Why the social vision of Mahadev Govind Ranade is all too important today
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Every Independence Day, thinkers and politicians offer public reflections on the anniversary of our ‘freedom’ that rarely involve much thought about what exactly freedom is or should be in the Indian context. There is much discussion about ‘ideas of India’: is India a modern construct, born first on August 15th, 1947 and then again on January 26th, 1950, or is it a timeless civilisation? When we look backwards, it is usually to the founding of the republic and the writing of the Constitution and often to lament how far short we have fallen of the ideals that underpinned that founding.
But the tradition of thinking about freedom in India goes back much further. In 1900, Mahadev Govind Ranade, then a judge of the Bombay High Court, was only 58, but he knew that he was dying, of what we now call coronary heart disease. The next Congress session in Lahore would be the first to take place without him. But in May of that year, he attended a provincial meeting of the Social Conference in Satara in western Maharashtra and gave a speech, all but forgotten today, that is one of the most remarkable Indian inquiries into the nature of freedom. This speech, later republished as Liberate the Whole Man, speaks directly to our moment.
Outside Maharashtra, Ranade is remembered today, if at all, for his economic writings—just one aspect of a life that took in a distinguished official career as a judge, serving as “the power behind the throne” (Surendranath Banerjee’s phrase) in the Congress in Bombay Presidency, and, above all, as the leading Hindu social and religious reformer of his generation.
It is this final aspect of Ranade that I want to draw attention to this Independence Day. The Social Conference was Ranade’s creation. It was not enough, he argued, for Indians merely to pursue political concessions from the British Raj. Political reform was only one aspect of achieving true freedom. Political freedom was meaningless in a society marked by near-universal poverty, caste discrimination and the subjection of women. The platform of the Congress had to be used to fight on all these fronts, not just one.
Standing against Ranade and his project of pursuing political and social reform simultaneously was Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Tilak, unlike Ranade, is a name everyone knows. But he is unacknowledged as the true progenitor of Hindu nationalism. Almost every aspect of today’s Hindutva politics was deployed or pioneered by Tilak—from religious revival as a political tool, to the open suspicion of Muslims, to contempt for civility in discourse. Above all, Tilak stood for the single-minded pursuit of swaraj. Although (like Savarkar and Jinnah) he was progressive in the conduct of his private life, he opposed the reformers in public with a “we are like this only” defence of Hindu society. Social reform was a distraction from swaraj; the reformers had been corrupted by Western ideas and the Christian contempt for Hinduism; a self-governing India would confidently make her own decisions, free from self-loathing and Western interference. By the 1890s, Tilak and his followers had decisively seized control of the Congress in Maharashtra, shunting the reformers to the margins.
In the end, the vision of Ranade and his protégé, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, won out. After Tilak’s death the leadership of the freedom struggle was assumed by Gokhale’s own protege: Mohandas K Gandhi. Using methods that Ranade explicitly deplored—civil disobedience—Gandhi transformed a movement for political freedom into a broadbased struggle for human freedom. The Constitution that followed Independence embodied the reformers’ idea of a society that was free and just, not merely self-governing. But in May 1900, the reformers were in the minority; and it was to the anti-reform majority of Tilak and his followers that Ranade’s remarks were truly addressed.
Ranade began his speech by asserting the inseparability of political, social, religious and economic freedom for India’s progress. Mere political freedom is worthless, he said, without “a social system based on reason and justice”, nor is economic freedom possible “when social arrangements are imperfect”. And “if your religious ideals are low and grovelling, you cannot succeed in the social, economic or political spheres”. This interdependence of politics, economics, society and religion “is not an accident but is the law of our nature”.
Ranade’s speech speaks to our present crisis in more ways than one. It is at moments of crisis, he said, specifically citing the ongoing famine and plague that had ravaged Maharashtra, that the interdependent nature of different freedoms is thrown into relief: “If our social arrangements were as perfect as they might be made, half the terrors of famine would vanish.” The scale of human suffering in India in 2020 is testament less to the dangers of the Covid-19 virus than to the imperfections of our social arrangements.
Mahadev Govind Ranade’s broad aspiration for Indian society was for it to be governed not by ‘the law of status’ but by ‘the law of contract’
It was thus imperative, said Ranade in 1900, for the Congress to not merely be a vehicle for political claims, but also for social and religious change. For, just like political institutions, social systems were “the work of human hands”. The oppression and backwardness that marred Hindu society could not be blamed on ancient texts; and even if it were true that caste and the oppression of women were in keeping with Hindu tradition, that was insufficient justification: “Above all mere ordinances of Institutes stands the Eternal Law of justice and equality, of pity and compassion, the suggestions of the conscience within and nature without us.” The reform of religion should not be left to “ecclesiastical heads” and “caste elders”, but was the duty of all Hindus.
Finally, the task of individual and collective liberation requires us to work for the liberation of all, not simply our own caste or subcaste. Caste, said Ranade, was “the main blot on our social system”. (This in 1900!) And while every caste had its particular features, its own “evils and inequities”, the differences between them were minor by comparison to the great similarity: “All castes and even creeds are alike defective in not recognising the claims of justice and equality, and according the respect and freedom due to the female sex, and cherishing the abuse claimed by men as men and by the members of one class of men to the disparagement of other castes.” It was only by shedding caste identities and joining a common platform that we could become “taller, wiser and better, individually and collectively”.
Ranade’s specific exhortations ranged from the problems of his time (above all banning child marriage and allowing widow remarriage) to those that remain tragically relevant today—the education of women, the “dependent status” of women and intercaste marriage.
His broad aspiration for Indian society was for it to be governed not by “the law of status”—ascribed group identity within an oppressive hierarchy—but by “the law of contract”—a society of free individuals pursuing self-directed lives. A few months after the Satara speech, Ranade made his final public appearance, unveiling a portrait of Dadabhai Naoroji in the Framji Cowasji institute. He spoke of the India of the future: “The India that is to be born will have no room for mere distinction of race, creed, colour. We aspire, all of us, to be Indians first, and Indians to the last, over every other condition which has separated us so long and made united India impossible.”
In Satara, Ranade said that in order to achieve these interdependent freedoms, we had to rethink our conception of politics and of private and public. He lamented the conception of politics as the mere petitioning for grants and favours, a business of demands; and, conversely, that the citizen’s only business other than making demands of their political representatives was taking care of their private life.
Ranade’s concern was not only with private and public, but with the in-between place, the collective civic sphere in which social, economic and religious progress could be achieved. Citizens had to collectively empower each other to achieve this progress; they had to see the construction of democracy, freedom and progress as their individual and collective task, not simply that of government.
In a time when we have allowed ourselves to become infantilised as political citizens, passively acquiescing to ‘strong leadership’ rather than seeking to take ownership of social change, with virtually every political party either a cult of personality or a family firm, Ranade’s account of active citizenship bears particular repeating: “Gifts and favours are of no value unless we have deserved the concessions by our own elevation and our own struggles. ‘You shall live by the sweat of your brow’ is not a curse pronounced on man, but the very condition of his existence and growth.”
In India today, at both the national and state-level majorities have generally chosen subjecthood rather than having it imposed upon us. Authoritarian strongmen—I use the term in a gender-neutral sense—are re-elected more often than not. The active exercise of citizenship is artfully rebranded as anti-national, whether the offender is a journalist asking questions or a lawyer fighting for Adivasi rights, and there is little public sympathy for those who are thus branded.
That is not to imply that Ranade’s vision of active citizenship involved private civic organisations standing in for the state. We live in an era of the privatisation of public goods. Covid-19 has made this particularly evident in the case of healthcare, but education, electricity, drinking water, security, transport and even breathable air are goods which we no longer expect the state to provide; they are available privately, to those who can afford them. Far from advocating the private provision of public goods, Ranade was deeply sceptical of laissez-faire economics in the Indian context. He was constantly lobbying the government of the Bombay Presidency to increase its spending on public education, and he believed that without massive public investment, India could not industrialise. He was not a proto-socialist—he was an advocate of property rights, in particular for farmers—but a believer in public-private collaboration of the kind that, in our time, the Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato has called “the entrepreneurial state”.
Bal Gangadhar Tilak is unacknowledged as the true progenitor of Hindu nationalism. Almost every aspect of today’s Hindutva politics was deployed or pioneered by Tilak
Ranade’s speech of 1900 is worth returning to not only for its specific insights, but for something much broader that it represents: the past as a resource for the present. As we collectively seek to achieve what Ranade described as “renovated India”, a country in which “famine and sorrow, oppression and pestilence” will be “myths of the past”, a country truly free because it is free in all ways, we can make use of the past as a wellspring of both invigoration and insight. We need to put aside two ways of thinking politically about the past.
The first is to see the past as merely a source of shame, a site of nothing but oppression. This does not mean ignoring or downplaying the record of oppression, or laundering the reputations of specific figures. It means acknowledging both oppression as well as our forebears’ real achievements in limiting or even defeating that oppression. All one has to do is compare the India of 1870 and 1970. The former, a colony more medieval than modern on every social and economic indicator, a land in which 10-year-old girls could be raped by their husbands with the sanction of law and all civic and social life was abjured out of respect to “purity of touch”; the latter, a republic with universal suffrage, a woman Prime Minister and constitutionally guaranteed reservation for Dalits and Adivasis. These advances were not god-given, but won by the work of millions of Indians of all castes and faiths. Told this way, it is a true story of what is possible in India.
We need, also, to kick our habit of treating the past as a zero-sum personality contest. The past, unlike the present, is not an election where you have to vote for a single candidate. There is plenty of scholarly interest in debating the differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar on caste, Nehru and Gandhi on industrialisation, Nehru and Patel on state-making and so on. But if one frames the questions these ways: Did they see India as a project of creating a free and just society fit for human flourishing, not just the winning of political independence? Did they see India as a home for all kinds of people, not just Hindus? And, above all, does the record show that they advanced the causes of freedom, justice and equality for Indians? If we ask these questions, then, to appropriate Ranade’s words in a different context, “the differences between them merge into minor matters by the side of their great similarities”.
In these terms, the difference between Ambedkar, Bhagat Singh, Gandhi, Gokhale, Lajpat Rai, Nehru, Periya, Phule, Rajaji, Ranade, Vivekananda (and dozens of others) on the one side, and Golwalkar, Jinnah, Savarkar and Tilak on the other is difficult to miss. Given the needs of the present moment, to focus on the intramural differences within the former group rather than their shared difference with the latter is either to reveal deep ignorance or to prefer dissension and defeat to unity and progress. It is to be part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
Before and immediately after Independence, the emotion of patriotism was understood not to mean pride, but the aspiration that comes from love. ‘I recognise no limits to my aspiration for our motherland,’ wrote Gopal Krishna Gokhale
All this matters because the story we choose to tell of our past speaks to our analysis of the present and our ambitions for the future. In the words of the American philosopher Richard Rorty, “Stories about what a nation has been and should try to be are not attempts at accurate representation, but rather attempts to forge a moral identity.” If what we stand for is the project of a free and just society for all Indians, then we should own the fact that a clear majority of the thinker-actors of the freedom struggle are on our side. And any progress we achieve builds on theirs—in Ranade’s phrase, reformers aim “to produce the ideal out of the actual and by the help of the actual”—by the help of all that has gone before.
Reformers like Ranade offer us inspiration in the example of their concrete achievements; for more depressing reasons, they remain relevant for their commentary on India’s social, economic and moral life. Depressing because the relevance of their insights is in proportion to the persistence of so many of the problems they sought to address. But in several cases there is also something shockingly contemporary about both their prose style and their quality of mind. Any op-ed page in 2020 would be improved by Lajpat Rai’s commentary on, for instance, the Hindu-Muslim question. As for Ranade—it is no disrespect to the present Bombay High Court to say that when reading him, one is easily convinced that, transported to our time, it would take him at most a couple of weeks to get up to speed with recent legal and social developments and, having done so, he would elevate any court’s moral and intellectual authority.
Ranade’s drive to reform Hinduism came from theistic faith, from the pursuit of dharma, ‘the law Eternal of justice and equality’ which stands above all manmade institutions
After decades of neglect, we have finally rediscovered Ambedkar, and one prays for the day in which The Annihilation of Caste is required reading in high schools. But most other thinkers about Indian politics and society remain unread, their books victim to two kinds of prejudice—one, that important social and political theory has to come from the West, and two, that academic/professional philosophers and theorists are weightier than thinker-actors who wrote in everyday language for a non-academic audience. Generations of Indian students have read Hegel and Marx, and more recently Foucault and Said, but not Indian authors on Indian questions. A flotilla of fine recent scholarship (by the likes of Gautam Bhatia, Rohit De, Madhav Khosla and Ornit Shani) has examined the formation of Indian constitutional democracy in the 1940s and 1950s. But the corpus of Indian political thought that speaks directly to our present needs goes back much further.
Ranade himself, as an economic thinker, was sceptical of universal laws and of the lazy importation of Anglophone ideas. Human rights were universal, but economic institutions had to be designed for their particular context. Indian political economy had to fit Indian society, and learn not just from Britain because she happened to rule us, but from cases of greater relevance. His proposals for agricultural reform, for instance, were inspired by his study of Dutch colonial policy in what is now Indonesia.
I said that Ranade often reads like he is our contemporary. But in other ways, to read him is to be reminded of two qualities that those who wish for India to be truly free have willingly given up. One is the high sentiment of patriotism. Before and immediately after Independence, the emotion of patriotism was understood not to mean pride, but the aspiration that comes from love. ‘I recognise no limits to my aspiration for our motherland,’ wrote Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Now much of our intellectual elite is cynical and defeatist, and sees patriotism as embarrassing. Another is Ranade’s religious fervour. His drive to reform Hinduism came from theistic faith, from the pursuit of dharma, ‘the law Eternal of justice and equality’ which stands above all manmade institutions. He spent hours each day reciting the abhangas of Tukaram and was frequently moved to tears by the act.
The overwhelming majority of Indians continue to be both religious and emotionally patriotic; those elite Indians who are embarrassed by patriotism and ashamed of Hinduism only reveal the chasm between themselves and their fellow citizens. Reading the likes of Ranade is a way to recover both that lost patriotism as well as the abandoned project of reforming Hinduism from within.
The task of the social reformer, said Mahadev Govind Ranade, “is to complete the half-written sentence”. Independence Day, never more than in these circumstances, is a reminder that the sentence of Indian freedom is at best half-written. Completing it will be an easier and happier business if we draw on all those who have taken the writing thus far. As for Ranade—if we give him his proper place, then the day will come when a reference to ‘MGR’ will prompt the reply: ‘Which one?’