Change can be looked at in two ways. One can look at it functionally like a piece of plumbing or change can be seen as a mentality, a framework of thought, combining theory and myth, creating certain rituals of action. Like any citizen, I want less violence and poverty, a childhood that does not succumb to Darwinian entry exams. I want better roads. But it is the second kind of change which I find intriguing. I am not too worried about the idea of India but I do want an India of ideas, where Indians think differently. I do not want a change marked by standard human indicators of economic development. I want a society where India thinks differently where that touch of difference adds to the creativity of democracy.
It is one of the ironies of the time that the argumentative Indian has been replaced by the majoritarian Indian. The argumentative Indian was the hero of Indian folklore and democracy. The majoritarian Indian was created out of elections in a society which equated elections to democracy, reducing a way of life to an idiot mechanism. The irony was that India proud of its myth of being a great democracy had to face the fact that democracy can threaten democracy. We had to understand that democracy in its populist variants can account for Brexit and the rise of Trump. Change in a democracy can be full of ironies and ambiguities.
For me change in India has to be anchored around three words, three worlds: Fraternity, diversity, plurality. I want an India where change is not a fetishism of progress as it eliminates alternatives. I want an India that understands that its strength, its creativity, and its sense of playfulness lies in the fact that India is a cosmos of defeated knowledges, a place where the last Victorian and the last tribal can rub shoulders with the last Marxist as each plan a revival of their worlds.
The change I am talking about must not erase people or the storyteller. When a storyteller dies, cost benefit analysis is born. Think of the recent death of a waterfall in Odisha. The tribals in Odisha complained that a myth, a religion, a cosmos had been destroyed. The economist dismissed it as so many cusecs of water. I want an India where the tribal wisdom finds a place in the economic calculus of our time.
Change must be such that it does not eliminate a people or their ideas. Change must not reduce living traditions to museums. I think this is why the Indian national movement wished to fight a guerrilla war against the museum, because memory was not a living tradition but smelt of death and formaldehyde, as AK Coomaraswamy observed. India has to be plural, allow for diversity, sustain 150,000 varieties of rice, a thousand languages and be simultaneously oral, textual and digital.
The change I hope to see is that a majoritarian intolerant India becomes plural, playful and loses the rigidity of official ideas like patriotism, development and nation-state. A syncretic India where religions talk to each other. For example, think of a Kashmir where Sufism provides voice against fundamentalism; or a Manipur which is not rigid about dissent, where as Irom Sharmila put it love and democracy sustain each other. My favourite example is the Indian National Movement, which was hospitable to the British, which sought to liberate India by rescuing it from the British and their repressive modernity. Nationalism was a theory of change where its advocates realised that nationalism was a rainbow of cultures while the nation-state was an oppressive entity which emasculated the imagination, where the official and the bureaucratic destroyed the diversity of culture.
India must have a unity which allows for the collage, the quilt patch, the oxymoron, where change adds to the infinity of diversity. Not a development that creates more refugees than the wars we have fought. Or an innovation which makes crafts obsolescent. Or an industry that creates a junkyard of wasted people. I want an India which is a commons between the tribal, peasant, craft and industrial, where time is multiple not linear. An idea where change increases the intensity and playfulness of conversation. An India where the dialogue of medical systems and a dialogue of religions embraces a dialogue of civilisations. An India that is simultaneously Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian in its diversity, where crafts survive and where languages multiply. A democracy of livelihoods and lifestyles that anchors sustainability, plurality and justice.
Change must be a process, not a product, an India where change produces a different attitude to change itself, where Hind Swaraj and Communist Manifesto converse with each other, where the defeated West finds a home, where translation and hospitality of cultures defines a society, where plurality marks the cosmos, the syllabus, the Constitution and the commons. The change we need is a change in the idea of change itself.
Shiv Visvanathan is professor, Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for the Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University
The views expressed are personal