Controversy on Kangana Ranaut’s Statement — Is She Truly Wrong?

The controversy is oriented around her apparent statement that what India received in 1947 was “bheekh” and true independence was won in 2014. To express my immediate thoughts, I think she is only partially right. And we must take care not to reduce conversations on this issue to the emotional platitudes of, “This is an insult to the efforts of our freedom fighters”, for that would be a grave disservice on our end to a rigour-driven exchange of ideas. It is a meretricious argument, for such a contention does not insult the sacrifices of our freedom fighters. What does insult their sacrifices is the pretence that we morphed into kumbayaland after 1947.

We would do well to recall the interview of Sanjaya Baru by Karan Thapar. Karan Thapar’s observations concerning one of Baru’s opinions on the ascendancy of Modi to power, were the following, and Thapar seemed to agree with Baru’s opinion:

I want to move to two or three thoughts that emerge as I read your book, particularly when I read your analysis of the cultural revolution powered by the new power elite underpinned, and that is particularly important, by aspirational India. I said to myself, “This reflects the flowering of Indian democracy”; definitely not in terms of freedoms and liberties — almost certainly not because many of these people are actually stomping down on freedoms and liberties — but it is the flowering of democracy because, suddenly, there is the involving and the articulation of a majority that, previously, weren’t that involved and weren’t heard.

We can all agree that Karan Thapar is by no means a ‘Modi bhakt’. It is difficult to not agree with the overall premise of Thapar’s argument. It is based on Baru’s observations that Modi’s rise in 2014 signified the expression of the aspirations of an India that was not conversant with English; that was diffident because it knew not the ‘differing purposes of the fork and the spoon’; and the present groundswell of whose confidence was animated with pride in vernacular languages and the Hindu identity.

To that extent, it was certainly a sweeping change in India, which one might term a new ‘liberation’ of sorts for the commons.

The Guardian, which, along with Washington Post and The New York Times, arguably forms the triumvirate of global ‘liberal’ opinion, was much more blunt in its assessment and unflattering in its opinion of the ‘old India’, so to say:

Today, 18 May 2014, may well go down in history as the day when Britain finally left India. Narendra Modi’s victory in the elections marks the end of a long era in which the structures of power did not differ greatly from those through which Britain ruled the subcontinent. India under the Congress party was in many ways a continuation of the British Raj by other means. The last of midnight’s children are now a dwindling handful of almost 70-year-olds, but it is not the passing of the independence generation that makes the difference.

The India those men and women lived in was one that, like its predecessor, was centralised, garrisoned, culturally constricted, and ruled by a relatively small English-speaking elite whose attitude toward the masses was alternately benevolent and exploitative but never inclusive. Universal suffrage gave Indians a vote but not, at least for much of the time, a voice. When that voice was occasionally heard, as it was in 1977 in the elections that followed the disastrously unpopular Emergency declared by prime minister Indira Gandhi, there could be a sudden sense of its almost volcanic capacity to remake the political landscape, but such moments were rare.

Now that voice has been heard again. It has endorsed a new kind of leader in the shape of Mr [sic] Modi. He is from the lower castes. He is not a natural English speaker. He has no truck with the secular and socialist traditions that shaped Congress. But, more important [sic], that voice has announced a new kind of India. In the old India the poor were there to be helped, when the elite remembered to do so or when they needed to seek or, in effect, to buy votes. The middling classes were taken for granted and sometimes snubbed. The new India, most observers agree, is not interested in handouts, and refuses to be snubbed.

Instead it wants the obstacles it sees as impeding its aspirations swept away. It has discarded the deference it displayed toward the Gandhi family and toward the Anglicised or, these days, Americanised top levels of society. Whether in its older and purer socialist guise or in its later embrace of the market, Congress has lost its magic, even though the party includes some profoundly decent and well-intentioned people. The core constituency of the Bharatiya Janata party, meanwhile, never shared the non-sectarian values that Congress imperfectly upheld and wants an India where its version of Hinduism has unchallenged primacy.

Disregarding the last comment, which to me is the typical hobgoblinized opinion of Hindutva, Kangana’s statement is not radically different from this assessment. At best, she was more polemical given her usage of the word ‘bheekh’.

Yet, it is also true that seven-and-a-half-years thence, Modi has fallen quite short of fulfilling the numerous expectations from him that seemed to animate people mid-2014, and Kangana’s statement would be inconsistent with the sentiments of those supporters of Modi who seem at present disillusioned with him.

I want to distance this answer from two technically sound contentions: (a) that genuine freedom is had at a date of our choosing, on terms of our choosing, and not the largesse of a date (15 August 1947) determined by the colonial rulers; and (b) the King was still the head of state of India until 26 January 1950; wherefore, we were not technically free until then. These are contentions that, while technically sound, could have had no impact on our autonomy to govern ourselves with policies consistent with our geopolitical, economic and cultural ipseities. It is important that we be symbolically independent, too, but it fades in importance, in practical terms, before a proactive, sovereign, democratically accountable parliament.

What we must address is of much greater importance; namely, our continuing penchant for orienting our national discourse around Eurocentric parlance. This has been quite brilliantly illustrated in J. Sai Deepak’s trenchant and almost devastating book, “India that is Bharat” — the first in an intended trilogy.

Concisely, his magisterial book illustrates the Christian theological foundations of European colonialism, the Enlightenment and concomitantly, of such prominent words pertinent to the Indian political discourse as ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’. It illustrates also the apodictically Christian plinths of the Treaty of Westphalia. The central theme of the book is the unquestioning acceptance of the European onto-epistemological framework by India, incognizant of its own cultural ipseities; reflective, therefore, of ‘coloniality’, which pertains to the overarching state of mind that perpetuates colonial interpretations of native ipseities as well as the assumed superiority of the cultural traditions of the colonial powers, and which differs from the phenomenon that is ‘colonialism’.

This ‘coloniality’ continues to date. As an instance, elite India would not so much as brook the proposition that India could formulate its own laws based on shad darshanas. We have inherited the English law tradition, which as J. Sai Deepak notes, is based on Biblical precepts. Elite India can simply not care to divorce its assessment of India’s social fabric from the words ‘secularism’ and ‘liberalism’, blissfully oblivious as it is to the fact that these could hardly resonate with a vast section of the Indian populace that is not acquainted with English. From this, we are yet not free, notwithstanding the seven-and-a-half-year-long reign of a purportedly Hindu nationalist government.

The reason I recommend J. Sai Deepak’s book is that it is highly academic in nature. It is not a book designed to reduce discourse to a dichotomous left-right assessment and to the superiority of one pole over the other. In fact, it takes care to avoid these terms, which we use for purposes of convenience but which are not conceptually sound in the Indian milieu. The book ought to be read by people transcending ideological vantage points.

Such being our state of affairs, we can only adduce two inferences:

  • that while we may not be ‘colonized’, in that the erstwhile colonial rulers no longer regard India as subject to their fiats, we are certainly ‘colonialized’, in that colonial consciousness still pervades our minds. Even the ‘right-wing’ is not free of its grip, for one of the core contentions that emanates from it is that the right-wing seeks to abide by ‘true secularism’ and those who hitherto swore by secularism were ‘pseudo-secularists’. What one must pose them is, “Granting that the ‘pseudo-secularists’ are sanctimonious, are you not also attributing universality to what is fundamentally a European value? Is it really impossible for us to evolve a different framework concerning the relationship between the state and what we crudely pass off as the Hindu religion?”; and
  • that this government is far from being ‘Hindu nationalist’ — it is as much of an extension of colonial consciousness as the Congress rule was; the difference being that ever since Modi’s ascendancy in 2014, scholarship oriented around India’s heritage has been efflorescing with an exponentially superior frequency. The mere promulgation of the notion that India’s ‘secularism’ is dying and that this is a loss of a once-virtuous India does not make reality so.

The purpose of J. Sai Deepak’s assessment is not to advance the angst-ridden view that indigenous cultures cannot coexist with Christian nations, or that there must be perpetual enmity between the former colonies and those who once used to be colonizers, or that we must adopt a fundamentalist insularity with regard to ideas from the West. J. Sai Deepak’s own words may impugn the notion that this inquiry into the theological foundations of the colonial experience is vitriolic in nature:

“One might ask, so what if the political edifice of the European coloniser was informed by a non-secular and patently religious framework if ultimately it has been secularised? Why obsess over the coloniser’s religion? Such a question misses the entire point of the analysis, namely [sic] to identify the theological foundations of the colonial infrastructure since it has no legs to stand on independent of them, and therefore, their identification is necessary to outline and define a decolonial approach. In this regard, based on my reading of Dr. Jakob De Roover’s work on the history of secularism, it needs to be underscored that the secularisation of the Christian onto-episteme is the consequence of obscuring the source of a certain thought and focusing exclusively on its outward expression. This outward expression must be examined for its undergirding because those who do not subscribe to that OET which is the fount of that particular thought, have the right to know of its origins and reject its imposition. This would be consistent with the right of every society to wish to be governed by its own values which are derived from its own culture. Only after being apprised of its source, it is for the society to decide whether to embrace a thought, notwithstanding its foreign theological inspiration.

In other words, every society has the right to prior informed consent before the imposition of an alien principle. To pixelate and deny the origins of a thought, in my view, is plain deception. This argument acquires greater validity and legitimacy in the context of imposition of the coloniser’s politico-economic worldview on dominated societies, where the power balance was obviously skewed in favour of the coloniser and remained so for centuries. Therefore, an examination of such worldview through the prism of coloniality necessarily requires us to question whether a specific foreign theological framework was at play, notwithstanding all the attempts at secularising and universalising it because universalisation of a particular way was the very object of coloniality. Simply put, despite the discomfort such examination is bound to cause, which too is attributable to ingrained coloniality, it is indispensable and inevitable if indigenous societies are to reclaim their right to agency at the most fundamental level” (Deepak, J. Sai).

Here, the veracity of Kangana’s statement fails. Are we to reduce freedom to the sole factor of administrative independence? Hopefully not.

Meanwhile, I invite readers to go through this conversation.

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Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

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Samved Iyer

Samved Iyer

Eternal as evolution is, I cannot purport to have grown in full measure, and I hope to augment my acuity in the company of beings far more erudite than me.

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