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Is Hindutva The Indian Left’s ’Other’?


Thursday 15 January 2004, by MALHOTRA*Rajiv

Article paru dans Outlook India, édition en ligne du jeudi 15 janvier 2004.

Why does the Left fail to answer questions about its first principles without resorting to the Hindutva ’Other’ for its own self-definition? Third piece in the on-going debate.

For the on-going debate, please see the RHS bar under Also See Vijay Prashad’s note [Fundamental Issues] hereinafter "VPN", simply fails to address the bulk of the issues I had raised in my first piece [A Dialogue With The Indian Left]. It diverts from the issues using a combination of three methods:

(A) VPN is filled with name-dropping of works by third parties (over 25 names). It’s okay to give specific quotes and thereby let an author’s words speak directly. But sending each other our respective bibliographies does not address an issue, and would only be suitable for some "Name That Quote" type of game.

(B) Vijay slips into the common weakness of defending the citadel , through irrelevant praise for peers and for the system that sustains them. Here, I raise the issue of the role of power in institutionalized South Asian Studies. Especially since VPN criticizes "the American Empire" as the world’s top culprit today, I wish to ask Vijay how US institutional funding of South Asian Studies compares to the East India Company’s control over Indology and the way the colonial/imperial masters used power (combining funding, symbolic credibility, and positional authority) to produce Orientalism.

If Vijay disagrees with this comparison, on what basis does he claim that American imperialism (to use his own expression) is less prejudiced than British imperialism was? In other words, he should shoulder the burden to prove that American power is not mixed up in the intellectual discourse about others. This will pose tricky choices for Vijay, between

(i) freedom of critical inquiry claimed by the academician-activist on the one hand (important for his credibility), and

(ii) the academician-activist’s career considerations (which are enmeshed in what VPN alleges to be "American imperialism") on the other.

How do many of today’s desi South Asianists really differ from what became known as the Brown Sahibs in 19th century Bengal? The role of power in discourse simply cannot be ignored. One has to track the funding flows beginning in the Cold War era to the present from western governments, churches, corporate foundations into the construction of South Asianism today.

(C) VPN brings in standard third party "culprits" as diversions, even though the given conceptual issues are independent of any individuals. There seems to be an initiation ceremony required these days, a sort of agni pariksha to prove oneself free of "fascism", "Nazism", "chauvinism", "fundamentalism", and a whole litany of branded terms. Leftist discourse these days has become too often reduced to bumper-stickers attacking some standard list of Hindutva - Arun Shourie, Elst, Savarkar, Frawley, BJP, etc. - with the Hindutva fans pouncing back to counter-attack in equally naïve ways, and, meanwhile, the real issues get side-tracked.

But since I have no reason to defend Hindutva leaders or ideology, we cannot get diverted in this manner. The question this raises, especially in light of item B above is: Is Hindutva the Indian Left’s "other"? Why does the Left fail to answer questions about its first principles without resorting to the Hindutva other for its own self-definition?

I agree with VPN that: "This is a good opportunity to fight over our first principles and our methods of analysis" (emphasis supplied). However, "first principles" and "methods of analysis" are not being dealt with in most of VPN. Using prestigious writers’ names as proxies makes his positions second principles, not first. Defending the citadel (of "American imperialism’s" study of others) to fortify his positions makes them third principles. Finally, using the Hindutva other to define/defend his positions makes them fourth principles. To be first principles, he must get rid of the three intellectual crutches mentioned here.

A. The Left And Right As Categories

VPN rightly rejects the idea of the left as a universal. But then he goes on to use "Left" (with a capital "L") many times to represent himself. Frankly, I have no problem either way, as I am more interested in issues and where someone stands.

But VPN simply ignores my interrogation of whether the left/right are appropriate categories for the understanding of India. I mentioned Liberation Theology and Gandhi as examples that do not fit this schema. By simply saying that there are many lefts, VPN does not remove this fundamental question about categories from the discussion table. Yes, there are many lefts, so Vijay should clearly articulate and differentiate the one he subscribes to and deal with the issue: why is left/right the best lens to interpret India?

B. History-Centrism

VPN simply ignores my very specific thesis about History-Centrism

A religion based primarily on a unique Historical Event (typically involving a unique Prophet) is History-Centric, because History turns into a form of social capital controlled by the institution. Abrahamic religions tend to have a core of literalist dogma that is their proprietary and non-negotiable History of God’s interventions. This form of social capital is extremely powerful in sustaining the authority and credibility of certain institutions and groups. Absolute History becomes the main property of the institution, which derives its power by interpreting it, and by having the exclusive franchise to preach/distribute it, and it does this in the name of protecting and propagating God’s Truth. Any challenge to the official account of History is seen a threat that would dilute or undermine the institutional authority. Hence, History fuels fundamentalism and conflicts.

I thought this insight from me would be a great opening for the Left, especially since I take the position in my aforementioned essay that Hindutva is attempting to turn Hinduism into a History-Centric religion: with Ram akin to Jesus and Ayodhya akin to Jerusalem, etc. Hinduism has not in the past been History-Centric for its most part, and hence has remained pliable and accommodative, easily "negotiable." My History-Centrism based critique of Hindutva is an internal critique from a solid Hindu perspective. It is one of my main reasons for not being a supporter of Hindutva.

Furthermore, when seen as non History-Centric, the legitimacy of Hinduism is not contingent upon "revising" or "correcting" any account of history. History, therefore, assumes a different significance, and God is either left out of it, or else is omnipresent so that no event is a unique intervention. The study of history becomes mainly for general interest and for deeper insights. But it ceases to be a necessary condition for the legitimacy of Hindu epistemological claims. This alone could de-intensify much of the Left vs. Hindutva tension today, which in my opinion does not deal with core issues.

History-Centrism needs to be included in the taxonomy for studying religions. It is an important factor in making religion normative and rigid. All the problems with Grand Narratives that are found in postmodern critiques get amplified one hundred-fold when God is the GN’s central protagonist, and especially when this is to be God’s only appearance, or the most authentic appearance recorded, or the final one.

So, frankly, I was disappointed that VPN failed to take note of my thesis. I consider this to be a solid plank for Liberation Hinduism along the lines of Liberation Theology from the Catholics - an approach that the Indian Left ought to embrace.

VPN states: "We always maintain a clear distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva." Vijay might want to become clearer on what his philosophical distinctions between these two are, so we may compare our thoughts. I would suggest that he would find the issue of History-Centrism to be very useful in this. On the other hand, the rhetoric about "pogroms," etc. is political, worn out, challenged by counter-claims, and ignores the underlying epistemological ideas concerning the very nature of Hinduism.

C. Teleology And ’Progress’

VPN states: "There is neither a singular "Left" nor is there one ‘Marxist Grand Narrative.’" While there may be multiple Marxist GNs, my point still holds: Each Marxist GN has some teleological trajectories that every society is supposed to follow. These tend to be linear theories of History, very much like in the Abrahamic religions. From-Evil-to-Good gets replaced with secular "progress" as the linear trajectory that must apply to all societies. VPN’s statement that there are several versions of the Marxist GN merely makes the issue more complex.

In particular, I had raised the issue of whether "progress" must be discontinuous, as "revolutions" imply, or whether it can be adaptive, as was usually the case in India’s past. This is important. "Progressives" (a self-description by the Indian Left) often assume that moving forward requires denigrating the past. This is why anyone suspected of re-visiting India’s past with appreciation (especially if it is about the pre-Islamic period) is instantly branded a "chauvinist," presumably for fear that the case for continuous progress would undermine the revolution for discontinuous progress. Because only one kind of possible progress is allowed by the Left, those who oppose their revolution must, by inference, be accused of going back in time to some idealized past. I submit that the multiplicity of Indic models of progress must be examined critically. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has done this. There is no monopoly on the meaning of progress.

Furthermore, I suggest that this notion of discontinuity is borrowed from the Abrahamic religions. Being History-Centric, Abrahamic religions relied on a new Revelation to replace the previous Truth. This had to be discontinuous and abrupt. The old view had to be rejected, books burnt, the old practitioners demonized as witches, pagans, kafirs, whatever. There was no way to simply let them remain and live alongside with respect into the new system of belief. This, I claim, is the result of absolutist Religious Grand Narratives of History.

Marxism, as a non-theistic form of Abrahamism, generated Grand Narratives - whether Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism or Maoism varieties - energized by a call for an Apocalypse to bring about an idealized city with an ideal human citizen. To implement these Grand Narratives, Stalinist, Maoist and Pol Potist pogroms by the Communist state murdered millions in the name of cleansing society of its past traditions and culture. The need for such destruction is repeatedly articulated in terms of the need for struggle and fight, and this feeds the Left’s frenzy to identify conflicts and target the evil others.

As a less troubling way of understanding the impact of history-centrism, let’s think of software for an analogy: A new release comes out, but many consumers continue using prior releases. In fact, the new release might explicitly allow for old releases to function alongside. This is the Indic way of change. Old and new co-exist without discontinuity, because there is no "One True Canon From God" with fresh covenants ordering the replacement (destruction) of the software and old user manuals.

Now consider an entirely different kind of policy from God (as owner of the rules/software): Each new release mandates that everyone must convert to it, that old releases must get destroyed, and that whatever useful stuff there might have been in the old releases is understood to have already been incorporated into the new release by the developers (who control the intellectual property).

This latter way is how the Abrahamic changes have been:

(i) Release 1 said there was Adam/Eve’s Original Sin that caused Eternal Damnation upon all humans thereafter.

(ii) Release 2 gave the Jews a special escape clause for Salvation, because they were "chosen" by God. Note that Release 1’s narrative got subsumed in Release 2 and ceased to have its stand-alone legitimacy.

(iii) Release 3 came when God wanted to extend his offer to "save" everyone (from Eternal Damnation) and sent his only son (hence it cannot happen ever again) - i.e. Christianity was installed.

(iv) Release 4 came when God realized that humans messed up the old releases (i.e. too many viruses got in), so he sent Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) to install the latest and final release. Being final makes it impossible to change without calling God incompetent, and that would be blasphemy. Hence, Islam has remained stuck in a literalist interpretation of Koran (God’s latest and final release).

The Ahmeddiyas (an Islamic sect) claim that their 19th century leader was a new prophet of Islam, who brought a new release of God’s software to operate human society. In this new release’s interpretation of History, Hindu texts such as Vedas are considered as valid old releases that must be respected even though they are not the latest, and he also specifically stated that Ram was a genuine prophet of God. The Ahmeddiya sect is illegal in Pakistan, and every Ahmeddiya must have a stamp on his/her Pakistani passport saying that "this person is not a Muslim." For an Ahmeddiya to call himself/herself a Muslim is a criminal offense in Pakistan. Such is the power of History-Centrism. Every Islamic State in the world has its own official History-Centrism that becomes the basis for State Law.

Hinduism does not work this way. Vedas were followed by Upanishads, later by many darshanas of various worldviews (debated over many centuries by thousands of persons), then later by Puranas, and then came Bhakti saints, etc. There were plenty of successful challenges from lower echelons, women, etc. - so activists please do not ignore this periodic internal reformation capability. That all these old releases from Hinduism’s past still survive and thrive today demonstrates continuity of change and the voluntary nature of upgrading to any new release. There has never been any central authority to mandate all Hindus to upgrade to the latest release. Hence, you find Hindus practicing all vintages of releases. Unfortunately, this has often been denigrated as the mark of primitiveness, when it deserves to be seen as the epitome of tolerance, religious freedom, and as the world’s pre-eminent on-going laboratory for creative new releases to emerge.

Recently, we saw Sri Aurobindo’s own very original theories, and there is a long list of entirely new 20th century exemplars who are not from within any institution. So it’s like a free-market of ideas. As in Silicon Valley, you can set up shop and the market will accept or reject. (BTW, this is why the Deepak Chopra phenomenon is better than the canonized fossilized "finality" approach of Abrahamism. This tradition of every generation having its own Deepak Chopras to choose from has its advantages over History-Centrism in terms of the flexibility it has provided the Hindus. The system does not allow any one-and-only or final Deepak Chopra.)

None of these changes replaced the prior releases, but simply added to the mix of ideas, symbols, practices, narratives - like downloadable shareware. So a given user may select whatever combination or custom configuration works for him/her, change it during his/her life without having to get approved by anyone, and leave others alone to do their individual thing. I claim that this flexibility would be impossible if Hinduism were History-Centric because there could be only one true account of History (especially involving God) and all others would have to be falsified.

Once you approach comparative religion in terms of History-Centrism or lack of it (which no teacher to the best of my knowledge does), it also becomes clear why Sufis and certain Hindu sects got along perfectly: these were non history-Centric individuals on both sides and their boundaries were blurred because History took the back-seat. My essay explains how the mystics of Abrahamic religions remained on the margins, while History-Centric institutions seized power.

This gives a new approach to interpreting religious conflict based on historical events, historical claims and historical holy sites - from the Middle East to India to various other places.

The entire Islamic conflict with the Ahmeddiyas is because the latter’s foundation rests on a Historical event that refutes the History-Centrism of mainstream Islam. Its one History-Centrism over another, as both could never be right.

But for a Shaivite to hold her faith, it makes no difference if someone else is a non-theistic practitioner of chakra meditation. Furthermore, neither of these faiths is devalued if yet others believe in some literal Grand Narrative of how God sent his daughter to a nearby village. Hindu Grand Narratives are too many to cause any one to try to erase all others, and they got intertwined over time to syncretise into fused narratives. The non-literal interpretation of narratives has always been available to Hindus (for instance, the adhyatmika Ramayana) and is often considered a "higher" level of understanding. All this makes Hinduism non History-Centric.

D. Multinational Religions And Grant-Making Foundations

My issue (avoided in VPN) was that Religious Multinationals (Vatican, Mormon Church, Presbyterian Church, various Pentacostals, etc.) deserve the same kinds of critiques which the Left has made for commercial MNCs. I asked for Vijay’s position, and his response in VPN was the following:

(1) VPN appreciates that I distinguish between religious individuals and religious institutions.

(2) But then, instead of tackling the issue of institutions that are globalized religious enterprises, VPN goes on to condemn Arun Shourie and other Hindutva people. That’s fine with me - Shourie and his group are of no relevance to me. But in this way, the topic got changed and the issue was ignored by VPN

(3) VPN confuses the issue in the remark: "The Left that I live within is not opposed to religion, but we tend to believe that religion must remain outside politics, that religion must not enter the matters of the state." But this was not the point. The issue has to do with the foreign religion nexus as in the case of the "imperialistic" MNCs.

(4) The closest VPN comes to dealing with the issue at hand is when it states: "The Vatican and the Evangelicals ruse of conversion is to be condemned, but their role in India is not as significant to me as their role in the US, for instance." But even here, VPN diverts from India to their "role in the US." My concern is two-fold: (i) I fail to understand why Evangelism’s impact is worse in the US where there is little native religion left (having succeeded in obliterating it through genocide) that they could still be destroying. (ii) In any case, this VPN claim hardly relates to the issue on India.

The issue of globalized religious MNCs is still on the table. The role of History-Centrism in institutionalizing religions into MNCs is central to this.

VPN also ignores my concerns about Ford Foundation type of MNCs on which this scholar-activist is today dependent for survival.

E. Academic/Activist Elitism

VPN also completely ignores my suggestion that the scholar-activist profession must be examined for its intellectual elitism.

For good reason, the elitist Brahmins’ control over Sanskrit (and hence over discourse and culture) has been criticized. But can Vijay show equivalent levels of criticism (especially from the Left) about the following kinds of elitism:

(i) the equivalent role of the elites who were well versed in Persian language during the Mughal period;

(ii) the dependence of today’s Indian Muslims on what the elite Arabic-knowing ulema say about both sacred and mundane matters, with little local freedom or autonomy in matters of interpretation;

(iii) the elitism in the Christian Churches in matters of interpretation;

(iv) the hegemony of the Russian language in the Soviet Union, despite the fact that Russians were a minority in most states in the federation;

(v) the dominance of Mandarin in China, that is systematically erasing the ethnicity of Tibetans and Muslims in Xingjian province;

(vi) the way Ivy League Literary Theory has today become the yard-stick to determine who gets certified and licensed to speak with adhikara (authority) in prestigious secular circles ; and

(vii) the role of English language in general, including the way Call Centers are breeding a new kind of elitism in India?

I stated in my note #1 that I would like to meet Indian leftists who are seriously working against elitism that runs across the board. Why are the seven issues in the above para being simply ignored? Let me now suggest a reason why.

Is it that selective moral indignation at native structures is an unconscious method by which desi elitists become more acceptable to the western academy , and therefore legitimizes (and, in fact, is a required behavior to prove their loyalty to the western establishment) their sneering at the natives down below? Therefore, when the very foundation on which this sneering gaze rests is called into question (as being elitist and collaborative with the establishment in the first place), it exposes the pretext of human rights activism. The contradiction inherent in the moral indignation becomes a blind spot, which is continually glossed over. Therefore, is this moral indignation a way for desi to become white?

F. Indian Classics/Traditions Positioning In The Academy

My interest is not in "cheerleading about the Indian past," as VPN puts it. I would like to see Indian Classics at par with Greek Classics in the academy, no more and no less - which knowledgeable scholars agree would be good for students, based strictly on the relative merits of Indian and Western Classics. This can be achieved only by introducing it into the Classics Department, and not leaving it in some Religion or South Asian Studies department.

This concern is the same as with locating Indian music as "ethnomusicology." Why is Mozart not classified as ethnomusicology? Reason: because European ethnicity is not called ethnicity. Ethnicity is the variance from Europeanism, and Europeanism is the universal relative to which others are ethnicized. This is blatant racism, but has not brought protest by the desi "progressive" scholars because they know which side their career bread is buttered.

Another example: Indian Philosophy is taught under Religion and not in mainstream Philosophy Departments, except in rare instances. (Arindam C at U of Hawaii, and Steve P at UT-Austin are the only ones I know of who regularly produce PhDs in Indian Philosophy from a major Philosophy Department. There might be a few other rare examples.) The significance is this: Philosophy in the core curriculum is meant to teach every American student how to think. It’s about universals that are not geography specific or ethnicity specific. That is "truth," and its originators and custodians are to be seen as western civilization exclusively. Hence, universals are depicted as almost exclusively Western thought based. So Indian philosophy is being taught in the context of trying to understand how "those people at the far end of the world" behave in peculiar ways. IP is not critiqued for its claims of universality at par with Greek thought, for instance, and is only of exotic or geopolitical relevance to study. This is why I consider South Asian Studies to suffer from a ghetto mentality in service of the establishment.

Furthermore, I claim that "religion" itself is a problematic category to understand dharmas of India. This difference between religion and dharma as categories is a critical subject we can get into some day later. But suffice it to say that the Marxist critique of religion is only about History-Centric Christianity, as that was all Marx knew. Indian Marxists have superimposed sociological "data" about India, but continue to be imprisoned by Eurocentric categories.

In particular, today’s common views of varna and jati are very narrow, and do not adequately describe Indian society. Jati is not caste, but became so under colonial rule (Dirks did a lot of good research on this). But more problematic is the distortion of varna, which has become the basis for the whole Dalit conflict. I read far too many works that seem to insist on frozen jati-varna (wherein a whole jati has the same varna, and, furthermore, this varna is said to be unchangeable). But this is an inaccurate picture. I hope Vijay’s students are given a more nuanced treatment than most South Asianized desis that I have come across on these matters.

I do not agree with VPN that Dipesh Chakrabarty’s "Provincializing Europe" is free from European lenses. The same also applies to Habib, Thapar, etc. They usually have sound data but they resort to their western-learned "theories" (see Guha’s statement quoted below) even while criticizing Europe. So it’s largely the west’s supervised self-criticism, in the same manner as Ronald Reagan used to get "roasted" on television, i.e. his friends and chamchas poking fun at him and even looking like they were criticizing him, but it was all a game and tried to show how open minded he was towards criticism.

Regarding the history of Indian science, none of the scholars named in VPN is in the same league as Joseph Needham - this one may please ask Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, who is from the old Indian left and has been the editor of the massive project on the History of Indian Science. Even his project, widely regarded as the most ambitious, falls short as it has wandered into philosophy more than science. As Guha remarks, we have too many scholars who claim to be experts but in fact are "writing essays based on books ordered from the library."

G. Contemporary Historiography

I am glad we both agree on the principle that revisions to history are important, in light of new research, but are to be avoided for political purposes or if they are based on sloppy work. This raises two issues.

If the American Empire (VPN’s term) has replaced the British Empire, on what basis is Vijay confident that the same imperialistic biases are not present today? This must be taken in context of the projection of power upon South Asian Studies. Who controls the leading journals, the funding, the chairs, the powerful think tanks, the conferences about South Asian Studies - its all western institutions, indeed. How sure is Vijay that he and other desi scholars have managed to avoid the conflicts-of-interest inherent in this mechanism?

H. Hinduism Studies

VPN states: "South Asian Studies is no longer the adjunct of colonialism, or of the newly aggressive US Empire. It is also no longer staffed with former missionaries..."

Regarding the absence of colonialism, Vijay must rethink in light of his "American Empire" thesis and the points I already made. The second statement, that former missionaries are gone, is also false. Hinduism Studies is filled with not only former missionaries but actively practicing missionaries. Go to RISA (Religion In South Asia) events and you will find out.

A prominent example is John Carman, who recently retired from Harvard where he headed Hinduism Studies, and who is regarded amongst the most important authorities in academic Hinduism Studies. After retirement, he has returned to his family’s mission - his family is third-generation Christian missionaries in India.

Furthermore, the vast majority of candidates entering the secular institutions for PhDs got their BA or MA from Christian seminaries, so this indicates the mindset flowing into the pipeline of secular religious studies. Less than 20% of RISA members have a public Hindu identity, although this does not at all imply that non-Hindus are bad scholars. It merely hints at the gaze built into their subconscious minds, unknown to them. The Princeton Theological Seminary has a massive Hinduism library, and its budget for its missionaries-in-training is larger than any Indian university I know of.

There is nothing wrong with others studying our traditions. The problem lies with our refusal to study our own traditions objectively, and, furthermore, with our unwillingness to study the other through our lens with the same rigor as they study us with theirs. India’s (failed) experiment with the Left has much to do with this intellectual state of affairs.

Tragically, most India-trained scholars in the English language academy know very little about Hinduism because they threw out the study of Sanskrit from the top Indian liberal arts colleges, on the grounds of it being primitive or even abusive - a misunderstanding about secularism. (Look at the politics over Sanskrit at JNU, as one example.) So the talent pool in this field is largely western-trained. When Indian academicians want an authority on Hinduism, they usually have to go to a western scholar. (Arindam C, once narrated at a meeting how he was sitting in some discussion on Hinduism in India. To resolve a deadlock on definitions of Indic categories, it was suggested that they should call Chicago to get the answer! Outlook magazine reported a Supreme Court decision in which the Court quoted from Encyclopedia Britannica to get its definition of Hinduism. This should not surprise us, given that in Indian courts, until recently, judges wore British wigs even in hot humid weather just to look as English as possible!)

Ironically, post-colonialists can do a sound criticism of Eurocentrism only in terms of Eurocentric categories, as they rarely if ever know Indic categories first hand. What desi postcolonialists know of Hinduism is indirectly via foreign eyes, except for its empirical sociological problems.

To redress this problem of academic Religious Studies being banished from India, Ashis Nandy and various other eminent Indian scholars have supported a recent initiative and jumped into the fray. Infinity Foundation funded a major world conference on religious studies last month at India International Center, Delhi, conducted by CSDS, with over 400 attendees. Since I am already involved in many public debates on Religious Studies, I will not say more on this here, except that many revisions to the methods and theories have already taken place as a result of this engagement, and that the visible changes so far are merely the tip of the iceberg.

VPN is incorrect in describing Yvette Rosser’s article posted at the Mandala site as a "paper for the Infinity Foundation." It was a re-posting of a chapter that she did as part of her PhD dissertation (which deals with South Asian education) completed last year. But on the bigger issue of whether there is false stereotyping, VPN’s denial is the common first reaction when this matter is first brought to most desis’ attention. This is why systematic studies of curricula and textbooks are required, which we have started.

D. Patriotism

I am glad to read that: "Sovereign nation-states are a potential bulwark against the depredations of trans-national corporations. These nation-states are also theoretically accountable to the people, and are therefore the horizon of our democratic aspirations, namely our rights. So there is no presumption toward Balkhanization among all tendencies of the Left."

However, while this patriotism may be the case with Vijay, my next column in the pipeline (exact date of posting not yet known) gives a strong criticism of scholar-activists who potentially undermine India’s integrity.

My own patriotism is of a defensive kind to protect oneself and not at all of an offensive or expansionist kind. India has never had expansionist worldviews. (It’s a dual patriotism, as I am also a patriotic American citizen and believe in the future positive role of USA globally, especially as its demographics and culture become more global.)

Regarding India’s internal social structure, I want to revisit the jati structure, seen as a network of cultures that were in constant renegotiation with one another. This is a very sophisticated structure, with no central authority, no court that enforced Manusmriti (for instance), and yet it managed to evolve and survive for millennia. Unfortunately, and the Left deserves some of the blame for this, the political rhetoric of "caste abuse" has overshadowed any genuine inquiry into this aspect of history. There has been a backward projection of today’s problems as a lens to see the past. But India’s past society cannot be compared with the modern west, and must be compared with its contemporaneous western equivalents - which included genocides, witch-hunts, slavery, feudalism, etc. I have not yet undertaken this investigation to the extent required, and, in the meantime, I am unwilling to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The Indian Left has constantly focused on India’s negatives and downplayed that despite being left pauperized by two kinds of imperialisms over a millennia, India has managed to feed its people - even granting that many are still hungry on a given day - and peaceful. It achieved all this without the massive purges or bloodshed like in China or Russia, or even the brutalities of Pakistan or Bangladesh. The Indian Left also ignores that its freedom to criticize is a birthright not available to most other third world countries, despite the struggles of the poor and marginalized in those places. Even in China, what rights do the workers have relative to the Indian workers?

Regarding VPN’s position on the selling off of India’s public sector, most informed observers know how poorly they were run, and how poorly the workers in them worked. They were a drain on the people’s money. A small group of middle-class and some working-class elite were living off these unproductive ventures. At the same time, the methods of disinvestment could have been better for the masses. I lived in Eastern Europe during the transition from Communism to free-markets, and have first-hand details of how the states divested in ways that were much better than in India from the common citizen’s perspective.

Regarding VPN’s warning of water belonging to the masses being sold to a corporation in Chattisgarh, I agree with VPN, and I have an essay in draft on "water versus cars," in which I argue that a water system is far more critical to India than the car culture, given its density of population, non-availability of energy, etc.

Agreeing with VPN, I don’t like the India shines or the India stinks essentializing. But my model goes further and also rejects left/right as categories.

K. State of South Asian Studies

I have planned several essays and columns to analyze the field of South Asian Studies. But for now, I shall merely quote extensively on this matter from Ramachandra Guha’s excellent article, "The Ones who stayed behind," [EPW Perspectives, March 22-29, 2003]:

"Since the 1980s, however, there has arisen a parallel discourse on South Asia. This is conducted in North American journals. The actors may be mostly of South Asian origin, and the subjects may nominally be South Asian. But the place of publication and, more importantly, the style of analysis and presentation are driven by the preoccupations of the American academy . Thus, in 2003, one can speak meaningfully of two quite distinct discourses: one conducted within India, one conducted outside but apparently on India. These discourses have different inflections, different theoretical orientations, different purposes. Also, for the most part, different and largely overlapping casts of characters...The separation of the two discourses comes home most powerfully when one reads dissertations produced in America, which often tend to be ignorant of relevant Indian literature in the field, while quoting to excess works of social theory which seem to have little bearing on the dissertation’s themes ."

Guha writes that for scholars based in America, "India is merely a resource on the road to scholarly advancement," and complains that they are quite likely to be driven by intellectual fashion.

He illustrates:

"At least two Indian historians of my acquaintance have abandoned empirical research after moving to permanent jobs in US universities. They each wrote a fine work of social history, based on research in a dozen different archives. They have now taken to writing essays based on books ordered from the library. These essays are supposed to be exercises in ‘theory’. For the most part, however, they are merely extended literature reviews, parasitic assessments of other people’s works according to the winds of theoretical fashion and the canons of political correctness ."

Guha explains the significance of this divide:

"As for the aspiring scholar, he or she has to very quickly decide where his or her primary audience must lie. For the two discourses are driven by very different agendas. One is responding to the history and social debates of the sub-continent, the other to debates current in the American academy...The point cannot be over-stressed: that one discourse is located firmly in the cultural and political milieu of the sub-continent, whereas the other discourse is deliberately distancing itself from that milieu ."

But Guha’s biggest complaint seems to be that Indian-American scholars are falsely being seen as authentic Indian voices:

"In the eyes of their American colleagues, the diasporic scholar has come to ‘represent’ India much as the Vietnamese or Ukrainian émigré represents Vietnam or the Ukraine. Some crucial distinctions are thereby overlooked: namely, that unlike Vietnam and Ukraine and many other countries whose former nationals now work in the American academy, India is (for the most part) an open society with a functioning democracy, and that unlike those other countries India has an old and still active tradition of intellectual enquiry ."

Unfortunately, as Guha claims, the two competing discourses about India are unequal in resources:

"The Indian journals can be read by those in the west who are interested. However, the prohibitive cost of foreign journals means that, at least outside Delhi, no Indian student can get to read them."


I now request Vijay to specifically provide his reasoned persuasive arguments to the issues I have raised, and not simply give referential and reverential bibliographies. I hope we are here to discuss conceptual issues that have caused a deadlock in the discourse about India, and not the latest sensational news about episodes or bad guys.

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