Reconciling the eternal India with the changing India
And the Ploughman settled the share
More deep in the sun-dried clod:
“Mogul, Mahratta, and Mlech from the North,
And White Queen over the Seas—
God raiseth them up and driveth them forth
As the dust of the ploughshare flies in the breeze;
But the wheat and the cattle are all in my care,
And the rest is the will of God”
—Rudyard Kipling, What the People Said
One of the prescribed Bangla texts during my middle school years was a short essay by a writer (whose name escapes me after so many years) describing his visit to a corner shop. He recalled the loving care with which the venerable shopkeeper, in between serving customers, instructed his grandson. Returning to the same place some decades later, the writer was surprised to see the same shop and what appeared to be the same grandfather teaching his grandson. On inquiry, he discovered that the grandson he had observed in his youth had now become a grandfather and was doing what his grandfather had so lovingly done: transmitting knowledge over the generations.
To the writer, this experience resonated with symbolism and meaning. To him, this was the essence of an India that despite outward change was essentially unchanging at the core.
The notion of an eternal India has fascinated both natives and foreigners over the ages, but particularly since the encounter with post-Enlightenment Europe. Despite his own unwavering commitment to the Empire and even the ‘White man’s burden’, Kipling was convinced that the modernist impact on India was only skin deep and that ‘a life as full of impossibilities and wonders as the Arabian Nights… [exists] outside of our own English life…’ His What the People Said, written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee was, in effect, an assertion that British rule in India was a passing show—the proverbial ripples on the surface that leave the depths unmoved.
This imperial belief in Indian exceptionalism—a body of thought that runs from Warren Hastings in the 18th century to Lord Curzon in the 20th—was also echoed in Indian society. The idea of an India uncontaminated by destructive Western science and technology may have originated from different sources, but there was a silken thread that linked the Sanskrit pundits in the 19th century who abjured all ‘useful knowledge’—a euphemism for English education— and Mahatma Gandhi who believed that India’s future lay in self-sufficient, self-governing villages and not in the creation of a desi Leviathan.
In the contemporary language of insolent modernity that abounds in the media, the loose commitment to an eternal and unchanging India is almost certain to be greeted with derision and mockery. Terms such as ‘conservative’, ‘traditionalist’ and ‘reactionary’ have been used almost synonymously to distinguish this amorphous body of thought from nobler ideals, encapsulated in such terms as ‘modernist’, ‘scientific’ and ‘progressive.’ In recent times, expressions such as ‘right-wing’ and ‘communalist’ have also been added to the list of sneer words. In a world that is knocking at the doors of a largely incomprehensible post-modernism, almost any body of thought that stems from pre or non-Enlightenment traditions is almost certain to be ghettoised in a Jurassic Park.
The assumption of intellectual superiority by those who flaunt the self-conferred label of ‘public intellectuals’ has scaled new heights with the victory of Narendra Modi in the 2014 General Election. Even the halting conversation that once existed between the divergent political and intellectual currents in India appears to have come to a halt. Those upset by Modi’s victory and the rise of an Indian ‘Right’ have shed their internal disagreements and forged a common front aimed at not only preventing a recurrence in 2019—a perfectly legitimate political endeavour—but to deny the new Government any legitimacy and space for governance. The revolt of Indian intellectuals against perceived ‘intolerance’ has bred a counter-intolerance of all ideas that are deemed offensive to an arbitrary and, often, excessively Nehruvian ‘idea of India.’
Indeed, what is being witnessed is something fascinatingly bizarre: the almost total repudiation of democracy in the name of superior sensibilities. There are certainly precedents for those professing to be avant garde to opt out of all conversation with the mainstream. But for those who before May 2014 represented the cultural and intellectual establishment to become petulant as an organised group following a defeat in a free and fair election is quite unique—and all in the name of defending democracy from barbarians. In terms of churlishness, it ranks several notches higher than the denial of an honorary degree to Britain’s then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (also a distinguished alumni) by the dons of Oxford University in 1985.
Since ‘progressive’ and ‘modernist’ thought were elevated to the heights of an unofficial national philosophy, the Indian mainstream has been hostile to all those who questioned the fundamentals of Nehruvian nation-building. This did not include the adherents of the 57 varieties of Marxism whose divergences were generously accommodated within a broad church. However, this generosity did not extend to what was loosely dubbed the ‘Right’, or more particularly the cultural Right.
One of the principal targets of ideological engineering was history. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of individuals such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar, RG Bhandarkar, GS Sardesai, RC Majumdar and others, including a clutch of British scholar- administrators, the study of Indian history had tried to blend documentary rigour with literary flourish—basically the emulation of Carlyle, Macaulay and Gibbon. This was essentially work in progress because the traditional Hindu sense of itihaas was impatient with the distinction between facts, chronology and mythology. More to the point, the early initiatives in history-writing took place outside the institutional framework of universities and, consequently, involved a lively engagement between scholars and interested sections of society. Also, while the influence of European scholars was discernible in the approach of historians, the emphasis was on empirical rigour rather than any ideological construct. Indian historians were principally engaged in recovering the past from collective amnesia. If there was a political purpose, it lay in establishing the richness and antiquity of India’s heritage.
This world was seriously unsettled after 1969 when the Congress led by Indira Gandhi outsourced its intellectual outreach to Marxists. Fuelled by lavish state patronage and control over university departments, the country witnessed an organised re-writing of Indian history and the slow replacement of empirical rigour with theorising. Variants of economic determinism replaced narrative histories, making the subject abstruse and inaccessible. The old masters were dubbed ‘communal’ and removed from reading lists, replaced by dense prose on ‘modes of production’, ‘feudalism’ and ‘syncretic thought.’ Eclectic thought was replaced with regimentation and tentativeness with ideological certitude.
A collateral casualty was the systematic destruction of traditional knowledge systems, particularly Sanskrit. Already beleaguered by the 19th century imperial onslaught, the post- Independence repudiation of classical studies led to a complete reordering of intellectual value systems. Apart from the enforced banishment of serious Sanskrit scholarship— whether religious or otherwise—to enclaves in the West, Nehruvian education policies heralded the creation of many generations of Indians completely detached and disengaged from the thought processes that had moulded the society of their ancestors. ‘Scientific temper’ came to mean unfamiliarity with India’s intellectual inheritance.
In this intellectual greenhouse, professing to be either ‘Right’ or ‘conservative’ was always daunting since it meant being exposed to sustained hostility and, occasionally, ostracism.
Social exclusion was never a problem I had to encounter in the mid-1980s when I joined journalism after a longish stint in the UK. For a start, being right-wing was considered a harmless oddity and equated with an admiration of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom were systematically redefining economic policy and international relations. By then, with Rajiv Gandhi at the helm aggressively promoting a post-Indira Gandhi modernity, there was a general recognition that the Indian state had over-reached itself and was progressively becoming dysfunctional. Under the circumstances, being sceptical of an over-bearing state wasn’t necessarily viewed as blasphemy.
In another sphere, the 1980s also marked the beginnings of a general dissatisfaction with the turgid history writing of the Congress-Marxist establishment. Already discredited thanks to their close association with the Emergency, the Nurul Hasan-spawned history establishment encountered a serious intellectual challenge from the Subaltern Studies Group. Detached from the old Left, the early Subaltern historians broke new ground on two counts. First, they brought a new perspective to the study of historical documents and re-injected empirical rigour into historical studies. The subalternists explored folklore and even religious beliefs to get a better sense of the moral economy of the past. Secondly, in arguing against recreating history from the perspective of dominant sections of society, they enlarged the scope and range of historical inquiry to cover ‘subaltern’ groups—the hitherto voiceless.
In hindsight, the Subaltern Studies series exposed the severe limitations of the official ‘Left’ and ‘secular’ approach to India’s past. However, because the attack was seen to be coming from a fraction of the Left and because its interventions were completely detached from wider political tremors— the Naxalite movement was by then history and China was in the first stages of embracing market capitalism under Communist guardianship—it was accorded an indulgence that has since not been extended to other dissidents. Quite unwittingly, the subalternists created cracks in the ideological edifice of the Congress-Left establishment.
By 1989-90, the years that saw the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spectacular response to LK Advani’s rath yatra, the indulgence extended to me transformed into outright, unrelenting hostility. There were good reasons for this mood shift.
First, the Ramshila pujas that were observed in some 300,000 villages (the Home Ministry estimate was 200,000) and the ecstatic response to the rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya clearly indicated that there were certain impulses in Hindu society that hadn’t been killed off, but were merely dormant and awaiting a trigger. This alarmed both the political establishment and its supportive intelligentsia. Initially they responded with denial, but as the scale of the response became apparent and threatened to blow away the VP Singh Government of the time, the mood changed to hostility. I recall that a Times of India reporter who had reported the outpouring of emotions in Gujarat during the rath yatra was asked by an unofficial kangaroo court convened by secular worthies at Delhi’s Press Club to explain his reportage.
Secondly, the Ayodhya movement became the occasion to initiate a long overdue debate on the meaning of Indian secularism and the version of Indian history that had been approved by what Arun Shourie mockingly described as the ‘certifying authorities of secularism’. The many histories and assessments of the Ayodhya movement and the ‘saffron surge’ have almost all been written by scholars who see it as a dangerous turning point in Indian politics. Consequently, what has been ignored is the huge intellectual flowering of an alternative narrative that resurrected facets of India’s political and nationalist inheritance that had been deliberately underplayed over decades. Girilal Jain’s The Hindu Phenomenon, published shortly after his death in 1993, but now, alas, out of print, gives us a glimpse of the energies— both intellectual and political—released by the Ayodhya movement. Yet, a larger sympathetic study that also delves into its impact on the popular imagination is overdue.
For me, Ayodhya was a professional turning point. As perhaps the only columnist in a mainstream English- language publication with sympathy for the movement, I became a special target. A group of historians from JNU and Delhi University petitioned The Times of India, asking it to desist from publishing my articles, suggesting they were better suited to the Organiser. Many of the editors were inclined to agree, but my fortnightly columns were published intact and without any form of censorship. The reason, as the Hindi writer Nirmal Verma suggested to me once, was simple: “Readers are anxious to hear the other side.”
The heady emotional fervour of the Ayodhya movement soon waned and more mundane concerns such as elections— three General Elections between 1996 and 1999— took over. However, Ayodhya made it possible for some of us to mount a sustained intellectual challenge to the one-sided portrayal of India’s past and present. Today, despite being in a minority, there are many more individuals presenting what might be loosely called a ‘right’ and ‘conservative’ perspective—although not all of them write in the English language. The social media, despite some of its rough edges, has added a much-needed support system in which alternative narratives can thrive.
Yet, despite the fact that the Ayodhya movement and the corresponding rise of the BJP as an alternative ecosystem broke the Nehruvian monopoly over the public discourse, complications persist. The end of Left domination over the intellectual airwaves has been followed by the emergence of self-professed liberals who have taken up cudgels against the Right. Although much less doctrinaire than their Marxist predecessors—they are, for example, much more inclined to accord faith and even theology a contemporary validity— the liberal polemics are peppered with generous dollops of condescension. For the Indian liberal, the ‘other’ is invariably neo-literate, crude, lacking intellectual pedigree and philistinic. The country’s most high-profile liberal, Ramachandra Guha—with whom I have the warmest of personal relations, dating back some four decades—has argued that the Right not only lacks intellectual rigour but that the Modi Government is perhaps the most ‘anti-intellectual’ of all regimes.
At the heart of the derision is the belief that there is no worthwhile ‘Right’ and ‘conservative’ tradition in India. At one level, there is a case for clarification. Apart from C Rajagopalachari, the founder of the erstwhile Swatantra Party, who used to describe himself as a conservative, non-socialist politicians seem disinclined to see themselves as either ‘Right’ or ‘conservative’. Preferring the term ‘rashtravadi ’ (nationalist) to other labels, they have argued that these terms, being principally European in origin and context, are inapplicable to India.
They are not the only ones. Many of the doctrinal shorthand terms that emerged in Europe and the US had, in many cases, no worthwhile conceptual and linguistic equivalents in the Indian languages, particularly Sanskrit. In his Recovering Liberties: Indian Thought in the Age of Liberalism and Empire, Chris Bayly alluded to the unsatisfactory translation of ‘liberal’ as ‘udara’ and liberalism as ‘udarvad’. I encountered the same difficulties locating ‘conservative’ and ‘conservatism’ in Indian languages. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, to whom I presented the problem, appreciated it as one and suggested seeing conservatism in oppositional terms: ‘anudar panthi’ as the opposite of liberal, ‘rudhivaadi’ as opposed to progressive, ‘a-samanta vaadi’ as anti-egalitarian, and so on. All in all, a not very satisfactory solution.
This lack of a clear-cut binary divide had profound implications. In the context of India, Bayly has suggested that, at least until the 1920s, ‘liberalism and neo-conservatism were joined at the hip from birth’. In part this stemmed from the all-round recognition that with British rule India had lost its sovereignty. Almost all the public intellectuals of the 19th and early-20th centuries were preoccupied with how to recover and establish India’s self-esteem. On this question, their paths deviated— and principally on the question on which facets of the past to conserve and what to “either discard or re-invent—but without necessarily locating them firmly in either the liberal or conservative camp. Indeed, the mismatch between their personal lives and their stated beliefs were often so glaring that one historian has described it as ‘neurotic’.
The common theme of national recovery produced different responses. Bhudeb Mukherjee, who wrote a counter-factual history of India in the aftermath of the Maratha victory in Panipat over Ahmad Shah Abdali, for example, believed that the sense of patriotism shown by the British was the result of ‘observing codes appropriate for their country and their faith’. For Indians this could only mean doggedly pursuing the way of life prescribed by the Shastras. For Bankim Chandra Chatterjee who in Anandamath saw in the British conquest a much-needed Hindu respite from Muslim tyranny, Hindus had to eschew asceticism, abstruse philosophical speculation and all ritual embellishments accumulated over the ages; they had to evolve a dharmic code based on niskama karma (selflessness).
Yet, despite divergent emphasis, there were three broad themes that established the parameters of conservative thought.
First, Indian conservatism was inherently suspicious of individualism—its point of departure from the liberal emphasis on personal freedoms. It was the conquest of the self and its merger into a larger corporate mission that formed the basis of the different expressions of ‘non-political patriotism’. Hence the stress on building charitra (character), a theme that runs through Marathi historical plays, Jadunath Sarkar’s diagnosis of Mughal decline and the writings of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi. An energised political culture, it was presumed, was prefaced by the self- discovery of a people. This theme resonates strongly with the RSS whose self- image is that of a cultural organisation.
Secondly, India’s conservative tradition elevated the idea of India into one of godliness. The unity of India, its sacredness and its destiny were intertwined as never before. Bankim Chandra, whose Vande Mataram popularised the deification of the nation, was quite clear this was an invented tradition: ‘The ancients had made a mistake by submerging patriotism into the higher love of all created things and the balance had to be redressed.’ On his part, Savarkar took the divinity of India a step further by declaring it to be both the punyabhumi (holy land) and the matribhumi (motherland)—a problematic formulation that excluded the followers of non-Indic faiths from the embrace of nationhood, though not citizenship.
Finally, this heady blend of loss—the thousand years of servitude—and a revitalised feeling of Hinduness had an overriding shortcoming: its lack of inclusiveness of some minority faiths. The BJP attempted to fill the gap by invoking a loose sense of cultural nationalism, with Hindutva forming a central, but not exclusive, element of nationhood. However, suspicions of Indian conservatism being exclusionary persist. And it is an issue that conservatives must address as it moves to the next phase of its expansion and evolution.
To me, what is important is the recognition that conservatism is not a doctrine or even an ideology: it is not universal. It is, at the end of the day, an approach to change and a constant endeavour to understand the evolving common sense—detached from both impulsiveness and fashion. Reconciling the eternal India with the changing India must remain the conservative priority.