Culture and politics

Print edition : February 13, 1999

Sumathi Ramaswamy's article ("The politics of prayer", January 15) displays in ample measure her considerable command of recent South Indian history. Like her, I too am dismayed by the politics of the Sangh Parivar largely because the Parivar has an impoverished view of the culture it claims to defend and the threat it so palpably poses to India's diversity. I, like Prof. Ramaswamy, dread its attempts to legislate a cultural agenda.

But it seems to me that the premises behind her characterisation of the Saraswati Vandana issue have a lot more in common with the Sangh Parivar's premises than she realises and are perhaps equally facile. I agree with her contention that the status of deities and the labile boundaries between religion and culture are immensely difficult issues in any context. The Sangh Parivar has ominously levelled that complex religio-cultural heritage by converting them into facile tokens of a majoritarian identity. Instead of articulating and discussing the diverse strivings that culture has to offer, it has stifled dissent and creativity.

One unfortunate consequence of this has been that it has now become impossible to talk about the diverse strivings of that culture without risking identification with the Parivar. It has managed to flatten an entire culture into totems of identity. It has managed to acquire proprietary rights over Sanskrit language, aesthetics, philosophy, semiotics, tantra, moral philosophy, history and all those modes of experience that are an ineluctable part of South Asia. The manner in which Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy articulates her position has aided and abetted that appropriation.

The ease with which Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy uses 'Sanskritic' as a term of abuse is astounding. I understand her motives in doing so. Cultures - and Sanskritic culture is no exception - are often a form of exercise of power and hegemony. But to reduce all cultures to that dimension, as is fashionable in current social theory, is to do exactly what the Sangh Parivar has done: flatten a debate over culture to a contest over power. Cultures can be a means of exercising power: but they are much more. They are the grammar in which experiences are conceptualised, the best of human aspirations are represented and the world is made sense of.

I wonder why we are so eager to eviscerate this dimension of Indian culture (or cultures). Both Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy and I teach in universities in the West. It is almost mandatory that students in these universities will encounter Locke or Descartes, Kant or Hegel, all in their own ways significant Christian thinkers (and sectarian to boot), and who also in their own ways contributed to certain ideologies of domination. But we teach them and study them critically, but unapologetically. There is a space for treating them as repositories of an important set of arguments that we need to understand, appropriate and transcend for our purposes.

The question is: can such a space be made for Indian culture(s) without descending rapidly into identity politics? It seems to me that the Sangh Parivar has closed that space from one direction by self-consciously deploying it for identity politics. But Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy, like many on the Left, is closing that space from the other direction by seeing culture only in terms of relations of power. (Then it is simply a matter of whose side one is on.) Her characterisation of Saraswati as just a sectarian goddess closes just this space. Why cannot it be understood as one important cultural form in which the importance of knowledge is enshrined? The Saraswati Vandana at least has the potential of reminding us to transcend our contingent and parochial obsessions and identities for the sake of something larger.

What would be the implications of exorcising Saraswati from the public space? Should the state not patronise Tyagaraja concerts because he composed in honour of Saraswati? Should Kalidasa be exorcised for the same reason? Or should M.S. Subbulakshmi's Bharat Ratna be withdrawn because most of the compositions she renders can be classified as sectarian from one point of view or the other? Precisely because culture and religion are interlinked in a complicated manner, Prof. Sumathi Ramaswamy's position runs the risk of making a thoughtful appropriation of culture impossible.

I am not advocating compulsory singing of the Saraswati Vandana. The point is, we should all resist the Sangh Parivar's attempts to designate as universal that which is, at least in a political sense, contestable. But the way to resist its cultural machinations is not by buying into its designation of what Indian culture means, by accepting the idea that cultures are mere ruses of power in the service of the domination of one group and by conceding that we have allowed the Parivar to interpret that culture as it pleases. Rather than designating everything indiscriminately as sectarian, we should be asking the question: how can this rich and complex cultural sensibility be mobilised in the service of higher aspirations? For it is the hallmark of all great cultures that they help you transcend your quotidian identities as much as they help define them.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta Associate Professor of Government and Social Studies, Harvard University Sumathi Ramaswamy writes:

I found Professor Mehta's response to my article thoughtful and provocative, but also ultimately puzzling and ironic. He raises significant questions about the relation of "culture" to "politics" and "power", however broadly or narrowly we may construe these complex categories. He has also drawn attention to the profound dilemmas that confront concerned citizens as they struggle to protect the space within which a liberal and diverse "Indian" culture(s) survives the onslaught of global capitalism, religious fundamentalism and majoritarian politics - a space that allows scholarly exchanges like this one, as indeed a wider public debate over the Saraswati Vandana. However, rather than "closing" the debate on Saraswati and "buying into" the Sangh Parivar's designation of what "Indian culture" means, I believe that my essay actually exemplifies what Professor Mehta advocates, namely, that we ought to treat cultural forms as "repositories...that we need to understand, appropriate and transcend for our purposes." Tamizhthai represents one such historical appropriation of Saraswati as she was fashioned by Tamil speakers into a figure who would satisfy their purposes in the face of what they experienced as the dominance of Sanskrit, Hinduism, and India. Not surprisingly, given this history, Tamizhthai remains a Saraswati-like figure, even as her followers have tried to bestow on her a secular persona that "transcends" (to borrow Professor Mehta's vocabulary) Saraswati's association with a scriptural Hinduism that to them appeared limiting, even parochial. Indeed, Tamizhthai's chequered career amply demonstrates, if only in a specific regional and historical context, the dangers of patronising Hindu deities in a secular public realm in the name of "Indian culture".

In retrospect, therefore, it is remarkable that Professor Mehta's response does not engage at all the real protagonist of my essay who is Tamizhthai, and not Saraswati, her Other as it were. Indeed it is ironical that an article on Tamil and the cultural politics of Tamil Nadu elicits a response that does not even once refer to either. Instead the response appears to dismiss these Tamil struggles as "contingent" and "quotidian", and as belonging to the realm of "parochial obsessions and identities" that "we" have to "transcend" in favour of "something larger" that is located in Saraswati. The latter is a figure with whom many speakers of Tamil would not as sanguinely identify as Professor Mehta does, precisely because of their history of experience of Sanskritic and scriptural Hinduism. I do not want (or even mean) this response to turn into a "Tamil nationalist" defence of "Tamil" against "Sanskritic" culture; to do so would be to simply replicate the very terms of the discourse that I have written against on other occasions. But I am wary of any position that assumes the vantage point of "Indian culture" to dismiss the many local and regional "identities" and "aspirations" within India as "parochial". Because Professor Mehta does not really engage my discussion of the complex cultural politics surrounding the figure of Tamizhthai, he is also able to characterise my essay as "reducing culture to politics". While he is right in noting that culture cannot be simplistically reduced to politics (which is not to say that cultural forms can exist outside the realm of power relations), it seems to me that he is operating with an unduly narrow (and ultimately negative) conception of "politics" that allows him to make his charge.

For me, in turn, politics cannot be reduced to "ruses of power", but instead represents "a necessarily undeterminable field of human agency, a space of constantly competitive, strategic and practical action, undertaken in conditions of imperfect and partial information", to borrow from Sunil Khilnani's recent formulation. As Khilnani notes, "politics is at the heart of India's passage to and experience of modernity... Politics at once divides the country and constitutes it as a single, shared, crowded space, proliferating voices and claims and forcing negotiation and accommodation..." (The Idea of India, page 9). On the one hand, Professor Mehta rightly wants to rescue "Indian culture(s)" from the Sangh Parivar and make it available for continued dialogue, debate and contestation; on the other, he also appears to be disparaging of the very realm of "politics", which has enabled, and will enable, this process. For this reason as well, I find his response puzzling, problematic and ironically disabling for all concerned.

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