Friday, August 27, 2004

A fine eye for detail

The well-known writer Amit Chaudhuri is often praised for his fine eye for detail. Therefore, an "intervention" --Chaudhuri does not have much regard for this word, cf. The Telegraph, July 25, 2004-- by such a fine writer/critic like Chaudhuri, one expects, would provide new insights into any debate. Sadly, that was not the case to be, when he jumped into the controversy about "Indian" secularism, prompted recently by Kuldip Nayar (Outlook, May 31, 2004). Nayar's article was followed by a rejoinder from Ashish Nandy (Outlook, June 21, 2004), which had a false pretense of being gentle, and this was followed upon by Sanjay Subrahmanyam's agressive, and unpretentious, article (Outlook, July 5, 2004). [See The Great Debate, Get in the Ring, Amardeep Singh, Random Notes.]

Amit Chaudhuri enters the field with his two-part essay in The Telegraph (July 25 and August 1). His strong points being his attention to minute detail, and perhaps the fact that his "imaginative provenance owes little to the social sciences"! (The Telegraph, August 14, 2004). Chaudhuri is clear about his motive. He does not have anything to offer on the debate about secularism. His articles are primarily meant to ask the following question: "Is there a place for a minority voice like Nandy's in our community of liberal intellectuals?"

I do not buy the implicit claim that Nandy's is a lone voice. Anybody who takes a little bit of interest in societal affairs knows that he, in fact, enjoys a cult status in areas of his interest. I agree that Nandy's voice, however damaging it can be, should be heard. But the way Chaudhuri has framed his question leaves one suspicious: batting for a voice that is anyway loud, does he also want the others to shut their mouth?

Accusing Subrahmanyam of polemics, he himself indulges in "polemical debunking" very soon. Chaudhuri wants to associate Subrahmanyam with a group, a coterie, against Nandy's lone voice. He writes:

    "In India, a new "secular" ruling class began to form, after the death of Indira Gandhi, around Rajiv Gandhi, in Delhi. This class has on occasion made secularism part of its civilizing mission, its pre-destined, quasi-imperial role in India. I am not saying we can do without the values this class claims to represent; I would rather have my history textbooks written by Romila Thapar and Sanjay Subrahmanyam than by someone favoured by the political dispensation recently thrown out of power." (The Telegraph, August 1, 2004).
Now you do not need an eye for detail to conclude that according to Chaudhuri, Subrahmanyam belongs to this particular class. But in the next article (The Telegraph, August 14, 2004), he says:
    "Nor did I say that Subrahmanyam was part of the new ruling class that came into existence in Delhi around Rajiv Gandhi."
Then comes the unbelievably illogical postsrcipt of the August 14 essay. He writes:
    "About a couple of years ago, I felt a sense of disquiet when I read a laudatory review of Nandy by [Swapan] Dasgupta. Nandy is better off without such supporters, I thought to myself. Nandy is a critic of power; Dasgupta has a weather-vane-like susceptibility to it. Subrahmanyam should think seriously about why he has found an admirer in Dasgupta."
All these seem to pass for "a fine eye for detail", among Nandy's followers!

A word about Nandy being a critic of power. On the NGO-izaton of politics, Arundhati Roy said:

    "The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary."
Nandy represents the NGO-like dissenters, and his so-called critiques of power suit only the Hindu fascist power mongers.

Thus Nandy's observation that "the term dharmanirapekshata literally means amorality" (Outlook, June 21, 2004) makes Swapan Dasgupta happy (The Telegraph, August 13, 2004) for whom it reads: "secularism being built on amorality". To quote Kuldip Nayar:

    "What is now accepted as the lure of cultural or traditional impulses was [then] considered an expression of communalism. But such confusion cannot be an excuse for righting a wrong. It only shows that intellectuals like Nandy are faltering in their commitment."


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