Thursday, October 22, 2015

What Amitav Ghosh can teach us

While a number of litterateurs across India were making a symbolic protest against the rising intolerance in India under the Modi regime by returning their awards from the Sahitya Akademi, a bunch of Sahitya Akademi award winners from Goa, along with two Padmashri awardees, made a very odd statement.  On the fifteenth of October these persons made a statement indicating that “[s]ome of us wanted to return the awards but we have withheld the decision in view of Sahitya Akademi’s incoming Executive Council meeting where the Akademi is hopefully expected to condemn the cultural talibanism in the country.”

This seems like a bizarre statement. First, rather than mention Hindutva violence, they refer to the Taliban. Further, as I have discussed elsewhere some of these notables themselves have been associated with Hindutva violence.  But most bizarre of all is their announcement of an intention to return the awards. After all, if you want to return your award and make a point about the scuttling of various freedoms in contemporary India and the threat of a breakdown of law and order, one should do so. To indicate that we would like to, but will not, because we expect the Executive Council to issue a statement seems bizarre at best. One gets the sense that these awardees may have slipped down a rabbit hole to Wonderland.

If one looks at their company, however, one realises that these notables from Goa may have acquiesced to the logic of Amitva Ghosh, who as a result of his part-time residence in Goa seems to have integrated into some of the local literary circuits. In interventions in the Indian Express and, Ghosh made it very clear that while he is appreciative of the actions of those who returned their awards to the Sahitya Akademi, he himself will not follow suit. Ghosh suggests that outrage “should be directed at the present leadership of the Sahitya Akademi rather than the institution as such.” Ghosh articulates that there was a time when the Sahitya Akademi was held in greater esteem, that there have been presidents and office-bearers of the institution who would have protested vociferously against the current political climate in the country, and “that to return the award now would be more than an expression of outrage at the Sahitya Akademi’s current leadership: it would amount to a repudiation of the institution’s history.”

Does Ghosh have a point? Is the problem merely with the current leadership of the Akademi, and by extension with Modi, or is it possible that there are larger problems with the Sahitya Akademi itself and the project of the Indian nation-state?

The Sahitya Akademi was instituted in 1954, when the Indian nation-state was still young, and there was a need to assert cultural homogeneity in the country, and a need to assert uniformity within regional literary cultures. This agenda may look innocent, and indeed the institution may have awarded and promoted literature and critical litterateurs, but this is but one side of the story.  Linguistic development in colonial South Asia was critically tied to orientalist ideologies. This ensured that it was dominant-caste forms of South Asian language that came to be recognized as the forms deserving of becoming the standard. Consequently, language forms of the marginalized caste groups, and their speakers, were actively disparaged in the process of standardisation.  To this extent, the post-Mandal challenge regarding the meaning of merit, needs to be levelled against the works that the Akademi awards.

This modus operandi of the Akademi is eminently visible in the case of the Konkani language. If one has a look at the list of those who have been awarded for production in the Konkani language one is confronted by a long list of almost exclusively Brahmin names. Further, as many Konkani litterateurs will testify, despite the fact that the Konkani language is written in five scripts, it is only the Nagari form of the language that has merited awards, despite extensive or greater production in the Roman script and the Kannada scripts. These choices have as much to do with the privileging of upper-caste forms of language that is dominant in India, as with the casteist politics that has dominated the sphere of the Konkani language. Since at least 1987, when Konkani in the Nagari script alone was recognized as the official language of Goa, the language, and its speakers, not just in Goa, but also in the other states where it is spoken, have been held hostage by the assertions of the Saraswat caste and allied individuals who seek to convert Konkani into a brahmanical language. This has meant privileging the Antruzi form spoken by Saraswats in Goa, linking it with Sanskrit, and Aryan heritage, and also tying it to the Nagari script. This has meant that the peculiar history of the language, where it was first produced and popularized through missionary efforts since the sixteenth century, and subsequently given form through the lyrics, poems, and plays of laboring caste Catholics have been ignored entirely. In fact, until the mid-twentieth century, Konkani was seen largely asa language of laboring Catholics, and disparaged both by Hindu brahmins and upper-caste Catholics in Goa. Despite these facts, the Konkani committee of the Sahitya Akademi has been party to the attempt to destroy the language form in the Roman script in Goa.These facts are not extraneous to the question I pose to Ghosh’s argument, since it is with these persons that, either consciously, or unconsciously, Ghosh has combined with in Goa.

The point is that these politics are not an aberration from the Indian norm. Ghosh may think otherwise, and indeed, many of those returning their awards, like Ashok Vajpeyi, also seem to think that India stands for a liberal tradition of tolerance and acceptance. If anything, however, this image of India is a myth created in a large part by upper castes groups, and especially Hindu upper-caste groups who dominated Nehruvian India.

A view from the perspective of the many marginalized groups within the country, whether caste, ethnicities, or religions, would suggest a less tolerant India. For these groups, it appears that the problem may not be the current political dispensation, as much as the ‘idea of India’ itself, a country created to satisfy the desires of dominant castes across the subcontinent, and united through varying degrees of Hindu nationalism.

When Ghosh suggests, therefore, that it is merely the current dispensation of the Sahitya Akademi that is the problem he is merely speaking from the position of the Indian nationalist, refusing to see, and in the process preventing an exposure of, the deeper rot. Merely blaming the Modi government is simply not going to resolve the tensions that we are witness to today. These tensions have been building up since the start of Indian independence. In other words, the problems lies with the project of the Indian nation-state itself. This is, of course, not surprising, given that, as I have pointed out in an earlier observation on Ghosh's statements, that Ghosh speaks, and indeed writes, from a position of the imperial Indian. An India that would like to speak for the rest of the global south, even as more fundamental issues, like that of internal equity, are left unattended. Take, for example, his interview with the magazine Guernica, where he suggested "one of the wonderfully liberating things about India; it lets you be exactly who you want to be." This would be more than a bad joke for the many marginalized groups in India for whom their very non-Hindu and/ or non-upper caste identity is the reason for quotidian violence.

(A version of this post was first published in Round Table India on 22 October 2015)

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