Terry Eagleton argues in his rollicking way that there is actually little to put your finger on when high-minded scholars talk about culture in hushed tones these days.He thinks the term stands in when proponents of modernity make a futile search for a transcendental purpose displaced from religion to maje sense of life.Religion was failing to provide a framework for the meaning of life and man in the world,as the ideas of modernity whittled away at its core.Yet he repeatedly returned to the topic,unable to just shrug it off,for the vacancy had not been filled by current cultural products and phenomena of Late Capitalism.It is striking that there is an analogous state of spiritual vacuity in numbers of the new Indian middle-class whose taste for noisy and pompous religious ceremonies is actually inextricably linked to their addiction to flashy consumerism.Yet feudal mores and mental habits like casteism also populate their world.This has interesting consequences,not the least of which is Hindutva.
Generally speaking,culture is used in an anthropological sense to denote a way of life specific to a community. Clifford Geertz introduced a semiotic dimension by defining culture as an assemblage of signs in the form of customs, ceremonies, rites of passage,games,rituals and so on.However traditional cultures even in this sense are not homogenous entities. Rather,each can be imagined as a series of intersecting circles with one or two big ones,which do not however swallow up the smaller ones.
For example in India,apart from the predominant Sanskritic one,there are circles coloured by other religions,regions,languages,and ethnic identities and so on.There are also sub-sets governed by gender and caste criteria.Over centuries they have lived in peace and mutual tolerance,and often learnt from one another.
But today among them there is also a power equation,and culture in that sense also tends to aggrandize some at the expense of the rest.The struggle for democracy as more and more of the circles get lit up by ideas of freedom and equality has also induced an inevitable element of conflict.Since independence a lot of energy of the resurgent ‘nation’ has been spent in negotiating the varied conflicts,including at some time bloody ones.(One might recall the Ranvir Sena of the 1970s in Bihar arising out of a passion to put Dalits in their place.)
Culture thus has become a mixed bag of habitual responses and triggered passion and violence, a development far enough from the old liberal humanist association of spiritual elevation.
Capitalism seeks to iron out all such hiccups in its drive to create a uniform market as well as production pattern.As Eagleton says the displacements caused by them generate a vacuum which the elite seeks to fill in with a higher notion of culture as spiritual uplift through arts and urbanity,but inevitably carrying the trademark of the dominant elite.
During a century and half of industrial capitalism the politics and culture of the world were largely influenced by nationalism.It became the flag-bearer of culture of any country until industrial capital was slowly displaced by the empire of big finance as the prime mover of the economy.That helped erode the homogeneity of national culture with heterogenous emerging identities of ethnicity,gender and region and caste and so on.The nation appears more and more as an assemblage in loose association rather than as a compact block.The process uncovered hidden inequities while also unravelling centrifugal tendencies without any sense of a goal.At the present juncture we are left with this uneasy unity, generating aspirations as well as anxieties.
What has political Hindutva got to say about it?Plenty.First,it seeks to allay the anxieties of the largely dominant sections by holding up the banner of unbroken,unbreakable unity.This it does by invoking a ‘higher’ spiritual culture which is beyond access and questioning of mundane reason.Its domination by virtue of innate superiority is put beyond the power of subaltern classes, groups ,regions and religions to confront.The machinery of democracy is put to service in ensuring, consolidating and empowering a majority serving this goal.The egalitarian promises of the typical old nationalist movement are quietly shelved.This is called ‘cultural nationalism’ to conceal its political agenda.It holds up an illusion of liberation while re-inforcing extant inequalities. And it forcibly suppresses the voices of smaller,politically weaker identities as by nature illegitimate.
The intriguing part of the story is that actually it uses primordial colonial typology to characterise ‘nationhood’.It is now almost a frayed concept that the very identities of ‘Hindu’ and (Indian) ‘Muslim’ had been created by colonial rulers to suit their own purposes and had been rammed down our throats by official histories, social surveys, censuses,and other documents as well as education.They also saw to it that modern cultures in India arose with its imprint upon them so that an element of adversarial relation subsisted between the two broad streams.
Leaders of the national movement tried hard to wrestle with the problem posed thus and built bridges which were continually subverted by colonial political and administrative interventions,so that the conflicts got more and more aggravated and ended in blood-spattered partition.The thing to note is that it is very much alive and at work today.
It must be said that unlike many of our national leaders,by nineteen twenty or so Tagore had realised the increasing danger from the colonial construction of history.Earler he too had unthinkingly repeated the colonial communal cognitive and discursive stereotypes,which had informed the work of such predecessors as Bankim Chandra.In stead of lazily joining that bandwagon he then used his considerable powers of observation and magnificent intelligence to arrive at the insight that actual,concrete social life in the country gave the lie to that colonial mythology.He realised there had been centuries of close interaction and appreciation among different social and cultural streams, especially among the common people.The dominant Vedantic discourse of the modern elite refused to acknowledge or even notice it.There was a great deal of syncretism in the cultural life of the working masses,which was far from an abstract ideal but was a real,lived and vibrant reality present in music,rituals and even religious observances, notably of lowly subaltern communities. He befriended unprejudiced younger Muslim writers and scholars from a rural background who were not drunk on communalist dogmas.The thirties saw scholars like Kshiti Mohan Sen and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi absorbed in voluminous studies of this native tradition at Shantiniketan.Unfortunately following his death in 1941 this valuable research seems to have lost the stimulus and momentum of his passionate support and more or less petered out,and the Vedantic orthodoxy crept back.National culture came to be identified with it in a rather debilitating manner.
It is in this vacuum, which could not be filled by ready-made instrumentalist views on culture of the Marxist scholars,though the fact remains that they did quite a lot to demystify the transcendental hegemonic claims of Brahminical Vedantism.The latter provided some sort of a unifying framework during and for some time after the freedom struggle.But as the promise and dynamics of democracy after independence released more and more aspirations of suppressed communities and identities(which were not biological as in much current discourse,but historical and social),the privileged sections were more and more on the edge.The storms of social upheavals and cultural challenges provoked an urgent repressive respose legitimised by a label of higher culture That has been provided by ‘cultural nationalism’ which seeks to leap over and erase the memory of mutual tolerance,acceptance and exchange lasting centuries since medieval times.The somersault has been considerably eased by the vacuity that Late Capitalist consumerism has insinuated into modern urban life of the middle-class.Unless we recognize the real nature and function of this ‘culture’ clearly,we can hardly hope to confront and combat its mesmeric-looking power.The vision of national liberation that held out hopes of freedom and equality in unity without suppressing concrete diversity may end otherwise in a parching desert of forcible and devitalizing automatism enforced by institutionalised violence.
Hiren Gohain is a literary critic, and social scientist