Saturday, December 29, 2007
An Iranian in India, Encouraging Dialoguehttp://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/27/books/27jaha.html?_r=1%268bu=%26oref=slogin%26emc=bu%26pagewanted=print
December 27, 2007
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
NEW DELHI — “I’ve lived here on and off for two years, with imprisonment in between.” Ramin Jahanbegloo, an Iranian philosopher, described his Indian sojourn this way, and even as he agreed to an interview this month on condition that he not be asked to talk about his home country, which imprisoned him last year, it kept creeping into the conversation, quite uninvited, like a gnome.
In Iran Mr. Jahanbegloo, 50, was accused of collaborating with Americans to destabilize the state, kept in solitary confinement for four months and released on bail.
Out of jail, but with the charges still pending, he returned here to finish his latest book, “India Revisited: Conversations on Contemporary India,” a collection of 27 interviews with 27 remarkable Indians that the Indian arm of Oxford University Press has just published. The book is ostensibly about Indian subjects — dance, caste, Parsis, democracy — but it inexorably engages many of the issues that vex Mr. Jahanbegloo’s homeland, including tradition, pluralism, the West and freedom.
Born in Tehran, Mr. Jahanbegloo discovered India in childhood. His father was an economist, his mother a playwright. The Indian ambassador in Tehran was a guest at family dinner parties when Mr. Jahanbegloo was young, and the library in his home contained the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru; both had visited Iran.
Mr. Jahanbegloo said that he liked to think of himself as an Indian, without the citizenship, but with what he calls an Indian’s “metaphysical view of the world.” One would be hard-pressed to find a more eloquent promoter of the idea of India.“India is a country where you find a dialogue of cultures in a very deep sense of the term,” Mr. Jahanbegloo said. “I try to understand this spirit. I try to follow this spirit. Even if you find a lot of tension, riots, killings, that spirit itself brings India back.”
Mr. Jahanbegloo’s intellectual home in India, the Center for the Study of Developing Societies, where he has had a faculty appointment for the last two years, is also home to a number of other iconoclasts, like Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist, who likewise appears in the new book. Mr. Nandy explains where Gandhi sits in Indian consciousness. D. L. Sheth, another scholar at the center, discusses the shifting meanings of caste. A filmmaker from Calcutta, Mrinal Sen, occasionally reprimands Mr. Jahanbegloo for not properly understanding his oeuvre.
Kapila Vatsyayan, a cultural historian, offers an elegantly simple explanation of India’s survival. “India has so far demonstrated the capacity to hold together two lifelines, one an original, primal, or indigenous, almost immutable line, and the other of ‘change,’” she tells Mr. Jahanbegloo. “No single unit or dimension is totally ‘insular’ or ‘static.’”
Mr. Jahanbegloo finds this an especially trenchant lesson for Middle Eastern countries, which he says have not been able to accommodate a dialogue of cultures. Instead, he says, they have suffered either a modernization from above, as in the case of Iran under the Shah, or a virulent assertion of fundamentalism from below, as with the Taliban of Afghanistan.
“Iranians, like Arabs, have not been able to digest modernity because they did not find a way to create a permanent dialogue between the two concepts,” he said. “It’s either created authoritarian modernity or authoritarian traditionalism.”
Mr. Jahanbegloo credits Indian thinkers for their “soft reading of modernity, not a violent reaction to it.” Missing from his glowing appraisal is sufficient explanation for the violence that persists in Indian life, whether in the guise of Maoist insurgents or Hindu radicals or home-grown Islamist terrorist groups.
“This is what I think is so important to people of the Middle East, particularly Turks, Iranians and Arabs,” he said. “They want to keep their own identity. They want to be proud of their past. But it’s very important to open up to other cultures. Democracy is a result of this. Democracy is a government of dialogue.”
Mr. Jahanbegloo studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, and stayed on in France for 20 years. Among his first books were works on the 19th-century German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. His inquiries were very much European, from the making of the modern European state to the idea of revolution. And he was very much engaged with what he called “philosophies of violence.”
As Mr. Jahanbegloo recalls it now, the violence of the 1979 Iranian revolution kindled his interest in nonviolent ways of making change, though it was not until the early 1990s, when he returned home to Tehran, that his mind returned to the philosophers of nonviolence. In 1998 he wrote a book on Gandhi; in 1999 a book on nonviolence. He invited thinkers from across the world, from Richard Rorty to the writer V. S. Naipaul, to his independent institution, the Cultural Research Bureau, in Tehran. He also published a scholarly journal called Goftegu, or Dialogue.
As it happened, dialogue landed him in prison. In April 2006, while he was on his way to a conference in Belgium, he was arrested at the Tehran airport and sent to the notorious Evin prison; he had recently returned home from Delhi for a vacation. At the time the Iranian information minister was quoted as saying Mr. Jahanbegloo had had “contacts with foreigners.” He was released after confessing that foreign agents might have exploited his expertise. Mr. Jahanbegloo says he told Iranian authorities that he had attended conferences with plenty of foreigners but never with an “antistate agenda” and never to divulge anything to foreign intelligence officials.
“There were no names I could give,” he said in the interview here. “I could give only names of philosophers. There was no way I could reveal any secrets. There were no secrets.”
Other scholars, including two Iranian-Americans, Haleh Esfandiari, the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, and Kian Tajbakhsh, an urban planner with ties to the Open Society Institute, were arrested in May on similarly vague accusations of plotting a foreign-sponsored “velvet revolution.”
All three appeared on Iran’s state-run television in July, making statements that could have been interpreted to suggest that they had tried to overthrow the Iranian government. Mr. Jahanbegloo’s televised statement, recorded during his detention in 2006, included the admission that on trips outside Iran he had become acquainted with Americans and Israelis, many of whom, he said on television, were “intelligence figures.”
Ms. Esfandiari and Mr. Tajbakhsh were released in September.
In prison, as a way to get his mind out of his cell, Mr. Jahanbegloo wrote as many as 2,000 aphorisms on the backs of tissue boxes. They will be published soon in Iran in a collection called “A Mind in Winter,” a title that he described as “a metaphor for being alone, hibernating also.”
Next he plans to return to a book he began, but didn’t finish, on Iran and modernity. By early next month Mr. Jahanbegloo, who also holds Canadian citizenship, will move to Toronto with his wife and daughter and join the faculty at the University of Toronto.
David Malone, the Canadian high commissioner here, credits Mr. Jahanbegloo in “India Revisited” for compelling so many Indian scholars “to speak in short, clear, largely jargon-free sentences,” as he wrote in an e-mail message.
“It allows the lay reader to access how thoughtful Indians (and there are so many!) struggle with notions of democracy, multiculturalism, the caste system and the situation of minorities, religious and otherwise, all important issues in India, most of which are mirrored in the West,” he wrote.
For Mr. Jahanbegloo, more than 16 months after his release, the nightmares have begun to dissipate. “Breathing the Indian air brings me health, at least mental health,” he said wryly. “Sometimes I get really mad at the corruption, the Delhi traffic, how people drive, honking all the time. But the absence of nervousness and psychological violence gives you a peaceful life. In many other countries, like America and Iran, people are very nervous, psychologically very nervous.”