Agent provocateur par excellence

By Rakesh Shukla

4 December 2013

Ashis Nandy’s new book explores Indian narcissism, patriotism and nationalism.
Image credit: Flickr/ Oli Kember

Image credit: Flickr/ Oli Kember

A drive through any of the glitzy new satellite townships of Delhi means experiencing the in-your-face corporatisation of India. Transnational corporations make their presence felt in everything from luxury brands to health care. Yet in these same neighbourhoods, some hospitals are named after their doctors/owners. ‘Kailash’ and ‘Bharadwaj’ hospitals proclaim their owners’ status in huge neon signs. Such self-promotion would have been frowned upon in an earlier era; the hospital might have been named after the owner’s grandfather or father, in line with the tradition of classical musicians referring to their Guru first and themselves as humble disciples later. Is what might be called ‘healthy’ or ‘balanced’ narcissism in Indian society changing?

Explaining the transformation of the self in the present era of flux is Ashis Nandy, one of the most original and provocative thinkers of his time. In Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair Nandy writes, “These essays are about an India that is no longer the country on which I have written for something like four decades…the mythos on which modern India built its self-definition is under severe stress.” Nandy explains that narcissism is not just plain self-centredness, but has as its underside incapacitating self-doubts and feelings of inferiority. This in turn, he continues, leads to an overdone investment-in-self to cover up for these doubts and the gnawing absence of self-esteem. Nandy illustrates the notion by referring to Antilla, the billion dollar residence built by tycoon Mukesh Ambani in Mumbai as “a desperate affirmation that one has survived”. 

Yet, this seeming aggrandisement goes along with darker processes of despair. Nandy refers to the implosion of mighty empires following the collapse of the underlying mythos. The note of utter despair carries on, describing the “succumbing to despair” and self-destruction of a resilient and confident peasantry and the suicide of farmers in Punjab, the state made prosperous by the Green Revolution.  

Courting controversy
Nandy’s penchant for going out of his way to be provocative gets ample play in Regimes of Narcissism. Indicting the pursuit of happiness as a twentieth-century product of the Enlightenment, in the chapter ‘Happiness’ Nandy criticises the pursuit of happiness through the seeking of therapists and gurus. So far so good.  Then he goes on to remark that in some Indian texts the search for happiness is seen as slightly déclassé. According to Nandy, Valmiki’s Ramayana tells us that the benefits of reading the epic are different for different castes: the Brahmins get knowledge, the martial Kshatriyas fame/glory, the business-minded Vaishyas money, and the ‘lowly’ Shudras get happiness. 

Fortunately, the remarks in the book seem to have gone unnoticed by the general public. If they had been voiced at an event attended by the media they could have led to a spate of First Information Reports against Nandy, as happened at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) in January 2013, when some individuals and communities felt hurt and humiliated by his words regarding corruption among dalits, adivasis, and OBCs, and used the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act) against him. Following his remarks at the JLF, the Supreme Court of India stepped in and stayed the arrest of 76-year-old Nandy in four FIRs lodged in four different states. In his defence Nandy asserted that the remarks were pulled out of context and distorted, and the matter rests with the courts. 

In a similar vein, Nandy states in this book that a recurrent theme in the testimonies of survivors/victims of the 1984 Delhi Sikh massacre was one of casteism. Victims said “they got us beaten up and killed by the Bhangis(Untouchables)”. Critiquing the reports on the massacre for omitting this theme, Nandy looks upon it as reflective of a way of thinking in which “the ‘strange’, politically incorrect categories of those at the receiving end of a social order are an embarrassment and must be quickly forgotten, presumably for the benefit of the victims themselves”, in this case the Sikhs. 

The politics of names
Today, the use of terms like bhangi and chamar (derogatory terms in Hindi for castes engaged in cleaning toilets and working with leather) is on shaky legal ground. The terms have the potential to hurt the sensibilities of the communities concerned.  Mahatma Gandhi’s harijan (literally ‘God’s people’) has given way to the more empowering dalit, preferred by the politicised movements of the erstwhile ‘untouchables’. Similarly, some castes traditionally associated with cleaning and sweeping prefer the term Valmiki, tracing their lineage to the author of the Ramayana, a member of their community. In fact, on 2nd October 2013, Gandhi’s birthday and usually an occasion for the announcement of welfare schemes, some Valmikis protested that many of them were educated but unemployed and that the government need not associate the community solely with sweeping and cleaning tasks. Use of the customary derogatory terms prolongs the association of the communities with the customary tasks, and has specifically been made into an offence under the SC/ST Act. 

 In his essay ‘Humiliation’, Nandy criticises the renunciation in the United States of the term ‘Negro’, then ‘Black’, in favour of ‘African-American’. Remarking that ‘Whites’ have not given up the term ‘White’, Nandy considers the renaming by the ‘Blacks’ as admission that memories of slavery and racism are more shameful for blacks than for whites. The essay carries the logic further with postulations such as “unless the humiliated collaborate by feeling humiliated, you cannot humiliate them”, and comes dangerously close to victimising the victim. Nandy seems to underplay the role of structures of power and domination in society with an extraordinarily disproportionate focus on the factor of the subjective perceptions of the individual victim/survivor. In his view, regardless of structures which oppress the marginalised on basis of categories like caste, class, race and gender, the process would not be complete without collaboration by the victim. Perhaps in reaction to the iron clad laws of the objective historical materialism of Marxism, the pendulum seems to swing to the other end in Nandy’s formulations. 

'Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair', Ashis Nandy. OUP, 2013, pp. 198.

‘Regimes of Narcissism, Regimes of Despair’, Ashis Nandy. OUP, 2013, pp. 198.

Modernity versus tradition 
There is no doubting the insightfulness and originality of Nandy and his well-deserved position as one of the foremost public intellectuals of Southasia. In a book dealing with narcissism it is fitting to quote Nandy to describe the unique position he enjoys: “the occasional spectacular success of a few have merely underlined the imitative, conformist, repetitious nature of much of the enterprise called social sciences.” The essay ‘Modernity and the Sense of Loss’ postulates that a component associated with many great artists, writers and thinkers elsewhere  is “a sense of loss brought about by the all-round, decisive victory of modernity”. Emphasising the ‘sterility’ and imitativeness of modern social knowledge in the “southern hemisphere”, Nandy attributes it to the absence of this component of  a sense of loss among the thinkers of this region. Elaborating that rather than a unilateral zealous embracing of current notions of ‘progress’, taking on board concern for things which are being lost in the process, would temper the juggernaut of ‘modernity’ bulldozing the underprivileged, “those who are being gleefully deposited in the sprawling waste yard of History”. Nandy describes intellectuals in the “Southern world” as having chosen to live in a narcissistic regime of modernity-as-a-besieged-utopia. This he contrasts with living and vibrant traditions in society. The modern intellectuals are then placed as having positioned themselves as vanguards who look upon communities as dumb victims waiting to be emancipated by them.  

The material in the book will be familiar to those who have been following Nandy, from his classic At the Edge of Psychology: Essays on Politics and Culture (1980) and The Savage Freud and Other Essays on Possible and Retrievable Selves (1995), to the more recent Time Warps: The Insistent Politics of Silent and Evasive Posts (2002). Most of the essays in the current volume were lectures delivered in India, Japan, China and Germany. Using the psychoanalytical frame of ideology as a vector in the inner life of a person, Nandy, from the vantage point of the political psychologist, examines the lives of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, the father of militant Hindutva, Nathuram Godse, hanged for Gandhi’s murder, and the little-known Madanlal Pahwa, who had attempted to kill Gandhi. With his characteristic flair for words, the chapter on Savarkar is titled ‘The Demonic and the Seductive in Religious Nationalism’.

Nationalism versus patriotism
In a studied and deliberately provocative fashion, Nandy argues that Gandhi was not a “genuine” nationalist, a fact understood more clearly by his assassin than by many Gandhians. Similarly, Rabindranath Tagore is placed together with Gandhi as incorporating the religious and cultural plurality of Indian society. Nandy demonstrates through Tagore’s writings that though he wrote the national anthem of India, he was opposed to nationalism and foresaw the devastation that European nationalism was pushing the world towards. In fact, Nandy views the Hindu nationalist Savarkar as an extreme result of an acceptance of European notions of nation-building and state formation by Southasian political activists and ideologues.

Love for the land, rivers and mountains where one has grown up and lived has always seemed a positive emotion, yet patriotism embodying love for one’s country seems to require an enemy ‘other’. Nandy makes a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. He describes nationalism as an “ego-defensive” compensatory mechanism with fearful dislike of, if not hostility towards, “outsiders”. He sees this as a reaction to unacknowledged fears of atomisation and alienation brought about by technocratic capitalism, urbanisation and industrialisation. Nationalism is looked upon by Nandy as supplying “nation” as a “pseudo-community”, while patriotism has been posited as presuming the existence of communities other than the country. 

Indians are familiar with hoardings proclaiming “we are Indians first, then Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims”, along with a collage of images of people from different communities. Nandy views these slogans as reflecting the nation-state’s fear of other identities as subversive presences and rivals. At one time Sikhs were suspect because of the Khalistan movement, Tamils after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE, Kashmiris because of the long secessionist struggle, Nagaland and Manipur have been suspect since Independence, and Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar because of the Maoist movement. Muslims ever since Partition and the creation of Pakistan have been permanently suspect to the Indian nation state. A huge percentage of people belonging to India seem to be suspect, giving credence to Nandy’s formulation that the insistence on the primacy of national identity leads to “ample scope in nationalism for identifying deviants and traitors and for witch-hunts”.  

Ideologies and isms
It comes as something of a shock to know that in the diverse, amorphous sea of Hinduism, Savarkar forged Hindutva – the militant organisation of Hindus as a nation – in a purely instrumentalist way. Understandably, neither the Hindutva brigade nor secularists dwell on the atheism of Savarkar. Nandy emphasises that Savarkar declared that there should be no Hindu rituals after his death and refused to allow any Hindu rites after the death of his wife. He ate meat because he associated it with virility and masculinity; he attached no sacredness to the cow and publicly supported cow slaughter. In a strange parallel, Gandhi too writes in his autobiography that he tried eating mutton as he thought the English were strong and ruled India because they ate meat.  

In Nandy’s analysis, Hindu nationalists carried contempt for Hindus and elements of self hatred for being inferior to the ‘strong’ Europeans, with their more focused nationalism. However, this is part of the author’s tirade against all ideologies, including Marxism, developmentalism, feminism, secularism and Hindutva. Nandy asserts that these ‘isms’ have discomfort and ambivalence at best, and contempt, at worst, for their supposed beneficiaries. According to him it is the same story with the left’s discomfort with the insufficiently revolutionary masses, and Hindutva’s contempt for Hindus who are not adequately masculine. Secularism, one of Nandy’s pet flogging horses, is dismissed as serving to produce docile, manageable versions of religion with which the modern state can cut a deal. 

After attacking all isms and ideologies, it is something of a surprise to come across assertions about universal human nature in this book. A couple of examples from ‘Coming Home: Religion, Mass Violence, and the Exiled and the Secret Selves of a Citizen-Killer’ are illustrative of Nandy’s assertions about human nature: “After all, killing does not come naturally to human beings”, or “how difficult it is to weaken the inner resistance to killing in human beings and how much effort has to go into that weakening”. 

Using the ‘natural’ argument in support of propositions is a hazardous tack to take. Research on species ranging from swordfish to monkeys leads us to conclude that hierarchy is ‘natural’. Some studies show that territoriality and fighting are ‘natural’, and others describe the phenomenon of a ‘natural leader’ of the pack. A case can thus be made for the acceptance of hierarchy, nationalism, conflict and authoritarian leaders as ‘natural’ for human society. Elsewhere, in an essay on the demonic and seductive in religious nationalism, while speaking of the fear of de-demonising an enemy, Nandy seems to take the psychoanalytic view that the enemy may not turn out to be so alien, and we carry as much the potentiality for murderous rage and killing. The bloodletting and killing in the twentieth century seem to indicate the unabated human propensity for aggression and violence. The focus would then be how to devise processes to contain these emotions so that they do not lead to killing. 

Ideology and inner life
The psychoanalytic framework of viewing ideology in the context of the inner life of an individual has few takers and does not go down well with activists in particular. A framework which views political activity as meshing with some aspects of the inner life of an individual can seem harsh and uncharitable to many who devote their life to social change. However, approached with an open mind, Nandy offers a fascinating analysis of Savarkar’s relationship with his mother as a refuge from his stern, disciplinarian father, and links it to the “maudlin nationalism in his early years” associated with deification of Mother India. The trauma of the death of his mother when he was aged ten is linked to the later disowning of the softer feminine part and the total masculinisation of Hindu nationalism. India is generally referred to as mathrubhumi, motherland, but Savarkar introduced pitrubhu, fatherland. 

Nandy’s argument is that Savarkar, seeking legitimate targets for the free-floating rage within him, “grasped the scope modern rationality offered to act out the hate within him”. Savarkar reached the conclusion that only religion could be a building block for nation and state formation in Southasia, and used both Hindutva, and Hindus and Muslims in a purely instrumentalist manner. Savarkar died a bitter man as Hindus had failed to appreciate him and as Nandy notes “had not given him or his party a respectable voice in any election in independent India”. The resurgence of Hindutva in the 1990s with the virulently aggressive iconography of Ram with a drawn bow and arrow, and the present scenario of posters in Delhi of the celibate Narendra Modi described as the roaring “lion of Bharat Mata” in contrast to the emasculated Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, seem to indicate that Savarkar’s vision may have more takers today than in his lifetime.    

It is reflective of the unique space inhabited by Nandy, and perhaps ironically fitting that in a book on narcissism, the individual most often referred to is Nandy himself. Yet, this exploration by an extraordinarily sharp and astute mind into the arena of narcissism in Indian society in this era of dramatic changes is fascinating and holds up a prism to what the future portends.  

~ Rakesh Shukla practices law and psychotherapy.

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