Monday, March 31, 2008

Battle for minds - A review by Nalini Taneja

The essays in the book analyse and reflect on the “incomplete” efforts to arrive at an alternative modernity in India.

This book is part of the series “Collected Essays” that the Oxford University Press has been bringing out for some years to make accessible in one volume some of the works of eminent scholars, which are otherwise scattered in journals and anthologies and not available for a wider readership. Such collections, while attempting to achieve thematic unity, may include only an author’s specialised essays, leaving little scope for the expression of his/her larger concerns within the broader discipline. As a result, they do not reflect the entire range of an author’s intellectual personality and his/her dialogue with the world beyond their research themes. And then there are collections that are so watered down by including everything that they do not convey the essential strength of the scholar’s major works.

However, the essays in this volume Colonialism, Culture, and Resistance are properly representative of the breadth and the depth of K.N. Panikkar’s scholarship and his concerns as a public-spirited intellectual. They reflect the changes in his research concerns, thematically and theoretically, over a period of time beginning with his doctoral work in the 1960s. They reveal that his civic engagement has strengthened his craft as a historian and contributed to his scholarship.

All the essays in the book deal with the past but they speak to us in the present. All except one, which deals with the change of school textbooks during the National Democratic Alliance regime, deal with resistance to colonialism, but the manner in which he has dealt with them reflects an engagement with issues that are of utmost concern in the present.

The connecting threads through the essays, which make the present reverberate through the book, are those that preoccupy all concerned citizens today: the making of colonial hegemony and its pervasiveness through a long period of India’s history and the need to break out of it; the urgency of an agenda for cultural action, which is integral to political struggles and without which secularism and democracy remain incomplete; and the need to transcend the concerns of middle-class nationalism, which is exclusionary in its relationship with the majority of the people of the country and compromising in its relationship with imperialism.

As a historian, he is deeply disturbed by the “the failure of [an] alternative modernity” in India, which, in his opinion, has “led the way to the uncritical acceptance of globalisation and to sympathetic response to cultural revivalism” during the past two decades.

The essays in the book analyse and reflect on the “incomplete” efforts to arrive at this alternative modernity, which he traces to the vicissitudes of the resistance to colonial rule.

Independent cultural expression as a vital force free from the constraints of both colonial hegemony and the shackles of tradition, could have emerged from a creative dialogue between the spirit of rationality and universalism derived from Renaissance and Enlightenment on the one hand and an equally enlightened choice from within the tradition on the other. This did not happen, he shows, because the intelligentsia largely saw these as separate, as two distinct choices. The limits of colonial modernity were not transgressed because the efforts to transgress them were “influenced partly by the way power was exercised by the coloniser” even within much that came to be seen as tradition under colonial rule. Unlike in Africa or South America, the colonialists hegemonised Indian society by both expropriating and appropriating many traditional cultural symbols.

The consciousness about an alternative formed very slowly during the colonial period, he says, primarily because the intelligentsia, to begin with, tended to identify colonial rule as an agency of liberal dispensation. When they did seek to transgress it, their political perspective remained circumscribed by liberalism, and then increasingly came to accommodate tradition in the same way that colonialism did: this created a cultural crisis for the intelligentsia. Panikkar explores this trajectory in some depth through the studies on different forms of cultural articulation of the 19th century mainly, but also the early 20th century.

The themes through which it is explored cover three broad categories – armed resistance, intellectual preparation and cultural practice – and range from the formation of cultural consciousness to questions of cultural pasts and national identity; matters of dress and manners and social reform in the context of tradition, power and concern for legitimacy; literature, literacy and educational initiatives, the expansion of print media and creation of new cultural tastes and notions of nation; indigenous medicine and coming to terms with new knowledge and colonial hegemony; and the early armed revolts and peasant resistance in the backdrop of the agrarian legislation of the time, specifically as reflected in the revolts of Velu Tampi and of the Malabar peasantry. This is a wide range of themes that allows for a nuanced study of the different dialogues that the intelligentsia and the Indian people as a whole were engaged in through the resistance to colonial rule.

He argues that resistance in all these arenas was crucial to the formation of political and cultural consciousness, and cultural expression in turn was inextricably connected with the colonial reality. British paramountcy at the ‘local’ level had unsettled the given equations everywhere and in all fields of life. “Colonial domination and resistance to it occupied the centre of historical experience” during the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, he says, and colonial rule was unacceptable to the Indian people, both because it was foreign and alien and because it was oppressive.

The cultural arena was very much a political arena: it did not constitute an apolitical space. Panikkar is keen to emphasise its centrality to politics and the efforts to transform Indian society. This comes out through the varied themes he has chosen to study, the propositions he makes with regard to them and the suggestions he sees as emerging from them.

A number of essays are devoted to questions of cultural change in the context of colonialism. The processes of formation of cultural consciousness, the role of culture in the making of nationalism, and the articulations of cultural pasts and national identity, all come in for interrogation. The possibilities, and the fate and limitations of the 19th century renaissance are discussed in essays titled ‘Whatever Happened to the Renaissance in India?’ and ‘Creating a New Cultural Taste’. A very large section of the intelligentsia participated in this endeavour, often on borrowed ideas and arguments, he says, but nonetheless interrogating issues vital for the quest for modernity. The debate and dialogue, carried on mostly in the print media, the new mode of communication that spurred the production and dissemination of ideas, was impressive. The debates, carried on with intense involvement, revealed considerable internal differences in understanding and developing a perspective about the past and the future – about the role of tradition, the role of modernity and enlightenment. But although it enabled the questioning, if not overcoming, of irrational and superstitious prescriptions, “there is no denying that it did not succeed in bringing about a fundamental transformation of social and cultural mores”. In fact, according to Panikkar, such change was not part of its agenda, and could not have been otherwise, given the nature of social support it received from the colonial middle class, besieged with self doubt and ambiguity (page 133). Throughout the colonial era, both renaissance and revivalism were integral to the search for identity, and colonial cultural interventions did not mean a departure from the traditional pattern of life.

The relationship between religion, culture and concepts of nation is delineated more specifically in the essay on Renaissance, which refers to the ‘semitisation’ of Hinduism following the 19th century privileging of religious texts as infallible authorities for religious life and social reform, and in the one on the role of culture in the making of nationalism. The internal differentiation in society, particularly of caste and religion, raised the question of culture in relation to the making of the nation. The early resistance to colonialism was articulated in the cultural terrain, in which nationalism sought to claim its voice. This relationship between culture and nationalism, in which both hegemonisation and counter-hegemonisation were subsumed, was extremely complex (page 77), although broadly there were two strands in conceptualising the relationship between culture and nationalism. “One linked nationalism with the plural cultural tradition, whereas the other traced nationalism to a culture identified with religion. The former led to secular-territorial nationalism, while the latter lent sustenance to religious nationalism and communalism” (page 84), and contributed to religious communities as sites of identity.Middle-class aspirations
Anti-caste movements, ironically, “almost invariably transformed into caste solidarity movements”. This was a change inherent in the nature of these movements – social transformation led to the emergence of a middle class within these castes which universalised their interests with those of the entire caste, and therefore were subject to the limitations of middle-class aspirations. This has some similarities with what caste and religion-based political parties are doing today (page 49).

Education became an important arena of struggle and articulation of middle-class aspirations, whereby these classes were both raising demands and objectively fulfilling a legitimising role for colonialism. His analysis of the Malayalam novel Indulekha and the ‘Great Shoe Question’ reveal the complexities of contestations over cultural symbols and self-perceptions of individuals in the context of colonial hegemony and the need for traditional legitimacy.

Moreover, according to him, there was the lack of integration between political and cultural struggles, a factor of considerable significance. A major section of the nationalist intelligentsia was not only interested in keeping political and cultural struggles divorced from each other, they were also keen on assigning precedence to one over the other, a situation that underwent change with the freedom movement acquiring a mass base (page 52). Yet, even so, what largely happened in India with growth of mass politics is that cultural struggles took a back seat. “What happened in India was not an integration of cultural and political struggles, but rather an intrusion of culture into politics. Instead of politics transforming backward culture, politics was vitiated by cultural intrusion” (page 53). He gives the example of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s Ganapati festival and Gandhi’s Ram Rajya. There was a reinforcement of religious and caste loyalties with the emergence of mass politics, rather than the other way round. Question of religion

Panikkar argues that a critique of religion is essential for the battle for transformation of consciousness for a social revolution. And he shows that this critique not only remained weak, but that the ruling classes were complicit throughout the colonial era in not carrying through a battle for reason. This has had serious implications for secularism in India, for the secularisation of mentalities and the development of a secular society are inextricably linked with rationalist and humanist thought.

He is very critical of a nationalism solely based on the contradiction between ‘the people of India’ and colonialism. For him, such a conceptualisation “hardly comprehends all the essentials of nationalism”. From Ram Mohun Roy to Jawaharlal Nehru, mainstream nationalism was characterised by this truncated view, overarching in a way that it overlooked the internal structures of exploitation – economic, social and cultural – and excluded the overwhelming majority of the people from the resources of the nation (page 81). Foregrounding this exclusion and imparting a broader meaning to nationalism, in the process integrating political and cultural struggles, were Jyotiba Phule, E.V. Ramasamy ‘Periyar’ and Bhimrao Ambedkar on the one hand, and Bhagat Singh and the communist parties on the other. It is this legacy that he sees as significant in the present context.

Finally, Panikkar is able to put across complex ideas in a language that is at once serious and friendly. This has been a hallmark of his scholarship all through: he has never believed in dazzling or intimidating the reader with his discourse, but has nevertheless been persuasive and effective. One can learn a lot from this in these days of academic volubility and ambivalence. This is what allows those who have heard his public lectures or read him in the newspaper pieces to graduate from reading his popular writings to his more scholarly works. The present collection opens a window on both.

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