Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Indian Press - 5: Disgraceful "Elite"

After independence, as British-owned newspapers passed into Indian hands, they moderated their overtly anti-national agenda, but retained a manifestly alien worldview. It is important to understand why and how this happened, for the English-language Press became the dominant “elite” of Indian mass media, a primary force in shaping the country’s political life.

Three factors constrained the development of an indigenous worldview in modern India’s mass media “elite.” One was the nature of the Indian renaissance. Rooted in the Bhakti movement of the 15th and 16th Centuries, it defined a sensibility capable of political engagement but – as exemplified in the string of nationalist leaders from Rammohun Roy to Gandhi – essentially spiritual and ideologically inchoate.

The second factor has been the nature of those who have controlled the development of Indian mass media. With the exception of the Kasturi family that owns The Hindu, they have been business people with no background in journalism. None has had the combination of intellectual capacity and political acumen necessary to understand and define a particularly Indian perspective.

The third factor has been a continuing effort by Britain to maintain and promote its colonial era influence over the Indian intelligentsia and political system.

In the rest of this post I look at the first of these three factors.


 A decade after independence, Susheela Nayar, the young doctor who was part of Mahatma Gandhi’s small group during his final internment under British rule (1942-1946), published her prison diary.

Among the conversations she noted was one initiated by Pyarelal (her brother, who became Gandhi’s secretary in 1942 after Mahadev Desai’s sudden death). Pyarelal asked Gandhi why he did not “write a treatise” explaining his political philosophy and activism.

“The trouble is that I have to be Marx as well as Lenin,” Gandhi replied. “I have it all in my head. When the occasion comes I take out what is applicable to the situation.”

Pyarelal pressed him. “You can see the situation and decide as to what should be done. ... But who will give lead to the people when you are gone?”

Gandhi replied, “I cannot do what you want me to do. It is beyond my power. ... I am not the man who can write a treatise. I speak under inspiration. I cannot decide as to how I shall tackle a particular situation until I am faced with it.”

Gandhi was being overly modest. He had outlined his beliefs and action plan as early as 1910 in the small book, Hind Swaraj, and in the decades since then had explained his actions tirelessly in articles and speeches. However, what he had to say – that Indians should be guided by the verities of their own civilization and not be seduced by Europe’s deadly way of life – was so far from the political mainstream of the day that “practical” men dismissed it as moonshine. The Congress Working Committee refused even to discuss the proposals in Hind Swaraj – and that was after Gandhi had become the undisputed leader of the nationalists.

Was there no one within Gandhi’s own following that could have propagated his political legacy?

 There were three, but sudden and premature death claimed them all.

Maganlal Gandhi, who suggested the word Satyagraha when his uncle was searching for a term to describe his nonviolent activism in South Africa, was the mainstay of the Sabarmati Ashram; he died in 1928, as preparations got under way for the declaration of Purna Swaraj. It was a staggering loss, for Maganlal was the one person who had intimate knowledge of Gandhi’s thinking and the full range of his political contacts.

The two other sudden deaths occurred within months of each other in 1942, just before and during the critical Quit India Movement. Jamanlal Bajaj, who established Sevagram Asharam at Wardha to which Gandhi moved after quitting Sabarmati, was a business tycoon; he would have been an invaluable apostle. Mahadev Desai, Gandhi’s closest aide for 25 years, was the one after Maganlal’s death upon whom the Mahatma rested his hopes for the continuation of his political legacy. He died a week after moving with Gandhi into the malarial confines of the Aga Khan’s palace at Pune.

The cause of death in each case remained unclear. The three deaths eliminated those most capable of carrying on Gandhi’s political legacy after his own assassination in 1948.

Ironically, Jawaharlal Nehru, who declared eloquently at Gandhi’s death that his light would endure, was primarily responsible for dimming it in India. He set the country on a course emulative of European modernity that Gandhi had explicitly warned against; it became fashionable under him to consider India's traditions and civilization as problems to be overcome. Under such circumstances, the failure of the Indian Press to articulate a national worldview is excusable. However, it is not entirely comprehensible, for the intellectual vigor characteristic of Indian civilization seemed suddenly to desert the country’s intelligentsia. Sri Aurobindo, writing of the Renaissance in India in 1918, described that earlier energy:

 “When we look at the past of India, what strikes us next is her stupendous vitality, her inexhaustible power of life and joy … her almost unimaginable prolific creativeness. For three thousand years at least – it is indeed much longer – she has been creating abundantly and incessantly, lavishly … republics and kingdoms and empires, philosophies and cosmogonies and sciences and creeds and arts … palaces and temples and public works, communities and societies and religious orders, laws and codes and rituals, physical sciences, psychic sciences, systems of yoga, systems of politics and administration, arts spiritual, arts wordly, trades, industries, fine crafts – the list is endless and in each item there is almost a plethora of activity. …

“This supreme spirituality and this prolific abundance of the energy and joy of life and creation do not make all that the spirit of India has been in the past. … the third power of the ancient Indian spirit was a strong intellectuality, at once austere and rich, robust and minute, powerful and delicate, massive in principle and curious in detail. Its chief impulse was that of order and arrangement, but an order founded upon a seeking for the inner law and truth of things and having in view always the possibility of conscientious practice. … [India] searched for the inner truth and law of each human or cosmic activity, its dharma; that found, she labored to cast into elaborate form and detailed law of arrangement its application in fact and rule of life. …

“There is no historical parallel for such an intellectual labour and activity before the invention of printing and the facilities of modern science; yet all that mass of research and production and curiosity of detail was accomplished without these facilities and with no better record than the memory and for an aid the perishable palm-leaf. Nor was all this colossal literature confined to philosophy and theology, religion and Yoga, logic and rhetoric and grammar and linguistics, poetry and drama, medicine and astronomy and the sciences; it embraced all life, politics and society, all the arts from painting to dancing; all the 64 accomplishments, everything then known that could be useful to life or interesting to the mind, even, for instance, to such practical side minutiae as the breeding and training of horses and elephants, each of which had its Shastra and its art, its apparatus of technical terms, its copious literature.

“In each subject from the largest and most momentous to the smallest and most trivial, there was expended the same all-embracing opulent, minute and thorough intellectuality. On one side there is an insatiable curiosity, the desire of life to know itself in every detail, on the other a spirit of organization and scrupulous order, the desire of the mind to tread through life with a harmonized knowledge and in the right rhythm and measure. Thus an ingrained and dominant spirituality, an inexhaustible vital creativeness and gust of life and, mediating between them, a powerful, penetrating and scrupulous intelligence combined of the rational, ethical and aesthetic mind each at a high intensity of action, created the harmony of the ancient Indian culture.”

 To be continued.

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