I am a compulsive gambler and I have lost a small fortune (by my standards) in this pursuit. One of my significant learning has been that there is a common pattern to all my significant losses. They all begin with a winning streak and my taking winning as my birth right,, followed by a reversal of trend, followed by my intense rage, desperation and recklessness, followed by a state where I “stake it all “ in a spirit of “all or nothing” and eventually getting “cleaned out”

I find a remarkable similarity between this process and what I see happening in the country today. First let us look at the Modi Sarkar. It started with a strong winning streak, not just in terms of electoral results but also with the hope and enthusiasm that got generated on several fronts. Soon the trend began to reverse with gradual disillusionment. The tipping point I think was the defeat in Delhi elections. Ever since the government seems to have been in a state of directionless desperation. The present crisis around JNU captures the entire process very well. It started with what seemed like a victory for the Government against its arch-rival (usually described as liberal, secular left) and more importantly providing it a platform from where the passion could be raised in the name of Bharat Mata rather than only Hindu religion. However it over-stetched itself and through manipulated evidence did a “self side goal”. Ever since, its reactions are becoming increasingly mind –boggling. One would expect that in a situation like this the government will try to diffuse the situation rather than escalate it. Hence inaction of police at Patiala court, Ms. Irani’s histrionics in the parliament, tacit support to people who wish to see the issue in terms of Nationalism and disapproval of those who see it in terms of liberalism and veiled threat of charges of sedition against all and sundry, suggest a state of panic. I will not be surprised if in not too distant a future it reaches a point of no return and where it will find itself compelled to “stake it all” in a mother of all battles.

The story on the other side is different and yet similar. The other side (usually described as Liberal, Secular, Left) has been accustomed to winning over a long period of time. For several decades it has dominated the political and academic/intellectual space in the country. During this period it smugly dismissed all other view-points with the rhetoric of reactionary, right-wing, anti-dalit, non-secular, Manuwadi and a host of similar labels. While it had received some earlier set backs, its tipping point came in the last general elections. Not merely BJP got a majority on its own, it also made significant dents into its well-entretched vote-banks particularly among the poor, dalits and even minorities. Over decades this group has mastered the art of playing politics of discontent and hence it was alarmed at the prospect of “hope” rather than discontent and discrimination becoming the fulcrum of Indian polity and that too under the leadership of someone whom it had consistently painted as a monster. Predictably fueling Paranoia became a very high priority and thus it became paramount that all real or imagined areas of discontent/intolerance etc. are exploited to the hilt. It may have over-reached in case of JNU and at one stage it appeared that it had made itself vulneable to a knock-out punch, but to its credit it managed to make a come-back and now seems to be equally intent to escalate the issue rather than diffuse it.

Thus it seems both sides are preparing themselves for a “no-holds barred” mother of all battles. This may not happen immediately or in the immediate future but we certainly seem to be moving towards it. As an ordinary citizen, I am worried- not so much about who will lose but more about who will win. This is of course a familiar sentiment of many Indians during all elections ( our choices being determined by who we want to lose rather than who we want to win) But in this instance the stakes are much higher because irrespective of which side emerges as victorious, it is INDIANNESS which will be the loser. Let me elaborate.

If the so called “ Nationalists” win then it will effectively be a victory of a monolithic notion of Nationalism which is not part of us but which we have mindlessly swallowed from others. Our notion of Nationalism is more akin to what Gandhi called “oceanic circles” rather than a hierarchical pyramidical monolith. Similarly, if the “Liberals” win then it will effectively be a victory of constructs which have rarely been examined and interpreted in our own context. For example the frames and structures around concepts like liberalism, democracy, secularism etc. have largely developed in societies where Individual is the basic unit in Social Design. In our case, while the Individual is regarded as completely autonomous in the spiritual domain, he/she has no independent existence in the social life. It is the group (family, tribe, jati etc.) which is treated as the basic building block in social design. The basic concept being that while the accountability of the Individual towards the social unit is absolute, as far as the spiritual domain is concerned, the accountability is only towards the Self. Thus in India, while social codes are tightly and rigidly defined, the approach towards spirituality is (or at least was till recently) a lot more “open-ended” and organized religion did not have a very strong hold over it. By not taking these basic differences into account and mouthing platitudes around liberalism, we not merely do violence to ourselves but also perpetuate “self-hate” and disdain towards our own heritage.

We need to acknowledge that with all our diversity of class, caste, region, religion , language etc. we also have a shared identity. Our sense of identity and togetherness does not flow from commonality of tangibles (like race, religion, language, customs etc.) but through shared intangibles like values, beliefs, psychological orientations and the like. This is not to say that we all have identical values and psychological orientations but only that as members of a shared civilization, we have certain leanings which cut across differences of religion, language etc. For example, we lean a little more towards Communion as compared to Individual Agency. Similarly our approach to dealing with differences/conflicts is more focused on learning to live with them rather than necessarily resolving/eliminating them. Hence when we talk of Nationalism or Liberalism we should talk of them in the context of our Identity rather than as absolutes.

Unfortunately, we are also dealing with the legacy of Colonization which has severely eroded our faith not just in our heritage but even in our own psychological orientations. Thus some of us have begun to believe that tight monolithic structures (both in the area of religion and governance) are superior to open-ended loose arrangements. Similarly some people have begun to believe that any restraint stemming from sensitivity to others/will of the collective is regressive and oppressive.This has generated huge amount of “self –hate” and in many ways what we are witnessing today is a fight between the two sides of this “self-hate”

The liberals discharge this self-hate through continuously finding fault with us and our heritage and using their “selective rationality” in as provocative a manner as possible. Needless to say that their real intent is for us to become aware of our own pathologies and rise above them. However, the repressed “self-hate” is expressed through reactive insensitivity which only generates counter-defensiveness. On the other hand, the Nationalists discharge it through directing it towards an external villain ( be it a member of another religion/region/institution/country or an abstract notion like westernization) . Here again the real intent is to foster a sense of pride in our heritage and to generate self-belief. However, the repressed “self-hate” gets expressed through vehement attacks on a real or imagined enemy and hence only generates, fear, revulsion and violence.

It is only natural and also healthy for any collectivity to have negative feelings about itself. If it didn’t it would turn into an inhuman monster. The difficulty arises (as in case of a colonized mind) when one starts looking at one self through the eyes of the aggressor and then gets preoccupied with validating /refuting that perception. Thus being seen as strong becomes more important than being strong and being seen as liberal becomes more important than being liberal.

I wonder when will begin to look at ourselves through our own eyes, when will be able to mobilize some compassion and genuine respect for our selves and each other and when will say good-bye to our feats of self-destruction?

11 thoughts on “Feats of Self Destruction

  1. I have a lot of comments. First I think that one needs to rethink the idea of a colonised mind in 2016. While Indians might have been reeling from an inferiority complex by being seen through the eyes of their white masters, a lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. In 2016, I really think that young Indians are confident in themselves and a lot of this had had to do with India’s emergence as a formidable player in the global economy. So it’s not that I disagree with you re: the impact of colonisation with regard to the Indian psyche and how it might generate self hate, I agree with you a hundred percent. But I do think that this critique is more valid for a previous moment in Indian history (for example in the 60 and the 70s) and is not what India is grappling with at the moment. That is my understanding given reservations, liberalisation of the Indian economy in the late 90’s and the changes that these have brought about in the Indian social, political and economic fabric.

    Therefore I would disagree with you that the BJP’s invoking of nationalism and national pride is a celebration of INDIANNESS or OUR CULTURE. It is an assertion of a particular kind of idea of India and Indian culture that a lot of Indians disagree with, including those on the left, Dalits, feminists, Muslims, Christians, LGBTQs, indigenous groups, sikhs, Parsis and other minority groups and communities in India. I for example, who has a Hindu mother and a Christian father and am myself atheist and am politically a Marxist as well a firm believer in non-violence, I feel very alienated and threatened by the idea of India and Indian culture invoked by the RSS and the BJP. I feel very strongly that they do not represent me and their idea of what is Indian culture is not my idea of INDIAN culture. In fact I do not belong in BJP’s vision of India.

    Which is why I would prefer that the article not argue in terms of binaries by positing the right against all those to critique the right (encapsulated by what you called termed liberal, which you mean the Congress I suppose and the left which which you mean mainstream left parties like the CPI and the CPI-M—-all parliamentary parties. Please do correct me which I have misunderstood what you mean by the terms). I would prefer that you also speak of Dalit critiques of the RSS and the BJP. I feel that by clumping the congress with the left and not talking about Dalit critiques of the RSS-BJP, one would fall into the same trap of the debate being in terms nationalist vs anti-national as is being projected by the BJP. I would be very interested to see for example, how we break out of this binary by bring idea of Gandhian satyagraha into this debate; how non-violent resistance might help us break out of the cycle of communal violence that India has witnessed since independence. I would be interested to read about your ideas re: Gandhi’s vision of economic self-sufficiency which would a powerful critique of new-liberal capitalism–a political ideology of the Indian state irrespective of the party in power at the centre. I would also like to see your understanding the limits of Gandhi’s ideas and how we might work with some of these critiques to take Gandhi’s ideas of satyagraha and ahimsa forward in the India of 2016!


    1. Thank you for your insightful comments and questions. My response is as follows-

      Colonisation of mind is not the same thing as inferiority complex. You are right that there was a huge overlap between the two in the earlier generations(s). I also agree with you that the present generation has significantly dissolved the inferiority complex but I think its frames of understanding have remained essentially western, perhaps even more than the earlier generation(s). I am not sure how many youngsters are even aware that alternative frames . are available in the Indian tradition whose basic assumptions about human existence, social design, governance/role of state, role of religion etc. are vastly different. The earlier generation(s) were products of two cultures and hence carried huge ambivalence towards their Indian roots. I think this ambivalence has now got split. On one hand there are people who rightly resist the imposition of a monolith in the name of Indianness. But I wonder what is their own idea of Indianness beyond diversity and plurality. What is the ethos/world view/ psychological orientation in which this diversity can flower? While it is important to recognise the differences between various segments of Indian society, it is equally important to understand what holds us together. Are we just some fragments which have come together as a geo-political convenience OR is there an invisible thread which binds us together. The other side of the ambivalence is represented by those who are willing to swallow anything which fuels their jingoistic nationalism. While some of them may be
      blatantly so, there are several who sit in plush corporate office but share the same mentality. The growing Jingoism among the NRI is a good example of this phenomenon. Net net, what I am saying is that yes we have significantly dissolved what you call our inferiority complex but we have not engaged with our ambivalence towards our Indian roots-we have merely pushed this ambivalence into our psychic and social underbelly where it is playing havoc.

      I am equally scared about the Sangh Parivar version of Indianness. The main problem here is that we have allowed them to hijack this agenda. The fear of being oppressed by a monolith has been so strong that we have focussed more on fighting it rather than building our own narrative. I wonder if you have read my earlier paper on Hindatva and Hidutva. If not then I will send it to you.It deals with this issue in much greater depth.

      The main problem is that in the popular mind, the only frame of Indianness which is easily understood and connected with is of the Brahminical Hindu variety. Thus any attack on Brahminical Hinduism gets construed as attack on Indianness. The only person who managed to find some way out of this difficulty was Gandhi. While he had his reservations about Brahminical Hinduism, he never disassociated himself from it nor did he attack it directly. Whether he did that as a matter of strategy or because of his own orientation is difficult to say. The end result is that he is often criticised (and I believe with some justification) of colluding with Brahaminical Hinduism just as he is criticised (again justifiably so) of colluding with the rich. I think the huge advantage which Gandhi had was his very deep understanding of, and faith in the Indian psyche and his deep respect for the Indian way. Contrary to popular belief Satyagraha was not invented by Gandhi. He merely revived an old Indian tradition of protest.

      One major reservation that I have about Gandhian Philosophy in almost all spheres is that the it does not grace Desire as a legitimate human phenomenon. Consequently, he focussed far too much on “duty centric ethic” and did not pay enough attention to “rights centric ethics” It is in this context that I believe that Ambedkar becomes an excellent balancing force. Trust you have read my paper on this theme, if not I will send it to you.

      I have not specifically engaged with the Dalit narrative but have sort of covered with the larger issue of Brahaminical hinduism. Let me know if I have left out anything. Look forward to your response. I am liking this dialogue and finding it very stimulating.


  2. I find this a fascinating exchange. Let me just add a few remarks:
    1. Before we got the Independence, Gandhiji was able to bring a lot people together in a middle ground. Getting free of the British domination was a clear external threat. He did try to form a broad consensus and was more or less on the middle ground between religious differences, political differences and ideological differences. By the time the independence came near, he voice became weaker.
    2. Building India became focused on the Nehruvian idea of India. And his way was not to find a real middle ground, but to placate and compensate. The politics of communal voting had set in before the independence, and the Congress party defeated Ambedkar by deploying it to the hilt!
    3. I think we need to reimagine a new possibility of India, and Gandhiji is a central figure for me in that process, even if some of his specifics are not relevant today.




    1. Completely agree with you except that I would like to see both Gandhi and Ambedkar in that central position. I think they complement each other and if they are seen in isolation, then we run the risk of making them into caricatures of political convenience, as we have


  3. My comments
    The political India now is a parliamentary democracy with its own restricted notion of ‘majority’ based on first past the pole. A diverse set of people with multiple indentities need to “coagulate” together into a first past the pole majority for electoral purposes. This means that political formations have to mobilize limited parts of the electorate’s self.
    We may therefore need to to move to representative democracy based. This was what Gandhi rejected in The Poona Pact- rather unjustly. Today there is not a single reserved constituency where Dalit voters can elect a member of their choice without the “blessing” of the upper caste voters

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    1. Agree with you that we need to revisit the present structure of our democracy including issues of representative democracy and first past the post system. NOTA is neither here nor there. But I wonder if one can think of a system which combines both positive and negative voting. Thus every person will be given two votes- one for and one against and the winner is declared on the basis of net votes. For example, if a candidate has 40 positive votes and 38 negative votes his net score would be 2. Similarly if there is another candidate with 10 positive votes and 3 negative votes, his net score would be 7 .ln such a scenario the winner will not be the one who has 40 positive votes but the one with only 10 positive votes primarily because his net score is higher. I know what I am suggesting is oversimplistic and there are many other complications to think of, but are you aware of any exploration along these lines either in theory or in practice?


  4. My second comment is on the issue of nationalism is based on Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘imagined communities. The nation is a socially constructed horizontal community based on the belief that people have some some thing and common from the past the (the essence of Indiannness) that can be harnessed as hope of the future. The nationalist history ( a la ‘The discovery of India’) is based on this notion. It is important to note that India had to be discovered from the ruins of imperial British Empire. I also believe that this notion of horizontal community of people trying to find a common past for the hope for the future is a colonial- modernist enterprise. Many of the vexatious questions I have no answers


    1. I think the geography and the remembered history (cultural, ‘national’, communal and family) are very important factors in shaping the psyche. This is why so much of doctored history is dished out and then attempts are made to re-doctor it and in the end we have nothing! no narrative, no quintessence.


  5. Just because Nehru had to “discover” India, it is not necessarily true for everyone else. I agree that searching for a “common past” may be a meaningless and even counter-productive exercise, but what about our quintessence which is manifested in a certain view about human existence and a certain psychological orientation


    1. This ‘quintessence’ is civilizational and difficult to confine within the modernist concept of a bounded nation. The quintessence does not change across wagah border. Nor is it the quintessence same across bangaleru and Pune. The experience of living creates a quintessence a new every moment. The quintessence is a function of caste class and geography. I sometimes feel capturing the “quintessence” freezes it and creates divisions as to what it truly is


  6. Completely agree. Quintessence is a civilisational construct and is not determined by nation state boundaries. Also it can not be seen in absolute terms- it has to be seen in terms of tilts or emphasis. Trust you have seen my earlier writings on what I consider as our quintessence.will love to have your thoughts on some of the ideas expressed there.


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