J Sai Deepak’s book heralds the ripening of the Indic civilisational discourse
J Sai Deepak
A discourse is understood to have attained a definite level of maturity, momentum, and legitimacy when its stated position, defining convictions, and operating principles are systematically codified. These constituent elements of a discourse may be reiterated on various occasions and platforms over a period of time, and yet without a proper, systematic, and formal codification (such as a book/thesis/manifesto) these same elements may elude those who participate in the discourse, either actively or passively. It is from this point of codification onwards that a discourse starts taking a definite shape; in other words, it becomes theoretically coherent. A discourse, which has taken the shape of a theoretically coherent argument, usually has more impact on its own age and the ages to come, compared to the stage when the discourse was fragmented by virtue of the ununified utterances of its participants. This phenomenon, wherein a discourse comes of age with the publication of certain key texts associated with it, is observable across major turning points in the history of ideas and political/social/cultural movements; cases in point being Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (Existentialism) or Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (Feminism) or, for that matter, The Communist Manifesto (Socialism) by Marx and Engels.
At this point, some might be quick to misleadingly attribute such a prerequisite for legitimacy of discourses to certain modes of thinking that are rooted in an essentially colonial framework. In reality, however, the Indic civilisation has well-recognised precedents of such codification for all of its important discourses in various forms, ranging from mnemonic devices, ballads or other performative genres, to ultimately writing. Whenever Bharatiya discourses, informed by specific thought-movements and intellectual or spiritual activities within the larger framework of Indic Knowledge Systems have come of age, they have been codified in one form or the other depending on the nature of their content and participants. Therefore, it is only fitting and significantly timely that Advocate J Sai Deepak, author of India, that Is Bharat: Coloniality, Civilisation, Constitution, has now made a necessary leap from a previous stage of delivering his energetic as well as intellectually perspicuous public lectures and frequently writing his perceptive articles in newspaper columns, to finally putting down his thoughts on the relevant subjects of colonialism, Indic civilisation, and the Indian constitution in the form of a book. The publication of this book, together with the promise of the upcoming sequels to it, herald a ripening of the Indic civilisational discourse from a previous stage that was largely characterised by the broadcasting of emotional outbursts and poorly informed opinions on the social media. When future generations of historians chronicle the development of the reawakening of our civilisation through time, they will find it difficult not to recognise the significant role that this book plays in that reawakening.
At the outset, it should be mentioned that the author has built his argument, or rather the premise of his argument which is likely to unfold more fully in the sequels to this book, on the scholarship of thinkers associated with the intellectual movement called decoloniality, which is now recognised as a distinct area of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. The range and depth of the decolonial literature that Sai Deepak has surveyed, to first understand decoloniality, and then to create the foundations for its application in explaining the Bharatiya experience of colonialism, is quite impressive.
The decolonial discourse has had a long and chequered history. Many intellectuals, scholars, artists, creative writers, and politicians have contributed to the enrichment of this discourse. Broadly speaking, this discourse has developed both inside the academia as well as in the arenas of creative arts, socio-cultural activism, and politics. There is a notion that the decolonial discourse originates purely from the works of academics and from there it spreads to the other areas. This is not true. In Bharat, for example, the decolonial discourse starts with the works of novelists, playwrights, songwriters, poets, journalists, editors, cultural activists, and various thinkers who were devoted to the vocation of writing but were not professional scholars/academics as such. The process of scrutinising the colonising structures of European thought, customs, and institutions, which got quickly proliferated in this land by the sword and the book (both the schoolteacher’s and the preacher’s), began in a major way in nineteenth-century Bengal in Bharat with the novels and essays of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the heroic poetry of Madhusudan Dutta, and the cultural movement of the Hindu Mela organisers. Together, they levied a powerful critique against both the British colonial empire in Bharat, as well as the colonial mentality that the empire was normalising using European education and Christianity. This vigorous critique of the empire and its colonial policies and mentality manifested through an outpouring of songs, plays, novels, essays on moral, historical, and scientific subjects, and even the publication of encyclopaedic journals in the Bangla language. Through these literary, polemical, historical, and scientific works, a class of English-educated Bharatiya-s, who were newly awakened to the civilisational consciousness of their ancient land, started questioning the very basis of European colonies and coloniality in India. To give an example of such works, one could cite the historiography of the Rajputs and the Sikhs presented in the Bengali journal Bibidhartha Sangraha, started by Rajendralal Mitra of the Asiatic Society of Calcutta, that sought to rid the journal’s readers of their “historical amnesia” and to acquaint them with Bharat by providing natural, geographical, as well as anthropological accounts of the country. (Dey 2021) The next stage in the attempts at building serious codification of the Bharatiya decolonial discourse can be found in the early twentieth-century writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Aurobindo Ghose (who was yet to become Sri Aurobindo), Bipin Chandra Pal, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Subramania Bharati, and finally Mahatma Gandhi. Perhaps the most notable of the contributions to Bharatiya decoloniality literature of this period are Gandhi’s seminal work Hind Swaraj and Tagore’s sharp socio-historical commentary in his Swadeshi Samaj and Bharatbarsha, wherein both thinkers targeted the universalising tendency of the Western civilisation and its version of modernity, and both of them either cautioned or chided their fellow countrymen for their uncontested, uncritical submission to Western ideas and ideals to the detriment of Bharatiya ideas and ideals. Through such works, the emphasis had started to shift from a mere political emancipation to a complete cultural emancipation of the Bharatiya people. This line of critique found its most articulate and succinct expression in the Bharatiya philosopher Krishna Chandra Bhattacharya’s (aka KCB) short but profound lecture Swaraj in Ideas. There, for the first time in the modern era, a Bharatiya thinker made clear ontological distinctions between “political subjection” and “cultural subjection” on one hand and between “cultural subjection” and “assimilation” on the other; thus providing a clear framework for decolonising the colonial mentality of his people—the attainment of which he termed “Swaraj in Ideas”. This lecture from the pre-independence times is a veritable manifesto for the purpose of achieving decoloniality in India, which ends with an unambiguous call to action. It is worth mentioning this call issued by KCB in Swaraj in Ideas here:
In politics our educated men have been compelled to realize by the logic of facts that they have absolutely no power for good, though they have much power for evil, unless they can carry the masses with them. In other fields there is not sufficient realization of this circumstance. In the social sphere, for example, they still believe that they can impose certain reforms on the masses—by mere preaching from without, by passing resolutions in social conferences and by legislation. In the sphere of ideas, there is hardly yet any realization that we can think effectively only when we think in terms of the indigenous ideas that pulsate in the life and mind of the masses. We condemn the caste system of our country, but we ignore the fact that we who have received Western education constitute a caste more exclusive and intolerant than any of the traditional castes. Let us resolutely break down the barriers of this new caste, let us come back to the cultural stratum of the real Indian people and evolve a culture along with them suited to the times and to our native genius. That would be to achieve Svaraj in Ideas. (Bhattacharya 1928)
At the global level, the decolonial discourse has seen participation from a number of standpoints, including indigeneity, traditionalism, feminism, and even Marxism—without the discourse itself getting bogged down or hijacked by any of these various standpoints—over the decades that followed the Indian independence. One would have expected to see some distinct and significant contribution to this global discourse being made from the standpoint of the Bharatiya civilisation during those very decades when partitioned Bharat had started enjoying her political independence and sovereignty; but unfortunately, that was not to be. Such contributors did not emerge, or at least they and their contributions to the decolonial discourse could not reach the wider Bharatiya audience, until very recent times. To some extent, the reason for this state of affairs is the very problem of coloniality that begged to be tackled by an Indian intelligentsia whose Indianness did not extend to their thinking lives or even their daily practices in many cases. There have been some heroic attempts to accomplish a part of this all-important task, mostly by a handful of brilliant self-taught historians, independent researchers, authors and activists, who have been systematically shunned by establishment publishers and by the academia. But, in general, the Indian academics—scholars of history, philosophy, anthropology, jurisprudence, literary studies and other fields—have shied away from any serious engagement, in terms of the indigenous ideas of Bharat, with the decoloniality literature produced by their counterparts in Africa or Latin America and the Caribbean. The result is an unpardonable gap, a highly conspicuous and gaping absence of Independent Bharat’s voice in the unfinished global symphony of decoloniality. In our view, J Sai Deepak’s present book makes for a significant step in bridging this gap that exists between Independent Bharat’s indigenous voice and the many voices of the indigenous cultures and civilisations arising from various other parts of the globe.
J Sai Deepak’s book helps bridge the gap between Independent Bharat’s indigenous voice and the many voices of indigenous civilisations from across the globe
How does Sai Deepak achieve this feat in the book under consideration? Firstly, he follows a standard methodology which includes a meticulous survey of a vast literature on decoloniality emanating mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean. Secondly, he supplements the material he surveys with his characteristic incisive commentary on them. To use an essentially Bharatiya-indigenous idea and terminology, what Sai Deepak has achieved in the first book of his trilogy is a thorough Pūrva-pakṣa of, one, coloniality in the context of constitutionalism in Bharat and, two, decoloniality from Latin America and the Caribbean (and to an extent from Africa); and in this consists the major significance of his present work. In doing so, Sai Deepak has whetted our appetite and raised our expectations to the extent that we would now like to see an equally extensive treatment being devoted to the literature on decoloniality emanating from two major quarters in the sequels to the present volume: firstly, from African authors, thinkers, and politicians (such as Ngũgĩ, Soyinka, Achebe, Senghor, Cheikh Anta Diop, Amilcar Cabral, Agostinho Neto et al), and secondly, from Bharatiya authors, thinkers, and politicians (Bankim, Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Bharati, Nivedita, KCB et al) for whom decoloniality amounted to nothing short of a ‘Swaraj’ in the realm of politics, ideas, culture, the Spirit, and civilisation. So far, this African and Bharatiya literature on decoloniality has remained confined to the knowledge and perusal of a handful of area experts. The vast general readership of Sai Deepak’s commentary, which comprises of the audience of his lectures, newspaper articles, his social media content, and now of his book, deserves to get more than a mere glimpse of this rich and unique African and Bharatiya contribution to decoloniality, just as this readership has been made familiar with the insightful and rich Latin American and Caribbean contribution to the field by Sai Deepak’s present book.
The other important aspect of Sai Deepak’s methodology, as employed in his present book, is his own innovative coinage and their effective application. Like KCB, Sai Deepak too has distinguished the two kinds of colonial subjection, viz., political and cultural. In this book, Sai Deepak describes these two distinct but highly interdependent spheres, wherein the colonial consciousness operates and thrives, as “politico-economic” and “cultural”; and then he employs an interesting coinage of his own invention to denote the process of breaking free from colonial subjection in each of these two distinct spheres. Independence from colonial subjection in the “politico-economic sphere” he terms “decolonisation”, and that in the “cultural front” he calls “decolonialisation”. To understand this unusual but useful coinage better, one should note that a people, who have consciously or unconsciously adopted and internalised the worldview, values, and institutions of the coloniser, has been described as “colonialised”. Following this framework, one may as well be able to distinguish a colonised society or country which is actively resisting the coloniser and colonisation, from a colonised society which is blissfully unaware of how deep coloniality has seeped through the superficial conscious layer of the individual’s mind as well as the collective or social mind. Once again, we turn to KCB to elucidate this point:
We speak today of Svaraj or self-determination in politics. Man’s domination over man is felt in the most tangible form in the political sphere. There is however a subtler domination exercised in the sphere of ideas by one culture on another, a domination all the more serious in the consequence, because it is not ordinarily felt. Political subjection primarily means restraint on the outer life of a people and although it tends gradually to sink into the inner life of the soul, the fact that one is conscious of it operates against the tendency. So long as one is conscious of a restraint, it is possible to resist it or to bear it as a necessary evil and to keep free in spirit. Slavery begins when one ceases to feel the evil and it deepens when the evil is accepted as a good. Cultural subjection is ordinarily of an unconscious character and it implies slavery from the very start. (Bhattacharya 1928)
Based on Anibal Quijano’s critique of coloniality/modernity, globalisation, capitalism, and racism, Sai Deepak rightly identifies the twofold ways through which the colonial consciousness perpetuates itself: a) the entry and the subsequent entrenchment of a colonial power accompanied by coloniality in a conquered and subjugated country, and b) the global presence and spread of European colonialism and imperialism and the consequent universalisation of what were essentially European values and institutions, leaving an erstwhile colony little choice but to adopt those very values and institutions that kept it colonised, instead of turning to its own indigenous traditional values and institutions for reorganising its society and state, even after attaining political independence.
The body of decolonial critiques that Sai Deepak surveys throughout the first section of his book is therefore distinct from postmodern (pomo) and postcolonial (poco) standpoints, which are, respectively, Europe’s (and by extension North America’s) reaction to the social, psychological, environmental, and most of all spiritual havoc wreaked by modernity since the early nineteenth century, and the Western academia’s co-option of the disillusioned Marxist-Leninist-Maoist ideologue-academics and activists from certain erstwhile British colonies, such as India. While postmodernism deconstructs the very ideas of morality, meaning, and truth, postcolonialism imitates postmodernists in 1) inverting the noble principles and spiritually-rooted value-systems of a colonised society’s culture and 2) perpetuating the victimhood of the “oppressed” (a treasured pomo category) or the colonised-culture-specific “subaltern” (a treasured poco category). It is true that some decolonial authors and thinkers engage with a serious critique of globalisation just as the poco authors would do, but the goals with which they set out to offer their respective critiques are fundamentally different. Decolonial thinkers do not ultimately seek to debunk the value of their traditions, nor do they harbour an antipathy towards truth and meaning in general; instead, they seek to engage with tradition meaningfully—tradition, for the decolonialist, is like a compass which helps him navigate through the complex jungle of modernity, colonialism/neocolonialism, capitalism, and globalisation. This is why the Kenyan author and professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, perhaps the most prominent decolonialist intellectual from contemporary Africa and author of the ground-breaking volume on decoloniality titled Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986), renounced Christianity along with his Christian name (James Ngugi) and reverted to his ancestral Gikuyu traditions and religion, even adopting the Gikuyu language for his literary output. His family followed suit. Poco authors, on the other hand, bother themselves with tradition only to find or invent potential fault lines within a society; they are constantly in search of a new ‘class’ of belligerents who may perpetuate socio-cultural conflicts in erstwhile colonies. It is indeed a rare feat for anyone to come across a poco intellectual who has avowed himself to the cause of his own country’s indigenous traditions! This key difference between decoloniality and poco must be kept in mind while reading Sai Deepak’s book. Sai Deepak has trodden the path of the former by his sincere attempt in this book to understand the decolonialist’s contributions and his structures of thought. This he has done in keeping with his commitment to defending Bharat’s indigenous traditions, the tangible examples of which commitment abound in his promising legal career thus far. We hope that in the sequels to this book he will extend his survey of decolonial literature beyond Latin America and the Caribbean.
Anchoring the epistemology of his scrutiny in the decolonial framework, Sai Deepak proceeds to examine the larger, ‘meta’ question that currently pervades the rational as well as metaphysical consciousness of Bharat—namely, the question of our identity. There are three distinct narratives, currently competing with one another, that one can identify in the contemporary discourse on ‘Indian Identity’. These are as follows:
– India as a liberal-democratic ‘nation-state’,
– India as a civilisation which is emerging as a modern state that should uninhibitedly embrace the neo-liberal outlook and a ‘high-modernist’ ideology, and
– Bharat as an indigenous civilisation, informing the Indian Republic, i.e., a ‘Civilisational State’.
The book makes a compelling contribution to this discourse of ‘Indian Identity’ (alternatively known as the ‘Idea of India’ discourse) by explicating for the reader the different dimensions of a civilisational state, which deserves a special mention. The distinction between a nation and a civilisation, Bharat’s claim to ‘civilisationhood’, the essential differences between a nation-state and a civilisational state—all these crucial threads of discussion receive a comprehensive treatment in Sai Deepak’s book. In addition, the author offers extensive excerpts from constituent assembly debates, often going back all the way to parliamentary discussions in Imperial Britain, to firmly establish how the colonial project was inspired and informed by Christianity, and how that project was thoroughly imbued with the religious consciousness of overzealous Christian Europeans. This sets forth the essential question of the organicity of our constitution vis-à-vis our civilisation, and of the constitution’s agency (or the lack thereof) in advancing the vision of our collective identity rooted in the Bharatiya civilisational ethos. It also helps establish a critical as well as a more intriguing foundation for the author’s arguments—a foundation which promises to pioneer the work of shedding light on the very fundamentals of our identity as a civilisational state in the sequels.
We would like to conclude this longish review not apologetically but rather by offering a few suggestions on the stylistic and structural aspects of Sai Deepak’s writing and research, keeping in view his upcoming books in this trilogy. A work such as this one deserves more attention on the editor’s part due to its sheer wealth of complex arguments and information. It is precisely because the target audience of this book is beyond the closed circles of the ‘area expert’ that its prose should be much more supple than the not infrequent courtly-ceremonious stiffness owing to the persistent occurrence of multi-clause complex sentences. In addition, because the book engages with constitutional law and jurisprudence in the Bharatiya context, its sequels should attempt the opening of a dialogue between the conceptual universe of these two disciplines on one hand, and the rich body of ideas, principles, values as well as historical instances covered by the Indic source texts that codify Rajadharma and Dandaniti on the other. KCB’s framework of assimilation, which entails comparison and competition of foreign ideas and ideals with our own, may help the author navigate through such a dialogue if he indeed manages to initiate one in the sequels to this book. May the Bhagya-Vidhata of Bharat propel and guide him as he advances on that difficult but vitally important path.