Monday, Sep 25, 2023

No Aliens Under Our Beds

No Aliens Under Our Beds

Among the biggest political delusions we have laboured for long is the 'foreign hand'

No Aliens Under Our Beds No Aliens Under Our Beds

Every time there is a walkout in the Lok Sabha, or a range of full-throated voices seek to drown out a member's intervention, men my age write editorials on how this theatre of rowdyism and the absurd was once a forum for serious debate and discussion. This is only in part nostalgia; it is also in part founded on fact. For at least half its life, the Indian Parliament was a place characterised by intellectual sophistication and moral seriousness and, lest we forget, humour. The speeches of such men as Ram Manohar Lohia, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Harindranath Chattopadhyay (among others) were suffused with satirical wit.

My favourite example of parliamentary humour, however, was a placard that sometime in the early 1970s was hung over the capacious form of the architect-turned-politician Piloo Mody. It bore the words: 'I AM A CIA AGENT'.

Mody represented the Swatantra Party in the Lok Sabha. Founded in 1959 by C. Rajagopalachari, the party promoted liberal ideals and a free-market economy. The prime minister of the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, saw Rajaji's Swatantra Party as a reactionary right-wing formation opposed to his own progressive socialism. As he once joked about his old comrade-turned-adversary: "He likes the Old Testament. I like the New Testament." Through the 1960s, however, the Swatantra Party grew in influence. It was the second largest party in the fourth Lok Sabha, where its sharp-tongued leader, Minoo Masani, harassed and harried the prime minister—who now was not Nehru but his daughter Indira Gandhi.

Mrs Gandhi's response to the Swatantra challenge was to insinuate that its members and leaders were not true patriots. She spoke darkly of how a 'foreign hand' was allegedly destabilising India. Her acolytes were more explicit—Swatantra, they claimed, was being funded by America and Americans. It was in response to such ridiculous accusations that Piloo Mody entered Parliament with that placard around his neck.

In 1974-75, Jayaprakash Narayan, the veteran Gandhian, led a countrywide movement opposing Mrs Gandhi's regime. The prime minister's response was to characterise her critics as agents of Western nations. In June 1975, she imposed a state of Emergency, which lasted a year and a half. Before, during, and after the Emergency, Mrs Gandhi claimed that while she represented the national interest, her critics and opponents acted at the behest of foreign powers. In May 1980, she told a South African journalist of Indian extraction that "it is no coincidence that the same groups who opposed Mahatma Gandhi and my father Jawaharlal Nehru in their lifetime attack me now. They consist of Hindu and Muslim fanatics and communalists, groups who come from old feudal interests, and elements that are sympathetic to foreign ideologies, whether of laissez faire or extreme leftism.... Those who are against self-reliance, or secularism or socialism, find some reason or other to malign me".

While it was the Congress which formally brought the 'foreign hand' into political discourse, in later decades that trope has been appropriated by other parties. The Sangh parivar was always suspicious of what it saw as the dangerous influence of a decadent western culture. (Among the artefacts of that culture that attracted the particular ire of M.S. Golwalkar, the long-time sarsanghchalak of the RSS, were the English language and the game of cricket.) Through the first three decades of independence, the political influence of the Hindu right was minimal. But as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gathered strength and came to power, first in some states and then at the Centre, the protection of Indian tradition and thought from an allegedly contaminating western influence became a major concern of its ideologues. Liberal intellectuals in particular were demonised for being in thrall to the unholy trinity of Marx, Mill and Macaulay.

In 1996 the Miss World contest was held in my hometown, Bangalore. I opposed it, for aesthetic reasons. For it was held in the Chinnaswamy Stadium, my favourite cricket ground, whose turf, made holy by the likes of G.R. Vishwanath and B.S. Chandrasekhar, was now being trodden upon by cricket-illiterate young women from (mostly) cricket-illiterate countries. On the other hand, my fellow townsmen opposed it for weightier reasons. Some said it degraded the ideals of Indian womanhood; others that it was a malign conspiracy promoted by multinational companies. And so the activists of the BJP and the CPI(M) walked side by side (if not actually arm-in-arm) to protest against the event.

Un-Indian? The 1996 Miss World event in Bangalore

The demonisation of the West is ubiquitous in the Hindu right-wing as well as the Marxist Left. The Hindu Right chooses to speak principally in cultural terms; it professes to be concerned, above all, with 'the colonisation of the mind'. The Marxist Left couches its arguments in the language of economics: it seeks to protect India and Indians from the exploitative greed of western companies and western governments. But their arguments criss-cross; the Left does sometimes take recourse to cultural arguments, while the Right does not entirely neglect economics. There are statements issued by the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch that could have come straight from the pages of People's Democracy.

At any rate, the thinkers and activists of the Hindu Right and the Communist Left are united in thinking that the bulk of India's problems were created or caused by the West. Their arguments are hypocritical and disingenuous. Historians have authoritatively demonstrated that the organisational models of the RSS lie in European youth organisations that flourished between the two World Wars. And we all know that the Sangh parivar is financially sustained by the fruits of the American economy. As for the Left, their political models too are wholly western—Marx and Engels and Lenin were as European as they come. Besides, their political practice has often been tailored to the needs of foreign (if not necessarily western) powers such the former Soviet Union and the current People's Republic of China.

These arguments are also un-Indian, for the founders of Indian nationalism were open to western influences and ideas. Men such as Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar were internationalists, not xenophobes. Tagore put it best: the idea of India, he once said, was against the separation of this land from any other in the world. (It may be interesting to speculate that it may be because of their own marginal contribution to the Indian national movement that the Hindutvawadis and the Communists are obliged now to speak the language of the hyper-patriot.)

Finally, the arguments are also factually incorrect. Indian culture, whether patrician or plebeian, has not been swamped or extinguished by goods and ideas from the West. Indian classical music is now more popular than it was before liberalisation. The arrival of kfc has been contemporaneous with a rise in demand for tandoori chicken.

At first glance, the economic xenophobes may have a better case. The influence of foreign trade and foreign aid is rising. The Indian people are now more vulnerable to shocks in the world economy. However, the vast bulk of domestic production remains in Indian hands. And we liberalised out of our own accord, so that Indians could take advantage of the wider world (as many Indian companies and individuals have already done). If we want the boom, we must also take the bust.

My own view is that 95 per cent of what is wrong with India is the fault of Indians. India is a free country, and a democracy. We elect our leaders, and they function in office as they, or we, choose. Contrary to what some people think, our ministers do not act at the behest of the United States. To be sure, their actions are sometimes misguided or even mala fide. But they are their own. For instance, we should admit that it is the malfunctioning of public institutions, not the malign influence of the World Bank, that is responsible for the agrarian crisis. Likewise, the faults with our educational system, or the health sector, or the law courts were created principally by Indians. And they will be, or will not be, remedied by Indians.

To look for the foreign hand under every bed is only to escape responsibility for our own actions. I, however, realise that for having written what I have written, I run the risk of being labelled a CIA agent.

(Ramachandra Guha is the author of India after Gandhi.)

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