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Revisiting the Violence of Development: An Interview with Ashis Nandy
December 5, 2008, 4:10 pm
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(Dated Piece – March 2004)

Smitu Kothari interviews Ashis Nandy, one of India’s leading intellectuals on the problems of violence embedded in development. The interview sets the scene for the issue’s discussions by giving a historical and philosophical context.

Smitu Kothari: This special issue of Development seeks reflections on some of the contentious issues of development politics over the past three decades that have informed and influenced public discourse and public action. The aim is to understand how the conceptual and political map of the world has changed over this period and to take a fresh look at the relationship between development and violence. Since the 1970s and 1980s, your writings and reflections have been among those of a handful of people to bring forward and highlight not just the history of the development idea but also the relationship between development, the state, modern science and violence. We hope you can locate the relationship in a historical context and reflect on the kind of challenges for political thinking and political action that lie before us.

It has been a decade since the 500th anniversary of the landing of Columbus and over 2 years since 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq and the expansion of US-led hegemony in the world. This period has also witnessed the growing collective assertion of the historically subjugated and the marginalized peoples as well as others resisting this hegemony and the processes of economic globalization. These assertions are also of other knowledge systems and other cultural systems reaffirming of the value of pluralism systems that experienced victimization under homogenizing developmental and scientific processes. So at one level, there is continuity and an intensification of the adverse impact of development and at another, a growing rumble at the grassroots. How do you see these processes?

Ashis Nandy: We must recall that western hegemony did not start 500 years ago. Western aggressiveness began to become salient on the global stage 500 years ago, but the domination took a long time to become established, hegemony even longer hegemony in the sense that in the present-day world, there is a kind of manufactured consent where a majority of the elites the world over accepts that hegemony. There is consent to the extent that even those who fight certain forms of progressivism and developmentalism operate within the western framework. This is true hegemony. Western aggressiveness translated into dominance towards the end of the 18th century. And even that was not the phase when the contemporary construction of ‘development’ began. What we call development began only in the wake of the Second World War. A kind of development took place in England with the advent of the industrial revolution but we called it industrialization and urbanization.

SK: Do you see a continuity of the development enterprise with the missionary and ‘civilizing’ efforts during the preceding 300 years that had both genocidal social and cultural consequences but also had a more benevolent element?

AN: Yes. But even the benevolent element did us little good in the long run, because it only consolidated the rhetoric of social evolutionism that societies were moving through historical stages, that this kind of urbanindustrial vision and its newer edition, development, were the destiny of all societies. All you can hope for, even if you are a critic, is to have an equitable partnership or, in the absence of equity, better opportunities within the existing system, or perhaps at the very least, a vague hope that, given the right kind of stuff within you, some day in the game of progress, of industrialization, in the game of development, you would be able to beat even the West. This is an illusion that has motivated Third World freedom fighters in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

It is in the context of this long tradition of social evolutionism, a kind of sanitized version we call progress, that globalization too, is now trying to acquire global hegemony and the elites of virtually every society accept this as a natural trajectory. This past is important, because the mandate for certain forms of violence is integral to such a world vision. If societies are moving through historical stages, if we accept that each stage is superior to the previous stage, if you cannot go back in time and if you do, it is a retrogression, a slip into primitivism, primordialism and romantic nostalgia for a past that was violent and oppressive no one can escape this social evolutionism and every regime has the right to herd the population it rules over towards this promised future, despite what a few critics or human rights or environmental activists say. And development has very carefully positioned itself within this broad framework.

The framework gives enormous latitude to inflict violence or use coercion, to use the machinery of the state to bring the recalcitrant parts of the population within the paradigm of progress and development. That is why there is frequently a deep contradiction between development and democracy, and a constant attempt to re-tailor the democratic process to facilitate development. Indeed, I would say that in each and every society that has gone through spectacular phases of development, these phases have been preceded or accompanied by an abrogation of democratic rights and an introduction of some kind of authoritarianism or at least by a shrinkage in democratic rights and erosion of democratic culture. This is also because a sizeable section of the middle class applauds this shrinkage as a pathway to more disciplined, organized economic growth. I see this even in India today. Past experience shows such phases in each and every country known for such spectacular development. We remember the names of those countries that, during the last five decades were held up as models for countries like India Japan, Germany, South Korea, Thailand, the Shah’s Iran, Ayub Khan’s Pakistan and Taiwan. Now China is being held up as a model.

There is always a tacit message in the ideology of development: ‘Look at our past and learn from us, we have inflicted enormous suffering on our people and shed much blood to develop and become rich and powerful. You do to your people what we did to ours. You will become like us, too.’ This is the message of the western world and a number of other societies that have developed in recent times at enormous costs in terms of democratic values. This is the message that people like Lee Kuan Yew have been preaching for years.

There is an intrinsic and close relationship between development and violence. Well-intentioned developmental specialists and development experts cannot snap this bond and though the development community pays lip service to the removal of certain forms of conspicuous, gratuitous violence, it never really does so seriously. There is an unstated belief that those who stand in the way of development or who retard or impede the process of development are actually obsolete, retrogressive and redundant and deserve to be thrown into the dustbin of history. So the suffering they undergo is seen as almost self-inflicted. This attitude is then internalized by a large section of the TV-guzzling middle-class. Hence, the frequent hostility towards someone like Medha Patkar of the Narmada movement in India or Vandana Shiva and others who are involved in activities which can be seen or construed as anti-development. There is also an inbuilt legitimacy for exercising state power and use of violence not only to grapple with the victims of development but also those who try to give voice to or organize these victims. This is the rhetoric used against a whole range of activists and activities.

SK: What might be interesting is to tease out two more connections: The first is the one between development, violence and cultural pluralism. Development is a project that brings homogenized, standardized solutions to essentially pluralistic societies committed to plural ways of knowing and being, and living and doing. The second is that even multiple perceptions within plural societies and pluralistic ways of living and what constitutes a good life in these societies are regimented in terms of these standardized perceptions of what constitutes development. An effort to make these a little more inclusive exists, but it too suffers from a reductionist, homogenized understanding of development. After all, the UNDP reports are called human development reports. So the human development index has become the means through which a society is judged and, now, this is correlated with the democracy index, the index on corruption, etc. What reflections do you have on these connections?

AN: These are two very important questions you have raised. Let me first take the issue of homogenization. I think that the drive for homogenization is written into the birth certificate of development. Despite what many like to believe, development presumes that, in the long run, you will have only one particular kind of society all over the world. Predictably, economies of scale, and expansion of consumption are key concepts explicitly or tacitly in the worldview of development. Hence, the inescapable insecurity of developmentalists. You talk to any ideologue on development, to any developmentalist, and you will find that invariably he or she will find it uncomfortable despite all the triumphs of development, despite the fact that the idea of development now rules the world, if some small community somewhere refuses to join the game of development. I have never understood this sense of insecurity. It was as if they were afraid that unless you took a position against that small community refusing to develop or persons opposing development, somehow that community or individuals would bring down the entire edifice of development. In fact, the political and intellectual awareness of the ideology of development induces a stochastic thrust towards homogenization.

Secondly, you will find an intrinsic incapability to give space to dissent that radically questions the dominant development worldview. Ideologues of development always talk about democratic order and how it is related to development. Basically, what they mean is that you must have periodic elections based on adult franchise. The concept of democracy in them has become skin-deep. Except for periodic elections there is nothing much in that agenda of democratization. But that democratization does not give the right to anybody to pose a serious challenge to development. In fact, it does not allow serious dissent, which is theoretically protected in a democracy. This is the contribution of the Enlightenment vision we have been taught over the last 300 years to distinguish between what is called sane, normal, proper dissent and insane, irrational, dangerous dissent. The aim is ultimately to shrink the available options relating to the human future to basically one with some editorial changes in different countries. So it is said that Japan is not developed in the sense France is, and you can feel happy with that degree of diversity.

The second part of your question is more difficult to answer because I do not think we have said the last word on the fate of development. Development is very recent. Many things that were supposed to be called social change are now gathered under the umbrella of development. When we open new schools, it is not called spread of education or learning any more it is called educational development. If you supply milk to needy children, it is no longer called child welfare, it is part of social development. So we have developed a new language that allows a greater play of experts, a greater play to the development community, so that agency is taken away from ordinary citizens and is increasingly vested in smaller groups. That is the other part of the inverse relationship between development and democracy.

But the more important point that I was moving towards is that some countries are now trying to be multicultural after being developed. After homogenizing to their heart’s content for over 200 years, they are now thinking multiculturalism as a way of enriching the lives of citizens and deepening their cultures. What they basically mean is some rather tamed, manageable, domesticated version of multiculturalism that will obey the rules of the house. Housetrained forms of multiculturalism cannot ask fundamental questions about the conventions of the house and are perfectly safe.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that some cultures were organized around the tacit concept of multiculturalism they are multicultural to start with. A society like India, or the whole of South and Southeast Asia, these are intrinsically plural societies that thrive on plurality. Their cultural self-definitions, the tonality of their cultures are heavily dependent on the interactions the clashes, coalitions, exchanges and communications among different cultures. These societies are intrinsically multicultural. Now we are being told to homogenize while retaining our multicultural selves. The message is clearly this: ‘You become multicultural in the sense that we are now trying to be multicultural.’

There is an informal package of multiculturalism that gives you a feeling of being multicultural. First, you must have reasonably impartial laws that treat people like individuals and give them equal rights, so if two people belong to different cultures and have equal rights, you can think of the societies to be multicultural. Secondly, you must have democratic rights to organize and make demands for your culture. Which in a majority system, of course, is quite safe, because you can be pretty sure that small minorities, which look like a pain in the neck, have to operate within this system. Above all, you actually project a consumerist view of multiculturalism, a manageable package of things that are permitted and valued. So, you can go to a Hunanese restaurant and not only eat Chinese food, but specifically Hunanese food and feel that you are transported there. You feel very cosmopolitan. I am sure that many people in the contemporary world have come to know of the presence of the province of Schezhuan in China only after eating Schezhuanese food. Thirdly, you set up specific area studies programmes in your universities, and also if you are an ambitious president of a university you can have courses on what the university would call ethnomusicology or even ethnosciences, where you teach the intricacies of acupuncture, Unani and Ayurveda. Interestingly, these courses are generally located in the department of anthropology, not in the school of medicine.

SK: Where is the link with violence?

AN: I am coming to that. Fourthly, you put cultures on stage. On weekends, you can go and see the Beijing opera or Russian ballet and feel very self-righteous that you are promoting multiculturalism. Fifthly, you can put cultures in museums. I often give the example of the Anthropology Museum of Mexico City that probably presents the Mexican culture better than a self-designed cultural tour of Mexico can do. Such ‘museumization’ is an important part of the story. Finally, you put cultures in reservations to feel that you are protecting the distinctiveness of these cultures.

You notice that such a package leaves little scope. If you belong to a culture that has a significantly different worldview and different organizing principles and if you do not feel satisfied with these six representations of culture in your societies, you are seen as an eccentric or a troublemaker. The violence comes in, because, you try to tame the cultures, so that they conform, so that they traverse a small range of a consumable version of the culture and you marginalize aspects of the culture that not palatable to you, that you do not find transparent.

In fact, violence comes partly from the hostility and the fear with which you treat those aspects of the culture that you do not understand. Cultures have to be perfectly transparent in your terms for them to be accepted and this is part of the development package. That is why people often refer to some parts of culture as good, parts that are actually good for development, and to those parts of culture as bad which need social engineering to make them conducive to development. Even the most benign cultural relativist will be reluctant to say that culture has the right to self-define and decide what to retain and what not to retain irrespective of the needs of development, progress, morality and multiculturalism.

SK: There is another dimension the uneasy relationship between development and fundamentalism. Whether it is in a society like Egypt or Iran or India, to the developers the nature of the regime is not of much consequence in their designs of development or in implementing development. Whatever may be the rhetoric about the need to institutionalize democratic rights or to see that there are functioning democratic institutions or that the democratic institutions are not grossly subverted, whether it is religious fundamentalism in India or in Saudi Arabia, developers will still go in and ‘do’ development. Is development largely indifferent to repressive and fundamentalist regimes?

AN: I will go further and say that there is a close relationship between development and fundamentalism because development requires modernization of a certain kind, not only of the technological base of society but also of the institutional structure of society. It also needs a different kind of nation-state system where centralized authority presides over the process of development. It is predictable and contractual and, ideally, it should also be impersonal and impartial. This kind of state can only be run by a relatively homogenized idea of nationality. A certain kind of majority prejudice is built into it.

That is why you will often find that even societies that try to be ultra-secularist now, France, for instance, before it became a proper nation-state, was intolerant of Protestants. Or remember the ruthlessness of Bismarck’s Germany. That kind of nationality, and the nationalism that supports it, provides a cement, provides a base for that kind of nation-state to function. It is a prerequisite for developmental regimes and this invariably leads to a certain degree of sanction for certain forms of majorities to emerge in society. At the same time, because the categories, worldview and meaning system associated with development are not accessible to the majority in many countries, what they see is the gradual collapse of the institutional structure that was there earlier. What they see is a collapse or dissolution of the community they have stayed in and a dilution of the kind of religion they have been practising. So, for example, if you are a western Indian Hindu moving into an impersonal city like Delhi, certain kinds of practices associated with your version of Hinduism the family gods and goddesses, the family priest, caste- and sect-specific rituals are no longer available to you. So you begin to look for a generic sense of community at first.

Secondly, you are buffeted by social change and by an impersonal, contractual and atomizing milieu that begins to negate the basic assumptions of your lifestyle. As a result, you are not only disoriented but you feel that the meaning of your life is being taken away, and with a vengeance you turn to religion in the hope that you can recover what you seem to be losing and because you cannot go back to your village. You opt for a generic version of Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism. Even religion itself becomes homogenized in some sense. But in that process of self-affirmation you become more and more adversarial. That is why you will find that the main bastions of ethnic and religious nationalism are invariably the cities. Even better empirical support for what I am saying comes from the fact that you find a majority of Hindus and Muslims in the First World are more aggressively ultra-nationalist. Hindu nationalists have never enjoyed majority support in India. Even among Hindus they are a minority. But abroad it is an entirely different story. The more they feel disoriented, the more they try and force their children to recite religious songs or go to religious centres to attend their weekly religious discourses. If this does not work because the children belong to another generation, they think the way out is to make a monthly donation to hard-core fundamentalist organizations or some religious party to protect their sense of identity that they are afraid of dissolving, not only in their children but also in them. It is the same with Irish-Americans supporting the IRA and American Jews supporting Israel more aggressively than many Israeli Jews do. What you see there in such a dramatic fashion in these cases, you see in a less dramatic fashion in the Indian cities. Eight Indian cities account for more than half of all the communal riots in this country. This is not an accident. It is obvious that there is a lesson to be drawn from it. Three-quarters of Indians live in villages, yet only one-thirtieth of the deaths in communal violence take place in the villages. That tells you something. There is a linkage between development and violence.

SK: There is a natural transition to another link, another relationship between violence and development and that is the fate of plural knowledge systems. There has been a long history of exclusion of peoples, communities, regions, even countries. And yet, despite all the adverse effects of industrialization and of iniquitous development, people have secured spaces for these plural knowledge systems to rearticulate themselves or to seek relative autonomy from the dominant systems or even to selectively delink themselves. How do you see the erasing of knowledge systems and devaluation of non-western and non-modern knowledge systems and also the persistence of knowledge systems wanting to reassert themselves? How do you see this dynamic?

AN: Human beings are very resilient creatures. They do not easily gulp propaganda beyond a point. It is true that modern systems deliver a lot of things. In many cases, it is also true that they have done well. But it is also true that it is beyond human beings to deliver a perfect system. These systems over a period of time develop their own vested interests, their own versions of greed and corruption. Whether it is modern medicine, modern education or modern agronomy, it’s pretty obvious that after establishing their hegemony they have begun to acquire not only flab but also the normal weaknesses to which the human flesh is heir. After a point, ordinary people who use the systems begin to be disillusioned. They begin to withdraw from it and look for alternative systems. This gives a different degree of self-confidence to those who practice these alternative systems who were demoralized and felt defeated in the beginning but gradually began to come back and reorganize and regroup in order to protect themselves and learn how to survive in a hostile environment. Rustam Roy tells me that 19992000 was the first year when Americans spent more money from their own pocket on non-modern systems of medicine than on modern ones. The proportion of those who use traditional systems of medicine in Australia is more than 55 per cent. A majority of Indians believe in the traditional systems of medicine.

This happens not because people have thought about these issues philosophically or because they have studied two systems and found out which is better. It happens not because people self-consciously want to widen their choices. People just begin to think that diversity is good. To find that uniformity in some way limits them and they would like to try out different things. I think it is part of human nature and I don’t think you can fight against that part of the human nature beyond a point.

SK: To what extent can creative political responses to the homogenization, to the violence, to the bureaucratization come from these other systems of knowledge, from dissenting traditions? Where do you see the impulse coming from?

AN: It is difficult to cumulate these responses. Also, I do not think more than a few can be creative. Yes, creative responses will be there and we must celebrate them. We should also be prepared to have new respect for those ordinary citizens who do not try to be creative and who do not think they are creative when they take certain positions. They are dissenters by default. They try to live their everyday life according to their own light, their common sense, their concept of what is good and what is bad and their moral framework, and in the process they generate or release a different kind of power to dissent, or contribute to a cumulative process of dissent, which begins to have an impact through the democratic process. That’s the way it goes.

SK: But they are affected all the time by precisely those homogenizing developmental processes.

AN: That is true. The impact is primarily on sectors of population that are in any case committed ideologically to the worldview of development, the urban middle classes for instance. But the urban middle class may be the dominant feature of many societies but not in societies like China or India or in large parts of Africa. To that extent we have reasons for hope, because the consensual validation the urban middle classes receive through the media, through the educational process, through their interpersonal world is not available in that fashion to those who are outside the system. Large proportions of society, a majority of these societies, live in two worlds. They have some clues about the way we live and the presence of these two worlds allows them a wider range of choices. I would invest a lot of my hope in that. I hope that they hold out till that initial enthusiasm of development declines. This enthusiasm rose to a pitch only in the 1950s and 1960s and has lasted for some 50 years, which is a long time. I hope this resilience will last out this phase of enthusiasm and, after a time, we shall have enough self-reflection and enough self-criticism for different kinds of alliances to emerge against the excesses of development and the excesses of modernization.

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