The problem

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THIS symposium brings together essays by a group of young Indian writers, all of whom seek to examine the future of India from the perspective of a discipline with which they are associated. There are two main reasons why this demographic and thematic combination was adopted.

First, India suffers from a number of age old problems many of which have been carefully discussed in the pages of this journal. It has, however, been less frequently pointed out that old age is among the most significant of these age old problems. By age one does not refer to biological age, though it is true that some ancient philosophers saw biological age as a precondition for wisdom and experience. It was Aristotle, after all, who famously remarked that men should not study ethics before they are thirty.

Yet, if it is true, as Oscar Wilde wrote, that ‘experience is the name that men give to their mistakes’ then the road to experience should emerge from individual trial and error, rather than veneration, adulation and deification. Unfortunately, it is the latter attitude which is embedded deep within the workings of India’s paternalistic society and can be evidenced not just in the continuing ‘geriatrification’ of our political leadership, but also in the creation and perpetuation of dynasties.

Biological theories aside, age in the context of this essay refers to a complex set of dispositions that involve, in one form or another, a sense of resignation. By contrast, one might say that Socrates was the oldest man to die young. A questioning spirit, in short, is the marker of youth. Thus, far from representing a certain demographic, the contributions in this volume should be valued because they seek to question the received wisdom.

Second, the thematic concern with the future follows from this concern with questioning the received wisdom. At present there are three different forms of thinking about the future – all of which are ‘resigned’ in some fashion. The first kind of thinking is at an abstract conceptual level where a dichotomy is posited between ‘indigenous’ and ‘imposed’ futures. This valuable critical project has focused its attention toward interrogating the notion of the future, seeking – as postcolonial theory does – to detect any danger of hegemony in the concept. The resignation in this case arises from the communitarian presupposition that futures must be plural rather than cosmopolitan. The resignation that must be challenged here is the implicit notion that peoples should seek culturally unique futures, rather than participate in a universal future constructed in an egalitarian fashion.

A second form of thinking about the future is official and polite. This is the domain of vision statements, committee reports and grand initiatives that often amount to little more than pipe dreams. The emphasis is less on problem solving than saying (or appearing to say) the right things. The resignation that must be combated in this case is practical – a concerted effort is required to not just to influence the official vision, but to monitor implementation.

A third form of thinking about the future is explicitly juxtaposed against the public. In this case life carries on despite politics and public affairs. A seminal article by Yogendra Yadav in the late 1990s highlighted a democratic upsurge amongst the newly ‘enfranchised’ members of our polity and a simultaneous increase in apathy amongst the middle class and upper castes. Yet, the complicity of nearly every class and caste in the Gujarat riots has underscored the point (made by Yadav himself, it should be noted) that democracy is built upon a multiplicity of institutions, conventions and practices broader than electoral politics. Thus, the challenge in this case is to redirect a pervasive sense of resignation into constructive rather than violent politics.

The question then is – how is this resignation to be combated? The answer, as many writers noted after the Gujarat riot, is a pressing need to organize progressive activist forces into an alternative that can practically challenge violent politics. I shall not discuss here the nitty-gritty of this enormous challenge. The purpose of this essay is not to identify an ‘action plan’, but rather to highlight some of the intellectual challenges that are likely to emerge as a part of this effort.

Unfortunately there is a tendency for both sides – intellectuals and activists – to denigrate one another. This is unhelpful because thinking and acting are equally important in this process. However, given that this symposium represents the former concern, the following sections of this essay respectfully argue that any activist impulse should be informed by two sets of constraints – logical and political – if it seeks to achieve progressive outcomes in the political sphere.

The first concern about logical constraints arises from the tendency amongst activists to occasionally support multiple causes without considering the relationship between the issues. To take just one example, it is possible to find individuals who are against both free trade and India’s nuclear weapons programme. Now both components – protectionism and pacifism – have historic credentials that can be defended individually. But, it is not clear whether these two views cohere, or at least whether they cohere comfortably.

For example, one might ask – if we cannot trust an economically imperialistic West to align free trade with fair intentions then why should we expect them to voluntarily disarm their global ambitions? Surely the will to power that supposedly enthuses the West’s economic strategy can reinvent itself as a will to dominate militarily? Perhaps the two domains are unrelated and one can argue that nuclear weapons are not a morally appropriate response to the threat of imperialism, but then the onus for explaining how we are to hold the avarice of others in check remains with the proponents of unilateral disarmament.

The second constraint is political in nature and relates to the challenge of building coalitions. Now clearly, there are some issues such as secularism where agreement about the desirable ends is readily available to reasonable persons. Here the pressing need is for concerted effort that unites theory with practice. Yet, on a number of more ambiguous and complex issues such as globalization, development, security and governance where more protracted issues are at play, it is unclear whether matters are pliable to broad criticism, i.e. ‘Say NO to Economic Globalization!’

For example, in one slightly bizarre case, some public commentators have been publicly disconcerted by the fact that call centres require their employees to disguise their Indian identity. Now certainly there are numerous domains in which the market’s functioning must be corrected and regulated, but it is unclear whether this is one of them. Certainly, one would hope that the market’s operations do not unnecessarily undermine valued forms of culture and identity. But, if the employees of call centres choose their occupation voluntarily and in an informed manner then shouldn’t the decision to make a trade-off lie in their hands? Must we bemoan a Deepti becoming a Debbi, if Deepti would prefer to be Debbi rather than face disguised unemployment in her father’s hosiery business?

There are instances then where the market aids – rather than stifles – liberty by devolving the right to make trade-offs to the individual. In other cases, however, where the potential negative social impact of individual decisions is more apparent – for example, in sowing genetically modified seeds – there might be more reason to intervene. Yet, even in that case there are alternatives at least worth considering, especially since some people might be more risk friendly than others. Few matters can therefore be settled outright – they require balanced analysis without which one kind of dogmatism merely confronts another.

More broadly there is a need to combat the traditional realist/idealist dichotomy that allows the ‘realists’ in the state to shunt aside the ‘idealism’ of civil society. Thus, while it is certainly the case that activist politics is underpinned by a wholly admirable sense of sympathy which drives many virtuous individuals to make enormous personal sacrifices for the benefit of other people, there is also a need to critically engage the reasons of state.

An effective civil society cannot retire from the vices of the state, nor should it subsist on a customized diet of virtuous single issue activism. In the real world there are constraints of time, virtue and capability – unbalanced budgets, unruly neighbours, powerful business houses and scheming western powers, to name a few – that cannot be wished away. And if the state cannot be supplanted because it serves to fulfil important functions ranging from defence to taxation, then civil society must be willing to criticize the system on its own terms.

For example, we might be, as an outstanding writer suggests of the Indo-Pak imbroglio, brothers separated by a family dispute. But surely one can see that this aesthetic project which makes us aware of the emotional content of a situation is quite different from the practical project associated with resolving the dispute itself. The latter, unfortunately, requires negotiations, compromises and occasionally, stand-offs. Principled stances, therefore, have to be moderated with strategic and tactical flexibility.

It does not help, in short, to answer the question ‘How much butter versus how many guns?’ by initiating an attack on either guns or butter. The question, regardless of how we might justifiably feel about the virtues of guns or butter, needs to be answered. The danger, moreover, is that if progressives fail to provide an answer then the state will autonomously provide an answer on our behalf. Most crucially though, accepting the very real problem of ‘dirty hands’ does not imply that we should gleefully wade into the muck – rather, it implies that the frustrating and never-ending challenge of pragmatic dissent is to minimize the ineradicable tragedies that suffuse the modern world. Reform, rather than rejection, is the underlying sensibility.

One way into the future, therefore, lies in escaping the binary formed by the resigned grey eminences and their quixotic opponents. It is an awareness of the constraints that stymie political activity – rather than the ability to witness mirages – that would guide any subsequent activism. This, in turn, might serve as a constructive step toward discovering the niches that young women and men can populate in the hope of making small but sensible contributions to debate on public issues.

In this vein the first essay in this issue considers a feature of public life hastily dismissed by commentators. Defying the prevailing disregard for the ‘ramblings’ of our politicians, Rochana Bajpai draws attention to the manner in which the mundane and coarse exterior of political rhetoric might conceal tremendous variations, not just in what politicians say but in what we take them to mean over the course of normative debates. There is much, she suggests, that could be gained by pinning down these variations in an effort to master the effects they have on political events.

The second essay in this collection draws on the anthropological works of one of India’s finest writers in order to consider what role an exploratory photographer might play in commentating upon the normative absurdities that dominate the political landscape. Tracing the evolution of such photography in the Indian context, Karna Basu argues that the persuasive power of photographs can be harnessed into a form that encourages collective introspection and fights the ‘prevailing wisdoms’ of the time.

The essay by Arunabha Ghosh reconsiders the dilemma that has paralyzed Indian foreign policy since independence. Evaluating the schizophrenic nature of India’s foreign policy, he suggests we cannot know our interests until we know who ‘we’ are and what we stand for. Toward this end, he counsels that India reaffirm those features of its identity that can engender vishwajaninat‚ or universal acceptability and applicability.

The fourth essay by Ashley Tellis starkly depicts the future of sexualities in modern India. Surveying the depressing landscape, he draws our attention to the intractable part played by violence, tradition and taboo in constraining sexuality. The future, he finds, offers little hope if we cannot unencumber ourselves of the ossified categories and discourses heaped upon the subject of sexuality.

The essay by Bodhisattva Kar focuses on the complicity of the historical discipline and the nation state in affecting a closure of the critical domain. It is, he argues, only through a critical recognition of the complex interplay between the social sources and modes of professional authority that an effective move beyond the present-day Indian historiography can begin.

The sixth essay by Arvind Narrain seeks to document the tortuous process through which ‘queer people’ have gained minimal legal recognition. He emphasises that these basic human rights have had to be won through practice and exercised amidst great danger. The privileges of an Indian citizenship, he suggests, remain tied to an archaic notion of heterosexuality that darkens the horizon for those forsaken by this criteria.

The final essay by Ritambhara Hebbar traces the uncertain transition of the tribal rights movement from resistance to governance in Jharkhand. She finds the tribal community divided by the continuing debate over the exasperating binary of integration or isolation, which neither responds to changes in the Jharkhandi identity over time, nor focuses attention on the substantive issues of governance.

In sum, the contributions to this symposium intend to provide a sampling of the constructive debates being wrought by young writers who seek to challenge conventional wisdom in Indian society. And even though many contributors will not agree with the proposals outlined in this essay, they all nevertheless seek to offer their own proposals regarding the direction an informed activism should consider.

There is an open invitation to participate by responding to these essays or by proposing further alternatives. Further editions of this project are planned and young writers from around the country are encouraged to contribute – there are no constraints on either topic or content. The only requirement is to engage oneself critically and constructively because the essence of an independent mind, as Christopher Hitchens writes in Letters to a Young Contrarian, lies not it what it thinks but in how it thinks.



* This symposium is dedicated to the memory of Nishit Saran who showed us how a combination of critical thinking and powerful activism can make a difference to the lives of ordinary people.