising economic graph. The growing commitment to a nebulously defined Hindu way of life and the implicit dilution of ‘Nehruvian’ social assumptions has been combined with a near-fanatical commitment to global outreach, technology and managerial efficiency. Modi’s biggest fan following is not among old-style Brahmin pundits committed to the shastras but among restless and fiercely aspirational youth from non-privileged families. Their enthusiasm for a modernist future marked by smart cities and bullet trains is matched by aggressive nationalism and distaste for the effete and corrupt ways of the old, Congress-inclined elite. It is no accident that in his new avatar as an opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi is feverishly attempting to woo the same constituency by painting Modi as a man who has succumbed to the lure of the ‘suit-boot.’ 

 

The historian in Sand has got it wrong. The neighbours he so abhors don’t want their descendants to resemble them in “all respects” culturally. Israel is among the world’s most energetic start-up nations where technology and entrepreneurship have coalesced with spirited nationalism and a commitment to the Jewish inheritance. This implies great change, similar to what is happening in India. It is the hallmark of New Conservatism (or, if you so prefer, the New Right) against which is arrayed the champions of secular, post-national, cosmopolitanism. 


The Telegraph, October 15, 2015

 

 

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sir,

The last sentence wrongly characterizes the forces against the New Right as secular and cosmopolitan. Instead the correct terms would have been corrupt, illiberal and narcissist, aka Nehruvians.

Pessimist

Anonymous said...

I think your statement that Israel's start-up culture reflects its desire for change is flawed. The start ups' motivations is mostly based on the untold riches that a successful one brings, followed by the desire to pursue novelty. But novelty, is strictly confined to the area of technology that the start-up is in. But in all other aspects, the "novelty" is really about keeping old ways alive. Israel is still not a progressive nation, perhaps never will it be, for real progress is really social -- driven by a change in the habits of the mind than the addiction to the use of more technology or more expensive things. Real progress in the world today is really occurring in Scandinavian countries, Germany and generally in western Europe and pockets of North America in regards to change family structure reflecting more individualism, the drastically changed (improved) attitudes to race, sexual orientation and multi(national) culturalism, though this may all change soon in response to Islamic terrorism, and the middle-eastern refugee inundation of Europe. In these aspects of progress Israel will never be a participant, just like India will not no matter how wealthy it may become in the future.

While India may be a wealthy nation in the distant future, it will largely remain a socially conservative one still holding onto its religion, mores, and social prejudices, ignoring the minor fringe elements of the Nehruvian kind who by their own proclamations are already "progressive". However, this "statism" may not be bad, as long as wealth is accompanied by an overall improvement of aesthetics -- in the choices in our daily lives, in our living quarters and neigbhourhoods and villages, in the architecture of our cities and in its gardens, and in the things that our industries produce.

Jitendra Desai said...

In Indian context change still means change for the better life [ and not for better after life!].In 1947, 80 % of us were poor - poor at starvation levels - so change for majority meant two square meals a day.We have still not got over the poverty syndrome.And on this is super imposed our youthfulness.Reason for so much of activism and aggression.Europe when it changed it sought deliverance from both the Church and the King.After our economic emancipation, we still will have our Vedas,Upanishads,Scriptures and learning attitude to fall back on.Changes that Hindus will bring about in human behaviour [ social and individual will be much different than what we have seen in Europe and North America.

parth said...

sir,i agree with Sri.Desai who has pin pointed the difference between India and Europe.It is verifiable from the point that Mugals ruled India but failed on all accounts to popularize by choice their morals and ethos. The simple reason being Hindu i enjoy my freedom from my birth.Freedom not by default but by full awareness of what meant by freedom. you can very well judge from the availability of wide range of puja practice to eating.Now we have to fear only the lack of this knowledge/information of freedom by our youngsters.

RS said...

It was rather illuminating reading your article. I’m all for the “implicit dilution of ‘Nehruvian’ social assumptions” – what you characterize as the “New Conservatism” . But to me, unfortunately it seems largely restricted to cultural conservatism, there is little intellectual ferment or contemplation happening on economic conservatism in India . This is quite the converse of the US / UK , where there is a thriving economic right. In the Republican debate in the US - it was rather impressive how all Republican candidates talked of limited govt, low taxes and fiscal prudence.


Also as I know few of the “new right” people in places like Ahmedabad etc, I would say they are strictly not social conservatives. I don’t know the vast majority of the new right in say Haryana etc, so cannot say about their stance on social mores.



On the question of economic right . In places like UP and Bihar , where there is a little tradition of private enterprise, it may well be that these “new right” youth may still want govt jobs and more govt intervention with a distaste for private enterprise echoing Nehru's sentiment of hanging traders from the nearest lamp post. You probably know the pejorative for profit in the Hindi heartland is 'munafakhori'. Arvind Kejriwal is the arch type leader from the Hindi belt, always ranting against private contractors, and its implicit munafakhori :) ☺.


So my sense is social , cultural and economic conservatism are not necessarily coterminous in India

RS said...

It was rather illuminating reading your article. I’m all for the “implicit dilution of ‘Nehruvian’ social assumptions” – what you characterize as the “New Conservatism” . But to me, unfortunately it seems largely restricted to cultural conservatism, there is little intellectual ferment or contemplation happening on economic conservatism in India . This is quite the converse of the US / UK , where there is a thriving economic right. In the Republican debate in the US - it was rather impressive how all Republican candidates talked of limited govt, low taxes and fiscal prudence.


Also as I know few of the “new right” people in places like Ahmedabad etc, I would say they are strictly not social conservatives. I don’t know the vast majority of the new right in say Haryana etc, so cannot say about their stance on social mores.



On the question of economic right . In places like UP and Bihar , where there is a little tradition of private enterprise, it may well be that these “new right” youth may still want govt jobs and more govt intervention with a distaste for private enterprise echoing Nehru's sentiment of hanging traders from the nearest lamp post. You probably know the pejorative for profit in the Hindi heartland is 'munafakhori'. Arvind Kejriwal is the arch type leader from the Hindi belt, always ranting against private contractors, and its implicit munafakhori :) ?.


So my sense is social , cultural and economic conservatism are not necessarily coterminous in India