The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- A minority voice in a community of liberal intellectuals

Back in Calcutta after a month in England, I found that a debate, or a public difference of opinion, between two Indian academics had gone all but stale. Its venue had been an unlikely one, a national newsmagazine known as much for its secular credentials as it is for grading the schools, colleges, and restaurants of the nation somewhat arbitrarily: a cross between (to think in terms of the media in the country I had just left behind) The Guardian and Time Out. That this erudite quarrel had been conducted in these pages reminds us that there is still no highbrow journal of the ideas in our country that could claim to have a decent nationwide circulation. The academics in question were Ashis Nandy, a psychologist by training, a sort of cultural theorist/ sociologist by vocation, lately retired from the Centre for Studies in Developing Societies in Delhi; and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, who holds a chair in South Asian history at Oxford.

“Debate” is perhaps not the right word. Nandy had written an article in response to some remarks made about him in the same newsmagazine by the journalist Kuldip Nayar; Subrahmanyam had written a riposte; several letters to the editor had followed, including one from Subrahmanyam. But Nandy, as far as I could tell from the back issues I consulted, had been silent after the appearance of his piece. I was struck by this business; public airings of intellectual differences by academics in India are rare. This is partly because the liberal intelligentsia in India has become, one suspects, such a complex orchestration, in the last twenty years, of hierarchies and affiliations, of publications, papers, conferences, university chairs, committee appointments — an orchestra playing a limited number of tunes, or limited variations on one tune — that to disturb your precise relationship to this arrangement is to pass into silence, or intellectual non-existence. When differences are infrequently thrashed out, their intellectual content too often is, you feel, a mask for territorial anxieties. All in all, you conclude that, in the circles I’m referring to, there has been relatively little scope for genuine debate, criticism, and irreverence in the last two decades; the interesting and even important intellectual developments have been swiftly translated into territorial identities.

And so, an intervention — to use the fashionable academic term — by a historian as good and serious as Subrahmanyam in response to Ashis Nandy is both welcome and overdue; it creates a break, a rupture, in our monotonous observance of intellectual propriety. But, for a riposte that is so scathing and obviously outspoken, I found Subrahmanyam’s article puzzlingly obscure in some ways, and unwittingly illuminating in others. In the end, it seemed to reaffirm the difficulties of critical language and thinking, and the unique elusiveness of Nandy in our cultural landscape.

Very briefly, Subrahmanyam makes the following points in his piece: firstly, that Nandy is both wrong and guilty of repeating himself when he states his old objection to secularism — that it’s a concept that’s inadequate to the social and political experiences of our multiply-formed nation, a concept whose inadequacy is underlined by the fact that it is a Western import. (In his piece, Nandy had cited — as he has before — alternative grass-roots forms of tolerance and pluralism that had enabled most of the country’s population, who live as they do outside the major urban centres, to co-exist with each other despite differences in religion. He pointed out that most riots actually occur in urban areas.)

Subrahmanyam angrily reminds us (and Nandy) that the European idea of the “secular” is quite different from the Indian one: the “secular”, in the West, is a space in which the church, or, simply, religion does not operate; in India, it is a space in which a multiplicity of religions co-habit with each other. In fact, “secularism”, to all purposes, is an Indian coinage; it has had no long-standing usage in the West, and it does not have one there today. These are not particularly new insights — in fact, they’re becoming pretty venerable themselves — but the context of this argument gives them a new charge; besides, it’s entertaining to witness these insights being employed to turn the tables on what Subrahmanyam calls Nandy’s “indigenist” rhetoric.

In the course of the article, Subrahmanyam pulls up Nandy for errors to do with European history in a few grand pronouncements the latter had made, and calls Nandy, as a consequence, “ignorant”, “an innocent”. A few errors made in a domain somewhat outside the writer’s natural one would probably have led to the charge of recklessness being made against the culprit; “ignorance” suggests that Nandy is in a classroom with a very exacting teacher. Subrahmanyam ends by identifying Nandy as a progeny of the “lachrymose tradition of the romantic underside of the so-called Bengal Renaissance”; and punctures Nandy’s self-image of being someone who’s had recourse, in his thinking, to life-experiences outside the secular mainstream by suggesting that, after the death of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, he is, indeed, our “last colonial thinker”.

At first glance, Subrahmanyam’s article falls within a recognizable tradition of polemical debunking: an enfant terrible attacking an older, establishment figure. However, more than once, Subrahmanyam’s tone changes, and he begins to sound like an establishment voice, sanctioned by Oxbridge, educating a person who’s got his PhD from a minor university. By the end of the piece, he comes to represent sound historical thinking and knowledge, as well as rationality and logic, in contrast to Nandy’s whimsy, romanticism, and lack of clear thinking. In other words, for a young polemicist attacking an older mandarin, Subrahmanyam begins to sound older and wiser than Nandy: an effect he may or may not have wanted to achieve.

His description of Nandy as an “innocent” — as, in effect, a childlike figure — is intriguing. It reminds one of how dissenting figures in English cultural history — those who didn’t fit into mainstream paradigms — were characterized as innocents, naturists, and muddled thinkers; were, in other words, exoticized and, to a certain extent, subalternized. The wide currency of the image of Blake sitting naked in his garden comes to mind. So does Eliot’s condescension towards Blake as a Swedenborgian autodidact. D.H. Lawrence is another case in point; a sort of shaman-figure in English modernity, derided by Eliot, among others, of being “incapable of what is ordinarily known as thinking”. That such simplifications were class-driven in England seems more or less clear now; one can’t help thinking, reading Eliot on Blake and Lawrence, of those writers’ lower-middle-class and working-class origins, their imperfect (in Eliot’s eyes) education.

Moreover, Subrahmanyam gives the impression — in the ironical asides, sometimes in scare quotes, about Nandy being a “celebrated” and “great thinker” — that there is a general consensus about Nandy’s iconic status, a status which he now proceeds to dismantle. This construction, though, is fraught with difficulties. For, though its reputation has grown over the years, Nandy’s work doesn’t fit into any of the major social science discourses in this country: not even, despite certain resemblances, into the subalternist one. He is too unrigorous, too dissonant, to inhabit their contours; he is fated to be a minority voice. Is there a place for such a voice in our community of liberal intellectuals'

Email This Page