Editor's note: Journalist and writer Ajaz Ashraf recently conducted an expansive and incisive interview of the ever-enthralling, sagacious purveyor of pipe-smoke-wreathed erudition, Asis Nandy, for Outlook Magazine. Firstpost asked Ashraf to carry out an intellectual examination of his session with the political psychologist — a writerly introspection of the setting, the tone, tenor and scholastic contents of the interview.
I climbed the two flights of stairs to political psychologist Prof Ashis Nandy’s apartment, set in a spiffy, leafy quarter of Delhi. Nervousness tinged my excitement at having to meet one who is inarguably one of India’s most formidable minds: his erudition is breath-taking, his memory razor-sharp, his insights profound, and his humour ironic. His formidable intellect had me conscious of my own limited reading, of not making a fool of myself by asking an inane question.
I was there to interview Nandy for Outlook magazine on the Future of India, a theme so wide in its sweep that it could include just about every facet of social life. Before I rang the doorbell, I checked the questions I had framed, based on his writings, some of which I had re-read over preceding two days.
In the living room, there are books all around, in racks obviously, but also piles of them on the dining table, on sofas and the centre-table. As I glanced around a tad stupefied, his wife, Uma, walked in and exclaimed: “You have to see our bedroom — there are books all over the place.”
I laughed and said, “Well, I guess he has to keep reading and reading.” To which, Uma Nandy added, “And he keeps thinking, he is always thinking. He was up till 3 am. His mind is always ticking, even if it is about the shirt he has to wear.”
I settled down in a sofa and she asked what my home state is. “Bihar,” I said. Uma’s face lit up: “My son-in-law is from there. Biharis are such lovely people.” That’s a compliment a Bihari rarely hears in Delhi.
In walked Ashis Nandy, freshly bathed, in a T-shirt, and squatted in the sofa next to me. He immediately picked up a smoking pipe and began cleaning it. “Coffee or tea?” To the shrug of my shoulder and a mumble, “Whatever,” he responded: “Take tea, the leaves I have are special.”
“Batao? (Tell)” Nandy said.
I unfolded the papers stapled together and read out my question, in the hope of striking the right tone for the interview: “The opening lines of your book, Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair, are: ‘These essays are about an India that is no longer the country on which I have written for something like four decades. Many things have changed drastically in recent years....’ What do these changes presage for India’s future?”
Nandy did not ponder over the question even for a second. It was as if he had already reflected over India’s future. He said, “First of all, India no longer has a vision of its own. Its vision is the vision of many developing societies around the world. It is a homogenised, predictable future which has been sold to us as a universal cure for poverty, indignity and backwardness in general. In other words, our own futures have been stolen.”
Our futures have been stolen because we have forfeited other possibilities of imagining our future. We have embraced what others too have – a universal model of development but for minor tinkering here and there. China may have an efficient work culture than, say, India’s, but the missions of both countries are essentially the same. It is same because their visions are same.
Doesn’t this vision have a name?
In several of his essays, Nandy has described this universal dream as the urban-industrial vision. Unlike, for instance, the Gandhian vision of creating self-sufficient villages, the urban-industrial imagination conceives mammoth urban sprawls, large industrial units, mega dams, and teeming multitudes fashioned into a national and international market that is increasingly getting linked seamlessly. It is this vision every nation seeks to bring to reality in times to come. And because every nation dreams of the same future, their fate has to be more or less the same.
The endeavour to create a new future demands a price. It is the price we pay by dislocating individuals from their social-cultural milieu, by uprooting communities from where their forefathers have lived for centuries, at times even killing them in case they become impediments to the realisation of the urban-industrial vision. This bloody and unconscionable project is legitimized because its sponsor is the nation-state. The more efficient a nation-state, the more pain its urban-industrial project inflicts.
Take East Asian countries. As Nandy said, “Our hero is (Singapore’s first prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew. He’s so popular that one is afraid of saying he was one of the last despots, the last votary of “developmental authoritarianism”. Take the East Asian Tigers. I have argued that they were not only tigers but also man-eaters. All of them had despotic regimes. If you want spectacular development, then be prepared for a high degree of authoritarianism.”
From Nandy’s perspective, therefore, individuals — or their regimes — turn authoritarian because their urban-industrial vision requires them to become one. In India, the authoritarian tendency surfaced during Mrs. India Gandhi’s prime ministership. It has only become worse in recent times. How?
Nandy cited the response to the Dravidian movement leader and former chief minister, CN Annadurai, who wanted Tamil Nadu to secede from India. “Nobody called him a traitor or attacked him in Parliament or organized countrywide protests. Not even the Jan Sangh (the BJP’s earlier incarnation). They knew that when people are angry, in distress, they say things which must be ignored,” he pointed out.
Nandy, obviously, is alluding to a rash of protests which has broken out against dissenters in recent times. From student protests in Jawaharlal Nehru University to stone-pelting Kashmiri boys, from those clamouring for the withdrawal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act to activists agitating against the forcible eviction of people from their land, they are all dubbed anti-national, in the hope of frightening them into submission. It is impossible to have a contrarian vision without inviting a blowback.
Nationalism is the most deadly weapon in the arsenal of urban-industrial visionaries. It shut up dissenters or quarantines them socially. Nationalism demands its citizens to cultivate and nurture sameness in thoughts, habits, beliefs and feelings — they are those who call others anti-national. The urban-industrial vision has as its yoke the nation-state.
Talking of India, Nandy said, “Mind you, this (urban-industrial vision) was not the creation of the Bharatiya Janata Party. India had already changed before it came to power?” Perhaps the BJP’s rise is a result of India having changed? He agreed, “That’s right. They can deliver the urban-industrial vision more ruthlessly, or at least seem to do so.”
The BJP’s rise is particularly fortuitous for the urban-industrial vision. And that is because its ideology of Hindutva seeks to impose on the Hindus – India’s overwhelming majority – a homogenous religion, rooting out its rich diversities. Hindutva is a political imagining of Hinduism. This is useful for Hindutva because it endorses the European model of nationalism, typically defined as one country, one religion, and one language.
One religion demands a commonality of beliefs among its followers. It, therefore, seeks to cleanse contrarian ideas, conflicting beliefs and divergent practices from Hinduism. In this attempt to homogenize Hinduism, it doesn’t care for the sacred.
In one of his essays, Nandy has written, “Hindutva is an attack on Hinduism, that Hindutva is an ideology for those whose Hinduism has worn off, and that Hindutva’s triumph will mark the end of Hinduism.” Are we headed that way? I asked. “Yes,” the political psychologist replied. “The Hinduism that we see around us today is not 2000 or 4000 years old. It is just 150 years old. It was born in urban India, under the new political economy that the British Raj introduced.”
Could Nandy define the attributes of this 150-year-old Hinduism? He chuckled and said, “Once you endorse nationalism, you don’t even have to discuss it (religion). I think it was (Ernest) Gellner who said you don’t have to read the texts of nationalism because all nationalisms are the same.” Yes, including Hindu nationalism, about which the BJP waxes eloquent.
Hindu nationalism doesn’t demand you to be a believer. It is, in fact, infinitely better that you are not, as you would not feel any compunction in using religion for politics, for the nation-state project, which has the urban-industrial vision driving it. Hindutva’s foremost architect, Veer Savarkar, typified the unbelieving Hindu, for whom the cloak of modernity is easy to wear.
About Savarkar, Nandy said to me, “He did not believe in anything (religious). He refused to give a Hindu funeral to his own wife and said that there was nothing sacred about the cow. He also made fun of (RSS’s second sarsanghchalak) Golwalkar’s fondness for rituals. Savarkar is the real father of the emerging India. Gandhi (a believer) is now the stepfather.”
With all the destabilising changes occurring in India, what would it be like in 2100? With the certitude of one who had seen and studied India’s past, Nandy, who will turn 80 next year, said, “India will be more like an American slum to the nth degree, a poor man’s America. Even to become that, we will have to pay a price in terms of shrinkage of our liberties.”
In this quest to become a poor man’s America, we could go the whole hog, banishing tribals to reserves, as Americans have indigenous Indians. Nandy thought India will go a step further: “Actually, wherever they are not concentrated in numbers, as in Nagaland and Mizoram, we will just finish them off. One-third of all tribes in India are tribes only by name. They have been dispersed, atomised, and individualised. They have joined the proletariat.”
Nandy paused, before adding, “In fact, the programme of proletarianisation of tribals, directly or indirectly, is built into the manifesto of every party, including the Left.” It is built into their manifestos because all parties have the same urban-industrial vision.
He clarified he did not think India could return to a pastoral way of life. “But the limits of the urban-industrial vision have been crossed… When the crunch comes, you will have to impose limits on using the resources of the Earth for the survival of at least your children and grandchildren, even if you are not thinking of the future.”
To illustrate what he meant by using resources without limits, Nandy said, “Once I tried to count the number of shades of lipstick available. I stopped after counting till 1,200; I just couldn’t handle it. I don’t think our retina is capable of even registering 1,200 shades. Yet we continue to produce more shades.”
But who is to wage the battle against mindless consumption, in itself an outcome of the urban-industrial vision? Nandy replied, “A catastrophe will produce not Gandhi, but hundreds of variations of him. Then only can it become a mass movement. You will not have to wait till 2100. It will come earlier. This is because we have entered the last cycle of climate change.”
Could such an India be happy in 2050? (Happiness is the title of one of Nandy’s essays.) “It will be demanded of them to not be unhappy,” he said, his eyes twinkling. “There will be a public demand to be happy. So if you are unhappy, you become a traitor…or a class enemy, as it happened in the Soviet Union. Unhappy people there were sent to psychiatrists.”
We aren’t headed that way, are we? Nandy said, “I am afraid there are efforts to push India in that direction.” You can just hope that then there would enough psychiatrists around to cope with the demand of Indians desperately wanting to not be unhappy.
Perhaps, even today, we subconsciously feel the pressure of appearing happy to ourselves. That is why we prefer to cite statistics to convince ourselves about the economic progress we have registered, shying away from asking that meaningful question: Has India’s rise led to rise in the happiness of its people? If not, then what is this economic progress all about?
Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid.