Five Questions with B.R.P. Bhaskar

brp_04232012B.R.P. Bhaskar is one of Kerala’s most respected journalistsan avid blogger and currently a columnist for Gulf Today. He “started his career in journalism in 1952 and has worked in The Hindu,Statesman, Patriot, United News of India, Deccan Heraldand Asianet. He played an instrumental role in the launch of the Asianet television channel… He has been active in the socio-political scene of Kerala, especially in the field of human rights protection.” He has published numerous articles and books and adapted Malayalam novelist Takazhi’s epic novel “Kayar” for a Hindi language mini-series telecast nationally. He is currently the Vice-Chairman of the Kerala Chapter of Transparency International.

2011 has marked a new model of revolution that stems from practical realities and has thus far shunned the development of standardized theory. What do you think the prospects are for such demands for change that function in the absence of macro-social frameworks and ideologies? What ideas or discourses are likely to rise to the fore in the future? Does the nation state have a future as the main unit of political organization? If not, how will people and societies be organized?

The nation-states that dot the world today emerged through three different processes — fragmentation of empires, amalgamation of areas with a common cultural heritage and a gradual shift in the power equation within pre-existing states. Their emergence marked a change in the concept of the state: it was no longer a geopolitical entity held together by the might of a king or emperor but a sociopolitical entity which derived legitimacy from the common ethnical and cultural background of the people.

Many movements that led to revolutionary changes were inspired by ideas or theories articulated by visionaries. The movements that led to governmental changes in some countries in the recent past were not inspired by any new ideas or theories but were made possible by new technology. When we look at the way these movements developed we can see that what the technology did was to make it possible for those who adhere to different ideologies and even those who do not have any ideological mooring to come together and pose a powerful challenge to the Establishment. The limitations of such movements are already evident.

The regimes brought down by the Internet-driven movements were long-time dictatorships which had a rotten core but were holding on primarily on the strength of the military power at their command. Where the military adopted a soft line, the regime collapsed quickly. Where it stood by the regime, the movements found the going tough. In the formal democracies there is as much gap between the state and the people as in the dictatorships. However, periodic elections which afford the people the opportunity to choose their representatives and effect change of government help to create the illusion that they have a greater stake in the state than they actually have. The Occupy Movement slogan “we are 99%” is a sign of growing realization by the people of the limitations of democracy as it is practiced in the US. What we need is not so much a new theoretical framework but systemic changes to ensure that democratic practice breaks out of the narrow confines of periodic electoral exercise and becomes an everyday reality.

While the nation-state is facing severe challenges it is unlikely to be superseded by a new system in the immediate future. Changes of fundamental nature do not generally take place all of a sudden. They happen gradually as a result of the combined effort of a complex set of circumstances. A cataclysmic event like a devastating war or a bloody revolution can speed up changes but even then they do not generally translate into ground reality quickly. Lenin who seized power taking advantage of the circumstances created by World War I did not dismantle the Czar’s empire. He merely gave it an ideological makeover and rechristened it the Soviet Union. It survived for more than seven decades before breaking up into nation-states. The victorious powers divided Germany into two states but they could not prevent the two from coming together four decades later. At this stage it may be better to focus on internal changes rather than on the form of the state.

What is the future of religious discourse? How is the role of religion evolving in society today? How will it evolve in the future? Should there be a space for religion in public discourse?

In the 19th century, as science threw light on many areas about which man knew nothing, God’s role appeared to shrink and doubts arose about the future of religion. There was animated discussion in learned circles of the West about what will take the place of God and religion. Some suggested that poetry could fill the void left behind by the demise of religion.

It may be an oversimplification, but a close look at the concepts of God and religion as they evolved will show that that they occupy primarily areas about which we know little. Early humans, who had no explanation for many phenomena they saw around them attributed all of them to gods. Thus a big tree sprouting out of a small seed became god. Sea, wind, air, rivers etc also became gods. The gods came to be associated with events like birth and death and natural calamities. As rational explanations of such phenomena became available and gained acceptance, God’s role was redefined and lesser gods associated with certain specific activities disappeared since there was no further need for them.

The concept of God and spirituality emerged long before established religions originated. All religions grew by building up awareness in the people about their ignorance. Little wonder that the medieval Church viewed Galileo’s work as a potential threat. Established religions made both God and spirituality their exclusive domain and priests became intermediaries between God and the people. The Hindu religion emerged as a result of the amalgamation of different systems of belief that existed in the Indian subcontinent with a common priesthood.

God survived the advance of science because, apart from being a convenient peg on which to hang all that is unknown, He fulfills a genuine psychological need as the Supreme Being to whom the people can turn in times of adversity and to whom they can be grateful for things which serve them well.

Religious discourse takes place at two levels: at the higher, philosophical plane, it provides a moral grounding, strengthens spiritual well-being and promotes a concept of oneness; at the lower, popular level, it makes morality a matter of give-and-take, reinforces material thoughts and promotes a concept of separateness. Religious discords have grown in recent times as the latter kind of discourse holds the ground, having virtually driven out the former kind. The largest single factor responsible for bringing about this situation is the cynical use of religion by various groups for narrow political ends like grabbing power. They exploit the disabilities experienced by followers of the religion to further their agenda. Although these disabilities come within the ambit of human rights violations, it is generally easier and more convenient to mobilize the people by articulating their religious identity than by invoking broader human rights concepts. To reverse this trend we need persons with proper understanding of not only their own religion but also other religions who can raise discourse to a higher plane.

Religion must continue to have a place in public discourse, as it is a force with potential to do good. However, it will be unreasonable to expect a beneficial change in the character of religious discourse in the immediate future since most religious groups appear to suffer from an acute paucity of persons capable of elevating it to a spiritual level, as distinct from politico-religious level.

What contemporary ideas are likely to have a significant impact in shaping the future and why?

New ideas generally take a long time to gain wide accaeptance and make a lasting impact. Quite often even sharp minds fail to grasp the full potential of a new idea or technology. We are living through fast-changing times. New ideas and technology are developing along lines not envisaged or foreseen by their originators. One look at the major religious and poltical institutions is enough to understand how the ideas expounded by great souls have get transformed in the hands of their followers. In the circumstances it will be foolhardy to make a forecast about the contemporary ideas that are likely to have a significant impact in shaping the future. Trying to explain why will take us on to slippery ground.

However, some broad formulations can be attempted. Two contrary pulls appear to be working on us simultaneously. One leads us to identify ourselves with bigger, larger identities while the other tends to hold us back in our smaller settings. The former is a homogenizing force, which, if successful, will result in an increasingly monolithic world. The latter is a contrary force which seeks to ensure variety and save the heterogenous character of human society. The two are constantly at work, with one or the other gaining ascendancy from time to time. If the rise of empires exemplifies the success of homogenizing forces, their fall evidences the reassertion of heterogeneity. Currently we are witnessing a globalization process marked by ascendancy of homogenizing forces. The challenges to that process we see around us are manifestations of a contrary pull, which is sure to put a brake on it at some stage and help preserve the heterogenous character of the world. Thereafter new homogenization efforts will come up again. In short, we are in a pulsating world.

The Internet has opened up possibilities of easy, free global communication. One can make friends within anyone anywhere on earth. That makes it a powerful tool in the hands of the forces of homogenization. However, one tends to make friends with people whom one already knows or with whom one has common interests. Thus, in practice, it breaks down the prospective homogenous universe into small homogenous groups. Such groups are so numerous as to help the universe retain its heterogenous character.

What is the future of the relations among people of the “global south” (economies previously labeled ‘developing economies’ including the nations of Africa, Central and Latin America, South, South East Asia and parts of the Middle East)? How do you think the current changes taking place in these economies will affect the global order at large?

The economic changes now under way will surely dictate changes in the global order. China has displaced Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Japan had occupied that position for four decades. Unlike Japan, China will not be content with that position. It will seek a new order which is not dominated by the US. However, it will not take any rash action as a sudden shift can hurt it deeply. It will work out a long-term strategy to achieve its goal. It cannot hope to succeed without support from at least some of the other growing economies such as India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa, all of which are its partners in a new club called BRICS. Several other countries like Argentina, Indonesia, Mexico, Iran, Malaysia, Poland and Peru are also moving forward while the Western economies are faltering. All this indicates that Asia and Central and South America will emerge as major players in the foreseeable future. The unipolar world, which emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is on its way out.

After several years in the doldrums countries in the Middle East and North Africa have registered good economic growth since 2010 but political unrest limits the region’s ability to play its part in the changing world.

Economic growth is not the only factor that determines the global pecking order. Developments in science and technology are a key element. When Europe dominated the world’s economy it was also leading in science and technology. So far there is no indication of the economic clout of the Asian challengers translating into advances in science posing a threat to US supremacy in the field. This is a factor that will inhibit the emergence of a new world order even after economic equilibrium shifts.

Sadly, there are no serious efforts to promote people-to-people contacts among the newly emerging countries. This is an area in which there is scope for non-governmental initiatives.

What is the future of Area Studies?

Notwithstanding the controversy that has raged over the relevance of Area Studies since the end of the Cold War, there will be continued interest in such academic pursuits inasmuch as there will be continued need to tackle knowledge deficits. But the newly emerging countries may have perceptions that are different from that of the US which shaped area studies in the post-War period.

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Recent Articles:

Book Publications:

  • “Flourishing Papers, Floundering Craft”, an essay in the book “Practising Journalism: Values, Constraints, Implications“, edited by Dr. Nalini Rajan and published by Sage Publications India Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2005.
  • “The Media Under Pressure”, an essay in the book “Courts Legislatures Media Freedom“, edited by K. N. Hari Kumar and published by National Book Trust, New Delhi, 2006.
  • “Pinthirinjnjodunna Keralam”, book in Malayalam, published by Haritham Books, Kozhikode, 2003.
  • “Guru Nanak”, Malayalam translation of biography   by Gopal Singh, published by National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1967
  • “Subramania Bharati”, Malayalam translation of biography by Prema Nandakumar, published by National Book Trust, 1968