New Delhi: I’ve lived here on and off for two years, with imprisonment in-between.”
Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher, described his Indian sojourn this way, and even as he agreed to an interview this month on condition that he not be asked to talk about his home country, which imprisoned him last year, it kept creeping into the conversation, quite uninvited, like a gnome.
In Iran, Jahanbegloo, 50, was accused of collaborating with Americans to destabilize the state, kept in solitary confinement for four months and released on bail.
Out of jail, but with the charges still pending, he returned here to finish his latest book, India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India, a collection of 27 interviews with 27 remarkable Indians that the Indian arm of Oxford University Press has just published. The book is ostensibly about Indian subjects—dance, caste, Parsis, democracy—but it inexorably engages many of the issues that vex Jahanbegloo's homeland, including tradition, pluralism, the West and freedom.
Analytical view: Ramin Jahanbegloo creditts Indian thinkers for their “soft reading of modernity, not a violent reaction to it.”
Born in Tehran, Jahanbegloo discovered India in childhood. His father was an economist, his mother a playwright. The Indian ambassador in Tehran was a guest at family dinner parties when Jahanbegloo was young, and the library in his home contained the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru; both had visited Iran.
Jahanbegloo said that he liked to think of himself as an Indian, without the citizenship, but with what he calls an Indian’s “metaphysical view of the world.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent promoter of the idea of India.
“India is a country where you find a dialogue of cultures in a very deep sense of the term,” Jahanbegloo said. “I try to understand this spirit. I try to follow this spirit. Even if you find a lot of tension, riots, killings, that spirit itself brings India back.”
Jahanbegloo’s intellectual home in India, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, where he has had a faculty appointment for the last two years, is also home to a number of other iconoclasts, such as Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist, who likewise appears in the new book. Nandy explains where Gandhi sits in Indian consciousness. D.L. Sheth, another scholar at the centre, discusses the shifting meanings of caste. A film-maker from Kolkata, Mrinal Sen, occasionally reprimands Jahanbegloo for not properly understanding his oeuvre.
Kapila Vatsyayan, a cultural historian, offers an elegantly simple explanation of India’s survival. “India has so far demonstrated the capacity to hold together two lifelines, one an original, primal, or indigenous, almost immutable line, and the other of ‘change’,” she tells Jahanbegloo. “No single unit or dimension is totally ‘insular’ or ‘static’.”
Jahanbegloo finds this an especially trenchant lesson for West Asian countries, which he says have not been able to accommodate a dialogue of cultures. Instead, he says, they have suffered either a modernization from above, as in the case of Iran under the Shah, or a virulent assertion of fundamentalism from below, as with the Taliban of Afghanistan.
“Iranians, like Arabs, have not been able to digest modernity because they did not find a way to create a permanent dialogue between the two concepts,” he said. “It’s either created authoritarian modernity or authoritarian traditionalism.”
Jahanbegloo credits Indian thinkers for their “soft reading of modernity, not a violent reaction to it.” Missing from his glowing appraisal is sufficient explanation for the violence that persists in Indian life, whether in the guise of Maoist insurgents or Hindu radicals or home-grown Islamist terrorist groups.
“This is what I think is so important to people of the Middle East, particularly Turks, Iranians and Arabs,” he said. “They want to keep their own identity. They want to be proud of their past. But it’s very important to open up to other cultures. Democracy is a result of this. Democracy is a government of dialogue."
©2007/THE NEW YORK TIMES