*The Provocations of Ashis Nandy


For close to four decades, Ashis Nandy has occupied a liminal presence on the Indian intellectual scene.  In nearly every respect, whether from the standpoint of the intellectual positions he has adopted, the trajectory of his professional life, his stance towards religious faith, or the politics that he embraces, Nandy has carved out a worldview that is distinct even singular.  Though he is viewed in the public domain as an academic, he has always kept a distance from university life as such and has spent his entire career as a Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.  There are few scholars who have subjected the very idea of ‘development’, and the certitude with which experts speak of ‘developing societies’, to such rigorous scrutiny as has Nandy.  For all his immense learning, he has little use for the pedantry that often passes for scholarship –– one reason, among others, why some people characterize him as a maverick, gadfly, or contrarian.


Trained as a clinical psychologist, Nandy has disavowed the profession of psychology.  Some of his readers grumble at his propensity for psychoanalytical readings of personalities, but his use of Freud is, so to speak, homegrown.  There was a time, though this is much less so the case now, when left intellectuals routinely branded Nandy, born into a Christian family, as a Hindu fundamentalist.  I doubt very much that he can at all be described as a man of faith, but he has kept faith with the idea that non-believers have no higher duty than to defend the right of each person to his or her faith.  One could continue in this vein, almost ad infinitum:  thus, to take one last illustration, though one can hardly describe Nandy as a biographer, it is striking that much of his work pivots around individual lives, whether it be Gandhi, Tagore, Rammohan Roy, Jagdish Chandra Bose, the mathematician Ramanujan, the ‘first modern Indian environmentalist’ Kapilprasad Bhattacharjee, the ‘first non-western psychoanalyst’ Girindrasekhar Bose, the jurist Radha Binod Pal, and many others.  These lives provide the frame around which Nandy has spun complex narratives, though some will call them yarns, about the culture of politics, the politics of culture, and the manner in which knowledge systems insinuate themselves into the praxis of everyday life.


The highly anomalous mold within which his thoughts are wrought lead Nandy to some extraordinary insights but also make him unusually vulnerable to attack. His writings on communalism and secularism provide a case in point.  Though scarcely all the nuances of his position can be enunciated here, one might begin with his firm view that communal riots in India are largely an urban phenomenon.  There may be many reasons for this, among them, to use Gandhi’s phrase from an interview he gave to the Reverend Mott in the mid-1930s, ‘the hard heartedness of the educated’.  This was in response to the query, ‘What filled Gandhi with the greatest despair’.  The educated in India are also prone to deploy the idioms of historical thinking, and one cannot begin to understand the conflict over the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmasthan until one has an awareness of how middle-class Hindus, much like nationalists elsewhere, have mobilized history, with consequences that were to be seen in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, in the service of the nation-state.  Though myth is one of the ugliest words in the lexicon of Marxists, positivists, liberals, and modernizers alike, Nandy has argued eloquently that myths are a more reliable and humane guide to the past –– and link to the future.  One of the many hidden transcripts in his recent comments on corruption among OBCs, SCs, and STs, which have enraged some people, is the implicit suggestion that the liberation of the Dalits will be better achieved by their use of creative myth-making than by attentiveness to the history of their oppression.


In an essay that Nandy penned on ‘the alternative cosmopolitanism of Cochin’, he demonstrates amply the radical tenor of his thinking.  He set out to inquire why Cochin, which has large numbers of Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, has been free of communal riots for 500 years.  The people he met from these ‘communities’ do not even remotely describe themselves as secular; indeed, shocking as this might be to the liberal sensibility, which insists upon the ‘caring’ ethic, an anodyne form of good neighborliness, the elimination of prejudices, even (as in the United States) diversity workshops, nearly everyone Nandy met admitted to holding rather severe stereotypes about members of the other communities.  Nandy concludes that it is, in a manner of speaking, a healthy balance of prejudices that has sustained Cochin’s religious pluralism.


Cochin’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ has not been imposed from above, as a diktat of the liberal state, nor does it stem from the Enlightenment’s putative idea of the fellowship of liberated rational subjects thinking beyond themselves and invested in the fate of the earth.  While the vast bulk of liberal and left scholarship has been concerned with exposing the pathology of irrationality, Nandy has spent the better part of his life zeroing in on the pathology of rationality and its most characteristic outcomes ––development, the nation-state, vivisectionist science, an (aggrieved) sense of history, to name a few.  This has entailed immense risk-taking, even hazardous remarks on more than one occasion, but where is the ethical intellectual life without such provocations?

(Published under the same title in The Times of India – The Crest Edition, 9 February 2013, p. 9.)

See the related post:  From the Ludic to the Ludicrous:  The Affair of Ashis Nandy on this site.


10 thoughts on “*The Provocations of Ashis Nandy

  1. I think it is a bit hasty to put down Cochin’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ to a ‘healthy balance of prejudice’. First of all Cochin also has had its fair share of communal riots in the past (e.g Mapilla riots). In recent times Cochin may appear to be calmer only by comparison. There may be other causal factors for the apparent cosmopolitanism we see today – a strong communist movement, money flowing into the local economy from Gulf workers that might be making conflict less likely due to increased economic well-being and a very high literacy rate among other factors. Ashis seems to have waylaid the truth in his pursuit of facts, and for being provocative for the sake of being provocative


    • I think it’s a bit hasty to say that Cochin has had its “fair share” of communal riots and violence. The whole point of Nandy’s
      inquiry was to ascertain why Cochin had been free of such violence. The Mapillah riots to which the writer makes reference
      took place in Malabar, not Cochin. The supposition that the communist movement had a role to play in keeping Cochin “calmer
      with comparison” is unsubstantiated; indeed, even many of the progressive features of Kerala’s politics owe much less
      to the CPM and the communist movement than they do Kerala’s history during the 19th century. (Of course, Kerala as such
      didn’t exist; I am referring to the states of Cochin and Travancore.) With respect to the question of literacy and its role
      in subduing communal violence, I’m afraid that here again the evidence points to quite the opposite. The educated in
      India have always been far more communal-minded. It is, in short, difficult to agree with the writer’s observations.


  2. Good analysis. I seek your permission to translate this piece into Tamil and publish it in our monthly magazine, Aazham. I have subscribed to your blog and would like to read your past entries here as well. Marudhan, Editor, Aazham.


  3. Hello

    I’d like to use some of your text in a book I’m writing, specifically:
    “For close to two hundred years, British rule in India was book-ended by famines –– ten million perished as hunger, anomie [instability in society caused by the erosion or abandonment of moral and social codes], loot, and confusion accompanied the British takeover of Bengal, and another three million were sacrificed to save the world from the peril of Nazism and Japanese militarism –– and in between epidemics, disease, war, and other famines took a massive toll of human life. While life expectancy in Britain, most of Europe, and the United States increased significantly from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, in India it declined from 24.6 in 1871-81 to 20.1 in 1911-21, and on the eve of independence [in 1947] life expectancy was still less than 30.”
    Source: Lal V. (2011). Lal Salaam: A blog by Vinay Lal. Ours But To Do and Die: The Culture and Politics of Death in India https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ours-to-do-and-die-the-culture-and-politics-of-death-in-india/

    The book relates to a critique of industrialist capitalism: if you want to look at your text in situ I’ve posted the part of the chapter where it is used in my blog. If you are not happy for me to use this I’ll remove from the chapter and blog.

    Stephen Kimber


  4. Professor Lal,
    it would be good to see you respond to Gopal Guru’s critique of Nandy in EPW appros the latter’s alleged castist(?) remark in JLF. Dillip Menon has already done this. But yours, i guess , might help us better understand Nandi’s position.


  5. Is it entirely fair to label this pathology of rationality a modern issue? After all, there is much precedent for it in ancient Indian philosophy: the Charvakas were staunchly rationalist and materialist. While I agree with much of your remarks, I would have to think that the rejection of the “irrational” in Indian thinking is as old as Indian philosophy itself.


    • There are many forms of rationality, to begin with, and in speaking of the pathology of rationality I have in mind the various ways in which rationality is instrumentalized. But I have in mind also the view that rationality will resolve all our problems. To understand the genesis of this, we have to go back to the enthronement of rationality in the Enlightenment. In this respect, the Carvakas, however interesting they may be, do not really enter into this discussion.


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