We hear very often that India is a country engulfed in problems. From poverty to violence to disasters, these are the usual murmurs we hear. At the same time, personally, I have also been privileged to read about many prominent intellectuals and leaders that come from this vast nation of impossibly diverse peoples. Tagore, Gandhi, Nehru, Radhakrishnan, these are just some of the thinkers that have made India what it is today, and not too forget also the contemporaries; Amartya Sen, Ashis Nandy, Manmohan Singh, Gurcharan Das, Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani, Gayatri Spivak, Arundhati Roy, and many more.
Thus I came across amazed at the condition of India, the idea of India. How is it that a nation, home to one of the highest civilisation in the history of the world, and with such a vast array of classical and contemporary thinkers, be mired in unresolved poverty and ethnic as well as religious violence? It is this paradox which preoccupies me every time.
Looking at Malaysia and the way we do and think of things, I would dare say that we are far way behind in terms of an intellectual tradition and critical thought. In terms of economic growth and infrastructure development however, arguably, Malaysia has outperformed India. This is yet another puzzle that puts me in a state of confusion and hopelessness.
With these two thoughts in mind I boarded the plane from LCCT-Kuala Lumpur to Hindustan Airport-Bangalore. On arrival we headed straight to the hotel and along the way stopped at the FMC, the venue in which our Asian Citizens Assembly was to be held. This I will come back to later.
My days there taught me a lot. Certainly I cannot be speaking about India as a whole, but from what I have seen in Bangalore in Karnataka, and also Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh, if my impression can be taken to at least illustrate how in this part of India is like, the difference between what we have here in Malaysia and that in India, is enormous. Like what a friend of mine told me; ‘this is what a third world state looks like’. I couldn’t disagree. Unwilling frugality was a common sight, roads were not roads, and traffic was going here and there and everywhere. And the buildings, I don’t think we can call them buildings? Can we? My short trip there didn’t help much in answering the two questions that I brought there with me. Or was it the tandoori chicken or the ‘tyeru’ which paralysed my mind and crippled my thought? I might have to go there again for a longer trip, and perhaps do more disciplined and serious thinking.
But one thing I came to realised, is the idea that everything is different, nothing is the same. Of course this comes across as all too intuitive and obvious. But difference and the same, the question of the same and the different, is without doubt more profound than that. It is to the level of philosophising and abstraction, which we need to elevate the enquiry of this question. Much as has been done by Pierre Legrand, but that is of course another discussion altogether.
This trip has enlightened me, and reinforced my views, that in looking at two nations, in understanding two societies, in asking why buildings are not buildings, each deserves its own distinct place in the literature of thought. Why? Each has its own history. Each has its own trajectory; political, economy and social. This is not to say we condone poverty, violence or authoritarianism. That certainly misses the point. It is actually this; what are our foundations underlying the idea of poverty? How are they made? How do we conceive, and conceptualise, poverty? Are the ideological tools correct? These questions may perhaps help us in understanding that problems, and solutions, cannot be analysed and proffered, uniformly across the divide.
This informs also my views on the Assembly. The Assembly was a refreshing and awakening experience. People from different countries came together to deliberate the issues, problems, solutions and challenges confronting Asia. There were frank and interactive exchanges of histories and ideas, as well as profound and sharp analysis and answers. This is something good, as it allows the congregation of minds. It creates a platform for exchange and sharing and dialogue, at the same time it creates a repository of knowledge where one can dip into for inspiration and aspirations.
But for me, it is crucial bacause it allows one to compare and contrast. Some may believe that problems and solutions that we face, are at the end of the day the same, and we intend the same ideals and practices. I disagree. And I think here lays one of Asia’s major challenges; how do we find solutions to our problems, and at the same time recognise that these problems, though they look the same, are actually not the same. Our inquiry has to be in the same vein as to what Wittgenstein thought; ‘my interest is to show that that which is the same, is actually different’. This is paramount. Why? Because it determines the kind of solutions we come up with. “The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill” said Einstein. Asking the wrong questions will entail the fatal prescription of wrong solutions.
This involves the laborious and eternal effort of producing a knowledge system that is grounded in local memories and experiences. Like Vijay Lal has said, we need to think local and act global, rather than think global and act local. It is a monumental task, but one which Asia has to undertake. The Asian Citizens Assembly can be one of the stepping stones for this to take place. Such is its importance, and challenges.
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