Needless to say, this is a must-read for students, researchers, journalists, policy-makers and even empty nesters inquisitive about themselves, their history and their surroundings.
By Amitabh Ranjan
And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (Bible: St John) What is the truth about the Indian collective? Is it a pluralistic and heterogeneous society comprising many a social identity, or is it a homogeneous Hindu nation sprinkled with minorities who are subservient and who are without histories worth speaking about? If you are looking for a clinching conclusion to this debate at a time of ‘truthiness’, or a post-truth age, you could be disappointed. But if you are looking for a guide on how to go about finding an answer or answers for India’s identity claims, you would do well to pick up and read The Truth About Us: The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi.
The author of The Price of Land: Acquisition, Conflict, Consequence and the award-winning The Other One Per cent: Indians in America, Sanjoy Chakravorty, in his latest offering cuts through the veneer of Indian homogeneity orchestrated by powers that were. This is a veneer borne out of the necessity of ruling colonisers first, then a bunch of indigenous elite and, currently, a resurgent Hindutva nationalism which feeds on religious identities. A teacher at Temple University, Chakravorty’s journey in search of India’s truth takes two paths – one leads to an investigation of the formation, or the manufacturing, of social identities and the other to a search for the facts of inequalities – between families, between places and especially between social groups. India’s struggle between pluralism and homogeneity, between complexity and simplification is not something which has cropped up today. It has been there for more than 200 years.
Much of what passes as social truth in India is not objective, but subjective. It was created to simplify complexity of a mind-boggling diversity and serve the interests of those who made up those truths. And this could happen because of the asymmetry of power and information between the ruler and the ruled.
There was little systematic or structured information available on the inhabitants of the subcontinent as a whole when the colonisers were settling in and so they found it handy to construct it from fragments as they wanted and needed, giving us the first draft of Indian history, a British-Brahmin version. It was done by selective reading of ancient Sanskrit texts and through the instrument of census, creating a caste society which did not exist before colonisation. It had no relationship with the ground reality and set India on a path of ever-expanding identity politics.
The anti-colonial nationalists did not do anything fundamentally different and just edited that into a second draft during the middle of the 20th century, resulting into a Nehru-Gandhi version. The BJP and its intellectual sustenance, the RSS, are attempting to write a third one currently, a Hindutva-Modi version.
“At the same time, with far less fanfare, Dalits and other long subjugated silenced groups – India’s people without history—are attempting a different third draft. In this third draft, the perspective is from the bottom-up, and not the usual top-down view of things. This draft will not have official authority as long as the Hindutva brigade is in control of the institutions of the state, but who is to say that it will not be more influential in the future. Therefore, for now, the Hindutva-Modi draft can be called Version 2.5. Version 3.0 may never come to be.”
What distinguishes the writing of the third draft from the first two is that it is being attempted at a time when the world and the country are in the midst of an information revolution. The first two drafts came the way they came as the result of the asymmetry of information dissemination between the disseminators and the receivers. The information system is much more democratic now — many more platforms, many more disseminators and many more receivers. This is going to enable a deeper democracy with more choices for political entities. As protean possibilities stare at us, it is good to remember that democracy is embedded too deep into the Indian psyche and any attempt to test that will only be counter-productive.
A few proof-reading errors are avoidable irritants. This is, however, more than made up by a dispassionate tone in analyses, a good number of figures through graphics and charts, chapter-wise references to scholars’ works and an expansive bibliography, resulting into a book of rare scholarly ingredients. Needless to say, this is a must-read for students, researchers, journalists, policy-makers and even empty nesters inquisitive about themselves, their history and their surroundings.
A former journalist, Amitabh Ranjan teaches at Patna Women’s College