September 25, 2017, marks the 14th death anniversary of Edward W Said, a remarkable public intellectual and the author of compelling works like “Orientalism”, “Culture and Imperialism” and “The Question of Palestine”.
“Orientalism” dealt with the stereotyping of the Orient by European and American writers – regardless of whether it was mystified or historicised, sympathetic or derogatory. To quote from the book itself: “The Orientalist can imitate the Orient without the opposite being true. What he says about the Orient is therefore to be understood as description obtained in a one-way exchange: as they spoke and behaved, he observed and wrote down. His power was to have existed among them as a native speaker, as it were, and also as a secret writer. And what he wrote was intended as useful knowledge, not for them but for Europe and its various disseminative institutions.”
The effect of the colonial gaze is such that even our attempts at creating ‘authentic’ stories of our own past are, in a way, already shaped by existing stereotypes. For example, the empirical, rational and the materialistic side of Indian philosophy (such as Lokāyata and Bṛhaspatya) are relegated to the margins among orientalist writers who focus instead on the metaphysical side. You see a similar focus even among Indian philosophers.
The other aspect is our unwillingness to engage with our own ‘modernity’ for fear that this ‘modernity’ is an inheritance from the West. For example, Ambedkar, Gandhi and Tagore represented three distinct versions of our modernity: the first – rational and reformative; the second – a rural, eco-friendly alternative to exploitative modernity; and the third – a universalism rooted in spirituality, plurality and pacifism. On the other hand, Nehru borrowed heavily from the so-called western secular values and models of development: a focus on big industries, science and technology and big dams along with a bit of socialism. Savarkar fell for the ‘Orientalist version’ of India: a Vedic civilization built around Sanskrit texts by upper-caste north Indian Hindus.
The ‘neo-liberal state’, kick-started in 1991 by Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, is not so much of a rupture as a legacy of the Nehruvian economic model (a planned centrist economy) giving way to the pressures of a world driven by markets. There was nothing that was distinctly ‘Indian’ about our development model or about the state ideology. The ideology, in fact, was fluid and accommodative of both Centre-Left and Centre-Right leanings – accommodative even of the regressive forces in Hinduism and Islam.
That is where Hindutva tries to present itself as an authentic ‘Indian alternative’ – firmly placed in opposition to ‘western secularism’ and the religions of foreign lands like Christianity and Islam. Hindutva, however, remains fundamentally a product of the colonial gaze – an attempt at substantiating and glorifying what was either derisively rubbished or mystified by western writers. It’s an attempt at reinforcing the schism between the East and the West – whereas the schism in itself is not real but a narrative created as part of an exercise in power — first by the colonisers on the colonised, and now by the ‘dominant colonised’ on others.
What we are witnessing in India now is the ‘Orientalisation’ of ourselves. At the heart of this project is an obsession with classification – mainly to capture an essence, name it and restore renewed faith in this ‘newly-christened’ category. Hinduism and Hindus have both been made ‘singular’ objects with very defined meanings. In its firm opposition to Abrahamic religions, it however ends up creating a kind of Hinduism that is pretty much made of the same mould. The question of caste is addressed almost as a ’rounding error’ – and festivals and traditions (primarily those of Dalits and Adivasis) that don’t fit into the ‘narrative’ are written off as aberrations to Vedic norms.
The ‘colonising project’ of Europe, which was primarily built on greed and the will to dominate, entertained a racist worldview that set up the ‘native’ as an ‘inferior other’. Just when we thought that we were finally done with the ghosts of an enslaved past, we now encounter a similar project – one of ‘nationalisation’.
As Edward Said discussed in the context of Arab nationalism, “I think the great problem is the whole issue of national identity, or what I would call the politics of identity – the feeling that everything you do has to be either legitimated by, or has to pass through the filter of, your national identity, which in most instances is a complete fiction, as we all know.”
It is all the more ironic when our economic model continues to be deeply neo-liberal and our leaders travel across the world, hug other national leaders, strike deals and sign agreements. Although this may sound slightly Marxian, it is probably true that the nature of our economy, the forces and relations of production, the way our products are advertised and marketed and the way we consume things also have a direct bearing on our culture, personal relationships and our ideas of what is good and bad. That culture is unashamedly consumerist, selfishly ambitious and happily insensitive to the sufferings of others. Or is this what Hindutva too is all about?