In a seminal lecture, philosopher K.C. Bhattacharyya discussed the question of intellectual self-determination or what he called ‘svaraj in ideas.’ Last month, the Manipal Centre for Philosophy and Humanities organised a conference to re-examine this text in order to understand what intellectual subjugation could mean for India today. Noted public intellectual Professor Akeel Bilgrami gave the keynote lecture titled ‘Mentalities of the Non-West as a Source of Swaraj: Lessons from Gandhi’ reinterpreting Mahatma Gandhi’s notion of swaraj as being not only independent of the West but also a critique of it. In an interview to Rajgopal Saikumar during the conference, Prof. Bilgrami , the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair in Philosophy; Professor, Committee on Global Thought; Director, South Asian Institute at Columbia University and author of Secularism, Identity and Enchantment (2014) explained what autonomy and intellectual self-determination could mean to India in the current political context. Edited excerpts:
What does ‘svaraj in ideas’ imply in the current Indian political context?
It could mean something very important, if thoughtfully elaborated. There is a widespread tendency to say that what has happened in Europe or the West must inevitably happen in the rest of the world. For instance, in response to the protest over the dispossession of peasants for corporate projects in the Indian countryside, our economists were known to say, “England had to go through its pain to create its Londons and Manchesters; India will have to do so, too.” This suggests that there are some sort of economic laws that govern history. But this is a superstition. By that I mean we take it on trust, even though nobody knows when it was proved and no one has shown how it helps us to live better. Marx is often mistakenly said to believe this. But he did not. If you turn to the work he did in the last decade of his life, you will find that he strenuously argued that Russia did not, by any means, have to go through a western-European-style capitalist incubation as some sort of inevitable rite of passage.
When people try to justify the claim that what happened in the West must happen elsewhere, they do so on the grounds that what happened in the West was rational. In other words, not only that it will happen [elsewhere] but that it ought to happen. So, ‘svaraj in ideas’ for us could consist of showing in detail why many of the developments of the West were not always rational, but are rather the result of the greater might of some worldly forces over others. The deliverances of power are often presented (by the powerful) as moral and rational achievements; that sleight of hand is what needs to be exposed. Thus a svarajist-style critical discussion of the claims to rationality of western notions of economic development is an entirely healthy thing. This is happening to some extent in some other countries, but not in India except in small circles that have been marginalised.
Are recent events such as rewriting of history books or valorising ancient Indian technology an exercise in ‘svaraj in ideas’?
The issues here are so elementary that in a sane society they should not even be discussed. Much history is a matter of interpretation; there are clear criteria for what counts as evidence for certain conclusions. The rewrites and valorisation are myth-making, not subtle controversies over how to interpret historical fact. There is nothing subtle at stake in what is being done by the present government and its mandarins in the academy. They are myth-makers passing off as historians. But I am not saying that myths are not an essential part of culture, even modern culture. It is their conflation with historical issues, issues that should be assessed on grounds of evidence that I am saying is an elementary fallacy — so elementary that it should go without saying that it is laughably fallacious. And this is not just a new phase of distortion of ideas and historical method. It was very much at stake in the discussions around Ayodhya.
“ The present government, far from being svarajist, is slavishly following countries such as the United States ”
Incidentally, one of the current myths can be detected in the notion of ‘ghar vapsi.’ Even those who have criticised the menacing and manipulative aspects of these conversions have not made the deeper point that even if there is no coercion in the conversions, the idea of a ‘ghar’ here is wholly mythical. The Hindu nationalist idea of Hinduism has never been of a ghar for everyone. It has been a ghar only for the brahmanical strata. Of course, India was home to diverse peoples, but that is not the India that has appeal for Hindu nationalists. Their Hinduism has never been conceived as a ghar, so there cannot be a ghar for anyone to return to.
What is the relation between dissent and svaraj? Do you think there is a need to hold on to the idea of svaraj, yet not succumb to right-wing appropriation of the concept?
I spoke just now of how ‘svaraj in ideas’ might be dissent from notions of development imposed on countries of the South. But there is also another interesting point. In the pursuit of ‘svaraj in ideas’, we should be forming intellectual alliances with dissenting voices in the West — voices there which speak out against their states’ imperialist foreign policies, the surrender of their states to corporate interests, the impoverishment of their electoral options due to the infusion of corporate wealth in parliamentary politics, the cheerleading of their media for corporate interests...
As for the Hindu Right’s appropriation of svaraj — it is sheer hypocrisy. On all these matters of fundamental importance (such as implementing the ideas of ‘development’ formulated by falsified economic theories perpetrated in the West), the present government and indeed the present intellectual ethos among the middle classes, far from being svarajist, is slavishly following countries such as the U.S.
What is wrong with our current pedagogical practices in Indian universities, for philosophers and humanities students don’t seem to be playing this role?
I think the academy in the first few decades after Indian independence was much more vibrant than it has been in recent years because there was a great sense then of building our own form of modern discourse; our own critical fora for discussion of our politics, political economy; our own effort to probe what was worthy and what was not in our historical past. By contrast, the fallout of financial globalisation in the last two or three decades on our intellectual discourse has been rather harmful. There is much less independence of thought now, much more keenness to adopt the intellectual trends and protocols of American universities due to a misguided belief that that is the only way to improve intellectual standards of inquiry. There are other ways to improve our academies. Far from improvement, there has in fact been a lapse in subjects like Economics, History etc., which were much more interestingly and soundly, indeed excitingly, pursued, with intense debates of substance and method, prior to the effects of globalisation on our education. What globalisation has done is to increase the aspiration among the young (and the faculty) to join an international elite. This form of cognitive mimicry makes careerists out of students and faculty, which in turn pacifies them, discouraging them from playing the role you are asking about.