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Forgetting to remember

Modern India’s hidden roots suggest our present isn’t a radical disjuncture from our past, writes Deep K Datta-Ray.

india Updated: Nov 12, 2007 23:34 IST

In the throes of economic, social and strategic transformation, India poses an important question that affects all our lives: what does it mean to be modern? If modernity is defined by the ability to change, adapt and innovate, traditional India might be more modern than Western inventors of modernity or historians who follow them to take a superficial view of the panorama of Indian life.

In arguing that the implantation of democracy by a visionary Anglicised elite is the fundamental ‘fact’ behind India’s survival, they miss the majority dynamic of Indian society and reinforce the misguided notion that despite the release in 1947 from colonisation, Indian minds remain trapped by British concepts and ideas.

This is better understood by practitioners of politics and officials implementing policies than academics like Ramachandra Guha. “India is a democracy and the form of democracy it has adopted appears to be foreign,” says Shivraj Patil, “but, the heart of it is indigenous.” Demolishing the idea that democracy is a foreign invention implanted here, Patil outlined the underlying assumption that guides democracy, whether Athenian, British or Indian. It is “the willingness to respect others’ points of view”, a concept that ancient Indians called ‘anekantwad’.

Though by no means new, Guha’s contrary argument encapsulates the essence of a deeply-rooted and widely disseminated academic but fallacious discourse governing historical understanding. So powerful is this discourse that it shapes elite ideas of India at home and abroad. It has, in short, become the consensus. But an exploration of the traditional roots of modern Indian democracy unveils the true reason for the State’s survival. It is alive because India’s traditional masses choose to keep the State alive. A study of democracy — the delivery mechanism of choice to maintain harmony within a society and between societies — also reveals how superficial the influence of our erstwhile masters is.

The ‘Guha reading of history’ short-circuits 5,000 years of civilisation and gives ultimate credit for modern democratic India to the Athenians — inventors of democracy — whose legacy came to us via Rome and Britain. The British educated the world, including our Westernised elite. Or so we are told. This version makes the masses of traditional Indians compliant followers of the elite and places them at the bottom of history.

This profoundly disturbing teleological discourse has India, a highly sophisticated civilisation, abandoning a multitude of millennia-old political practices and overnight adopting a system originating in a distant land whose people did not practise what they preached. If this did indeed happen, it would mean one of the most monumental and dramatic revolutions in history with a tiny sliver of society transforming beyond recognition a huge chunk of humanity into a modern nation — and all in a few short decades.

Even a cursory glance at society disproves this preposterous narrative. India is not modern in the sense of being a replica of Europe, which has come to signify modernity. Our culture continues to be marked by ancient traditions, some repulsive. At best we are an intriguing mixture of old and new. The melding is exemplified by the appalling practice of harnessing modern technology to abort female foetuses — thereby continuing an age-old custom. More widespread are arranged marriage and dowry, the demands as likely to be modern consumer durables as traditional jewellery.

The rationale for Indians mixing and matching foreign customs with traditional practices is not explained by the bland consensus of some contemporary historians. That consensus cannot explain why people ignored Jawaharlal Nehru’s modern Europeanised rejection of certain customs while enthusiastically adopting his idea of a democratic India that dealt diplomatically with the world. The consensus fails to provide adequate space for poor Indians, the majority, and the traditions that live in them. They are accorded only a bit part. Even then, they are represented as passive beneficiaries of what the elite bequeaths them. Modern India is presented as a simulacrum of the British. Not only do we mimic British democracy to govern ourselves, we also practise British diplomacy to govern our interactions with the world. Trapped in a State that simulates the British and deprived of our historical lineage, Indians are rendered impotent, unable to craft a world of our own. Yet Indians are continuously doing exactly that.

Rejecting the exclusivist dominant discourse in favour of an inclusive framework that embraces the masses, their customs and ideas, corrects the apparent dichotomies of Indian society and succeeds in answering questions that the consensus fails to. As the British cultural historian John Plumb commented, consensus about history does little to further historical knowledge and consequently there is little point in accumulating facts within agreed frameworks of knowledge.

It is not difficult to fill in a framework premised on what Indians themselves say about the democracy they practise. The sources are multifarious. Nor are they trivial. The ‘anekantwad’ concept shows democracy was neither an alien imposition nor cultural imperialism. If it were, we would not have taken to it so easily. Having come into existence earlier than in Athens, the ‘anekantwad’ idea is deeply rooted in our culture — even if we don’t know its technical name — and keeps democracy functioning with minimum friction, given our size, disparities and disadvantages.

If social cohesion originates in ‘anekantwad’ and is operationalised by Westminster democracy, then diplomacy is its covalent on the international stage — ensuring productive cohesion in the arena of states. Non-alignment demonstrated a Third World nation’s ability to organise a movement that maximised its diplomatic space and saw off a superpower. India’s success indicated that while we may have been new to the modern practice of diplomacy, we were long familiar with its underlying principles.

Shiv Shankar Menon attributes this to continuity over time and space of the basic principles of diplomacy. Despite coming from two totally different cultures separated by 2,500 years, the British diplomat Harold Nicholson arrived at the same conclusions as the Mahabharata when describing the virtues required to conduct successful diplomacy. However, the Mahabharata gave Krishna two added advantages. He knew everyone involved in the conflict and enjoyed a high personal reputation. Menon calls it credibility.

Another virtue that Menon thinks essential to diplomacy is synonymous with anekantwad — the ability to recognise that the other party in a negotiation also has requirements. A successful negotiation is one that reaches a conclusion that satisfies both parties, as with the Indo-US nuclear deal until the self-serving Left Front and the BJP decided to play politics with the national interest.

Modern India’s hidden foundations demonstrate their enduring role and disprove the notion that our present is a radical disjuncture from our past. India’s poor adopted democracy because they already knew it. Though new to the modern game of diplomacy, Indian diplomats were familiar with its basic principles. In these two fields if not others, all the British and the metropolitan elites did was tinker.

Practice-based history shows we are inherently flexible — combining the new regardless of its origin from with more established practices. By adapting and changing to suit perceived needs and rejecting calls to reform ourselves every individual citizen demonstrates the power to control his or her future. Mass India is not beholden to the elite. It is the reverse.

Deep K. Datta-Ray is a historian

First Published: Nov 12, 2007 23:29 IST