March 30, 2020
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King Of Concept

A New Nehruite and urbanised Indian, Sunil Khilnani continues to be amazed by his country

King Of Concept

THERE'S something inordinately sexy about ideas on India. What conceptual seductions there are here about modernity-in-change, caste-in-action, Channel V-and-the-bullock-cart and the Manhattan-Mumbai embrace. Sunil Khilnani, 36-year-old Bright-Young-Oxbridge-Indian, has written a celebrated "interpretative and polemical essay", The Idea of India, which has been acclaimed not only by the Western press but even by eminent economist Amartya Sen as "splendid and timely". Says Khilnani, who studied at Cambridge and now teaches politics at Birkbeck College, London University: "Although there is a lot of specialist work on India, there has been little effort to fit it all together, to offer an argument about how the idea of an Indian self was invented by the nationalist generation and how the India idea has developed after 1947."

Khilnani reaches several provocative conclusions. The idea of allegiance to a state, he says, only happened in India after the coming of the British. Before that, rulers ruled and declined, the pageantry of government was distant from the lives of the people—and civil society continued as it always had with its tenacious culture and rituals. "But the modern State disturbed civil society, so much so that new 'communities' became competitors for the State, competition which is now becoming very intense." Thus, Indian politicians today are not incompetents, as generally believed, but skilled competitors manipulating 'modern' notions of caste and religion for control of the state.

In Khilnani's view, there is nothing atavistic about the politics of caste or religion that is practised today. Laloo Prasad Yadav's 'Caste' today is nothing like it was 150 years ago. The practise of caste is highly modern, a device to capture State power. Similarly, homogeneous 'Hindutva', far from being a backward-looking ideology, is actually a reaction to competitive politics and to new technology. "In fact, identity politics in India is driven by modernity," Khilnani says.

Khilnani himself is a sort of New Nehru-ite (as opposed to Old Nehruvian). "Nehru was much more of an Indian, to my mind, than those who claim to be real Indians, such as the BJP." A trendy young westernised Indian, for whom writing The Idea of

India was an attempt to combine an analytic focus and an emotional stance about a country which "I think about and love". He tries to attempt something other than weighty tomes bogged down by footnotes or the fiction-as-history of Vikram Seth or Salman Rushdie. "It's strange," he says, "how Indian history writing seems to have stopped in 1947, and most of the post-Independence history seems to have been written in the form of novels." His rather journalistic essay tries to make a stylistic point about new non-fictional writing on India. It is high on hard analysis, if low on data. It covers the grand themes of India in a mere 200 pages, it is racy profundity without losing out on detailed observations.

IN a sense, my own route to India was—like Aurobindo and Nehru—through the West. Yet, the intellectual tradition of Nehru is far more complicated than people give him credit for—the idea of a layered Indian identity, the palimpsest of influences are more distinct and atypical than the proponents of a single national culture." In Khilnani's view, Nehru's intentions—assaulted as they are by the Left, Right, Post-modernists and Gandhians—must be recovered. "Nehru's answers cannot be our own but we need to find a new idiom for him apart from the 'secular-progressive' baggage that is attributed to him and which make him rather boring. Nehru was much more than that." For Khilnani, the idea of a monolithic 'East' or 'West' is nonsense. In India, East and West are incredibly interlinked and define each other. For the nationalist liberal intelligentsia, anglicisation never meant forsaking their own language and culture. In the '40s and '50s, the educated elite straddled two worlds, equally at home in English as well as their own vernacular language.

Today, three unevenly sized groups dominate Indian life: a small anglicised metropolitan elite with a "different sense of rootedness, apart from the vernacular traditions," and very strong aspirational fantasies, then a large Hindi-speaking and economically powerful class that is asserting itself in mofussil India. And lastly the group of vernacular regional cultures which have no time for national heroes. "It's difficult for these groups," Khilnani remarks, "to trust each other."

Son of a diplomat and educated mostly in England, Khilnani is a self-confessed modernist. In a red shirt with longish hair, he looks like a New Age academic as much at home in a cafe as in a classroom. In his book, the chapter on 'Cities' is evidence of his unabashed urbanism. "To me the Indian city is where many crucial struggles are going on, a crucible of change where many Indians are trying to make themselves modern. No one can escape the image of the city in India today." Last year he travelled through "esperanto Bangalore," the "imperial fantasy" of New Delhi, the "rationalism" of Chandigarh and the parochial cosmopolitanism of Bombay. Khilnani belongs to a post-village generation, one who wants to go beyond the "old tradition and modernity debate" and get to grips with the wild contradictions of India here and now. The surge of small town India—Ghaziabad, Ludhiana, Meerut and Muzzaffarnagar are places of "big city opportunity," yet places where ties of caste and kin remain strong, he writes.

The democratic experiment is nowhere near resolved, he says. When the old elite magnanimously gave universal suffrage to India, they had no idea what exactly they had done. "The logic of universal suffrage today is that you have to be like the people you represent. The westernised Ambedkar has given way to Laloo Prasad Yadav. Yet the simple fact of getting votes seems to have overtaken any institutional norms, although democracy itself is more powerful than ever." Khilnani's work concentrates on the remarkable ease with which democracy has been adopted by India. "Politics is going to be much more important rather than less important in modern India, because politics is seen by the poor as a way of advancement." The modern Indian, in Khilnani's view, is an Indian who defines himself with reference to the Indian State. "The modern Indian exists because the State exists," he says. Also, "regional and caste politics are a triumphant success of the democratic idea where a return to the old order of castes or rule by empire is inconceivable. " The nationalist 'invention' of the Indian identity and just how recent it has been is emphasised in The Idea of India. Even Gandhi went through several forms of dress before he decided on which one best captured the Indian character.

To be Indian is to be something that is very new. "Yet it is too simple to see India as pure invention, a complicitous by-product of the opportunities presented by the British Raj and the aspiring nationalist elite." The shared folk culture, epics and legends as well as castes did provide a semblance of unity but did not create 'India'.

Khilnani also shows how the very writing of the histories of 'India'—by Indians and the British—crucially created the idea of a single nation. Stories such as Mill's History of British India "reinserted India into a single historical narrative of progress." How did he come to write The Idea

Of India? "I am actually working on a larger biography of Nehru, but when I suggested to my publisher that I write an essay on India for the 50th year, they were very enthusiastic.... I continue to be amazed by India, the complete disjunction between the cultural universe of magazines like Verve and the rest of the country, the fact that political power (in the rural areas) is totally separate from economic status (in urban centres) and that the debate in India is so highly polarised between pro and anti West." "There is no inevitable reason why the India idea should work. It has always been a gamble, a wager..." he says. Married to publishing editor Rebecca Wilson, he describes himself as "an Indian working in England," someone who has always rejected the idea that an Indian should only write on Indian subjects. His earlier book was on the Intellectual Left in post-war France. "Perhaps I will be criti-cised for being a wishy-washy westernised liberal," he grins.

For Khilnani, India is a country "constituted by politics", where Reason often failed, where admiration and revulsion for the British co-exist and where democracy triumphs and is subverted at the same time. He dispenses with a single idea of modern India and falls back on the unfashionable but complex intellectual tradition of Nehru, which sounds, in Khilnani's words, like a very good idea.

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