Limelight| The Sanjib Baruah Interview: It is important to not celebrate democracy in a sense that ‘We are democratic, somebody else is not’

Dr. Sanjib Baruah is a professor of political studies at Bard College in the US, where he teaches comparative politics and international relations. In this conversation with Swagat Baruah, he discusses nation-state, Assam, the Citizenship Amendment Bill and his early influences.

Swagat Baruah: What got you into teaching?

Sanjib Baruah: Well you know it’s not really that ‘I got into teaching’; life is more than what people realise, like when you write autobiographies, never trust autobiographies they make up things, life is never that straight line or planned out. So I grew up in Assam, came to Delhi where I pursued my M.A. I was a reasonably good student, I guess. My interest in politics grew around the 70’s, imagine, a long time ago, so those days I suppose when I look back, I think Naxalbadi was an important episode in Indian history, because I feel that the whole idea of critiquing how things are going in India from the Left wasn’t done before that.

There was still the nationalist generation enthusiastic that things were not working out, and Naxalbadi was a fairly intellectual event in my view on a political level alone. I’m amazed now when I look back about the number of people who were influenced by the Naxalbadi episode, people like Partha Chatterjee, Gyanendra Pandey. Although I wasn’t part of it, I was interested in why are things so bad in the Indian countryside, and interest in the country, the classic Maoist style movement. That kind of interest is how I began; a political interest in politics as opposed to an academic interest. And as careers go I was good at it, got a fellowship, then I did my Phd. But still I wasn’t so naturally clear if I’d want to be an academic.

S.B: You talked about the Naxalbadi movement, so in your Cotton College days how was your politics and approach to politics influenced by that?

S.B: No I should not make that kind of claim on my cotton college days. But I was the editor of the college magazine and I was interested in ideas for sure, but Delhi was hugely important, where I studied at Ramjas College. Since I grew up in Assam, in those days Delhi opened up horizons, you’d be impressed by the Delhi University, the famous people teaching, so what I learnt in the classroom appealed to me less than what I learnt generally. Amartya Sen was around so we could go into the Delhi School of Economics and just listen to an interesting talk, even though I was not an economics person. And the environment at DU was really conducive in a sense that there were lots of smart young people around or there’d be some senior who read a lot to interact with. After finishing my M.A. I was briefly at JNU and then I got my fellowship to go to Chicago.

S.B: Something that our current readers would like to know, and something I’ve always wanted to know myself; as a 90’s kid we were born in a unipolar world, so communism has not been a big part of our lives. Even though Leftist-Socialism has been, as an Assamese myself. During the 60’s and 70’s, that was the time when the world got to know the crimes the totalitarian Communist regimes were committing both in Soviet Russia and in China, how did you back then as a person inclined towards the Left, convince yourself that this is a good ideology that we can look towards or how did you reconcile those values of liberalism along with Leftist ideology?

S.B: When I was saying Naxalbadi, maybe I was trying to get at something like that; to critique Soviet Union and China as well. The real giveaway would be that in JNU we started a group of free thinkers. Free thinkers were all Leftists.

S.B: This was back in the 70’s?  

S.B: I’ll give you the exact year, it was in 1973.

S.B: Okay.

S.B: Now when you look back you’ll find lots of groups of free thinkers and it changes character over time. There is something dissatisfying about following the party line so that was appealing about the free thinking groups. Left, but critical of conventional Left supporting Soviet Union and China. I would say that my relation with the conventional SFI (Student Federation of India), was a problematic one. When I was latching on to this world of Naxalbadi, I was looking to find a way to describe the intellectual movement ‘Left; but not pro-Soviet’, whilst taking Marx seriously. I’ll take the position that in a way Marx is an extremely interesting thinker along with various others, so if we just surrender and think that Marx is just about Soviet Union and China that is silly! After all he wrote before all these revolutions.

It is important to not celebrate democracy in a sense that ‘We are democratic, somebody else is not’.

S.B: Moving on to the question of ideologies, post 2008, we have seen a massive shift towards the right in the West and we’ve seen how liberal democracies are being tested and questioned. I would like to know your philosophy and approach towards ideology and how it permeates through the masses.

S.B: I suppose that I am a democrat in the sense that I think it’s a value; it’s the best way to run things. At the same time it is important to not celebrate democracy in a sense that ‘We are democratic, somebody else is not’. I’m very interested in democracy as a value, so that whether it is the United States or India; I’m interested in deepening democracy. Not just taking democracy as a state with elections, but rather as we are seeing in India and in the United States the fact that democracy can elect people who are not particularly democratic. So I am interested in making sure that life is more democratic and I think that contemporary liberal democracy is good but it has huge problems in areas that are not democratic. To me then, building democracy, deepening democracy is a project valid for India, United States, Pakistan; it constantly has to be part of the way we think of the political system.

S.B: Let me ask you a fundamental question and this has been answered in negative by even people on the Right, like John Buchanan, the Right wing economist, people like Peter Thiel; that capitalism is not compatible with democracy or democracy is not compatible with capitalism. What do you think of that?

S.B: Clearly we can see that China is doing well without being democratic. Who would have thought that China would be super-geared to global capitalism? So I don’t think there is any natural connection between democracy and capitalism. On the other hand it doesn’t mean one is not committed to their idea of democracy. I would say that the question of democracy and capitalism doesn’t interest me much, to me it’s quite obvious. After all thinking of Hitler’s fascism, it was capitalism in the strictest sense, China is capitalist in the strictest sense; so it seems to me, the fact that capitalism and non-democracy can go together, is amply evidenced.

S.B: But do you think there is a cultural play to that? Do you think American democracy has succeeded largely because of the particular American culture which is compatible with democracy? I was watching a documentary about how Russia has never had democracy throughout till date, from Tsars to Putin they’ve always had Tsars throughout, and then you ask yourself: do Russians even like democracy? What do you think of that?

S.B: To me democracy is a work in progress everywhere. If we look at America’s history of racism, clearly it’s not democratic in a very unsatisfactory sense. I don’t really go gaga over America having a secret that it makes a wonderfully democratic place. And how do you reconcile that American democracy was combined with support from non-democracy everywhere; Saudi Arabian oil, Iraq etc. So clearly it is a very unsatisfactory democracy. I’m not prepared to take nation-states so seriously as bounded entities in which you can do what you want. And it seems to me that the American economy is heavily indebted, heavily connected with the global economy. So producing a little democracy in a little place and then pretending that everything’s fine; “we are creating democracy, others don’t”, I don’t really buy into that discourse.

S.B: What do you think has gone wrong with liberal democracy’s handling of the refugee crisis? And what liberalism had to offer? For example the 2011 Census showed that in Assam Muslims have a 34% share in the population and this number is going to up by 2021. The common people are scared of that, because of how the populism policies have been employed. That’s the major argument against the Bangladeshi influx of Muslims; “that there’s a Muslim invasion coming, you’ve got to take care, we are all Hindus”. So how do you counter that with what populism has to offer and what liberalism must fight for?

S.B: Democracy is a very unsatisfactory system and clearly populism works, advertisement works, that is the way Trump came to power, the way Hitler came to power, all this is a part of history of democracy to me. So it seems to me that elections in a country like India will produce dreadful things. That’s why I believe that democracy is never just about electing, so as a result of my interest in deepening democracy and strengthening democracy etc. my question hence is: why is our Constitutional system so weak?

The architects of Partition thought somehow they’ll be creating wonderful places, all these years Pakistan bought into the idea of a Muslim homeland, Hindus had not and now we have Hindus buying into the idea of a Hindu homeland.

S.B: What do you mean by that?

S.B: Think about the ability of the courts to limit the passions of the movement, so obviously then if we take the Indian Constitution seriously, the Indian Constitution values of non-religious citizenship, clearly are important values; it can’t simply be bargained away because someone has won an election. I would like our legal system and courts to be able to defend that principle very strongly. You can not have the Citizenship Amendment Act, which tries to make citizenship Hindu. If we go back to the problem of our nation-state, these are partitions stories. The architects of Partition thought somehow they’ll be creating wonderful places, all these years Pakistan bought into the idea of a Muslim homeland, Hindus had not and now we have Hindus buying into the idea of a Hindu homeland. To me these are huge problems of not being able to come to terms with our history of Partition. So do we handle the situation? If we look at the 1950’s we were trying to make sure that whatever population moved, an equilibrium was maintained, and we really did not go very far; not because Pakistan is bad or anything but we just didn’t take it seriously. The solution to South Asia’s partition problem is that we must continue to engage all the three countries together. Imagine if we had done that, we wouldn’t have this type of situation. Our model of nation-state is a very peculiar model, unlike pre-modern political systems, and whatever problems the pre-modern systems have; they didn’t have people who are similar to the only people living in the political boundary. Nation States and refugees are a part of the contemporary 20th century predicament, like two sides of the same phenomenon. That’s why it seems to me that history remains relevant. Why fetishise this new model that we have come up with? I am the kind of Indian who is so proud of being an Indian that to me India has a better model of nation-state than the West. I don’t think Indian civilisation ever was about “only this kind of people live in this place”. I think we need to be more confident and insist on not borrowing some silly French model of a nation-state. So in a way one can argue that Indian model is more closer to the European Union kind of a model, but because of our lack of confidence we really are borrowing models, constantly trying to be like some weak nation state. Is it too late? Maybe, unless we address this basic question, I don’t see a way out.

If India was a more confident place where we could confidently speak about how different we are than the Western nation-states, that is the kind of confidence that would have served India very well and also enabled India to incorporate the North-Eastern into India better.

S.B: In your recent article in the Frontline, you wrote that the 20th century European immigrants were legal and the latter half of the 20th century Mexican immigrants were illegal. Don’t you think that applies to India as well in the North-East, where there is an inherent racial bias when it comes to immigrants, that the state takes certain kinds of refugees and immigrants but is not really happy accepting certain other kinds? Basically the state’s not happy with Muslims coming in. In history have you observed racial bias?

S.B: Yes people have racial bias, but also there could not be no racial bias. So rather than thinking about any particular development, I would much rather think of it as a constant context. So if historically India has not had a citizenship shape based on religion, I wouldn’t underestimate that just because right now there is a sudden movement to try and change that.People must be clear and we must not be just mere observers, we’re participants too. We must look into what each movement is saying and accordingly decide whether to stop it or not. Even if this movement of pushing for religion based citizenship succeeds, I don’t see how these things will be resolved in one way or the other. If India was a more confident place where we could confidently speak about how different we are than the Western nation-states, that is the kind of confidence that would have served India very well and also enabled India to incorporate the North-Eastern into India better. This kind of Nationalism is doing India a great disservice; where the North-East is yearning to be a part of the mainstream, I hate the word ‘mainstream’.

S.B: I’ll lead you onto that sub-nationalism part, and how the North-East has always been thought of as one entity, which it is not, we as Assamese know that; and how being subsumed under one common identity has done it great disservice. And what do you think it is to be an Assamese? Do you think it is compatible with being Indian at the same time or do you think the Assamese people have been alienated enough by the rest of India to not be called or be ‘feeling’ as Indians?

S.B: My intellectual style is not to make such grand questions, by which I mean these are all modern things, after all a French peasant in the 15th century didn’t know he was French. We are all coming to terms with these modern political categories like the Nation-State because modern democracies mobilises these ideas. This issue doesn’t interest me as much, for some reason. I really think there is no answer in the abstract sense. They are all part of things we are participating in. So it is useful then for me, what is it that made ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) the kind of a period so assertive of difference. It wasn’t always the case. It is pretty historical for me. Clearly in 1930’s-40’s pan-Indian politics was doing well in Assam, Muslim League was doing well, Congress was doing well; nobody was thinking we are not doing well. Something happened by which the Assamese assertion became big. So rather than thinking of them as going inevitably in one direction, I see them in a constant state of flux and conflict. On the other hand, I don’t see how Indian style of nation-building is really going to give us the solution. So I am very critical of the whole counterinsurgency period, critical of the ULFA but the whole idea that you have of military metaphysics, defining what’s going on, dictating what’s going on, I don’t think it is the insurgency in the sense of the Vietnamese insurgency. It seems to me like a mindless way of thinking. Thinking that it is the ‘Assamese’ or ‘Indian’ way of thinking is what is messing up Indian policies.

If we were more secure we would have realised that India is an amazing place in terms of how we have handled diversity.

S.B: But Assamese history has not been accommodated in Indian history, we don’t share a common political hero, or a common history even, I would say. Even for the Indian Independence Movement for example, I remember we would read about Gandhi, Nehru or even Ram Manohar Lohia and Jai Prakash Narayan, we would know of even the most peculiar of U.P. (Uttar Pradesh) people, but you never got to read about the Assamese leaders, that we got to know only from home knowledge. And this is national textbooks I am talking about. That is what I’m trying to ask you, we are absent from history, our own history. What do you think of that?

S.B: For a complex place like India to run, you can’t have textbooks like that. Of the many things we have done wrong, we know how badly we have done education (system and policies). Textbooks become an example of that. So rather than getting into India-Assam, I’m really struck by the poverty of imagination. How on earth do you think India can run with exclusionary ideas: little bit of U.P., little bit of Maharashtra. So it seems to me that India’s nation-building project, if we’re to call it that, has gone dreadfully wrong for a long time, and textbooks are a part of the problem. With it comes a real disconnect with the challenges we confront, to me confidence would have been the answer. If we hadn’t borrowed a nation-state model from somebody else, I feel that even our current politicians constantly have something on their minds; we feel that Hindus need to feel proud, I am very proud, but it seems to me that it’s insecurity rather than pride.

If we were more secure we would have realised that India is an amazing place in terms of how we have handled diversity. So let’s, based on our own genius, try to figure out what is the best political system to develop. We have done very little thinking of that kind. I am actually taking a lot of interest in the whole ’suddenness of independence’, which is a global problem. We tend to take for granted that the post 1945 world, post World War II, the United Nations, the 108 odd nation-states were just all waiting to happen. That’s not true, essentially there was a crisis of empire, there was the Second World War, and whatever was put together was very hurriedly done.

In India we don’t think like that, because India had the grand Gandhis and Nehrus, and they make it sound like it was only because of them that India got independence. I find it useful to think of this period between 1945 and 1950, when suddenly lots of countries came into being, rather than celebrating that moment, we should start thinking about the roots of our crises. We had this enormous hope in 1945 that colonialism will leave, all these nations will develop, which didn’t really happen. Now it becomes very convenient whenever things don’t work because some big power doesn’t like something going on in some country, we call them a ‘failed state’. And then intervention becomes legitimate. All this to me are very serious things which are challenging the optimism of the 1950s. So in that sense the Indian story is not separate from all that, but you can rarely guess that because of the kind of discourse that goes on. We never took seriously what nation-building means. I would much rather build a modern polity which is much more federal. And you may know that at that time people thought that India is more than just a ‘nation-state’, it is more of a civilisational state which can create a polity which is comfortable with its diversity. I clearly think that we are not going in that direction. So that to me is the real issues that should be talked about and discussed. Ideas are all that we really have, so our answers will also have to be in ideas. On your other point that people are not interested, you are right, people are not interested, and that’ll produce a more chaotic world. It worries me.

S.B: It is a chaotic world right now. So how do you as a political scientist think of the chaos in the political world; very specifically the rise of the populist regimes across many democracies? How do you see that?

S.B: Well, I think I am disturbed by it, but it seems to me that apart from saying that one has to develop political responses to it. If we simply say ‘no our job is just to observe and see what’s going on’, it will be a victory of those kind of forces (populist regimes), and we’ll make our lives difficult for longer. I don’t think populist regimes have sustainable answers, but on the other hand they can produce very dreadful periods of life for a long time. I don’t want to use terms like ‘fascism’ lightly, but the point is that human history has seen some very dark periods. Therefore I don’t assume that there are wonderful things ahead. So the political action, intellectual action, talking about and thinking about it is all we can do to fight back these ideas.

Since we are discussing about education so much, it worries me that there is so little interest in the humanities, the whole obsession with pursuing science in India; to me that is part of the problem. So if we are not interested in critical thinking and we just focus on instrumental education, we end up paying for it; one reason our political discourse is so impoverished is because of that. These are matters of huge concern. On the other hand, probably, one shouldn’t be too worried either, for there is informal education in India. All I’m saying is one shouldn’t be worried about what’s happening in universities and colleges and get too disturbed either. The reason I’m saying that is because I’m very struck when I pick up a vernacular newspaper: I find the standard very good. Meaning that when I open an op-ed in an Assamese newspaper I’m very impressed by the quality of the conversation. So I don’t want to assume that since universities are doing so badly so it’s a huge crisis. It is possible that the intellectual life is doing very well and universities are isolated from it. I’m not pessimistic. India is very complicated, and that’s why whenever I travel, I enjoy all kinds of conversations to precisely figure out what’s going on. After all, elections happen, and suddenly political parties lose. And I don’t think we’ve very good at predicting elections, so in that sense I’m not yet prepared to take this as a good trend, obvious trend; things could really unravel very quickly in a positive direction.

S.B: Have you also been teaching about Assam?

S.B: No. Believe it or not I’ve been very lucky, or unlucky. Unlike other academics my teaching is completely separate from what I write. Because liberal arts colleges in the U.S. hire people like me because we are very good generalists. Meaning thereby that in my teaching there is very little of India or North-East, which is fine for me. My interest in the North-East is pretty much unlike many academics who write their Ph,Ds on such  topics. For me it was none of that, it was a curiosity that surfaced much later; even though I’m known for that, it’s not my Ph.D. interest.

S.B: So what got you into that?

S.B: Just genuine curiosity. My memory of the North-East was; really a place where nothing happens. After all, people like me left Assam.

S.B: When did you leave Assam?

S.B: 1970.

S.B: Oh so you didn’t see the whole Assam movement?

S.B: I wasn’t living there, but I saw it later, a lot of the processions. So I guess when I saw Assam making so much news in the 1990’s; Assam-North-East-violence, at that time I taught political science and I had students from Eastern Europe, where a lot of conflict was also going on. I almost wondered why that this area (North-East) is falling apart and I had nothing to say. My curiosity really began as I started contributing articles for the Telegraph, Statesman, following the Assam movement, one thing led to the other and it became a more serious engagement. By then the internet came in and people came to know about my book, suddenly my expected audiences read the book and so in some sense these accidents are interesting, and the North-East became more and more interesting because I feel I have something different to say.

S.B: How has philosophy helped you think well?

S.B: You know I don’t want to use the word ‘philosophy’, necessarily because I don’t think that I read as much philosophy as I’d like to or as I should. But I guess I read very broadly; from political theory to literary theory to cultural theory. For me North-East has become an obsession. Why does this place have so much conflict and violence, which it didn’t in my view? That’s still my question. I can afford to ask questions like that and give another answer. But I won’t say philosophy has helped me as such, because after all I think about the fact that recently a lot of literary scholars have written about political stuff and I find them interesting because they are very political and I read people like that who are philosophers in the same sense. So in some ways when I fail to make sense of places like the North-East and what’s going on I need unconventional scholarship. Unconventional, radical, non-mainstream, thinking. Then I read for instance quite a bit about Africa. Because I find that there has been reluctance on the part of Indian academics to draw lessons from Africa.

S.B: Why do you think that is so?

S.B: Well I think that our confidence works more in a way that we like to read more about England, France and United States rather than Africa. But when you think about it, a lot of our Colonial Era policies; I would say things like our 6th Schedule (of Indian Constitution) kind of politics; I get a better sense while looking at Colonial policies in Africa. So I would say I’ve been reading broadly and not philosophy as such, with the North-East in my mind, to make sense of it.


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