IIC & THE IDEA OF INDIA -Managing diversity and difference

Chatterjee, Ashoke former Executive Director of the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad from 1975-85 retired as a Distinguished Fellow in 2001. Ashoke Chatterjee is on the board of directors of Aid to Artisans, USA among several other organizations. His vast interests include water management and environmental issues. He has spearheaded the movement to find a solution to the crisis faced by the weavers of Varanasi.

‘India’ and ‘international’: terms redolent with implications of tradition, modernity, identity, change, promise and challenge. The generation that participated in achieving Freedom, including the  founders of the India International Centre, were confident that India had a message about the meaning of a democratic, syncretic society as well as what resurgent India could represent to the world outside. The Centre was intended as a space within which dialogue could enhance an understanding of diversity and tolerance, help develop capacities for managing difference, and assist measurements of progress relevant to a just society. Through the years, IIC has served this mission admirably. Yet recent events remind us that as a nation, managing difference and diversity is perhaps a greater challenge today than it was in 1947. IIC often appears as island of sanity surrounded by troubled waters, and a new generation cannot take for granted the concepts that brought the Centre into existence. They have come of age during years that have challenged the qualities and assumptions on which free India was founded. Additionally, they must deal with major new challenges: the degradation of our environment, the rise of terror, the impatience of communities left for too long at the margins of society, the impact of transforming technologies, the rush to convert citizens into consumers, and a pace of change that is entirely new to experience. The young are thus being challenged to re-discover their heritage, and to re-state the postulates on which India can move into its future. While unparalleled opportunities await them, youth seems caught between a society that lurches between alternative identities and histories of ‘India’ and the pressures that threaten their nation and planet. Within such chaos, can IIC be a catalyst for an Indian identity and an Indian confidence?


Loss and opportunity

There are political, social, cultural, environmental and indeed spiritual dimensions to this quest that cannot be captured in a brief note. Amidst hope for alternatives free of ideological baggage, there is concern over values lost to cynicism and corruption. Alarming signs cannot be ignored. The abysmal state of Indian education inhibits turning classrooms and universities into spaces within which each generation rediscovers India. The implications are still with us of a masjid destroyed seventeen years ago and of pogroms conducted to establish majority dominance in 1984 and again in 2002. A great artist, his paintings celebrated at IIC, lives in exile. A great play performed at IIC is banned, even as its author’s passing is the loss of a national treasure. The largest sector of the economy after agriculture --- hand production, employing uncounted millions --- is confined to the margins as a ‘sunset’ activity irrelevant to super-power aspirations. Media promotes every conceivable notion of modernity (from western fashion to skin colour) that can degrade an Indian sense of self-worth.  We remain unable to feed, clothe or house our citizens in anything approaching dignity while an expanding middle-class races toward waste and greed. A pattern of consumption is being thrust upon us that threatens everything we know about protecting the planet we will leave to our children. Millions suffer and die without sanitation, even as Gandhiji made this the foundation for true freedom more than a century ago. When IIC was founded, India could boost of a cadre of great Indian scholars. Today this class has diminished to the point of extinction, and India has begun to depend on foreigners to interpret its past. What does that portend for the future of an ‘India International Centre’ in which scholarship is accepted as the enduring foundation for understanding and peace?


Surely we cannot continue to drift in this manner, afraid and incapable of taking greater charge of a “tryst with destiny”. Despite the gloom, there are forces that can support and lift a contemporary search for quality. History justifies the Indian experiment, and the global relevance of India’s commitment to managing diversity within democratic frameworks. The environmental movement has brought to the fore concepts of development that were first articulated in India’s struggle for freedom: sustainability understood as justice and as a balance between nature and human society. The understanding of progress has finally moved beyond measurements of production and income to indicators of human development that can track movement toward justice, security and identity within change --- just as Gandhiji had urged. Global movements to empower the marginalized and to protect the planet have supported and often been inspired by Indian example. The ‘idea of India’ has taken a universal relevance.


“A discipline of modernization”

Thirty years ago Romesh Thapar, one of IIC’s founding spirits, examined the challenge of an Indian identity within the processes of modernization. He insisted that “the attempt to interpret modernisation in one stereotype model must be defeated”. He warned that “vulgarity, in all its frustrations, its duplicity and imitation” has “the propensity to return with redoubled fury. It returns on the basis of the slogan that variety is the spice of life. It returns by dressing bad taste in modernization, making it fashionable and competitive. It returns by surreptitiously entering other areas of creativity and aesthetic. It returns because of an embedded inferiority complex of people’s rule for long by alien powers…..”  Romesh called for the need to “draw upon the great heritage of the world knowledge and experience to create a discipline of modernization which dissolves the division between rich and poor, the contrast between waste and want and the repetitive patterns of ugliness and beauty which constitutes the violated environment of our planet...” Romesh Thapar’s warning of thirty years ago has lost none of its urgency. A “discipline of modernization” is more critical to India’s survival than ever before. It can offer hope and opportunity. Can IIC pay itself and its founders the tribute of reviving a dialogue toward such a goal?


I am suggesting a dialogue that reaches out beyond the Centre, appealing to young people in all parts of the country through like-minded institutions, and in as many languages as possible. The Centre can be a space that both initiates dialogue and then draws collective wisdom together, using that wisdom to help transform our nation and to inform IIC’s own agenda for the years ahead.

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