The Tortured Project of Indian Identity

I have a hard time believing this is the first time I’ve actually attempted writing about Indian identity in quite the same manner that I am about to attempt, but no worries — it just means that my thoughts about this issue are so rich and complex that it will take a while before they have all been expressed, even when written down in an extremely cursory form, as I am now doing.

This particular essay is inspired by reading an essay on India’s putative identity crisis by Rajiv Malhotra, a self-made and armchair nationalist, whose credentials for talking about what India is really all about are, possibly, boosted by his not having lived there for about thirty years. Nothing like being completely removed from the object of your research to give you a very detailed and authentic perspective on it.

On many levels, Malhotra’s essay is characteristic of the sort of incoherent and unconnectable chain of ideas that characterize much writing about India today, from the right-wing and nationalistic section of its commentariat. The first few paragraphs starts with a litany of rhetorical and semi-sarcastic questions that challenge the notion that India is a super-power, forcing the reader to believe that this is in fact an essay critical of India’s vaunted geopolitical eminence.

But before the reader has a chance to settle in, the worm turns:

While social injustice, in India and elsewhere, demands effective cures, proper treatments do not follow faulty diagnoses. Since colonial times, influential scholars have propagated that there is no such thing as Indian civilisation.”

It turns out that all the analysis offered to us so far about how Indian identity is fragmented and cannot lay claim to a historical foundation of unity that is the privilege of other nations, is not the voice of the author but a sly imputation to other “influential scholars” who have falsely propagetd the idea of an absent Indian civilization. We have been offered the straw man’s straw arguments, so that we can now enjoy seeing them being blown down by Malhotra’s impressive, and presumably genuine and much more objective, scholarship.

Before long, Malhotra has fired his first salvo of illogical and misplaced cliches: “This accelerating crescendo,” he says, “portraying India as an inherently artificial, oppressive nation, is directed by western academics advocating western intervention to bring human rights.”

Now where in blue blazes did that come from? How does any analysis that doubts India’s claim to be a superpower today, or that points out the lack of monuments to certain aspects of India’s history, would lead to a conclusion that India is an “inherently artificial [and] oppressive nation”? Which Western academic, for that matter,  has ever stated that India is “inherently oppressive”? And what stance on India’s identity has been part of a campaign for bringing “human rights” into India’s territory (never mind the dubiousness of the claim that any one has accused India of lacking severely in the administration of human rights)?

The complete disintegration of logic so early in the essay is just part of the tactics that rabidly right-wing proponents of Indian neo-nationalism, like Malhotra, use routinely. His political agenda becomes quite clear at this point — the imprimatur and blessings of those who have legitimacy when it comes to defining India is a pre-requisite for participating in the debate about what India is and Malhotra is incensed that any one who belongs to the conspiratorial nexus of “private foundations, churches and the US government” should have anything to say at all about Indian identity without receiving this benediction. Who will give it? Malhotra, and other writers like him, won’t say it outright, but they leave behind the implication that one could do worse than talking to someone very much like himself, no matter, again, that apart from his brown skin and Indian ethnicity, he really has little more affiliation to contemporary affairs in India than the people and institutions he so decries.

Malhotra’s haphazard selection of various contemporary events and political factions and his stringing together of one unrelated complaint after another against a diverse set of perpetrators in some imagined deadly battle agains the purity and resilience of the Indian state, is symptomatic of the inner struggle of Indians like him to create a strong sense of India that can overcome the troubled analyses of the past. For him, any mention of the internal contradictions that Indian culture has wrought on itself are a source of constant annoyance, much as the child of an abusive parent hates to talk about the tell-tale dents in the walls and stains on the carpet that hint of a dark and violent past, a past whose pain sullies the image of harmony that the child would rather nourish of his family. The hurtful father is dead and gone, the child would like to say, and look, now we live in peace in this family, and the ghosts have been exorcised so that there’s no need to psychoanalyze us any more or to suspect that this violence of our past might rear its head again.

One suspects that Malhotra’s greatest comeuppance for indulging in this fascistic game of false national pride, a game in which he hopes that “Indian billionaires” will become “major stakeholders,” is that the true “civilizational narrative” will simply bypass him by providing a more fleshed out view of how Indians should identify their destinies than by simply spouting silly catchphrases celebrating the need for preserving “diversity” without succumbing to “fragmentation” and of rejecting “American perspectives” in studying India.  The Western, or American, perspective, will in fact be found to be much closer to the aspirational arc of most Indians, whether among those who labor in its agrarian villages or those who work in the new towers of First World technologies, than any conservative notion that Malhotra could cook up.

Whether one likes it or not, India has indeed had many oppressive episodes in its past and continues to have them even today — its economic, caste-based, and religious minorities are fighting real battles to which Malhotra’s grand visions have no solutions. The future of India will lie in whatever perspective, Western or home-grown, that solve these problems and resolve these conflicts. Malhotra’s empty rhetoric is fascistic, if in no other sense, than at least in its main fault which is that it offers nothing but a sop of pride and temporary power to India’s bourgeoisie while ignoring the plight of its large and diverse proletariat. The Indian genius, if it does in fact exist, will lie in rejecting this path to self-esteem and forging one that recognizes the fundamental likeness of India to the West and its liberal ideals and not in the concoction of an ersatz culture that is a distorted Frankenstein bolted together from the neo-conservative fantasies of Malhotra and his ilk.

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2 Responses to “The Tortured Project of Indian Identity”

  1. rajiv malhotra Says:

    for the record, I visit india each year at least 4 times; have spent my FULL TIME since the past 15 years on India studies, so lets get this out of the way that i am some far away person ignorant about india. I consider myself better informed than most delhi wallahs i meet who are too deeply immersed in daily pursuits of the selfish ego and have read precious little beyond small op-eds. Regarding the other items it would help if this person also became transparent and showed his true name etc so a meaningful debate could take place. Hiding behind anonymity is hardly credible. Having said this, I do agree with some of his criticisms and stand to learn by an open discussion provided there is a level playing field and not behind the scenes controls of the sort this person seems to be a product of.

  2. drunkenfilosofer Says:

    Dear Mr Malhotra,

    thanks for responding — I am pleasantly surprised that my blog post should have come to your attention. I hadn’t imagined it would pop up in a search that quickly — guess that’s what technology gets you today!

    If my identity is a pre-condition to a discussion, I am afraid I will have to respectfully decline to reveal it. Perhaps some detective work can easily unearth it. I can’t say I’ve been exceedingly clever about cloaking it but I try.

    You found some of my criticisms agreeable. Perhaps the content of my analysis will be enough for you to engage them, without requiring that you know the provenance of those thoughts.

    I’m glad you spend a lot of time in India. I should have clarified that I was thinking of people who prrimarily live there, when I brought up the issue of your not really being “in touch,” as it were. Perhaps you find the requirement too onerous, but I think that this distinction between the two levels of experience is one that’s worth making.

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