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?

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

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.

Guha claims that his anthology is no “random collection of interesting individuals, but a connected political tradition” (his italics). This is a tradition in which thinkers “who come later refer to those who came before” and “challenge or contest those who are their contemporaries”. He is happy to concede that this putative tradition’s “continuities have been emphasized by the way in which this book has been structured. But the tradition itself is by no means the product of an editor’s artifice.” Guha’s answer to our original question is then something like the following: Yes, there is an Indian way of thinking about politics. It is distinctively Indian, original and meets the highest intellectual standards.

To be sure, in delineating this tradition, Guha finds himself needing to make some hard choices about whom to leave out. These choices are informed in part by an historian’s need to trace something like a clear narrative from a jumble of sources, and in part by Guha’s avowed “focus reform”. So far so fair. Also fair, on the face of it, are Guha’s criteria for the inclusion of a thinker or piece of writing: intellectual originality, subtlety of argument, the political influence of the author and contemporary relevance.

What results is exactly the sort of book one expects from Guha, a historian who has always preferred narrative history and archival research to high theory. He writes fluently in a field that no longer rewards it. Despite the fact that “political history and biography have for some time now been out of fashion within the academy”, Guha is happy to adopt a defiantly old-fashioned “Great Thinkers” approach, rarely hesitant to seek in his historical stories morals for our own time. Accessible, instructive and provocative, Guha’s choices are full of food for thought and the raw material for debate; no self-respecting bookshelf should be without a copy.

Guha argues that the writings in the anthology “were (and are) not merely of academic interest; rather, they had a defining impact on the formation and evolution of the Indian republic”. In that respect, Guha offers one kind of answer to the question of why we should pay any attention to these debates. Whilst showing us how we got to being what we are—a blundering but stable democracy run along liberal constitutional lines—they show us also how easily things might have been different, how we might have been a radically different sort of country. On occasion, this realisation is cause for despair. As Guha puts it, “Such debates do not take place any more... The tradition that this book has showcased is dead. No politician now alive can think or write in an original or even interesting fashion about the direction Indian society and politics is and should be taking.”

More often, especially when seen in the background of the fates of so many former European colonies, to learn of the contingency of our present situation is cause for relief, and indeed of hope—hope that a renewed focus on India’s intellectual tradition might free its great thinkers from their appropriations by sectarians to rejoin the contemporary debate. Guha’s complaint about partisan appropriation of India’s past might be the most important claim in this book: “ treated as a Bengali poet; ...Ambedkar as a Dalit icon...; ...Nehru as the property of the Congress.” This makes it “hard, if not impossible, for anyone to follow a catholic approach—to study and appreciate both Gandhi and Ambedkar, or both Nehru and Rajagopalachari, on the basis that these legacies may be equally relevant or significant, albeit in different and arguably complementary ways”.

Guha’s targets here are not only politicians, who might be forgiven for neither knowing better nor caring, but fellow scholars. He has little sympathy for Amartya Sen’s project in The Argumentative Indian (2005) to trace elements of the practice of modern Indian democracy back to the pluralism and tolerance of Ashoka and Akbar. Guha argues that Sen is wrong to privilege the “traditions of debate that were distinctive of long-dead states and kingdoms” over “those traditions which actually shaped the political and social institutions of the present”. Further, Sen’s quest for “alternatives to the Hindutva genealogy, by searching for a past useable by the Left...which has the right progressive values, such as egalitarianism and secularism” is, in Guha’s trenchant phrase, “a sort of ‘Bhakti Marxism’”.

Given the character of these polemics, Guha must proceed carefully in drawing up his own “canon”. He cannot except himself from the standards by which he judged Sen. At the same time, however, as readers of his earlier work will know, Guha has argued forcefully in favour of the need for a “liberal” space in Indian politics—as distinguished from Marxists on the left and proponents of Hindutva on the right. It calls for comment, then, that the tradition he describes turns out to have a pronounced “liberal” emphasis, sharing Guha’s own concerns with individual rights, gender equality, caste reform and secularism. A critic might well ask if Guha has done exactly what he accused Sen of doing: of “searching for a past useable by” liberals.

Three of the thinkers on his list are described explicitly as liberals: Rammohan Roy (the chapter on him is titled ‘The First Liberal’), Gopal Krishna Gokhale (‘The Liberal Reformer’), and C Rajagopalachari (‘The Gandhian Liberal’). Others, such as Nehru and Ambedkar are seen as liberal constitutionalists of the same stripe. Yet others are shown as reformers animated by typically liberal concerns such as gender equality and social justice: E V Ramaswami ‘Periyar’ (‘The Radical Reformer’), Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (‘The Socialist Feminist’), Rammanohar Lohia (‘The Indigenous Socialist’). Less than a tenth of the book is devoted to people who could plausibly be described as non-liberals: Bal Gangadhar Tilak (‘The Militant Nationalist’) and M S Golwalkar (‘The Hindu Supremacist’).

It is not in itself a problem that Guha’s list has this emphasis. It might be that the tradition he seeks to document does in fact have exactly the (liberal) shape he suggests it does. If so, he cannot fairly be described as having “appropriated” any thinker to his own camp. After all, his avowed focus (“social reform”) and his criteria for inclusion—originality, subtlety, influence, and relevance—are resolutely nonpartisan ones. Yet, Guha’s results make one wonder if there is any wholly neutral way of applying these criteria, particularly the last one.

One wonders this because of who gets left out of his list. On the non-liberal left, those excluded include the Marxists, because “their work has been mostly derivative”. On the non-liberal right, we find no trace of Vallabhbhai Patel for his “paucity of original ideas” (Guha’s italics), or of VD Savarkar and Madan Mohan Malviya for not being sufficiently “effective or influential” compared with MS Golwalkar. Golwalkar himself gets a few pages, but with a warning label attached: “A Hindu Rashtra would be both inimical to democracy and lead to even more strife between religions”. The one other right-wing thinker to make the book is Bal Gangadhar Tilak. He is again given a few pages, but they too come with an editorial dismissal: “His radical nationalist politics lost its relevance with the achievement of Indian independence.” Other figures, more difficult to classify, are dealt with just as swiftly. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan and Sri Aurobindo: “Their influence never really extended beyond the middle class.” Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati: “Their influence has passed...they were superseded by Gandhi.”

In all this, Guha is always anxious to inform us that a thinker has nothing to say “to the concerns of the present”, a judgment for which he rarely argues at any length. The claim that Marxists, Hindu and Muslim nationalists, and conservatives are no longer “relevant” is a view many find plausible, and those who do will likely be liberals in Guha’s mould. But it is a controversial political claim that needs to be justified, not least to Marxists, religious nationalists and conservatives, who might justly feel irked at their exclusion from the canon. Indeed, the need for such a defence might be thought especially pressing in a society in which these are living traditions whose adherents are often prepared to adopt violent means towards their non-liberal ends.

It would be unfair to complain on this count if Guha’s criteria had been explicitly partisan. As it happens, they are not, and it is a good idea to look carefully at how Guha arrives at his list. One way of doing so might be to ask a variant on our original question: Is there an Indian way of thinking about politics? Is there one Indian political tradition, or are there several? Or, to put in Guha’s own terms: Assuming that there is a single Indian political tradition, how best might its diversity be represented?

Guha’s answer to that question is embodied in this book: just concentrate on the liberals, with a few Hindu nationalists for (saffron) colour. Certainly, Guha seems happiest discussing thinkers and debates that fit broadly into a liberal democratic paradigm of constitutional rights and state policy—Nehru and Rajagopalachari on the economy, Gandhi and Ambedkar on caste, Lohia on language policy and so forth. In itself, there can be no objection to this in itself. On the contrary, there is no question that Guha has found a richly rewarding area of inquiry, one that it is crucial to study in order “to acquire a fuller understanding of how this unnatural nation and unlikely democracy was argued into existence”. However, it does not follow that the liberal narrative does the best job of capturing what is most important about these arguments. It does not follow that the debates that interest Guha were the only—or even the most significant—debates to exercise the political thinkers of modern India. And it certainly does not follow that the only legitimate political debate in our times is to be restricted to these questions. Guha may not explicitly draw these inferences, but they are tempting ones to draw if one shares his political sympathies, and it is worth thinking about them in some detail.

Indian leaders at a Constitutional meeting. HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION / CORBIS

Should India be a Hindu state rather than a secular republic, a communist state rather than a liberal democracy? How ought a democracy to respond to the demands of secessionists? Are there situations in which violent resistance to the state is morally justified, maybe even required? These are some questions that do not figure prominently in Guha’s narrative. If only relying on this book, one might easily come to think that the Indian political tradition has had little to say about these questions. Alternatively, one might conclude that these questions had been settled decisively in favour of liberal constitutional principles. But the latter inference, as Guha’s India After Gandhi (2007) so vividly showed, is falsified by the evidence of modern Indian history.

Might Guha have gone about things differently? That is to say, is there a better way of representing the Indian political tradition?

One answer is that the project calls for a radical pluralism, in which Guha’s attempt to tell one relatively coherent story calls to be replaced with something much more ambitious. Such a volume would include more thinkers, more writings and more commentary. It would accommodate the liberal strands that Guha is keen to stress, but it would strive also to accommodate others. Such a volume would require an army of historians to complete. Such a volume would also be very (very) long.

Another answer is that what is called for is a species of anti-liberal revisionism, where Guha’s liberal emphasis would be replaced with a different one. Imagine, for example, a lineage of thinkers that started with Swami Vivekananda and Dayanand Saraswati, moved through Tilak, Malaviya, and Savarkar, through Patel, Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Rajendra Prasad, then to KB Hedgewar and Golwalkar, and ended with the speeches of LK Advani and the columns of Arun Shourie. In this story, Rammohan Roy would figure as a quaint but ineffectual scholar shortly to be superseded by Vivekananda, Gandhi as the wily politician responsible for Partition, Ambedkar as a dangerous seditionist—and the less said about Nehru the better. In this narrative, these figures will be found to have nothing to say “to the concerns of the present”. If one finds this an attractive narrative, one might be disposed to compile such an anthology; it will have no difficulty in finding sympathetic readers. However, such an anthology would be vulnerable to the same objections as Guha’s, and seem an even less plausible way of representing a diverse and complex tradition. (One might try drawing up an Indian radical canon if one is so minded as a diverting exercise.)

But there is a better answer, one that is more responsive to the inevitable methodological difficulties of such a project, and yet is broadly in the spirit of Guha’s own. In this view, there is no need to deny the broadly liberal shape of the mainstream of Indian political thought. This shape was imposed by the events surrounding two critical moments: the first was the arrival of colonial modernity in the 18th century; the second was the framing of the Indian Constitution in the late 1940s. The former represented a break from all previous Indian history, thereby establishing a distinctively modern context for any future political thought: the latter represented the victory of a particular liberal strand of political thinking over its principal opponents, giving its values the backing of state power to a degree that no opponent has ever been able to command.

However it would be unwise to infer from this that the story of Indian political thought is simply that of the triumphant march of modernity and liberalism. For a start, we must remind ourselves of that hoariest of clichés about India—that it lives in several centuries at once. Even if one is primarily interested in “those traditions which actually shaped the political and social institutions of the present”, as Guha is, it is hard not to see the extent to which the figures in Guha’s book were themselves influenced by traditions that antedated modernity. For example, Tilak’s “militant nationalism” was intimately tied to his “attempt to establish the antiquity of the Rig Veda”; some of Gandhi’s acutest reflections on violence come in his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita; Nehru’s reflections on religious tolerance draw freely from Ashoka and Akbar. For this reason alone, the best representation of India’s political tradition will not make too sharp a distinction between the ‘distant’ and the ‘proximate’ past.

Further, the fact that the liberals ‘won’ the debates over the Constitution, which now seems the natural order of things, should not lead us to impose a retrospective order on what came before. The liberal victory in the Constituent Assembly came not because there was no one to defend an alternative position, but in spite of the fact that there were many who did so. Needless to say, those opponents did not disappear in postcolonial India.

BR Ambedkar, who spoke for the constitutional liberals in the Assembly, saw as much. In an important speech made to the Constituent Assembly in November 1948 (Guha includes it in his anthology), he quoted approvingly the 19th-century historian of ancient Greece George Grote on the nature of “constitutional morality”, which meant

a paramount reverence for the forms of the Constitution, enforcing obedience to authority acting under and within these forms yet combined with the habit of open speech... and unrestrained censure of those very authorities as to all their public acts, combined too with a perfect confidence in the bosom of every citizen amidst the bitterness of party contest that the forms of the Constitution will not be less sacred in the eyes of his opponents than in his own.

This, as Ambedkar was quick to realise, was a description of a distant ideal:

[C]an we presume such a diffusion of Constitutional morality? Constitutional morality is not a natural sentiment. It has to be cultivated. We must realise that our people have yet to learn it. Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.

The debates over the Hindu Code Bill in the 1950s were soon to reveal Ambedkar’s pessimism to have been warranted. Through successive decades, constitutional principles would be constantly contested. Sometimes, the contestation would come in the form of a violent challenge to the power of the Indian state itself, as happened in Naxalbari. More often, however, the challenge would be presented in the guise of debates conducted under those principles. Even those who sought to challenge the status quo had to use the language of that status quo—for instance, the economic liberals in the Swatantra Party presenting their view as the proper view of the ideal of liberty. Those who protested against the Mandal Commission presented themselves as the defenders of ‘true’ equality. And, in that most paradoxical of reversals, those who demolished the Babri Masjid would defend it in the language of ‘real’ (rather than ‘pseudo-’) secularism.

This, then, is an alternative way of representing India’s political tradition: as a series of contestations between liberals—committed to some conception of individual rights, secularism and equality—and a series of critics and challengers, from the inside and the outside. These liberal values ascended to a position of relative prominence during the colonial era, then had an important victory in 1947, and became—to use the prevalent jargon—‘hegemonic’. Yet, they never ceased to be embattled and vulnerable to challenge, from within the establishment (the Emergency) and without (Naxalbari).

To look at the matter in this way helps resolve a paradox in Guha’s account of Indian liberalism: that he can bemoan the lack of a liberal ‘space’ in Indian politics even while telling a historical story in which all Indian politics takes place within such a space. Another salutary effect of thinking of the tradition in this way is that it can offer Indian defenders of this broadly liberal position some help in walking their difficult tightrope: on one side is the danger of self-righteousness: on the other is that of complacency.

The first is a trap that few Western liberals have been able to avoid in recent years. In defending their liberalism against its challengers, they have come to present their values not as one possible response to the problems of modernity but a truth beyond question, and beyond history. Anyone who challenges this view of things, or nurtures the hope that these values might need to be reconsidered—the better to answer new challenges—is dismissed as a dangerous relativist.

There is, at the same time, another sort of Western liberal who is unwilling to entertain either the notion that his values are under any threat at all, or that this might, if true, be considered cause for distress. This is the sort of liberal who is—to borrow a quip usually attributed to Robert Frost—so broad-minded that he won’t even take his own side in a debate.

However, there are few societies where liberalism is so firmly ensconced that it needs no defending, and India is certainly not among them. Indians cannot assume—as Americans are sometimes wont to do—that the deepest issues of politics can be reduced to questions of constitutional interpretation. On the contrary, India remains a society in which the basic political questions can and must continually be asked: Is this just? Is this expedient? Is this good? (And good for whom?) Asking “Is this constitutional?” is no substitute. Therefore, it is unwise, when describing India’s political tradition to hold up its constitutional principles as the apotheosis of that tradition; we must allow ourselves more imagination than that.

Ramachandra Guha insists that India offers “a reservoir of political experience with which to refine or rethink theories being articulated in the West”. This is likely true, as long as we take seriously the possibility that liberalism itself might be one of these theories. Guha continues:

As democracy seeks to establish and Africa, it may turn out that the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru and Ambedkar are as, or perhaps even more, important to these strivings than the ideas of the great Western thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And as the countries of Europe and America become more diverse owing to the immigration of followers of faiths and speakers of languages earlier considered alien or foreign, these older nations may yet benefit from a sideways look at the historical experience of the most heterogeneous society in the world.

This is a deep and important point. However, it should not be assumed that these movements will read only the thinkers of whom Guha (quite reasonably) approves. Who knows? Perhaps these movements will find their inspiration in Tilak and Golwalkar instead. Can we rule this out in advance? (And by what right do we tell them what they ought to read?)

One makes this point in part because of a peculiar fact about Indian political thought that emerges from this book: that India seems to lack a tradition of utopian thinking. While this fact might be thought to bespeak a lack of imagination, perhaps it is just another instance of what Ramanujan, in the essay with which we began, describes as the defining feature of the “Indian way of thinking”. Where the West tends “to idealise, and think in terms of...the context-free”, “in cultures like India’s, the context-sensitive kind of rule is the preferred formulation”. Ramanujan narrates the Buddhist parable of the raft, glossing it as “the Buddha’s ironic comment on context-free systems”: “Once a man was drowning in a sudden flood. Just as he was about to drown, he found a raft. He clung to it, and it carried him safely to dry land. And he was so grateful to the raft that he carried it on his back for the rest of his life.”

The liberal principles of the Constitution have proved a hardy raft in rough seas. Yet, its defenders might need to learn not to carry it on their backs all the time: to learn to let Constitutional morality have the first word in every argument without always letting it have the last: to admit the deficiencies of their principles in some contexts, while defending them from attack in others.

So, when men and women on the streets of Srinagar protest against what they see as oppression perpetrated by the Indian state, it is not enough to recite the old constitutional pieties at them. Liberty, equality, dignity and justice are exactly what they claim they are being denied. It is not even enough to mutter darkly about the dangers of secession whilst exhorting persecuted Kashmiris to use the “appropriate” channels instead (forms to be submitted in triplicate).

Given the violent 1940s backdrop against which India’s half-hearted federalism was devised, its attempt to avoid secession at all costs might well have been a sensible response to the anxieties of that age. But it is less obviously so now, and perhaps some costs are higher than anyone should have to pay. New times present new contexts that call for us to think through our problems afresh. Responding to their demands is not a simple matter of applying abstract principles to a new situation. Rather, it requires us to look at those principles anew in the light of what our experience of political life teaches us.

We might find some insight into this in something C Rajagopalachari wrote in 1958 (the essay is included in Guha’s anthology). Rajaji was writing about the dominance of the Congress party in the politics of newly independent India. But his words are just as pertinent to the more enduring question of how to be a liberal—which is to say, the question of what sort of liberal to be. The short answer is: Don’t be self-righteous, but don’t be complacent either. For the long answer, we had best turn to Rajaji’s own words:

What I plead for is a climate of independent thinking among citizens. ...Without this essential accompaniment, self-government through democracy will prove itself to be a house of cards. ...[Edmund Burke said:] ‘I am not of the opinion...of those gentlemen who are against disturbing the public repose. The fire-bell at midnight might disturb your sleep, but it keeps you from being burned in your bed.’ ...If subservience and slavish adulation take the place of independent thinking and criticism is never resorted to but with fear and trepidation, the atmosphere quickly breeds the political diseases peculiar to democracy. ...An Opposition is the urgent remedy indicated by the symptoms—not mere psycho-therapy. ‘You are all right. Indeed you are better than you were. Don’t believe you are sick. You are not sick!’—[T]his cannot restore a fractured leg.