Generalization Is Inevitable When Talking Meaningfully about India

Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc. I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.

Prof S. N. Balagangadhara’s argument that the Europeans described their experience of India and not India itself is obviously right. It is only from the frame of reference of one’s own culture that anyone can describe what one sees in the world. The observer is intimately connected to the observation. It is only from the frame of reference of their culture that the Europeans saw and talked about Hinduism, the caste system, etc.

I’d like to submit here that the Europeans had another important compulsion over and above their culture: the need to generalize what they saw.

Prof Balagangadhara will agree that words like Hinduism and caste system are huge generalizations. But generalization is inevitable when one is compelled to account for innumerable and diverse phenomena. European colonial writers had to generalize what they saw because their Empire had spread itself recklessly wherever possible. The colonizers didn’t have any reason to stop their conquests at any sort of previously existing boundaries because easy money didn’t stop at those boundaries. How does one talk meaningfully about such a recklessly spread Empire without making generalizations? It’s impossible.

To make matters worse, the list of collective nouns the Europeans used to describe and generalize what they saw has another entry in it which Prof Balagangadhara doesn’t seem to have paid attention to: India. As long as we wish to take this entry seriously, there is no escape from generalization. Every statement about India is a generalization because the very word is the result of European generalization. I’m not saying that we must refrain from making any statement about India. I’m only saying that we must recognize the fact that we’re compelled to generalize when we make one.

I think it’s still possible to make a very good generalization, but we have to be careful. If we aren’t, what we end up calling the Indian way to generalize will continue to have European generalization at the base because European generalization thrives in the very word India. In some sense, we have to remove Europe from India before making our generalization, and it’s not an easy task. (In passing, I have to point out that even European is a generalization, but we can live with it because Europe is quite far away from us and we’re not interested in describing Europe but India here.)

Fortunately, we can talk much more easily about generalization by a Vedantin, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Lingayat, a Shudra, and so on, without including European generalization by default. Similarly, we can also talk about generalization by a Kannadiga, a Tamil, a Telugu, a Gujarati, and so on. These categories were attested before our brush with European colonialism, and continue to exist even today. But we have to be very careful when we talk of an Indian way to generalize because the very category owes its birth to our colonial experience.

Let me end with a few comments on how we could think in order to arrive at an Indian generalization. In some sense, we must arrive at the least common denominator of all the pre-attested categories described and implied in the above paragraph. We must arrive at what is common to all of them and lodge ourselves in that common frame of reference before making our generalization. Most importantly, our generalization must apply to the new India, which is a product of European generalization, and which we also like to call as a democracy.

The task is neither impossible nor simple. Until we come up with such a generalization, there is no option but to use what the Europeans have left us with — Hinduism and caste system. Unfortunately, it is also true that different people will naturally come up with different ways to tinker with these concepts in this interim period. They will infuse them with their own meanings, knowingly or unknowingly retain the European-ness in them to different degrees, and try to explain their version of reality as well as they can.

India Needs a New Economics

Indian economists have always been tempted to enter the fray and come up with their own answers to these questions. But their answers lack originality because they end up taking one or the other side of the already established bipolar intellectual space consisting of two isms: capitalism and socialism. Of course, this side-taking, this lack of originality, is not a problem in itself. Every problem in the world doesn’t require original thinking. However, our economists take sides without understanding the fundamental assumption on whose basis the bipolar economic intellectual space has come to be in the first place: the assumption of a particular kind of state.

Pick up any book on economics, and you’ll find the word state mentioned in it at least once. In fact, from Adam Smith to Karl Marx, from Freidrich August von Hayek to John Maynard Keynes, the most important question economists have been trying to answer is that of the correct level of state interference in economic activities. Should markets be completely free, or should they have state control? What should be the extent of this control?

Indian economists have always been tempted to enter the fray and come up with their own answers to these questions. But their answers lack originality because they end up taking one or the other side of the already established bipolar intellectual space consisting of two isms: capitalism and socialism. Of course, this side-taking, this lack of originality, is not a problem in itself. Every problem in the world doesn’t require original thinking. However, our economists take sides without understanding the fundamental assumption on whose basis the bipolar economic intellectual space has come to be in the first place: the assumption of a particular kind of state. Thus, without caring for whether western economists like the ones mentioned above refer to the same kind of state when seeking the correct level of its interference in markets, Indian economists turn knobs in the hope that they can come up with the correct level of state intervention for India. This is a huge problem.

I have not come across a definition from any western economist of the kind of state he or she refers to. I don’t mean to include in this definition qualities they’d like to see in the state (of which they have of course written a lot), but qualities they ignored, considered inevitable, or regarded as ideologically neutral—in short, qualities they took for granted. Since one does not list down things one takes for granted, it is understandable that western economists haven’t considered it important to clarify their definition of state for people like me. Indian economists, who have failed to set up an Indian school of economics in the real sense of the term, are in a worse position. Since their western gurus didn’t tell them, they don’t even subconsciously know what kind of state is taken for granted in their economics bibles. While western economists didn’t find it worth highlighting, Indian economists don’t even know about it, and therefore, cannot highlight it.

The best way to get out of this situation is to start from a clean slate. Western economics and its bipolar world of capitalism and socialism must be consulted if and only if, and as and when, the need arises. One thing that will stand out in this approach is that it cannot take the Indian state as it exists today for granted. This is because it is a new kid on the block, and a democracy too. Kids grow and democracies change. Indian economists who want to start anew, therefore, don’t have the luxury of taking the Indian state for granted even subconsciously. It must not only be consciously understood but also reformed if need be.

At this point, it would be unjust of me if I should refrain from writing down what, in my view, was the kind of state that western economists took for granted. Western economists were dealing with European states such as England, France and Germany, all of which had a few important features which didn’t warrant mention because of their obviousness. First, they were all culturally and linguistically as homogenous as could have been imagined. Second, they were or had been monarchies with rather stable geographical boundaries for ages. Third, the people of those states had a clear sense of who constitutes ‘us’ and who constitutes ‘them’. Fourth, those states comprised of only one level of government—‘the’ government—which meant low power-distance. Fifth, the government was comprised of people who the public could call ‘us’ from a cultural or linguistic perspective; it was not—at least predominantly not—made up of ‘others’.

Let me end this article by contrasting the above with the Indian state, hoping it provides sufficient motivation for a new Indian economics. First, the Indian state is nowhere close to being culturally and linguistically homogeneous. Second, the Indian state with its current boundaries has never been the territory ruled in its entirety by any native monarch; there have always been multiple monarchies with relatively unstable geographic boundaries within India. Third, the people of the Indian state have never in history had a sense of Indianness; Indianness has never been and is not a proper identity. Therefore, despite recent assertions that it must change, ‘us’ and ‘them’ have been and continue to be words Indians use to describe themselves as much as they use it to describe non-Indians. Fourth, the Indian state has two important levels of government, central and state, with the former farther away from the people than the latter but possessing greater power. Fifth, the central government, which holds sovereign power and can define and redefine state boundaries, is predominantly made up of ‘others’ for most Indian cultural and linguistic peoples.

It is my contention that these differences are impossible to reconcile with the existing obsequious Indian economics. What we need is a completely new Indian economics—if we want to keep India one, that is. If the current economics continues, even without the knowledge of Indian economists, the entire political economy appears to be all set to move towards disintegration, simply because that is the underlying scenario in Europe. After all, nearly every feature of the state that western economists took for granted applies not to India as a whole but to the Indian ‘states’ which were carved out after the British left.

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.

The disappearance of choice

There was a time when India’s different cultures could benefit from each other by sharing their best art. A Kannada poet could learn from a Bengali poet, a Marathi sculptor could learn from a Tamil sculptor, and so on, and so forth. That which was worth sharing with others in one culture, then, used to stand up all by itself to such a great height that every other culture would take notice. It was ultimately left to the recipient cultures to partially or fully accept the novelty, or even reject it entirely. True, everything so shared was not necessarily good for all of humanity; and true, the recipient cultures did not always exercise caution in accepting the novelty. But you still had to have done something exceptional in art for your work to travel.

One easy example is Valmiki’s Ramayana. Its fame spread so far and wide that it is very difficult to imagine how it could have done that at a time when there were no modern means of transport or communication. The epic had a profound impact on cultures not just in today’s India but also outside it. Of course, it underwent several changes over several centuries to suit host cultures, but there is something exceptionally brilliant about it which gave it wings. It did not have only good effects wherever it went, but that’s not the point here. The point is, one had to be a Valmiki for one’s art to travel across the subcontinent.

Today, not only is art of the caliber of a Ramayana missing, but all art is arguably on its deathbed everywhere in India. Yet physical flesh-and-bones people travel and settle down wherever they want in India. Unfortunately, these people outnumber and outshine any remaining art from their home cultures that could deserve to travel more than them. Dry economic and political factors give these people wings today, and the host culture doesn’t have the choice to reject them; that would be unconstitutional. As a result, cultures no longer have the choice of what they import from other cultures.

The first problem with this is that it destroys culture everywhere. People can no longer distinguish between good and bad, beneficial and harmful, what’s worth exporting and what’s worth importing. Cultures that were used to evaluating foreign art before accepting or rejecting are now being forced to accept foreign flesh and bones, and this forced acceptance dilutes them further. Even the cultures that send out these flesh and bones are losing sight of the importance of art. There was a time when they used to send out the works of Valmikis, but now they send out people with no food or work, let alone art, and this seems to them to be a valid way to interact with other cultures.

The second problem is that migrants physically replace natives. This is a war-like situation because the natives are increasingly robbed of their right to the basic necessities of life and gradually, life itself. This creates a further barrier between cultures through which art finds it impossible to travel. More dangerous are the walls of hatred that get built because of imposed suffocation and consequent resistance. Nor are the fountains of flesh and bones coming anywhere close to containing themselves any time soon. The very fact that they can physically spread out dilutes the reason to contain and yet, those who are being forced to accommodate are the ones who are family-planning themselves out of the planet.

All this, ladies and gentlemen, is due to Indian nationalism as conceived today. It must change.

Hindi as Putonghua

It is often difficult to separate out jealousy and enmity. While Narendra Modi‘s attack on China for its ‘expansionism’ is widely understood not to increase friendship between India and China, that’s not the full story. There is jealousy in it, too.

The Government of India has always secretly craved for Chinese-style control on the diverse peoples of India – and that’s internal ‘expansionism’. Not surprisingly, it forms the foundation of the Indian elite’s Idea of India. How nice it would have been if, for the outer world, the Government of India could openly claim complete racial, linguistic, and ethnic homogeneity within India! How nice it would have been if the Many voices of the Many Indias could be made to disappear and instead, the One voice of One India could assert itself on the global stage! Wouldn’t that be the roar of the Indian Lion no force on earth can stand up to? Narendra Modi is a puppet trying its best to turn this necrophilic dream into reality.

Of course, there is no democracy in China; India scores a big positive on that front. But there is no dearth of Indians who think democracy is India’s bane. And there is no dearth of people who think of democracy as a means to an end, not an end in itself. Why, even the founding fathers of independent India considered democracy as the best means to achieve, among other things, the homogeneity that China has achieved – but nonviolently. Why raise an arm where words suffice? Why use sticks when strategically placed carrots suffice? It is in the means that China differs most from India. The end is the same: homogeneity.

The Chinese have been getting rid of diversity, which always opposes the State’s supreme wisdom, from as early as 221 BC when the Qin dynasty came to power. But India hasn’t done anything comparable before 1947 AD – or, I must say, before the freedom struggle came of age. While the Chinese have effectively destroyed the various languages of China using violent means – books have been burnt, scholars buried alive, a single script imposed on one and all at gunpoint – India hasn’t tried anything of the sort. Instead, we are all set to destroy all Indian languages but Hindi nonviolently. No books will be burnt, no scholars will be buried alive, but they will all voluntarily submit their souls to the Centre, propelled simply by monetary, career, and sexual incentives (the last is the territory of Bollywood). That’s the belief, at least.

Take, for example, the upcoming State-sponsored celebration of Hindi beginning next week. That’s like a festival to celebrate the imposition of Beijunghua (the language of Beijing) on the diverse Chinese and calling it Putonghua (common language). Only, the Chinese never had to resort to such cheap tricks: they caught hold of all other languages and sent them to the guillotine after turning the lights off centuries ago, and nobody came to know.

Chinese writers who are allowed pen and paper by the Party, such as Zhang Weiwei, now claim that China is a ‘civilizational state’ – implying an organic homogeneity in one sixth of the world’s population. But in reality, China is a ‘state civilization’ – a whole mass of humanity forcefully subjected to an arbitrary state’s mindless craving for uniformity. The Indian elite working in tandem with the Government of India, jealous that our kings didn’t achieve this in the quietude of history, are now trying their best to achieve it today. Needless to say, they will fail, and the failure will be demonstrated, to an extent, in the next couple of weeks.

First Published: IBNLIVE, 12-09-2014