“India will go on...” That was what R.K. Narayan told V.S. Naipaul about the future of India. Soon after sitting among the ruins of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, Naipaul found it impossible to associate the past grandeur with the present squalor he saw in Hospet, a town not far from the ruins. He called it an unending nullity of the peasant-serf countryside. It was as if nothing had existed that spoke directly to the fabulous history and he wondered about the intellectual depletion that must have come to India with invasions and conquests of the last thousand years. What happened in Vijayanagar has happened in other parts of the country in varying degrees.
In the north ruin lay on ruin; Moslem ruin on Hindu ruin, Moslem on Moslem. In history books, in the accounts of wars and conquests and plunder, the intellectual depletion passes unnoticed. India absorbs and outlasts its conquerors, Indians say. But at Vijayanagar, one wondered whether intellectually for a thousand years India hadn’t always retreated before its conquerors and whether, in its periods of apparent revival, India hadn’t been making itself archaic again, intellectually smaller, always vulnerable.
The bitter subjection of India by the British led to the rekindling of intellectual recruitment when Indian nationalism proclaimed the Indian past; religion was inextricably mixed with political awakening. But there was always a contradiction between the archaism of national pride and the promise of the new. The contradiction has at last cracked the civilization open.
The turbulence in India hasn’t come from foreign invasion or conquest; it has been generated from within. India cannot respond in her old way, by a further retreat into archaism. Her borrowed institutions worked like borrowed institutions, but archaic India can provide no substitutions for the press, parliament, and courts. The crisis of India is not only political or economic. The larger crisis is of a wounded old civilization that has, at last, become aware of its inadequacies and is without the intellectual means to move ahead.
Naipaul wouldn’t be off the mark if he were to repeat his opinion on the political turbulence that is rocking India now. After seventy years of democracy, India is still in the throes of civilizational strife where Hindus and Moslems are pitted against each other.
National pride and the ideology of religion cannot but take the place of democratic institutions and processes. Taking on big-ticket entry into democracy demands intellectual discourse and the ability to find common grounds even when you have absolute power. Progressive political parties having lost arguments of their own ideology two decades ago have co-opted political Islam to stay afloat and claw back into power. However, the disproportionate power they wield in media and academia has come to bear as a corrosive agent preventing honest intellectual inquiry.
* A wounded civilization - V.S. Naipaul