Even though I am not a staunch proponent of the doctrine of unlimited techno-economic progress, my urge to rediscover modernist Jawaharlal Nehru’s “discovery” emanates from a sense of shared wonder — an attempt to understand an old civilisation with love and critique, humility and assertion. And despite my unease with scientism and soulless atheism, I continue to be fascinated by secular Nehru’s openness and philosophic perplexity. Although in Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj I do not see what at times Nehru saw — “the praise of poverty and suffering” — it is illuminating to find a discoverer heavily influenced by the likes of Marx, Freud and Darwin to have a sustained engagement with the Mahatma.
Yes, I know that our times are strikingly different from the colonial context in which, as a prisoner, Nehru was writing his reflections from the Ahmednagar Fort. Indeed, when the dominant discourse in our times is that of neo-liberal global capitalism and assertive religious nationalism, something has gone terribly wrong. As greedy consumers and militant nationalists with the loud symbolism of religious identity, we seem to have lost what made Nehru’s “discovery” possible — a spirit of nuanced dialogue, decolonised cosmopolitanism and cultural syncretism. No wonder, in these troubled times, I reflect on the significance of understanding Nehru’s insights into three politico-epistemological puzzles — science, culture and religion.
Like all modernists, Nehru too was a child of science and its grand promise of the light of reason, its explanatory capacity and its ability to expand the zones of certainty in an otherwise uncertain world. With “scientific temper” — “a process of thinking, a method of acting and associating with our fellow men” — he sought to fight the “dead weight of past” and give India the “garb of modernity”. In Nehru’s romance with science, I guess, there was idealism. Even though he loved industrial development and technological miracles like big dams, his “science” was still not like technocratic rationality, the way global capitalism has reduced it into a principle of corporate trade and reckless domination of people and nature. In fact, Nehru’s ideal science person was more like the courageous/idealist doctor Satyajit Ray projected in his film Ganashatru (Enemy of people) — a doctor who could dare to fight the temple authority by showing that the outbreak of jaundice in the locality is because of the contaminated water in the temple that the devotees are taking mindlessly.
However, with technocratic/instrumental rationality, science loses its liberating potential, destroys what Habermas would have regarded as the democratic “public sphere” filled with “communicative action”. Ironically, in neo-liberal India, science, far from existing as what Nehru would have regarded as “the adventurous search for truth and new knowledge” or “the hard discipline of the mind”, is being perceived as mere technological efficiency. It is inherently conservative, a token of “growth”, but not necessarily in conflict with the obnoxious practices that the techno-savvy/politically conservative middle class in “shiny” India feels comfortable with.
Despite his celebration of science, the deeper metaphysical/spiritual question fascinated Nehru. True, as he repeatedly argued, the burden of religion has to be lessened. Yet, he could still hear the Upanishadic prayer, see the message of “contemplation and action” in the Bhagavad Gita, and almost like Max Weber, he would allow himself to be troubled by the question relating to the meaning of existence in a world characterised by increasing rationalisation and secularisation. “Science”, he admitted, “ignored the ultimate purposes”, and “some faith seems necessary in terms of the spirit which are beyond the scope of our physical world”. A “secular” Nehru, I believe, was more sensitive to the fineness of spiritual wonder than what these days the zealots and state-sponsored celebrity babas are doing.
Sociologists have reflected on multiple modernities, and studied the complex interplay of civilisational resilience and social transformation. Even in otherwise “westernised” Nehru, I could see this sensitivity. Yes, for a man who loved modern science and a blend of liberal democracy and socialist idealism, social transformation was the cherished mantra. Yet, he could entertain self-doubt. “Did I know India?” The “discovery” began with this question, and this was precisely its beauty. He could look at the ancient cave architecture, feel the symbolism of its paintings; he could reflect on the calmness in Buddha’s face; in our ancestors he could see “keen minds ever striving and exploring”, and despite his occasional discomfort with Gandhi, he could understand how this “reactionary has shaken up India as no so-called revolutionary has done”. Yes, as subalternists and Ambedkarites might argue, Nehru was inclined to “high culture”, and there was the absence of the voice of the marginalised in his discovery that “India is very lovable, and none of her children can forget her”.
However, in the name of celebrating the “popular” we should not make a mistake by saying that everything that “high” is necessarily life negating. At a time when culture is a commodified spectacle sold and consumed in the market, the “popular” manifests itself in cow nationalism and lynching, and even the Ram Rahims are seen as the gurus of the “subaltern”, where is the liberating “folk”? Or is there necessarily a conflict between the folk and the classical? The “elitism” of Nehru notwithstanding, his sensitivity, I would say, opens our eyes to seeing beyond loud modernity, loud nationalism and popular culture.
Even though I am not a Nehruvian, I experience the presence of his absence. His scholarship, his passion, and his wonder I miss in a political culture that taps the simulation of 24X7 television channels and networking of social media, and projects the dramaturgical performance of narcissistic leaders without philosophic depth and real substance.