Evolution and regression

Why we need a movement to save the nation we had, or at least the nation many of us hoped we had.

Written by Abhijit V. Banerjee | Updated: January 25, 2018 9:33:39 am
Padmaavat today, Ayodhya tomorrow, keep the fires burning by making people feel that there is an ongoing battle that they can lose. (Illusration: CR Sasikumar)

Nobody has seen an ape turn into a human being, but sometimes you see a human turning into an ape. Perhaps the only uniquely human attribute is the ability to imagine things that they have not seen, and especially things no one has ever seen. Chimpanzees can spot patterns and learn to use words, but no chimp ever came up with the idea of a Ganesh or a unicorn.

The denial of this most profoundly human attribute lies at the heart of the right-wing populist politics that is on the rise all over the world. “Scheduled Castes are scavengers, people who handle dead animals and human excreta. How could I marry my daughter to one of them, when I would not even drink water from their hands?” the argument goes. “Muslims slaughter animals and bomb innocent people. Violence is part of who they are”, we are told, “Everyone knows that black men are all drug dealers and criminals. The prisons are full of them. Why would we treat them as our equals?”

Of course, Scheduled Castes did not opt to be scavengers, just as black men did not opt for a history of enslavement and discrimination. And Muslim terrorism today continues a tradition of killing (often innocent) individuals as a form of political protest, that many Bengali and Maharashtrian Hindus (including that high priest of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar) used against the British, the Jewish militias used against the British in what was then Palestine and the Irish Catholics used against their English masters until only a few years ago. But that history is mostly lost; post 2001, the Muslims are the only terrorists.

The same literalism also inspires the flat earth movement, popular among Trump supporters in the United States: “The earth looks flat to me, and what is more, that is what it says in the Bible.” And, of course, poor Darwin is now under attack both in the Bible belt and the Hindi heartland, for not according with the respective scriptures.

It may be tempting to see these views as a subaltern challenge to the elite practices in the sciences and the social sciences, confronting abstraction with intuition based on direct observation, but that would be both wrong and ultimately patronising. The woman in the street does not demand her science be self-evident. She is as capable of abstraction as our leaders, perhaps more because she is less weighed down by cynicism. She uses her microwave every day and is too savvy to ask how that machine generates heat without fire; she knows that science often goes behind our backs to make things happen. She would know not to ask to see evolution with her own eyes.

And it is not true that direct observation inclines most of us to hate Muslims or look down on Scheduled Castes. Our everyday experience is that our Muslim neighbours are no different from any others. The problem is, more, that most of us don’t have Muslim neighbours any more — they have been frightened into making themselves invisible — and therefore we encounter them only on the pages of newspapers or in meat shops, which reinforces the stereotypes.

As for the low caste would-be son-in-law, what makes him a “danger” is often precisely his charm and his worldly success, which even the parents find difficult to resist. This is why the khap panchayats need to step in with their threats.

The general point is that there is nothing organic or authentic about these narratives of small-mindedness and prejudice; they are constructed carefully, an innuendo here, a half-truth there. Padmaavat today, Ayodhya tomorrow, keep the fires burning by making people feel that there is an ongoing battle that they can lose. When there is nothing else going, why not give evolution a try? See if there are any takers for that particular fight. This is how we all get turned into apes.

What is particularly frightening is that there is so little that is being done about it. Speaking for myself, all I do is to wring my hands and talk about the need for better education. In fact, important work is being done there — Ashoka University and Ahmedabad University are pioneering a liberal arts education for India and there are other green shoots (at the Institute for Financial Management and Research in Chennai, for example). But the scale is entirely too small and time is running out on us.

We need a movement to save the nation we had, or at least the nation many of us hoped we had. A movement that celebrates our traditions of openness and curiosity, argumentation and abstraction, hospitality and grace. A movement of religious people and atheists, of passion and reason and all the uniquely Indian alloys of the two. A new national movement.

The writer is Ford Foundation professor of economics at MIT.

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