Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - II

It is claimed that Pythagoras theorem was known in India before Pythagoras. This  is an example of a partial truth - a statement that can't be rejected outright because it has some elements of truth but it can't be accepted without qualification because it is some way from the whole truth. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist and philosopher,  said that the most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth.

From what I have read, there were civilizations that knew about the theorem before Pythagoras.and they used it frequently in their construction activities. But they knew specific instances of the theorem. It was true for the instances they checked but they had no way of knowing whether it was true for an infinity of right angled triangles.  The theorem is named after Pythagoras because he was the first person to give a mathematical proof using variables to show that it was true for all right angled triangles.So till Pythagoras provided the proof, the equation was a conjecture.

The PM stated that the creation of Ganesha is proof of the existence of plastic surgeons thousands of years ago. He said that an elephant's head had been grafted on a person's body to create the god. There were claims that Kauravas were born using stem cell technology, that cars and TV existed in Mahabharat times, that a helmet used in the Mahabharata war is found on Mars, that there were inter-planet planes during the Vedic age...the claims keep getting more bizarre. Some of these claims were made at the Indian Science Congress. Here is a discussion about it. By such glorification of myths the real achievement of ancient India like creation of the number zero is  in danger of being brushed under the carpet.

The argument that science has often been wrong and the ancient sages always knew the right thing is underwhelming. Each generation finds out something about the universe that is more true than what the previous generation knew. Isaac Asimov illustrates this idea in a piece he wrote called The Relativity of Wrong in which he said that if you said that the earth is flat, you would be wrong; if you said that the earth was spherical, you would still be wrong; but the first statement is more wrong than the second. Asimov writes:
What actually happens is that once scientists get hold of a good concept they gradually refine and extend it with greater and greater subtlety as their instruments of measurement improve. Theories are not so much wrong as incomplete.
In IIT Madras, one Dr. A. B. Sudhakara Sastry delivered a speech on the topic of “Vedic Sciences: A Treasure waiting for YOU”. He said' 'Vedic literature has every speck of knowledge we need for today. There is no need to invent; we just need to discover what’s already there.' Judging from the videos of the event (Part 1, Part 2), he had a testing time. As Tagore said:
That our forefathers, three thousand years ago, had finished extracting all that was of value from the universe, is not a worthy thought. We are not so unfortunate, nor the universe, so poor.'
It is all designed to evoke a false sense of pride among the gullible. It is an extension of the trend of taking pride in what you are not. Résumés are about showcasing the outstanding personality that you are not. The inflated marks in schools are about projecting you as the brilliant student that you are not. Liberal use of fashion accessories is about showing off the trendy, debonair person that you are not. In one commentary stint, Sunil Gavaskar called this generation 'the hyped generation'. It is all about hype and show; about exaggeration and chest-beating; and reality be damned.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Harking back back to a glorious past - I

It is not difficult to call for a return to the past, to tell men to turn their backs on foreign devils, to live solely on one's resources, proud, independent, unconcerned.  India has heard such voices.  Tagore understood this, paid tribute to it, and resisted it. - Isaiah Berlin

H.L. Menken said, “Politics, as hopeful men practise it in the world, consists mainly of the delusion that a change in form is a change in substance.” One of the biggest delusions that people have is to think that recreating a Golden Age of the past is the answer to all problems. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay alluded to this in a talk quoted in Makers of Modern India.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was one of the Makers who I knew nothing about. Apparently, after independence, she could have entered Parliament, Union Cabinet, become an ambassador etc. but she rejected all offers and preferred to concentrate on social work instead. Ramachandra Guha writes, "That Indian crafts are still alive and, moreover, have a visible national and international presence, is owed more to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay than to any other individual." In a speech quoted in the book, she accuses the Muslim League of spreading 'medievalism' and the Hindus of similarly spreading 'fanatical passions'.
It has...souught refuge in a demagogic past. It tries to cover the complex present with the veil of a vague past, tinting the harsh realities with elusive shades and the gross angles with sentimental contours, conjuring up in short bygone ghosts to lend heroics to commonplace sentiments.
She warns that the selling of this Hindu mirage is trapping immature minds who, being overwhelmed by the present, 'fill the imagination with past achievements, which at least for the fleeting moment gives them a sense of security'. She warns that present problems cannot be tackled by going back to a glorious past but  by 'a bold and courageous reckoning up of existing conditions and their appraisal'.

It is often claimed that the democratic practices of modern India was a tradition of ancient India. Actually, the Indian constitution with its emphasis on equality and fundamental rights is a radical break from a hierarchical past. The hierarchical nature of the society can be seen in many parts of India even now. I can hear many statements of caste, gender and religious biases from supposedly liberal people who will swear that they don't harbour such biases. The idea of caste privileges exists even among educated city dwelling people. It is easy to change laws but it is not easy to change customs. As Sunil Khilnani writes in The Idea of India:
Mere recovery of the past could not make Indians self- sufficient: the necessry veneration of a rich and unusual history had to coexist with a modernist, more self-critical idiom that acknowledged the immense failings of that past. 
Every country has a Golden Age to talk about which in India is usually the Gupta period or the Vedic Age. People who don't know about either the science or the relevant scriptures will  neverthless be thrilled when told that something that science has discoved was actually foretold in an ancient text. It is regularly claimed that NASA has proved something in Hindu scriptures. It would seem as if NASA had nothing better to do than verify the historical truth of incidents in Hindu scriptures.

Instead of providing metaphorical explanations of speculative musings in Hindu scriptures, people will try to pretend as if they are the same as the discoveries of modern science. For instanc some have interpreted Vishnu’s ten avatars as foreshadowing the Darwinian theory of evolution. They know that their audience is science illiterate, that they will remember a few scienc words from school, put two and two together and conclude that philosophical musings and science are the same. Indian gurus do it all the time

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Nationalism - IV

Patriotism is proud of a country's virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country's virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, "the greatest", but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. -Sydney J. Harris, journalist and author (1917-1986)  

In his essay The Illegitimacy of Nationalism, Ashis Nandy writes:
Once he [Tagore] had dreamt, like Gandhi, that India's national self-definition would some day provide a critique of western nationalism, that Indian civilization with its demonstrated capacity to live with and creatively use contradictions and inconsistencies would produce a 'natianal' ideology that would transcend nationalism. However,  even before his death, nationalism proved itself to be not only more universal but also more resilient than it had been thought. Today, fifty years after Tagore's death and forty years after Gandhi's, their version of patriotism has almost ceased to exist, even in India, and for most modern Indians this is not a matter of sorrow but of pride.
I am one of those few Indians who is not enamored of what Ashis Nandy calls 'the clenched-teeth European version of nationalism' characterised by flag wrapping, chest thumping,Pakistan hating crowds. Or by giving the impression that the sole purpose of scientific missions like Chandrayaan or Mangalyaan is to plant the national flag in their destinations.Or by painting anyone who criticises the government as 'anti-national'. Or by thinking that military strength is the sole barometer of international prestige. (Till recently, India was the largest buyer of arms in the world still there is a constant clamour for more arms.) India is not Pakistan. It is said that most countries have an army but the Pakistan army has a country.

I heard a story about a US scientist who asked for more funding for a cosmological experiment. A politician asked him, 'Will it help defend the country?' He replied, 'It will not help defend the country but it will help make the country worth defending.' Yes, military strength is important but it has meaning only when other fields of human endeavor like science, business, arts, sport, etc. are  flourishing within the country. Blind appeals to to parochialism and past glory sound hollow. Tagore says it all in his poem Where The Mind Is Without Fear.

Tagore's warning about the fetish of nationalism ultimately 'making the cult of self-seeking exult in its naked shamelessness' is shown by this report about Mein Kampf having booming sales in Delhi. Apparently, many management students 'see it as a kind of success story where one man can have a vision, work out a plan on how to implement it and then successfully complete it'. If this is how management students think these days, be afraid. As a poor villager, who was part of the group that was being rounded up like cattle by government officials to meet sterilisation targets, says in Rohinton Mistry's novel, A Fine Balance, 'What to do, bhai, when educated people are behaving like savages?'

Nationalism is the human equivalent of group identification among other primates. Within countries, different states; within states, different regions; within regions different groups; all think they are superior to others.  The VP Hameed Ansari's comment  that the idea of a homogeneous nation is problematic was called controversial but I think he is perfectly correct. The public discourse is shaped in such a way that everyone is hypnotised into thinking that being a homogeneous nation is the only way to survive. In this conversation Ashis Nandy tells of a lament by a Bhil woman for her dead son. The Bhils are among the poorest and most marginalised sections of Indian society but the woman says:
Come back to me in your next birth only as a Bhil, 
Take care not to be  born as a Brahmin because then you will spoil your eyes by reading and writing,
Do not be born as a baniya because you will be only counting money and will not learn the true value of things,
Do not be  born as a Kshatriya because  you will be unnecessarily violent all the while, 
You must be born only as a Bhil because that is the best community in the world.
Do not make a mistake, come back to me as a Bhil.
 I often hear people say that Indian culture is the best. What they mean of course is that the culture of the group they belong to is the best. An orthodox Brahmin from Tamil Nadu will find the habits of an orthodox Brahmin from UP strange. It substantiates a point that Nehru made in his Autobiography (a book that I have not read but I came across the quote in Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India): 'Indian culture was so widespread all over India that no part of the country could be called the heart of that culture.'

The human instinct for group identification can be seen when a class is randomly divided into two groups, those sitting on the left and those sitting on the right. They will soon develop group loyalties and start competing against each other. Once, talking about peace between India and Pakistan, the Pakistani cricketer Moin Khan said, 'Hamme farak hi kya hai?' ('After all, what is the difference between us?') Perhaps the similarity is the problem? I came across this Chinese poem in Anti-Utopia:
When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs 
 I am compelled to conclude  
That man is the superior animal. 
When I consider the curious habits of man 
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.
In the video I linked to above about Ashis Nandy, he observes that like Indian epics, perhaps both gods and demons are required to make the world; only the definition of who the gods and demons are varies from community to community. He tells of the Zapatista world-view: one should cherish the 'otherness' of others, not the sameness of others. Again like in Indian epics, there is something of a demon in a god and something of a god in a demon.

In Mahabharata, Krishna cheats several times to make his side win. For eg., he tells the Pandavas to lie to Drona that his son had been killed which would make Drona depressed and thus easier to kill. On the other side, when a dying Duryodana (who had been defeated by Bhima aganist the rules of war due to a hint from Krishna) deplores his behavior, Krishna has no answer because he knows that he has done a wrong. The heavens shower petals on Duryodana thus acknowledging his unconquerable spirit and that he had been felled by unfair means. Similarly in Ramayana, Rama kills Bali by deceit and shows himself to be a poor husband by being quick to suspect Sita; while on the other side,  Ravana is skilled in Ayurveda and music and is a big devotee of Shiva. There are Ravana temples in India.

Gods are only gods most of the time and demons are only demons most of the time. Thus gods and demons are not wholly good or wholly bad; they are only relatively good and relatively bad. William Golding shows in his novel Lord of the Flies how evil is innate inn the nature of civilised man. As he said, one lot of people is inherently like any other lot of people and  the enemy of man is inside him.  In a nationalistic fervour one is likely to forget a warning that I saw in a Radiolab podcast - "As we act, we must  not become the evil that we deplore."Or as Nietzsche said, 'Not only the wisdom of centuries - also their madness breaketh out in us. Dangerous it is to be an heir.'

Group identification is an evolutionary instinct but the human brain has grown large enough to thwart it. Every time people use contraceptives, they show that human brains can overcome evolutionary instincts. As Richard Dawkins, who has struggled to reconcile his life-long liberal values with Darwinian evolution, says:
 Scientific theories are not prescriptions for how we should behave. I have many times written (for example in the first chapter of A Devil's Chaplain) that I am a passionate Darwinian when it comes to the science of how life has actually evolved, but a passionate ANTI-Darwinian when it comes to the politics of how humans ought to behave. I have several times said that a society based on Darwinian principles would be a very unpleasant society in which to live. I have several times said, starting at the beginning of my very first book, The Selfish Gene, that we should learn to understand natural selection, so that we can oppose any tendency to apply it to human politics.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Nationalism - III

Here are some more passages from Tagore's Nationalism (you can read it online here):
In political civilization, the state is an abstraction and relationship of men utilitarian. Because it has no root in sentiments, it is so dangerously easy to handle. Half a century has been enough for you [Europe] to master this machine ; and there are men among you, whose fondness for it exceeds their love for the living ideals, which were born with the birth of your nation and nursed in your centuries. It is like a child who, in the excitement of his play, imagines he likes his playthings better than his mother. 
[SNIP]
Have you never felt shame, when you see the trade advertisements, not only plastering the whole town with lies and exaggerations, but invading the green fields, where the peasants do their honest labour, and the hill-tops, which greet the first pure light of the morning ? It is so easy to dull our sense of honour and delicacy of mind with constant abrasion, while falsehoods stalk abroad with proud steps in the name of trade, politics and patriotism, that any protest against their perpetual intrusion into our lives is considered to be sentimentalism, unworthy of true manliness. 
And it has come to pass that the children of those heroes who would keep their word at the point of death, who would disdain to cheat men for vulgar profit, who even in their fight would much rather court defeat than be dishonourable, have become energetic in dealing with falsehoods and do not feel humiliated by gaining advantage from them. And this has been effected by the charm of the word 'modern.' But if undiluted utility be modern, beauty is of all ages ; if mean selfishness be modern, the human ideals are no new inventions. [He said this a century ago. What would he have said now?! - Suresh]

[SNIP]
It is the continual and stupendous dead pressure of this unhuman upon the living human under which the modern world is groaning. Not merely the subject races, but you [Europeans] who live under the delusion that you are free, are every day sacrificing your freedom and humanity to this fetich of nationalism, living in the dense poisonous atmosphere of world-wide suspicion and greed and panic. 
I have seen in Japan the voluntary submission of the whole people to the trimming of their minds and clipping of their freedom by their government, which through various educational agencies regulates their thoughts, manufactures their feelings, becomes suspiciously watchful when they show signs of inclining toward the spiritual, leading them through a narrow path not toward what is true but what is necessary for the complete welding of them into one uniform mass according to its own recipe. The people accept this all-pervading mental slavery with cheerfulness and pride because of their nervous desire to turn themselves into a machine of power, called the Nation, and emulate other machines in their collective worldliness. the newly converted fanatic of nationalism answers that "so long as nations are rampant in this world we have not the option freely to develop our higher humanity. We must utilize every faculty that we possess to resist the evil by assuming it ourselves in the fullest degree. For the only brotherhood possible in the modern world is the brotherhood of hooliganism." 
[SNIP]

But it is no consolation to us to know that the weakening of humanity from which the present age is suffering is not limited to the subject races, and that its ravages are even more radical because insidious and voluntary in peoples who are hypnotized into believing that they are free. 
SNIP]
...the idea of the Nation is one of the most powerful anaesthetics that man has invented. Under the influence of its fumes the whole people can carry out its systematic programme of the most virulent self-seeking without being in the least aware of its moral perversion, in fact feeling dangerously resentful if it is pointed out. 

During the Swadeshi movement in Bengal, some students came to seek Tagore permission to boycott classes. He refused to give his consent making them angry and doubt his patriotism. He said that he is never tempted by 'the anarchy of mere emptineess' even when it is temporary. He said that tempting young people away from their careers before it had begun was a loss which could never be repaired and he could not take such a decision lightly.Ramachandra Guha writes in the introduction to the Penguin edition of Nationalism:
He had been accused of being anti-western by some, of being a colonial agent by others, seen as too much of a patriot by the foreigner and as not patriotic enough by the Indian. He had, we might say, been comprehensively misunderstood by the ignorant.
Tagore's idea of nationalism was looked on with hostility by middle class people who, in the European mould, wanted a more aggressive nationalism. Thus the national anthem has been dogged by controversy about its origin, fueled by people who had to say something because they couldn't directly question his patriotic credentials. The song was not parochial enough for them. Ashis Nandy writes in his essay The Illegitimacy of Nationalism
...he was bitter about the controversy..., for he knew that it was a no-win situation. He could never satisfy his detractors, as their accusations did not stem from genuine suspicions about the origins of the song but were partly a product of middle-class dissatisfaction with the 'insufficient nationalism' the song expressed,and partly a response to what seemed to them to be Tagore's own 'peculiar'versionof patriotism. To the chagrin of Tagore's critics, his version of patriotism rejected the violence propagated by terrorists and revolutionaries, it rejected the concept of a single-ethnic Hindu rashtra as anti-Indian, and even anti-Hindu, and it dismissed the idea of the nation-state as being the main actor in Indian political life.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Nationalism - II

Tagore was wary of patriotic fire escalating to xenophobia and the pursuit of material gain depriving people of their humanity thereby converting them into machines. He was of the view that hatred of the foreigner could easily be converted into hatred of Indians who were different from themselves. He illustrated his fears in a novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World) which Satyajit Ray made into a movie. (You can watch the movie with English sub-titles in Youtube.)

During WWI he went to US and Japan where he warned  his audiences against harbouring the thought that love of one's nation meant celebrating its military strength. These lectures were published in a slim book called Nationalism which is not as well known as his stories and poems. reflecting the appeal of nationalistic sentiment among the middle class. Penguin has issued an edition with an introduction by Ramachandra Guha in which he writes:
No one could accuse Tagore of not loving his country. That is what lends a special force to his criticism of nationalism. As he saw it, the staggering heterogeneity of India was the product of its hospitality, in the past, to cultures and ideas from outside. He wished that the openness be retained and even enhanced in the present. Unlike other patriots, Tagore refused to privilege a particular aspect of India - Hindu, North Indian, upper caste, etc. - and make this the essence of the nation, and then demand that other aspects conform or subordinate themselves to it. For Tagore, as the historian Tanika Sarkar has pointed out, India 'was and must remain a land without a centre'. 
In the book, he doesn't mince words in criticising the nationalistic fervour that the European colonisers try to stoke in their people which was 'based on exclusiveness'. It destroys the whole futures of other people and 'tries to thwart all symptoms of greatness outside its own boundaries'. He calls this rapacious civilisation a 'prolific weed' that sets great store by ' the costly ceremonials of its worship, calling this patriotism'.

He acknowledges where Europe is great, her art and literature, her science and technology etc. He says that 'Europe is supremely good in her beneficence where her face is turned to all humanity; and Europe is supremely evil in her malefic aspect where her face is turned only upon her own interest'. He emphasises that true modernising does not lie in mimicry of Europeans but in 'freedom of mind, not slavery of taste'. He frowns on the mentality of 'survival of the fittest' or 'might is right'. (Unfortunately that is the meaning that most people have which, as I have written earlier, is a misunderstanding.) Then he writes this ringing  passage:
But now, where the spirit of the Western nationalism prevails, the whole people is being taught from boy- hood to foster hatreds and ambitions by all kinds of means, by the manufacture of half-truths and untruths in history, by persistent misrepresentation of other races and the culture of unfavourable sentiments towards them, by setting up memorials of events, very often false, which for the sake of humanity should be speedily forgotten, thus continually brewing evil menace towards neighbours and nations other than their own. This is poisoning the very fountainhead of humanity. It is discrediting the ideals, which were born of the lives of men, who were our greatest and best. It is holding up gigantic selfishness as the one universal religion for all nations of the world. We can take anything else from the hands of science, but not this elixir of moral death. Never think for a moment, that the hurts you inflict upon other races will not infect you, and the enmities you sow around your homes will be a wall of protection to you for all time to come. To imbue the minds of a whole people with an abnormal vanity of its own superiority, to teach it to take pride in its moral callousness and ill-begotten wealth, to perpetuate humiliation of defeated nations by exhibiting trophies won from war, and using these in schools in order to breed in children's minds contempt for others, is imitating the West where she has a festering sore, whose swelling is a swelling of disease eating into its vitality. 
In Mahabharata, there are some aggressive, war-mongering views, for eg. Duryodana quotes Brihaspati as saying that no device could be considered wrong which had as its object the destruction of formidable enemies. Opposing views are also expressed eg. Balarama says that a fit envoy would be one who is not a war-monger but is dead set, in spite of every difficulty, on achieving a peaceful settlement. I would have loved to read about Tagore's views on these statements but unfortunately, I am not aware of whether he has written about them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Nationalism - I

Many nationalist leaders in India thought that promoting nationalistic sentiments like in the Nation-states of Europe were essential to pull India into the contemporary world. They began to equate expression of skepticism about nationalism as compromising with western imperialism. But that did not stop some influential figures in the movement from expressing doubts about nationalism as they began realising that colonialism's record of violence was because of decay of their moral values brought about by their nationalistic sentiments.

Jiddu Krishnamurti said, 'Obviously what causes war is the desire for power, position, prestige, money; also the disease called nationalism, the worship of a flag; and the disease of organized religion, the worship of a dogma.'A leading figure in the national movement who had reservations about the European model of nationalism was Rabindranath Tagore. He was a patriot but not a nationalist as shown by his decision to return his knighthood after the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre.To most Indians the two concepts are the same. In Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell writes:
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Tagore was a widely travelled man having visited US, UK, Japan, China, etc and thus had an understanding of many cultures. From his observations he arrived at a nuanced understand of India's place in the world. He was not happy about the xenophobic and inward looking tendencies in some parts of the Indian national movement. An example of such militant nationalism was Tilak's statement that 'love of nation is one's fist duty' or that India was 'God's chosen nation'. He felt that both India and the West could learn from each other and that 'it is our vanity which makes us think that it is a battle between contending rights'.

Many people may be surprised that Tagore, who was anti-imperialist throughout his life and whose songs and poems inspired many during the Indian national movement, was negative about nationalism. Gandhi differed in some aspects from Tagore in this respect, but his version of nationalism was more inclusive than what is popular today. Both recognised a link between morality and politics which was fading away from the conventional idea of nationalism. Gandhi's views were modified by debates with Tagore who made no bones about his view that nationalism results in 'inhuman cruelty' that 'struts with barefaced pride'.

Initially Tagore was more open to the idea of nationalism as defined by the west and like many Indians of the time felt that Indian society had degenerated. But slowly he began to be disillusioned and began to discover 'how easily those who accepted the highest truths of civilisation disowned them with impunity whenever questions of national self-interest were involved'. Ashis Nandy quotes Tagore in his essay The Illegitimacy of Nationalism:
There came a time when perforce I had to snatch myself away from mere appreciation of literature ... I began to appreciate that perhaps in no other modern state was there such a hopeless dearth of the most elementary needs of existence. And yet it was this country whose resources had fed for so long the wealth  and magnificence of the British people.While I was lost in the contemplation of the world of civilization. I could never have remotely imagined that the great ideals of humanity wold end in such  ruthless travesty. But today a glaring example of it stares me in the face in the utter and contemptuous indifference of a so-called civilised race to the well-being of scores of Indian people.
The brutality that even  unwilling imperialists feel compelled to commit because of their feeling of being trapped in their cloak of authority is shown in George Orwell's essay, Shooting an Elephant. Tagore concluded that such callousness was due to nationalistic feelings of the colonialists because of which only self-interest rules which gradually made him disenchanted with the western idea of nationalism. Thus the only person who has written two national anthems (for India and Bangladesh, the latter being the only Muslim nation in the world to have a national anthem written by a non-Muslim) came to regard nationalism as a bhougaliik apadevata or a geographical demon. In Imperialists, Nationalists, Democrats, Sarvepalli Gopal writes:
Living in a world 'wild with the delirium of hatred', Tagore felt that the chief lesson to be learnt was how to be rid of 'arrogant nationalism'. As it had developed in the West, a nation was 'an organized gregariousness of gluttony', with selfishness a necessity and therefore a virtue.  He loved India and was eager to see her free; but he did not wish her to develop as a nation on the European model, and said there was no word for nation in his language.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Doing the unfashionable - defending Nehru - II

One reason why Nehru's stock has gone down in recent years is the increasing strength of the Hindu Right. One thing Nehru and his cabinet colleagues were clear about was that whatever India might be it won't be a Hindu Pakistan. Nehru fought all his life to make sure that the RSS dream of a Hindu Rashtra did not materialise which is why they can't stand him. So for example, an RSS functionary in Kerala said that Godse should have targeted Nehru instead of Gandhi. Or that Modi will rarely if ever utter his name. He says, 'Don't Divide History and Legacy on Ideologies'. The barb is aimed at the Congress but the irony seems to be lost on him.And how can I not like what the Hindu Right dislikes?

Nehru had a big role to play along with Ambedkar in bringing the 'Hindu Code Bill' which was stalled by more conservative-minded politicos. However, after winning the first general elections in 1952, Nehru revived the reforms which were passed into law after a lengthy bitter debate in Parliament. Among other things, it gave divorce and property rights to women.Later, he called it his most significant achievement. During a speech in parliament he said (as quoted in Makers of Modern India ):
Sita and Savitri are mentioned as ideals of womanhood for the women. I do not seem to remember men being reminded of Ramchandra and Satyavan, to behave like them. It is only the women who have to behave like Sita and Savitri, the men may behave as they like. No example is put before them. I do not know if Indian men are supposed to be perfect, incapable of any further effort or improvement, but it is bad that this can be so. It cannot remain so...You cannot have a democracy, of course, if you cut off a large chunk of humanity, fifty percent or thereabouts of the people and put them in a separate class apart in regard to social privileges and the like.
This is not calculated to be a hit among the orthodox sections of a hierarchical culture where the Devi paradox still prevails - the more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. As I heard one economist say, 'Women's lib in Kerala extends from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Once the women are back home from work, the old patriarchy prevails.'

Where Nehru failed was in not extending the rights to Muslim women. He was in favour of a uniform civil code but felt that the time was not yet right to change the Muslim civil code because the wounds after partition were just healing and he didn't want to reopen them. I feel that there is never a right time for this - all religions will protest whenever their civil codes are touched. Perhaps it was easier to do in Nehru's time than it is now. But that is the advantage of hindsight and of being nowhere near the hot seat.

Dazed by shopping malls and mobile phones, one is likely to forget that none of this would have come about if the challenges after independence (none of which have a perfect solution) had not been handled carefully and in a humane manner. (Admittedly, many leaders were involved in this effort; India was very lucky to have several leaders at the time of independence who didn't get carried away by the passion, anger and xenophobia of the time.). As is usually the case, the last person on the scene who provides the goodies takes all the credit. But as Newton said, 'We see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants'.

The challenges after independence were mind-boggling - religious rioting post partition whose psychological scars required sensitive handling, a constitution had to be written, institutions had to be set up and the relationships between them defined (Here is a discussion about Nehru's role in institution building), a fledgling democracy had to be nurtured in a situation where democracy was in Ambedkar's words just a 'top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic', free speech had to be protected... In Imperialist, Nationalists, Democrats, Sarvepalli Gopal says:
Nehru had also, as part of this democratizing, to build up the whole complex of parliamentary institutions. He took seriously his duties as leader of the Lok Sabha and of the Congress party in parliament, sat regularly through the question-hour and all important discussions, treated the presiding officers of the two houses with extreme deference, sustained the excitement of debate with a skillful use of irony and repartee, and developed parliamentary activity as an important sector in the public life of India.
[SNIP]
Outside parliament, Nehru also saw to it that no hindrance was placed in the way of a free press and an independent judiciary. On the one occasion when he slipped by publicly criticizing a judge who was conducting a commission of inquiry, he quickly sent an apology.
In Sujit's school magazine, I  saw a comment by a French philosopher, Professor Raymond Aron saying in 1961 that it was 'ingratitude' on the part of Indians to deny Nehru's role in making India a 'secular democratic republic'. He said that 'compared to the then newly liberated countries of Asia and Africa, freed from the yoke of colonial over lordship, converting themselves in a hurry into miscellaneous autocracies, based on race, religion and hate, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, more than anyone else, led India as  a potentially mature democracy, in the space of less than a decade.'

I have never come across an instance where he tried to muzzle criticism which is a far cry from today's politicians.This is exemplified by his advise to the cartoonist Shankar, 'Don't spare me , Shankar.' I have heard that he was viciously criticised in Parliament for the China debacle and other issues and he sat through the discussions without creating a ruckus. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency, a common reaction was, 'How could Nehru's daughter have done this?' I heard that in one speech, the jurist Fali Nariman said that he was born in a tolerant India but will die in an intolerant one. I am much younger than him but I think the prophecy is true for me also.

There is often talk to the effect that it would have been better if Patel had been PM instead of Nehru. (In this video, Rajmohan Gandhi discusses the controversy.) Maybe Patel would have been a better PM but I think it is  delusional to think that one person will make everything change for the  better in a short span of time.People will always find reasons to crib and would have been as satisfied/dissatisfied as they are now. As says Prof. André Béteille in Anti-Utopia:
One of Max Weber's  most fundamental ideas by which sociology has been enriched everywhere is that the consequences of human action are rarely the same as the intentions of the actors, and that sometimes the two are diametrically opposite.
Perhaps the main mistake that Nehru made was to ignore Machiavelli's advice that a leader should be feared rather than loved.I am willing to accept such a mistake. Icon-bashing is a popular passtime mainly due to ideology and ignorance of history and Nehru has been one of the causalities.