Competing Nationalisms: The Sacred and Political Life of Jagat Narain LalRajshree Chandra
256 pages|₹ 599
Jagat Narain Lal
The ancestor biography is a curious genre. Many descendants write hagiographies, although less often than one might expect. Sometimes the fear of hagiography can propel the author to the highest standards of objectivity. S Gopal was far more critical, in the best sense, of his father S Radhakrishnan than of his hero Jawaharlal Nehru.
Rajshree Chandra never knew her grandfather, Jagat Narain Lal. With the exception of an epistolary afterword, her biography abjures the personal angle, and its approach is rigorous and scholarly. The fact of their relationship is salient only insofar as it motivated her to return from obscurity a man who should never have been sent there in the first place.
“Jagat Babu” was one of those early 20th-century Indians who managed to fit several lives into one human lifespan. Born in 1896, the son of a Bihari stationmaster, by the age of 24 he was a rising star at the Patna High Court. A century later his only aspiration may have been wealth, or a judgeship. But Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement was sweeping through Bihar. The young lawyer gave up his career to fight for swaraj.
He was an influential member of the Congress, the Hindu Mahasabha and, for a time, of both; a scholar of Sanskrit and Persian; a teacher of economics; a votary of Hindu unity who feared, almost to obsession, evangelical Christianity; a social reformer committed always to “sewa”; a poet, historian and religious thinker. Above all he was a devout Hindu, and a patriot. He left the Hindu Mahasabha when Bhai Parmanand began moving in a pro-British direction, turning it, as Jagat Narain saw it, into “a Hindu version of the Muslim League.” He spent years in jail.
This is not a conventional “soup to nuts” biography. Chandra is a political theorist, and it shows. After an opening chapter that outlines Jagat Narain’s background, education and entry into the national movement, the book’s four core chapters consider in turn the “competing” strands of his moral and political life: asceticism (as karmayoga, not renunciation), political Hinduism, anti-colonial nationalism, and “civic nationalism” in the Constituent Assembly. A final chapter reflects on the relevance of his life and thoughts for the present.
This approach yields a truly original and surprising book, a profound inquiry into the relationship between individual conscience and politics. With care and sympathy, Chandra plays her grandfather’s life out in a series of moral and intellectual dilemmas. The results are frequently heroic and frequently tragic. “The more his self became fractured into simultaneous beings…the more he struggled to meet the requirements of a moral political life that he had set out for himself.”
Some readers may regret the costs of Chandra’s chosen focus. By relying so extensively on Jagat Narain’s words and ideas, she denies us a sense of him from the outside—we never learn what his contemporaries thought of him. I for one would have welcomed a greater attention to Jagat Narain’s wife and children, who bore so many of the direct costs of his choices, from giving up his law practice to his attempts at brahmacharya. There are only two real characters in this book: Jagat Narain Lal, and India.
In closing, two observations about the nature of the book’s publication. It is a relief, in 2022, to encounter a book with footnotes rather than endnotes. Footnotes are an endangered species, but they are preferable on every important count. And it is dismaying—no, horrifying—to encounter yet another biography that is published without an index. Virtually every Indian publishing house has committed this literary felony in recent years.
To publish a book like Competing Nationalisms without an index is to fail to meet the most basic publishing standards. It is to show contempt for the years of work the author has put in and for the needs of readers. Rajshree Chandra’s book deserved better: and so do you.