When Ashis Nandy’s myths meet those of Westphalia....
One of the foremost public intellectuals in Indian and global scholarship, a notable political psychologist, social theorist, and critic, Ashis Nandy has influenced over a generation of public intellectuals, social activists, and academics worldwide. In this chapter from the book, printed with permission of the publisher Oxford University Press, social scientist Phillip Darby reflects on Nandy’s work as a thinker

Ashis Nandy’s position as an outsider to the discipline, coupled with the unfamiliarity and dissident nature of his ideas, ensured he would not get much of a hearing by the mainstream. In my view Ashis’s work is infused with a spirit of optimism about human potentialities that stands in contrast with so much theorizing in disciplinary IR (international relations). Realist thought is dark and foreboding. The words of Reinhold Niebuhr, so infl uential before the Second World War and immediately after, come to mind: ‘the brutality and collective egoism’ of international politics. (Niebuhr was described by George Kennan as ‘the father of us all’.) There is more room for argument about the liberal tradition that goes back to classical political economy. It found expression in the maxim of British imperialism in the nineteenth century ‘the Great Commercial Republic of the World’ which supposedly would usher in peace and order as well as prosperity. But in its early days liberalism overseas was shaped by the fear of violent change at home and it always involved a lot of compulsion from above because some peoples were understood to have more capability than others.

Along with Ashis, other prominent intellectuals have been sidelined or excommunicated as a result of disciplinary doubts about outsiders who speak in registers which are foreign to the discipline. One such case is the closure shown to the celebrated African scholar Ali Mazuri because of his preoccupation with culture and his unsatisfactory methodology. There is a conundrum here. A strong case can be presented that if you want to change IR, you need to start from somewhere else but how do you bypass the disciplinary gate-keepers? The diffi culty of starting within IR is that one has to be de-schooled. Ashis, of course, has gone his own way without getting caught up in the politics of disciplinarity. He puts this down to the fact that he was a bit of a stray, having had a somewhat wayward education.

I suspect there is a more specifi c reason why Ashis’s writing has not been much taken up in IR: namely, that in one way or another so much of his work relates to colonialism which is all around us still—in the mindset and in the approach of states and international institutions. Yet the discipline hasn’t seen it like this. Colonialism was excised from the transcripts of IR shortly after the First World War and it remained off limits for the rest of the century. As a result, there was little sustained discussion of the violence, expropriation of land, and theft of resources that were part of the process of imperial expansion, attention being directed instead to the so-called ‘expansion of international society’. Intertwined, decolonization during the Cold War period was allowed to obscure the fact that colonialism, taking diff erent forms, soldiered on in much of the non-European world. In recent years, there has been a revival of interest in the colonial in some sections of the IR community so perhaps, on this score, there is now reason to hope that Ashis’s writing will reach a broader disciplinary constituency.

As an aside at this point, there is an argument that the inclusion of Ashis’s work could have a downside also; disciplines have their own colonizing practices, IR probably more than most. One of the strengths of Ashis’s scholarship is that it is free-standing and uncompromised. I will return to this issue by way of conclusion.

 From the extraordinary range of Ashis’s corpus, I have selected three themes to illustrate the contention that his approach could enrich the discipline. These are working with the everyday, pursuing connection, and privileging the defeated. The three are related and each is marked by Ashis’s understanding of Indian civilization, his belief that culture can unlock the political, and his insistence that the self involves elements of the other. Each can also be seen as part of a larger enquiry into the politics of knowledge. Let us take them in turn.


Working with the Everyday

While Ashis has had important things to say about institutional politics, as for instance democracy in India, in my reading his primary concern has been the politics of everyday life. This was partly as a corrective to the ruling paradigms in the social sciences and partly because of his conviction that if you were going to change things, you needed to speak to the traditions of thought of ordinary people. As he has observed, ideology in South Asia is usually skin-deep and doesn’t get to the heart of what is going on. He is also fond of saying that one should learn from the subjects of one’s study. Significantly, he sees the remarkable relationship Gandhi developed with village India— although Gandhi himself did not, of course, come from a village—as ‘an affi rmation of the potentialities of everyday life’.

All this connects with two other strands of Ashis’s critical focus, both concerned with the professionalization of knowledge. First, his deep scepticism about the practices of nation states and international regimes turning to experts, mostly dealing in specialized knowledge, authorized or recognized by the academy—economists, development consultants, psychiatrists, and the like. As he tells it, reliance on such expertise has the eff ect of consolidating institutional power, marginalizing ordinary people, and contracting the space of the political.

Then there is Ashis’s approach to the past, especially important to him because the past is a resource for rethinking the present and imagining alternative futures. People have diff erent ways of remembering their pasts and history is only one of them. The dominance of the historical mode is coterminous with the advent of the nation state, the elevation of the secular and the scientifi c, and the commitment to the idea of progress. Hence, history becomes a tool of the powerful and memories that cannot be historicized are discarded or marginalized. Myths, on the other hand, are morality tales embedded in popular consciousness and they unfold in diff erent ways. Because of his commitment to pluralism and diversity, Ashis makes no bones about his preference for myth over history. In what must have been a memorable session of the World History Conference in 1994, Ashis told his listeners of his principle of ‘principled forgetfulness’: it is often important ‘ not to remember the past, objectively, clearly or in

its entirety’.

It is apparent that Ashis’s writing on the everyday is a far cry from the scripts of IR. The discipline’s approach to the international is resolutely ‘top-down’. Insofar as the discourse is peopled, it is by those who have standing in the hierarchy—statespersons, decisionmakers, and similar. The fi xation with the sovereignty of the state is a major stumbling block. It might have been expected that, after decolonization, the non-European world would have opened up the processes of foreign policymaking and jettisoned some of the elitist conventions inherited from Europe. Ironically, however, the idea that the modern nation state represented the political kingdom was one of the most successful exports to the tropical world. It was a case of the continuing hold of what Partha Chatterjee has called ‘derivative discourse’.

Of course, the situation is changing, perhaps particularly in and because of developments in the south—the Arab spring, the so-called ‘pink tide’ in Latin America, and the student agitation in India. One can also identify fi elds within the discipline where the everyday is attracting attention because of the problems associated with action from above and outside. Peacekeeping is a case in point. Still, the discipline could not be said to be receptive to the everyday.

Pursuing Connection

Central to Ashis’s writing—and indeed his life—is his desire to bring to the surface commonalities between cultures, to fi nd meeting places where diff erent ways of being-in-the-world can come together. His starting point is India. Not India the nation state and its economies of power and growth, but Indian civilization in which identities and religious practices are fluid, and the self is perpetually in transit. He reflects that in his boyhood many Bengalis felt Burma was closer than Gujarat or Kerala or even Delhi. He argues Pakistan is tied to India; its unofficial self is a disowned India. He elaborates to an interlocutor: ‘Pakistanis are more concerned with Indian history than their own …Delhi and Agra are more important to Pakistan today than Peshawar or Multan. I shall go so far as to affi rm that in many ways Delhi and Lucknow remain the cultural capitals of Pakistan.’

So also something of the ethos of Indian civilization has been taken out into the world by Tagore, Gandhi, and other national figures, often followed up by Indophiles such as A.L. Basham, Mark Tully, and William Dalrymple. Much has been written about Tagore’s critique of nationalism, his idea of a dialogue of cultures and his educational agenda—each of which relates to connection between different peoples. There is also a signifi cant literature on Gandhi’s approach and infl uence. Ashis has made his own distinctive contribution with the argument that, while the politicians in Delhi may have given up on Gandhi, Gandhism lives on in terms of non-violence. Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Aung San Suu Kyi, and many others take up the baton even if they have never read Gandhi. And the time is approaching when Gandhi will come to haunt IR.

Just as ideas of India continue to travel, so has Ashis himself in the interest of furthering understanding of the commonalities shared by non-European peoples. For many years he has travelled annually to the other south Asian states to collaborate with intellectuals and activists on matters of electoral reform, ethnic confl ict, and rethinking security. He has followed as closely as he can alternative thinking about the social in Japan, Mexico, Latin America, Africa, and more recently China.

In pursuing this agenda of connection, it is not that Ashis is unaware of the human potentialities of destruction, of the pull of power, or the need to have enemies. On each of these matters he has had quite a lot to say. Rather, on the basis of his understanding of lived experience, he rejects the binaries that so often order our thinking—collaboration and resistance, ally and enemy, masculine and feminine, village and city—taking the view that each of these categories is but a part of a larger inclusive whole. It might be thought that the last-named binary—village and city—is hardly relevant to IR scholars. I would argue, however, that IR is essentially a discourse of the city and that developments in the hinterland are seldom seen as signifi cant, excepting those directly relating to security. Ashis’s insistence that no city is complete without the idea of the village and no village is complete without the imagination of the city could generate a critical politics that intersects with uneven development.

That the politics of connection needs opening up in disciplinary IR is surely beyond question. Although mainstream discourse is very strong on the politics of power, deterrence, and the pursuit of national interest, I have often refl ected on how little it has to say about relating to the other, about building broadly based relationships between peoples. Here Ashis can contribute so much.


Identifying with the Victims

In sharp contrast with the approach in IR and indeed with the practice of international politics, Ashis is concerned with the knowledgesystems and modes of self-expression of the defeated. He positions himself with the victims of war, the losers in history, the casualties of global processes such as development, industrialism, and science. His hope is to build on the civilizational perspectives of the defeated and thereby transpose self-other debates into self-self-debates. An exemplary illustration is provided by his essay on the Bengali jurist Radhabinod Pal’s dissenting judgement at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal which Ashis reads as an implicit invitation to his fellow judges to discover the accused within themselves.

It is Ashis’s view that ‘man-made suff ering … has given the Third World both its name and its uniqueness’. 7 Suff ering, I wish to suggest, is a key word in his lexicon and it relates back to the ‘everyday’ and to the ‘connection’ that we discussed earlier. In IR, however, the experience of suff ering has seldom been taken up. Where it has been taken up in other branches of the social sciences, in medicine and jurisprudence, it has frequently been used to augment the power of the state, international institutions, and NGOs and to justify their interventions into the lives of ordinary people.

Veena Das, a long-standing colleague and friend of Ashis’s, has written compellingly about this side of the story and she has gone on to argue that sensitively approached, suff ering provides an opportunity for acknowledging the pain of others and thereby broadening our understanding of political community. Thinking along these lines could fundamentally change approaches to international politics, most immediately with regard to rethinking security. Whether, however, the discipline could make such an imaginative leap is quite another matter.

Notwithstanding Ashis’s contention that suffering is deeply associated with the Third World, he doesn’t stop there. It is not his purpose to raise a new collectivity. Working to pool the ideas and experiences of formerly colonial peoples needs to be partnered by connecting with progressive strands and recessive traditions in Western thought. This way, the south can help the north recover elements of its other self. As Ashis has put it, speaking more specifi cally, India ‘holds many parts of the West in custody or trusteeship’.

What might this mean for a non-Western IR? The idea of a knowledge formation of this kind has gained currency in the last few years and it has provoked lively discussion. Nevertheless, there is much to suggest that Ashis would be opposed to any such project. In numerous essays and conversations, he has fi rmly rejected the concept of the non-West, except as a heuristic device to elaborate a theory of oppression. Binaries set up false oppositions and foreclose any possibility of imagining human relationships outside the confi nes of modern knowledge categories. Related, he has often observed that the West is now everywhere so its ideas cannot be shut out. Despite his belief that there are important commonalities in the formerly colonized world, he is alive to regional and local diff erences; indeed, he valorizes the diversity. The danger is very real that a non-Western IR could mutate into a series of national IRs—and Ashis has made no secret of hisdismay with the authoritarian nature of the state in the non-European world.

 Taking account of these objections and concerns, the attempt to develop a non-Western IR discourse, although well intentioned, appears misguided. Instead, we might do better to make a fresh start by forgetting IR and beginning—as Ashis mostly does—with lived experiences in the south. The problem with an alternative IR is that the disciplinary discourse remains the reference point. See, for instance, a recent article by Amitav Acharya that secures itself by establishing its profi ciency in disciplinary debates. It is not until the last section on the Hindu epics and Buddhist philosophy that the non-European material stands in its own right. Beginning the research programme outside Europe maximizes the likelihood that the experiences and perspectives of formerly colonized people will be taken on their own terms rather than understood in the light of Western traditions of thought.

An illustrative case is provided by a book edited by Morgan Brigg and Roland Bleiker which features studies of precolonial approaches to what we now call confl ict resolution of Indigenous Australians, Asian, and Oceanic peoples. Having developed an archive of material of this nature, the project might then turn to disciplinary IR or alternatively it might chart quite a diff erent discursive course.

To conclude, I have attempted to outline some of the ways in which Ashis Nandy’s work is directly relevant to the project of rethinking IR. I have done so because what is taught in IR goes out into the world and the discipline should not be left to its own devices. Yet, as I intimated earlier, at the same time I am pulled in a diff erent direction because of my concern with how Ashis’s work would be used in the House of IR. Much hinges on the premium he attaches to dissent. Here we would do well to recall his dedication of Traditions, Tyranny, and Utopias : ‘For those who dare to defy the given models of dissent.’

In an article published in 2012, Chris Reus-Smit laments the disappearance of the public intellectual from the field of IR. He goes on to relate this to the discipline’s loss of its earlier social purpose, its downgrading of normative enquiry, and its contemporary obsession with method—‘In significant sectors of the field, what matters is your skills as a technician.’ On this reading, perhaps Ashis would be happier left in exile, with his work making only occasional incursions into such inhospitable terrain.