Ashis Nandy: Why Nationalism and Secularism Failed Together
Ananya Vajpeyi 18 October 2016

Nandy first achieved renown as a student of colonialism and of colonized mentalities. He wrote about the decolonization of the Indian mind, and about the relationship between India and Britain, colonized and colonizer, “intimate enemies”. He examined the British and other European colonial states, identifying among them as “First World losers”, with all their machismo, their hyper-masculine will to power that feminized and emasculated the cultures, like India, that they sought to conquer and dominate. So the first question I want to ask him is the following.

If the Indian mentality needs decolonizing, what needs to be done about the European mentality? In the relationship between “the West” and “the Rest”, the Rest must free itself of its conscious and subconscious subordination, and the West too needs detoxifying. But how? What changes are possible in the European mentality? What would you call this process? The removal of egocentric manias? “Provincialization”- as suggested by the Canadian analyst Charles Taylor as well as your compatriot Dipesh Chakrabarty?

I agree with Taylor and Chakrabarty; my ideas are not very different. But Europe and North America, because of the experience of colonialism, have a sense of triumphalism and a feeling that their way of life is somehow superior to other parts of the world. I believe that the world just does not have the resources to produce half a dozen USAs. That kind of confidence, that kind of luxurious lifestyle has not done any good to the world and its environment, nor has it done much good to American culture itself. Europe is a little better, but even there, I find it troubling that they are so hostile to immigrants, supposedly because their foreign presence will dilute Europe’s prosperity, it will make life less comfortable for Europeans. You can see the irony there. There needs to be new learning on all sides.

What is that?

What applies to Europe applies to India and everyone else. A degree of openness to other lifestyles and ideas is necessary and implies, in some cases, that consumption levels should fall instead of rise. There is something profoundly wrong in the problems Europe and America experience in addressing this possibility. Our idea of progress unfortunately is hitched up with the idea of perpetual growth. There are limits to this. I mean many, many years ago, the Club of Rome produced a manifesto about it. Even if we cannot sell that to our public, we can at least prepare them for a state when they say, all right, this is enough, we don’t want to grow any more.

You are a Bengali and you experienced Partition, the separation between Muslims and Hindus, the birth of Pakistan (in 1947) and then of Bangladesh (in 1971). The Partition of British India remains the greatest human migration and displacement in history. One understands that Indians are a little surprised, but not shocked, by the fears of Europeans. Hostility towards those recently arrived is a feeling India knows well.

I do belong to Bengal, although I have not lived there since I was a child. In Bengal I saw the same hostility to immigrants after India was partitioned that you see now in Europe. A huge number of refugees came to West Bengal (the Indian side), nearly ten million all at once. And then, over time, many more. It was a disaster. Bengalis were very hostile to refugees (who were actually also Bengali) and the same thing happened in divided Punjab, to refugees from West Pakistan (who were also Punjabi).

The government – the states of India and Pakistan – treated refugees and migrants on both sides much better, the government was in principle open to them, but their own relatives, their own communities, were much more hostile and unforgiving. They felt this was a kind of attack, a subversion that would dramatically change the face of communities, which it did, irreversibly. Refugees bore the brunt of the destruction of integrated and mixed communities that Partition had wrought on the entire subcontinent, but most acutely in Bengal in the east and in Punjab in the west.

Does news of today’s European’s state of shock when faced with the refugee crisis give Indians the feeling that the old colonial powers are now weaker?

No, I don’t think Indians feel that way at all about Britain. Indians do not have the feeling that Brexit is a sign of weakness, partly because they see Britain as the embodiment of Anglo-Saxon power, which rules the world no matter what. The United States considers Britain the ‘Mother Country’ and together they are still a formidable presence in the Indian mind, justified or not, believable or not. It may be a fantasy for all we know, but that’s the way Indians look at it. They also feel that they have a better understanding of that hemisphere than of Eastern Europe, or any other part of the world for that matter, including China and Japan, although they are Asian societies. I see the same anxieties, the same feelings of being dominated, and the same feelings of being globally marginalized, even in China.

What is nationalism in India? There are surveys according to which India is one of the most nationalist countries in the world.

Despite this data, I have the feeling that this nationalism is not that viable, mainly because it is too specific to cater to the needs of all Indians. Indians have a different kind of territoriality, a sense of belonging which is built more on old-style patriotism. Nationalism is a relatively new term; it came into use in the 19th century. Even in Europe, before the 19th century there was nothing called nationalism. There was patriotism, people fought and died for king and country, they didn’t die for the nation. Now they talk of the nation, but India doesn’t have a nation, strictly speaking. I believe that the same applies to many Asian societies, because the nation as it is defined in modern Europe, as it is outlined in the Treaty of Westphalia in the middle of the 17th century, is not relevant to our mentality.

India has concentric rings of communities. A person, individually, belongs to not one community, but to a series of communities which are concentrically organized, from the country, to the region, to the language group, to sects, religious groups and then caste groups. It is a very complex system. A person has multiple identities, multiple allegiances. A normal Indian lives with a splintered self, and is quite comfortable with it, because it is a diversity they’re really used to, it has been there for centuries.

In your opinion, nationalism does not suit India. And yet the elections were won by Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP.

He won in a very large way, because India follows the Westminster model, which is a first-past-the-post model. His share of the vote was only 31 percent, give or take a bit if you also count the votes secured by other parties in coalition with BJP. So in India everybody is a minority. Until now, only one regime, about 35 years ago, won with a majority of votes and that was Rajiv Gandhi’s government (elected in 1984). Rajiv Gandhi, you might remember was Indira Gandhi’s son who was assassinated (Indira Gandhi was assassinated in 1984; Rajiv Gandhi in 1991). He was the first and last person to get 51 percent of the vote and that was because there were smaller parties that were not seen as separate, otherwise his vote would not have added up to 51 percent. But that was the only time that somebody won in India by a majority vote. After winning by a huge majority, he only lasted three-and-a-half years (the term is five years).

Mrs. Gandhi herself came in with a huge majority in 1971, after she won the war against Pakistan which led to the liberation of East Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh. She also tested a nuclear device in 1974, and was riding very high. But for three years, she had protests all around her, and had to impose an Emergency and suspend civil rights for 21 months from 1975-77. In 1977, when she declared elections and contested, she lost terribly, terribly. Similar has been the case with others. This is because the Indian voter, for better or for worse, is extremely critical, I would say, almost cynical in his skepticism about ruling regimes. Indian voters take nobody for granted and keep all regimes on their toes.

Your criticism of Modi is very strong but your name is also known in international debates because it is you who opened hostilities, not only against nationalism, but also against Nehruvian secularism. You once said, “I am anti-secularist”. I see that you agree with the post-secular philosophy of Jürgen Habermas and then Michael Walzer. For Walzer, leaders and elites of secular wars of independence and decolonization — Nehru in India, Ben Gurion and other founders of Israel, Arab figures such as Ben Bella, Nasser and others – all of these were guilty of underestimation and indifference or disdain for the place of religion in their respective societies, whether it was Hinduism, Islam, Judaism or Christianity. Nowadays we the see the emergence of religious radicalism, a kind of counter-revolution. Walzer calls this “the paradox of liberation.”

It is, in part, because the secular project was flawed at its core. It presumed that things would follow as they did in Europe, where religion became less sustainable, faith weakened, people declared themselves non-believers, or agnostics or atheists, and very often, I should say, ideology acted as a substitute for religion. People expected these ideologies to also supply the ethical framework for our public lives in the countries of the global south.

This was the case in India too. At the beginning, many people said that secularism in India stood for treating all religions equally. That is not humanly possible; if you are a believing practitioner of religion, then you do not think your religion is the same as other religions. You have a nuanced preference for your faith, even though you might be very respectful of other faiths. In India, it is customary for people to have access to places of worship of other religions and they do show a certain catholicity of belief, a certain ecumenical approach. But nonetheless, they have their faiths, and these faiths were challenged by secularism, or at least it looked as if secularism was challenging faith.One by-product of this secularism was that it gradually created a situation where it looked as if the ideology of secularism was substituting faiths in the public sphere.

But secularists also strongly lay claim to the possibility of morality above and beyond religious faith.

Because the ideology of secularism was not seen to have an ethical structure derived from — or having deep roots in — religious faiths in this part of the world, it looked as if the public sphere was a sphere where the law of the jungle operates. It is that which has created a situation in which the public sphere is seen as an arid area of anomie, as a place in which the ethics and morality of everyday life are not normally applied. The lack of values to provide an ethical frame for public life, is responsible for many of the problems we have seen, not only in India, but also in countries like China, Pakistan, to some extent Bangladesh, Myanmar, other places in southeast Asia.

These words are similar to those of the German legal scholar, Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde who said, “Liberal states [also meaning secular states] live on premises they are not capable of reproducing”.

I think the problem started earlier, with the French Revolution, during which Robespierre very clearly stated that, without terror nothing is achieved. This belief was subsequently imbibed by all Jacobin faiths and my suspicion is that in some sense, this belief has begun to seep into the whole of society. German society after the First World War gradually began to feel morally rudderless and the rise of Nazism is linked to this crisis in public life. People in south Asia, in Southeast Asia, have a different kind of allegiance and, how should I put it, different kinds of relationship with their faiths, because faiths are something interwoven with everyday life, in a much more subtle way. In most cases, it is not even possible to practice one’s faith in the real sense without having a degree of diversity. In Hinduism, for example, there not only millions of gods and goddesses, there are perhaps nothing less than tens of hundreds of sects of various kinds, seventy-thousand castes according to one estimate. The diversity is so enormous that you have to take it in your stride, as part of your faith.

You have written that it is improbable that Nehruvian secularism will prosper, you have spoken of the unsustainability of secularism. Why is that?

I think we have failed very noticeably in the last two-hundred years, to develop an appropriate ethical framework — forget about morality for the moment, but ethical framework — for our public life all over the world. The European Enlightenment  produced everything under the sun — great thinkers, great innovators, great social reformers, great scientists, even in the social sciences and humanities, but it has not produced one particular kind of thing — a great thinker who prioritized non-violence, a crucial component of public life in our times.

India has been the theatre of violence no less than Europe.

India has a long history of violence, it was always a violent society. But because of that perhaps, for the last three-thousand years, starting with Gautama Buddha all the way to Mahatma Gandhi, we have produced a series of thinkers who prioritized non-violence as a crucial component of a good society and a good public life. They did not think that the concept of non-violence is irrelevant to politics, or that these kinds of principles do not work in politics. That was the sense of Gandhi, he came out with his position and took a stance; he could move millions of people. Only the elite called him a romantic vendor of false utopias, but not the people who followed him. They were willing to lay down their lives for him.

You propose an alternative to secularism, looking for new ideas. What would you call this alternative?

I think “cultural pluralism” would work well, but because I think each religious system in this part of the world has had figures who have embraced that. Even Christianity had St. Francis of Assisi. In our part of the world, the church and the state are not separated like that, simply because there is no “Church”, so to speak. That makes it very confusing and very diverse, but it also makes it easy to have a different kind of dialogue.

What about the unspeakable violence in the Gujarat in 2002? Following those massacres you yourself harshly criticized Narendra Modi.

The violence in Gujarat did not arise from religion. I have done a very large study of the genocide that took place when India was partitioned, with the great Hindu-Muslim massacres, it was most violent. It was a surprise to see that those who resisted the violence, and there were very many of them, invoked their religion to do so. They believed that those who killed were actually flouting the principles of their religion and, as devout Hindus or devout Muslims, they all did it to protect their neighbors belonging to other religions.

What is happening now is a fresh wave of Hindu nationalism and it is nullifying the secular project. Modi’s government is supporting a political ideology that uses religion a great deal.

One thing I want to clarify at the very beginning here, is that the Hindu nationalist project is a direct product, not indirect, of the secularist project, because the person who established it was an atheist and publicly so. It is very strange that in South Asia, both, the leader of the Hindus, who produced the Bible of Hindu nationalism —  Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, and the leader of Muslim nationalism who carved out a Muslim state in the subcontinent, Pakistan — Mohammad Ali Jinnah, were non-religious. And both had a deep contempt for ordinary Hindus and ordinary Muslims.  But both felt that we must follow the European pattern and have proper nation-states, and to have proper nation-states you have to have nationalities.

For better or for worse, in India, Hindus being the majority, they must constitute the nationality and in Pakistan, Muslims being the majority, they must constitute the nationality. Unfortunately for these leaders, the populations on both sides were  recalcitrant, cussed, obstinate people. They have lived for centuries with a different set of rules and are not easily swayed or pushed around by ideologies trickling down from the top.

Hence secularism / nationalism are ideologies that go against the nature of the people on whom they have been imposed.

Contempt for Hindus and Muslims is writ large in the lives and the writings of these two champions — Jinnah and Savarkar. An important part of the story is that this was an attempt to engineer an entire religious community into a nationality, and it produced nothing of the sort, but in the process divided the two communities and created permanent tension between the two. It is a bit like what happened in Palestine. But one should not forget that relations between Jews and Muslims virtually everywhere, in the Maghreb, in the Ottoman Empire, in Moorish Spain, were better than in the rest of Europe. But today, they are fighting like cats and dogs and this bitterness has lasted in Israel / Palestine for sixty-five years and in South Asia (India / Pakistan) for sixty-five years, because the political processes in both places incurred this bitterness. They tried to build their own constituencies for a democratic consolidation of both, and therefore I do not see an easy way out of it.

With inputs and translations between Italian, English and Bengali by Ananya Vajpeyi.



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