Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Everyone needs an address November 6, 2005

When I was growing up in post-Independence India in the 1950s and 1960s, the word ‘conservative’ was an abuse in the vocabulary of Indian intellectuals. We passionately wanted change and likened Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech to Wordsworth’s famous lines on the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. To be conservative in Nehru’s India was to be on the side of age against youth, the past against the future, authority against innovation, and spontaneity against life.

Now, more that fifty years later, the wheel has come a full circle. It is the old Nehruvian progressives who are ‘old’, who hark nostalgically for a socialist utopia. They oppose reforms and still believe in statism when it has been discredited everywhere. It is the young who believe in the reforms today based on the conservative idea of the market. Alas, there is no political home for a secular conservative in today’s India, someone who wants vigorous reform and believes in good but small government. I had hoped that the BJP might shed its sectarian agenda and become a secular, conservative party. But this has not happened.

In my column last month, “I’m a Hindu, but”, I described the dilemma of a sensitive principal over teaching the Mahabharata in her school. My fear that secularism might undermine tradition may seem exaggerated. Certainly in the villages, our epics are well and alive. But India’s future will be written in its cities, where we must worry about preserving continuity with the past, especially before the relentless onslaught of a powerful global culture. Like Edmund Burke, who founded Conservatism, I think society is not merely a collection of loosely related individuals, but a living organism. I feel reverence for the past not as a political doctrine but a habit of mind, as a way of living and feeling. Hence, I raised the question that if Italian children can read Dante’s Divine Comedy or English children can read Milton in school, why should “secularist” Indians be ambivalent about teaching the Mahabharata?

It’s true that the Mahabharata has lots of gods, and in particular the elusive Krishna. But so do Dante and Milton deal with God. As a secular Indian, I appreciate the “wall” that our founding fathers built between religion and education. I admire France and Turkey who have the strongest “walls”. But what does one do when our literary classics are "semi-religious"? At the same time, if our kids don’t read Sanskrit classics in a secular environment they will grow up impoverished. Something has gone terribly wrong in the way our schools churn out deracinated products, who know little about their own culture but a great deal about the West. Some people would teach all the religions, and with this they hope to engender what Emperor Ashoka called a “respect for all creeds”. This too is a dangerous path, for how do you teach religion without worrying about some teacher somewhere who might hurt the sensitivities of some follower. Before you know it, you have a riot on your hands. So, I do sympathize with the school principal’s dilemma.

“Every writer needs an address”, wrote the Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer. That is a fine way of saying that all human beings need local roots, an identity, and a link with a unique identifiable past. A writer needs it even more because he aspires to speak universally about life. Clearly, we need to ponder over this idea in India, and ask if its time has come. Is this the time to revive the Swatantra Party?


1 comment:

About Medicine Blog said...

They oppose reforms and still believe in statism when it has been discredited everywhere.