Archaeological Excavations Are Political

There’s news of the ASI excavating a “Harappa-like site” in Keezhadi, Tamil Nadu. The site is actually 1200 years younger than Harappa and 2000 km away from the Harappa / Mohenjodaro area.

In any case, I wanted to make a small point: archaeological excavations are political. They dig for political benefit.

Now they’re digging in Tamil Nadu because they want proof for foregone conclusions about the history of the most politically active linguistic people in India. Not that they’ll find them, but they feel compelled to try.

The Vaigai river is nothing compared to the Kaveri or Krishna in its expanse, and it doesn’t take an archaeologist to persist in digging on the banks of these rivers in Karnataka.

They don’t pay as much attention to Karnataka because we’re pretty-much politically dead from the point of view of ‘national’ parties which run the Govt. of India which runs the Archaeological Survey of India. Governments don’t dig where the dead live. They dig to make graves for the living.

Some Thoughts on l’affaire Malhotra-Pollock-Murty-Ganesh

A rich Kannadiga gives 5.6 million USD to an American professor of Sanskrit in Columbia University to translate Sanskrit (and some actually spoken-language) works to English. An American citizen of north Indian origin, making highly publicized trips to India and not having two aksharas of Sanskrit in head suddenly rises to save Sanskrit, writes a book arguing that the American professor is inimical to Hinduism. Another Kannadiga, but this time an actual walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit and Sanskrit literature, shows what’s wrong with the American citizen’s book. Then the American citizen writes a reply literally begging all insiders to support him instead in the war against the enemy, viz., the said professor, showing the world that it’s not the truth that matters in this war but solidarity within the Indian army.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a few things to say about these developments.

It’s a pity Rohan Murty is paying someone, anyone, to translate Sanskrit and other Indian-language classics to English. The $5.6 million largesse is based on the idea quite popular among educated urban Indians that Indian languages are going to die soon, that is if they already aren’t dead. However, since the wisdom of our ancients shouldn’t die with them, we’ve got to quickly collect it in a living language, viz., English, before the dying languages in which it’s coded become totally unintelligible.

Better than this fatalistic approach would have been to actually fund the Sanskrit University in Karnataka. I’m saying this even though I don’t think this institution should actually exist; it’s more important for us to invest in Kannada. In a world where people understand the difference between Sanskrit and Kannada I wouldn’t make this statement. But people don’t understand the difference.

Even Shatavadhani Ganesh (the walking encyclopedia of Sanskrit in case you didn’t guess) pretty much finds no difference between Sanskrit and Kannada. Kannada, for him, is equivalent to Sanskrit because it has no life without Sanskrit. Read two Kannada sentences written by Ganesh and you’ll experience reading Sanskrit for all you know.

Ganesh shares the belief that Indian languages are dying or dead. Only, he shares the belief about living languages such as Kannada. The one dead language, if you can call Sanskrit that, is like totally actually completely fully alive and kicking. It is in his mind; I must be fair to him.

I don’t share this fatalistic belief about Kannada or other living Indian languages. They’re not dead. They’re not dying. They’re only going from strength to strength. Those who are working in these languages know this quite well. Yes, they lack a few things such as terms of modern science and technology, but if you’ve even taken a superficial look at the recent attempts to fill this void, you know that these languages are just waiting to replace English.

All this is certainly true for Kannada, my mother tongue, which we’ve been strengthening from the inside for close to a decade now. I say we since I’m also a part of this ongoing movement led, so to speak, by stalwarts like D N Shankara Bhat, K V Narayana, and others. This movement intends to make Kannada stand on its own legs in today’s world. We’ve been coining new words in Kannada, writing a new grammar for Kannada because the existing ones try to force-fit Sanskrit grammar like one force-fits a square peg in a round hole, and building a new genre of Kannada writing from scratch – the science and technology one.

Given this, I think it’s much better for Rohan Murty to put his money in efforts to strengthen Indian languages, especially his own mother tongue, Kannada. Not English! What Rohan’s mother, Sudha Murthy (a Kannada writer of some repute) tries to do individually needs the power of Kannadiga youth, and money, behind it. There are many more linguistic registers to fix in Kannada than literature.

Even in the limited context of ancient Sanskrit texts, there is a lot of important Kannada work that hasn’t even been attempted. The Vedas, Upanishads, and the like, remain totally inaccessible to most Kannadigas, including Brahmanas. They need to be completely converted to Kannada, ready for chanting and everything. It’s time we did this to take the wisdom of the ancients to the masses speaking a living language. If this seems like a pitch for Rohan Murty’s money, you’re sensing it right. Why not?

Shatavadhani Ganesh, interestingly but understandably, finds our attempts to reinvigorate Kannada regressive. It’s regressive to try and strengthen Kannada, especially without the best help people like him can offer, viz., filling the empty vessel of Kannada with life using Sanskrit. It’s regressive to try and build a science and technology corpus in Kannada because English is the way to go. It’s regressive to question the ancients’ view of Kannada grammar because it’s ancient and ancient is right. I haven’t exactly proposed chanting the Vedas and Upanishads in Kannada to him but if I may take a guess based on my previous interactions with him, he’d dispose it off as both impossible and unnecessary. Impossible because he’s too busy with Sanskrit; and unnecessary because where’s the difference between Sanskrit and Kannada?

You must now be wondering why the title of this post mentions Rajiv Malhotra. Why hasn’t the American citizen out to save Sanskrit, not possessing two aksharas of Sanskrit in his head, entered the story yet? I didn’t plan it out this way; I naturally began talking about people I can relate to, those who are tied to me by the bond of Kannada.

But mention I must, because many who are reading this have pretty much cut off their links with Kannada due to circumstances they don’t control. Their children are in English medium schools and the national media, together with the nation’s constitution, has already buried Kannada. Having cut off, some of the people in question have joined the Rajiv Malhotra cult because he’s naming and shaming whites like Sheldon Pollock (the American professor in the story). And boy, isn’t it fun to name and shame whites, the ones who killed Sanskrit, created the caste system, and divided India by creating new languages?

What do I have to say about Rajiv Malhotra? The man’s scholarship begs proof of existence; it’s certainly no match to the walking Sanskrit encyclopedia of Bengaluru, Shatavadhani Ganesh. This fact Rajiv proves in every book of his, every tweet of his. His idea of intellectual kshatraguna is worth nothing in real intellectual circles. Being an intellectual is about pursuing the truth – real or imagined – not about bulldozing your way in the intellectual battle like a warrior with a sword to kill. The only thing to be destroyed in the intellectual battle is ignorance – irrespective of in which individual it’s lodged – the siddhanti or his purvapaksha. Not for Rajiv. For him, intellectuals are people who churn out material to destroy enemies like Sheldon Pollock and stick to it come what may, the truth be damned. Enemies don’t speak the truth, we do. We we we we we. We are right, they are wrong.

You can see this nonsensical approach to non-scholarship in Rajiv Malhotra’s reply to Shatavadhani Ganesh. He’s basically begging Ganesh to fight the enemy, i.e., Sheldon Pollock, instead of creating dissent in what he calls, from the comfort of his home in the United States, the home team. You can also see this approach in the casual way in which Rajiv Malhotra believes someone could have written a ‘grammar of the Dravidian race’. Languages, not races, have grammar, but try telling that to an intellectual kshatriya with an army of twitter trolls. Their intellectual standards are different.

To put a long story short, I don’t have anything to add to the criticism of Rajiv Malhotra in this article. Shatavadhani Ganesh has done a wonderful job of it. I find him unshakeable (I’ve tried) when it comes to Sanskrit and Sanskrit works. Where he is shakeable (I’ve tried) is when it comes to Kannada and living languages.

Ganesh seems to be unaware of Sheldon Pollock’s Language of the Gods in the World of Men – I mean the half that talks about Kannada (not that I think he’s read the half that talks about Sanskrit). In that, Pollock traces the historical path of Kannada as it slowly replaced Sanskrit as the lingua franca – something S Settar independently does in his monumental and recent work, Halagannada: Lipi, Lipikaara Mattu Lipi Vyavasaaya. Ganesh doesn’t have time or inclination for stuff like this. All this talk about Kannada and its independence from Sanskrit (in his blame he includes samskruti also) is the last wish of the dying. Kannada is transient, Sanskrit permanent.

So let’s not even fight the battle for Kannada; let’s chant the Bhagavad Gita and run away like cowards.

Why India Wasn’t a Nation

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore’s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu’s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

In The Pyramid of Corruption, I take Rabindranath Tagore‘s definition of nation as an ‘organization of politics and commerce’. Unfortunately, this is not everyone’s definition. However, as long as one writes down a definition and sticks to it, discussion and debate are possible between people who define it differently. In this article, I will make a few comments on Sankrant Sanu‘s article Why India Is a Nation, which may be seen as representing all shades of popular political thought in India.

The first difficulty in commenting on it is that I agree that India is a nation. Where I disagree with him is the why part, and as my title here makes it clear, on the idea that India was a nation. As I see it, India is a nation because there is one organization of politics and commerce encompassing India the country as we see it on the map today. And yes, it was indeed the British who created this organization. It’s not as if Sankrant doesn’t thank the British for it. In his own words, the “British experience is part of who we are today, so they certainly added to our civilization.” That’s a clear recognition of British presence in the genes of the Indian nation of today – exactly the line I take in my book.

Coming to the question of definitions, what I call the nation is what Sankrant calls the nation-state in his section titled ‘The Modern States and Their Origins’. He admits that the very concept of nation-state (to use his word) is new to the entire world, not just to India. This, of course, is correct. But the problem is, in making the point that the world didn’t have nation-states until recently, Sankrant picks up tiny pieces of land in Europe – the nation-states of Europe, to be precise – and compares them with all of India taken as one nation-state. This is remarkable because it’s like comparing an apple to a apple tree.

That apart, after dismissing the ‘shifting nature of political kingdoms and their boundaries over the centuries’ as a way to ‘legitimize’ a ‘country’ (that’s a new word, but I’m not surprised), Sankrant goes on to suggest later in the article that India had something called political unity from the 6th Century BC. I will come to this notion of political unit shortly, but I’ll let you guess why he makes this argument if it’s no way to ‘legitimize a country’.

Next, Sankrant asks the question as to whether ‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, imagine of themselves a common socio-cultural geographical heritage that comprised them as a nation’ in India, suggesting, of course, that the answer is ‘yes’. To support ‘a particular geography’, he offers a physical map of Asia and asks his reader to ‘take a deep breath’ and ‘reflect on the significance of this geography’. These deep breaths work wonders in academic circles, don’t they?

Proceeding, Sankrant argues that ‘civilization’ developed on the ‘great river systems of the Indus and the Gangetic plain’. Meanwhile, eminent historian K.A.Nilakanta Sastry writes on page 44 of his History of South India that the antiquity of human life in South India ‘goes back about 3,00,000 years’ and goes on to provide several reasons for this claim. There is a whole lot of recent research which suggests an independent centre of civilization in South India, away from the two river plains of North India mentioned by Sankrant. But this doesn’t figure in Sankrant’s north-centric narrative. The problem with this omission is, it destroys his very thesis that there was ‘a particular set of people’ with a ‘common socio-cultural geographical heritage’, that there was ‘a unique and diverse civilization’. The ‘diverse’ in this last claim, of course, is a weak, unsubstantiated (by him) and half-hearted plug for people who point out India’s diversity.

Sankrant then goes on to provide what he thinks of as examples of political unification in India’s history. Curiously, none of his examples (or any that anyone else can provide) are examples of unification of all of India. The Mauryas conquered almost all of India, admittedly, but did not touch south Karnataka, Tamil Nadu or Kerala. He doesn’t mention that. The other kingdoms mentioned by him didn’t unify all of India even by his own admission. Kanishka didn’t go below central India; the Satavahanas didn’t touch the north; the Guptas didn’t go below the Narmada, but Sankrant pulls some interesting things from the top of his hat: that they were ‘possibly exerting political control even further down south’ and that the states of the south were ‘quite likely de-facto vassal states, paying tributes to the Emperor’; and finally, the Chalukyas and Cholas didn’t conquer the north. Let me leave the Mughals and the British aside because they were indeed not native kingdoms, and everyone knows that they did more to politically unify India than any native kingdom. So much for Sankrant’s suggestion that there has been some sort of unbroken political unity in India.

He says ‘Thus, there was an idea of India that made it be regarded as a separate and whole, even through political change and shifting boundaries of internal kingdoms’, but he has provided not an iota of evidence that any of these kingdoms had an ‘idea of India’, or for the claim that India was ‘separate and whole’ in any sense. All he has provided is proof of political change and shifting boundaries of kingdoms, not ‘internal kingdoms’. One can talk about ‘internal’ when the unit is first proved to exist, and that it can be seen as different from other units. And he hasn’t proved that. What he has proved is the existence of several units with changing boundaries and fortunes on Indian soil.

Āryāvarta
Āryāvarta (Source: Wikipedia)

Next, Sankrant proceeds to his own trap by claiming that ‘the idea of India, as Bharatavarsha or Aryavrata, appears to have been alive for thousands of years’. Many things can start appearing when one is dreaming, and here it is the idea that Aryavarta was all of India. Sankrant purposely twists Manusmriti 2.22 in reporting Aryavrata as a land ‘stretching from the Himalayas and Vindhyas all the way to the eastern and western oceans’ according to the text. In reality, even this sentence of his doesn’t make any sense. There’s half of India lying between the Himalayas and the Vindhyas, and it’s outrageous to say that there’s one piece of land from ‘the Himalayas and Vindhyas’ to something else. You don’t combine the Himalayas and the Vindhyas like that. They’re two separate mountain ranges unconnected to each other.

For a sentence which claims that there is something which stretches from A (Himalayas) and B (Vindhyas) all the way to C (eastern oceans) and D (western oceans) to make sense, A, B, C, and D must form a quadrilateral with A and B as one pair of adjacent sides, and C and D the other pair. But here, if only one looks at a map, A and B are opposite sides, as are C and D. Clearly, this is an attempt to confuse readers into thinking that Manusmriti refers to all of India using the word Aryavarta, while in fact, only the India above the Vindhyas is referred. It is this region of India which he is calling by the name Bharatavarsha, not the whole of India unless you haven’t recovered from the deep breath he wanted you to take earlier.

Sankrant mentions Mahabharata and Ramayana as further proofs of ‘Bharatavarsha or Aryavarta’. While there is no doubt that these epics are popular all over India, he forgets that they are popular even outside it – for example in Cambodia, Thailand, etc. He also forgets to mention lands south of the Vindhyas when he says the Mahabharata ‘shows a remarkable degree of pan-Indian context’. To be fair, names of kingdoms down south are indeed mentioned in both; I’m only pointing out the fact that it suffices for Sankrant to take names from the north. But to come to the larger point he’s making, it is indeed true that these two epics talk about a large part of what we call India today. The question is: So what? They’re chanting Buddhist texts in China, Japan and Korea even today. So what?

After talking about Mahabharata and Ramayana, Sankrant is acutely aware that these are texts written in the north, in Sanskrit, and wants to prove that there’s been flow in the opposite direction, too. For this he mentions the Bhakti movement, crediting Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for its origin. That’s quite nice, thank you from a Kannadiga, but so what? Let us agree that post the 6th or 7th century AD, there has indeed been this cultural export from South India. So what? Does it prove the existence of an Indian nation or nation-state as in ‘organization of politics and commerce’? No. All it proves is that there has been quite a bit of religious churning within the Indian subcontinent, that the north pioneered the culture of today, and that the south made its contribution beginning the 6th or 7th century AD.

In the rest of his article, Sankrant takes the usual path of taking religion as the basis to claim that there was an Indian nation. If this is all he had to claim, why did he get into the mess he got into with respect to politics? Why did he have to twist the Manusmriti and redefine Aryavarta to fit his political message? I will gladly agree that India is the land of Hinduism, although I will never cease to point out in the same breath that it is extremely diverse and that it sets a not-so-good example of handling human diversity with its caste system, its method of attaching inferiority and purity to people, languages, everything. In fact, I increasingly tend to take S.N.Balagangadhara‘s view that there is no Hinduism at all, if and when I’m forced to reckon with someone who doesn’t admit these things. And I don’t see Sankrant Sanu admiting these things. And finally, what has religion got to do with nationalism, unless as a nation we agree to do nothing more than meditate or worship?

To summarize, then, Sankrant Sanu hasn’t provided any evidence of an Indian nation existing before the British, if by nation one means what Rabindranath Tagore meant, i.e., an organization of politics and commerce. He has, however, reiterated the fact that Hinduism exists almost all over India. He has tried to force fit history and religious texts to support his political message, and has hidden the fact that the roots of Hinduism lie in the India above the Vindhyas. He has taken a definition of nation which has nothing to do with politics and economics (‘a particular set of people, within a particular geography, with a common socio-cultural geographical heritage’) and applied it mostly to Aryavarta, misinterpreting it as all of India. He has displayed no understanding of the pre-history of South India. In all, he hasn’t said anything which proves that India, as we know it today, was a nation. Nobody ever has, or can, and I take this point up in detail in my book. As to India being a nation today, all one needs is to mention the Constitution of India.

How not to sell the Vedas

‘Pride is the fuel,’ says Amish Tripathi, ‘that will help us build our nation’ (Vedic learning is no one’s preserve, everyone’s pride, Times of India, 21 Sept 2014). And what does any right-thinking status-quo-ist do when such is the assumption and a nation is given? He looks for an object of pride and hard-sells it. Tripathi sells the Vedas, asserting that all Indians must take pride in them. Why exactly should we do that? He cannot possibly say ‘because we have to build our nation’ – the object of pride must have independent validity – so he goes on to argue that it’s because ‘all groups in the subcontinent today have descended from the ancient Vedic people.’

What exactly do the geneticists say? In a 2013 study titled Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India, published in the American Journal of Human Genetics, Priya Moorjani et. al. argue that most Indian groups descend from a mixture of so-called Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians (ANI and ASI, which Tripathi mentions). Notably, the authors describe these groups as ‘genetically divergent populations’. The first group is ‘related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians and Europeans’ and the second is ‘not closely related to groups outside the subcontinent.’ In other words, there is no walking away from the possibility of the Ancestral South Indians having played hosts to the Ancestral North Indians before intermingling began (from 1,900 to 4,200 years ago according to the same paper).

Tripathi must not have seen much nation-building fuel in mentioning this genetic divergence. He goes on only to say that ‘these groups have inhabited the subcontinent for at least 6,000 years, if not more, heavily intermingling in the ancient past’ (I don’t even want to get into the usual blaming of Germans and Britishers for divide-and-rule). Well, inhabit they could have, but as one group? No. Groups that intermingle ‘heavily’ or otherwise must have been isolated from one another before the intermingling began: it’s commonsense. Moorjani suspects – yes, that word – that ‘the two groups lived side-by-side for centuries without intermarrying’ prior to 4,200 years ago. Tripathi doesn’t want us to read all this in history – glossing over any sort of plurality is the way to go.

Also, Tripathi should be more worried about the shift away from any sort of mingling in the last 1,900 years. According to Moorjani, mixture ‘even between closely related groups became rare because of a shift to endogamy’ – i.e., the caste-system arose – which the Vedic heritage we all must take pride in didn’t do much to discourage. This finds no mention in his article quite possibly because it isn’t good enough fuel, the pontification in the beginning paragraph of his essay notwithstanding.

Even less nation-building fuel there is in seeking the reasons for India’s linguistic diversity. While the novelist can cast his characters such that his prejudice ‘holds true across religions, languages, castes and even national boundaries’, the fact remains that Indo-Aryan and Dravidian languages are quite distinct from each other. The Europeans didn’t invent them; they discovered them. This crucial fact, too, finds no mention in Tripathi’s article.

I haven’t seen a study directly linking this North-South linguistic difference with the genetic difference between ANI and ASI, but commonsense suggests that a link must exist. What sort of commonsense? Just this: that the ancestors of people who speak unrelated languages today must not have intermingled – at least not significantly. No such commonsense is visible in Tripathi’s article. In fact, linguistics, where differences are crystal clear, is very bad nation-building fuel for BJP/RSS types in general. It fuels a completely different kind of nation – one which they hate to imagine. So let’s ensure that objective guides research and findings.

Even if, for argument’s sake, one could successfully trace every Indian to some sort of Rashtriya Adam and Eve – one just needs sufficient pride – it doesn’t follow that we must consider everything the couple did with pride. Some of the greatest sons of India have rebelled against the Vedas. The Buddha in the North and Basavanna in the South are but two examples. No number of opinion pieces convinced them to take pride in the Vedas, let alone those that could have stemmed from political agendas. In fact, this whole idea that we ought to respect that which has been handed down to us from history is irrational and an affront to India’s overall spiritual heritage, though certainly part of Vedic heritage. There, you begin and end with pride – at least of late.

All said and done, there is no doubt in my mind that the Upanishads – which are considered part of the Vedas – are the greatest treasure trove of spiritual wisdom in the world, surpassing that of all other religions. Those who wish to sell them need only to place them before the reader in his or her own language; they cannot but attract the spiritually inclined. One doesn’t need to prove, hopelessly, that the Jilebi was a delicacy eaten by ancient Indians everywhere eons ago in order to attract people who might eat it today. Bring a hot, fresh and tasty one if you have what it takes to prepare it, and mouths will water. What a hopeless exercise it is to bring one’s political biases to the argument that we should study the Vedas! The more the Vedas and Upanishads are considered nation-building fuel, the more shall they become the objects of hate, for the very nature of nation-building is to impose one worldview and cut off other shades of opinion.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 23-09-2014

Perry Anderson’s ‘Indian Ideology’ – a review

‘Who is Perry Anderson?’ I asked my good friend who told me about a book written by the man. He replied that the author is a famous historian and that this particular book is a ‘good critique of the popular idea of India’. Since the book in question was titled Indian Ideology, I decided to take a look. A quick online search led me to the three essays that make up Anderson’s book. Such is their power that I found it impossible to put them down. For two days, without a break, I got drenched in completely new insights into the minds of the so-called makers of modern India.

I think it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I haven’t read anything as stormy, revealing, concise and loaded with information about India as these three essays. Every line is a Axe – as Kafka would’ve put it – for the frozen sea within the Indian mind, an expression I don’t usually approve of in a nation so diverse.

His brutal criticism of highly respected Indian leaders, complete with who was in whose bed, is overconfident at times but never without irony. For those who don’t expect the icons of Indian nationalism to be perfect diamonds to begin with, or understand that perfect diamonds don’t necessarily lead to immaculate politics, Anderson’s revelations are reconfirming details. For the multitudes who do, however, they’re fatal blows that turn the diamonds to dust. That is, if they can manage to rise above Indian indoctrination which includes, first of all, the teaching that they should stay away from foreigners’ accounts of Mera Bharat Mahaan. But Anderson’s insights are not not limited to these individuals; they extend to the overall system in which they operated. He must be read. Very, very, carefully.

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Should M.K.Gandhi the individual be blamed for the creation of a separate Muslim state because of his Hindu revivalist agenda? It is one thing to point the finger at him for what happened but quite another to understand why it happened and whether anyone needs to be blamed at all. It isn’t as if someone other than Gandhi could have made a better choice than to let the Muslims fight under a separate banner. The Muslims had to organize and unite against the Raj, and the quickest and the most effective way of doing so was under their own banner. Ditto for the Hindus. Before blaming Gandhi for this, one must recognize that the corrupting influence of the British forced Indians to politically organize themselves as quickly as possible, under whichever banners seemed expedient at the time. Surely, one cannot blame him or the Congress for decentralizing the ‘legitimacy in the struggle for independence’ at least inasmuch as religion was concerned, especially given that the Muslim regions were large contiguous pieces of land in both the west and the east.

It is all nice to argue from the comfort of a university nearly a century afterwards that India deserved leaders who, and a freedom movement which, discarded religion while organizing against the British. But it’s not a requirement for freedom struggles. Again, it’s one thing to sit and analyze India’s freedom struggle from a different continent and another to face the heat of colonial oppression and do whatever it takes to build up opposition. Are there examples in the world of hundreds of millions organizing themselves for any reason, let alone that of achieving freedom from a colonial power, without employing religion? For those who have learnt to criticize religion every time and everywhere, it may appear incorrect for people to use it to organize, but incorrect it does not become for that reason. Indeed, why call partition ‘the calamity of… division’ unless one is obliged to follow the motto ‘what Empire has joined, let no man put asunder’? The idea of India as one political unit being ‘a European not a local invention,’ as Anderson acknowledges, why shed a tear at the inability of the Congress to keep the entire Empire under one postcolonial unit?

The manner in which the partition was achieved, however, deserves Anderson’s criticism well. The ‘political cupidity’ and the ‘territorial greed’ of the Congress are certainly not virtues, and partition could have been achieved, perhaps, in a more thought out manner, with cross-border migrations spread over a longer period of time and the mass violence avoided with utmost care. The ‘deep culture of the subcontinent’ cannot, indeed, be said to have foreordained the manner of the partition. But that foreordaining was done by the Indian imprint of the deep culture of cupidity, greed, and violence of the British and passed on to the Congress in a country that had confined itself largely to spirituality on the one hand and the relative nonviolence of the caste-system on the other.

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Anderson’s analysis of the caste-system and its effect on the freedom struggle and independent India is excellent but incomplete. In a couple of superb paragraphs, he argues that the caste-system is the reason why India’s poor outvote the rich even though they receive little more than confetti in return. While the rich have a greater capacity for collective action due to their smaller numbers, greater resources and intelligence, says Anderson with Gandhi’s Congress in mind, the poor are ‘organizationally outflanked’ by them not only due to their greater number, dispersed population, and poverty both economic and cultural, but more importantly due to the caste-system. Anderson goes on to declare, quite boldly, that caste is the ‘ultimate secret of Indian democracy’ and also the reason for Congress supremacy during the freedom struggle and after. This is because, he reasons, the caste-system has forever fixed in hierarchical position and divided from one another every disadvantaged group and legitimated every misery in this life as a penalty for moral transgression in a previous incarnation. This analysis is perfect inasmuch as the context is limited, as he rightly limits it, to the boundaries of any given linguistic community. It is in crossing the boundaries that it falters.

India is not ‘divided into some thirty major linguistic groups’ (italics added). It is defined by them. To think of India’s poor – he’s not talking about the rich here – as divided by language is to imagine them to be originally undivided by it. Who said this is true? Even when Karl Marx called out to the (poor) workers of the world to unite, it must have been clear to him that they aren’t united in the first place. Nor did they, can they, or need they, unite so as to erase all linguistic diversity in order to counterbalance the rich who do. This applies to the limited context of India, too, and it is a mistake to believe that collective action by the poor of India must necessarily happen at the all-India level crossing all linguistic borders. Everything which unites the poor must be factored in, not discarded, if at all the poor have to unite. If this means a plurality of unions of the poor, one per major language, it is realistic; not a global or India-wide solidarity of ‘the proletariat’. Here again does Anderson’s analysis fall prey to ‘what Empire has joined, let no man put asunder.’

Anderson’s analysis falls short in another place where he confronts language. While he correctly lauds the Indian nation for creating linguistic states, he fails to extend his understanding of Hindu society to linguistics. The languages of India aren’t equally poor. As I point out in my book, The Pyramid of Corruption, they aren’t independent of the stratification we see in Hindu society, viz., the caste-system. They, too, are arranged in the form of a Pyramid with the language of the Gods, Sanskrit, at the apex, and every other below it at a distance proportional to its poverty of Sanskrit influence. This Pyramid lends stability to the Indian nation in no small degree today because, just like castes languages, too, are fixed in hierarchical position and made to curse themselves for not being pure enough. This self-deprecation ensures stability via Aryan domination, not merely ‘the luck of the cultural draw’ because of which Hindi, with ‘some 40 per cent of the population, had just the right weight to act as a ballast in the political system, without risk of too provocatively lording over it.’ In fact, the ballast is not the Hindi that Anderson imagines but Sanskritized Khariboli, a.k.a. Standard Hindi, of which the speakers are far fewer. Also, just as the plural poor are ‘organizationally outflanked’ by the singular rich, the plural linguistic communities of India are, too: by the most Sanskritized within each community, invariably litterateurs and members of the upper castes, the culturally ‘rich’ who easily combine and maintain the stability of the Pyramid.

*

Linguistic reorganization of states appears as ‘a real achievement’ to Perry Anderson, and rightly so. However, a true votary for federalism in India wouldn’t be persuaded to describe India as ‘a creative flexible federation, in which state governments… enjoy a considerable degree of autonomy’. Sure, Anderson adds the qualifier ‘as long as they did not offer opportunities for intervention by internal disputes or cross too boldly the political will of the centre,’ but that doesn’t do justice to the imbalance of powers between the centre and the states. The political will of the centre includes the will to keep the states without any real autonomy, as evident from the state, central, and concurrent ‘lists’ which separate powers. Anything that can be called a real power continues to remain with the centre and the states are really no more than glorified municipalities. In Pyramid rule, this illusory separation of powers suffices to keep the political class loyal to the system.

One must never forget that India’s central government is essentially an Aryan government with non-Aryan add-ons. The centralization of power in New Delhi is not merely numerical; it is markedly cultural. It would be incorrect, therefore, to compare federalism in India and the US. Not that Anderson explicitly does this, but Western writers cannot, in general, be expected to get a hang of how diverse India really is; they don’t have the first hand experience. Marxist writers in particular have a tendency to support strong governments. Indians need to be extra careful about this tendency because the most important question in India is not who should be stronger, government or business. It is who should be in either government or business: we or they. As things stand, for most of India, it’s they who are in power in New Delhi, not we. And the stronger you make them, the less democratic India becomes. Anderson does not get into these important issues.

He does not have anything to say, for e.g., about national population control schemes which, in effect, threaten to depopulate South India and continue the age-old southward migration of the Aryans. This gets so easily mixed up in the popular rhetoric of development and Indianness that diversity takes a dive; Anderson does not bring this up. Or, take Anderson’s criticism of India’s electoral system. Anderson makes a big deal of the First Past The Post system, but the real problem – the one that touches upon linguistic diversity – is rep-by-pop (representation by population). This system of representation basically ensures that linguistic communities with lower populations are less represented in the Government of India than those with higher ones. This is not a problem in a country such as the US which is a graveyard of languages, or a country such as Germany or France, where there aren’t really any significant linguistic communities that are different from the mainstream. But it is a huge problem in India. It is essentially the institutionalization of Aryan domination over non-Aryans: with 74% seats in Parliament reserved for the Aryans, the non-Aryans are simply afterthoughts who might as well not send any representatives there. The ones they do send essentially bring Aryan rule closer to the non-Aryans.

Last but not least, Hindi Imposition would have done well to form a part of Anderson’s essays. One of the features of Pyramid rule, this is the open and legal call for the speakers of every language other than Hindi to submit to second-class citizen status in India, and it hasn’t reduced after the linguistic reorganization of states. In fact, the states now don’t need to be purely created on the basis of language. The recent bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh is a case in point: the centre now finds it much easier to continue Pyramid rule, complete with Hindi imposition, with the Telugus fighting with each other over ‘confetti’ thrown at them by New Delhi — all together with the claim that India is becoming increasingly federal.

*

Overall, I’d give four out of five stars to Indian Ideology. It’s a true masterpiece. One word of caution, perhaps, is that Indian readers must carefully ensure that Anderson’s wit and eloquence don’t unfairly influence their reading. We’re no strangers to such influence; one shloka in Sanskrit routinely does to us what Anderson’s English prose might.

Links to Perry Anderson’s essays: [1], [2], [3]

Did the founding fathers create a perfect democracy?

If you’ve read Ramachandra Guha’s India after Gandhi, you’ve probably also read the author’s epilogue in it. Although it is titled ‘Why India Survives’, what Guha writes there is why he thinks the Indian nation survives, not India the country. In reality, the question ‘Why India Survives’ is as unnecessary as the question ‘Why Clay Survives’. There is no special enquiry required because survive India does as long as parts of its landmass do not plunge into the ocean and settle at its floor, or something. The proper question is ‘Why the Indian Nation Survives’, i.e., ‘Why the Clay Sculpture Survives’.

Relying on what he calls the ‘primitive techniques of the narrative historian’[i], Guha suggests that the reason why the Indian nation survives (why India survives, as he puts it) is that the ‘forces that divide India’ viz., caste, language, religion and class and gender are nullified by the great power of democracy and something ‘which can only be described as an Indian spirit’[ii]. Yes, a magical, surreal and inexplicable spirit of a kind—to use Gandhi’s words—‘unknown in other parts of the world’. Crediting the founding fathers with planting a ‘sapling of democracy’, Guha writes:

It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities. In India, the sapling was planted by the nation’s founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it into adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot or destroy it.[iii]

Thus, whatever problems one sees in India today, due to which, presumably, Guha himself says that India is a ‘phipty-phipty’ (or fifty-percent) democracy today[iv], are the handiwork of ‘those who came afterwards’. Perhaps unintentionally, Guha makes it seem as if the nation’s founders themselves (the British were the original founders of the Indian nation, but I mean the Indians who founded the independent Indian nation here) have nothing to do with those problems; they apparently had the special ability to turn off one hundred percent the negative influences of ages of societal corruption in India’s history, and possessed the uncanny ability to create a democratic nation with one hundred percent perfection and effectiveness. Democracy, a concept of public affairs ‘brought into being on an Athenian hillside some 2,500 years ago’[v], was Indianized by the founders with no errors whatsoever, and a perfect sapling was planted. While the founders were apparently infinitely above ‘mediocrities’, it’s only ‘those who came afterwards’ who disturbed and degraded the tree of democracy.

This view of the creation of the Indian nation betrays the fact that rational evaluation of the process leading to the founding of nations often stops the moment the figures of the leaders are cast in bronze and garlanded. This also betrays the seemingly uncontrollable urge to think of nations as divine and infinitely incorruptible in spite of all moral evidence to the contrary. Perhaps there is something about history which makes it appear divine, even to historians. They often make us feel that the problems of the present are entirely of recent origin, the past being golden. But is it not obvious that the past was the present one day, and therefore, that it could not have been without its ‘mediocrities’?

Unless we throw away all the societal corruption that our forefathers had perpetrated in India’s long history of ‘socialized tyranny’ (to use Rabindranath Tagore’s description of the caste-system)[vi] into the surreal mist of blind nationalism; unless we believe in angels with mysterious powers who materialize out of nowhere and create ideal democracies irrespective of the social history of the people; or both; an important truth emerges as we carefully read India’s history. Upon rational scrutiny, one realizes that while the founders of the post-independence Indian nation were certainly visionaries who did their best to relieve Indians from the oppression of the British, they made mistakes in the process. They did not emerge out of thin air or remain all their lives completely uninfluenced by those who had come before them. They too were ‘those who came afterwards’. The feeling that most historians spread, that there could have been nothing amiss in the ‘sapling of democracy’ planted by the founders of the Indian nation is, therefore, to be discarded.

The very fact that an oversized and overly-strong central government was created, by usurping the powers of the people and the hundreds of princes and depositing them in New Delhi, is sufficient proof that a perfect democracy was not put in place by the founders. Guha narrates many of the happenings of this period in a detailed chapter titled ‘Apples in the Basket’, but fails to admit that the basket was actually taken away from the people and presented for consumption in New Delhi. Fruits of the people which were grown for the people and which were being enjoyed by the people of India were all basketed and taken away from the people, but Guha does not feel the need to point this out. No, this was the unique Indian method of creating a democracy!

Even today the tendency in India is to centralize anything and everything possible by taking away powers from the people and the states. Indian democracy rests on the principle of absolute power which must sit thousands of kilometers away from the citizen. Political and economic power are not in the hands of the people but concentrated in the hands of those who have assumed lordship over them, just like in the days of the British. Guha describes this as the functioning of a vibrant and well-behaved democracy with all its twists and turns—a reason ‘Why India Survives’.

Or take the example of India’s currency notes. Anybody who has seen one might have easily overlooked the fact that the denomination is printed in fifteen different Indian languages other than Hindi and the language of the original founders of the Indian nation, viz., English. Those fifteen languages have to be literally located on the notes using a magnifying lens. When one ultimately finds them, one realizes that they are not meant for being read by humans. The small font-size used for those languages betrays the ‘importance’ allocated them in the Indian nation during its foundation. Even a dead language – Sanskrit – is given the same place and font-size on the Indian currency note as the living languages, and this speaks volumes of the importance that the Indian nation attaches to the living languages of India (other than Hindi) and their hundreds of millions of living speakers. However, on this topic, Guha happily declares that

The note’s denomination – 5, 10, 50, 100, etc. – is printed in words in Hindi and English (the two official languages), but also, in smaller type, in all the other languages of the Union. In this manner, as many as seventeen different scripts are represented. With each language, and each script, comes a distinct culture and regional ethos, here nesting more or less comfortably with the idea of India as a whole.[vii]

Guha fails to attach even the slightest importance to the fact that the ‘other languages’ are basically neglected by giving them only a ‘smaller type’. This is no trivial fact, but one that illustrates the undemocratic nature of the Indian nation where the languages of India are not treated equally, and where Hindi and English are given larger-than-life statuses. This is the silent rejection of that very idea of democracy on whose basis Guha claims that the Indian nation survives, but he calls this as the nesting of each language, script, culture and regional ethos ‘more or less comfortably with the idea of India as a whole’.

Guha’s failure to recognize such silent rejections of the principle of democracy in the Indian nation, while mechanically listing the raw historical data, is discomforting. Although not in degree, it can be compared in kind to the failure of the Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison to appoint more than one sentence, ‘buried halfway into the telling of a grand romance’, to recount the genocide initiated by Columbus in America. Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, describes this method of telling history in the following revealing words:

One can lie outright about the past. Or one can omit facts which might lead to unacceptable conclusions. Morison does neither. He refuses to lie about Columbus. He does not omit the story of mass murder; indeed he describes it with the harshest word one can use: genocide. But he does something else – he mentions the truth quickly and goes on to other things more important to him. Outright lying or quiet omission takes the risk of discovery which, when made, might arouse the reader to rebel against the writer. To state the facts, however, and then to bury them in a mass of other information is to say to the reader with a certain infectious calm: yes, mass murder took place, but it’s not that important – it should weigh very little in our final judgments; it should affect little what we do in the world.[viii]

Like most historians of Indian origin, Guha makes the reader believe that a near-ideal democracy was put in place by the founders of the post-independence Indian nation. The story to tell is one of the difficulties they faced in doing what they did, not one of the faults in the system they built – that would be unpatriotic! I would not go to the extent of saying that Guha lies about the past or deliberately omits facts, because one has to know the truth to do either. Guha, like most educated Indians, seems not to have looked at India’s past from a viewpoint which can reveal the truth of the silent rejection of democratic ideals in it. He, too, ‘mentions the truth quickly’ and gets on with other matters, including trivia. But unlike Morison’s use of the word ‘genocide’, Guha does not suggest, even in passing, that something undesirable took place during the founding of the Indian nation. He goes on to make the reader believe with an ‘infectious calm’ that whatever it is, it is ‘not that important—it should weigh very little on our final judgments; it should affect little what we do in the world.’

I concur with Howard Zinn that, like every other historian, Guha indulges in what is inevitable for a historian: selection and emphasis. My own reading of India’s history, which I present in The Pyramid of Corruption, is not free from them. ‘In that inevitable taking of sides which comes from selection and emphasis in history,’ as Zinn wrote, my reading is admittedly biased. I have chosen to rewrite the history of the Indian nation (which is nothing more than an ‘organisation of politics and commerce’[ix]) from the viewpoint of its victims, not beneficiaries. From the latter viewpoint, the only thing wrong with the Indian nation seems to be the operational corruption of mediocre followers: a bribing bureaucrat here, a money-laundering minister there, and the like. It is only from the former viewpoint that the corruption in the very foundation of the Indian nation, i.e., India’s primitive corruption, becomes visible.

I don’t have an answer to the question why the Indian nation survives. What I do know is that India’s primitive corruption is killing it at its own slow pace. Will we understand exactly what this corruption is and take necessary measures to remove it? This, as far as I can see, is the most important question in front of Indians.

 


[i] Ramachandra Guha, India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Picador India, 2008, p. xxi.

[ii] Ibid., p. xvii.

[iii] Ibid., pp. 756-757.

[iv] Ibid., p. 749. ‘Phipty phipty’ is the Hindi pronunciation of the English ‘fifty-fifty’, as acknowledged by Guha. The aspirated consonant ‘ph’ is pronounced by the speakers of Indo-Aryan languages of the north including Hindi, but not necessarily by speakers of languages belonging to other language families of India. Aspirated consonants are not pronounced by the speakers of the Dravidian languages of the south, although only Tamil script has eliminated them in writing. In south India, therefore, one hears either hear ‘pipty-pipty’ or ‘fifty-fifty’ without the aspirated first consonant.

[v] Ibid., p. 750, citing Sunil Khilnani.

[vi] Rabindranath Tagore (1941) Crisis in Civilisation, in Mohit K. Ray, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (2007) Vol. 7, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, pp. 980-986.

[vii] Ibid., p. 752. Incidentally, Guha is wrong about ‘seventeen different scripts’. The Devanagari script is used for five languages: Hindi, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, and Sanskrit. The Bengali script is used for Bengali and Assamese. This makes the number of scripts thirteen, not seventeen. If one admits that the Kashmiri script is derived from the Urdu script, the number becomes twelve.

[viii] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492 – Present, p. 8.

[ix] Rabindranath Tagore (1915) Nationalism in the West, in Mohit K. Ray, ed., The English Writings of Rabindranath Tagore (2007), Vol. 4., New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers, pp. 441-465.