In an Antique Land

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The problem

WRITING about Africa creates an array of stumbling blocks. I am neither an Africanist nor can I claim to have engaged with African issues in a systematic way until recently. Africa is almost next door, proximate to our subcontinent, yet millions of miles away in terms of the imagination. One is almost certain that it is the reciprocal truth. For the Africans too India remains a distant entity. For both of us it is Europe or America that is proximate in terms of our dreams and fantasies. The place of exile, diaspora, studentship, models of behaviour is still the West. For each the other is noise, silence. Yet, as one communication theorist put it, noise is unwelcome music, music we have to respond to and learn to appreciate. For an Indian this is doubly essential. Africa is part of us. It was a part of our cosmopolitan identity.

Indians have engaged with Africa for centuries as traders, migrants, coolies, professionals. The cosmopolitanism of earlier times was such that we were a part of Africa and Africa was a part of us. This everydayness has somehow been lost. The novelist Amitav Ghosh makes this point in his In an Antique Land, a story about the Indian Ocean trade. He shows that upto the 15th century Indian ports were a cosmopolitan mix of different overseas groups. These groups interacted and understood each other tacitly.

Our societies today, in this global period seem to have lost their cosmopolitanism. The Indian identity has in addition suffered an information loss, an impoverishment of a self where Africa was an integral part. Gandhi’s politics was a part of this cosmopolitanism. The Indian support for Mandela might have been the last vestige of this legacy. Today, Africa has become stereotyped in the Indian psyche. We believe with the West that it is a ‘lost continent’ which houses the lost development decade. To most minds Africa is the site for eco-safaris, the land of exotic animals, parks like Krueger, the former home of apartheid, the land where AIDS was born.

In recent times there have been attempts by South Asian intellectuals to break this stereotyping. A recent issue of Identity, Culture and Politics floats the idea of an Afro-Asian dialogue. But even the most sensitive of South Asian writers have yet to break out of the unconscious stereotyping, the facticity of the old images which nibbles at their text. It echoes the words of the missionary writer, imperialists like Cecil Rhodes, or old British texts on governance just when it seeks to go past them. What we need to do is to go beyond the tentative attempts and let Africa speak and invent itself in all its plurality. We need to go beyond the image of Africa as a ‘lesser sibling’, ‘a true other’, ‘a problem continent’. Africa needs to be seen also as a problem solver, not just as home of ‘origins’ but original solutions. This issue of Seminar is an attempt to explore such reflections.

The question of an Afro-Asian dialogue becomes even more relevant given the current celebrations about the return to democracy across the world. Africa is part of the celebration but its history of transition, its struggles, its story is different from that of Eastern Europe or South Asia or Latin America. Most celebrations of democracy work at the rudimentary level and fail to capture the fact that transition to democracy is not yet complete; the dictators might return in democratic masks. Issues about brutalisation, the collapse of the state, the ecological degradation need to be faced. But most crucially, the notion of democracy needs to be pluralised.

Deliberations on democracy today lack depth and there is danger that they may just become managerial extensions of the liberal agendas of the IMF and the World Bank. Such attempts reduce democracy to electoralism, as a sibling of the market. This is not to deny the vital need for electoral politics or the dynamism that the market might bring to inert state bureaucracies. However, societies that have been torn asunder by violence, corruption, nepotism, the hijacking of the state, by ecological devastations, inequities, and low intensity warfare need a more enriching notion of democracy and institution building. Notions that will build in structures of legitimacy. Both South Asian and African societies today need a more empowering definition of democracy which will give voice to the more marginalised and economically dislocated in their societies. There is also a need to question how much of the violence was due to the developmental models and how much due to the culture of politics.

The dialogue of democracy needs to be more than contingent on Africans and South Asians meeting in an American university and discovering common resonances halfway through the last days breakfast which one then tries desperately to sustain over emails. The African celebration of ideas, the laughter, the openness to evil and yet the sense of the comic about dictatorship is something that we need to learn. The Truth Commission is only one of the experiments being conducted across Africa to facilitate the reinvention of democracy. The works of Wole Soyinka, Andre Brink, Ali Mazrui, Njabulo Ndebele are but the iceberg of ideas that African intellectuals are working on – ranging from biculturalism and political economy, to the new idea of an ‘organic intellectual’. To capture this ferment what one would like to propose is a floating Afro-Asian university of ideas. Why do we need such an invention?

South-South exchange needs to reinvent itself in new ways. Also, it cannot operate with old categories. We need to throw new life into key words. An Afro-Asian university has to realise that dominance is exercised today through categories that are embedded in systems of knowledge. The challenge today is to define one’s life chances in terms of our life worlds. Let us consider a set of key terms either genocidal or life giving or both: Violence, Security, Community, Constitutions, Plurality, Boundaries, Migration, Ecology. Can an Asian-African university bring new life, new angles to these words so that we look at them in new ways, create new institutions, new inventions around them? What does the re-embedding of democracy mean in terms of these events?

Let us consider one specific concept: Violence. Africa has seen forms of violence India is yet to understand. It has seen the virtual collapse of states through a privatisation that makes the Emergency look socialist. It has witnessed the rise of mercenaries, the rise of private armies which are the base of arms proliferation, the narcotics business and banditry. It has witnessed ethnic conflicts which have been even more genocidal than the Partition. It has witnessed drought and ecological devastation, and a search for scapegoats which India may witness in the decades to come as more and more of our cities turn into slums.

The challenge before both our societies is: Do we have an alternative theory of violence, brutalisation and an alternative theory of peace? What is the political and literary imagination that can articulate it? What is our notion of living with evil especially as many erstwhile dictators return in democratic garb? What is our notion of history, justice, forgiveness that can make sense of all these nameless holocausts which are occasionally christened as Rwanda?

A South Asian-African dialogue is necessary to reinvent our notions of peace. What began with Gandhi and continued with the Truth Commission needs to be elaborated beyond the inanities of Fanon. Violence, we must add, is only one of the projects that an African transition or an international university can address. It requires new philosophies and histories which must go beyond the shock of reporting to unravelling the cultural politics and the political economy of such a violence.


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