Engaging Modern Indian Political Thought – A discussion

Ramachandra Guha (Courtesy: Penguin Books India)

Ramachandra Guha (Courtesy: Penguin Books India)

‘The problem with Indian scholarship is that it lacks a robust, critical biographical tradition’ – This remark was made by historian Ramachandra Guha who spoke at the university this week on modern Indian political thought. It is striking because I have often felt the absence of scholarship on several forgotten heroes of Indian independence as well as in other spheres of life like armed forces and military in particular (which is a subject close to me). For instance, one of the few biographies on Indian Army Generals and perhaps the only one on General Thimayya was written by an English journalist Evans Humphrey. Lack of comprehensive works on several such noted Indians is of concern in Social Sciences. Also, to me it appears that a reason for Guha’s success as a writer is because his books are a result of extensive research that brings out several different aspects and narratives of the period in which his books are set. His book India After Gandhi alone has a dense and rich list of references and personalities whose lives could be taken up as exclusive subjects.

In a discussion this week, Sudhir poses questions to Guha which are set around 3 key themes – education, constitution and caste. The other context of this discussion is his book Makers of Modern India. We have been reading several chapters from this book to gain a better understanding of social interventions and political context in which people like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Jyotirao Phule and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar operated.

On Education – Macaulay’s famous Minute on Education is widely known as a backdrop to modern Indian education. But it is striking to read Raja Ram Mohun Roy (RRMR) making a similar argument many years before Macaulay. That if the government wants Indians to hold themselves in the modern world should the government be advocating teaching of Sanskrit? Or a language that the modern world understands?

Guha notes RRMR was not disparaging sanskrit but that the state should not be promoting learning of Sanskrit and Persian. He would be on RRMR’s side and that this reasoning is. In a similar vein years later under a more established British India, Jyotirao Phule castigates government spending on higher education as opposed to primary. His letter to the government reflects a thinking on what modern education should look like. As an author Guha explains that there is a logic to the sequence of chapters on RRMR, Syed Ahmed Khan and Jyotirao Phule. While there is some backward looking nostalgia of the Mughal decline in RRMR’s views, Syed Ahmed Khan is forward looking. Jyotirao is an extraordinary character whose ideas are a precursor of Ambedkar when he states that education must be available to all and that the system of modern education under the British is dominated by Brahmins. This progression of thought over time and in the views of the these three visionaries is quite interesting. It has vital sociological, political and historical insights to offer.

On Constitution of India – Referring to  Ambedkar’s speech in the Constituent Assembly at the presentation of constitution one notes that he is at pains to state that the Constitution is not a very novel document. He asks what new can be said? Guha’s motivation to select this excerpt for his book Makers of Modern India suggests a peculiar motivation. Did Ambedkar genuinely believe that? As a question of intellectual histroy what they ended up doing with the Constitution is terribly novel suggest Sudhir. The very idea of novelty is not only played down by Ambedkar but also by Nehru who speaks after him. Why was disclaiming novelty such an important idea?

Guha notes that Ambedkar is a scholar. He wants to recognize what has come before him. Social sciences builds upon what has been done before. Ambedkar is also a modernist. But Guha then admits that he doesn’t know why are they (Ambedkar and Nehru) being so strategic in stating that the Constitution is not a novel document. Could this be then regarded as a task of great intellectual modesty by the makers of Constitution of India?

A more remarkable reading into this constitutional debate is the idea that the Constitution can achieve social revolution. In political thought there is no idea that a Constitution can do the job of a social revolution. Perhaps this is the punch of Constitution that it is a fine example of political thinking. The second excerpt in Guha’s book Makers of Modern India is about Constitutional method of advancing politics. This is in many ways absent in the current times. Guha suggest that there are 3 warnings in that speech in this excerpted concluding speech by Ambedkar –

  1.  Constitution is one man one vote. It is a call for social and economic equality.
  2.  On satyagraha as a means. Guha adds, “Let us be clear about one thing, that Ambedkar must have absolutely detersted the Maoists.” Violent revolutionary means of protesting when we were governed by a colonial power was ok. “But now to use it is grammar of anarchy.
  3. This is the “most striking and relevant warning. I remember it everyweek – of dangers of hero worship. Bhakti in religion can get you personal salvation. But bhakti in politics is a road to dictatorship. Whenever I see Narendra Modi speak on TV I think of Ambedkar” adds a clear and assertive Guha. “However great a person’s contrubution to his country be, you cannot lay down your liberties at his feet. Narendra Modi’s authoritarianism is complete. I am terrified at the thought of him becoming the PM.

On caste –  Caste is fundamental to our social life, to politics and to our law. Makers of Modern India does not take any position. The only position is that if one wants to understand the modern Indian social political order then forget Ashoka. That is not where one should begin to understand modern Indian political thought. The extraordinary intellectual ferment in the 19th century has been critical and it is a continuous tradition . The personalities included in Makers of Modern India are thinker-politicians. Thats a core interest. I have just tried to show the diversity adds Guha. Caste is constitutive of the Indian experience and of Indian democracy.

Following this Guha was on  a rapid fire mode on several questions that were posed to him. It is always a delight to see a clear minded and honest individual batting straight off than glossing over or sugar coating opinion.

  1. On ‘Amdedkarite fundamentalism’ – We need to be somewhat empathetic to this kind that in a sense they are paradoxical- the two words. Ambedkar was a reflexive thinker. If it is about being more empathetic to admiration of Ambedkar then one needs to be honest. Tribals have suffered more than dalits. A reason is that tribals have never had a rallying figure like Ambedkar. The duty of a scholar is to be honest. For instance, Arun Shourie wrote a shameful book on Ambedkar. He said 2 things – Amdekar was a tony of British. Ambedkar said abusive things about Gandhi. This was wrong. Superficially this could be true. If one quotes Ambedkar on Gandhi then quote Gandhi on Ambedkar as well. Shourie deliberately suppressed that part. It is a dishonest book.
  2. On ‘deification’ in Indian politics – It is quite a dark side and emerged with Indira Gandhi. Congress party was the first which abandoned the cadres. Marxists are the only exception. They deified Marx and Engels but have been austere in their personal lives like Manik Sarkar and Jyoti Basu. Only a cadre based party can avoid this. 
  3. On Swami Vivekanda – I knew criticisms would be made. I say on reflection I may have included him. The other person is Vishveshwaraya that I should have included. He was an original thinker in technology. Bose, Patel and EMS Namboodiripad do not find a place in this book . They were not original thinkers.
  4. On Ashish Nandy controvery at JLF – What Nandy said is indefensible and factually wrong. He could have just said, “Mere sey galti ho gayi hai” . What is wrong in saying that “what I said is factually wrong.” Of course he shouldn’t have gone to jail.
  5. On Gender – India has more powerful female political leaders than any other country. Yet the state of women is appalling. A part of the problem is that two major religions in India are profoundly irreducible to patriarchy – Hinduism and Islam. It is deeply encoded.

Stuff like this makes my time at the University worth. Otherwise, I have often felt I am better taking the road and get out, engage with the world in its real colours and not just the black typed text! 


Modernists – Then & Now

Early Indian modernists

Early Indian modernists

This morning a discussion on life, work and legacy of Raja Rammohun Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan led to a question on why did they call for ‘modern’ education in India of the mid 19th century (around 1840-1890 period)? How different was the Indian education system before the onset of colonial period and post? What did Indian education lack that the ‘modern’ British system have?

One perspective stems from Dharampal’s The Beautiful Tree, an important work on the history of Indian education system. He argues that much of the British education system of the British India (and consequently today’s education system) is based on the ancient Indian structure. By this he probably means that the instruction method, spread of schools (as in a school in every village) and curriculum all appear to have been adopted and modified to the needs of the British administration and presented as their own. I do not doubt the claims of the book nor the scholar’s study. In fact, I find the process only too natural.

I have two observations on the current discourse on origins of modern education system in India and its effects:

1. Allegation that British education system is essentially Indian, with a sense that it is noting new but our own system shown to us as new is not true.

2. ‘Modernists’ of 19th century are not much different in their approach to the new crop of Indian academicians and professors who have returned to India (or visit periodically) after being trained abroad or worked abroad. The ideas they propagate back in India are pretty much the same like what the modernists of 19th century did!

Saying that the British system of education is only a derivative of traditional Indian system is one thing. But implying that the British system has in some way borrowed and been deceitful in doing that would be flawed. Here is my reason for believing so. If the invaders in any geography are powerful enough and have long term ambitions to rule the place and not just plunder it then it is quite a natural progression that the dominating power would manipulate the processes of this new land and its people. Like if they want Indians to work in the new order of production (and industry) in British India then they would also have to be oriented and trained likewise. If the British empire brought in railways, elaborate administrative processes and newer technologies (post industrial revolution) to India then they also wanted to condition Indians to be able to work in that new environment. This is easier when one takes in an existing mode of learning of the natives themselves and modify it by incorporating all that you would also want to ensure that the natives learn in order to serve you better (remember this is a colonial power-colony relationship) The ‘modernists’ like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Raja Rammohun Roy saw how out of tune a native Indian is, in this new order of things in British India. They probably felt that it would hinder the growth of the native Indian as he wouldn’t be able to better his lot if he doesn’t ‘learn’ the ways of the new India. Also, we know that Syed Ahmed Khan held British empire to be way too powerful and that Indians didn’t stand a chance if they were to revolt against it, as they did in the uprising of 1857. Now this was one group of people who thought that Indians should modernize – learn English language and train in newer fields of science and industry. Those who pushed for such ideas are termed ‘modernists’ of the late 19th century.

There is another set of modernists that I see – Indian academicians and professors who are trained abroad. I find that they do not see themselves as agents propagating certain ideas which do not necessarily hold the same importance as they think it should or are simply irrelevant. To my understanding they aren’t any different from what our 19th century modernists were doing. These I call modernists of now. Except the subaltern studies initiative, I do not recall anything as original as this in its concern and rigour. We have some of the major works on Indian society, culture and politics from western thinkers. Also in many instances divergent from what the native sociologists would see it like.

These are some first thoughts on a discussion on some of the early modernists in India and which was in some way imagined as something that happened in the past. In spirit, I think it still happens and will keep happening. Being conscious of it can be a better position to be in than always looking at it in retrospect.