Sunday, January 28, 2018

Ravana mode of development – I

Never has the individual been so completely delivered up to a blind collectivity, and never have men been less capable, not only of subordinating their actions to their thoughts, but even of thinking. - Simone Weil

In Asuras, a novel based on the Ramayana from Ravana’s point of view, when Ravana faces defeat at the hands of Rama, he starts wondering how he had failed as a king. How did he, a mighty emperor of a vast empire, fall to an immature prince of a vassal state? He then reflects on his rule: he knew his people and ruled them with an iron fist. He had ensured that he was surrounded only by people he trusted. ‘I thought that my empire was built on a foundation of steel…but I discovered that it had been built on nothing’. He says that he had built great roads, taken fertile lands for grand building projects, damed rivers that irrigated the countryside, diverted water from fields to cities, etc. He reflects:
When I strove for bigger things – for bigger cities, magnificent temples, wider roads, better ports, larger ships, increased trade, improved business, making a name among the nations of the world, making my country the richest in the world - I forgot something simple and basic: I forgot my people. I thought glittering cities marked progress, I forgot about the people who lived in gutters.
He says that he had become ‘intoxicated with praise’ and had thought that ‘the glitter was all that mattered’. And when the crisis came, ‘the foreign-educated, Sanskrit-speaking, betel-chewing wealthy gave me advice from their hiding holes, but nothing else’. It is apparent that Ravana’s Lanka is post-independence India. That last comment reminds me of an article by Ramachandra Guha where he says that the most vitriolic, nationalistic comments he receives for his articles are from Indians who left long ago and are settled in the West. As Ashis Nandy says in Bonfire of Creeds, '...the more doubtful one's roots, the more desperate one's search for security in exclusion and in boundaries.'

In September 1909, The Illustrated London News published a stinging attack on the idea of Indian nationalism written by G. K. Chesterton.  He had been reading a journal called The Indian Sociologist and he found the ideas there just copies of British ideas. He wrote, ‘the principal weakness of Indian Nationalism seems to be that it is not very Indian and not very national’. He found praise of Herbert Spencer among the nationalists and wrote, 'What is the good of the Indian national spirit if it cannot protect its people from Herbert Spencer? I am not fond of the philosophy of Buddhism; but it is not so shallow as Spencer's philosophy; it has real ideas of its own.' He then wrote:
When all is said, there is a national distinction between a people asking for its own ancient life and a people asking for things that have been wholly invented by somebody else. There is a difference between a conquered people demanding its own institutions and the same people demanding the institutions of the conqueror.  
Suppose an Indian said: "I heartily wish India had always been free from white men and all their works. Every system has its sins: and we prefer our own. There would have been dynastic wars; but I prefer dying in battle to dying in hospital. There would have been despotism; but I prefer one king whom I hardly ever see to a hundred kings regulating my diet and my children. There would have been pestilence; but I would sooner die of the plague than die of toil and vexation in order to avoid the plague. There would have been religious differences dangerous to public peace; but I think religion more important than peace. Life is very short; a man must live somehow and die somewhere; the amount of bodily comfort a peasant gets under your best Republic is not so much more than mine. If you do not like our sort of spiritual comfort, we never asked you to. Go, and leave us with it." 
Suppose an Indian said that, I should call him an Indian Nationalist, or, at least, an authentic Indian, and I think it would be very hard to answer him. But the Indian Nationalists whose works I have read simply say with ever-increasing excitability, "Give me a ballot-box. Provide me with a Ministerial dispatch-box. Hand me over the Lord Chancellor's wig. I have a natural right to be Prime Minister. I have a heaven-born claim to introduce a Budget. My soul is starved if I am excluded from the Editorship of the Daily Mail," or words to that effect.
Gandhi  was electrified by the article and decided to be the Indian nationalist that Chesterton was looking for. He then wrote his trenchant critique of modernity, Hind Swaraj (a useful introduction to it can be found in Gandhi Hind Swaraj and Other Writings by Anthony J. Parel) containing thoughts that had been brewing in his head for some time. What appears obscurantism and the typical NRI gloating about the glories of India's ancient past (Gandhi had till then been abroad for most of his adult life) was an attempt to dismantle the ‘white-man’s civilizing role’ self-image of colonialism so that it can be made a byword for racism and exploitation. Gandhi became appreciative of the fact that colonialism was not just a geographical reality but also a colonization of the mind. In Bonfire of Creeds, Ashis Nandy explains the reasoning behind Gandhi's strategy while fighting colonialism:
Gandhi acted as if he knew that non-synergic systems, driven by zero-sum competition and search for power, control and masculinity, forced the victims to internalize the norms of the system, so that when they displaced their exploiters, they built a system which was either an exact replica of the old one or a tragi-comic version of it. Hence, his concept of non-violence and non-cooperation...He thus becomes a non-player for the existing system - one who plays another game, refusing to be either a player or a counter-player.
The difference between Jinnah (and most others on either side in the freedom movement) and Gandhi is that Jinnah struggled for a piece of land but did not ponder over the kind of state that would develop there while Gandhi had started thinking about it even before he had joined the freedom struggle. He did not accept the idea that ends justify the means and thought that there was an inextricable link between the two. He insisted that ends were shaped by the means that lead to them – you cannot directly control the ends; you can only influence them via the means that you adopt to reach that end. Thus, Gandhi tailored his strategies according to the picture of the Indian government that he visualized at the end of his struggles.

There has been a cottage industry (pdf) over the years pointing out the objectionable things that Gandhi wrote or said while ignoring other things in his oeuvre. (About 90% of the reactions when people are told that I am reading about Gandhi these days suggest that they are thinking, ‘This guy has finally gone nuts!’) Newton spent the major portion of his life on alchemy and trying to interpret some Bible codes but that doesn’t mean that his science should be ignored. Indeed Neil de Grass Tyson says that he was the smartest person who ever lived.  It just shows that contradictory things can co-exist comfortably in the same mind. In the enthusiasm to point out Gandhi's faults and mis-steps, what is often missed is that he was astonishingly prescient on many issues that others weren’t even thinking about, seduced as they were by the glitter of modernity.

Is Gandhi relevant today? The question is asked with unfailing regularity as his birthday approaches each year on October 2. I think he is more relevant now than he was at the time of Independence. In Bapu Kuti, Rajini Bakshi makes a distinction between the historical Gandhi and the civilizational Gandhi. The historical Gandhi may be criticized and condemned as an ordinary figure. But the civilizational Gandhi, the Gandhi of the  ideas and concepts and uncomfortable questions scattered throughout his works about what a good society should be like, is a far more imposing and enduring figure. Getting lost in extreme statements distracts from the substance of Gandhi’s critique of modernity. Gandhi was great because he had faults like anybody else but had the guts to put them in the public domain, examine them and correct them. By tying to pull him down we diminish ourselves.  As an Urdu verse says, 'nai duniya ke hañgamoñ meñ 'nasir'/dabi jaati haiñ avazeñ purani' (In the tumult of the modern world, old voices get suppressed.)

PS: I got that Urdu verse from rekhta.org, a site devoted to Urdu poetry. Someone said that Hindi and Urdu are a great language separated by a script and a lot of politics. Javed Akhtar once said that when Hindi speakers understand something, they say it is Hindi and when they don't understand something, they say it is Urdu. The great thing about this site is that when you click on any word in a verse, a window opens up telling you its meaning.


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