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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Provoke and encourage the asking of new and perhaps the right questions

[REVIEW ARTICLE] Centrality of the Political Once Again Neera Chandhoke
EPW Current Issue : VOL 42 No. 34 August 25 - August 31, 2007 See Full Contents>>
India after Gandhi:The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha
Guha merely mentions that constitutional democracy has been supplanted by populist Democracy. But what is populist democracy? Democracy led by populist leaders? This insight holds tremendous implications for the way we conceptualise democracy in India. The fact that we have managed to hold regular elections is glamourised so much that we forget that democracy is much more than a percentage of people turning out to cast their vote. We need a theory of democracy that tells us how people make their own history despite all odds, even if the histories they make are not the histories they chose to make in the first instance. This is what democracy is about, about procedures and processes that enable people to speak back to a history that is not of their own making, despite populist leaderships that deal in so much political fluff. But Guha does not develop his incipient theory of democracy. And this is disappointing
Finally, let me suggest at least three factors that continue to cast a dark cloud on the prospect that Indians will experience a feeling of strong belonging to each other, in and through the practices of civic nationhood.
Firstly, as long as the Kashmir problem remains, communalism will continue to bedevil intercommunity existence. The impact of Mani Ratnam’s film Roja on communal sentiments in regions distant from the Kashmir valley is enough proof of this. We cannot share sentiments of pride that we are citizens of India, and that India is the world’s largest democracy, as long as our own people are subjected to immense and senseless violence in the valley, and as long as the Indian state continues to violate basic rights of the inhabitants in that part of the country. India is turning 60, and 60 is a good age to reflect on where we want to go, and where we do not want to go.
Perhaps the maturity that the age of 60 is expected to bring will encourage a reasoned solution to the Kashmir problem. Enough blood has been spilt in the valley; it is time for reconciliation and for compensating for historical wrongs. Walter Lawrence who as an able administrator of the British empire was sent to J and K to iron out the wrongs of the then ruler, was to write of the Kashmiri people thus, "they were really a very fine people, a people who never had a chance".9 Should these historical wrongs not be rectified today when independent India turns 60? Should not the Kashmiri people be given a chance to come into their own? Guha’s politically sensitive handling of the Kashmir issue should be cause enough to prompt a resolution of the problem.
Secondly, though according to Guha India’s civil society is by all accounts vibrant, and marked by solidarity and awareness of historical wrongs, a sense of belonging to a country called India, can be ensured only when groups eschew independent or partial agendas, and come together to fight for justice for all victims of history. The civil liberties movement can arguably provide an umbrella for bringing these groups together – feminist, anticaste, anti-communal, anti-globali sation, and anti-all other evils. We have a lively civil society even if it is occasionally messy, but it is also prone to fragmentation and easy manipulation by the state. All democratic movements need to forge a common cause; that of solidarity, to battle the politics of rank symbolism: an Ambedkar statue "here", and some more reservations "there", a handout here, and a favour there, which pit community against community, and religion against religion.
Thirdly, is it not also time that we complete the task of institutionalising protections for the vulnerable sections of society, and begin to look at victims of history in other parts of the world, through the lens of a common humanity and solidarity? Philosophers in the west are speaking of obligations to a globalised humanity, of reaching out to people who have been disadvantaged by our collective histories of exploitation and subordination, and of global justice and cosmopolitanism. And we are looking increasingly inwards to community and caste, and sub-community and sub-caste, and agonising over who should we should eat with, and who our children should marry or not marry.
Is it not time that we in India settle, even, provisionally the "narcissism of minor differences", and begin to communicate and connect with others, if not in the world, in our region at least? We have turned inwards for too long; we have been preoccupied with "me" and "mine" for too long. Civilised societies are not hemmed in by ethnic or national borders; they are marked by the language of generosity and obligation, and the ability to feel pain for human beings even if these human beings live in societies far away. We should try and recover some of the cosmopolitanism of Nehru that Guha has dwelt on so lovingly, and some of Nehru’s commitment to shimmering solidarity with other countries of the south.
These are issues which the book under review does not touch, but these are issues that are catapulted onto research agendas by a close reading of Guha’s book. And here lies precisely the strength of this work. For arguably the purpose of social science enquiry is not to provide the right answers, which are for this reason considered settled, but to provoke and encourage the asking of new and perhaps the right questions. Guha’s book is noteworthy for this very reason. He is to be congratulated. Email:

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