Ashis Nandy: on Pakistan’s latent “potentialities”

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Ashis Nandy (38 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Ashis Nandy, our sparkling Sage of New Delhi, is in effect a psycho-analyst of post-colonial South Asia. On the way home from Lahore, we stopped to ask the great man about Pakistan — and the “myth of Pakistan” which, he has written, “originates in India and dominates India’s public life,” too. “Pakistan is what India does not want to be… both a double and the final rejected self… the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism.”

Such is the myth. The reality and the possibility of Pakistan, and Ashis Nandy’s feeling about India’s neighbor come out very differently in conversation. “I feel at home in Pakistan,” said the poster version of the Bengali intellectual. “I miss only the vibrancy, the stridency of the political opinions that are articulated against fundamentalism and the state.” Pakistan is “a troubled country,” he is saying, “but not moribund, not a failed state” and not about to become one.

Ashis Nandy has just made his own study, in 1500 interviews, of the wounds of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan — among the searing and decisive memories of his own boyhood in Calcutta. The snippet that leaps out at him now is that 40 percent of his sample called up stories of themselves and others being helped through that orgy of blood and death by “somebody from other side.” In no other genocide, Nandy says, can he find a comparable measure of mercy. “There is that part of the story, too,” he is saying. “That is South Asia.”

I have seen other faces of Pakistan too, other faces of the Pashtuns who have supplied us with the Taliban and hosted Osama Bin Laden. Gandhi called them the finest non-violent freedom fighters of India. Not once, more than once. So there is another story, which is no longer told, which seems very old-fashioned, which doesn’t seem to have a place in contemporary statecraft and contemporary political culture. I find that very odd. Human potentialities are not adequately recognized. I think we live with stereotypes, and once a stereotype becomes unfashionable, then pick up another stereotype. But there is another way of looking at it: the potentialities that are inherent in some of the cultures in this part of the world have never been fully explored. People are afraid of them, they become so nervous about the darker side of human nature that they do not like to know of them; they think this would be a compromise with realism, a compromise with statecraft. …

What we saw during the Partition was ultimately not only the pathology of rural India and urban India, but also the forces that can be mobilized for a different kind of effort, to fight the violence… I think my study of partition violence has made me more respectful towards ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, and I would in the future be more open to the multilayered selves of people in this part of the world, perhaps people everywhere.

Ashis Nandy with Chris Lydon, at home in New Delhi, mid-summer 2011.

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  • “40 percent of his sample called up stories of themselves and others being helped through that orgy of blood and death by “somebody from other side.”

    Heartening to dispel the notion that everyone loses their mind with vengeance in war or conflict.

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  • sifta

    Bravo for such an amazing interview. Even aside from the insights from his extensive studies of partition, there are some real offhanded gems which are offhandedly thrown out there earlier in the conversation.

    When he heartily praises Manto for questioning not only conventional wisdom but certitudes he is most certainly describing himself as well. We need more of that over here in the USA as well (and maybe are getting it a little with the Wall Street protests). His ideas include speculations and counterfactuals extrapolated from unexpected truths. With such a dreamy backdrop, it takes a lot to even be worthwhile, but Nandy is fascinating.

    Just to list three:
    1) The idea that America and India have a commonality in their complexity that makes them a ‘second’ point of reference in the imaginations of many citizens of more homogeneous places.
    2) The idea that Ireland, Cyprus, Palestine and India share a common thread of British arbitrary borders that have produced multi-generational conflicts over borders.
    3) Imagining a counterfactual evolution of a new sort of nation-state which has some sort of intermediate non-territorial layer of communities of group citizenship that intermediates between the individual and the nation.

    And there are a number of others… In fact, the analytical soundness of these is a bit suspect. For instance, does not (3) describe Gaddafi’s insane program for Libya? On the other hand, the capacity and vocabulary of dreaming is helpful in itself.

    For instance, if at the core, Pakistan and India are separated by a wound of partition that pits them as mortal enemies now and will take yet another generation to heal, then will a re-unification into a united India proceed after that?

    Also, the entire question of partition seems to harken back to an odd observation that Arundhati Roy makes, which is that the post-partition India can be described as an Imperialist Hindu Fundamentalist empire — based on asserting domination over Punjabi Sikhs, Kashmir, Tribal people, etc. In the context of this conversation, one wonders if that too is a reaction to partition. If one takes the counterfactual of a unified India sans partition which comes up now and again, then the result is not simply the India that came out of partition.

  • Potter

    Listening to this was a privilege. (Not that the others were/are not.) But Ashis Nandy sounds like he has more wisdom and insight than you would expect from one life, one lifetime.

    I did not give much thought until now to the breaking apart of India and what a painful tear it was, how traumatic.

    Particularly interesting to think about (and similar to criticisms of Israel) is the notion that post-colonial nation states were formed along 19th century “axioms” in the 20th century. Thinking along those lines for solutions to problems (continuing bloodshed and attitudes) is not adequate in this 21st century where we expect spiritual progress. Open minds come to creative solutions. With Pakistan things seem in such a break down mode. I notice in these interviews, several times, including this with Nandy, the refusal to say “failed state”.

    Lo and behold, yet again, in today’s news we read how US and Afghan forces managed to kill 24 Pakistani soldiers, mistakenly, during a border raid during our search for insurgents. I wince.

  • Jeech

    To know what really caused to set a permanent boundary between naturally the two separate entities, you would have to look into the stories of the recent India’s Muslims. What they think of India and their place in India is as important to know as to knowing the 70 years old rationality behind all India Muslims support of a separate state.

    The people who cannot understand the “rocket science” of Hindu/Muslim clashes on daily bases in India, won’t be expected to put off the glasses they wear to see Pakistan and her ancient reality.

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