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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Westerners function on moral absolutes, Indians function on contextual morality

Modi and the Ramanujam Test T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan Rediff Home » India » News » Columnists » December 17, 2007
A K Ramanujam put forth a simple idea: while Westerners function on moral absolutes, Indians function on contextual morality. Some readers will recall that this is the nth time I am writing this. I beg their indulgence for repeating myself yet again. But I do believe that it is important for understanding many of the things that we Indians do, and, even more importantly, the way we think, especially about issues of morality.
It is important today because of our diverse and strange reactions to Narendra Modi [Images]. He has a lot going for him -- leadership, demagoguery, a state under his belt, tacit and revealed Hindu approval, etc. One also gets the sense that India is getting tired of centrist politics and is ready for a decisive shift rightwards.
Be that as it may, in the mid-1980s, the well-known American Indologist from Chicago, McKim Marriott, edited a volume called Imagining India: India through Indian eyes. In it was an essay by the late poet A K Ramanujam titled Is there an Indian Way of Thinking? That essay remains, in my view, the best ever written on the subject of how Indians decide on the morality of their actions.
Ramanujam put forth a simple proposition. He said that unlike the West, which functions on the basis of moral absolutes, Indians function on the basis of contextual morality.
Thus, most often, for the majority of Indians, an action is right or wrong depending on the context in which that action is situated. So in some contexts it is perfectly all right even to kill your brother. Even the Gita tells you so.
When I first wrote about this essay, many people protested. Ramanujam simply could not have said this, they said. I had to mail at least a dozen copies of the essay in order to convince the skeptics. Only two replied.
If we apply the Ramanujam Test, as I like to call it, everything falls into place. Thus, in the context of the partition, it was moral to reassure India's Muslims that they were safe here, whence the charge of appeasement.
In the context of Pakistan and its million follies, many Hindus believe that it is moral to attack them. In the context of the inequities of the caste system, it was all right to deprive the upper castes via reservations, never mind that such deprivation is itself immoral. In the context of domestic political exigencies, it was all right to take money from the KGB but not from the CIA. In Nandigram [Images] it was all right, said the CPM, to kill villagers because they belonged to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist).
We can multiply these examples, but the point is clear. The absence of moral absolutism enables us to justify everything. It clouds our collective as well as individual judgment and, at the most trivial, we get the rubbish we see on TV.
But sometimes it is not trivial, especially when the political context becomes the moral justification for the actions of people, the government, its agents and even some institutions of the State - when a big tree falls, the earth is bound to shake, Soharabuddin, Afzal Guru, etc.
As far as political morality of present dilemma is concerned, I think the original sin lies in our having adopted and accepted identity politics as being a normal and legitimate instrument for pressing group claims - but only as long as such politics is confined to caste. So we say it is fine to have caste-based political parties but not religion-based ones.
We apply different rules to the two - even if the end-result is the same: fomenting disaffection between communities. How does it matter to the citizen if state persecution is based on either caste or religion? Isn't persecution the same for everyone?
This moral ambivalence is what Ramanujam talked about. For example, however strong and morally justified the case may be for the empowerment of the oppressed castes and for what the Americans call affirmative action, is it a logical and morally justifiable step from there to have caste-based political parties that incite hatred?
We have internalised identity-based politics to such an extent that not only do the jholawallah intellectuals make a nice living from it, we don't even hark back a mere 102 years ago, when it all started, for it was in 1905 when India took the decisive step towards identity-based politics when W A J Archbold, Principal of the Anglo-Mohammedan Oriental College in Aligarh, helped fix that fateful meeting of Muslims landowners with Lord Minto, the Viceroy.
Later he helped them draft the letter that demanded separate electorates. Muhammad Ali, the great secular leader, described the whole thing as a "command performance". Yet has any Indian historian enquired who this guy Archbold was? How did a Cambridge don writing about French poetry become the Principal at this college? Who suggested his name? Why did his predecessor resign? Is there a biography? No, sir, not one. The man has become a mere footnote even though there are a million questions to be answered about him.
Therefore, first we got the Muslim League, next the Justice Party in 1918 (the DMK's fore-runner) and so on until after independence, when a whole clutch of caste-based parties sprang up. What great moral principle are all these parties based on?
Think about it and you will see that Narendra Modi is our own creation, of liberals, conservatives, fascists, communists and every other man jack of us. He is not the problem, we all are.

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