Post-colonial theorist HOMI K. BHABHA, on his recent India tour, spoke about minorities, the information revolution, and what the Humanities mean to us.
The Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of the Humanities and Director of the Humanities Center at Harvard, Homi Bhabha’s many works explore post-colonial theory, cultural change and the diasporic experience. “When you personify politics, the principles of political thought get lost,” he says in this freewheeling interview. Excerpts:
On a warm Monday afternoon, I sit in the first floor flat of the redoubtable Homi Bhabha. To my right is a glass wall, behind it a rare patch of greenery. There is a stillness to the moment that defies easy encapsulation. Into this bubble walks Homi Bhabha. Dressed casually, he has no airs, no affectation. Just a splendid good cheer that gets the conversation going, during the course of which I discover the wonderful man in the famed cultural theorist, the caring son in the humanist. In 2012, he was home from the U.S. because his 89-year-old mother had met with an accident.
“When I heard, my session in the university had just begun. I took the first flight home.” Once in Mumbai, he helped her recuperate, drove her around town. It was on one such drive that he came to know that he had been accorded the Padma award. “A friend who runs a Parsi newspaper broke the news. I thought he was pulling my leg when he said my name had been announced.”
Bhabha’s relaxed demeanour is quite in contrast to the mood in the city — Mumbai has just had its first wax statue of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, and the masses are excited. Interestingly, all the talk is about Modi, none about the sculptor! Or even about the validity of the exercise. I pose the question to Bhabha, and he slips into the subject with ease.
“I am not well versed with contemporary Indian politics, but to create icons of this kind is a very risky business. There are some figures who, in their lifetimes, have been memorialised. For instance, the late Nelson Mandela became an iconic figure because he was able to expand the world of South Africa, which had been the world of legal discrimination and profound inequality. With Modi, I am less sure that he would be an appropriate iconic figure. His presence is deeply divisive. His record is far from clean. We need lofty principles, not lofty statues.”
Does it say something about the moral fibre of our nation? “In many nations, the moral fibre is fragile. This idolisation, however, is rather specific to India. When you personify politics, sterling principles of political thought get lost.”
Talking of Modi, one cannot avoid the subject of minorities. Isn’t ours a nation of minorities? How do we move on as a society with such inequalities? “I think the nation state has very much wanted minorities to represent themselves. In some ways, it stems from the politics of exclusion. We would like to see the exclusion of injustice, xenophobia and so on. What we see, however, is exclusion on the basis of prejudice.
"What we need to do is to create a very different kind of politics where ethnic or religious identity is not rewarded.”
But isn’t the question of ‘we’ and ‘others’ a timeless global phenomenon? Isn’t ours a world of unequal distribution of information? “It is important to be aware of the limitations of new technology. If anybody has a computer or mobile, the world of knowledge opens up. You can access information, but information is never neutral. When you see that there are more articles in Wikipedia about Antarctica than countries in Africa or Latin America, you realise that we are not even at the starting point of equitable distribution of information or indeed the possibilities of constructive knowledge.”
Doesn’t there lie the failure of technology, its inability to remedy the inequalities of the past? “I agree. It is said new technologies, because they are more widely distributed, bring with them democratic values. I don’t think that is true. Important to remember how highly developed scientific methods were used in the 20th century to exterminate people.”
In today’s world, the individual is a mere statistic; there is nothing called a human touch. Does it not negate all principles of humanism? “One of the great principles of humanistic thinking is the notion of caring… But yes over the past 25 years or so, we have had instances of extreme intolerance, genocide; people cannot look beyond their back gardens.”
Doesn’t that get us back to the age-old Science versus the Humanities debate? “I profoundly believe both fields of knowledge want to make the world a better place. The moral advantage is with neither. However, in sciences, perhaps unconsciously, many violations have taken place… the outcome cannot be questioned but the process violates many values. In Humanities, interpretation is not an intellectual practice of knowledge; the process is as important as the result. It is very close to the Gandhian thought of the means being as important as the goal.”