Ashis Nandy, radically conservative

January 26, 2013

by Saroj Giri

The approach of a few bad rotten apples – what does it do? It says that the problem lies outside, outside of the society in its routine, normal functioning. Left to itself our society is fine – society is not internally generating such elements, such bad apples. The existence of such elements does not say anything about the internal constitution or character of our society. They say only about how we must protect our society from such elements – an enormous task. A call is given: ‘hang the rapists’! After disowning and hanging such elements, you are left with a mythic beautiful society.

Now Ashis Nandy does not agree with this few bad apples approach. Indeed, he lambasts “the urban, expensively-educated, modern Indians” for whom these bad apples are “mostly found in rural India and in urban pockets like slums and ghettos, which share some features of a village” (‘Modernity has produced a brand of mayhem’, The Times of India, Jan 19, 2013). For Nandy, on the other hand, the problem is in ‘modern India’: not a few bad apples but an entire swathe of anomic, rootless violence ‘looking for targets’. And this derives from modernity, from the pathologies of rationality and science so celebrated today. Hence “violence today is in the air in Indian cities. The republic of India has successfully and proudly joined the mainstream culture of politics and its vision of civilisation.”

Such a powerful indictment of ‘modern India’ – and yet Nandy does not really break with a basic presupposition of modern India.

By calling it anomic, Nandy understands the ‘new kinds of violence’ vis-à-vis a loss or lack. They occur “to substitute for the loss of primordial ties”: community ties have thinned and so on. They are the result of the loss of such bonds. Hence the suggested way out of these pathologies of modernity is to fall back on these communities and primordial ties. The problem is not in the communities, not in the bonds, not in those very ties but in the anomic aberrations from them. Nandy replicates the good inside versus the bad outside binary.

Now it is not that Nandy is valorizing some ‘inside’ which is the good society, viz., traditional society, rural India and so on – this is what some left critiques would make you believe. No, Nandy is not doing that. He does far better than that. Nandy does not say that sexual and caste violence does not happen in Bharat or does not happen in rural India. In fact, he tells us about caste conflicts and sexual assaults on adivasi and Dalit women, and he takes them seriously.

Actually, Nandy’s argument does not rest on the actual existence of a sociologically or empirically given good society. Instead he works with an unavowed assumption of such a society, a mythic society, For him, it is more about upholding the myth of a mythical society and balance, which you can somehow continuously and asymptotically approach and aspire to, always available to revert to, no matter how deeply immersed you are in modernity and capitalism and all its horrors.

This is where we see that his identification of the pathologies of modernity as the problem is geared towards suggesting a reversion to this mythic society and restoration of some lost balance. Society is divided between some mythic society and a modernity full of ailments and disorders. In this undifferentiated sea of pathologies and disorders, nobody is positively ‘enjoying’ their power and domination and inscribing it in society, through violence, old and new.

Hence no positively given structure or power relations or community ties can be identified as the ground or source of violence which is all externalized – like bad apples. Thus rape does not tell us about the kind of society we are in. It tells us about the kind of society we have displaced. Rape is a symptom of a loss, the brutal assertion of an ailment.

There is nothing called power relations, male domination and surely not class relations – only pathologies, disorders, imbalance, loss. Nandy’s ‘conception’ of a really non-modern, heterogeoneous and benign society of multiple selves (in contrast to the ideological ‘community’ of modernity) is beside the point here. For it actually is directed towards exonerating present day society from being culpable for violence, domination and oppression – for these latter are mere pathologies.

So all these horrors and violence only serve to call for restoring of some mythical balance, community bonds – not social transformation, not challenging and subverting the internal power relations that constitute society. In fact it actively displaces the question of social transformation and makes the latter appear to be complicit in modernity. Those fighting against oppression can here be presented as those reinforcing the structures of oppression!

Hence there is no idea of movement in Nandy. It is deeply pro-status quoist – but not by being conservative and against radical change but by treating both conservatives and radicals as stuck in the quagmire of pathologies. There is nothing to choose between Narendra Modi and ‘the revolutionaries’.

So the struggle for social transformation now gets presented as a fight between narrow identities created by modernity. The rapists and feminists can both very well be treated as perversions of modernity!

Whether this mythic society is a monolithic ‘Indian values’ of Chetan Bhagat or one with ‘multiple selves’ and heterogeneity does not really make a difference. Bhagat warns the ‘young and aspirational India’ protesting against the rape and demanding women’s freedom – that they should not forget certain values, they should not push too hard: “It is important to understand India first”, he says – an indication towards again our ‘good’ community ties and bonds that cannot be undermined (‘Open Letter to the Indian Change Seekers’, The Times of India, Jan 13, 2013).

Unlike in Nandy, in Bhagat community ties readily become straitjacketed ‘Indian values’. These ‘Indian values’ go so well with all the aggressive, growth-oriented, security-centric, strong state approach – all that Nandy otherwise stands against. But for Bhagat too, as for Nandy, we have lost something in our society because of which bad things (violence, rape) are taking place. Both for Nandy and for Bhagat there is ‘some India’ which we must understand first – we cannot deviate from this India. Not just that – the solution to the problems today also lie in respecting this India.

Both Nandy and Bhagat refer the protestors to some mythic society. The moment ‘modern Indians’ become too active in protests against the rape, Bhagat finds them ‘demanding too much’. He wants to wean them away from modernity and instead refer them to ‘Indian values’. Similarly Nandy finds the whole of the protests to be implicated in the same pathology of modernity, in the same culture of violence. Hence he offers primordial ties, community bonds as the solution.

So the idea seems to be that some kind of a prior if not primordial wholeness, balance or harmony has been disturbed. And the protests should be about restoring this balance – not turning things upside down, no transformation.

Don’t aim at liberation, don’t look into the future. Or rather the future is about removing the deadweight of modernity and releasing to life the apparent hidden resources of yore – perhaps reviving communal ties and bonds that are already there, repressed, lacerated and homogenized under modern anomic life. Don’t look into the future, fall back not so much on the past as to some mythic element in the present – and contain any real change.

In this specific sense, it looks like even the proponents of unbridled market and strong state can concur with Nandy’s defence of the ‘multiple-selves’ community and primordial ties. The formal structure and subjective effect of Nandy’s argument therefore coheres with those of many ‘expensively educated modern Indians’.

Nandy refers to Adolf Eichmann – how he could carry out mass murder without any sense of complicity in it since “he killed by pushing files the way many kill today by clicking computer mice”. Hence it was not radical evil but banal evil, almost exonerating the lower level clerks from complicity with fascism. This is Hannah Arendt’s view which Nandy approvingly refers to.

Arendt is clearly wrong here, as Slavoj Zizek has pointed out in his The Plague of Fantasies. But Nandy gives a bad spin to Arendt, assuming that it is technology or rather the distance created by technology or the social distance (from the crime and victim?) created by modernity which is what leads to the ‘new kinds of violence’. Something from outside, technology, is working through us and making us (the good ‘us’ of the mythic society) engage in violence.

Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ approach, or, in this case, the banality of rape would mean that there is no ‘positively existing’ power relation or domination which is brutally inscribed or enacted in rape. Instead it becomes something like a desperate attempt at loss-fulfillment by those who are themselves victims of the pathologies of science or rationality – an expression of what is not there, a loss, hence banal. Looked at this way, all agency, all protests will look like merely repeating the pathologies of modernity or the mere working out of techno-alienation.

Put it this way: Nandy is radical, he provokes and antagonizes the ruthless and aggressive upper middle class hawks. He does this better than anybody else. But his framework is deeply conservative.


5 Responses to “Ashis Nandy, radically conservative”

  1. Savita Singh Says:
    January 27th, 2013 at 12:54

    well analysed. Nandy still has western notion of how violence gets created, sustains itself and targets its victims. That is why in Indian case, in practical terms he misses his own points.

  2. Sabitha TP Says:
    January 30th, 2013 at 02:15

    Mohan Bhagwat, and not Chetan Bhagat as the essay says, surely?! A good sharp analysis, a way to start engaging with Nandy with critical seriousness, so sorely lacking otherwise.

  3. Smriti suman Says:
    January 31st, 2013 at 12:16

    Dear sir,
    Good that you have criticized both,one who always criticize the phenomena from the inside perspective of modernity and another who always give refrence of some so called Indian value.We need this sort of criticism of these inactive intellectual.but sir my point is, sometimes these critical intellectualism or radical conservatism help those or propoblatise those, who blv in nontransformable revolutionism, it means traditional activist.Thus i think some time to keep protest alive we need these sort of criticism.

  4. Amya Says:
    February 7th, 2013 at 06:35

    Well said. A strong need to analyze the whole is required. Protests and the so called activism today has limited itself to individual events and incidents leading to a strengthening of the existing structure that led to these occurrences in the first place. Unless the foundation of this structure is not fondled with,this ‘superficial activism’ will only keep layering on and eventually multiply such events of ‘injustice’.

  5. KS Subramanian Says:
    March 3rd, 2013 at 12:31

    I have learnt much from this analysis which places Nandy in perspective. Nandy can be a confusing thinker for the ordinary reader! I would like to read Giri on Nandy’s observations at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Thanks.

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