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Hybridity and unilateralism

Gandhi was used as an instrument to elbow out Nehru from the national discourse

Hybridity and unilateralism

“In continuing with your recent attempts at analysing Hindutva I wanted to remind you of Ashis Nandy’s striking observation that there is an “unselfconscious Hinduism by which most Indians, Hindus as well as non-Hindus, live.” I think this is an important aspect of the hybridity of Indian Islam, Sufi or otherwise. This is what Mahboob Ahmad wrote to me from Eugene, USA, where he is currently based and pursuing PhD in English literature.

Reading being his passion (and profession too,) he remains engaged with me in academic debate, discussing some profound themes of history, literary history and critical theory. It is very rare for us to agree on whatever we argue about. I can very well see Nandy prioritising Hinduism over non-Hindu faiths and denominations, which may complicate the question of identity even more, with reference to minorities and the marginalized in India.

More so, one can give an alternative spin to that proposition to assert that Hinduism had imbibed influences from religions like Islam and Christianity. That is by far more plausible as Muslims ruled India for more than 800 years. They must have influenced all denominations, including Hinduism, during their rule. Nandy must be cognizant of the 19th century reform movements like Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj. Those movements assimilated ideas and methods from Christian missionaries and brought about qualitative changes in the super structure of Hinduism. Under Nehru, the religious specificity had been consigned to the back burner but religion and culture are once again main instruments of analysis. That line of argument makes things quite alarming for minorities and liberals in India.

My position with respect to the virtual demise of Nehruvian vision in India is not quite sympathetic to the intellectual streak subscribing to post-modern (or post-colonial) exceptionalism. After the emergence of the BJP and Hindutva (political Hinduism), the situation prevailing in India needs to be viewed differently. It is important because it has ramifications beyond national borders.

Maulana Fazl ur Rahman is striving earnestly to create a mirror image of RSS-led India in Pakistan. Baton-wielding youngsters clad in khaki shalwar kamees,( members of Ansar-ul-Islam) look like some militia parading clumsily. To all intents and purposes, they might be trying to emulate the RSS. That warrants a deep look into the reasons for such phenomena having established a complete sway over India for nearly 30 years.

The BJP phenomenon needs to be examined theoretically. How come post-modernist episteme has facilitated the rise of a Hindutva dispensation, to the chagrin of many. Not only that, Hindutva has firmly entrenched itself leaving hardly any space for an alternative political force to assert itself.

Looking inward (looking for a pristine state) in a quest for an alternative system of knowledge rooted in local tradition as against the epistemological process decisively inflected with the rationality bequeathed by the enlightenment, has deep and practical implications. It is evident that Nehru’s vision for modern India was religiously neutral.

It had been predicated on the principles of modernity/enlightenment. That Nehruvian-modernist ideology reverberated quite decisively in intellectual/academic spaces, unity in diversity being the defining feature ascribed to modern India as its socio-cultural predicate. Cultural plurality was fostered with verve and gusto. Scientific-secular spirit was constantly advanced as the mainstay of the political vision professed and preached vigorously by Congress leadership. Indian urban bourgeoise of 1950s and ’60s, imbibed and internalized that message of scientific spirit and modernity, punctuated with socialist ideology. That ideology permeated deep into the very core of Indian urban bourgeoise. It is important here to mention the absence of cultural or regional references to the discourse underpinning Nehruvian modernity. That lacuna was deployed in a quite adroit manner by the post-modernist academics and writers as a counter point to the prevailing discourse under Congress rule. Indira Gandhi’s promulgation of emergency in 1975 dealt the first dent to the politics so far championed by Congress.

Indira Gandhi tried to assume autocratic powers through emergency rule. The attempt boomeranged in her face as she lost people’s trust. They started suspecting Indira’s belief in democracy. From that moment Indian academic scene swerved in a tangible manner. The moment was ripe for the emergence of a new political and social force in India.

The influence of the movement that had been triggered in European and American universities during 1968, reached Indian universities. Modernity and enlightenment were critiqued as Eurocentric-hegemonic epistemic structures arbitrarily imposed on the colonized by the colonialists. From 1980s the rise of the counter narrative was visible with likes of Ashis Nandy and the Subaltern School (established in 1982 primarily by the Bengali scholar) emerged on the intellectual scene and carved out a niche for itself.

By early 1990s, the secular rationality had run out of its relevance for the new generation of Indian academics. Even the discipline of History was being re-formulated. Regional histories and theoretical issues came to the fore in the academic debate instead of themes and subjects subsuming nationalist agenda. Indian diasporic academia contributed quite significantly to the intellectual enterprise and discourse on Indian nationalism faced atomization.

Consequently, the Nehruvian vision was severely interrogated and pro-Nehruvian academics were unable to stall the onslaught. Liberal values, modernist ethos and enlightenment were intensely scrutinized and inverted. Indian social and historical discourses were re-cast on indigenous cultural traditions that had lost the plural ethos during the colonial rule. What was being unequivocally projected now as a cultural tradition had essentially been Hindu. Now that ideology (of Hindutva) which had so far been languishing at the periphery, started edging to the very centre of socio-political dispensation. It was no surprise that Nandy and the Subalterns reserved their focus on Hindu social/cultural imagination(s). Ammar Mufti s essay on Manto was the only exception, which appeared in one of the later volumes of Subalterns.

It is interesting that that they used the figure of MK Gandhi to substantiate their assertion(s). Nandy, Hardiman and Partha Chatterji wrote quite extensively on Gandhi. Thus, Gandhi was used as an instrument to elbow out Nehru from the national discourse. It was also in the name of Gandhi that the nationalist-plural scene underwent provincialisation.

In the event of provincialisation of nationalist discourse, the  alternative was Bajpai, Advani and finally the RSS-inspired Narendra Modi. They had the only alternative (political/cultural) ideology to offer and they advanced it very effectively. The post-modernists managed to defeat the ideology that Nehru subscribed to but the moment they were past their prime, another meta narrative of Hindutva made its grotesque appearance, and it is not going anywhere at least for the foreseeable future. I hope Mahboob will have a cogent argument to spurn what I have said in this column.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • This is a very interesting and informative analysis of the situation in India today. Ashis Nandy, although a non-believer, identifies with the Bengali Christian community in which he was born and grew up (Wikipedia). I don’t think he would prioritise Hinduism over non-Hindu faiths! As you say, Islam and Christianity have had some influence on Hindus over the centuries. Note that even now, BJP supporters form only about 40% of the electorate. And the influence of Hindutva is weakest in the far south where Islam has had the least influence on Hinduism, if any.

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