Jan 27, 2009

Lifestyle - Culture as a site of struggle

K.N. Panikkar

Understanding the nature and direction of the struggle and participation in it call for serious academic engagement.

In the communal conception of nation, culture not only occupies a central place but defines its character by its identity with religion. The nation, therefore, is a cultural construct, with culture being understood as an integral part of religion.

Much against the grain of historical experience and contemporary reality, the communal assumption has foregrounded two inter-related notions. The first notion is that each religious community has a homogenous culture. The second notion is that the culture of each community is distinct and different. Such a characterisation attributes a religious-cultural character to the social composition of the country. It is further qualified by dividing society into two unequal segments: people of indigenous and ‘foreign’ origin who were separated by religious-cultural differences. These differences were so irreconcilable that they belonged to two different nations, with entirely different cultural traditions.

These differences accounted for the struggle between communities in the past. Subsuming the assumptions of colonial historiography but improving upon its political and cultural interpretations, communal ideologues argued that religious communities acquired political identity through inter-community struggles with which Indian history abound. More important, communities had distinct identities as a result of their separate cultural practices rooted in religion.

In a synoptic account of Indian history in his relatively less known work, Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar interpreted the history of India in terms of the Hindu resistance to foreign invasions. The importance of this historical experience was that they contributed to the formation of a self-identity of being a Hindu nation. But such a political experience alone, it is held, was not sufficient to bring about emotional bonds strong enough to bind a people into a nation. Something more abiding was necessary, which according to Savarkar was the allegiance to a common culture. The religious communities, both Hindu and Muslim, were different due to their differing cultural allegiances.

During the 20th century the cultural logic of communalism assumed an increasingly aggressive character. An important example of this development is the reading of Hindu-Muslim cultural differences by Bengali novelist Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay. In a brief essay titled ‘Bartaman Hindu-Mussalman Samasya,’ first presented at the Bengal Provincial Conference of 1926, he added a new dimension to the communal argument about the differences between Hindus and Muslims. Many before him were of the opinion that the differences between the two were irreconcilable because they were fundamentally cultural. The two-nation theory advocated by Savarkar and Mohammad Ali Jinnah rested on this argument. Sharat Chandra’s focus was not on cultural differences, which at any rate existed, but on the lack of culture of Muslims. Hindus, high or low, were born with culture, whereas Muslims were born without it! Worse still, Muslims could not even attain it, however much they tried. Their lack of culture accounted for their general behaviour which, according to him, was characterised by “brutality, barbarism and fanaticism.”

Many communal ideologues in the past had harped on the cultural differences between Hindus and Muslims or on the cultural superiority of Hindus. But Sharat Chandra’s concern was of an altogether different order: to create the categories of the cultured and the uncultured on the basis of religious identity. What he did was to reinvent the traditional category of mlech in order to serve a contemporary purpose. One purpose was social discrimination by means of the demonisation of Muslims. Another was to achieve the political objective of undermining the Gandhian project of Hindu-Muslim unity, for according to him, the union between Hindus and Muslims was impractical and, more important, unnatural. He argued that instead of pursuing the mirage of Hindu-Muslim unity what was required was unity within the Hindu community, by ending “the folly of treating a section of the Hindus as low castes.” By discounting the possibility of Hindus and Muslims coming together and at the same time promoting the internal consolidation of the Hindu community, Sharat Chandra was charting out a path for the construction of communal consciousness.

Neither Hindu-Muslim differences nor community consolidation was alien to the communal discourse which evolved from the 19th century. Yet, Sharat Chandra’s views were significant for two reasons. First, Muslims are excluded from the nation not on cultural differences, as Savarkar did, but on the grounds of being ‘uncultured.’ Secondly, it represented a new communal aggression based on cultural authenticity derived from an identity of religion and culture. Sharat Chandra’s arguments are not an aberration, but a logical development of the ideas of discrimination and hatred inherent in the communal discourse evolving from the 19th century. They continue to be influential in shaping the consciousness of the present, at least among a section of society.

The cultural logic of communalism seeks to unburden the secular cultural baggage that society has acquired historically. In the process is ignored the heterogeneity that came into being as a result of the social togetherness of communities. The heterogeneity covered a wide spectrum: the creative and philosophical realms, on the one hand, and everyday cultural practices of the people, on the other. It gave rise to a variety of cultural processes — synthesis, assimilation, acculturation and eclecticism and, more important, the way people lived.

It is arguable that what really happened was not any one of these processes, but a combination of all in varying degrees, which imparted to Indian culture the quality of a colourful mosaic. One of the implications of this process was the immense cultural variety within religious communities in terms of everyday cultural practices and creative expressions. In other words, religious communities were not synonymous with cultural communities. Their boundaries did not coincide or overlap. The cultural logic of communalism is, therefore, antithetical to the historical experience of Indian society. The meaning of culture, which communalism foregrounded, was tantamount to the denial of the secular heritage of Indian cultural life. Even more than this, it failed to take cognisance of the variety of cultural articulations within a community.

What is central to the exploration of the meaning of culture is a methodology for its study that will take note of its complexity and social relatedness. The empirical and descriptive methods which held sway for long did not go beyond the narration of cultural practices. And consequently the meaning of culture remained beyond their reach. The early Marxist method viewed culture as an epiphenomenon of economic base in the overall structure of productive force determinism, which failed to interrogate the complexities of cultural existence. A paradigm shift was heralded with the ‘cultural turn’ in Marxist studies in the mid-20th century, which recognised the relative autonomy of cultural production and all forms of social consciousness. The historians who initiated such a change by drawing attention away from the cellar to the attic heralded both a departure and continuity in the application of historical materialism to the study of the past: continuity because it can be traced to Marx and Engels, and departure because it meant a reorientation in historical analysis. The defining characteristic of the methodology so conceived and practised recognised the relative autonomy of the superstructure within the rubric of its dialectical relationship with the base.

A turn towards culture with such theoretical sensitivity was slow to occur in Marxist historical writing in India. A serious attempt in this direction is seen in the works of Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi. His methodological and theoretical contribution to the study of history has been so original that he is credited with ushering in a ‘paradigm shift’ in the writing of Indian history. This was possible because of an interdisciplinary approach and very creative and innovative use of Marxist method. He started with the superstructure rather than the base: because of the compulsions of the unavailability of sources he turned the Marxist metaphor upside down. That led to the rejection of economic determinism and reflective theory; recognition of the dialectical relationship between base and superstructure with relative autonomy for the latter; criticism of the mechanical approach of official Marxism and, above all, questioning of the conclusions of Marx himself wherever they were not in conformity with historical facts. Such openness and intellectual freedom lay at the back of the cultural turn he brought to bear upon Indian historiography.

The relationship between the base and the superstructure — dialectical, dynamic and complex — around which Kosambi’s analytical model was built, had opened up immense possibilities for the study of Indian culture. But after him they remained largely unrealised, as the focus of Marxist historiography has been either on economic issues or on political movements. Cultural issues hardly attracted attention. And when they did, their treatment suffered either from reductionism or empiricism.

More grievously, the historical totality with culture as an integral element, as Kosambi had suggested, by and large remained outside the Marxist concern. As a result, an impression has gathered ground that Marxist method is inadequate to deal with matters cultural. Kosambi’s contribution proves the contrary.

A critical and innovative approach to the study of culture which Kosambi had pursued could herald a new theoretical and analytical approach in the study of culture in Marxist historiography in India. That it has not really happened in any significant measure is surprising, as quite a few historians of the present generation were inspired by Kosambi’s work and many among the young are attracted to the study of everyday cultural practices. Such an inability to further the study of culture has become particularly glaring as ‘cultural studies’ with a linguistic turn threaten to overwhelm the field. Whether the relatively inadequate attention to the study of culture in Marxist historiography has made it easier for communalism to appropriate and imperialism to hegemonise the study of culture, is a matter which requires serious consideration.

Nevertheless, the contemporary reality is such that culture has emerged as a very intense site of struggle. Understanding the nature and direction of this struggle and participation in it call for serious academic engagement.

(K.N. Panikkar is general president, Indian History Congress; former Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University; and Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council. These are excerpts from his presidential address to the Indian History Congress held in Kannur during December 28-30, 2008. E-mail: knp8@rediffmail.com)

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