The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Reducing colonialism to a single design is poor history

For the past fifteen years or so, India has witnessed numerous intellectual convulsions centred on one word: secularism. The debate has been fiery, passionate and, occasionally, quite rivetting. It has dominated political choice, affected the writing and teaching of history, and polarized the arts and professions like journalism. At a human level, it has both soured traditional bonds and forged unlikely solidarities. Thrust into the preamble of the Constitution under the draconian cover of the Emergency, the impact of official secularism has been horribly divisive.

Given this heady backdrop, it is no real surprise that Ashis Nandy’s reiteration of his iconoclastic “Anti-Secularist Manifesto” (first published in 1985) in Outlook magazine has triggered the first lively debate of the Manmohan Singh era. The forthright interventions of the historian, Sanjay Subrahmanyam (including “A guru and his followers”, The Telegraph, August 8) have resurrected a controversy that many believe has run out of intellectual steam.

Maybe it was Subrahmanyam’s grand sweep of history and the robustness of his polemics — particularly when compared to Amit Chaudhuri’s understated two-part article (The Telegraph, July 25 and August 1) — that have conferred on the exchange an extra zing. Nandy’s charge of secularism being built on “amorality” and secularists aping “Leninist crudities”, and Subrahmanyam’s denunciation of the “lachrymose tradition of the romantic underside of the so-called Bengal Renaissance” make for delightful journalism. They are a departure from what Chaudhuri describes as the “monotonous observance of intellectual propriety”. If ever there were a case for full-time academics donning the mantle of part-time columnists, this is it.

Yet, paradoxically, for both combatants the battlefield is history and we have the slightly comic spectacle of the secularist, the traditionalist and the communalist heaping the same abuse on each other. “I see Nandy,” writes Subrahmanyam disdainfully, “as a colonial thinker”, the product of a spurious renaissance. He sees Chaudhuri’s articles dripping with “cultural cringe” and suggests he move beyond “gratuitous references to Eliot, Blake, Lawrence, Auden and Whitehead”. He debunks the anti-colonial pretensions of the Subaltern Studies: “They are all prisoners of the very same heritage as the Chaudhuris, both Nirad and Amit.” The irony is that Nandy accuses the secularists of being overwhelmed by the very same colonial tradition.

The C-word resonates everywhere. If our intellectual stalwarts are to be believed, behind everything that is evil, despicable and unwholesome, lurks the shadow of colonialism. Everyone accuses everyone else of being bad because they have imbibed the bitter colonial brew. In his other writings, Nandy has charged the Indian political leadership with a deracination born of colonialism. Hindu nationalists, he insists, mirror the colonial preoccupation with order: “They would like to herd the Hindus like cattle towards the beatitude of a well-defined nationality, hitched to a national security state modelled on the 19th century European concept of the state.”

The Hindu nationalists, in turn, charge the Marxists and secularists of pursuing a colonialist agenda. “Following the lead of the British,” complained Makkhan Lal, one of the aggrieved “saffron” history textbook writers in The Pioneer last week, “our Marxist historians and ideologues have been advocating that India is not a nation but a conglomeration of nations and Indians are nothing but a rag-tag gathering with no history.” We have the strange situation of colonial knowledge being held responsible for both a Bismarckian strong state and the vivisection of India!

The Subaltern Studies group set out to demonstrate their impeccable anti-colonial credentials. “The historiography of Indian nationalism,” proclaimed Ranajit Guha in an essay that for long served as the group’s manifesto, “has for a long time been dominated by elitism — colonialist elitism and bourgeois-nationalist elitism.” In his celebrated work, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, Guha contested Eric Hobsbawm’s Eurocentric category, “pre-political people”. Indian peasant uprisings, he argued, were decisively political. Its logic, however, lay in a different, indigenous paradigm that was beyond the comprehension of colonial knowledge. Yet today, Subrahmanyam charges the likes of Guha of being no different from a Nirad Chaudhuri, that ultimate colonial fall-guy. The problem, he seems to imply, lies in the social context of Bengal. Bhadralok subalternists, Partha Chatterjee apart, can scarcely transcend the colonialist bunkum of Bankim.

As someone who has been charged by the Nehruvian-communist, Mani Shankar Aiyar, of being a “Hampstead Hindu”, the whole preoccupation with colonial detoxification is reminiscent of a Monty Python version of the Spanish Inquisition. It is based on the flawed assumption that Indian society, as a whole, resisted incorporation into the British Empire with the grit and fanaticism of a suicide-bomber.

Yes, British rule did encounter some resistance and there were many protest movements in the 190 years between Plassey and Independence. However, across a swathe of territory from Trinidad in the West to Hongkong in the East, British colonialism combined abject subjecthood with intellectual empowerment. The Empire generated bouts of fierce native antipathy but left no enduring hatred. It was a strange mixture of callous laissez faire that left millions dead in the Bengal famines, and yet generated unconcealed adulation for the “mother country”. The Empire was not run with any pre-determined, single agenda. There was commercial greed, racial arrogance and astonishing brutality. At the same time, there was paternalism, service and a romantic obsession with the “sacredness of India”.

Colonial rule was a bundle of conflicting and contradictory impulses. To reduce it to a monochromatic image and a single experience is good pamphleteering but poor history. Likewise, to believe that the political and emotional salvation of India lies in either unearthing lost traditions or rediscovering those untainted by the colonial hand is romantic hogwash. It has about as much moral and ethical efficacy as Pol Pot’s political engineering and the neo-conservative pipedream of transplanting democracy into Iraq. The past cannot be reordered for the whims and fancies of the present.

There is much to be said both in favour of and against official Indian secularism. Both the genuine secularists and the pseudo-secularists are united in a desire to see India free of sectarian conflict. Apart from a loony fringe, few desire either a confessional state or a totalitarian society where religion is driven underground. The real differences lie in strategies of countering old-fashioned bigotry and new-fangled theological radicalism. In such a situation, must we dissipate our energies in selectively refashioning our inheritance' The colonial is as much a part of India as the Brahmin, the Dalit, the subaltern, the Muslim and the mixed-up cosmopolitan. Orientalism may be an offence in the campuses of the West, but it has served India well.

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