As one of the youngest democracies, India is often touted as a nation poised for growth. ‘India rising, India shining’ has been a battle cry that my generation has grown up with. At the outset, we have what it takes: a youthful population living in the world’s largest democracy. Yet, there is a quivering uneasiness at upholding this mantle because as a nation we are cradled between two idiomatically opposite truths that make for a contradiction in lived reality.
We may have a youthful population, but we are also one of the oldest civilizations; and the older we get as a civilization the greater the need to bridge memories and identities to form a foundational idea of what it means to be Indian and inculcate a sense of belonging and pride. The youth need to be summoned to build these pillars of a new India.
However there are factors that enervate this growing youthful energy—the demographic might be changing rapidly but what of the mindset? Inherently, some of us still hold on to the adage that wisdom comes with age. Some of us—may the ‘we’ be organizations or individuals—are unable to truly evolve and engage with this transformation. At this critical point of transition in our nation, we need to have an infrastructure of ownership that allows youngsters to become agents of change. This, I feel, is what Seminar has to offer as a public institution of ideas—a forum that holds very dearly at its very root of conception, a culture of dissent and free expression—age, sex, creed, caste no bar.
Seminar’s functioning goes well beyond its capacity as a journal into the creation of a safe haven where everything is up for discussion, an informal roundtable of conversations amongst thinking India. To be called into Seminar’s imagination is to be ushered into a world where differing opinions are not only tolerated but are sought after with urgency. For how can we progress as a nation without a space that is hungry for the jostling of ideas and the voices of its people? Every month, for fifty five years Seminar has served as a parliament for Indians, young and old alike, where scholars, students, journalists, politicians, social workers, among other specialists, hold their own on all matters of concern.
When I first read the transcripts of the seminar that took place at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, I was spellbound at the fierceness of the voices and the articulation of ideas and questions that lay restless on its pages; a chorus of dissenting opinions. At times these voices were a fusion of one another, reiterating a point, while other times they challenged each other vehemently. I have tried to make visible this jugalbandi of sorts in the ‘Glimpses’ section:
“We realized that the public discourse in South Asia needs to recognize it is not very often in the history of the building of a nation or the building of a democratic polity that something as intangible as a public institution of ideas can survive. Be it the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS) or the journal Seminar.”
PETER RONALD DESOUZA
“Now to speak of Seminar as a public institution is in a sense ironic...for the condition of Seminar’s flourishing has been the fact that it’s been a fiercely private institution.”
“This is just to elaborate...on the irony that vehicles of public discussion have actually been private. It has a very long lineage going back into the nineteenth century. I think Seminar belongs to that lineage. Ram Mohan Roy carried out his campaign against sati through the pages of a journal called Sambad Kaumudi that he virtually ran himself.”
As I was absorbed further into this colloquium, I recognized that this is not a seminar where one made a point and rested, this is a rare collection of ideas that has the power to spring off the text and into one’s consciousness. Each question begs to be unravelled and unpacked—Nayantara Sahgal asks us to understand how we can create an idea of India that will appeal to the youth, Sunil Khilnani wonders whether online media reinforces the same ideas rather than facilitates new ideas, Amita Baviskar reminds us of Gandhi’s embodied politics and how thoughts now need to be translated into action. Their electric discussions succeed in capturing Seminar’s fifty years and its story of growth as played out on the stage of India’s transformation through these decades.
Truly, Seminar is a historical living record of the times of India, with an arresting past in activism and politics. Its founders, Raj and Romesh Thapar, were left sympathizers who brought out Seminar when they felt that the party’s politics no longer matched their own ideologies. They did not free themselves from the commitment that they had made to their country but immediately sprung into action and envisioned Seminar.
In today’s world, there is a desperate thirst amongst the youth to contribute to their country. We want to make a difference, but are unsure protagonists. In an environment where technological platforms make it easier to voice our opinion, we hit on the ‘like’ button of Facebook pages to demonstrate solidarity to causes and sign online petitions to support others seeking the change we would want to see. But how much of this translates into ‘being’ the change? In this demonstration of our solidarity too, more often than not we end up servicing our biases, pre-defined and programmed by me-too media.
How does Seminar fit into this dramatically changing scenario? Seminar gives its readers a balanced view of issues, a nutritional take on matters that govern the Indian conscience. It provides its readers with a vocabulary of dissent and presents them with ideas generated from people’s experiences out in the field. In reading Seminar, we are able to freely and critically analyze the churnings in our democracy. There are no hidden agendas save for the ignition of thinking minds. This is an all too precious treasure to merely stumble upon in a world that is increasingly full of profit-motivated individuals and organizations whose rule can be totalitarian in the public sphere of change. The country is going through a transition period and so is Seminar. As in all periods like these, one must retain what works and remodel what doesn’t. The way Seminar chooses to navigate this challenge will itself be a study of the vehicles which best foster this culture of dissent that is intricately tied with the publication of the journal.
I am fortunate to have opened a door in my life that led me to Seminar and the wonderful trinity of editors, Malvika Singh, Tejbir Singh and Harsh Sethi, who believe in their own voices fearlessly and create paths of dissent every month for us to travel. Mala brought me into this conversation and I feel indebted to her for her unwavering faith in my abilities. My deepest thanks to her, as well as to Tejbir and Harsh, for giving me an opportunity to participate in this seminar that has brought me so much closer to my nation’s history and its present. Watching them everyday at work has been fascinating to say the least. Their largesse for the divulgence of diverging ideas will always be inspiring. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to become a part of this camaraderie and learn from their expertise as they often guided and nudged me in the right direction. It has been an absolute pleasure working with Rituraj and Sanu Kapila who have been as fired up about India Alive as us. Their support has been crucial. A warm thanks to Akila who designed the dramatic and striking cover and the layout of the book that stays true to Seminar’s typographical innovations. Many thanks also to all the participants for responding promptly and giving me their time when I needed it.
In my family, there runs a pulsating legacy of activists, thinkers and politicians who have played critical roles in shaping the history of India. A special thanks to my grandmother, Kamala Bakshi, who has helped me understand my identity as an Indian and my parents who raised me to follow my calling as a writer.
There are perhaps more questions than answers in this volume, but these are the questions that have remain unasked and will now hopefully be unmasked and explored by you, the reader. It is you, after all, that makes India come alive.