Lord Desai When Lord Desai stands up to speak you can be sure of one thing – what you are about to hear will not be dull. You can expect the unexpected.
And that’s exactly what happened when the distinguished economist and iconoclast addressed Asia Scotland Institute in Edinburgh during the capital’s India and South Asia Week.
The evening started unconventionally. Lord Desai kicked things off by flipping the Institute’s usual 20-minute talk followed by Q&A format on its head. Instead, the first thing he did was ask the large audience at the University of Edinburgh Business School to interrogate him.
A half-dozen interesting questions followed in quick succession. And with those in mind, the Labour peer then set off on a wide-ranging presentation that covered everything from India-Pakistan relations, the collapse of the left in India, Hinduism, caste, Narendra Modi, social inequality and urbanisation.
“Something called India”
“The central problem of South Asia is nationhood… ” said Lord Desai, cutting to the chase.
“The problem in a sense is that South Asia is a Western construct. Had Vasco da Gama not got there in 1498, and had the French not been defeated by the British in the Seven Years’ War, Indian history might have been completely different.
“India might have been like South East Asia, which was divided between Dutch, British, Spanish and some independent [states]…. in terms of total area they are much smaller than India but they have different nationalities because different foreign countries ruled over them.”
“Because nationalism is very much a 19th century idea there is a problem that South Asian nationalist movements do not want to admit that they are a product of Western rule,” Lord Desai went on.
“At the same time if they are not how do they write their history? Because every nation wants to believe that it is timeless, there is no date at which the nation originated. You have to believe it’s there forever. You also have to believe it was in a golden period once upon a time and then various foreigners came and disturbed it.
“And when these countries were fighting for independence they had to concoct a story of who it was that was being ruled by the British. They had to say there is something called India which is fighting… ”
Defining a nation
“So one problem has been a conflict in defining what the nation is,” Lord Desai added. “And therefore various strategies are used to create nationhood based on certain identities. And those identities have all proved to be partial…
“Look at Pakistan. Pakistan had a problem. What was Pakistan?… Well, whatever it was it didn’t sustain itself because Pakistan broke up into Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“So clearly if there was a Muslim nation it was not sufficient to describe the nation by just religion. Religion plus language and geography was needed, because Bangladesh is the only pure nation from the primordial point of view on the Subcontinent.
“From that point of view I’ve always argued that India is a collection of nations. It’s a multinational polity. Tamil Nadu is a nation by itself. Kerala is a nation by itself. As is Karnataka.
“Language, geography – these two things are very important for defining a nation. If you add religion it probably puts a sharper edge to that.”
Lord Desai spoke for more than an hour in a similar vein, thoughts popping into his head and words tumbling out of his mouth as he fielded more questions. Scroll down to watch a video of his entire presentation.
And even when the talk was over and he and the audience moved outside the lecture theatre to continue the evening at a drinks reception, the great man was still going, hopping up onto a coffee table to address the crowd.
He’d forgotten to mention something important – the ongoing project to erect a statue of Mahatma Gandhi opposite the Houses of Parliament in London. He urged everyone to do what they can to raise money to fund it.
“That’s the most important thing I will say tonight,” Lord Desai said, finally.
Our thanks go once again to the University of Edinburgh Business School for kindly hosting this event, which was organised jointly with the Centre for South Asian Studies and the South Asian Students Association