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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 1, December 20, 2008

India 60: Multiple Readings

Sunday 21 December 2008, by Arup Kumar Sen

India has a rich tradition of story telling. Even a single story carries multiple meanings in the plural culture of India. A.K. Ramanujan, a profound scholar of South Asian language and culture, once raised the question:

How many Ramayanas? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question.1

The 60-year story of India’s independence carries multiple meanings. The freedom of the nation-state does not carry the same meaning as the freedom of its citizens:

India is regarded today as a global poster country for dynamic growth and infinite opportunities for the investor. It was not always thus. It was a byword for misery and starvation, for hunger and famine sixty years ago. Even today, as it breaks records in the economic sphere, millions live in poverty and the picture of India on the ground is often one of misery and squalor.3

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Politics, especially the vision as the world’s largest hearted democracy, gave one a special identity. People celebrated democracy for itself. It was a value they wished to guarantee even if it did not often lead to good governance.4 In fact, the story of Indian democracy is an amalgam of hope and despair:

India’s democratic record remains a great repository of hope. It has, in its own way, unleashed a range of emanicipatory energies. But as India’s economy gains momentum, the health of its political experiment is not something that can be taken for granted.... There is a series of local conflicts, ranging from Naxal violence to caste agitations, that are still quite fragmented. But these are early warning signs of the profound alienation Indian politics can still produce.5

Dipankar Gupta, the eminent Indian sociologist, has reminded us that nation-states thrive better on good enemies than on good friends. He has observed in his field experience the profundity with which the formation of Pakistan has been seared into our national consciousness. The trauma of 1947 has consequently equipped us, as a nation, to trace the imaginary lineaments of the state.6 Six decades after the birth of the Indian nation-state, Professor Gupta has raised the question:

Can we overcome our national grief and look beyond Pakistan and the Partition?

Professor Gupta’s story highlights the fact that India’s self-identity as a nation-state has been derived to a large extent from the birth of its Other, the nation-state of Pakistan. But, the analytical distinction between the nation-state and the citizen should be kept in mind in this context. The mode of thinking and the structure of identity of most Indians, be they Hindus, Muslims or Christians, are multi-conceptual.

They draw on Hindu heritage in some areas of life such as moral and social relations: Muslim heritage in music and romantic love; their secular and Western heritage when dealing with civil, economic and political matters....8

The trauma of partition definitely created a cultural gulf between the two communities—Hindus and Muslims. But, a process of healing also started in the domain of culture. To put it in the words of Shiv Visvanathan,

If Partition officially divided Hindu and Muslim into the dreariness of nation-states, the Bombay talkies showed that Hindi films as a creative unity needed the complementarity of Hindu and Muslim. The scandal, the gossip, the style of Bombay Talkies needed their jugalbandi to survive.9

The above stories told by the leading Indian intellectuals carry diverse political and cultural meanings. This amply bears out that the plural tradition of the Ramayana is still active in our culture of democracy. Bhikhu Parekh’s story reminds us precisely about the rich tradition of our democracy:

We appreciate that there is no single of model a good Indian. Each of us has a different personal and political biography, and appropriates India in his or her own different way.10 n

Note

1. The Collective Essays of A.K. Ramanujan, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999, p.131.

2. See the interview with Arindam Chakraborty, Anandabazar Patrika, August 14, 2007.

3. Meghnad Desai, ‘Our Economic Growth: 1947-2007’ in Ira Pande (ed.), India 60: Towards a New Paradigm, Harper Collins Publishers, New Delhi, 2007, p. 34.

4. Shiv Visvanathan, ‘Popcorn Nationalism’ in India Today, August 20, 2007, p. 91.

5. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘What Do We Stand For?’ in Outlook, August 20, 2007, p. 76.

6. Dipankar Gupta, ‘The Grief that BINDS’ in India Today, August 20, 2007, pp. 52-53.

7. Ibid., p. 56.

8. Bhikhu Parekh, ‘Everything is Illuminated’ in India Today, August 20, 2007, p. 72.

9. Shiv Visvanathan, op.cit., p. 91.

10. Bhikhu Parekh, op.cit., p. 73.

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