India’s most famous psychologist looks on the bright side about Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus—and even the Chinese

Ashis Nandy, one of India’s most prominent intellectuals, was in the US last week. When I heard he was visiting Hofstra University to speak at a conference on the 30th anniversary of the massacres of Sikhs in India, I invited him to take a train up to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Nandy is a master of the paradoxical utterance. Rather, he delights in defying perceptions and revealing paradoxes. (Everyone’s favorite: “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.”) I wanted my students to witness this mind in action.

After introductions, I asked Nandy about murders.

At his best, Nandy can incite critical self-reflection. He has written somewhere that Marxists hate the proletariat and feminists hate housewives. I’ve never been able to shake the effect of those words.

At least 3,000 Sikhs were killed over four days following the assassination of Indira Gandhi on Oct. 31, 1984. I asked Nandy what he had told his audience at Hofstra? Again the taste for paradox, the desire to hold opposites in contention: Yes, there had been brutal killings, but out of 22 localities in Delhi where Sikhs were murdered, in 20 of those localities the Hindu and other neighbors had also helped hide Sikhs, Nandy said. The two localities where the collaborators helped the attacking mobs instead were new localities. The different communities there hadn’t lived together for a long period of time. Here Nandy was also reaching back into his study of the violence during the Partition. His interviews with the survivors showed that at least 40% said that they were helped by people from the other religion. The same held true of Jews who survived the Nazi genocide even in places like Berlin. Almost 1,500 Jews were able to hide in the capital of the Third Reich despite the city having been declared “cleansed of Jews.” When Hitler’s regime fell, numerous “Jews emerged from attics, culverts, basements, and from false identities.” Were they able to survive without the help of their neighbors?

Nandy has been unafraid to court controversy, and now he was once again urging us to suspend judgment and to see beyond strict oppositions or hierarchies. Yes, there had been criminal killings. Yes, there were abject victims. But there were also a third space. The concept of justice was a rigid concept derived from jurisprudence. Nandy said he wanted to suspend the claims of justice for a hundred years and ask instead how much dignity we are going to grant our own past. Our past needs to be open-ended.

But first, the past needs to be acknowledged. The gruesome tragedy of the Partition in 1947, for instance, which “altered the profile of violence in South Asia.” Nandy said, “I cannot imagine any diplomatic negotiation taking place between India and Pakistan, or Bangladesh and India, or Bangladesh and Pakistan, without thinking that there is a silent invisible presence of the experience of Partition behind these negotiations.” Nandy then narrated an anecdote about A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who built Pakistan’s nuclear bomb. Khan was asked by the Indian journalist Kuldip Nayar whether he wasn’t concerned about the rest of his family living in Bhopal (from where Khan had migrated to Karachi as a child soon after the Pakistan was created). Khan had told Nayar: “I have not forgotten those days after the Partition when I was running through the deserts of Rajasthan, hungry, thirsty, and fearful for my life. If the survival of Pakistan is at stake, I don’t mind using nuclear options against India even if it means the destruction of my own family.”

Nandy was only 9 years old when the Partition took place. The violence of that time had scarred him, but he had repressed the bloody memories. After the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, those old memories resurfaced. As a response, he designed surveys and studies of the behavior of neighbors decades ago during the Partition. His team surveyed about 1,350 persons who had lived during the violence of 1947 and interviews were conducted with around 150 men and women. His interest had settled on the ways in which people in society negotiated their differences in the everyday business of living their lives.

The interviews yielded rich stories of interactive living. Not so much the sensational details of a family hidden in an attic or the basement, but instead, the more ordinary, and somehow more creative, tale of crossing social boundaries. One account Nandy recounted was of a Hindu woman who had lost half her family during the Partition. Still, she recalled with great fondness her childhood days spent with her Muslim neighbor. The Hindu girl played at her neighbor’s but had been forbidden by her parents to eat in the Muslim household. She told her Muslim friend’s mother that she really enjoyed their food. The friend’s mother was unperturbed and offered a solution.

She told the girl that she could recite a kalma from the Quran when she walked from her own home to theirs. By the time she reached them, she’d be a Muslim. She could then eat whatever she liked. Then, walking back to her own home, the girl only needed to recite a Hindu chant, the Gayatri mantra, and she would return to being a Hindu by the time she stepped inside!

Nandy helps us understand religion as politics. He has written, for instance, that religious riots in India are also electoral ploys. I asked Nandy to talk a bit about what is routinely called “religious violence,” especially when it comes to Islam. Nandy said that the first thing that needs to be clarified is that if one considers data from the twentieth century, “a very small percentage” of the victims of mass violence were killed in religious violence. He said, “Two-thirds or more of the 225 million killed were killed by secular nation-states.” In other words, “your own State can be more dangerous to your health than a religious fanatic.”

The last question at Vassar was posed by a Chinese scholar who wanted to know about India’s neighbor. What form would the relations between the countries like China and India take? Nandy said when Tagore founded Visva-Bharati, the rural university in Bengal, he wanted there to be a direct relationship between India and China. He wanted to restore the bond that had existed for 1,000 years between the two countries. The effort hadn’t borne fruit but there was a clear need for dialogue. China and India were not simply nation-states following the Westphalian model, they were also civilizations, civilizations which overlapped in a great measure. Culturally, and China was partly inside India and India was partly inside China. Southeast Asia remains an example of that.

Nandy rued that India and China were likely to meet not only through Western institutions but through Western world views. “One billion Chinese and one billion Indians now, if they live a virtuous life, want to go not to heaven,” he said, “but to New York.”

Follow Amitava on Twitter @amitavakumar. We welcome your comments at

home our picks popular latest obsessions search