60 Minutes: With Homi K. Bhabha Interview

‘A populist nationalism is now alive’

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One of today’s foremost social scientists speaks on the role that the humanities can play in understanding change

Professor Homi K. Bhabha is a stickler for punctuality. We’re informed of this at a panel discussion — which the Harvard professor was a part of — a day before we are scheduled to meet him. Needless to say, I arrive 15 minutes early to gain some brownie points.

Bhabha shows us into the artistically done living room-cum-study of his plush Cuffe Parade home in Mumbai. Seeing my photographer colleague take out his bulky camera from a bag, he asks if he should throw on a jacket. “Anything you’re comfortable with,” I tell him. “I think I’ll wear one then,” he says and darts off to find his grey blazer, giving us time to look around the room.

There are works of art and antique pieces that come alive even in the harsh afternoon light. On an elevated wooden platform is a library overflowing with books, some spilling over onto a coffee table, and a sitting area that makes you think it’s missing a fireplace, even in Mumbai.

Insulated from the metro rail construction taking place right outside, there’s an odd tranquility in Bhabha’s bungalow. And it is something that draws the 68-year-old Padma Bhushan awardee back to the city of his childhood regularly. But he is aware that Mumbai today isn’t what it used to be. As a boy, he would travel from Cuffe Parade to St. Mary’s High School in Byculla, and believed that to be the circumference of his life and the metropolis. “Unless we decided to go to Juhu or Marve for a weekend,” he recalls.

Bhabha understands that the vibrancy has now shifted to the suburbs — particularly between Bandra and Andheri. “It’s almost as if the ground beneath my feet has moved 30-40 miles towards the north,” he says. But the professor isn’t bitter about the transition. “I find these kinds of changes exhilarating and exciting,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean I’m excited by all the political changes.”

Hard times

The Anne F. Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language, and the Director of the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University, Bhabha believes that the study of humanities plays an indispensable role in understanding change — both social and political — in any modern society. “In India of course, where a sense of tradition and the past deeply impacts the notion of contemporary ideas, the humanities are particularly important,” he says.

However, Bhabha notices that the humanities are facing a distinctly hard time in India. “When I was (studying) in Bombay University the humanities were deeply respected and widely taught at Elphinstone College, which is my college, and I’m told this is no longer the case,” he says. “The great universities in Madras, Bombay or Delhi aren’t supported the way they should be in a country where education is extraordinarily important.”

According to Bhabha, the study of humanities is imperative to discern political discourse and rhetoric, with its dependence on language and text. For after all, as the Harvard intellectual puts it, “We are living in the age of broad-chested politicians with narrow vote margins”.

As we shift our discussion to politics, Bhabha turns contemplative, and somewhat grim. I ask him if he sees a global pattern in the rise of right-wing political ideologies.

“Right now, there seems to be a synchronous confluence of paradoxical politics, which is that on the one hand, most nations now want to be seen as global players, cosmopolitan in their character, often diasporic among their citizens. But at the same time there is growing parochialism, xenophobia, ethnic majoritarianism, internally. That is the balancing act that is so difficult to pull off and so dangerous at the same time,” he observes.

Bhabha notices that despite liberalism fostering many pluralistic advantages, it hasn’t confronted its own internal contradictions. “Let me make it clear that in an interview like this I cannot delve into particular traditions of liberalism and I can’t deal with nuance,” he warns me, before proceeding. Liberalism, he says, has often emerged from a set of philosophies and values that are Western and European. “At the same time, it has a certain universalism, and we can see the uses of it in, say, human rights. But the story is not that simple, because sometimes universalism is another way of claiming Eurocentrism.”

So, does he identify himself as a liberal? “I think that most people who are progressive and take a secular view identify with certain tenets of liberalism, but we are aware of its limitations and its critical contradictions,” he says.

At the panel discussion the day before, it was widely agreed that the attack on liberalism in India is supplemented with a rapid increase in hypernationalism. “There is no question that certain cultural, religious, moral ideas like Hindutva are being presented to people as a platform for the construction of a national community,” he says. “There seems to be this idea that you’ve got to be very cosmopolitan abroad and very parochial in India. In that I see a very problematic strategy of empowering the nation internationally at the cost of disempowering certain traditions, cultures and communities within the nation.”

Drawing a parallel with the political atmosphere in the U.S. where Bhabha currently resides, he points out that Donald Trump’s electoral slogan, “Make America great again” was similarly used against migrants and sections of labour, whom the nation profoundly needed.

“This kind of populist nationalism is alive abroad as it is in India, and the dangerous thing is that those who do not agree with it are not invited to be a part of a fair and free democratic process. They are stereotyped and scape-goated, which I think is deeply problematic for sophisticated, complex societies.”

Locating protest

However, in order to resist oppression in any country, Bhabha believes it is not only important to have the support of citizens , but also the solidarity of other countries.

Writers returning their Sahitya Akademi awards, for instance, raised pertinent issues, which reverberated around the world. “That’s one mode of protesting, the other is in the art works themselves,” he says. “India has a great tradition of artists and cultural workers who have opposed the restriction of rights and freedom.”

So does he see art thriving more in an oppressed environment? “That’s a dangerous but important argument,” he says. “Often creativity can be enhanced and often killed by political dogmatism”. After all, as he puts it, it’s a very fine line that artists have to toe — between inspiration and imprisonment.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 4:27:34 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/a-populist-nationalism-is-now-alive/article19697534.ece

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