The Raft On Our Backs

Ramachandra Guha’s anthology of Indian political thinkers masterfully chronicles an indigenous liberal tradition—but what lies beyond its boundaries?

01 March 2011
Ramachandra Guha, Makers of Modern India, PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA, 560 PAGES, Rs 799
Ramachandra Guha, Makers of Modern India, PENGUIN BOOKS INDIA, 560 PAGES, Rs 799

IS THERE AN INDIAN WAY OF THINKING? The poet and scholar AK Ramanujan considered the question at length in a celebrated essay on the subject. The answer, he decided, would depend on which word of the question one chose to stress. The same is true of the following variation on Ramanujan’s question: Is there an Indian way of thinking about politics? There are several things we might mean by this. For example, we might mean to ask: Is there an Indian way of thinking about politics at all? Or we might mean: Is there an indigenously Indian, rather than derivative, way of thinking about politics? Or perhaps: Is there an Indian way of thinking, systematically, about politics? When this question is asked by a historian, it becomes another way of asking about India’s tradition of political thought. Does such a thing exist? What sort of thing is it?

Here are some possible answers to these questions. There is no Indian tradition of political thought; there is only the dirty business of workaday politics. Or, there is a tradition of Indian political thought, but it consists entirely in applications of the insights of Western liberals, Marxists and fascists to Indian conditions. Or, there is a tradition of thinking about politics, but no tradition of political thought to rival the great texts of the Western tradition.

All such suspicions are decisively refuted in Makers of Modern India, an important new anthology of political writings from modern Indian history. The volume’s editor, Ramachandra Guha, writes, “Modern India is unusual in having had so many politicians who were also original thinkers”, and proceeds to make good on this claim with panache. Naturally, our usual suspects, Mohandas K Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rabindranath Tagore and BR Ambedkar, are here in strength. But there are others, often invoked but seldom read: Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari. Yet others are positively obscure: Tarabai Shinde, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Hamid Dalwai. Many of these essays are not easy to find elsewhere. Between them, they cover much ground, with their authors debating, among other things, economic and social policy, the role of religion in the public sphere, the evils of caste, and the rights of women.

Nakul Krishna is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Cambridge.

Keywords: Gandhi Ramachandra Guha Nehru Marxist Ragaopalachari liberal Constitution