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Can the Past Be Prologue? India and Its Narratives

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Can the Past Be Prologue? India and Its Narratives

A new book by a former Indian spy chief raises questions about how the world should see India – and how India should see itself.

Can the Past Be Prologue? India and Its Narratives
Credit: Flickr/Mílton Jung

Since what follows is a piece on narratives, perhaps it is appropriate to begin with a story. Or rather, a true story about an article about different versions of an epic. In 2011, Delhi University was forced to drop an essay by the late poet and University of Chicago professor A.K. Ramanujan from its history syllabus after Hindu activists vehemently complained that it offended their sensibilities. The grievance in question? Ramanujan had simply observed – correctly – that there were multiple versions of the Hindu epic Ramayana in multiple languages across South and Southeast Asia, and not just the one Indian Hindus follow, composed by Valmiki and retold with small variations by Tulsidas.

Appropriately simplified, Valmiki’s Ramayana has long formed a strong filament that ties together traditional Hindu beliefs and modern political Hinduism. A plurality of Ramayanas thus doubly offends some: it not only detracts from what Indian Hindus, particularly in the north of the country, believe in; it also effectively strikes at the heart of any political project that takes a stylized telling of Valmiki’s epic as a given. The god Ram, at the heart of the epic, is also the ideal ruler, the nominal lodestar for Hindutva.

Taking umbrage at slights – especially when it comes to religious beliefs – is common in South Asia, and it cuts across religious lines. But the Ramanujan episode – and many such, before and since – raises difficult questions. What is a (the?) story we Indians believe anchor us collectively, at home and the world? Is it a secular account of India’s journey as a modern democracy and emergence as a major economic power, or it based on a nebulous “civilizational” identity? Is there even such a story, given India’s obvious multi-dimensional diversity and glaring faultlines that shape the country’s raucous public discourse? What is the story the Indian state needs to tell its citizens and the world? How thin is the line between promoting a certain national image and state-sponsored propaganda?

Such questions – increasingly debated in Narendra Modi’s India – once again came to fore on October 29, at the launch of a new book on the (geo)politics of narratives, “The Ultimate Goal,” written by a former chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, Vikram Sood. At a virtual event organized by a New Delhi think tank, Sood – an elder statesman of sorts in the New Delhi strategic community – laid out a passionate case for pushing back against narratives about India emanating from abroad. Instead, as Sood writes in his book, “India has many stories to tell the world, which it must do in its own words and not be informed by outsiders.”

But his is squarely an account of a former spymaster: geopolitics lurks menacingly in the background. While Sood’s sympathies for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi are clear, his overriding concern is with how India ought to be perceived by the world versus how it is portrayed, especially in the American press. Page after page in Sood’s book, one finds accounts of the global machinations of the United States, and descriptions of how its intelligence services sought to control and deploy the media and intelligentsia, especially during the Cold War. While there is more than a germ of truth to what he writes, one is left wondering what lessons Sood is obliquely trying to draw for India.

Ever since Modi came to power for the first time in 2014, India’s relentless obsession with how the country is perceived outside its borders – and especially, in Western capitals – has become clear. Part of this stems from a bet about the utility of India’s “soft power” in making up for the relative weakness of the country’s material power base. But beyond this lies a claim – and in this, India is in the same club as China, Russia and Turkey – that the country is a “civilizational” state, something India’s National Security Advisor (and former head of its internal intelligence service) Ajit Doval reiterated recently.

Of course, the danger with this framing is that every critique of state action (say, by foreign media or even intellectuals at home) stands to be taken as a direct assault on a civilization and not as an honest account of a policy failure to be redressed. So, whenever a newspaper in New York or London calls out, say, the extant plight of India’s minorities, supporters of the civilizational state proposition perceive it as an affront to India’s history of cultural assimilation spanning hundreds of years. This long view of things, paradoxically, induces long-sightedness when it comes to troubles at India’s doorstep.

This is where the urge to shape narratives, as Sood advocates for his many takers in the BJP, comes in. As he writes in his book, “The first step in building India’s narrative would be to accept and propagate the notion that the country has a civilizational heritage that is much larger and older than its recent history.” What is left unsaid – and what the skeptical reader is left with a nagging suspicion about – is that a narrative about India that predates the modern Indian state becomes a cloak to cover uncomfortable discourse, with the combined weight of past and future greatness reducing contemporary problems to irritating ephemera.

But whose glorious past and magnificent future? The Dalit who cleans India’s drains manually? The pregnant Muslim female graduate student who was jailed for two months for reasons that are still unclear? The think tank leader who dreams of a $5 trillion economy and global heft for his country? Or the Indian journalist who works for an American outlet and wonders if these are questions that need to be asked at all?

Perhaps all of theirs, because that is the only way by which small and big injustices and victories, dreams and fears, hopes and aspirations stay alive all at once as a teeming multitude of stories, much like the many Ramayanas – not entirely mutually exclusive, but not the same either. And the only India narrative may be the one in which that plurality of pasts and futures, and especially the core that is common to all, is accepted and welcomed.