Thursday 25 August 2016
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The Modern Paradox

Is communalism an aberration or a key nation-building force?
Creating A Nationality
By Ashis Nandy , Shilha Trivedi , Shail Mayaram , Achyut Yagnik
Oxford University Press Rs:295;Pages:212
THIS might well not sound like praise to Ashis Nandy's ears, but praise it is: the discourse of secularism in Indiahas been significantly enriched by his pioneering intellectual endeavours, ever since the scandal of An Anti-Secularist Manifesto. He was one of the first to name and describe the ostensibly antagonistic but in practice deeply, if complexly, complicitous relation between actually-existent state secularism and the epidemic proliferation of communalisms in our India. 'Shah Bano' and smelly saints in the corridors of power are only two symptoms of the disease.

The book presently under review—Creating a Nationality: The Ramjanmabhumi Movement and Fear of the Self by Ashis Nandy, Shikha Trivedy, Shail Mayaram and Achyut Yagnik—seeks to turn an academic, analytical eye on the tragic events leading up to and following from the destruction of what is now available only as a lying phrase—"the disputed structure"—and a pile of rubble. The contributors are in fact very diverse people, and little attempt has been made to elide the differences of approach and emphasis. This makes for some fuzziness in the overall argument of the book. Still what comes across persuasively is a range of concerns about the rude invasion of our dreams of modernity of course, but also in grim empirical detail, in chawl and pol and gali and kucha, the desecration of our practices of quotidian sanity. Public memory being what it is, it's good to be forced to go over all this once again, to have one's nose rubbed in this dirt—but what a stink!

For many people, and for understandable reasons, Hindutva is a disease. Where this book goes further is in suggesting that it is also a symptom of a particular form of national and state formation. Now, no one can accuse Ashis Nandy of being coy with his argument—and it is available here as well, up front and, indeed, full frontal. Nandy is at war against what he calls "the secularist consensus". This powerful ideology sees "communalism" as an antiquated survival which the pursuit of science, technology, development and rationality will consign to the surely overflowing dustbin of history. Far from communalism being "the Other" of the modern nation-builders, it is in fact an "essential constituent" of their self. Thus, "more" modernity—"more" state, "more" nation, so to speak—will not mean less communalism, but even more. So much of the violence in today's world is traceable to communities which are aspiring to become nations, and nations aspiring to become states. Over the dead bodies of friends and enemies alike. And the entire process may be seen to derive from originary impulses indexed by the Renaissance and the Enlightenment—the human presumption to mould and master God's Design, both in the world of Nature and in the almost-natural world of slowly evolved traditional communities. And, let's face it, there is a superficial plausibility to the argument.

In some sense, of course, everything that happens now, happens under the sign of modernity. But if one allows "modernity" to bloat in this fashion, the corresponding thesis is reduced to triviality. Soon, modernity becomes a secular version of Original Sin, a black hole that consumes all the data, theories, hypotheses, speculations and analyses that scholars can throw at any phenomenon.

There are other problems with the uncontrolled bloating of "modernity". One is left with precious few resources to counter the onslaught of modern barbarisms except nostalgic, elegiac evocations of times and places "where traditional codes of conduct had not weakened through processes of social change and massification". This is, to my mind, merely an intellectual version of the Nukkad phenomenon: the fantastic indulgence in a world of caring and community values provides temporary relief from the pain of reality. This world is constituted almost entirely of people who are dropouts, outcasts, marginal men and women who, because they are outside the great economic engine, unbesmirched by the Enlightenment and its busy progeny, are left free to be human.

Let me explain. Nandy and his collaborators are aware and eloquent about the disastrous consequences of modern nationalism—and rightly so. But it seems to me that their analysis of modern tribalism will have to become more fine-grained and historicised, bring into focus not only the modernity but also the tribal nature of the social formations that are being studied. Nandy et al find sanctuary, resources of hope and resistance in the concrete collectivities of civil society, the stubborn persistence of patterns of coexistence. And yet. Is this anything more than a Nandy-secular retelling of the fall into secularism—except that the snake is no longer the colonial-capitalist of "the secularist consensus" but rather the "Enlightened" moderniser? Thus, one has merely to mumble abracadabra, reason-nation-state—and the shared and sharing collectivities mutate into warring communities thirsting for the blood of others, hungry for nationality and statehood.

Repeatedly, throughout the book, poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy are identified as important elements of the causal matrix of communalism. There are repeated allusions to the gangs of lumpen youth, hanging out at street-corners, looking for trouble, and not merely looking.... This refocusing of particularity, of historical time is being recommended not, I must insist, in the false-historicist hope of quasi-automatic release from the agony of history, but rather in order to be able to see even perverse human societies as being vulnerable to the pressures of human process, hurtling to perdition perhaps, but not entirely without hope of human redemption

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AUTHORS: Alok Rai
TAGS: Secularism
SECTION: Books
SUBSECTION: Reviews
OUTLOOK: 22 November, 1995
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