Sunday, January 17, 2010

India needs more Argumentative Indians (January 17, 2010)

By Swapan Dasgupta


Earlier this month, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the awards ceremony hosted by the Infosys Foundation as a proud parent: his daughter Upinder was being awarded the prize for history.

As he cherished the moment, a few thoughts must have run through the PM's mind. First, this was a rare occasion that a historian was being honoured by a reputable Indian body. Modern India's priority has hitherto been limited to the sciences, technology, medicine and, inexplicably, something called 'management'. IITs and IIMs have become the shorthand for Indian enlightenment; the liberal arts have been edged out of a new order centred on hustle.

Secondly, the PM must have reflected on his daughter's difficult journey to the top of the academic pile. A scholar of ancient Indian history, Upinder's search for academic recognition had been blocked at each stage by a vindictive history establishment. This wasn't on account of academic shortcomings but because she didn't see eye to eye with the 'progressives' and Marxists who insist that only they have a monopoly of the truth. For a discipline where certitudes are elusive, the 'history as science' brigade has been robustly intolerant of alternative narratives.

There was a Marxist professor of history in Delhi University in the 1970s who used to brag in his lectures that "There are two interpretations of history: the Marxist and the bourgeois. And the Marxist version is the correct one." The conventional wisdom was that if you were partial to Marx you would get marks and even tenured posts.
Upinder was among a minority of historians unmoved by this Stalinism. She maintained her intellectual integrity and eventually succeeded in breaking an insidious ideological ceiling.

Challenging the little islands of conventional wisdom and orthodoxy that dot society isn't easy. The inclination to swim with the tide is both expedient and rewarding. In the 1960s, India's slide to inefficiency and economic disaster was enthusiastically endorsed by ideologically self-serving economists who used their talents to rationalize absurdities, including the bizarre theory that public sector losses were actually socially profitable. Jagdish Bhagwati — a leading dissenter who became an intellectual exile — later commented wryly that "India suffered the tyranny of anticipated consequences from the wrong premises."

Feminist theology decrees that the personal is also political. If so, Manmohan Singh must surely acknowledge the virtues of blurting out that many emperors had no clothes. As finance minister, he shepherded India out of an inefficient, over-regulated and corrupt economy and triggered a recovery of national self-esteem. He endured many taunts, including a Leftist charge of being a "quisling". But at least he has the satisfaction of knowing that challenging Nehruvian orthodoxy proved rewarding for India, even if the PM who initiated the process has been deemed a non-person.

This is why there is something disingenuous about the Congress' shrill over-reaction to Shashi Tharoor's passing reference to Jawaharlal Nehru's penchant for treating foreign policy as a moralistic running commentary. Tharoor has, understandably, subsequently denied this was his view. However, assuming Tharoor did mean what the media reported, does it constitute a political crime?

There are many contemporary accounts that testify to the widespread global exasperation at the preachiness of Nehru, particularly at a time India was traipsing the world with a begging bowl in hand. Enough too has been written about how a misplaced sense of 'anti-imperialism' blinded Nehru to China's aggressive designs. It is also common knowledge that Nehru was imperiously dismissive of dissent. Even an innocuous contrarian like Nirad C Chaudhuri was hounded by officialdom for contesting nationalist mythologies.

More to the point, the load-bearing pillars of Nehru's foreign policy were demolished by P V Narasimha Rao in 1991 and replaced by a flexibility based on national interests (rather than abstruse humbug). India has profited from the course correction.

Nehru belongs to history. He must be assessed, not merely worshipped. In cracking down on any criticism of the Nehru-Gandhi family — strangely the ban doesn't extend to Mahatma Gandhi who is fair game for both scholars and cranks — Manmohan has been unfaithful to himself.

India isn't China where Google is obliged to practice censorship. But let's not delude ourselves that it is a repository of intellectual freedom. India's official culture is too hierarchical, ossified, ritualistic and reverentially theological to make for a truly open and creative society. It is at odds with a civilization that is inherently plural, exaggeratedly accommodative and wildly argumentative. What we need is not merely a "scientific temper" — the search for absolute truths — but a development of the nation's critical faculties, destroyed by centuries of rote learning.

In honouring a historian who hasn't been afraid to question, Infosys Foundation has acknowledged the importance of a rounded India. Hopefully, the recognition won't begin and end with the PM's daughter.


Sunday Times of India, January 17, 2010

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