Ashis Nandy’s Angst

Ashis Nandy has been perhaps India’s most prolific and readable social science writer. His style, his perceptions, his inferences are so endearing that one is attracted to his writing as one would do for a top of the list popular author. I make it a point to grab a copy of his latest publication as soon as it is released and then comfortably perched in my seat, with a cup of strong and bitter Darjeeling tea devour breathlessly all that he has to write. It is not that I agree with all that he says but I love reading him. He has a perspective, a very distinct one and one that is consistent. He writes from a stance; his world view, his interest position, his politics become all so evident. Ashis Nandy is one who deconstructs the Indian mind and I love to deconstruct him.

Ashis Nandy has a thesis which he holds as a normative standard against which the everyday reality as it unfolds in India is weighed and judged. This thesis is that of tradition. India, he feels must uphold a tradition, a tradition which has helped it to survive as a civilization for an unbroken length of time. This tradition has some strength, the most important of it being its resistance to being reified into antonyms. This tradition has a sense of a fine balance, the rhythm of cyclical time, of seasonality. The tradition has relativity of concepts and accommodates dualities; for instance the ardhanariswar, the harihara and the like. Therefore, contextuality, relativity, plurality, diversity, flexibility, assimilation of antonyms and balance and equilibrium mark the Indian tradition. Conflictual dualities are therefore treated as being outside of tradition, as a corruption of its purity.

Nandy is a Bengali bhadralok who emerged as a category of historical agency with the Bengali Renaissance. Nandy is also a Christian by faith and belongs to that category of bhadraloks who converted to Christianity in open opposition to the harshness of the Brahminical tradition of untouchability, Sati and various injunctions on women. Among the prominent Bengali Christians was Michael Madhusudan Dutta, an epical poet who established the blank verse and the sonnet in Bengali poetry. A major point of difference between the Brahmos and the Christians seems to be that while the former looked towards a wholly changed social order, the Christians looked towards self reflection and self-reform. Brahmos positioned theirs as a separate religion which would ‘convert’ Hindus into a more spiritual and elated version of their own religion. Christianity, in contrast was a different religion that required formal conversion. Yet, unlike the Brahmos, the Christians looked more into themselves, changing themselves instead of wanting to change the world at large. Paradoxically, therefore, Christians were in many ways more entrenched within the traditional society albeit themselves retreating into a world of difference.

Interestingly, Bengali Christians never really thought of themselves as distinct from the mainstream society; they held a moral high ground from which they exercised a certain kind of cultural refinement. The times of which we speak, namely the early 20th century, cultural refinement had already become an important social capital and could land people in good jobs and elicit kindly treatment by landlords, money lenders, neighbours and other principals constituting the social world. Bengali Christians freely married into the Hindu communities but were close knit nuclear families with values of cooperation and mutual support. Children of these families fared well in life, marked by cultural refinement, sophistication of the mind and were regarded for their integrity and good values. Brahmos, on the other hand, intermarried within the community, became a closed caste like social group and emerged as a socially dominant group claiming higher ritual status than the rest of the Hindu society. The Bengali Christians were thus a reflective and inward looking people, who had really no borders drawn against the society at large, but who garnered inner resources to emerge as a favoured category through their integrity and loyalty to the prevalent culture of the mainstream. Surprisingly, the Bengali Christians were loyal to mainstream Hindu culture, although opposing its ritualism as immorality.  Ashis Nandy’s psychological profile must be seen in this context.

Politically, Nandy is a Gandhian. Gandhi too is deeply influenced by Christian morality. Gandhi is more of a Christian than a Hindu, believing in self-control, self-discipline and that inner integrity and inner strength to emerge into the society purely upon virtues. Ambedkar’s discourse against Gandhi is not over the latter’s Hinduism, a religion which has created untouchability and thus disadvantaged and discriminated against Ambedkar’s community; instead Ambedkar’s problems lie elsewhere. They lie in Gandhi’s acceptance of tradition. Modernity for Gandhi has problems; Christianity does better for him. Modernity’s instrumentalist rationality, its secular morality, its selfish and competitive individualism, its consumerism, its domination through reason, its legalism over emotions, its pursuit of universalism without regard for contexts, its merciless jurisprudence were as abhorrent to Gandhi as it is to Nandy. For Ambedkar, modernity has a great promise to dissolve completely the category of untouchability as unreasonable and irrational. For Gandhi, tradition has enough scope to overcome untouchability through its holism, through its assimilation of diversities and unity of dualities. Ambedkar is not convinced and launches a brand of politics in which the untouchables and the marginalized are ensured of spaces within those areas in which the upper caste dominate. This is the politics of reservation.

The politics of reservation is immoral by both Gandhian principles as well as by Christian morals. It is against both these traditions to seek dominance by dividing the society. Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, perhaps India’s most popular novelist ever was avowedly against Brahmos for trying to divide the larger Indian society by assuming the status of neo-Brahmins. Christians, on the other hand have never been divisive, absorbing the social disabilities without resentment and instead work on the inner strengths, working on family bonds and integrity to move on in life. They believe in self refinement rather than cosmetic empowerment by trying to sit among those who exclude them. Dalit politics focusses far too much on external appearances, on the outcomes of games of numbers as they count their achievements in terms of how many of them are in positions of power. In this manner, they seem to reproduce the same society with its similar structures of oppressions those continuously try to exclude them. The only way out for dalits to fight their exclusion is to become exclusionists themselves. This is the danger of politics of reservation.

Unfortunately for a Gandhian framework there is nothing more damaging than politics conducted in this manner. The oppressed feels that the only way to overcome oppression is to become like the oppressor. This peculiar behaviour comes with modernity, its singular rules, its zero sum outcomes. Were Gandhi to live today, he would have found it rather strange that even in the sixty years of affirmative action life for the Dalit has not become any better, despite everything apparently going in their favour. He would have thought that until and unless the foundation of exclusion is not attacked, there cannot be a hope of improvement. To attack the foundation, the Dalit should have risen like a sect, a whole new sect, based upon the discovery of new values and new ethos with which a new social order should have been constituted. Ambedkar, in a way moved in this direction with his Buddhism, trying to make Dalits into a new religion.

Unfortunately for Ambedkar, Dalits used the new identity to stand in conflict and competition with the rest of the society and like the Muslims, also were part of a separatist politics. Only there was no clear territory which they could partition out of the Indian republic. This was never the Gandhian position. Gandhi wanted the Dalits to emerge as new social leaders, with new dignity in their identities, new pride that raised them to the valued statuses and as Harijans they would have brought a new sense of enlightenment in the Indian society. Ambedkar fought the individual’s rights to overcome her community, the location of her birth and to emerge as anybody else in the society and to be like anyone else. Ambedkar’s politics was of power and not of values where the Dalit should be like anybody else and not confined only as a Dalit in her identity.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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