The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
- A colonial thinker

I was initially interested to read Amit Chaudhuri’s extended two-part essay in The Telegraph (July 25 and August 1), “Distant Thunder” and “A Climate of Opinion”. But my interest soon turned to disquiet, for I found that his essay was simply another one in a series he has written expressing his own admiration for Ashis Nandy’s work, while simultaneously misrepresenting the position of Nandy’s rather diverse critics (see his “On the nature of the Indian Gothic”, The Hindu, April 6, 2003). I am hence constrained to reply, albeit somewhat more briefly, than Chaudhuri.

Many of Chaudhuri’s basic assumptions are largely unfounded. Let us begin at the beginning. It is quite untrue that public airings of intellectual differences are rare in India. One only has to read the Economic and Political Weekly to know this is incorrect. These debates and disagreements are not simply about territorial identities, but very substantive affairs, say between Ramachandra Guha and Peter D’Souza, or Partha Chatterjee and Ranajit Guha. I am unclear where Chaudhuri derives his information for such ex cathedra pronouncements, or whether he has in fact looked into this matter carefully.

This initial misconception then leads to a series of others. It is equally incorrect to pose Nandy as a Lone Ranger, a marginal crusader against an undifferentiated establishment of “liberal intellectuals” composed of Romila Thapar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, both industriously engaged in writing official “secular” textbooks to brainwash the masses. To begin with, anyone who has followed the field would know that my own relations with official historians and the history establishment of the ICHR — from Irfan Habib to Ravinder Kumar — have been anything but consensual. I have never written a textbook, and have no intention of doing so. But I have taught in universities, which I suppose will be regarded as a sin by some.

Nandy himself chose not to take up a teaching position, when he could easily have had one in the University of Delhi. This is because it was possible for him to have a very comfortable career as a full-time researcher in an institution that was quite well-funded by mainstream agencies both in India and abroad (from the ICSSR to the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations). It is a conceit to believe that this best-selling author from Oxford University Press and Princeton University Press, whose books are used in cultural studies and post-colonial studies courses in many parts of the world, is simply a marginal figure, a minority voice, an eccentric. He is in fact a kind of guru, and even the get-up of his books — where he is prominently featured on the front cover (rather like the J. Krishnamurti Readers) — testifies to this.

So what are the constituencies of this guru ' Clearly, Nandy has several. His anti-science, anti-modernity, anti-technology, writings quite clearly appeal to a part of the Indian middle class, which revels in its guilt, and so flocks to buy his books. His clever essays on cricket, Satyajit Ray, Kipling, or Tagore, clearly strike a chord with the Amit Chaudhuris of the world, or a certain brand of Subaltern Studies and post-colonial studies thinker. But there is a third category of writings, where Nandy clearly has found a constituency in the extreme right-wing of Hindu nationalists, in terms of his position on sati, or secularism; I also recall a rather frightening occasion in the SOAS in London, where he rose to make an impassioned defence of the RSS, as true freedom fighters against the Emergency. Whether this is his intention I do not know, but he has certainly not disavowed this constituency. I do not have to caricature him in this matter, since the fact is that Nandy is very good at caricaturing himself, especially when he appears in public arm in arm with the likes of Claude Alvares. The deluge of hate mail (and believe me, there was a lot of it, often unprintable) that poured in when my critique of his position was published in Outlook essentially came from this lot, often resident in the United States and Canada, but also to be found in Bangalore, Calcutta or Mumbai.

So who does not find Ashis Nandy today “significant, provocative and necessary” ' Clearly the dying breed of orthodox Marxists do not, since he never fails to attack them for being complicit in Stalinist massacres and the like. But then neither do most Dalit intellectuals, who find his defence of an imaginary, bucolic, rural India, where violence does not take place and everyone lives together in peace, not just false, but repellent and deeply patronizing (and, as Chaudhuri would put it, “discriminatory, exclusivist and unegalitarian”). And, I have to say, that most sensible historians who have read his bizarre essay (“History’s Forgotten Doubles”), which Chaudhuri too has read but passes over in silence, on how history must be gotten rid of and myth must be revived, can only wish that Nandy had fewer followers than he does. This has nothing to do with membership of Chaudhuri’s completely invented bogeyman group, “a new ‘secular’ ruling class, [that] began to form, after the death of Indira Gandhi, around Rajiv Gandhi, in Delhi”. This claim is not simply irresponsible and utterly bogus, but pernicious and deeply offensive, if Chaudhuri means to say I belong to such a group. I cannot have much respect for an author whose stock-in-trade consists of such low canards.

So, to my last point, namely what this in fact has to do with the heritage of the Bengal Renaissance. Far from being “utterly heterogeneous”, it is clear what this movement did epitomize. It meant accepting the premise that a “re-naissance” was needed in India, after some form of Dark Ages. It meant rejecting the pre-colonial centuries and harking back to a classical Golden Age, whose contours were conveniently provided by Orientalists. This is what I mean when I see Nandy as a colonial thinker, namely his utter subservience to Orientalist clichés regarding India’s past. In this Nandy is like Ranajit Guha or Dipesh Chakrabarty, other thinkers whom Amit Chaudhuri much admires. Their position may be ostensibly anti-colonial, but in fact — no matter what their internal divisions — they are all prisoners of the very same heritage as the Chaudhuris, both Nirad and Amit, as well as of the Greater India theorists of the inter-war period. Amit Chaudhuri’s own essay drips with cultural cringe, with his gratuitous references to Eliot, Blake, Lawrence, Auden and Whitehead, who are obviously the defining points of his universe. Ranajit Guha makes similar gratuitous use of the Mahabharata. But the point of departure is the same.

Is there a way out of this bind' Clearly there is, if one looks to other writers, such as Gautam Bhadra, or Partha Chatterjee (at least in his critique of Ranajit Guha). But to take this other way, one must have read more of, say, Alaol, Daulat Qazi and Bharatchandra, and less of Bankim and Tagore. But that may yet be a distant dream.

Email This Page