What Does It Mean To Be Indian? S N Balagangadhara and Sarika Rao. Notion Press. 2021. Pages 214. Rs 349.
This is the fourth and final part of Swarajya’s conversation with S N Balagangadhara.
Q: You make a statement that there is intellectual poverty in already Islamised regions on the Indian sub-continent, in places like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir. Why do you say this?
A. I say this because it is visible, isn’t it? These regions have not produced any great intellectuals in the last centuries and the environment in these regions is hostile to intellectual development. While people of Pakistan and Bangladesh do flourish and grow when they go to study in other countries, there are no noticeable native intellectuals in these regions.
In fact, India is heading in the same direction: we don’t have intellectuals and we are not creating them. Irrespective of whether the decline will take the form of economic poverty or not, if things don’t change, the intellectual poverty in India will reach the same level as Pakistan or Bangladesh. For instance, if things in education (both secondary and higher) do not drastically change in the next 15 years, the educational landscape in India will soon resemble that of Black Africa in the 1930s. We simply do have less and less competent teachers in our educational landscape.
Take the example of the reaction of most Indian intellectuals to the movie The Kashmir Files and the massive response of ordinary people. If the first aspect demonstrates anything, it lays bare the absolute barrenness of Indian intellectual landscape. I have not read a single reflection or review that even minimally tries to understand what people are responding to when they respond to the movie. Like everything else, this too is another occasion for moralising lectures about communalism, posturing against the imputed hatred the movie apparently propagates combined with expressions of pseudo-horror about an allegedly partial portrayal.
Very few things can move the entire population like this movie did and I am still thinking about it. And perhaps will also write on the movie. Tragedies or violence are not new, especially when they are in the news every day. So, it cannot be that the overwhelming response of people had only to do with the horrors faced by the Pandits in Kashmir or the treachery of our ruling classes (politicians, intellectuals, and media). Shortly after the movie came out, I saw it in Belgium, I remember telling my daughter that this movie would enter the national consciousness of India.
I have a feeling that one of the reasons why this movie has had the kind of impact it has is because it addresses our deeply held intuitions about our culture regarding knowledge, Saraswati, learning and the destructions wrought on it. One of the horrors we experience is to the rape of “Kashimra Puravasini” there and to her becoming a total alien in her hometown. (One of the first shlokas we learn as very young children goes thus: Namaste Sharade Devi, Kashimrapuravasini…)
Q: Religion expands in two ways: through conversions, and then later by expanding the same ideas through a secularisation of theology. Christianity expands by de-Christianising its format… And this secularisation is brought about by violence. Religion, whether it remains religion of gets secularised, is about “othering” someone or something… Is this what you are trying to say?
A. I don’t speak of ‘othering’. It is a jargon which doesn’t explain anything. To treat someone as ‘the other’ might be bad if they are the same as you and you don’t treat them that way. For example, if one is a Christian, and Christianity says, “we are all children of god”, to treat some people as the ‘other’ might be wrong. But if someone is different from you, your refusal to see and acknowledge that difference is wrong, isn’t it?
In fact, I say that when the West looks at other cultures, it does not see them as ‘the other’. It sees and thus transforms them into a pale erring variant of itself. The other becomes another.
I do not say that Judaism and Christianity also secularise themselves through violence. The emphasis on secularising violence seems truer of Islam. The Semitic religions see ‘Hinduism’ as another religion: false, to boot, but a religion, nevertheless. They see each other as the ‘other’, ie, as deficient, or defective religions (or heresies).
Q: You broadly seem to suggest that colonialism seems to have made us strangers to our own access to culture, and also that we simply have not made enough efforts to understand Western culture. Thus, we don’t know how we must respond to colonial ideas when they come back to bite us without our knowledge of it. We say and speak words that display our colonial consciousness. If Western efforts to understand us through their lenses did not bring us much good, why is the reverse process, of our understanding Western culture, going to do us much good? Should we not focus on understanding ourselves first?
A. Today, the ways and means that we possess to understand ourselves, the intellectual frameworks, the concepts, the interconnections between them, the social scientific theories are all entirely built by Europeans. I have shown in my work that they are based much more on their experience of the world than on how the world is. There are any number of examples: the idea that ‘all cultures have religion’; the idea of a ‘unique self (soul) which all human beings have’; the notion that ‘the caste system characterises Indian society,’ etc.
So, if we must understand ourselves, we must study the Europeans in very concrete ways. Of course, we will study and understand them as Indians. That is precisely the point. To recognise, first and foremost, that there are cultural differences between us. We must study these to understand the theories we have about human beings. To understand what we say about ourselves when we claim that we too have a religion or pontificate that one must be true to oneself, and that the caste system must be eradicated, we must study the West.
We must understand the intellectual frameworks and their implications to understand our laws and to learn how to make laws which don’t make a travesty of everything good and just. To understand ourselves, we must understand western culture. Whether we like it or not, colonialism happened, and colonial consciousness exists. The question is how we can get out of it and regain access to our experience. My research programme, “Comparative Science of Cultures”, formulates one way of doing it. We cannot return to a pristine past of pre-colonialism. The question facing us today is ‘what does it mean to be Indian in the 21st century?’
To know more about the methodology of this approach, which the question raises, the second and third chapter in ‘Reconceptualizing India Studies’ might help. They explicate my answers and their justifications.
Q: In a country where “freedom of religion” is written into the constitution, how do we defend Indian/Hindu rights if you do not even define it as a religion? How can law-makers even begin to understand the difference between religion and tradition, or the need to protect “majority” rights that are not religious in nature?
A. This is one of the big problems in India. We have no investments in research and development in social sciences. (The UGC does massively fund ideological propaganda by calling it ‘funding social research’.) There are also no institutions (political, legal, educational, or even charitable) which are interested in stimulating novel social scientific research.
If Hinduism is not a religion and current legal frameworks are primarily structured by Semitic religions, how can non-religious traditions hope to have the protections of law? This is not just a question for ‘Hindus’, but one that is also of crucial importance to other traditions like the native American or African. What would the frameworks or even minimal formulation of law look like which is not Semitic in nature but one which makes space for traditions too?
To get an idea of enormity of the question: despite decades of experience and knowledge, even a group of gifted intellectuals will have to do four to five years of full-time research to begin answering this question. There have been barely any attempts by Hindus to try and understand themselves, their social and institutional world, and their implications. Even to this day, people think that it is a definitional problem or a semantic discussion. (‘According to us religion is…’ or ‘Abrahamic definition of religion is…’). Our Supreme Court routinely cites the US juridical definitions to decide about cases involving religious disputes in India.
So, to answer the question about how lawyers can understand and argue about the difference between religion and tradition, first, social scientists must develop at least the beginnings of an alternative legal framework, legal definitions, etc. Second, it is a collaborative research project with people who specialise in the comparative science of cultures, religion and constitutional law and Indian law. Third, out of such a long-term collaborative project, some tangible results like providing a skeletal legal framework for traditions which can be integrated into existing legal structures could emerge. Such a project does not exist.
Further, to understand our ‘laws’, we must look at who the ‘lawmakers’ are. Could it be seriously suggested that our current crop of MPs and MLAs even understand what they are legislating? Laws are written (the way the Indian Constitution got written) by third-rate bureaucrats in capital cities: neither they nor the ‘legislators’ know what they are doing.
Q: The need to defend Hindu rights (we don’t even get to run our own temples) have led to a political platform broadly called Hindutva, but social justice warriors want to pit Hinduism against Hindutva and there was even a global conference called to “dismantle Hindutva”. What should our reasoned stand on these issues be, if Hinduism is not even a religion?
A. Those defending Hindutva and those attacking it are both using the same intellectual framework. I have spoken of it in different places, including in “What does it mean to be ‘Indian’?” (Page 25). If Hinduism does not exist and India has no religion, what does it mean to speak of (Hindu) religious fundamentalism? How then do we understand the phenomenon of Hindutva? (See also my preface in Cultures Differ Differently.) None of the so-called India-scholars is raising these questions.
The conference you speak of was a marginal event, organised by academically fringe groups. But it gained wide-spread recognition because of the attention given to it by the people who got attacked by it. It surprises me that the so-called right-wing, in so far as it can be considered a coherent entity, has not realised that it now embodies and implements the PR strategy of these fringe ‘scholars’: bait ‘Hindutva’ if you want to gain academic approval and social recognition.
There are two problems in the way the question is asked: (1) One is that there is a “need to defend Hindu rights”which led to the political platform of Hindutva. Yet the ruling party, which is considered Hindutva, has gone much further than the Congress in the appeasement of minorities and instituting welfare schemes. (2) The suggestion is that “social justice warriors want to pit Hinduism against Hindutva”. But the Hindutva, whether in the form of civil organisations or as a political party, has completely bought into social justice ideology. (When people claim that the victory of the BJP in the recent elections is the result of a “pro-poor” policy of the government, or that BJP wants to win the elections to promote ‘socially just’ policies, one is enthusiastically espousing social justice slogans. Such people are also the real social justice warriors in India.)
The growth of social justice ideology and its conflation with political correctness is relatively new in the West. But the poisonous combination of identity politics, social justice and political correctness has existed in India for decades. The reservation system which has ballooned out-of-control, the atrocities act, etc, are expressions of social justice ideology promoted and encouraged also by the current ruling party. Hindutva is doing more to promote ‘social justice’ warriors than Congress and its allies ever did. And yet, academic fringe groups sell the idea (which the Right strengthens) that there is ‘caste atrocity’ and ‘minority insecurity’in India under the BJP, while the current ruling party is the best defender and protector of the so-called ‘Dalits’ and ‘minority religious groups’.
It might be interesting to note that the notion of ‘social justice’ is of Christian (Roman Catholic) origin, best formulated by their Pope in the twentieth century.Without a Christian framework within which to understand and endorse it, the entire ‘social justice’ idea dissolves into incoherence.Leo Shields, commissioned as a Lieutenant in the US army and dies fighting in France in 1945, received a doctorate from the University of Notre Dame in 1941 for his dissertation on “The History and Meaning of the Term Social Justice”. There, he summarises it as follows:
“The … message of social justice is written in sharp relief against…(the) background of individualist thought in all its forms — romantic, rationalistic, humanitarian, totalitarian. It is the key to the reintegration of social life that must be inspired by Christian faith and charity and supported by grace. But it is a key which even this pagan society can turn if it is shown how. The realization of the idea of social justice is the unity of social peace.”
(I have written on this issue: see the article“ Caste-based reservation and ‘social justice’ in India”. It is published in the book Western Foundations of the Caste System, 2017, and is also available on my academia.edu page.)
The current ruling party bends over backwards to appease ‘oppressed’ groups because it has bought into the image sold by others that it is a ‘religious fundamentalist party’ or that it is a ‘majoritarian party’ and that it would be against ‘social justice’ to do otherwise, etc. I do not think that the BJP (and the Sangh Parivar) are religious fundamentalists. This way of characterising and demonising them is the favourite pastime of the intellectually weak. But the BJP buys into its hook, line and sinker and is constantly busy ‘defending’ itself from these pseudo-attacks.
Q: Islam has 200 million adherents in India, and Christianity is expanding fast through conversions in many states. There are non-Hindu majorities in seven states/Union Territories, and even states like Kerala may soon have fewer than 50 per cent who call themselves Hindu (it is 54 per cent now, but in 20 years, it could fall below 50 per cent). How do we apply your theories and postulates to defend the ideas that are truly Indian, especially when radical Islam and Evangelical Christianity are seeking to differentiate and dissociate from Indian cultural ethos, aided by global social justice warriors?
A. I have spoken about how religion spreads in two ways: secularisations and proselytisation. Secularisation is more dangerous of the two. Strangely, Indians are more worried about proselytisation than they are about secularisation, which spreads Christian ideas in a dechristianised form. Indian culture was not threatened by these religions, and it was able to deal with their proselytising drive. It did so without persecuting them or banning them. A vibrant Indian culture can handle religion in such a way that religion itself changes to adapt itself into the non-religious environment it finds itself in.
But the impact of colonialism, the enduring colonial consciousness and secularisation of religious ideas have consistently reduced the vibrancy of our culture. Post-Independence has seen an acceleration of this loss-of-vibrancy. The process of secularisation transforms ‘the other’, in our case the Indian traditions, into pale and erring variants of religion. We Indians swallow this silly idea hook, line, and sinker. One of the reasons why Indian culture is losing its vibrancy is because we are busy transforming it into something it is not. We are unable to transmit the culture we received from our ancestors to posterity because we have taken over the language and framework of the West (from Indology and other social sciences).
It is not a question of practical problems like how to argue in a court of law, but a question of how you look at yourself, your life, and your experiences. What is breathtaking is the combination of ignorance and complacency of Indians. We don’t understand English, but we are certain that we are experts there. We very easily pick up words and sentences and use them without any reflection or self-reflection and even write on our ‘experiments with truth’. We don’t ask if those words make sense of our experience. This did not create huge problems to the generation that grew up in the 1950s because they were schooled in regional languages and used English in addition to it. But that is no longer the case; it has progressively become worse with every generation. Thus, we have today’s generation which only learns English (that too badly) and as a result cannot speak, think, or write coherently in any language. Not in English and not in any regional language.
Regional languages have provided protection against colonial consciousness. I often tell my Indian students to think in their native languages, as though they are speaking to their grandmothers. The result is striking: the amount of nonsense that comes out of their mouth gets reduced drastically. It is much harder to speak in slogans, jargon and produce verbiage if you must explain it in Kannada or Marathi to your grandmother. Then you are forced to interrogate what you are saying. You are forced to think. (You cannot explain to your grandmother what ‘coloniality’or ‘decoloniality’ is even if someone has coined a regional language word to translate these words.) But unfortunately, regional languages are on the decline. The millennials were already severely handicapped and now their children will be even more stunted: incoherent, confused, and unhappy personalities who speak broken English with pseudo-American accents.
We can improve this sorry situationby promoting regional languages in India. One way to do it would be tocombinethe strengths of the twentieth century with the strengths of our culture (its orality) by creating and promoting audiobooks of some of the great literature written in Indian regional languages.
Because the millennial and post-millennial generations cannot read or write in regional languages, they have a very limited access to language and culture. The scope of their language is limited to conversations with friends and TV series. Without access to the richness of ideas through language, they have no way of evolving. So, they lose access to one of the most important resources of a culture: its literature, art, and ideas. And without these resources, they cannot aspire to become anything more than two-dimensional uncultured boors. Therefore, by making the literature in regional languages available as audiobooks, we can partially restore their access to regional languages and thus to Indian culture and ideas.
What I hope will happen in India is that a generation will come which can look at the ravages wrought by colonialism and the post-independence institutions and start dismantling the useless and dangerous structures and start building anew. They will have to be intellectuals and builders, formed and shaped by the consequences of the current generation’s failures. Perhaps the grandchildren of the millennials. They will need intellectual tools and frameworks. It is for that posterity that I write.
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