Talking Politics: Bhikhu Parekh in conversation with Ramin JahanbeglooBy confluence | December 9th, 2011 | Category: Book Reviews |
This book ought to be made required reading at every Indian university,
says Reginald Massey
Bhikhu Chotalal Parekh officially titled Baron Parekh of Kingston-upon-Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire has come a long way - from the village of Amalsad in Gujarat where he was born in 1935 - to the Palace of Westminster. His family were goldsmiths, not particularly elevated in the caste pecking order. However, his father, a Gandhian who indulged in money lending on the side (a conundrum, but India is replete with conundrums) was more than comfortable. Having had only a very basic schooling himself he was keen to see his son well educated and so sent the teenaged Bhikhu to the prestigious Jesuit St. Xavier’s College in Bombay. The academic bug soon infected Bhikhu who was, in any case, brighter than bright. He ended up with a doctorate from the LSE and professorships at Hull and Westminster and even at one point a stint as vice-chancellor of Baroda University.
Today a highly regarded political theorist and thinker with an international reputation, he’s a man well worth listening to. Indeed, what he says must be taken seriously in these troubled times. Hence it was a capital idea for Professor Jehanbegloo of Toronto University to question Parekh closely and elicit responses from him that are both wise and warm with a deep sense of humanity. This book is an interesting interaction between an Iranian and an Indian; both humanists, secularists, highly educated and vastly informed.
Jehanbegloo, who writes in Farsi, French and English, has in the past interviewed intellectual heavyweights such as Isaiah Berlin, George Steiner, Noam Chomsky and Ashis Nandy. He knows India well since he has lived in Delhi where he was once a professor. Needless to say, he is not the beloved of Iran’s ayatollahs. Just as Parekh is not best loved by India’s fundamentalists. No man of honour and independent thought is a saint in his own country.
This book has five chapters: From Amalsad to Westminster, Political Philosophy and its Public Role, Multiculturalism and Cultural Pluralism, Is Gandhi still Relevant? and Rethinking India. The preface The Pursuit of Excellence by Jehanbegloo provides an introduction to Parekh’s life and thought. He concludes: ‘It may be too early to talk about Parekh’s legacy, but there is no doubt that he has shown us both the unexpectedly large range of moral and political responsibilities open to us and the power of the wisely directed intellect to illuminate the ethical questions of our age.’
Parekh, a modest likeable man with not a hint of intellectual arrogance, readily acknowledges his indebtedness to his teachers in India and Britain. About the LSE he confesses that it was there that he was taught to think. This sets one on a trail which points to a serious defect in Indian education. Why wasn’t he taught to think in India? Unfortunately, to this day the same situation persists. Brilliant hard working young students, even at the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology, have to pass with high grades come what may. There is no recognition of the maverick, the crank, the odd-ball who dares to think and ask awkward questions. In other words, students are taught the set syllabus thoroughly but are not taught to think. And that is why very little original cutting-edge research is conducted or funded by Indian universities. However, Indian-origin scientists and scholars working in the West, such as Parekh’s son, are doing first rate work.
As a political scientist Parekh has trawled, among other notables, the thought of Bentham, Marx, Isaiah Berlin, Arendt and Gandhi. He has been much impressed by Gandhi but does not venerate him. He is (dare I say it?) the leading living authority on Gandhi. Most of those whom I’ve read (Indians and foreigners alike) who write ‘authoritatively’ on Gandhi descend to hagiography and sickening sentimental balderdash. The great man’s amusing and some times alarming eccentricities are held up as glorious virtues. They clothe Gandhi in saintliness and elevate him to the status of a Mahatma. But he was no Gautam Buddh; he was, after all, a politician and freedom fighter. He understood that India could never get rid of the British by a ‘War of Independence’ waged in a conventional manner by the use of guns and bombs. He propagated satyagraha, the ‘force of truth’ which in real terms translated into a policy of ‘non-violent resistance’. The world recognizes Gandhi for that. However, he was fortunate in his adversaries. One has to ask whether satyagraha would have cut much ice with the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.
Nowhere in this book does Parekh address Gandhi as ‘the Mahatma’, ‘the Great Soul’. That, I suspect, is significant. Parekh the philosopher is analytical and detached and can see Gandhi as a man often tormented not only by his own tensions but by the immense agenda that he had undertaken. Parekh’s views on the Khilafat Movement and Gandhi’s autobiographical book The Story of my Experiments with Truth are eye-openers. I believe, nevertheless, that Gandhi’s stand on the Khilafat question was a monumental mistake. In order to curry favour with India’s Muslims he supported their ultra-Indian sentiments. However, the Turks themselves were sick and tired of the corrupt and decadent Ottoman Sultans who claimed to be the Khalifas of the entire ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims. It was not the British who got rid of the Khalifas. It was Kemal Ataturk who did the deed. While declaring Turkey a secular state he dragged his country into the modern world.
With reference to the Muslim world Parekh has the following advice: ‘Intellectual and religious leaders of Muslim communities need to offer a way of reading Islam that connects with European modernity and counters the perverted interpretation by Al Qaida and its associates’. He is impressed with South Asia’s Sufi heritage and towering figures such as Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the ‘Frontier Gandhi’, from whom he recommends Muslims can draw enormous inspiration.
In Rethinking India Parekh states: ‘Kashmir has proved most elusive, partly because of its international dimension and partly because of successive governments’ incompetence, manipulations, and heavy handedness. India feels unduly frightened of loosening its hold over Kashmir and has resorted to actions that further alienate Kashmir, harm its international reputation, brutalize its armed forces , shed a lot of blood on both sides, and damage its democracy’. He believes that the people of Kashmir ’should be trusted to make intelligent decisions about their future’. These statements will not make Parekh popular with those sections of the Indian establishment who are baying for the blood of Arundhati Roy.
Finally, the following from Parekh is priceless: ‘Traditionally, Indians did not have much commitment to equality, social justice, national unity, and organized opposition that are central to democracy. Over the centuries they did develop the habits of living with differences and mutual accommodation, and perhaps, that helped.’ The second sentence is crucial. If the people of India continue to live with differences (Vive la difference!) and resolve to survive together in mutual accommodation there is hope for the future. If that does not happen Hindustan will certainly disintegrate into petty chiefdoms, fiefdoms and thiefdoms. That is exactly what happened when the Mughal Empire decayed and fell apart and left the door wide open for foreign domination and exploitation.
This book ought to be made required reading in every Indian university.
Reginald Massey’s INDIA: Definitions and Clarifications is published by Hansib, London.