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A Dialogue With The Indian Left


Friday 16 January 2004, by MALHOTRA*Rajiv

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

It began with an e-mail sent out to various individuals who define themselves as Indian Leftists requesting a ’samvad’. Text of the e-mail that has led to ’serious exchanges on important issues, but without ad hominems ... in the spirit of the purva-paksha tradition of debate, i.e. to discover the truth, and not to ’win’.’

For the on-going debate, please see the RHS bar under Also See I would like to present some ideas, such as the following, that are part of my personal on-going thought process. Please note that I approach this out of my personal intellectual interest only, that I believe in making models and testing them as working hypotheses, and that I adopt the scientific and business philosophy of improving the models continually based on experience and better data. So there is nothing "final" in these perspectives, and they are more like topics to trigger conversations:

1. Left/Right Categories

I start by asking why "left" and "right" often seem to be positioned as mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories in the case of India, and why various hybrids and entirely new frameworks are not appearing. Liberation Theology, as developed by Catholics in Latin America, is an example of a hybrid. Gandhi’s use of Hinduism combined with contemporary social ideas is an important lead in this direction. In the latest issue of the leftist publication, In These Times, there is an article titled, A Merry Marxy Christmas, about how several Marxists are going back to Christianity. . I have defined myself as a "non-Hindutva Hindu," and selectively accept ideas from all "sides" depending on the issue, and changed my mind often. Note that I am not demanding as precondition for dialogue that every leftist interlocutor must first prove that they are not interested in Stalinism or Maoism, that they disavow the totalitarian Communist states, that they disavow the Communists’ use of History as a political tool, etc. However, I do wonder why syncretism is not being encouraged by the left as a way forward.

2. History-Centrism

In a recent essay I have posited that religious conflict stems from historical fixations rather than ahistorical spirituality. When historically unique claims become necessary conditions for a religion’s survival, it gets boxed in. But the Indic notion of the past is more pliable and less literal, and Hinduism (except for certain denominations), Buddhism and Jainism do not DEPEND upon unique historical interventions by God, i.e. they are not History-Centric in the sense defined in my essay. Therefore, to what extent have the Abrahamic notions of God’s unique interventions in History become implicit in the way "history" and "religion" are viewed by secularists today? My thesis suggests that some Hindutva forces seek to turn Hinduism into a history-centric religion along the lines of Abrahamic religions (with Ram = Jesus, and Ayodhya = Jerusalem ), when, in fact, it is not. Traditional boundaries between denominations and entire faiths in India were not so rigid or permanent, because they were not constrained by history. Is history-centrism the culprit behind many conflicts? (BTW: I have not been interested in fights to build a temple in Ayodhya.)

3. Continuity/Discontinuity

Given the Abrahamic history-centrisms, change often consisted of destroying the old historical narrative and replacing with a new one. This led to discontinuous "advancements" in the west. Is the category "progressive" limited to discontinuous change, or would you be willing to consider "progress" to include advances that do not erase traditions, but that renegotiate and adapt? Historically, Indians made many advances of this kind of adaptive progress from within.

In other words, are pre-modern, modern and postmodern necessarily sequential, discontinuous and representative of "stages", or can there be other kinds of healthy societies, including those where all three coexist in parallel? The reason I ask this is that many Indian leftists seem determined to demand a thorough destruction of the old and rebuilding of an imagined new often guided by a teleology, while essentializing Hindus as perpetrators for all the current problems.

On the other hand, when leftists held power for extended periods in certain countries and attempted erasing their past heritage, their success was thin. Once their own teleologically-driven mission ran out of steam, the Russian Orthodox Church, Chinese Buddhism and Taoism, etc. bounced back with a vengeance. What lessons is India’s left learning from this? Was it useful to try to erase the past and to invent a new society? (I experienced first-hand the transitions of the former Soviet Block in the 1990s, because I spent considerable periods of time there.)

Furthermore, India’s rapid economic advancement today is coming from free international trade, and not from any discontinuous "progress" thrust upon its people. Does this recent success not invalidate Marx’ view that colonialism was good for India’s modernization, given that we now see proof that free Indians use free trade to modernize themselves much better and faster than under tutelage or hegemony? Is it time to formally revisit Marx’ perspectives on colonialism, especially since he had no hard data on India and relied solely upon colonialist renditions of history? (This issue does not mean that I support globalization wholeheartedly, as my position on it is rather complex and still forming.)

4. Foreign Institutional Control

Indians have always been assimilating foreign influences and incorporating them into Indian culture, while at the same time, also exporting Indian culture and thought. But one needs to distinguish between foreign individuals and foreign institutions, as agents of change in India . Syrian Christians came as individuals and not as official representatives of some Syrian king, and settled happily in Indian society without foreign allegiance. But Portuguese Christianity came centuries later as soldiers of Portugals rulers, in the same manner as the conquistadors went to America to bring glory to Spain through conquest. The two kinds of foreign influence (individual/institutional) are entirely different, as the institutions can be vehicles to project foreign power, but I am unsure if the left has appreciated this.

While being critical of commercial MNCs, the left has failed to see Religious Multinationals in the same light - the Vatican ’s control over Indian Catholic Churches, the Saudi control over thousands of Indian Madrassas are examples of foreign institutional "influence" that have clear loyalty to foreign nexuses. (Yet there are also millions of Indian Christians and Muslims living happily in their faiths without being under the control of any foreign nexus.) Is the left’s criticism of commercial MNCs, without a comparable criticism of non-commercial foreign MNCs, a contradiction made in the interest of realpolitik and leftists’ institutional careers? In their critiques of foreign MNCs, one should include non-commercial MNCs, such as globalized religions, Ford Foundation, various European foundations, etc., that use money and symbolic power to drive Indians’ intellectual discourse top-down.

5. Revising History

I do not support amending history for political purposes. For instance, I consider both Aryan migration-into-India and the opposite (migration out-of-India) to be too simplistic, and neither is provable with existing data. Neither is central to my primary areas of interest. Nor am I concerned about establishing the age of the Mahabharata, for instance. However, historiography is about researching for fresh data that often results in radical new rethinking.

Recent examples include:

(i) blacks have changed the way Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are depicted in American history;

(ii) Latin Americans have changed the depictions of Christopher Columbus and reinterpreted 1492 as "conquest" rather than "discovery;"

(iii) Scott Levi’s new book challenges the common view that the Silk Road and India’s trade with Central Asia died in the 15th century, by showing that it was thriving until the 19th century;

(iv) Subalternists are revising the history of India’s underclass; and

(v) Gail Omvedt’s book is rewriting the history of Indian Buddhism. One can make a very long list of "revisions" supported by many mainstream History Departments around the world.

On the other hand, Western History contains many false philosophical reconstructions: Christianity was truly a discontinuity against Platonic ideas, and the two remain mutually contradictory today, no matter how much the western thinkers would like to pretend otherwise. Pedagogic summaries of western traditions help maintain a myth of a smooth continuum of constant accretion of positive developments.

Hence, one must distinguish between rewriting history that is based on solid scholarship from rewriting history mainly to serve political goals. Are leftists willing to accept that there may well be legitimate revisions of (Indian and non-Indian) history by non-leftists, in ways that contradict the "sequence of history" mandated by leftist ideology, and that these could be based on solid non-politically driven scholarship? Or are Indian leftists’ minds closed on history, in which case historiography should be replaced by reading library books and applying the trendy "literary theories" received from western Ivy Leagues? If history is simply to be treated as "text," should History Departments get folded into English Departments under the care of "theorists"

6. Elitism

Are the left’s criticisms of the elitist Brahmins’ control over Sanskrit (and hence over discourse and culture) also applicable to:

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

(b) 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;

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

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

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

(f) 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

(g) the role of English language in general, including the way Call Centers are breeding a new kind of elitism in India? I would like to meet Indian leftists who are seriously working against elitism that runs across the board.

7. Indian Science

I do not approve that traditional Indian science should be labeled as "Vedic Science". Yet there is considerable unacknowledged history of Indian science based on physical hard evidence - in metallurgy, civil engineering, medicine, mathematics, etc. This history is not dependent on the texts of any religion. What is your stand on Indian scientific history that was not religion based? Does it throw a hammer at the Marxist Grand Narrative, according to which traditional Indian society must be shown to be feudalistic and pre-scientific, so as to qualify India for the Communist revolution? In other words, what if Indian society simply did not fit either Capitalist or Feudalist models - what would that do to the linear "progression" required by Communist theory? Is it to avoid this dilemma that Marxists have refused to consider the compelling evidence of science and technology in traditional India - and thereby inadvertently strengthened the Eurocentrism prevailing in the history of science curricula?

8. Anti-India

What is the left’s concept on India as a nation state? Without compromising their ideals, are Indian leftists open to question their uncritical loyalty to western idioms and politics, and to their stances against Indian nationhood? After all, one does not find them questioning the nationhood of any western nation, not even those in the making, such as Czech , Slovakia , Bosnia or Slovenia . Nor do they deploy "sub-nationalism" to challenge the concept of United States of Europe or of China . However, they appear to use such concepts as self-determination and the other more popular weapon of neo-imperialism i.e., ?human rights,’ as tools to de-legitimize the state of India .

The newly released very patriotic movie, LOC Kargil, has many Indian Muslim actors and the dialogue was written by a prominent Indian Muslim. How does the Indian left explain its opposition to the Kargil war when Indian Muslim leaders supported it? I hope to discuss whether leftist ideals of social fairness are just as achievable in a unified strong India , instead of a fragmented and divided India which seems so attractive to the Indian left. Does unilateral universalism (and/or breakup into sub-nations) on the part of India continue to make sense to Indian leftists, especially in the face of many powerful nations having trajectories to enhance their hegemonies and neo-colonialism?

9. Yoga

What do Indian leftists think of re-introducing yoga into Indian education (from where it remains banished on the grounds of being "anti-secular"), considering that 18 million Americans spend an estimated $27 billion annually to learn and practice yoga? I know many progressive desis who still consider yoga/meditation to be part of the Evil Brahmin Conspiracy to oppress the masses and to keep them poor through superstition. Yet, when I explain this "progressive" Indian view to my American friends, they cannot help laughing at the absurdity of it. (Yoga Journal did a recent survey of Indian-American progressives’ attitudes on yoga.)

On the other hand, I understand the left’s dilemma that if yoga/meditation were legitimized in India’s intellectual circles and education, it would open the door for better awareness of the philosophy behind it, and ultimately, the appreciation of Sanskrit texts. I would like to know what leftists think of the compelling mainstream western scientific evidence of meditation’s benefits, and of the use of Indic epistemology by western neuro-phenomenologists and Christian theologians in developing what is popularly being called the Emerging Worldview. Are leftists remaining on the wrong side of science, health care and philosophical trends?

10. Indian Classics

A good liberal arts education in the west is usually built on a solid foundation of the Western Classics (combining Greek, Roman and Judeo-Christian), because these texts are said to equip a young mind not only to understand the past of his/her great civilization, but also as tools to be applied to deal with intellectual problems of today. On the other hand, Indian leftists seem to continue the Macaulay trend of despising the Indian Classics.

It is true that certain stanzas of the Manusmriti and of many other texts contain ideas that run counter to contemporary human rights. But, by that token, Socrates had slaves, and Plato wrote some horrible things promoting atrocities; and yet teachers simply ignore those specific portions without expelling the entire Western Classics canon. John Stuart Mill, regarded as the founder of modern liberalism, worked his entire life for the British East India Company, helping them subvert human rights of the colonies. Hegel rationalized genocide against the Native Americans and slavery of the blacks.

Yet, these and many others like them comprise the backbone of what is taught by liberal-minded westerners. Why is there this double-standard against Indian Classics? Furthermore, why could the Puranas not be seen as serving a combination of

(i) western narratives such as Homer, Dante, Viking sagas, Germanic tales of the Nibelungs, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and

(ii) postmodernist myths such as Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, many of which were, in fact, inspired by Joseph Campbell’s work on Indian Classics?

My overall thrust is that achieving social equity and justice requires a scientific understanding of cultural and political formations, based on objective empirical observations, rather than sweeping generalizations (subsequently postulated as theories) coming out of 19th century European experiences. Ashutosh Varshney is rare in having based his theories on empirical data and not on regurgitating old materials.

Would there be any interest on your part in having open discussions/debates on such topics? I do not believe in the finality of knowledge; so whatever I know now is not necessarily representative of the views that I held in the past, and is not likely to remain unchanged in the future. This gives me freedom to think creatively, especially since I am not interested in defending any institutional structures (including left/right type of dichotomies) and nor do I have any followership to protect. Being new to the humanities field is counterbalanced by being less constrained.

It is likely and hopeful that we already agree on many issues listed above. Some issues might even be misunderstandings on my part as to what your position is. These serve merely as a starting point to get a sincere conversation going.

Finally, I request that in case you agree to a samvad, that it be carried out in the spirit of the purva-paksha tradition of debate, i.e. to discover the truth, and not to "win" or to turn this into inter-personal ad hominems. I have made a sincere attempt in this letter to articulate issues and my doubts, and I hope to dialogue in order to advance my own thinking.


For the record: The original e-mail was addressed to the editors of Ghadar magazine, with a CC to Vijay Prashad (Forum of Indian Leftists - FOIL); Sekhar Ramakrihnan and Abha Sur (SINGH Foundation). The opening lines of the e-mail have been deleted to avoid confusion for our readers, in consultation with the author: "Dear fellow Indians, I am delighted to learn that you are planning a special issue of Ghadar to discuss South Asia as a category, and I am interested in participating in your discussion. Since your special issue seems open to debate about fundamental categories..." The rest used above is the unedited text of the e-mail, with only paragraph breaks introduced for format issues - all the links offered are by the author.

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