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The Indian grand narrative

Defining and building India with the right ideas
by Apoorva Tadepalli

There are many reservations that someone who wishes to be broad-minded and socially sensitive might have towards Rajiv Malhotra, founder of the Infinity Foundation and author of Indra’s Net: Defending Hinduism’s Philosophical Unity among others. There are, arguably, many reservations that someone of this kind is wired to have towards someone who is known to be one of Wendy Doniger’s biggest critics, and who uses the word dharma in the context of Indian domestic and foreign policy. However, Malhotra’s talk at the Bangalore Literature Festival on the panel for “Debating Hinduism and the Indian Grand Narrative” proved interesting and less alarming than someone of this kind might expect.

Rajiv Malhotra is an Indian-American writer who worked in the telecom industry in the US before beginning to write. His books cover ideas like Western misconceptions of Indian culture and appropriation of Indian knowledge systems, among others. His talk, in the first ten minutes at various points, showed equal promise of being rife with overused sentiments surrounding secularism and first-world domination, and of being a moderate yet assertive talk on what India’s real agenda should be. His first attractive point was that he discussed India’s socio-cultural issues, policies, and international agenda as related factors, something uncommon in much of popular discourse today, because all these factors are significant to the idea of a “grand Indian narrative”.

The panel was based on the idea that every country needs its own narrative, a narrative rooted in its tradition and story; without this narrative, its agenda could be appropriated by more powerful countries, and the country is more likely to fail. India needs such a narrative. The problem, he argued, is that currently the Indian narrative belongs to the West – it is where the best quality education is for South Asian Studies, where an intellectual has to publish papers and attend conferences to be someone in their field. It is with an identity created for it by the West that India presents itself to the world.

Instead, Malhotra says, India should look at the concept of urvapaks, or the practice of looking outward, observing others. It implies having one’s own position from which to look at and understand others, which India does not have. One way of finding this position, he says, is to look at India’s contributions in the corporate sector globally. This is a field in which India has produced high functioning labour which is capable of adding value and negotiating on the basis of what India is good at; therefore, India should focus on strengthening its human capital.

What is currently happening is the importing of various Western concepts into the Indian narrative which Malhotra says is taking away from our own identity. Despite the unoriginal comments about why only Hindus get branded as communal when expressing religious sentiment, Malhotra managed to avoid many tired dichotomies and say simply that secularism is one such alien concept. A grand narrative is essential partly because it enables Indians to understand how to co-exist, and this narrative would be an Indian substitute for secularism, which is someone else’s narrative.

Another interesting factor Malhotra mentioned about why India’s narrative belongs to other countries is because India does not have the academic infrastructure that supports public intellectuals. These people have the potential to capture mainstream media and public thought with their ideas and writing, and in doing so create an Indian narrative collectively by influencing peoples’ perceptions of India or Hinduism. India has relatively few free thinkers and writers who are unaffiliated to political parties. The suggestion is that if India had more funding for academic or policy institutes for India-centric study, more of these people would have a space here.

Despite the heavy use of Sanksrit terminology, and the fact that the semi-interchangeable use of “Hindu ideas” and “Indian ideas” in his talk could have been managed much better, Malhotra’s ideas are generic and moreover relevant to India economically and politically, not just culturally. The ideas themselves spoke to a globally impactful, progressive yet historically rooted India.

Apoorva Tadepalli is a communications associate at the Takshashila Institution. 

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