Interview with Ravi Sundaram

About the Brazilianization of India An Interview with Ravi Sundaram (Delhi)

At 5cyberconf, which took place early june, 1996. in Madrid, ‘Internet and the Developing World’ was one of the main topics. Ravi Sundaram from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, India delivered a paper with the title ‘Beyond the Nationalist Panopticon: the Experience of Cyberpolitics in India’. Ravi Sundaram was trained as a cultural historian, influenced by Braudel and general debates on modernity in Asia and in Europe. His current topic is globalism and modernity in India and, according to him, the Internet seems to be the crucial focus around which these debates tends to organize themselves.

GL: Could you tell us something about the political and historical background of the Net in India, also in respect to other media and specially film? In your lecture, you emphasized the specific relation between technology and modernity in India.

RS: Modernity as we know it came to India through colonialism and is implicated in the history of violence. It is also implicated in the history of intellectual arrangement, where English became the language of the world economy and a passport to the world. Large sections of the intelligentia and the ruling elite got access to world culture through English. After independance, modernity was represented through the issue of development, the notion that you can catch up with the West by reproducing certain models of industrial growth. Large scale, centralized accumulation: the steel mill, the large dam, the long bridge, an accelerated notion of time. Historically, modernity meant an exclusion of the village, of what was seen as tradition and ambilivant. The ruling class, after independance, very seriously distrusted the issues that Gandhi had raised. Rhetorically, the village was iconized through periodic references to craft, the peasant. But what modernity meant, was a state-centered praxis of accumulation. Issues of science and techno- culture, which are very current now, were monumentalized. They were completely abstracted from the everyday. The experience of modernism, which in the 20th century revolved around the historical avant-garde in Europe, the 1920s, came to India in a very different form. What you have in India is modernism, which was centered around the monument. The dam, the steel mill, these phantastic sites which became icons of nationalism. It lacked the dialectical form of questioning and experimentation. The real experimentation lay in the ambivilant spaces that were ignored in the period after independance. The intelligentia after the independance (1947) strongly identified with the national project, the state-centred development. Intellectual critique never questioned the borders in which it operated. The intellectuals saw themselves, in the old enlightment sense, as being mandarins, as being the concience of nationalism and railed against tradition and backwardness. They were contemptious of the village and the lower castes that lived there. So there was no genuine engagement with the esthetically ambivalent issues of the space outside modernity. Now this space for me is the space of the popular and more specifically popular cinema, which represented a series of contraditionary strategies, which spoke to the magical, the contradictory, the ireverent, the physical body, which ordinary people identified with. Indian cinema has been popular in the Third World precisely because of these issues. The intelligentia has always been contemptuous of Indian cinema as not being real. Intellectuals followed the nationalist language of realism and Indian cinema has consciously ignored it and is a true sense more ‘real’ than intellectual strategies. Intellectual critique revolved around an alternative cinema, which was very limited, precisely because it tried to reproduce realist strategies. Today, for the first time, and that is where the door towards the Internet is opening, there is some engagement with the popular. This is because the national approach has collapsed and you have the emergence of a right wing movement, which is trying to remap the popular, speaking aggresively towards new technologies. Ravi Vasudevan writes about popular culture and there are a number of younger writers who are emerging, but we must understand that we are in a space where the older stream of writers, who wrote on culture, are being actively delegitimized. At the same time, the far right, the Hindu nationalist right, is intervening agressively in the sphere of the popular. For example, the groups that are the most active on the Internet, internationally, are Hindu nationalist groups, who are trying to recreate a new nation, based on a Hindu identity on the Internet, amidst the ruins of the old style nationalism. As we know Indian film numerically produces the largest amount of films in the world every year. Music, which always played an important role in the dance sequences, is emerging in a very big way. India is soon going to be the largest market for audio cassettes in the world. You now get them in every small town and the whole culture of the everyday is influenced by this. Also there are shifts in the composition of music. A.R. Rahman for example who writes film music in the South. He was trained in classical music in London and then moved to South India and started composing for both Tamil and Hindi movies. He uses a variety of musical styles. In my opinion he is a very reflexive composer. He introduces pauses, sudden shifts that mark a crucial departure from music that has been composed till now. Movies now alude to a series of narratives. The space of the global has entered popular cinema. Of course it was always there, but today, in one very specific movie, the main protagonists are Indians who live abroad. In previous movies, whenever Indian characters went abroad, they always had to return to the homeland. In this movie, this issue is open ended. However, we should not rush to reject current cinema as being nationalist, because the situation is very fluid and the viewers are very discriminating in what they like and what they reject. The marketing of films has become such a huge affair that there is this esthetisization of everyday life. The innovations take place at the level of the image. The dance sequences now have bodies which are extremely fluid, that dissolve and which introduces an idea of virtuality into the dance sequences. It is not just novelty. The notion of the commercialisation does not exhaust the issue of the popular.

GL: some of might have heard about the recent rise of television in India, now becoming a real mass medium. How do you see this development in a social perspective and also in respect to the coming-into-being of the Net?

RS: The television network really took of in the eighties, it was pushed by the state as a medium of development. The rise of private satellite channels, broadcasting from Hong Kong, now cover 7% of the population. It is not very large, but it does cover the cities. You may have one cable operator who gets the feed and then pipes it to various people, who pay up to 3$ a month. People often steal the feed, so this phenomenon is going to grow. But the problem is the elite culture that is coming into place. My greatest worry is this emancipation from the social and the problems of inequality that the elite is trying to obtain. A lot of television programmes are trying to push this kind of ideology. It is therefore important to fight for an autonomous space within television, which is not controlled by the state or by big corporations. What is going on in my opinion is the ‘Brazilianization of India’. You have high levels of inequality, a spectacular film and culture industry, the prolifiration of television and for the first time in the history of India, you have the legitimization of inequality amongst the elite. Cities are being actively remapped, you have sections of the city that are meant only for the elite, with their own power supply, air conditioning and private security. This space is generating an elite hybrid culture, an elite that is emancipated from any dialogue with issues such as public space and is securely anchored on the West. In addition to the development of the television network, in the 1980s the state decided to set up a national electronic network, linking the state capitals and the district capitals. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, development meant that you had to reproduce physical instruments of accumulation such as steel and coal. What Rajiv Gandhi said, is that the problem of development is a problem of communication. With accelerated communication you could obtain what was lacking. NICNET took off by the mid 1980s and today it is the largest network of India and also the largest internet provider. Besides there is an educational network, which connects research institutions and which is also state- run. More recently you got also private e-mail providers. Now, around 120.000 people are connected to the Net, but many people share accounts, which makes things somewhat more complicated. Historically, social movements in India had always been sceptical of the monumental technology of nationalism, the large dam, the pollution of the steel mill and deforestation. With the coming of the Net and also of local networks, activists are entering into a dialogue with techno culture and the rituals of initiation that are emerging with the computer. Perhaps for the first time, the sacral space of technology that was always central to nationalism, is now receeding. There are these secret pleasure, associated with the computer, that people don’t talk about but they go through. Bulletin Board Systems are spreading like wild fire. I have discovered BBSs in small towns, in obscure places. Like the West, they began as cheap alternatives to Internet and the state network and now there are even first underground systems. The Web is a monopoly of the elite. You need high speed modems and good telephone lines, which is nearly impossible in India. Web access is for large companies and people with leased lines and direct satellite links. But most people use e-mail, data bases and BBSs. There is a class difference in electronic space. 1% of 1% of 1% of the population has access to electronic space, we always have to be aware of this. At the same time, it is very important to develop cheaper network, to argue for public access and public space where ordinary citizens can take part, which is distinct from the space of the state and the space of the market. As a citizen of the Third World, I would not valorize the notion of private space and individual rights in the Net and exargerate them. The American debate is excessively focussed on notions of private access to the Net and the debate on multi-national control of the Net is not very rich. One of the biggest threats in India is that once the big companies enter, ordinary people will get no access. I would not reject the electronic space as such. We have to fight for and create an egalitarian electronic space everywhere we teach and work and live.

GL: In what way this still small part of the elite is using the Net and could we already speak about an Indian net culture?

RS: What is of interest to me is how the elite has reworked the notion of the journey, in respect to the Net. The ‘journey’ was always central to the iconography of Indian nationalism. As we all of us know, the most prominent photograph and representation of Gandhi, is Gandhi walking. He walked all around the country and also travelled by train to recreate a new space of the nation, to engage in a popular dialogue. Today, the elites of India are recreating the journey, but by accessing the West trough the Web. If you log on the Web, the West emerges as a instantaneous presence. In the past, the West was always represented by a physical journey, you had passports, went there and came back with tales and ‘phoren’ goods. Today, the elite is able to experience the West within a new notion of time. Sitting in Delhi, you can log on to the US-Defence Department or the CIA, which are those secret nodes of power, of which the elite only heard about, while at the same time breaking loose from the social. A peculiar postmodern experience, where issues of inequality and justice do not concern the elite anymore. What we are witnessing here is the reinvention of India, of which the Internet and especially the Web, is a firm part of. In this context, the city of Bangalore is actively being promoted as a major software site for export (hardware exports are still very low). ‘India’s Sillicon Valley’, that is what the hype says. On the one hand, the US do not want to import Indian software engineers. So this notion of territory (the Third World people invading our territory) is resolved by creating a space in India, which is linked through the network. Relatively low payed engineers (compared to the US) who have their own autonomous space. There is a park called ‘Software City’, which is completely cut off from the city itself, financed by a very fluid transnational capital, creating new forms of inequality. Issues of authorship and copyright are of course being discussed worldwide. On the one hand, there is pressure by big companies on the Indian government to sign agreements. So the state has signed some and it will sign a few more. But on the ground the situation is quite different. You can purchase illegal software and computers through the grey market which run quite well, the service is very good, they also run well in respect to the climate in India and they are 50% cheaper, although the gap is closing. There is this huge alternative ‘techno space’, which is not in control by the big companies. The multinaltionals only sell to bigger business houses and eventually there will be a big clash with the smaller businesses, which run the grey market. Microsoft has entered India in a big way, but they will not make money in a big way. This is a symbolic intervention, to put pressure on the state to crack down on software piracy. I personally do not think that knowledge is owned by anyone and if it is sold at huge rates, people should have ways to circumvent it. Žnd the flipside of this is that sections of Microsoft programs were written by Indian engineers, but nobody one talks about this. At the same time that the India goverments ability to control its own territory is in crisis, a new territory is being mapped out on cyberspace and the initiative there is being taken largely by expatried Indians in the United States, who are very sympathetic to Hindu fundamentalism. But these websites and usenet groups dealing with India are almost never accessed by people living in India itself. They look for information regarding the West. So there is an India on the Net which becomes an artifact, which is riddled with ambivilance and has no concessions to a democratic spirit and which has clear fascist overtones. So India is being reinvented, on the Net and in India itself. I am reminded of Marx’ old phrase ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane’. A still unwritten about cyberculture is now coming into being and it should address the experimentation that exists in popular culture in India today. It should address the parodic, the magical and the critical self questioning that the popular offers us. The realm of high, pompous, scientific culture cannot offer that space because such a space is based on distinction to the popular. I am confident that a new space will emerge which is distinct from the elite spaces of cyberculture. _