Right Intent, Opposite Effect

The German philosopher Hegel had proposed a dialectic approach to history of human ideas. He suggested that every idea (thesis) becomes a trigger for the opposite idea (anti-thesis) to emerge. The resultant tension generates a synthesis which can incorporate both sides and becomes the new thesis, which in turn generates its own anti-thesis, and so on. Now imagine a scenario, where no synthesis emerges, then all that one is left with is a continuous oscillation between thesis and anti-thesis. I believe, this process can only be sustained by creating false binaries.

Virtually all spheres of present day life are full of false binaries. While this seems to be so all over the world, it is certainly true in India. Either Tipu Sultan was a great benevolent brave secular ruler ,or he was a religious bigot and a mass murderer. Either there are no difference between men and women except biological or that men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. Every issue is pushed to the extreme-  whether it be the issue  of insipid secularism vs. religious fundamentalism, or self-hate vs. jingoism, or cultural pride vs. intolerance for differences, or state regulation vs. privacy, or discipline vs. individual freedom, it is virtually impossible to find any common ground for dialogue. All you can have in this scenario are Win-lose type of debates in a battle ground.

I believe that one of the main contributors to this state of all pervasive false binaries is non-recognition of difference between Intent and Impact.

Most of us, most of the times operate from the belief that our choices and actions are governed  not just by our own selfish interests but also collective good. We almost take it for granted  that we are working towards enhancing the well-being for ourselves, our kith and kin, our families and organisations and society at large.

For most of us, this belief is crucial for our self-esteem, and hence difficult to challenge. Therefore, when the consequences of our choices run counter to our expectations, we are unlikely to go beyond making some tactical improvements and refrain from asking any serious questions which may shake up the basic foundations of our belief structure. On the contrary, we are more likely to stick to our position with even greater determination. The situation is akin to that of a gambler who after losing, increases the stake, with the firm belief that in the ultimate analysis, things will work out well.

This is where the Hegelian principle comes into play. The more stubbornly a thesis is adhered to, the more space it provides for the anti-thesis to flourish. A stark example of this process was witnessed during the Emergency days. In the early 70’s, it is quite likely that Mrs. Indira Gandhi genuinely believed  that she was acting in the best interests of the country, and a handful of unruly elements were creating unnecessary obstacles and hence needed to be put in their place.  A false binary got created between “discipline” and “protest”. Ironically, the more she tried to enforce discipline, the more “suspect” her “intent” became and eventually she was forced to take an extreme step.

Interestingly, “order and discipline” which were presumably her original intent became the biggest casualty. For several subsequent years, all that we saw was utter chaos. More importantly, in our collective psyche, the false binary between “discipline” and “freedom” continues to call the shots.

Something similar may be happening with the Hindutva brigade. Presumably, they have the honourable  intent of cultural resurgence and national pride. However, the shriller they become, the more they alienate, which in turn causes them to take even more extreme positions. This can only be supported through false  binaries like between “patriotism” and “dissent”. Ironically, in this process ,all that happens is that perfectly honourable notions like patriotism and cultural heritage, become tainted with narrow -mindedness and jingoism . Similarly,  another set of people, who have their own honourable intent,  have ended up ensuring that  terms like secular or liberal, become equated with cultural insensitivity and disdain for tradition.

The net result is that both groups have done more “harm” than “good” to their own respective agendas, and in fact,  should thank each other for keeping them alive. I have often heard people say that the only reason that they support BJP is because they can’t stand Congress, just as I have heard people say that in order to get rid of BJP, they will be willing to support even the Congress.

This is an interesting situation where no thesis can stand on it’s own feet and must derive the legitimacy for its existence from its anti-thesis i.e. becoming anti-thesis to its anti-thesis. Such a situation can only be sustained through false binaries. Imagine a situation ,where dissent is not equated with being anti-national OR where “Bharat Mata ki Jai” is not held with disdain or seen as oppressive. In such a space survival for both Hidutva-wadis and their opponents will become rather difficult.

While these false binaries reinforce each other, they do so by ensuring that no dialogue  can take place and hence no synthesis can emerge. The entire focus shifts to questioning each others’ intent rather than engaging with the gap between intent and impact.

A meaningful dialogue presumes-

a) prima facie acceptance that the intent of the other is honourable, and

b) willingness to accept that there may be a gap between one’s own intent and the impact of one’s choices and action.

The main difficulty in this endeavour is posed by the mother of all false binaries- the  binary between good and evil. In this binary, the intent of the “other” is always suspect, and hence will be  seen as a threat to be eliminated rather than  as a resource which compliments.

Fortunately, the Indian tradition does not place too much emphasis on good/evil binary. Instead our focus has been on Avidya i.e. error/inadequacy of perception and/or interpretation. Thus it is possible to accept that the intent of the other may be as honourable as one’s own and the gaps between intent and impact can be dialogued upon.

There is very little scope for dialogue between good and evil- they can only fight and try to eliminate each other. Acknowledgement of Avidya (both in self and other) opens the door to dialogue and emergence of a synthesis.

I wish we would treasure and embrace this great part of our heritage rather than focus on all the historical hurts and humiliations.

Aryan centric idea of India

I wonder, if Mr. Tarun Vijay of the BJP realises the full import of his statement about South Indians and black skinned people. More than the underlying prejudice, it betrays a certain idea of India and being Indian that is worrisome. When he says that we have “black people around us” and that “we live with them”, one can not help but ask as to who is this WE that Mr. Vijay has in mind.

It would have been an entirely different matter if Mr. Vijay had said the “we are dark skinned people OR that “we have dark skinned people amongst us ” OR that “we are a multi-racial society”. This may sound like nitpicking and it is tempting to forgive him for poor/misleading phrasing  of an honourable intent. It is entirely possible that his intent may have been honourable, but it also suggests a way of defining who an Indian is, which is worth exploring.

The impression that one gets from his statement is that there is a “we” which is different from the dark skinned people who are around this “we” and the two are living amicably but are not quite the same. Further, this picture of “we” is perhaps highly influenced by presumably fair complexioned Aryans.

The issue becomes even more significant in view of the constituency which his party has been traditionally associated with. Its original constituency was the upper caste Hindus of North India . While the “historical facts” may be debatable, the “history as it exists in the minds” of this constituency is that their lineage is Aryan and there country is  Aryavrata, coupled with a presumed notion of Aryan supremacy.  While from an electoral perspective, BJP has extended its reach significantly, Mr. Vijay’s statement indicates that its notions about Indian-ness are still those of its original constituency.

BJP has often claimed that its notion of Hindutva is not a religious construct but based on the notion of cultural nationalism. However their idea of this cultural nationalism is often defined in terms of their mother constituency i.e. upper caste Hindu north Indians which is highly Aryan centric. Further, in order to expand its reach, it seems keen to invite others to join and participate in this project of cultural nationalism, so long as this Aryan hegemony is accepted. From this position, it can at best include those who do not subscribe to this Aryan supremacy, but never become “one with them”.

Personally, I have no quarrel with the idea of cultural nationalism, though I prefer the term Indian-ness. The main reason for this preference is that Culture is often associated with customs and social practices, whereas Indian-ness essentially refers to civilisational quintessence i.e. psychological predispositions and perspectives. I believe ( and I have very good reasons to support this belief) that beyond the differences of caste, creed, language, religion, customs etc., there is an essential Indian-ness which is shared by all of us. This quintessential Indian-ness resides in our perspective on living i.e. what constitutes meaningful life, what is the nature of human relationships, what is the meaning of Individual freedom, what constitutes ethical conduct, what is the nature of relationship between state and society, what is the relationship between humanity and nature, what is the nature of relationship between human beings and technology, what is the role of religion and faith, and host of such questions.

Many of these perspectives or predispositions transcend differences of region, religion or socio-economic categories. No matter whether a person sees his/her lineage as Aryan or non-Aryan, whether he/she is privileged or oppressed, whatever be his/her theological beliefs, whatever be his/her dietary preferences or other living habits, there is a remarkable similarity in how the Indian mind works and how the Indian psyche looks at self and world at large. This to me is the civilisational quintessence which has been handed over to us both genetically and through processes of socialisation and acculturation.

Sadly, the predispositions of the Indian psyche have never figured prominently in our ideas of  development and modernity. Our essential picture of a progressive civilised society are based on how the Western mind works rather than how the Indian mind works. This is not to suggest a binary of India vs. West, but only to suggest that there are definite nuances which are present in different civilisations, even though essentially they deal with the same human imperatives and dilemmas. Unfortunately most of our frames, including our ways of looking at ourselves, have been borrowed from the West without taking into account  the nuances of our own civilisational quintessence. As Rabindranath Tagore put it, ” we have bought our spectacles at the expense of our eye sight”

The idea of cultural nationalism based on the premise of Aryan supremacy is yet another example of the same phenomenon. It has the same disdainful and patronising attitude towards the “non-Aryan” part of ourselves as our colonial masters had towards the native Indian. It may help in ensuring adherence to a uniform set of customs and practices, but in effect, it alienates us from the essence of our being. It merely replaces one kind of oppression with another.

It matters little, whether the oppressor is external or internal and what is the brand of hegemony that is sought to be imposed, the essential process remains the same. I suspect we will keep replacing one set of oppressors with another till such time that we learn to look at ourselves through our own eyes, understand ourselves in our own way and value ourselves at our own terms.