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Indian Ethical Thought And Its Discontents: Shenanigans Of The Great International Shashi Tharoor

Indian Ethical Thought And Its Discontents: Shenanigans Of The Great International Shashi Tharoor

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Umar Nizarudeen

Umar NizarI am also surprised at the praise for this book from a sensible social science scholar like Neera Chandhoke, in another review. Caste-blind scholarship which draws a quick distinction between Hinduism and Hindutva is forcing the Congress of Rahul Gandhi to own Hinduism, as a strategy to bring the Congress back to power. While Rahul Gandhi calls himself Brahmin and presents himself as a temple-going Hindu, the Shudra upper caste Tharoor tries to provide a theoretical framework to ‘Congress Hinduism’ against the BJP’s Hindutva.

 –Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd,

Indian Ethical Thought finds itself in a shambles, thanks to the efforts of intellectuals such as Amartya Sen, Shashi Tharoor and Gayatri Spivak. That someone bearing a Brahmanical surname as an embellishment is the greatest living Indian ethical thinker, must be a matter of concern for ethical philosophy itself. Ethical thinkers such as Charles Taylor or Talal Asad for instance, do not proudly carry such a baggage of primordial oppression as Sen.

In his ‘The Argumentative Indian’, Prof. Sen focusses much of his valorising attention on Jalaluddin Muhammed Akbar, for his ecumenism. But reading between the lines, one gets the impression that perhaps it is to his disavowal of mainstream Islam than to his nurturing of a culture of debate that we owe this honour. The exorcism from the Bhadralok universe of Islam renders it palatable to the American thinkers such as Martha Nussbaum. Sen’s refusal to comment on the brutal oppression of Palestinians is a case in point. The pandering to the West narrative has multiple dimensions.

On the one hand, there is an inscrutable Orient that can be apprehended or approximated only through the works of a Tagore or a Sen. There exists also another phenomenal Orient that has been rendered beautifully for global capitalist consumption by authors like Amitav Ghosh, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Thus from a period of the ’empire writing back’, liberal intelligentsia has reached a point were the writers are the new ‘caste empire’.

Gayatri Spivak’s ravaging of the French language through her translation of Derrida’s ‘Of Grammatology’ is a national lamentation of sorts in France. Spivak’s location in the global South and not her proficiency of the French language made her, for Derrida, the ideal candidate for the translation. But such affirmative action by a philosopher translates into caste superiority within the frame of Indic custom. Thus Prof. Spivak calls legendary African writer and film maker Sembene Ousmane, a ‘sexist’. Prof. Spivak tries to consecrate other stellar African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’O for a brief moment as subaltern-elite. Thus a dichotomy is created by this able Derridean between the good African (Thiong’O) and the bad African (Ousmane), which flies against the spirit of deconstruction. Chanchal Kumar in his essay ‘Critiquing GC Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?” writes:

Let’s now delve into what I think is the central flaw in Spivak’s writing. She starts her seminal work by calling attention to her own positionality as a woman in a world of western thought hitherto dominated by men: she starts by naming Althusser in the first paragraph and continues to mention Derrida and Marx in the second, and the reader is assured that it is going to be an easy win for Spivak, who is not only a woman but also a Brown woman with roots in India. Until someone who her kins suppress and exploit does not rise to talk back to her, she will remain unchallenged in the world of academic thought.

-Chanchal Kumar, 

 Thought Crimes Of The Subaltern: Shenanigans Of The Great International Shashi Tharoor

Calvin: As the moulders of the next generation of our country, our teachers are grossly underpaid.
Teacher: Those who have not submitted the homework, please stand up

 -Bill Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes (paraphrased)

 The Great International Shashi Tharoor, honourable MP for the Thiruvananthapuram constituency has for long been pushing for his own candidature to the top most political post in India, as some sort of Obama-like consensus candidate. The past activities of the former diplomat and post colonial thinker, hardly inspire confidence. From the Iraq war onwards, Shashi Tharoor has left no stone unturned in this attempt to inveigle himself into the good books of imperial metropolitan masters and to project himself as their potential compromise candidate. Pax Americana, valorised as ‘post colonial’ by the likes of Shashi, has not taken the bait yet.

One of Shashi Tharoor’s recent viral tweets was of a video that had snippets of a language similar to Malayalam being spoken in Afghanistan. The veracity of the video has not been established so far. But it has already put the patriotism and allegiance to their country, of Malayalam-speaking Muslims into question. Shashi Tharoor, a former bureaucrat and polyglot himself, is not unaware of Dravidian sounding Brahui being spoken in Baloch regions. But his jumping the gun is rather an act of ritual sacrifice (Kuruthi) to kick start a prime ministerial campaign. (‘Kuruthi’ interestingly is the name of a recent Malayalam language OTT release, made by a ragtag bunch of Thiruvananthapuram based ‘talents’ that has received flak for its ‘hatefree’/hateful message as well as its mediocrity as a text). Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, incidentally contains the assembly constituency that sent the first ever right wing candidate to the state assembly. A ‘liberal’, ‘intelligent’, ‘free-thinking’, Islamophobic right wing spectrum, from Santhosh Pandit to Shashi Tharoor has emerged in Kerala in the meantime. This section of the caste-elite, in its utilitarian, philistine pursuits resembles the Taliban, more than the cosmopolitan West that it seeks to emulate. Shashi has provided the much needed empirical impetus to question the fealty of the minorities in Kerala. The rest he knows will be taken care of by the armchair intelligentsia fuelled by its speculations.

A Cage Went In Search Of a Bird

A precursor to Tharoor, the Nehruvian VK Krishna Menon managed to fund his education in the UK on the basis of colonial affirmative action, as pointed out by the legendary French publisher André Schiffrin in a speech. Almost half a century later, the privilege and dissimulation remain the same. In a clash of contesting subalternities, opportunities and scholarships are usurped from the deprived by quasi-elites who never fail to raise the bogey of post-colonial victimhood at every opportunity. But they still remain the ‘masters’ all the same. For Shashi Tharoor, this is the position of liminality par excellence.

Shashi Tharoor, far removed from the lifeworld of the people that he seeks to represent, whether it be in an economy class flight or in the local fish market, has promoted himself as the Malayali world spirit on global stage. This does a disservice to the enlightenment traditions of Kerala, led by stalwarts such as Sree Narayana Guru, Mahatma Ayyankali, Sahodaran Ayyappan, Vakkom Maulavi and so on. Apart from an amusing anecdote that he is fond of recounting, about the late actor Rishi Kapoor snubbing him on the basis of caste, Shashi Tharoor has never acknowledged his liminal status in the national stage, as Professor Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd has so eloquently pointed out:

We come from the same South Indian Shudra background (Tharoor is a Nair from Kerala), but we have come to altogether different conclusions based on birth….In his writings, Tharoor does not let the readers know that he comes from a Shudra (Nair) background, as if he has no caste roots.
-Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, 

 Conventional wisdom says that the lie you tell yourself is the biggest lie. As long as this liberal dissimulation of status and privilege continues, as an inheritance from imperial colonial rule, the credibility of liberal scholarship in India, from Ramachandra Guha to Shashi Tharoor would remain tenuous at best. Parhassia (Παρρασία), truth speaking, still remains a pipe dream. Even Antonio Gramsci’s notion of the ‘organic intellectual’ has been co-opted. The emergence of Subaltern scholars who dare to speak truth to power, is the need of the hour.



 Umar Nizarudeen is with the University of Calicut, India. He has a PhD in Bhakti Studies from the Centre for English Studies in JNU, New Delhi. His poems and articles have been published in Vayavya, Muse India, Culture Cafe Journal of the British Library, The Hindu, The New Indian Express, The Bombay Review, The Madras Courier, FemAsia, Sabrang India, India Gazette London, Ibex Press Year’s Best Selection, and also broadcast by the All India Radio.

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