Friday, November 12, 2010

To be Secular is to Deal with the Issue of Religion in Terms of Religion, and not Something away from It or Against It

This BOOK REVIEW of mine of the title 'Of Cricket, Guinness and Gandhi: Essays on Indian History and Culture' by Vinay Lal (Penguin Books India in association with Seagull Books, 2005, 228pp, Rs. 295 (PB), ISBN 0-14-400005-9) was first published in 'Indian Literature', November-December 2005 issue (no. 230).

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the basic dilemma of the protagonist is how to act morally in an immoral world, as any action in the immoral world would necessarily involve oneself in immorality itself. For the contemporary post-colonial critics, whether in the field of literature or history or films or popular culture, the buzzword (s) is (are) the assessment of ‘politics of knowledge’ and ‘image making’ as perpetrated on the historically or culturally marginalized by the dominant down the ages that needs to be examined and re-examined from the perspective of the marginalized. However, for them, the dilemma should be how to examine the historical process of the ‘politics of knowledge’ without becoming its prey, because like the typical Hamletian predicament, any dabbling with this politics must involve them in it.

The dilemma is actually not new for the community of intellectuals. All new creations take birth out of dissatisfaction with the existing works on a particular theme. Yet for the present highly polarized and highly politicized intellectual world, where all men of letters are men of action too, we need to remind ourselves of this even more pointedly. This reminder is the urgent need of the hour because there is a growing trend among the post-colonial culture studies critics to escape this dilemma and to turn the discourse into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ syndrome depending upon whatever poles of social, political, cultural, gender or class one might be holding on to.

These prefatory remarks are crucial in the context of the review of the present book because while it starts out to asking right questions on the status and motive of contemporary culture studies, it falters immediately thereafter when it seeks to come up with responses to these questions in the form of the essays that follow. There is no doubt that the Marxist scholars have dominated Indian intellectual scene since independence. As a result, a good part of the contemporary post-colonial culture evaluation in the country has two-pronged targets. While on the one hand, it tries to examine the lopsided colonial view about Indian culture and society; it also simultaneously directs its ire against the Marxist interpretation of the colonial view of such matters.

In so far as the questioning of the Marxist interpretations about Indian culture and society comes out of the inner restlessness to counter it in terms of the perceived ‘wrong’ analysis of the plural consciousness of the country, it is always welcome. However, if the counter analysis takes sustenance from certain prejudices that are ingrained in the Indian society, then it becomes quite problematic. Take, for example, the following passage from the Introduction to the book by the author Vinay Lal:

<"Subaltern history has doubtless made many advances upon previous work in Indian history, but its incapacity to deal with religion is all too evident. A certain awkwardness with respect to religion afflicts much of the secular Indian intelligentsia, and it is notable that those who purport to be religious-minded, such as the adherents of Hindutva ideology, are just as uncomfortable with Hinduism. The Hindutvavadis derive their teachings from Veer Savarkar, who was eminently secular: he had only disdain for that fuzzy, unbounded, multi-pronged, and largely unregulated religion called Hinduism. The secularists, it is true, have no interest in creating the conditions that would lead to a Hindu nation-state, but nonetheless they share with their putative opposites a similar indifference to matters of faith. Cultural studies, in whatever shape or form is spectacularly devoid of religious or even spiritual and – as shall become clear—civilizational moorings."

There are certain basic flaws in this line of argument. First, the debate is raked up on the lines of secular vs. religious, which actually presents secularism as something opposed to religion. In Indian society, and in the contemporary India more so, secularism is propagated and rightly so, as a kind of liberal response to the issue of religion in personal as well as public life. A secular person can be non-religious or even areligious, but not anti-religious. In the same way, as a religious person can be non-secular or asecular but not anti-secular. To be secular is to deal with the issue of religion in terms of religion, and not something away from it or something against it. A religious and a secular both actually draw their sustenance from the same spiritual source of co-existence and tolerance. Gandhi was the man who showed through personal example how the secular and religious derive sustenance from the same source.

However, by evoking the ‘eminently secular’ credentials of some one like Veer Savarkar, the author tries to further the general politically expedient conviction of the feasibility of the dichotomy of the public and private postures pertaining to one being secular. Can one be communal, a rabble-rouser in the name of religion and still be secular or for that matter religious in personal life? It is a question that stirred a hornet’s nest recently regarding the so-called secular credentials of Jinnah and stares in our face on a daily basis.

Naturally, the author is not interested in any such debate, for despite the claims of the book containing essays on contemporary India, it is actually India’s past that fascinates him more than its present. He states:

As a civilization, India has an enviable history—part of that history, stretching back to some 4000 years, and perhaps more, was to remain indifferent to historical productions and to the historical sensibility…As a nation-state, India is slightly more than 50 years, and its bark is much worse than its bite.”

In the context of post-colonial and contemporary culture studies, such a statement is actually anti-climax of sorts. In fact, this tendency to belittle the achievements of the modern, democratic, progressive, secular and cosmopolitan India as it has endeavoured to emerge since its independence (not only 'despite of' but also 'because of' its civilizational moorings) unconsciously puts the author among the company of the Orientalists of the colonial period who harked back upon India’s past while remaining indifferent to its immediate present and its concerns thereof.

Some clues to this indifference to India’s present and some kind of romantic and almost vague fascination for the India of yore can be found in the kind of audience that these essays are seeking. All these essays written between 1995-2000 appeared in various journals abroad, mainly American. This is understandable as the author teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles. However, this also means that author is more interested in addressing an audience outside India. Naturally, this lends a special colour, rather a special tension to the overall tone of the essays.

And tension is reflected in the way, the author takes up issues that would not attempt to go much beneath the core debates plaguing the contemporary India and continue to occupy the most important socio-political and intellectual space in the country since the crucial transitional phase of 1989-1991 even though all these essays were written in its aftermath: the issues of militant Hindutva, dynamics of dalit assertion and quite importantly, the issues of economic reforms & globalisation. There actually appears to be some kind of contempt for the very idea of India as a nation-state, which, according to the author, feeds upon things like obsession with Guinness Book of Records, concerns about the security of Indian VIPs and equating of games like cricket with ‘wars’.

Though these are certainly the part of contemporary Indian reality, but is that the whole truth of the progress of India as a nation-state? It is rather strange that the author would like to hark back upon the intrinsic qualities of India as a civilization while remaining completely oblivious of the suppression and discrimination that kept that idea going which has precisely been the focus of attention of India as a nation-state. In essay after essay, these notions keeps coming up like a lament of a soul completely oblivious to or deliberately indifferent to the dynamics and inevitability of the positive alterations being brought about by India as a nation-state to India as a civilization.

One example of the way author views civilization vs. nation-state issue can bear out that as a historian, he is actually trying to be an Orientalist, though, perhaps, at the terms of the Oriental, and that what saves these engaging essays from sliding into the morass of through and through Western view of India. In this sense, the essays belong to the genre of Neo-Orientalism, where all socio-political issues are to be treated under the ambience of culture and civilization albeit removed from the kinetic changes it must embrace. In the last essay on ‘The Bittersweet Sweets of Modernity: Cricket and the South Asian Sensibility’, wherein the author sees the intense battle of Indian and Pakistani cricket teams on field supported equally intensely by respective countrymen as a manifestation of the depravity brought about by the system of nation-state, he states:

"Though the nation-state…is firmly tethered to discourses of history and science as it came to be shaped in the modern West, a civilization entertains a notion of the plurality of sciences, just as it is more hospitable to non-historicist and ahistoricist modes of comprehension and narration, whether construed as folktales, prophecy, oral literatures, proverbs, mythological tales, epics, puranas, or mother’s wit."

In this sense, the author endeavours to make his own path of the analysis of contemporary Indian issues which are best manifested in two essays titled 'Gandhi and the Ecological Vision of Life: Too Deep for Deep Ecology and ‘Not This, Not That: The Hijras of India and the Cultural Politics of Sexuality’. However, one would hope that this path would also gradually mature into acceding much more dignified status to the evolution of India as a nation-state, which despite the alterations it must bring to the idea of India as a civilization, has actually been deeply guided by that very plural idea, a point that the author seeks to de-emphasise.