The Stubborn Idealism of Anand Patwardhan

by Akeel Bilgrami, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University



Anand Patwardhan’s is one of the most reassuring voices in Indian cultural life. I don’t just mean that he reassures us by facing down with courage and worldly skill the constant hostility he faces from governments, censor boards, corporate interests, and Hindu fundamentalist groups. That is reassuring and impressive enough, but I mean something more unusually reassuring and impressive.


Richard Dawkins has suggested that there is a cultural equivalent of the gene, the meme, a more abstract entity (an idea, say) which replicates (as a gene does in bodies) in the cultural realm. I have always doubted the plausibility of this notion because it fails to recognise just how much human beings are afflicted by the possession of a trait that has no analogue in nature –the capacity to get bored with something once they get used to it. (As Jimmy Porter said with his characteristic sexist rudeness to his wife in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger: “You are the sort of person who, if you landed up in paradise, in the first five minutes you’d get used to it.”) The constant distraction from changing trends in intellectual and cultural life to which, contra Dawkins, all our ideas tend to succumb, is a testament to the destructive power of this human trait –and it takes a loftier, a more rarified, form of courage and resilience to withstand it than the courage to withstand the oppressiveness of political and economic power; a capacity for calm intellectual commitment and consistency in the face of the glamour of transient intellectual fashions, unperturbed by the dismissals of being out-of-date; the stubborn idealism to say: Just because something seems familiar and out of step with the latest thing that others are saying, does not mean it is not true and does not mean it will not help us to build a better life.


In the corpus of cinematic work he has accumulated over four decades, Patwardhan pursues this steadfast and repeated truth-telling in politics with a core of commitment and consistency to ideas that trace back to Gandhi and to Marx: the moral power of non-violence, the belief in the judgement of poor and working people away from the centres of power and wealth (in other words the belief in democracy), and the wholesale (not piecemeal) rejection of the comprehensive ruin wrought by the stranglehold of capital, controlling states as well as the media both of which do its bidding, generating imperial domination to this day, to say nothing of generating and sustaining inequalities in just about every society in the world, inequalities that are not merely economic but feeding into the inequalities owing to social prejudice of caste and gender and race… These are all utterly familiar ideas by now, but their efficacies have never been given a genuine run, and yet Patwardhan refuses to allow this to make him despondent and let them go for other up-to-the-minute intellectual tendencies, as most other intellectuals and artists have. In film after film, he returns to them, much as Cezanne returned to the apple in painting after painting from every conceivable angle, seeking to get to its core, not just its physical but its logical form, as it were.


That is what I most admire in Patwardhan’s films and it is displayed in gratifying abundance in War and Peace, a film about the nuclear threat to humanity. Though the canvas is frequently global in reach and aspiration, a central and recurring focus is on that danger as it grew out of the nationalism of the Indian sub-continent in the post-independence period, in particular on Hindu nationalism of recent decades in India and the abiding militarist culture of governance in Pakistan. The film’s attack on such nationalism is frontal and unswerving, yet it is made more interesting by repeated hints in the film, owing mostly to the dominant figure of Gandhi among Patwardhan’s influences, that nationalism is not one thing. This bears some historical stage-setting, which is only implicit in the film’s beginning that gives us a glimpse and a comment on Gandhi’s assasination.


Lest we forget, nationalism in the most reprehensible sense the world has known it, is a European phenomenon that emerged after the Westphalian peace. It had its hideous culmination centuries later in the nineteen thirties and forties in Germany. This is the form of nationalism that generates a political feeling for the nation as ‘ours’ by finding an external enemy within, an ‘Other’ to be despised and subjugated (the Jews, the Irish, the Catholics in Protestant countries, the Catholics in Protestant countries…). It is an entirely modern phenomenon starting in Early Modern Europe and it is something that Gandhi desperately wished to avoid for India, which is why he tried to equate the very idea of nationalism with a quite different ideal, that of an anti-imperialism built upon an inclusively pluralist mobilisation, hoping to preempt the European antecedents of nation-building in India by these means. The European ideal, however, was explicitly formulated and promoted zealously by Gandhi’s nemesis Savarkar, whose avowed devotee assassinated Gandhi. It is an ideal that eventually came to a full flowering in the nineteen eighties in India and has been Patwardhan’s sustained target in a previous film as well. War and Peace begins with the assassination of Gandhi and one prominent strand in the film is a sobering and passionate tracing of the effects of the sort of nationalism he opposed and feared –both on India’s foreign policy and more insidiously and pervasively on the Indian psyche.


If Gandhi rejected Hindu nationalism as a form of mimicry of Europe’s past, Hindu nationalism disdained Gandhi for diluting and, thereby, emasculating Hinduism, a religion that Gandhi repeatedly avowed as his personal faith, though in a form that was unselfconsciously capacious, embracing the spiritual and cultural influences not only of religions that had come to India by the conquests of the last many centuries, but also Buddhism and Jainism. This syncretist Hinduism was deemed effeminate by Hindu nationalism for contaminating the glories of an imagined ancient “Golden Age” of Hinduism with these later accretions. This male, warrior mentality raises its head repeatedly in the nationalist cast of mind that Patwardhan depicts in the film, connecting with an earlier film of his that linked the sexual anxiety of the male psyche with Hindu fanaticism, but connecting also with a foreign policy that claimed that the once admired India with a great cultural past must assert itself again now with what the contemporary world considers a sign of greatness: the possession of nuclear might to increase its global clout. It is not far from the film’s surface that these contemporary developments are visibly continuous with an orthodox Hindu ideal, transforming traditional religious Brahmin punditry from scriptural knowledge in the service of caste domination to modern scientific expertise in the service of state power, and transforming the traditional Kshatriya warrior mentality to the ‘nuclear nationalism’ that seeks regional military domination and the respect of the powerful nations of the globe.


This morphing of traditional religion to a modern, nationalist, statist ideology began to take some root in the mentality of Indians from the 1980s, especially among the metropolitan middle classes. People often find their identities, especially religious identities, to be a source of dignity and autonomy in the face of helplessness and defeat. Much of Muslim identity among European immigrant populations and minority populations such as those in India is the result of such a defensive psychology. But people identify with a nation more often out of a sense of triumphalism rather than defeat. Linda Colley has written of how Scots discovered their British identity after Britain became a great Empire, and it is evident that large numbers of Jews in America began to identify with Israel after its smashing victory of 1967. It is this latter source of identity that Patwardhan is tracking in the scenes of pride, even a careening euphoria, around India’s explosion of its first atom bomb.


Gandhi is invoked by Patwardhan as the figure who turned his back on this nationalism and I have said that in doing so he was shunning for India a European doctrine, creating instead an entirely home-grown nationalism which he re-defined as anti-imperialism, a movement rather than a doctrine that was intended to include all the diverse people of his land in the struggle against the British. This historical background is an essential part of Patwardhan’s commitment to pacifism that is prompted by Gandhi’s vision, a vision Patwardhan inherits, as is acknowledged at the outset, by revealing his own family’s involvement with Gandhi’s campaigns against British rule.


In the film’s immediate aftermath, amidst all the predictable outcry from interests close to state power, there were also some tiresomely ignorant critical responses by some ‘international’ socialists who asserted –preposterously– that Gandhi promoted the cause of the partition of the Indian subcontinent (on the contrary, he was aggrieved by it and, unlike other leaders on both sides, did whatever he possibly could to try and prevent it) and (even more idiotic) that he ‘legitimized the holocaust’. Gandhi, it is certainly true, was not a socialist. For all his wholesale identification with the poorest peasantry of the land and his genius which inspired their prodigious mobilization, he did not really have a conception of class struggle, nor even a conception of class in the sense that emerges from a deep understanding of capitalist political economy.   But his was as fundamental a recoil from capitalism as any social theorist, including Marx, and more than most he understood the mentalities that capitalism generates as well as the underlying alliance between the modern state and capital. In his harsh critical remarks on what he described with omnibus terms such as “modern’ and ‘Western’ civilization, it is above all this mentality and alliance he opposed along with the European form of nationalism that India has embraced in the last three decades. It is exactly the toxic combination of these three things which I have italicised that Patwardhan’s film is exposing in the specific domain of modern weaponry and warfare.


Though it is implicit in many scenes of the film, especially those in which a cheerleading corporate-owned and corporate-controlled media salutes military might and victory with endorsements from Honda and Cadbury, it is the section bearing the title ‘Song of India, Song of America” that lays bare the links between capital and the defence industry. As is, or should be, well known, vast expenditures on defence in any capitalist society are an indirect subsidy to the technology corporations in the private sector. Patwardhan, speaking of ‘war and profit’ and ‘the business of defence’, is explicit about this alliance and its devastating consequences for ordinary people, neglected in their poverty and need by these wasteful expenditures that yield corporate gain.


Another ‘international’ socialist commenting on the film chides him for not being critical enough of the Indian Left and the Soviet Union, declaring archly, “ We don’t support the view that the Soviet Union and other so-called socialist countries represented socialism”. After patiently explaining that he was no admirer of the Soviet Union, Patwardhan responds: “I don’t want to go out and criticize the Left publicly because I believe there has to be a rainbow alliance of people against nuclear weapons and red is very much part of the rainbow”.


The plain fact remains that many countries of the South (known as ‘the third world, when the Soviet Union existed) were given moral and material support by the Soviet Union in their liberation struggles against European and British imperialism, struggles that were constantly thwarted by the United States by covert means (as, for instance, in the military and financial aid provided via Israel to the apartheid regime in South Africa). These are not easily forgotten solidarities. Moreover, it is absolutely true what Patwardhan says in the film that religious fundamentalism fills a gap in people’s mind when the Left forces are in disarray as they inevitably became after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would be obtuse to say that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries have represented ‘socialism’ as any humane person would understand that term, and Patwardhan is the first to say that the nuclear arms race was run by both sides in the Cold War. But it is also obtuse to fail to see that militarism and nuclear weaponry, which is his subject (or for that matter destruction of the environment to take another current subject of great concern) are endemic to the very nature and logic of capital in a way that they are not to socialism. Patwardhan is clear-eyed about this and it is part of the film’s strength, not weakness.


Above all, the film, both in its message and in its method, is a cinematic paean to ordinary people, to the poor and working people of India, to whose judgement it constantly turns, with a camera touchingly dedicated to a democratic trust in what they have to say. These are people who are made to speak again and again throughout the film in voices of pain, bewilderment and confusion, and in doing so exposing the massive deceit played upon them by the state and the media with the illusory rhetoric of nationalism and religion, always as he puts it reviving the enemy (Pakistan, in the case of India) or reinventing them (communism, Islam, in the case of the United States). Over three painstaking hours of documentary footage is a searching, compassionate commitment to letting the subaltern speak.


There are times and places in which even just mere sanity seems like a moral achievement. Since the invention of nuclear weapons, the whole world in our entire time has become such a place. The sanity for which War and Peace speaks is indeed a moral achievement.


Akeel Bilgrami