On the idea of India

On the idea of India

Author Interview

On the idea of India

Lord Meghnad DesaiThe book, The Rediscovery of India, reflects Desai’s thought process as an observer of socio-politics of the country.

Excerpts from an interview with Desai:

Is this a reinterpretation of Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’?
This is not a critique or a reworking of Nehru’s book. Let’s put it this way — this is my discovery of India. I began to think very early on that India was different from what I was being taught it was. And I began to form the idea that maybe we should really look at India from the provincial angle than this top angle. It’s definitely not Nehruvianism that made India, India. That worked in the pre-Independence time but it was a whole different India being constructed after Independence. Some of the quarrels in recent times have been about these outdated stories about what makes India, India. The South is neglected in these stories, the North-East is not even a part of it. This is the Delhi Sultanate story, and it’s tiresome. It was a story invented for the British, not for us.

Is it also a comparison between what you were told India would be when you were young and what India became later?
Absolutely. When I was very young, growing up in Bombay, the whole air was about India would have modernity, would be scientific, progressive, socialist all that. I could see that all that Nehruavian thing was just a façade. The real India that emerged was highly religious, and I think Nehruvians were worried about religion being by itself anti-secular, and they just could not get into terms with the fact that somehow they became afraid of religion, especially Hindu religion. I have lived in societies that are both religious and secular, in both the US and the UK. When the society is secular, the state may be religious or vice versa. What matters is not religion, what matters is how citizens are treated. Secondly, I have to admit that I had never thought that India would be so prosperous as it is today. I had begun to think that I would be very critical of the whole planning mechanism. But the economic liberalisation has been a real smart shift.

You have spent the last 50 years outside India. Was it easier for you to observe these changes in India more objectively because you were abroad?
I think so, because I could be distant without losing my roots and also have clear thinking. I presume that in India it is very difficult to be an independent academic. Sooner or later you have to declare which party you adhere to. Political patronisation is important here. I have lived for 50 years in societies where I did not have to flatter anybody. I was able to cultivate independence in behaviour and thinking.

A large part of India is also witnessing Maoist upheavals. Is it a sign of the failure of the political system?
Fruits of development are always uneven. The idea that development would be balanced is a textbook notion. Development does not happen because of the government’s right programme, it happens because people seeks opportunities and seize them. It also depends of geography, ecological references — whether you live in an arid land area or not. I think Indian developmental vision believes too much on the government’s ability to shape it. But the more significant failure is that the tribal population of India, which is really disparate, has not really had as much politicisation as say backward castes and dalits have. The main issue in Naxalism is common property which was nationalized, and this is supposed to be development. People did not realise that it was anti-development. No political party has cultivated any tribal leadership to the extent one would have liked. It requires reversing what the previous generation thought was development. Depriving people of common property is not a developmental thing, but both the capitalist and socialist models of development are against common property.