Thursday, July 15, 2010

Representing India

Representing India: Literature, Politics and Identities

Representing India: Ethnic Diversity and the Governance of Public Institutions (Ethnicity, Inequality and Public Sector Governance)Williams, Mukesh and Wanchoo, Rohit. Representing India: Literatures, Politics, and Identities. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2008.

The last quarter century has seen a veritable explosion in the publication of books on South Asian history, politics and culture. The literature on South Asia reflects a whole range of ideological perspectives and academic traditions. As a result of the specialization within disciplines and the intellectual awareness of the need for inter-disciplinary work has not been sufficiently translated into academic discourses and practices. A fruitful interaction within and across disciplines is inhibited by the limitations imposed by the languages of discourse and disciplinary practices in different academic traditions and disciplines. The liberal and the Marxist, the modernists and the ‘critics of modernity’, the traditionalists and the progressives, postcolonial triumphalists and ‘critics of postcolonialism’ all possess languages and concepts of their own. Without subscribing to a principle of incommensurability, it is still an arduous task to pick up concepts from widely divergent perspectives. Nevertheless, there are insights in different perspectives, which would be of interest to students and scholars alike, if only, the pressures of specialization and academic production were less intense.

Extract from the Introduction, pages 1-5
This book analyzes and synthesizes work done in diverse intellectual traditions, with the objective of providing a framework for further inter-disciplinary studies on South Asia. Many Indian intellectuals have responded selectively, and with varying degrees of intensities, to Western intellectual traditions. Both postmodernism and dependency theory—two of the big intellectual influences from the West that have influenced scholars in Africa and Latin America—have enjoyed rather limited success in Indian universities and the media. It is possible to offer arguments for this intellectual preference, but the intellectual currents of the West have not been able to overpower South Asia. Indian universities may seem stagnant by Western standards, but they have developed a healthy skepticism about the intellectual fashions sweeping the West. A fear of Western intellectual hegemony, cutting across ideological barriers between the Left and the Right, has been the major factor in the selective response to Western intellectual traditions. The Indian intellectual tradition on the periphery has its own peculiarity that has to do with both the slow responses to Western tradition and skepticism about the relevance of ‘foreign’ traditions and their ulterior motives. There are some benefits of being on the periphery—a large number of academics are spared the effort to keep pace with dizzying change in academic fashion and discourses in the West. To be on the intellectual periphery has been a result of slow communication, limited academic exchanges and less significance and demand for academic publishing in the social sciences and literary fields. In the wired world, where students can download information from databases and websites at will, academics, whatever their personal predilections, have been dragged by their forelocks into discourses they may well have shunned earlier.

In the last two decades, the intellectual context of the Indian universities has changed. The performance of the IITs and their alumni have grabbed international headlines and influenced the way Indian education is perceived abroad. Critics of postcolonialism have often remarked somewhat cynically that one of the signs of postcolonialism is when third world intellectuals secure tenured professorships in the Western academies. Once Western universities accept intellectuals from the periphery, interaction between the Anglo-American world and South Asia increased substantially—the native informant has now become the postcolonial intellectual. The revolution in communication, neo-liberal globalization and recent migrations from India has had the effect of breaking down the moral and political certainties of the post-independent generation that has dominated the politics and society in India.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the retreat of the socialist ideal have had a deep impact on Indian academics and their liberal, Marxist ideas of universalism. While liberal and Marxists differed in their analysis of society and the programmatic conceptions of the future, they were completely unmoved by ideas of relativism and individualistic critiques of state power. For a long time, Indian scholars did not respond with enthusiasm to the ideas of Hayek, Nozick and Milton Friedman. On the contrary they were more influenced by Marx, Keynes or Gandhi.

In the last ten years, the older generation of middle class Indians and academics has received severe intellectual shocks from various sources—academic, technological and cultural. In a climate of heightened vulnerability the need for dialogue between different traditions has increased. It is possible to see a genuine search in our contemporary world for new ways to synthesize social changes and diverse intellectual traditions. The search finds expression in receptivity to multi-disciplinary methods. We would like to expand the new intellectual space opened recently, and, in doing so, contribute in some measure to its development. This ought to be the intellectual justification for such a book as this.

The book covers many large fields. Quite a few scholars have devoted their lifetime to some of the topics covered in a single chapter of this book. We have approached the subject of ‘nation and its representation’ in South Asia from the standpoint of those who are not burdened by the academic tradition or its specializations. It is not possible within the boundaries of the book to explore issues relating to gender and women’s empowerment, environment and sustainable development, nuclear power and disarmament, globalization and domestic liberalization. What we have tried to cover is ambitious enough by the standards of academic specialization, within which we have ourselves grown.

We can experience the impact of colonialism in several areas—the growth of academic disciplines like law, history and literature, on the one hand, and the enormous paper work and procedural culture in government, bureaucracy and trade, on the other. In a large measure, ‘orientalist ideas’ or other forms of colonial knowledge have influenced these areas. The early nationalists responded to colonial domination in primarily economic and cultural terms. The economic ideology of nationalism, and the critiques of colonialism, gained widespread acceptance amongst different shades of nationalists ranging from the Left to the Right and from Savarkar to Gandhi. The cultural critique was based on the benign perception of Indian society and religion deriving its power from the work of scholars like William Jones, Henry Thomas Colebrooke, Maurice Winternitz, Max Muller, Sir Henry Maine and others. The ideas about the significance of Sanskrit, the vitality of village republics and the spiritual heritage of India owed a lot to the work of these orientalists. Over the last twenty years, the work of scholars like Edward Said and Bernard Cohn have made us more sensitive to the power relations affecting the production of knowledge. Cohn has highlighted the role of the census and its impact on Indian self-perception. Scholars like Sudipta Kaviraj and Arjun Appadurai have brought out the transition from fuzzy identities to ones that are more rigid. Along the way, they have introduced the notion of majority and minority in understanding the dynamics of the South Asian body politic.

Indians and non-Indians such as Persians, Arabs and Europeans have imagined India in quite different ways. Indian nationalists like Bipin Chandra Pal have argued that its people have always conceived of India as Bharatavarsha, a land located in historical antiquity, eliciting strong feelings of attachment. The Persians and the Arabs saw India as a geographical site located beyond the Indus River and called it Al Hind or Hindustan. For some Europeans of the early nineteenth century like the German philosopher Hegel, German orientalists and English colonizers, India was always a strange, far off land, rich in material, spiritual and linguistic wealth that was waiting for others to exploit. As its wealth began to be identified, exploited and categorized within a European intellectual tradition the understanding of India also underwent a change. From a land of economic and spiritual wealth in the nineteenth century, India became, by the middle of the twentieth century, a land of religious conflict, economic squalor, underdevelopment, epidemics and cheap labor. Since the 1980s, this rather negative image of India has once more transformed into a more positive one of professionalism in the areas of information technology, technical education and service industry.

The term ‘South Asia’ now effectively includes eight sovereign nation states—India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and the Maldives—and carries within this complex definition its own border geographies, political identities and intra-national hegemonies. We can map the geographical identity of South Asia within the Indian sub-continent. From the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south, and from the Indus valley in the west to the alluvial plains of the Brahmaputra River in the east, South Asia provides an expansive geographical terrain and cultural diversity not available elsewhere in Asia. We may further stretch the eastern limit of South Asia, through colonial proxy, to include the last frontiers of Myanmar. About two billion people inhabit this diverse cultural, religious and linguistic region, with about 1.2 billion in India alone. It is the demographic strength of India coupled with its political, military and economic prowess that gives it a dominant position as a major player in South Asia. It is no surprise that we often use the term ‘South Asia’ interchangeably with India, to the chagrin of other minor South Asian nation states. The understanding of South Asia becomes more complex when we place the region within its 5000-year old history and the politics of European imperialism of the last few centuries. Andre Wink would like to introduce the geographical perspective in the understanding of medieval South Asian culture and urban space. Given the state of historical knowledge at the moment it is a task too daunting for any single book to attempt. We have therefore tried to use this overarching paradigm wherever possible to understand modern South Asia.

The geographical boundedness of the Asian sub-continent provides a metaphor for the cultural traditions of the peoples living in it, giving rise to the notion of cultural unity. This has allowed people to imagine South Asia as a region signifying ‘unity in diversity.’ Since the 1950s and 1960s, the growth of regionalism and nationalism in the region has weakened the belief in ‘unity in diversity,’ introducing the notion of ‘heterogeneity’ in culture, belief and language. Now, we can view almost everything ranging from national economies, infrastructure to diaspora and literature within the overarching framework of cultural heterogeneity. Undoubtedly, South Asia is a multi-religious and polyglot region. Its peoples speak over twenty important languages and two hundred different dialects. It is possible to find here, adherents of practically all the major religions of the world such as Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. There are nearly one billion Hindus (if we include India, Nepal and Sri Lanka) and four hundred million Muslims (if we include India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) in this region.

South Asia as a term to describe the subcontinent owes its emergence to three important factors—a legacy of colonial rule, the growth of American area studies, and the self-representation of the South Asian intelligentsia. First, South Asia owes its origin to colonial rule and expansion in India. The colonial rule encompassed most of the countries of South Asia, excluding Nepal but including Burma. Second, South Asia emerged as a political and academic category within the specialization of American area studies. Finally, the emergence of South Asia is born out of a need for regional cooperation in the subcontinent that responds to the changing economic and social realities. Many academics, media people and politicians of the third world find a self-description in the third meaning. In using the term ‘South Asia,’ we recognize not only the historical legacy of the British Empire but also the aspirations of the erstwhile colonized people to achieve greater cooperation and economic progress within the region.

The category of South Asia is more deeply rooted in history than the identity of South East Asia. The level of economic cooperation in ASEAN, although not very high as Benedict Anderson has argued in The Spectre of Comparisons, is nevertheless higher than that of SAARC countries. The discipline of South Asian area studies as it has emerged in America may not be as wide-ranging as we may wish it to be, but it studies the common features and interests of a large number of people in the South Asian subcontinent. For some time to come the appropriate unit of analysis for school curriculum may still be the nation state in all the countries of the subcontinent. At the level of academic research, the unit of analysis cannot remain just the nation state because of the shared problems of national and linguistic diversity in the region and problems of developing countries that transcend national boundaries within the region.

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