17 Mar

Debating India

Debating India

The Following is a review, written by Prabhu Guptara, of Debating India, by Bhikhu Parekh, (Oxford University Press, 2015, ISBN:  0-19-806045-9).

Relational themes are touched by most of the twelve essays in this outstanding book by a distinguished scholar who is now Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Westminster as well as Emeritus Professor at the University of Hull, a Member of the House of Lords, and one of the Relational Thinking Network’s own Patrons.

However, three of the essays focus exclusively on relational themes.

First, Parekh’s imaginary debate between Osama bin Laden and Gandhi, conducted through correspondence:  The initial letter by bin Laden is couched in terms of an appeal to Gandhi to support bin Laden’s cause, putting forward the case for bin Laden’s approach to Islamic Jihad.  Interestingly, bin Laden comes across as someone who is neither mad nor murderous – nor an irrational person “devoid of decency and good sense, with whom no dialogue is possible”.  Gandhi responds fully and frankly.  Osama bin Laden’s retort is again responded to by Gandhi.

Though there are only two letters here from each of them, the upshot is to persuade readers that genuine dialogue is possible even between such diametrically opposed parties and traditions of thought, if each party practices, in the dialogue, what we in the Relational Thinking movement call “parity” – that is, if each appreciates what they accept as valid in the other point of view, and responds honestly.  Gandhi, for instance, accepts bin Laden’s critique of the contemporary West, but unhesitatingly puts forward the view that bin Laden attacks European imperialism “not because you are against imperialism but because (European imperialism) ended Muslim imperialism, and you attack Americans because they are preventing you from reviving (Muslim imperialism).   An imperialist yourself, your attacks on the imperialist designs of others sound hollow and hypocritical and convince no one”.  Moreover, Gandhi’s offers to bin Laden the seminal thought that he has “no patience, no plan of social and religious regeneration, no desire to deal with the deeper causes of (Muslim) social decay”.

Parekh concludes the imagined correspondence between the two by observing that it “is easy to imagine…how their dialogue would proceed.  Deep and irresoluble differences between them would remain in several areas.  (However, dialogue) with the likes of bin Laden is both possible and necessary…. (Such dialogue) can do much to improve mutual understanding, resolve some differences, build trust, and detoxicate the intellectual and political climate so necessary for the ordinary political processes to operate”.

Parekh’s point is relevant not just to the tensions and violence between Islamic militants and the West, but also to the internecine struggles between fanatical Islamists and ordinary Muslims, as well as between fanatical Hindutvans and normal Hindus in India.

Whether, at the end of the day, dialogue with people such as bin Laden will result in any reduction of violence on their part is not clear. I wonder whether Gandhi’s two attempts at dialogue with Hitler failed because Hitler lacked Indian traditions of debate?  Or would such attempts at dialogue have succeeded if they had been undertaken much earlier in Hitler’s career?  Perhaps “dialogue” alone is too thin for such purposes, as it succeeds in providing, at best, what we Relationists call “directness”; and that needs to be enriched by increased “commonality” and “multiplexity” – a process that was enabled by systematic and wide-ranging research, in the Newick Park Initiative (http://www.jubilee-centre.org/history-newick-park-initiative-jeremy-ive) which is what succeeded in defusing at least some of the potential violence surrounding the end of apartheid in South Africa.

Second, Parekh’s essay “Friendship in classical Indian thought”:  he points out that the conditions in which friendships can arise and flourish “do not obtain in all societies, and hence friendship is not a universal phenomenon”.  So the essay asks whether “Indian thinkers identified a form of relationship broadly analogous to that of friendship as we generally understand it” and, if so, “how they analysed its nature and structure, and what value they placed on it”.

He picks, for particular examination, the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Taking his orientation from the contrast between anthropocentric/ theocentric views of the world dominant in the West, and the cosmocentric view of most Indian thinkers, he writes: “For (Indians), the natural world was an internally articulated and ordered whole whose constituents were all its ‘co-tenants’ enjoying the right to exist and avail themselves of its resources.  Human beings therefore had a duty of friendliness and goodwill towards each other as well as other orders of being” – meaning flora and fauna.

The question that arises is how this philosophy of universal goodwill produced something as oppressive and inhuman as the caste system and, even today, does not see the contradiction between universal goodwill and casteism.  Not only that, this philosophy of universal goodwill seems to have taken little interest in even attempting to seek any explanation for the rise of the contradiction, or for the existence of that contradiction for centuries.

Is it possible that ‘universal goodwill’ functions, then, as a comforter, which distracts from recognition of the reality of the ‘universal ill-will’ that is maintained by the caste system?

In any case, Parekh concludes that, for classical Indian thought, friendship “is one of the noblest of human relationships offering joy, love, security, and all else that makes human life rich and full”; that while Indian traditions are “rich in … detailed exploration of the different forms and dilemmas of friendship…it is poorly theorized” by Indian traditions; that Indian traditions do not “give as much importance to the bonding of heads as to that of hearts; that, in Indian thought, “friendship does not seem to play the kind of epistemological role that it does in some other traditions”; and that it is surprising that “there has so far been no systematic study” of Indian traditions regarding friendship.

That is indeed surprising, since my own childhood experiences of friendships in India contrast so much with friendships that I see among my children in the West.  For example, Indian friendships are in the nature of an emotional contract which cannot gradually slacken and starve, but can only be broken with a rather sharp gesture accompanied by verbal statement to that effect.  At least in Punjabi, there is even a word (“kutti”) for the breaking of a friendship.

Third, the essay on “Ambedkar and the Pursuit of Fraternity”:  Ambedkar is best known as the Father of the Indian Constitution, through which he tried to institutionalise the pursuit of equality and fraternity in India. The Huguenot ideals of “liberty, equality, and fraternity” (later kidnapped by the French Revolution) are well known throughout the world, and it is worthwhile reflecting briefly on the similarities and differences between these notions and some of those that are essential to Relational Thinking.

“Liberty” does not loom large in the Relational Thinking vocabulary, primarily because in the Relationist view, liberty needs to be balanced by responsibility, and contemporary culture overemphasises liberty; by contrast, we Relationists probably under-emphasise liberty in our effort to bring responsibility back into some semblance of balance.

Incidentally, the notion of liberty by itself did not mean much to Ambedkar either. In his view, “liberty” needed to be grasped as two different entities: “political independence” (e.g. from the British, which is what Gandhi and the rest of the Indian elite were obsessed with); and “social liberation” (from caste-based oppression, from which the vast majority of India’s population still suffer) which was Ambedkar’s focus.

From those brief remarks on “liberty”, let me move on to “equality” – which is a legal notion, to do with one’s relative status in the eyes of the law.  That contrasts with the Relational concept of “parity”, which is an inter-personal dynamic, to do with each party’s use of power to enable the best win-win environment for both parties.

Further, if we move on to the notion of “fraternity”, could it not be argued that that is rather like “good relationship”?  Well, “fraternity” is an inspiring vision or goal which remains rather abstract, unless fleshed out by detailed thinking covering many areas of life, society, economics and politics – of the kind that is provided by Relational Thinking.

Now, to the gist of Ambedkar’s work towards these goals or values, which Parekh puts well:

Unlike classical Indian thinkers, Ambedkar did ask why Hindus never protested against or even felt embarrassed by the practice of untouchability.  In his view, it was primarily because of their commitment to the doctrine of karma with its concomitant belief that one’s situation in this life is due to one’s sins or virtues in previous lives.

Such beliefs are also why India lacks what Ambedkar called a “public conscience” or “public spirit”.

So much is this the case that “Hindu society” cannot exist, because there can be no “society” in the absence of shared sympathies: “In India people are treated with contempt, yet it does not sicken an Indian with disgust, rouse his sense of justice and fair play, … his humanity does not rise in protest at what is going on around him” as Ambedkar himself put it or, as Parekh puts it: “Being entrenched within a way of thinking that reduce(s) human beings to their membership of particular castes, Hindus could not see untouchables as human beings like them, let alone as fellow members of a shared community.  Not surprisingly, they rarely took interest in, let alone campaigned against their degrading and inhuman status”.

For Ambedkar, eradication of untouchability “involved nothing less than a social revolution, a radical restructuring of the very foundations of Hindu society….(through) relentless struggle, an uncompromising, determined, organized … movement by untouchables with a view to acquiring political power, the key to all social progress”.

Since Ambedkar failed to achieve this, and failed even to create a political party of any longevity, he focused on “using the institutions of the state to create an egalitarian and casteless society”.  Ambedkar knew that this was not going to be easy, “because of a deep tension at the very heart of the Indian polity”.  The Constitution, framed principally by Ambedkar, committed India to the great ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, but these are largely absent in its daily life.  As a result, state and society pull in opposite directions.

That contradiction could only be resolved, in Ambedkar’s view, by “the state dominating and systematically shaping society in the desired direction.  Since the objectives of the state are alien to Indian society, they could only be realized if the state was led by a determined Westernized elite.  If the state became a hostage to society as was the case for centuries in premodern India, or was led by men and women with no commitment to these objectives as in colonial India, Ambedkar saw no hope for the country”.   Parekh expresses no clear view regarding whether Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister portends the capture of the state by a party with no commitment to the values of the Indian Constitution – and therefore whether the Indian State is at present hostage to traditional Indian society.  Perhaps the manuscript of the book was sent to the press well before the shape of the actions of the current government became clear.

To return to Ambedkar’s strategy: the question raised by it is whether fraternity can ever be an institutional objective, let alone an institutional achievement.  He saw, of course, that fraternity was impossible without equality, and so he lowered his sights to using the Constitution and related legislative mechanisms to achieve at least political equality, without which social equality and fraternity have no hope of emerging.

The question Parekh does not ask is:  why did Ambedkar fail to rouse the majority of the country to exert themselves to achieve the self-evidently beneficial goals of fraternity and equality?  Could it be that emotional appeals successfully inspire those who are emotionally-inclined so that they are prepared to make enormous sacrifices?  However, for those who are inclined to be less emotional, such appeals to overarching goals need to be supplemented with a comprehensive programme consisting nevertheless of actions of varying shapes and sizes to suit people in different circumstances (a programme such as is developed by the Relational Thinking movement)?

In any case, as Parekh points out “the idea of fraternity is neglected in much of modern, especially liberal, political theory”.  He lays out and assesses Ambedkar’s signal contributions to that, as well as his enormous contributions to the making of modern India.

I wish I had the time and space to explore here the rest of essays in this collection, which are on other fascinating themes such as the choice of the National Symbols of India, the debates between Gandhi and Tagore, Einstein on Gandhi’s non-violence, Gandhi and inter-religious dialogue, the unfortunate narrowing of the perception of Gandhi’s philosophy to non-violence, the question of India’s National Philosophy, and reflections on the successes and failures of democratic politics in India.  Each of these has relational resonances.  I’m sure the Relational Thinking Network would welcome wider discussion and debate not only about the matters I have raised in this review, but also about other matters in Lord Parekh’s richly multifaceted book.

Prabhu Guptara is an executive member of the board of Relational Analytics.