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A Past Without History

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A past without history

Ashis Nandy, political psychologist, social theorist and cultural and political critic, in conversation with Hilal Ahmed and Priyadarshini
Vijaisri, CSDS
How would you look at the project of writing a history of the Centre?
This question is significant because your work has had a great impact on the writing of colonial histories with a critical stance to the very project of history and historiography. How would you react to the idea of tracing the past in the disciplinary mode? Similarly, as the Centre reflects on its past, what do you think are the possible ways in which its institutional biography could be written?
I look at this project with great enthusiasm but with a robust skepticism too. I am excited because this is an important project, but at the same time I am skeptical of the entire enterprise of history itself.
As a psychologist, I recognize the fact that everybody requires an ancestry – real or imaginary, genuine or fake. However, the modes by which such lineages are traced and constituted by communities in the realm of everyday experiences do not entirely depend on what is often called professional ‘history’. History is just one kind of engagement with the past, which absolutizes it in such a way that the inner world of human emotions, sentiments, motives and pains are erased to accommodate the larger impersonal forces or compulsions of history.
There are other possible constructions of the past – public memories, legends, myths and popular stories – which represent a very different world. Our engagements through them operate within a moral universe which reminds constantly about the relevance of remembering and forgetting. The markers of distinction and sameness, imaginations of lived and illusory experiences, and moments of collective joy, suffering and pain are encapsulated in such reconstructions of the past. When we try to live with them, however partially and imperfectly, we encounter an entire way of life. I am not against the business of writing conceptual history, but one needs something more to understand. One must learn to challenge and subvert the hegemony of history.
Only in this sense can I talk of the past of the CSDS. You have to recognize the fact that the past of the CSDS that one tries to erect is ones own past, whether one was there or not. This is not to reproduce what was ‘actually’ there or a chronological account of ‘facts’, but to ask questions such as: what should have been there, what could have

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been there; what possibilities that past opens up for the present and for the future; how, in the context of the present, a past is constructed in such a way that some continuity with ancestors is retained but without being burdened by it. The Centre’s past was not flawless and the Centre might or might not have been moving towards what it is today. This is a difficult task.
We were not self-conscious agents trying to make ‘history’. We were a bunch of people who had different interests. The Centre was partly a defiance of existing intellectual culture. Many of us were dissatisfied with the university system and were interested in creating a different kind of institutional set-up. Others wanted to do serious full-time research for which there were fewer opportunities then. Still others had mainly intellectual concerns; they were miserable about the state of political studies in India.
There was no serious attempt to study Indian politics at an empirical level. Political theory was dominated by the study of western political thought – Plato, Aristotle, Marx, and a few contemporary western thinkers such as Michael Oakeshott. Often boring diplomatic histories were passed off as political studies.
The Centre was always keen to have closer intellectual engagement with social realities – not merely in India, but also in those countries which faced similar problems and issues in Asia, Africa and Latin
America. The emphasis was on the everyday life of ordinary people at the very bottom level of society. The aim was to establish a link between the understanding of ordinary people (who do not act as self-appointed actors of history) and grand ideas such as the future of democracy. This idea of the empirical emerged as a core concern for us.
The Centre conducted large-scale surveys and more intense ethnographic studies to supply a base for more daring theorization that could carry the smell and sights of the land and to shift the fulcrum of political theory from what came to us from western political texts and towards what we discovered in slums and villages.
So, we were eager to create an institutional culture where one could enjoy maximum intellectual autonomy, outside the demands of local and global university systems and to nurture a culture that would value the intellectual work as much as, if not more than, academic work. This distinction between the intellectual and the academic was a crucial, though tacit, dimension in the earlier phase of the Centre.
Let me elaborate this because some others who were my contemporaries may not agree with me. Gradually over the years I have been critical of all ‘ideological projects’. In my view, ideology itself must be subjected to serious critical evaluation, mainly because it gives us a frame, and forces us to operate within it. But that has its hazards in a postcolonial society embracing an ideology, particularly one which has been reared in another culture, which makes dissent manageable, understandable, and eventually controllable. Also, the wars which were fought in the name of ideologies in the 20th century killed millions with few tangible

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results. Yet, conventional history, conventional historiography and, for that matter, conventional social sciences, still recognize what can only be called conventional, ideology-based forms of ‘dissent’. I believe that there must be a dissent that the mainstream does not recognize as dissent. There must be an element of mystery about it. In my view, the intellectual task for us in Asia, Africa and Latin America is to capture this untamed dissent, to which the western world and its knowledge industry cannot have a clue. The recognition of this untamed dissent, I believe, will pave the way for new and more grounded theories of emancipation. The present Centre has an academically competent and educationally well-qualified faculty that can, no doubt, be described as one of the best social science faculties in the country. However, the concerns of the
Centre have changed. It is more academic now. I am not suggesting that
Centre should adhere to fixed agendas; nor do I believe that those who had worked at the Centre in the past had a well-defined vision and the task of the present generation is to achieve the goals set up by its ancestors! Nor am I underestimating the value and the significance of the intellectual work that the Centre is producing. But the intellectual climate has changed. There is a need to revisit the questions the Centre faced at a particular moment, not to follow the footprints of the
‘ancestors’ but to understand the relationship between the intellectual concerns and the kind of intensity with which that generation worked.
Academic work is professionalized and, to some extent, is more dispassionate. Intellectual work is a love affair that swallows one up and forces one to operate at the margins of sanity.

Can we locate your criticism of ideology in the 1960s and 1970s – a world which was divided on ideological lines – in relation to the intellectual agendas of the Centre? Was it possible at that time to describe the Centre as a space without ‘ideology’?
It is true that the 1960s was a time when ideologies ruled. However, the
Centre was not envisaged as a place to pursue an ideological agenda, though individual scholars had political visions and they were sympathetic to a number of political causes. Interestingly, we did not think that we needed an ideology to describe ourselves; various ideological tags were given to us by others.
A section of Marxists, mostly Leninists and positivists, especially those
Marxists who were involved in teaching and research and close to ruling regimes, were our main critics. They described us as liberals and rightists. The pro-America tag also came from them. I think it was also related to the ways in which Marxism was taught. For the LeninistMarxists, the world was to be understood in black and white. Their knowledge of Marxism was limited. They were not even aware of the developments that were taking place in the body of knowledge called
Marxism. As a result, they had a fixed framework in which all social, political and even intellectual phenomenon had a designated place.

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They knew the answers to all social questions even before they started their research. The Centre’s emphasis on an empirical study of the political went against their world-view. For them ‘people’ was a sacred category and, at the same time, they considered themselves as
‘vanguard’! So, they did not have to hear what people said. For them the main problem was simply to mobilize the people in a particular way.
However, this did not mean that all Marxist intellectuals were uninterested in the work of the Centre. The Centre, in fact, was a place where many Marxists came and participated in our intellectual enterprise. They were usually the more creative Marxists, more risk-taking and adventurous.
Let me elaborate on this question of ideology. As I have said, the Centre was interested in the study of the ‘empirical’. But, the empirical was never defined narrowly. As a result, it was possible for all of us to pursue our work and intellectual goals and contribute to the larger intellectual repertoire that we had created collectively. We were the first readers of each others work. We were critical of each other and there were often bitter debates that gave us some kind of confidence. Our lunchtime discussions were part of this exercise. In fact, these discussions became so well-known that scholars, activists and politicians came to have informal lunchtime conversations with us. We grew up in a very vibrant intellectual environment. There was no common mandate, no common agenda to pursue, but there were shared intellectual commitments. That was the reason why we were so autonomous. I do not think that any ideology, even at that time, would have been able to capture the spirit of this collective intellectual journey in which, paradoxically, every political issue became the subject of bitter debates and fights.

You had a project called culture and personality studies in modernization in the 1960s. How did this project relate to the Centre’s thrust on an empirical study of politics?
My view at that time was that the crucial component in any change is the way in which new and emerging social and political challenges are interpreted by groups and persons. These challenges and interpretations are ‘worked through’ or psychologically negotiated as inner battles and private struggles. If the responses of some groups and persons make sense to the larger collectivities, it changes the content of the political culture in society. These personal ‘solutions’ are picked up by the larger collective. Let me give you an example. My first work in the Centre was on
Rammohan Roy. The work on sati was a byproduct of this initial engagement. Rammohan Roy and others of his generation had a very different relation with and perception of the British. They perhaps did not recognize the British as an imperial power. In fact, the British did not perhaps see themselves as rulers of India but as a new set of robber barons. There was also no sense of cultural inferiority in the Indians.

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Nor did the British feel superior. Many had Indian wives, wore Indian clothes on special occasions and at home and, above all, prayed in temples and mosques. They did not intervene with customary laws or change the official language of the Mughal Empire, which was Persian.
They tried hard to be a part of the local landscape. It appeared natural for the first generation of colonized Indians in Bengal to treat the British as a cultural and intellectual challenge rather than as a political one. I was interested in capturing this complex relationship with the West, particularly the process of internal transformation of people like
Rammohan Roy and others. It was an attempt to understand the subtle, inner politics of the self by following very different routes, techniques and methods, perhaps more so because, at that time, I also was much more deeply Freudian.
I would also like to underline an important cultural divide in the Centre that determined its intellectual trajectory. Rajni Kothari and D.L. Sheth did not carry the burden of an urban middle class Bengali family. Such families bore an imprint of the first phase of westernization mainly because Calcutta was the imperial capital of British India till the mid-1930s. Calcutta was the second largest city of the empire and had a very cosmopolitan culture. Urban middle class Bengali families had high educational expectations and were, to put it mildly, over-socialized. The pressure to excel more in the field of education and professions was enormous. Even going to the coffee house carried its own expectations. There were unwritten norms of the readable and the unreadable. In my teens, the fashionable reads were the French existentialists. You also had to know the status of English literature to even survive in such informal gatherings.
Rajni Kothari and D.L. Sheth were unburdened. They did not carry the burden of such expectations, nor suffer from any sense of awe of the intellectual lions of our time. I had to struggle against my socialization and my own intellectual heritage; they were free from the beginning.

Rajni Kothari, in a recent interview, has said that he was keen to engage with politics: as an observer, as a sensitive scholar of politics and to some extent, as an intellectual interlocutor. Thus, the question of intervention in politics was always central to his thinking. How did you look at the issue of political intervention, especially in the late 1960s?
I had great respect for the kind of work Kothari was doing. I also respected the view that there should be some role for intellectuals in politics. However, my take was different. I was writing in professional periodicals. Major parts of my book, The Intimate Enemy were published in the journal, Psychiatry. Rajni Kothari used to persuade me to write for popular magazines and newspapers. I was not very enthusiastic. The final break with my past came during the Emergency. I started writing regularly in newspapers. In fact, Girilal Jain, then editor of the

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Times of India, published me during the Emergency despite knowing that unlike him, I not only did not support the Emergency but had also become skeptical of the modern nation state. In order to avoid possible inconsistencies arising from our conflicting positions, he used to edit my articles, simply to make them publishable under the regime.
I think some situations arise in life when one is forced to take positions.
The Emergency was one such moment which forced us to engage, directly and indirectly, with events happening around us. It was not enough to develop theories of authoritarianism or simply to lament the decline of political institutions. And I did try, for whatever it was worth, to be a voice of dissent.
I do think that the main job of an intellectual is to be an intellectual. If you are truly an intellectual, your work would reflect your politics, whether you like it or not, whether you make a conscious effort or not.
In other words, if you are true to your intellectual self, then, in a society like India where politics plays a pace-setting role, you cannot avoid politics. It does not mean that this is the only possible role an intellectual could play in relation to politics. There are individuals who would go for a more direct kind of political intervention. But, the question of political sensitivity is central to all intellectual engagements.

There was a time when the study of politics was mainly limited to state, political parties and elections. The Centre, as you point out, played a crucial role in unfolding the meaning of politics. Interestingly, now you find that the domain of politics has expanded vastly. How do you look at this explosion of the political, at least in the academe?
Politics could be understood as one of the fundamental needs of human beings. It is an exercise in and management of power. In this sense, it will remain crucial to all social action. However, we find that politics as an activity is still seen with some degree of anxiety in the popular discourse. We often get to hear expressions like: this is very political or he/she is politically motivated. This anxiety is not confined to the consumers of politics – ordinary people, media, intellectuals, and so on
–politicians themselves are not entirely confident about the status of politics. Morarji Desai, a seasoned politician, once said that he was not comfortable with politics, though he was very much involved in it. For him morality had to be given priority over politics. I have met other politicians who think they have wasted their lives. But there can be no politician without politics and no politics without politicians.
Democracy needs both. The challenge is to look at the ways in which
‘politics’ is conceptualized and interpreted to mark social actions and explore from where this ambivalence towards politics comes.
I think this uncertainty about politics is not specific to India. All major democracies of the world equally live with such doubts and apprehensions. The paradox is that people do not like politics but at the same time, they cannot live without politics. I do not think that there is

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an answer to this question and in my view, this is a necessary tension.
This ambivalence to politics as an activity in the real world has an interesting contrast in the way in which politics as a category has re-emerged. There was a time when literary theory had nothing to do with political theory. Similarly, many aspects of social life were seen as apolitical or as outside politics. The situation has changed. The complex configurations of social phenomena are recognized and attention is paid to the role of politics even in apolitical domains. Politics has entered many more areas of our lives which were earlier seen as unaffected by it. This is the reason why the meaning of politics has expanded in our times. However, this proliferation of politics in academic discourse has gradually become quite trendy. I am not that interested in this fashionable usage of politics. This can be dangerous. Some areas of life can and should be located outside politics. Therefore, I am not enchanted by this new trend of describing everything as politics. I do not think that politics is an unmitigated evil, but it is not an unmitigated good either.

This elaborate exploration of the idea of politics and its possible limits takes us back to the question of various moments of the Centre. Do you find any continuities and/or discontinuities between diverse intellectual engagements (politics, culture and society) and the milieu in which such studies took shape at the Centre?
I would like to emphasize here that I am not very comfortable with the idea of ‘moments’. I do not think that we can identify crucial moments in the life of the Centre. There were many concerns that continued for a long time, which I believe, cannot be situated in a chronological indexing of the past. In my view, there cannot be a straightforward chronological description of those intellectual norms and scholarly traditions which have evolved at the Centre in last five decades. We were not making history; we were doing our job.
The Centre in which I worked in the past was very different. There was a sense of community. And, we used to work with remarkable intensity.
We did not have stalwarts outside to look up to. The question of getting academic recognition and legitimacy outside never haunted us. Take the case of Bashiruddin Ahmed. I think he knew he would not be able to use even one percent of the data he was collecting. But he toiled day and night on cleaning, organizing and rearranging his data. That comes from another kind of intellectual passion, another kind of vision.
It is true that the Centre had collaborations and networks of various kinds, nationally and internationally. But these efforts never forced us to compromise with our intellectual autonomy and intensity. We had very limited resources to survive and were confronted with shortage of funds at all times. I underline these practical issues simply to re-emphasize the

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role of intensity in our work. We did not have time to think of other things. The continuities in the institutional culture of the Centre are few, and that is not a bad thing. The present Centre, as I have said, is much more competent, much more academic, and much more radical. And yet, this
Centre is much more deeply infiltrated by the West, particularly the western academe! As a result, the amount of intensity has decreased. In my view, the intensity depended on self-esteem and a confidence that we could create our own world. Since the scholarly engagement with the professional world of academics now heavily influences our research concerns, we have to eventually make compromises with intellectual intensity and autonomy to experiment.
The present faculty is both diverse and academically accomplished.
This is because the mode of induction is democratic and reflects the larger academic concerns of the Centre. The Centre also works with a limited number of support staff. This is an advantage. The scope for bureaucratization is minimal. The Centre is still faculty driven, which is a rarity in India. Above all, its democratic ethos remains intact. I have reasons to be optimistic.

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