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