"WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SO IMPRACTICAL?"
I should start by explaining the title of this piece. I don’t think of myself as impractical, or certainly no more so than anyone else. What is true is that my way of seeing the world — disapprovingly — has sometimes been labeled as impractical, abstract, or immature by some of my peers. This kind of dismissal used to bother me until quite recently, made me wonder whether I was out of touch, too idealistic, or just plain obtuse. Over time however, I’ve come to appreciate that there are good reasons to be dissatisfied with many of the institutions, practices, attitudes, "lifestyles," etc that we have come to accept uncritically.
There appears to be something deeply patronizing about explanations for the state of our world that begin with disclaimers like: "That’s just way it is" or "this is the best we can do." Without necessarily casting aspersions on any one group of people, I think that such pronouncements come from people who inhabit positions of power, who implicitly assume that because of their location in the world, they are entitled to shape the lives of everyone else. It’s just that what these people consider "practical" or "constructive" is a product of their own way of seeing the world. The catch is, that since no single point of view is necessarily any more legitimate than any other, from my vantage point I see such attitudes as the product of particular trajectories of life—trajectories that are available to a small number of people. It is for this reason that nowadays I intuitively resist the narrow ways in which terms like "practical" and "pragmatic" are co-opted by some people and used to dismiss alternative rationalities.
Why is this a "story of resistance"? Most of us have come across stories about different forms of resistance — personal, institutional, national, etc. Some people challenge male patriarchy, others, the tyranny of capitalism. Many target "modernity"1 and its adulation of the state and market as the source of numerous problems confronting us today. This story is really not as grandiose or melodramatic. It tries to explain how I became aware that while all is not well with the world, there are creative solutions to the problems confronting it. It is a story of confusion interspersed with periodic moments of clarity, and of how I have started becoming more aware of my own critical consciousness, a sense that the ideas I once took for granted are far more complicated than they have been made out to be by my peers. Questions about who these "peers" are, why they say the things they do, how, and towards what ends, are now an integral part of how I interrogate the world around me. This critical awareness has also made me conscious, perhaps like nothing else, of the need to be more imaginative with my surroundings, and to respect — really respect — alternative ways of seeing and living. I have found that many ostensibly "impractical" approaches are truly inventive and resourceful, but are being bulldozed into conformity by the juggernaut of Modernization.
We are all aware of the need to resist the romanticization of "alternatives," or the fetishization of buzzwords like "multiculturalism" and "diversity" at the expense of hardnosed pragmatism. This isn’t a story about escaping reality, or de-legitimizing the need for sensible, practicable solutions… It is about confronting life’s rich complexity by becoming Janus-faced, or perhaps like the arch villain of India’s greatest epic, Ravana-headed. It is about seeing the world through many eyes, and recognizing that reality is far too complex to be condensed into one-dimensional forms of knowing. Ravana, who we all know as the ten-headed demon of mainstream versions of the Ramayana, is the hero of lesser-known variations of the epic. Perhaps the Truths of Development and Globalization—which seem heroic to many people I know—are demonic for those who live in the marginal spaces that aren’t on the "maps" charted for everyone by "experts." For a long time, I had subconsciously known that there are many such marginal spaces. The odd thing is, they aren’t even marginal; they just seemed that way from the vantage points I had been conditioned to inhabit.
How It Began...
As the son of a senior bureaucrat living in the dusty, provincial towns of India, I had a privileged upbringing. I spent the first seventeen years of my life living with my family through a period of reasonable stability, and aside from the fact that we moved from one district of Rajasthan to another once every couple of years, the actual rhythms of life were consistent and relatively unchanging. In most of the places we lived, my father’s position ensured that we had access to a small troupe of domestic helpers, gardeners, and drivers who looked after all of our needs. My grandfather, and after him, my father were busy men in important government positions. They came into regular contact with local notables and families in positions of privilege. Our visits to local clubs were interspersed with picnics, and two-day outings to wildlife reserves during which we stayed in Dak Bungalows and Circuit Houses after being chaperoned around in white Ambassador cars. In these places, the arrangements were comfortable, and the luxuries abundant.
The parameters of this life were well defined. The structures of everyday life had a seamless feel, something that we took for granted. My grandfather and father, who had studied in India’s most prestigious educational institutions (Allahabad and Delhi universities), had lived through India’s turbulent transition from colonial rule to nation-statehood, and had come to believe in Jawaharlal Nehru’s vision of a modern, secular India. They took liberal, democratic values seriously, and I was encouraged to explore the world’s diversity and complexity through reading and travel. The inculcation of this cultural literacy was an integral part of the education my sister Vidhi and I received, and our schooling was supplemented by considerable exposure to literature, music, and ideas from around the world. My grandfather and I frequently had long conversations in which he drew upon ideas from the Upanishads, the Gita, Vivekananda, and Christianity — sometimes in one sitting. His notebook, in which he made jottings from virtually everything he had read, became an object of fascination in my schoolboy imagination. Once in a while, my father read us the short stories of Rabindranath Tagore. On my fourteenth birthday my grandfather presented me with a copy of Bertrand Russell’s A Free Man’s Worship — a volume from his large collection of books on philosophy. Although this may not have seemed apparent to him, the gift marked a very significant moment in my life. It served as an affirmation that I was growing-up, and mature enough to appreciate the principles that he felt strongly about. The book is still there on my shelf of favorite texts, dog-eared and worn. Its message continues to mean a lot to me, although over time my view of Russell’s "freedom" has become more textured.
It was a foregone conclusion that my sister and I should study in English medium schools; especially those that functioned along the pedagogic guidelines of the government instituted Central Board of Secondary Education. This ensured that most of my friends came from families in which the parents worked for the government. These "service class" families, as they are called, were not particularly different from mine, except perhaps in the degree to which they had absorbed ideas drawn from the west. The use of English was a marker of social distinction, and in my teenage years, it served to delineate my place in the world. Everyone I knew took governmental perks, and the privileges of provincial elitism for granted. (Strictly speaking, members of the domestic staff weren’t "servants," but government employees who had been designated to work for officers. Thus, for instance, trained constables did the work of cooks and gardeners.) For us, the state wasn’t an "institution" to be understood or critiqued; it was an avuncular presence that allowed us to live our linear lives in peace, in harmony with an ever prospering, democratic India — the messy reality of which was far, far away.
From my perch of postcolonial, provincial elitism, everything seemed basically uncomplicated, and despite the occasional encounters with beggars on the streets, or the excesses of governmental authority — I saw little to complain about in the world. Hardly any of my acquaintances had had to worry about problems like poverty or unemployment. In this universe, if there was a problem, it could be solved through dialogue and hard work, with help from the state and other citizens. Like those around me, I believed that the world’s salvation lay in the rational ordering, disciplining, and "management" of the world. Sure, there were some problems that never seemed to go away, but this was only because the people involved were ignorant, or uneducated. I believed in the greatness of India, and its ability to play a major role in the community of world nations. Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, I had acquired an uncritical belief that people like me were destined to lead, to speak for the lives of those people of India who hadn’t had the kinds of opportunities — education, exposure, etc. — as myself. It never occurred to me that this attitude may have seemed condescending to the people I would "speak" for. Did I notice this at that time? No, not explicitly anyway.
"There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack"2
When I was seven, my family moved from the small town environment of Rajasthan to England where my father was appointed to a senior position in the Indian High Commission in London. Although I was very young, the three years that we spent there left an indelible, and not altogether pleasant impression on me. The actual move from India to the UK was harmless in and of itself, but the adjustments that my family made over the period that we were there gave me a sense — one that I wasn’t conscious of then — that the world was far trickier than I had imagined it to be while sitting in Rajasthan.
My friends in London came from many different backgrounds, which is typical in middle-income areas of the city. English, which wasn’t a language I spoke very well in Rajasthan, became my first language even though I never quite got the accent right. I struggled to make friends at school, but after the first year or so managed to blend in. Every afternoon after school, we used to go to the local park to play soccer. Occasionally, I was accosted and roughed-up by older kids playing in the park. These boys addressed me as "Paki" or "darkie," and then spat on me. To be shoved around and jeered at was not an uncommon occurrence. At times, I was told to go home, to my country. Whereas some of my older friends fought back, I usually sat and endured the treatment, perhaps because I was younger than the others. At the age of nine, I was becoming aware of the horrors of xenophobia and hatred, but was hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with them. Incidents like these confused me, because I couldn’t understand why some people are considered inferior for no fault of theirs. Of course, such notions of social differentiation and inequality are as deep-rooted in India as anywhere else; it is ironic that I just happened to become aware of them in England because I was at the wrong end of the hierarchy...
I also became sensitive towards something else, something that had never seemed to be an issue earlier in my life: racism. Like children everywhere, I used to believe that by and large, people are the same. Sure, they looked different from each other, but these differences were purely extraneous. In England, I have a vivid memory of how my mother, who always wore a saree and a bindi wherever she went, sometimes elicited glances from passers-by on the streets or in grocery stores. Sometimes people commented admiringly on the fabric of the saree or the fine embroidery, but many of the stares had a menacing quality, suggesting feelings of antipathy, bordering on hostility. I am not sure if my mother even noticed these things, but the memories have stayed with me. Do they mean something? Probably my awareness, even at that earlier stage, that people took social differences—based on culture, race, gender, class—very seriously. It wasn’t something I understood, or liked very much.
Disciplining the Mind
After returning to India, I encountered the competitive culture of Indian schooling for the first time. In sixth grade, when a student moves from primary to middle school, there is a quantum leap in the amount of work he is expected to do for class. The textbooks are thicker, the exams, tougher. After my relatively benign classroom experiences in England where my problems had been cultural, not academic, the rigors of the Indian exam system virtually killed my self-confidence. Throughout my schooling years, my performance in exams was at best average. I struggled with textbooks, and after some years of this, felt convinced that I was deeply inadequate in some way. Despite the support of my family, I felt reticent and diffident. Home tuitions supplemented my work at school, and despite the long breaks during the summers and winters, I acquired a deep-rooted fear of the examination system and its obsession with ranking students.
By and large, I disliked school, and resented my teachers because they couldn’t make me learn in ways that translated into good exam scores. I did encounter some committed schoolteachers; but they were the exceptions, and the vast majority were apathetic at best. Quite a few were frustrated in their jobs because they would have been happier in other professions.3 An occasional beating from them was something that most students took for granted. I didn’t make friends easily, and usually chose companions who ranked lower than me in the class rankings. Because of my own desire to perform well at exams, I harbored secret jealousies towards those kids who ranked higher than me.
I was generally uncomfortable around other children in my family, many of whom lived exciting lives in big cities while performing well in academics with enviable ease, or at least so I thought. In the summer, when our examination results were announced, I lived in perennial dread of family gatherings at which adulation was showered on children who had done well at exams. Underachievers like myself usually skulked around sheepishly. Despite the tremendous familial warmth and excitement of such get-togethers, they were often the low point of summer holidays. I actually preferred to play on my own, and found big gatherings intimidating because among children, conversation usually revolved around schooling and exams. The frequent recurrence of such events made me painfully aware that there was something deeply unjust about the way in which I, and others like me, had been made to feel small. I fought such feelings like mad, but not finding any outlet for my confusion, repressed most of the angst.
Throughout these years, I looked for ways out, distractions from the tyrannies of the classroom. I looked for reasons to flee school, and often lied to my teachers in order to miss class. Aside from my adolescent fascination with girls, I was in love with books and movies. Libraries opened me up to the powers of the imagination, and nurtured my belief in the creative potential of the human mind. Although I did not realize this at the time, the sheer multiplicity and diversity of human narratives — in books, magazines, films, and works of literature — fascinated me, and instinctively, I knew that there had to be many more ways of looking at the world than those being recommended to me by my school textbooks. My immediate family encouraged this fascination with books, although there were some relatives who tried to discourage me from wasting my time on texts that they thought were "inappropriate for my age," or a distraction from the "real" work that I needed to do in order to perform in school. Such criticism didn’t make sense and bothered me (after all, reading was something I wanted to do!). But because the world of books was my refuge, I actually embraced reading even more. And whenever I tired of Tarzan and Louis L’Amour westerns, I picked up my bicycle and rode into the gullies and by-lanes of small-town Rajasthan. Non-linear, messy, crowded—these pathways took me away from my sheltered life, and brought me into contact with an alternative reality that was governed by its own rules ordained by years of experience, not the diktat of governmental power.
On the whole though, my schooling years were a period of uncertainty and embarrassment. I acquired a deep-rooted suspicion of hierarchies and ranking mechanisms, indeed anything that even remotely resembled the methods of evaluation being used in schools. This attitude was partly a result of what I had observed and felt in England as someone who had struggled to fit-in. In India, the issues were different: Here I was made to feel small by the modern schooling system, and its overpowering ability to vitiate social complexity by reducing it to neat heirarchies. Many of my escapist pastimes, like reading and running around on a bicycle, are common to all middle and high school kids, but for myself, they were symptomatic of something deeper: A growing sense that in the hierarchical scheme of things, I was not making the cut, and probably never would.
Throughout this period, I remained very close to my family, perhaps because they did not force me into doing anything I didn’t like. They allowed me to grow up on my own terms. In fact, my parents’ remarkable openness towards what I liked nurtured my curiosity, and helped me to identify my own strengths and predilections. Despite being surrounded by parents who were pressurizing their kids to adopt very well defined career paths (usually medicine, engineering, IAS, or business), my parents did not, at any point, try to tell me what to do with my life. They viewed my inadequacies in school, at worst, as a passing phase. In this sense, they helped me to find my own way out of my adolescent confusions. It was in this frame of mind that I left home in small town Rajasthan to enter college in Delhi.
Of Institutions and Inequalities
Unlike most students at St. Stephen’s College, I entered my undergraduate education with a relatively low opinion of myself. I wasn’t a confident public speaker, had average scores in high school, and at least by the standards of my surroundings, wasn’t exactly "cool." Clothes that had been at the cutting-edge of small-town fashion seemed, in Delhi, dowdy and old-fashioned. Despite such minor catastrophes, my transition from the quiet provincial environment of Jodhpur to the bustling and glamorous scene in Delhi (or so I thought of it at the time) was by and large enjoyable. For some time at least, my admission to an elite college gave me the kind of confidence that I had never experienced in school. I embraced college with a conviction that it was an opportunity for me to "achieve," something I had only dreamt about. My decision to major in History was a calculated move guaranteed to get me into the administrative elite of India. I also enjoyed the freedom that came from living away from home, and realized very soon that for all the problems of overcrowding and pollution that plague big Indian cities, they provide anonymity and spaces for experimentation that I had rarely found elsewhere. College opened me up to lots of new preoccupations, surroundings, and ideas. A small part in the Shakespeare Society’s annual production did wonders for my confidence, and as president of the Informal Discussion Group, I was able to work towards alleviating my stage fright. As an active member of the college’s clubs/societies, I drew reassurance from the fact that I "belonged" and "fit in."
Was this true? Did I really feel at home in this energized environment? I certainly relished the excitement of Delhi, and liked to hangout with confident kids who had gone to expensive schools. I knew that I did not necessarily share a lot of my peers’ attitudes, aspirations, and values. To remedy this, I consciously worked towards refining my tastes in music, clothing, etc., in order to feel at home in the rarified spaces of Delhi’s high culture. However, the insecurity that I had carried with me into college — a feeling of diffidence and uncertainty bred by the belief that my small town background and academic ineptitude would reveal my mediocrity—peeked through at various moments. As the initial euphoria of college wore off, I started to have nagging doubts about what I was doing there.
By the time I had entered the final year of college, I began to realize that as a member of St. Stephen’s’ aggressive, achievement-minded student body, I was playing a high stakes game. The rules were determined by the culture of elitism that had been perfected by a college modeled on Cambridge, and my success or failure hinged on my ability to chisel myself into a hard-nosed go-getter. My peers, even though they came from diverse backgrounds, seemed to take these rules very seriously, and the pressure to achieve was contagious. College debates were opportunities for the best student minds to compete with each other, and exams produced cutthroat competition. Although there were many who struggled to find their bearings in this culture, and expressed themselves in creative ways, most of these people were painfully aware that in the final analysis, their final exam results and future success were really what mattered.
It was a widely shared belief that for someone from this institution, careers in the civil services, law, academics, and the world of corporate power were a forgone conclusion. The vast majority of students sorted themselves nicely to groups that worked together (and competed amongst themselves) to reach their desired goals. Since I wasn’t as sure of my future as a lot of my classmates, I became friends with students from different academic interests — but stayed away from a single group. I thus ended-up with friends who were studying subjects like philosophy, mathematics, literature, or economics, disciplines that were completely different from mine. Unlike my companions in school, with whom I had had to compete in class, these guys came with no strings attached, and were headed towards careers that I had never even considered. Meetings with members of the "Philosophy Society," for instance, fascinated me because they brought me into contact with classical philosophy in ways that I could never have imagined. The group used to read aloud from passages of Plato, and discuss them over rounds of chai and samosas... These interactions opened me up to ways of seeing that I had never encountered before, and found exhilarating. Perhaps most significantly, they altered my relationship with the subject that I had chosen to major in: History.
In my final year in college, the university syllabus required us to study modern Indian history. Until my final year at college, I had always believed that explanations for many of the problems confronting our lives lay in well-researched studies of India’s past, especially those of the colonial period. In the sincerest spirit of inquiry fostered by my grandfather and father, I fervently believed that by identifying the origins and causes of these problems, research could help us to find real solutions. I genuinely felt like studying the intricacies of the field. As I went deeper into the discipline, a serious problem arose: I found myself doubting a lot of what I read or heard in class lectures because these claims seemed to contradict things that I had experienced growing-up. Although some facts pertaining to the past were uncontroversial, history appeared, perhaps for the first time, as a contentious, internally fractured discipline that had pretended to speak with an "objective" voice, but really wasn’t too sure of itself. I was struck by how subjective, and tentative the "truths" of history really were when they tried to address the big questions.
Why was this? Over the course of my undergrad years, I came to appreciate that the multiplicity of views on India’s past was a function of the wide range of research methods and political ideologies that informed the work of historians. Different versions of India’s past were derived from a plethora of conceptual frameworks that were frequently at odds with each other. Historians produced staunchly opposing views on what comprised India’s past, how it should be narrated, and to what end. The synonymous existence of different interpretations — shaped as much by their context, as by the social, institutional, and ideological location of those constructing them — revealed that there are several competing narratives of India’s past. As time went by, I became aware that there could be no single, dominant view of Indian, or for that matter any national history. To me, disagreements over India’s past revealed the degree to which the production of knowledge (in this case, historical knowledge) remained comprehensively intertwined with issues of power, and where it was located. While history could be written by everyone, it seemed largely true that histories of, and by, dominant groups ended-up gaining legitimacy. Wasn’t this inherent in the idea of History itself?
I also felt that different histories were all, in their own way legitimate. The problem was that they all competed against each other instead of working towards a common, harmonious vision. Contrary to the view of many of my peers, I did not believe that this competition was a result of turf wars driven by the hubris of petty intellectuals dealing with arcane theories. In fact, most of the historians I met seemed reasonable, level headed people. I began to feel that the real reason for the seemingly insurmountable differences between divergent histories lay in the incommensurability of their assumptions, the premises they based their research on. Economic historians rarely consulted cultural historians, and social historians borrowed little from art historians. It was almost as though the different areas of the discipline of History were like a microcosm of the university. Just as different disciplines had carved out their own boundaries and terrain within the academy, disparate schools of historical thought attempted to "protect" themselves from the attacks of "other" histories within the larger discipline of History... I felt that this contentiousness within the discipline debilitated it.
My perceived "failure" of History transformed the way I viewed many of the categories that had seemed uncomplicated earlier (especially "class," the "state," and "community"). The concept that seemed most confusing was an idea that most people I knew had always accepted uncritically: the idea of "nationalism," or more pertinently at that time, the notion that "India" represented something singular, a "unity in diversity" as our textbooks pedantically proclaimed. Was it a civilization? A community? A culture? Where did the idea come from? It’s unique history? If so, then what was so unique about it? Weren’t all histories unique, and where did one history end, and another, begin? What about the impact of colonialism on the way we wrote our histories? Was there a history that really belonged to us and to no one else? What, after all, did it really mean to be Indian?
The Turning Point: 1990-92
Many of these questions really shook me up. Perhaps more worryingly, they hit me the year I was confronted with increasingly complicated career choices. This period, between 1990 and 1992, was also difficult because things happened in India that altered the way I came to view all that I had learnt and seen. The 1980s had been a turbulent decade for all sorts of reasons, but by the end of the decade three issues came to dominate all debates about the future of Indian politics. All of these exploded in India when I entered my third year in college, and had the effect of demolishing any complacency I might have fostered based on my past convictions.
"Bahut mehangaai hai. Aaj kal to aaloo-pyaaz bhi hamare bas ke bahar hain. Pata nahin achaanak yeh kaise ho gaya" (It’s very expensive nowadays. We can’t even afford to buy potatoes and onions. I have no idea how things have changed so fast.)
I was sitting chatting with Hari Singh, the chai-vendor just across the street from our college in Delhi. Over the past three years, I had had countless cups of tea at his shop, which operated out of a hole in the wall surrounding Hindu College. We had become good friends. Hari Singh had been a part of the university community for years, but over the past few months, he was unsure of how he could go on. Prices had gone up sharply because of recent economic policies, but the intricacies of the subject didn’t really interest him.
"Aap log padh-likh ke yeh sab theek karna. Is mahangaai se kisi ka fayda nahee hota." (After getting an education, people like you should fix things. This inflation doesn’t help anybody.)
Hari Singh believed that institutions like Delhi University were producing enlightened individuals who would play a pivotal role in redressing the world’s growing problems. He had a lot of faith in education, and the forces of modernization. Little did he realize that India’s government was already full of university educated "experts" who were at least partly responsible for the very problems that he was confronting.
India’s adoption of market reforms in 1990-91, triggered-off by the country’s unmanageable fiscal deficit, seemed like a no-brainer for most people that I knew. My friends viewed the opening-up of the Indian economy, after four decades of socialist protectionism, as a long overdue exercise. For most members of the urban intelligentsia, this kind of neo-liberal reform not only made economic sense, it was also the logical extension of their own liberal pretensions. After the initiation of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR in the 1980s, these people believed strongly that India’s future lay in its ability to play a role in the global marketplace. The reform process was thus viewed, at worst, as a belated measure that India’s excruciatingly slow state had finally been forced to adopt, barely in the nick of time.
These sentiments were voiced quite loudly in the Indian media circus. Did most people agree with them? My close friends were very optimistic about the reforms because they felt that the presence of foreign corporations in India would lead to new job openings, and help them move up in life. Nevertheless, from talking to people outside my immediate peer group (such as Hari Singh), I sensed that there was some confusion about what the reforms really meant for people at large, those outside the elite spaces of urban India. Within the first year of so after the deregulation of the economy, murmurings of discontent had begun squeaking through. All this confused me. At one level, the logic behind the policies was impeccable when viewed through a strictly macroeconomic, establishmentarian lens. The government of India, it would seem, had had no alternative in the face of pressure from the international community and its own precarious economic situation. Despite this, many seemed disenchanted with what they considered the rashness of putting the future of India at the mercy of the invisible forces of capitalism. Many of my left-leaning professors doubted the viability of trickle-down economics, and based on horror stories about the effects of Reaganomics and Thatcher’s policies on other "developing" economies, strongly cautioned against an accelerated reform process.
Two things struck me about criticisms of market reform: Firstly, they articulated an underlying suspicion of those assumptions that were used to justify the value of "free markets"; in a sense, critics doubted the degree to which liberalization was really capable of upholding "liberalism," the history of which was totally intertwined with modern definitions of free market capitalism. Critics were saying that although the free market would liberate the marketplace from the interference of a patriarchal state, it was not necessarily capable of guaranteeing people real freedom, of the kind that "true" democracies, in the Enlightenment tradition, should. Secondly, some critics who were open to the idea of free markets per se, doubted the Indian state’s ability to successfully implement the reforms. Many such voices felt that the Indian government’s long history of inefficiency and connivance with elites would ensure that dominant interest groups would hijack the process of reform. The "trickle-down," so to speak, would not reach the lower half of the Indian population because of bureaucratic bungling and corruption, and this would defeat the real purpose of the policies.
Even though I didn’t completely agree with these critiques, I felt a desperate need to interrogate two things that I had never really thought about critically: theories of liberalism, (and therefore, democracy) and how they related to governance (which, it was assumed, should be left to governments). As I’ve said earlier, I had rarely thought much about the "state" despite my close proximity to all that it represented. Until critical voices questioned the motives and inherent structure of the Indian government in their interrogation of liberalization, I had never felt that the "state" had, by virtue of how it was structured, indeed what it represented as an entity, created some of India’s biggest problems. Simultaneously, I began to question the relationship between ideas like liberalism, and the institutions that society has evolved from them. For instance, I was shocked to learn that the emancipatory ideas contained in liberal thought had been used by British intellectuals to justify the colonization of India—indeed of the majority of the world’s population. Even though this seemed very difficult to accept at the time, I began to suspect that when ideologies wield authority by usurping power (through the state or corporations, for instance), they have the potential to subvert the very values that they claim to uphold. In my little world, this was earth-shattering stuff, and perhaps for the first time in my life, I began to wonder about the "constructed" nature of much that I had taken for granted.
I was in Delhi, and had just put the phone down after speaking to my parents, shocked at what I had heard. The house of Vaqar Ahmad, one of my closest friends in Jaipur, had been attacked and torched—because he was Muslim. I couldn’t get over the fact that this house, where I had had countless meals and gossip sessions, had been scarred by the disease of communal hatred that was slowly permeating Indian society. His colony was very close to ours, and I realized, perhaps for the first time, that there was no reason to believe why our house would not be a target next time...
After I got to Jaipur a few weeks later, Vaqar visited us. His eyes, once full of mischief, had acquired a lost, stricken look. He looked visibly shaken, and after a few perfunctory words of greeting and small talk, announced that he was thinking of moving out of Jaipur. I sat there silently, knowing that this wasn’t what he had ever wanted, but not being able to dissuade him. What does one say at times like this? How does one react when the steady rhythms of everyday life are suddenly savaged by the violence of hate?
In 1989-90, my hometown Jaipur was jolted by a string of riots, described in the press as "communal," i.e., between the Hindu and Muslim communities. These acts of violence came in the wake of the growing stridency of Hindutva, an ideological belief in the civilizational and cultural unity of the Hindu community among sections of India’s middle class. For most of my life, I had never put too much thought into the nature of organized religion, something that I had assumed was one strand among many that make-up the social world. The riots in Jaipur, which my father helped to quell, came very close to home, and terrified me. I was a close friend of some people whose houses were burnt in the violence, and it was traumatizing to walk through neighborhoods where I had dodged bullock carts and chased decapitated kites on my little escapes from school. The events of 1990, which had come as the result of an organized buildup among a small section of the Indian population, marked an important turning point in my life because they forced me to confront, like never before, the nature of nationalism.
My limited training in history, and my growing skepticism towards those who claimed to speak for shared pasts and the inherent unity of communities, drew me towards a close engagement with Hindu nationalism. What perturbed me about the rise of Hindutva was that it epitomized the worst excesses of nationalism. Its ideologues believed in the inherent unity of "Akhant Bharat" ("united India"), a community of Hindus that supposedly includes not just the whole South Asian subcontinent, but sizable chunks of southeast Asia—while excluding all Muslims, Christians, indeed most "minority" groups.
I disliked such claims because they were based on faulty assumptions about the nature of communities and cultures. Many of my friends were Muslims like Vaqar, and I resented the exclusivist claims of Hindu purity that were being made by these people on behalf of people like myself. I was very uncomfortable with the fact that most of the activities of the Sangh Parivar (the "family" of the different organizations who share the Hindutva view of the world) were being done in the name of India. The writing of Hindutva "histories" (which are now making their way into school textbooks) frightened me. Frequently fascistic in tone and content, such histories called upon Hindus to assert their masculinity and to shed their "secularist" façade in the interests of creating a Hindu India. Most hypocritically, these histories also papered-over nasty elements of "Hindu" society, especially those related to gender inequality and caste oppression.
Since I was working with scholars like Sumit Sarkar and Gyanendra Pandey who had pioneered the study of "subaltern groups," I was already becoming suspicious of nationalist jingoism — and the morally superior demeanor that is fostered by patriotism. Little seemed to justify my country’s preoccupation with nationalist ideology. Claims about India’s cultural unity, which I had encountered in innumerable school assemblies, textbooks, and dinner discussions with nationalistic peers seemed unnecessarily flaky — almost insultingly superficial — in comparison to the enormous depth, fortitude, and complexity that I had begun to see in the people of the subcontinent. I saw little that was useful in the belief that people are somehow bound in "imagined communities" because of some inherent cultural trait. I had seen too much change in my own lifetime to believe in the timelessness of anything, let alone something like the idea of an Indian nation whose political boundaries had been shaped by the contingencies of its colonial past.
The riots in Jaipur showed the dark side of ideas that claim omnipotence unto themselves, and the monstrous acts that follow from such claims. The events demonstrated how dangerous such ideas are when they usurp power and deny the co-existence of diverse points of view. The 1990s witnessed horrific acts in the name of Hindutva, and these triggered-off cycles of violence that have only reinforced my belief in the damaging effects of nationalist ideologies which, by their very nature, exist in relation to "others" who are construed as different, somehow "out there," incapable of fully sharing in the innate humanity that all people are capable of. India and Pakistan’s acrimonious relationship serves as proof that nationalism is incapable of ever bringing about enduring human understanding and peace because as an ideology, it is structurally, innately incapable of doing so.
Over the years, I have retained a belief in secularism. Nonetheless, it is now apparent that in India, the concept has been hollowed-out to serve vested interests. Both leftist and right wing political groups in India have distorted the otherwise inclusive definition of secularism, by reducing it to the interplay between "majority" and "minority" communities as though these are watertight categories (based on religious or caste identities). Clearly, many people see through this manipulation, but unless the term is rescued from its current usage — one that emanates from the internal tensions that were embedded in anti-colonial nationalism from the very beginning — it runs the risk of losing all relevance in contemporary India. I seriously doubt whether the currently available institutional spaces (NGOs, civil society organizations, legislative mechanisms, the judiciary, etc.) are really up to the task of reforming things because they are too preoccupied with generating and protecting a superficial consensus on all issues related to India’s nation-statehood —not encouraging debate on issues pertaining to the foundational role of the state and the market (as Arundhati Roy discovered after being arrested for doubting the Indian judiciary in March 2002).
"Please stop your car! Join us in our protest against the Mandal Commission... Aren’t you aware of the tragedies it has already caused? If you don’t agree with us, baat to karo yaar! (at least talk to us). This issue is too big to be ignored by anyone!"
We had spent the morning at Mall Road blocking traffic on the Ring Road that circles around Delhi, and were walking in the direction of "Kranti Chowk" ("Revolutionary Square"), the road intersection where the campuses of St. Stephen’s College, the Delhi School of Economics, Ramjas College, and Delhi University came together. A few days ago, the space had been hijacked by a group of students to protest the government’s adoption of the Mandal Commission recommendations, and the space was now the center of feverish activity.
As we got closer to the intersection, we heard the sound of a speech being delivered by a member of the DUSU (Delhi University Student Union). I had heard of the speaker before, a man who had consistently failed his MA exams on purpose so that he could continue to live in the university’s hostels—a launching pad for budding politicians. The speech, which I found hyperbolic because it was unnecessarily trying to provoke angst against the government instead of focusing on the real issues, was a fiery affair. My friends seemed to share my skepticism, but the events of the past few months had left us with no choice but to join the protests.
Curious to see who else was at the gathering, I looked around and noticed many familiar faces, including a few of our professors. There were also large banners, commemorating the boys who had given their lives by setting themselves on fire to protest the government’s actions...
In 1991-92, after the government passed legislation that it would "reserve" positions in educational institutions and government offices for people from "backward castes"—based on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission Report—different parts of India witnessed a horrific spectacle: young men, most of them in their late teens and early twenties doused themselves with kerosene and burnt themselves alive to protest against the government’s policy. These acts, the result of acute frustration, a misguided belief in narrow careerist goals, and lord knows what else, brought me face to face with the darkest, most morbid elements of our society. As an active member of a student body protesting the adoption of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations (on the grounds that caste was the wrong basis on which to grant reservations), I witnessed the degree to which young men and women were struggling to find a way out of the pressures and tyrannies of modernization. Even though I saw the value of the many gains that India had made in the areas of economic development, agricultural self-sufficiency, and the practices of democracy, I found it very difficult to explain why young, educated men who had been exposed to modern living would want to destroy themselves.
There were questions that I asked myself over and over again. If these men were educated, had gone to schools where they supposedly learnt to be rational, objective, and just, then what was forcing them to commit acts of such desperation? Was their social and family life flawed? For all the promise that the forces of modernization represented, why were these men, and obviously countless others, so disenchanted with their world? Was the pressure of having to "achieve" and "make it big" so great that they were incapable of imagining life beyond the myopia of worldly "success"? These were very difficult questions, especially because they applied to middle class youngsters like myself... My answers were tentative at best, but the events left little doubt in my mind that they were not to be found in simplistic claims about school pressure, or peoples’ frustration with unscrupulous political leaders. Had the reasons been so simple, they could have been remedied. Discussions in the mainstream media disgusted me, because all I heard were recriminations and facile generalizations in which hardly anyone seemed to be able to look at things holistically. The more I interacted with people, the more I felt that it would simply not do to talk only of reforming the "system" from within, or rearranging our expectations. I felt the need to do something more radical, to assess the foundational assumptions that determined the social structures and political institutions that I lived with.
By the time I had reached the end of my stay at Delhi University, I had experienced, within a short span of two years, the horrors of collective violence in the name of religion, the frustration of young men pushed to suicide, and the hubris and ruthlessness of those who believed, from positions of power, that they could socially engineer an economic revolution in the name of "liberalization." The parallel emergence of these explosive issues—liberalization, Hindutva, and Mandal—transformed the way I would subsequently see the world. After prolonged conversations with family and friends, I finally decided against pursuing a career in the IAS, or as a corporate executive. This was not because I had lost interest in the kinds of things that such professionals did. No, what changed my mind was my increasing awareness that if I chose to work in these capacities, I would feel compelled to accept, and affirm, the institutions that these jobs were located within. I wasn’t convinced I was ready to do that just yet.
9/11 and After
It had been about five days since the World Trade Centers had been destroyed. After a difficult class on the relevance of Gandhian methods of non-violent resistance, I was strolling through the main street of Amherst towards a bookshop. American flags and banners lined the landscape of this otherwise tranquil, laid-back town. They were the handiwork of some local Vietnam War veterans—a minority in our liberal university town. Despite their bright colors and nationalistic connotations, these flags, symbols of American patriotism and pride, somehow elicited far greater anxiety than confidence. Just as I was entering the bookshop, I ran into a familiar face, someone who I’d met at numerous meetings and functions in the area.
After the initial pleasantries, our conversation turned to the events in New York. "It’s amazing what some sickos will do for their religion!" she remarked. "What do you think the US’ response should be?" I’d been asked this many times, mainly because as an "expert" on South Asia, I was considered better informed about all matters pertaining to the Orient. It took me no time to explain my position, one that favored the use of diplomatic and legal channels to bring about a peaceful political solution. She listened to me intently, and after a few moments said, "You’ve gotta be kidding me! Do you actually believe that these fanatics, all these Mozlems (sic) really give a shit about diplomacy?" I argued with her for a bit, and told her that unnecessary violence on innocent people wouldn’t make anything easier.
She heaved a long, somewhat patronizing sigh, as though she was talking to a six-year old, and asked: "Tell me, are you an American citizen, you know, with an American passport?" I replied that I wasn’t, that I had an Indian passport — and that I was generally skeptical about nationalist labels. Her face acquired a hardened look. In a slightly hostile tone, she said "If you’re not an American, you really won’t get it, will you! No one can get away with inflicting violence on the US, least of all these third world primitives. We’re the world’s greatest power for good ness sake. No one can attack us and actually hope to get away with it. You obviously don’t understand this because you’re an alien in our country...!"
I looked at her feeling a combination of annoyance, helplessness, and at the back of my mind, fear. I thought of telling her that I had lived in the US for over a decade, over a third of my life. I felt like declaring that my daughter was an American citizen. Honestly, I don’t think that would have made any difference ...
My family and I were living in the US on September 11, 2001. The horror of the events was palpable in all facets of American life for at least two month afterwards. The events signaled, perhaps like nothing else in the past, the deep connections that exist between the US, the locus of world capitalism, and far-flung corners of the world. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, many Americans seemed shocked to learn that people in other parts of the world actually nurtured grudges against their way of life. This made many Americans self-conscious, indeed quite defensive about those elements of their culture that they had taken for granted for a long time.
This heightened self-consciousness did not unfortunately bring about a self-critique, as some optimists might have expected, but instead, a closing of ranks, and the increasingly open display of pernicious attitudes that had remained covered by a cloak of consumerist bonhomie most of the time. Flag-waving patriotism replaced the placid calm of suburbia, and the otherwise polarized debate on gun control gave way to warmongering. Even though the economy was down, gun and flag sales went up. The media was remarkably one-sided about the whole thing, even by American standards, reducing the complex challenges confronting the US to a Manichaen travesty, an "us-them" dualism in which everything, even the faltering economy’s downward turn was blamed on Osama-bin Laden. Under George W. Bush’s leadership, all of these changes exploded on a staggering scale, and the biggest casualty of all was free expression and the shutting-down of dissent.
Despite the overwhelming public display of patriotism in mainstream circles, many people I met seemed uneasy with the way things were going in the months after 9/11. They were unnerved and perplexed, expressing resentment at the way the media and political leadership were simplifying the complex issues opened-up after the attack. Most of them however didn’t know what to do, and bottled-up these feelings. As a professor who came into contact with a large student body, I had come to appreciate that this was leading to deep-rooted feelings of disenchantment among the young men and women I studied with. To many of them it was becoming clear that there were many more dissenting voices than those permitted an audience in the "public spheres" of modern democracies.
After September 11th, the "freedom" promised in the American Declaration of Independence seemed forgotten, replaced by the token invocation of jingoistic slogans. This brand of American liberty wasn’t the freedom that I had encountered in the work of Bertrand Russell as a boy; this was an imperialistic civilizing mission masquerading as the adventures of Superman, or perhaps more pertinently, "dubya"-man...
Unlearning and Transgressing
There are genuine alternatives to some of the systems that we have embraced in the name of modernization. Many people I know are unhappy with the way that the world is currently structured, but they are overwhelmed at the prospect of interrogating the assumptions that drive these structures. Although I understand where these people are coming from, it still frustrates me when people in positions of relative privilege throw-up their arms in frustration as though they are the victims! Most of these people are frightened of an uncertain future, and prefer to close ranks rather than deal with the growing levels of disenchantment they see around them. This reaction, especially common among the middle classes, usually pushes them towards feel-good acts of "community service," or "charity," without any recognition on their part that they may be a part of the problem. This is also a result of this group’s prevailing anti-intellectualism, and deep suspicion towards ideas that might dislodge the delicate equilibrium of their lives. I should know, because I am a member of this class! For reasons that I hope are now clearer, I feel a responsibility to provoke, to push those buttons that goad my peers into engaging rather than lazily slipping into facile acts of "social service." Does this work? I don’t know, but even if it has the effect of shaking the smug complacency of my peers, I feel that something has changed; a small space has been opened for their creative impulses to start breathing again... Do I find this easy? No, because a large part of me is still inextricably connected to the world that I want to change. Does my upper-middle class background bother me? Not any more, because I see no better way of improving things than by starting at home, in my community, in the world that I inhabit.
Somewhere during the course of my doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania, I had decided to teach. For the past four years, I have been based at Hampshire College, a liberal arts college (in Amherst, MA, USA) that is constantly trying to evolve innovative systems of learning in which students develop their own, individual curricula through a series of learning experiments that they perform over a four-year period. While not perfect, the Hampshire system presents a remarkably creative alternative to the deeply institutionalized forms of higher education currently available. Its greatest strength — and the reason why I am a part of it — is that it allows students and faculty to learn through constant engagement. The absence of grades and "core courses" gives the community considerable space to work together in a non-combative, collaborative fashion since the interactions are not vitiated, by and large, by issues of power. Structurally, the system also allows students to be creative about their futures, unlike most of my peers at St. Stephen’s or Penn, whose career options eventually boiled down to tried and trodden professions. Contrary to what some may think, students I have met at Hampshire frequently produce some of the most insightful and creative work that I have encountered.
Although Hampshire is teaching me a lot, I do sometimes struggle with the elitism of my institutional location (the ivory tower called academia). Over the past few years, I have tried hard to shed its pretense of disinterested inquiry. My wife Charu has shaped a large portion of who I am, perhaps because she is my staunchest critic and expects me to be consistent in what I believe and do. She studied at Hampshire and is my companion in all of our adventures. With our daughter Barkha, we do our best to live with, and transcend the institutionalization that surrounds us. This does not come easily, but is now a permanent facet of our lives. Our family life continues to draw sustenance from our close ties with our parents and siblings. Barkha has become the center of our universe.
A great deal of my present view of world has been shaped by experiences in the final years of life at Delhi University, and more generally, through an unconscious resistance against those ways of thinking that discipline people into neat orderly heirarchies. This is perhaps because I realized early what its like to be looked down upon. Hierarchies are everywhere — schools, corporations, the modern state, and society in general. In my experience, those who inhabit the upper echelons of society uncritically accept hierarchical ordering as a necessary part of the globe’s inexorable march towards modernization. Those who are "educated," or "enlightened," or "developed," or "modern" have historically dismissed viewpoints that propose alternatives. For far too long, the institutional spaces of India, those of the state, civil society, and the economy, have failed to engage — let alone empower — large sections of society. This failure is palpably real, as the disillusionment of so many people around the country demonstrates. It cannot be wished away by simply blaming any one group (politicians, bureaucrats, corporate executives), ideology (socialism, liberalism), or India’s history (its colonial hangover, or pre-modern sensibility).
It seems, instead, that all of these strands are symptomatic of something deeper, a malaise that has to be identified in the way that we, as "citizens" of the modern world, construct our sense of self, our very sense of who we are. We have uncritically accepted the notion that our identities have to be wrapped-up in characterizations that almost always try to reduce us to predominantly one single label (such as Indian, or Hindu, or brown, or male). This way of constructing our subjectivity reduces us to two-dimensional snapshots of who we really are. In the interest of preserving our stable place in the matrix of institutions constructed for us by modern, hyper-rational ways of disciplining derived from a simplistic "development" paradigm—we have begun to gamble away our humanity.
The attack on New York City’s World Trade Center towers, the bombardment of Afghanistan, the exile of Palestinians, the violence in Godhra in Gujarat, the carnage of Muslims that followed—all of it is sickening stuff, of the kind that unfortunately now feels scripted since it is the repeat of much that has happened in the recent past. Aside from the sheer enormity of these acts, it is particularly excruciating to confront the fact that rationalizations for these acts feed-off of each other. Hindu nationalists invoke the US attacks on Afghanistan to legitimize their argument that if the US "hunted down" the Jehadis by bombarding the Taliban, then Hindus are justified in exterminating the Muslims. The Israeli government uses variations of this argument to justify the exile of the Palestinian people. If innocent lives are lost in the process of the preservation of national, ethnic, or sectarian interests, then that is viewed as "acceptable collateral damage."
This kind of thinking is dangerous, not only because it puts so many lives at risk. It also is the logical culmination of our obsession with ordering and "fixing" reality into compact boxes. The problem is that these boxes serve to exclude as much as they include, and deny the possibility of change that comes about from dialogue, understanding, and sharing. As a student in school, there was nothing, absolutely nothing that I could have done to make people understand my predicament in a context where the box of "achievers" was put on a pedestal; my box being that of mediocrity. I felt the same helplessness after 9/11, when people felt it was okay to judge me based on the facile stereotypes about "foreigners" that they carried in their heads…
Discourses such as these create no room for blurriness, fuzziness, or contingency. They deny the true promise of rationality by reducing it to instrumental reason and reified forms of science. The importance accorded to technology as a panacea for all of the world’s problems is promising, but in the larger context, also deeply escapist. Although I remain a self-professed tecchie, I do not for a second believe that the strides made by technology can improve the lives of the world’s population unless it’s practitioners accommodate input from those who inhabit the margins of soceity, and those whose worldviews don’t fit into the watertight containers ordained by the forces of modernization. It is conceited to argue (as big American pharmaceutical companies do, for instance) that, in the final analysis, technological growth is driven by capitalism, by greed. This is not just historically wrong, it is also a dangerous point-of-view. Technology, if its primary purpose is to serve the interests of capital, can only act as a divisive force. Unless the discordant voices that make-up the cacophony of our world are respected, and allowed to articulate alternative modernities, I’m afraid that instead of progressing, we may well end up regressing.
The institutions that we nowadays take for granted, such as the government, schools, the media, etc, have some practical value, but in their current configuration, are not fully equipped to redress the high levels of disenchantment and alienation that people feel. This is because they are being used, despite claims to the contrary, to program and institutionalize, not to engage and liberate. In these times of escalating violence and cultural anomie, carving out a space for the free articulation of inspired voices is perhaps the most important form of resistance.
My current research addresses issues surrounding the nature of "political culture" by identifying the different ways in which social groups in India make creative use of multiple public spaces to articulate their ideas. In my teaching, I try as hard as I can to push thought beyond the narrow confines of instrumental reason, and use the classroom to provoke dialogue on the foundational assumptions of the disciplines. The Hampshire College environment gives me opportunities to engage with young men and women who, despite the cynicism of our age, still seem upbeat about the future. Various interactions with these people have taught me the value of open learning spaces, and the need to create many more.
1Although at the common sense level, the word "modern" implies a relationship with the present, with the here and now, the concept has much deeper, complex connotations. Many mainstream writings contrast modernity with "tradition." In such works, modernity implies a high state of advancement (in science, governance, culture, etc.) in opposition to an irrational, traditional past. (For instance, modern "western societies" are contrasted with "primitive society" in Africa; progressive urban populations are distinguished from villages stuck in traditional, primordial pasts, etc.) Such connotations of modernity have far-reaching implications because they sanction the differentiation of people based on broad, civilizational stereotypes. As I use the term then, modernity describes the Enlightenment project—the Western Truths of alienated production, bureaucratic rationality, and secular progress, together with the associated practices of science, technology, humanism, productivity, development, and management.
2This is from the title of a book by Paul Gilroy.
3In fact, most of these teachers taught in schools precisely because they had failed various competitive exams that were prerequisites for entry into professions like engineering, medicine, and management. Given a choice, most of themwould probably have liked to be elsewhere.
4The Mandal Commission Report recommended the "reservation" of positions (a form of affirmative action) in Indian educational and professional institutions. It stipulated a fixed quota of positions based on the caste background of people, and basically raised the quota for people from "backward" castes, while reducing the number of such positions available to people from higher castes. For obvious reasons, this aroused the wrath of the upper castes. The real problem with Mandal Commission recommendations lay in its foundational assumption: that caste labels could be used as the basis for the reservations. This is because the caste system isn’t nearly as consistent across India as it has been made out to be by scholars in the past; nor is it an accurate measure of a person’s economic position in society.