Review of: India Caught in Transition Trap by Avijit Pathak

India Caught in Transition Trap

Indian Modernity: Contradictions, Paradoxes and Possibilities
By Dr. Avijit Pathak
Gyan Publishing House, 1998 Pp 243, Rs. 325/-

From Nehru’s famous midnight speech that India was “awakening to freedom”, we have come a long way when every morning newspapers tell us that far from awakening we are still going through an agonizing nightmare.

Similarly, Nehru’s vision that “dams are the temples of modern India” has been replaced by ideas that question the very relevance of the dams built in the country after independence on the one hand, and on the other hand consist in placing a Ram temple at the center of Indian nationhood.

Analysts are seeking to understand and explain this increasing divergence from the idea of modern India that Nehru and the nationalist elite envisaged and the actual direction that events have taken during the last half a century. Primarily, two opposing camps can be identified in this venture.

One of them seeks to question the very relevance of modernity for India. Since “unlike as in Europe, modernity came to India as primarily an external proposal as a theory and an external agenda as practice” (Sudipto Kaviraj, “The Unhappy Conciousness”, 1995), the political elite that came to power in 1947 tried to thrust Western notions and institutions down the unwilling throat of an India that was so unlike the Europe where these institutions were born. Proponents of this line of thought urge to find an Indian “essentialism” and “exceptionism”. Some of them trace, if not derive, their ideas from Gandhi, who, they affirm, not only took on British colonialism in the political terrain but extended his critique to a civilizational crusade.

“Railways, lawyers and doctors have impoverished the country, so much so that we shall be ruined…Hospitals are institutions for propagating sins…hatred against the English ought to be transferred to their civilization…”, he urged. Gandhi went on to create his own notion of a future India without industry, without railways, without hospitals and without cities.

Those who claim to derive from such ideas are not Gandhi- capped village workers, but academicians and university dons both in India and abroad. They have raised neo- Gandhism to almost a fashionable intellectual trend. Adherents include Ashish Nandy, Bhiku Parikh, T.N. Madan and Vandana Shiva and their collaborators. Grass- root workers trying to appropriate this aspect of Gandhi’s thought include Sunderlal Bahuguna and Medha Patkar. This group can be termed as the anti- modernist group.

Partha Chatterjee and certain adherents of the subaltern school claim to oppose what they term as Gandhi’s homogenizing project. They belong to that sect of the subalterns that has been heavily influenced by the post modernist approach that celebrates “fragments” and “parts”, in contrast to the “universalism” and the “whole” that they accuse European Renaissance of fostering and the Indian nationalist elite of furthering. Not only the ruling elite, but the communists also get a bashing from them. The prescription for India’s rejuvenation from this school lies in strengthening the “fragmented responses to the universalism of modernity”, as Partha Chatterjee remarked in his influential work, “The Nation and its Fragments”, 1993.

The modernists, on the other hand, contest that the problems created or exacerbated during the last 50 years of modern development suffer not from modernization, but precisely from its incompletion and insufficiency. The task, therefore, lies in strengthening modernity. While the liberalizers, on the one hand argue for integrating with the Western dominated global markets, the Left calls for radicalization of the process and a more equitable distribution of the gains of modern development to the poorer sections. Both, liberalizers and the leftists, from the point of modernity, belong to the same camp.

Achin Vanaik (“Communalism Contested”, 1997) has emerged as the most serious and articulate proponent for those who would rather put their eggs in the modernity basket. Sunil Khilani (“The Idea of India”, 1997) has also produced a somewhat milder defence of Nehru’s modernizing project.

“To have modernity or not to have modernity”, therefore is the central issue that the two warring camps are fighting for. In this contest between the two powerful armies of intellectuals and practitioners, Avijit Pathak, the author of the book under review finds himself at the crossroads. In fact, his intention is to even pave a third way. But he is not sure.

He recognizes that while modernity does offer bountiful gains, it is also not free from its “discontents”. The title of the book seems to suggest that while he accepts the desirability of modernity, he also recognizes that it is not a fatalistc state. Its realization does not necessarily lie in transplanting the European grown modern institutions on an India that is not a “clean sheet” of paper. (Mao once described China’s backwardness in capitalism as an advantage as it would be easier for socialism to be implanted on the “clean sheet” that China supposedly was). Still, modernity, the title seems to suggests, holds a number of “possibilities” of transmutation.

“The idea of emancipation was closely linked with the agenda of modernity”, he avers, ” Emancipation of man from the tyranny of tradition. But then, it is no longer possible to deny that modernity itself may prove to be a trap. Its mega- structures, bureaucracy and irresistible technology often deny man’s authentic autonomy. Because the story of modernity is not simply the story of well- fed, well- clothed men; it is also the story of intense agony- loss of self and communication and relatedness. The fact is that even when Bacon and Decartes shape my mind, my heart cannot escape Gandhi and Ramakrishna. This is my ambiguity, my contradiction… despite this ambiguity I am becoming more and more inclined to those who critique modernity”. This, however, contradicts what the title indicates.

The result is that while the author has brilliantly managed to bring issues to the fore, he falters in the way of providing answers. His prescription of forging a dialogic between modernity and spirituality, resulting in his call for “spiritualization of economics” and other such contrived jargon fails to lead the reader anywhere. It is, at its best, eclecticism and at worst, a forced marriage of unconnected or even contradictory points of view.

The central, and in view of the present reviewer, critical weakness of the book lies in the near complete indifference of the writer to counter contending schools of thought. Thus there is no attempt to examine, for example, Vanaik’s spirited defence of modernity. Vanaik’s case shows the strong critical trend within modernity. The author at best acknowledges this viewpoint with a dismissive nod, and at worst betrays an attitude that refuses to engage in a dialogue with critical modernity. This is indeed strange since the need to engage in a “dialogic” is the author’s leit motif.

The author has an uncanny ability to come up with penetrating insights and in intellectually echoing the tensions inherent in contemporary society. Yet, his approach lacks the “confident restlessness” that Iqbal once spoke of. Instead his flights of inquiry are rather doubtful and apprehensive. All the same, the restlessness is to be unabashedly welcome.

One can discern a similar contradiction- if not a dilemma- in Gandhi. It lay in the fact that while Gandhi decried the railways, he made use of the railways more than anyone else. While he idealized an ascetic living, his friend G.D. Birla ruefully grumbled that people did not realize how expensive it was to keep Gandhi in poverty. Finally, Gandhi’s dilemma lay in the fact that it was the champion of modernity- Jawaharlal Nehru, and not any a Gandhian, whom he nominated to “speak my language when I am no more”. This was nothing but Gandhi’s acceptance of modernity in his own manner.

It was also no co- incidence that it was the late P.C. Joshi who paid back modernity’s compliment to Gandhi, when he first called Gandhi as the father of the nation. Joshi was then the general secretary of the CPI and Gandhi’s unrelenting critic.

4 February, 1999
Published: The Tribune 14 Feb 1999

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