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Thoughtful Provocations

The provocations of Ashis Nandy




India's leading thinker has once again caused a controversy with his radical views. But then, asks Vinay Lal, where is the ethical intellectual life without such thoughtful provocations?

For close to four decades, Ashis Nandy has occupied a liminal presence on the Indian intellectual scene. In nearly every respect, whether from the standpoint of the intellectual positions he has adopted, the trajectory of his professional life, his stance towards religious faith, or the politics that he embraces, Nandy has carved out a worldview that is distinct, even singular. Though he is viewed in the public domain as an academic, he has always kept a distance from university life as such and has spent his entire career as a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi.

There are few scholars who have subjected the very idea of 'development', and the certitude with which experts speak of 'developing societies', to such rigorous scrutiny as has Nandy. For all his immense learning, he has little use for the pedantry that often passes for scholarship - one reason, among others, why some people characterise him as a maverick, gadfly, or contrarian.

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Nandy has disavowed the profession of psychology. Some of his readers grumble at his propensity for psychoanalytical readings of personalities, but his use of Freud is, so to speak, homegrown. There was a time, though this is much less so the case now, when left intellectuals routinely branded Nandy, born into a Christian family, as a Hindu fundamentalist. I doubt very much that he can at all be described as a man of faith, but he has kept faith with the idea that nonbelievers have no higher duty than to defend the right of each person to his or her faith.

One could continue in this vein, almost ad infinitum: thus, to take one last illustration, though one can hardly describe Nandy as a biographer, it is striking that much of his work pivots around individual lives, whether it be Gandhi, Tagore, Rammohan Roy, Jagdish Chandra Bose, the mathematician Ramanujan, the 'first modern Indian environmentalist' Kapilprasad Bhattcharjee, the 'first non-western psychoanalyst' Girindrasekhar Bose, the jurist Radha Binod Pal, and many others. These lives provide the frame around which Nandy has spun complex narratives, though some will call them yarns, about the culture of politics, the politics of culture, and the manner in which knowledge systems insinuate themselves into the praxis of everyday life.

The highly anomalous mould within which his thoughts are wrought lead Nandy to some extraordinary insights, but also make him unusually vulnerable to attack. His writings on communalism and secularism provide a case in point. Though scarcely all the nuances of his position can be enunciated here, one might begin with his firm view that communal riots in India are largely an urban phenomenon. There may be many reasons for this, among them, to use Gandhi's phrase from an interview he gave to the Reverend Mott in the mid-1930 s, 'the hard heartedness of the educated'. This was in response to the query, 'What filled Gandhi with the greatest despair'.

The educated in India are also prone to deploy the idioms of historical thinking, and one cannot begin to understand the conflict over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmasthan until one has an awareness of how middle-class Hindus, much like nationalists elsewhere, have mobilised history, with consequences that were to be seen in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in the service of the nation-state. Though myth is one of the ugliest words in the lexicon of Marxists, positivists, liberals, and modernisers alike, Nandy has argued eloquently that myths are a more reliable and humane guide to the past - and link to the future. One of the many hidden transcripts in his recent comments on corruption among OBCs, SCs, and STs, which have enraged some people, is the implicit suggestion that the liberation of the Dalits will be better achieved by their use of creative mythmaking than by attentiveness to the history of their oppression.

In an essay that Nandy penned on 'the alternative cosmopolitanism of Cochin', he demonstrates amply the radical tenor of his thinking. He set out to inquire why Cochin, which has large numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, has been free of communal riots for 500 years. The people he met from these 'communities' do not even remotely describe themselves as secular;indeed, shocking as this might be to the liberal sensibility, which insists upon the 'caring' ethic and the elimination of prejudices, nearly everyone Nandy met admitted to holding rather severe stereotypes about members of the other communities. Nandy concludes that it is, in a manner of speaking, a healthy balance of prejudices that has sustained Cochin's religious pluralism.

Cochin's 'cosmopolitanism' has not been imposed from above, as a diktat of the liberal state, nor does it stem from the Enlightenment's putative idea of the fellowship of liberated rational subjects thinking beyond themselves and invested in the fate of the earth. While the vast bulk of liberal scholarship has been concerned with exposing the pathology of irrationality, Nandy has spent the better part of his life zeroing in on the pathology of rationality and its most characteristic outcomes -- development, the nation-state, vivisectionist science, an (aggrieved) sense of history, to name a few. This has entailed immense risk-taking, even hazardous remarks on more than one occasion, but where is the ethical intellectual life without such provocations?


The writer teaches at the University of California Los Angeles

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