I recently attended a kind of symposium — a series of talks and discussions around a subject of my interest. It wasn’t a field that one automatically associates with politics, though often in the past, and increasingly now, the political is unavoidably and deeply woven into the areas of activity we were discussing. Across two days, various practitioners from marginalised or beleaguered groups from different parts of the world made their presentations around the subject, followed by question-answer sessions, the whole thing concluding with a general discussion between all the presenters and the attending audience. Over the two days, some patterns emerged.
Many of the people presenting came from groups with long histories of suffered oppression, economic exploitation, marginalisation, and the silencing and the dismemberment of their traditions. A lot of their work in the area we were discussing attempts to address these dark and painful histories and current realities. One of the results of forging these new articulations is that the work produced often does not meet the older, classically established, criteria of the field and completely bypasses them. Looking at the challenges in exploring alternative processes and presenting the output, one understands that the old rules of evaluation, dated ideas of rigour, and the fraying matrices of discussion have to be put aside if one is to properly engage with what is going on.
However, there is something else that also seems to be getting thrown up, and it is far from new, radical or in any way freeing. Of the marginal practitioners presenting at the event, the ones from the subcontinent all fell into the traps of stridency, over-simplification and extreme sensitivity to perceived slights and labels. Time and again, we heard sweeping statements that privileged the dramatic and the shocking over any nuanced truth. Repeatedly there were elisions and the papering over of difficult questions, hiding behind a kind of droning self-righteousness powered by un-interrogated cliches.
The reader might find it annoying that I am not naming or specifying the area that was being discussed. The reason for this is that my argument is a broader one, and the specifics of the particular practices and the exchanges that ensue from them would create a distraction from examining what I think is a larger problem.
For example, there would be a general assertion — unarguably true — that the rights of such and such a marginal group had been trampled upon by various powers, from the British colonial authorities to the Central government of newly-independent India (or of a post-colonial neighbouring country) to the politicians, bureaucrats and police working at a district or state level. However, the maps, graph or photographs used to illustrate this would be from way back in the past and, sometimes, only tangentially connected to the community under focus; the visual implication being that the history of oppression had remained unchanging since the end of the 19th century. Similarly, a statement would be made: ‘my people were enslaved for labour and they continue to be enslaved today.’ And you found yourself thinking, ‘Hang on, but no. The labourers in that sector of industry are unionised, they have some spread of education, and they have long been able to mobilise to make demands for statehood for their cluster of ethnicities.’
The words, ‘slave’ and ‘slavery’, have specific meanings which are different from, say, ‘exploited labour’, or an indigenous, ethnic or religious group facing ‘economic oppression’, ‘structural deprivation’ or ‘economic apartheid’. Likewise, while watching out hawk-like for derogatory and patronising labellings and language-assumptions, the people presenting might repeatedly and unhesitatingly release their own: ‘the casteist-Brahmanical nation state hasn’t worked for us and we need to get rid of it!’ Hearing this, one is immediately reminded of the slogans of the sangh-falangists claiming that ‘the Nehru-Gandhi psuedo-secular cabal has done nothing for the country for 70 years!’
While one might understand and agree that the current models of the nation state all have a sell-by date that is increasingly visible and approaching rapidly, both the history and the possible future of the subcontinent are not that easily separated from complexity and nuance. One wants to ask both the Hindutva fanatic and the crypto-Stalinist-Maoist: what do you think would have happened had there been no Gandhi, no Nehru-Patel government and no secular and democratic Constitution of India when the British scarpered? How long would you have given the motley patchwork of statelets before it was submerged into a multi-cornered civil war and then re-swallowed in some way by the big powers? Yes, the Republic of India is a heavily flawed work in progress, and, yes, perhaps the goal of the work is not a super-power à la one of the 20th-century ‘developed’ nation states, but a new model of human organisation that genuinely benefits and protects the most deprived people living in this Himalayan and sub-Himalayan geography. But neither the grotesque fallacies authored by Servilekar-Golmalkar nor the analyses of hack Marxism, the defecations from a great height by tourist-historians such as Perry Anderson, will help us. These wrenchings and twistings of history, whether they come from the far-Right or the far-Left will harm us, damage us, destroy us.
In contrast to the marker-pen assertions of the local presenters, what a young practitioner from a not-sonear-by country said and the way she said it gave me much more hope. Coming from a country that was lacerated by long-term racial oppression by the State, a place that is still extremely volatile with violence stemming from huge historical inequality, the young woman spoke about approaching her work with great mindfulness. She wasn’t always sure where she was going, she said, but she was sure she had to try and arrive at new ways of doing things. Of course, she stumbles and, occasionally, falls but then she picks herself up, learns from the tripping, and continues, knowing she has to keep developing a new language in the field in which she is engaged. In the eloquence of her doubts and search for nuance, I saw a clarity that we in the subcontinent very much need.