A new book on the freedom struggle opens a great window of opportunity to understand the wrong turns India has taken in its journey towards mature nationhood.

On India’s sixty-fifth birth anniversary, Manmohan Singh spoke to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort as had his predecessors since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Red Fort speeches are meant to assess our selfhood, to evaluate our continuing tryst with ourselves and with the world, to hark back to some foundational principles that underlined our birth, and inform our expectations of their value in the lives of India’s millions.

Singh’s emphasis was on economic growth as he understood it --- an outcome of GDP numbers; like that of so many policymakers over the past decade he spoke to a selective audience in urban India, that narrow band of self-possessed middle class Indians and industrialists watching the dipping curve of growth from their ensconced office work-stations with detached dismay, shocked but not unsettled by the contagion of corruption that afflicts our lives, untouched by the rising tide of social ruptures evident across the land. Singh had addressed, as most policymakers do, a Fissured Republic without admitting it.

Read from our dismal, tumultuous present with its rupturing threats, Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India (Harvard University Press 2012) appears at first glance a cruel twist of fate: to be reminded of our once-sublime place in history while we flounder in a bathetic and disjointed reality.

But as you read, on the irony gives way to wondrous amazement at the gloriously unique origins of the Indian Republic and then a confirmation of just what we have lost in the journey since: Indians may think they have gained freedom but they may have lost swaraj.

Pathbreaking narrative

Righteous Republic is an intellectual history of India’s freedom struggle viewed through the introspections on the meaning of a word, swaraj, by five founders of modern India: Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B. R. Ambedkar, and surprisingly for those used to these names as the authors of India’s emergence as a sovereign nation, the two Tagores, Rabindranath and his nephew, Abanindranath Tagore.

Vajpeyi’s quest for the sources of India’s freedom struggle parts ways with traditional historiography on the subject in ways that renders her work unique and groundbreaking. It starts with a word—swaraj, a word that most Indians have used at least once in their lifetime, heard it often enough in the voices of indifferent schoolteachers and got accustomed to its meaning as self-rule.

Vajpeyi delves into its Sanskrit meanings that transcend the literalism or commonplace sense of self-rule. For her, and as she shows brilliantly for the five intellectual odysseys into the rich texts and enduring artefacts that bespeak India’s rich past, the starting point for self-rule was as much an inquiry into the self as into the pathways to sovereignty; perhaps a discovery of the self, trapped in this web of colonialism, would help locate the road to political freedom.

For Vajpeyi, India’s quest for freedom was as much a moral struggle for selfhood as for political freedom and her narrative journey starts appropriately enough with Nehru’s questions about India’s glorious past, its weak present and its probable yet uncertain future --- and their relationship to freedom.

Indic vs western tradition

Righteous Republic is a riveting story of five men’s journeys of India’s rich past through their ‘readings’ of texts and artefacts to discover those categories that would flesh out for them the laden ambiguities of ‘swaraj’.

Vajpeyi pulls the reader into uncharted territory, as these five men search and then find what they were looking for not in the dominant western discursive categories that they had been exposed to, but in a pre-modern lexicon.

The outcome, Vajpeyi contends, led to an Indic political tradition that was peculiarly a blend of some western categories but largely informed by those categories salvaged from India’s past: for Gandhi ahimsa, viraha for Rabindranath Tagore, samvega for Abanindranath, dhamma/dharma for Nehru and for Ambedkar, the most modern and legal-minded of all, the Buddhist notion of duhkha.

Vajpeyi’s project, that she claims is an attempt “to open a door rather than write a total history”, comes close to being an epic of its own for its sweep, traversing as she does texts that have not figured in the reckoning of India’s freedom struggle for modernity and statehood.

The journeys her protagonists undertook in search of the truths behind self and sovereignty were epic and her descriptions of them are almost poetic at times.

Dissatisfied to varying degrees with received western discourse, the five men, discovered and as Vajpeyi suggests founded what she terms, an “Indic” (not ‘Indian) political tradition counter-posed to the dominant western political tradition.

But were these Indic categories political? Did they outwit British colonialism’s co-option of extant Indian categories (danda for instance) into the system of “domination-without–hegemony” they built?

These categories slipped away because their subtleties defied the literalism of western political discourse. Categories such as ahimsa and viraha, Vajpeyi asserts, broke the mould of “western reason” loosened its hold on “ways of being, thinking and writing in colonial India.”

Already having broken loose from the “subaltern” school of historiography, the author with a nod at Ashis Nandy, concludes that the appearance of such terms in the “thoughts of the Indian founders suggests that there were yet ways in which these men were not, intellectually, European.”

Searching for the Moral

So the project of nationalism culminating in what the author calls ‘Righteous Republic’ was essentially a “moral project”. It involved “the integration of tradition and modernity”, an “ameliorative modernisation”, the promise of putting into practice a set of values with “universal ethical appeal”, and most of all, that defining credo of “selfless service” to the nation.

At the end of her outstanding scholarship, imbued with modest passion and effortless originality, Vajpeyi asks herself the question: is at all relevant today?

She answers with a modest claim to simply opening a door, but surely that’s a lot.

For what she has done is to locate and dust off some of the lost signs to that land Rabindranath Tagore wanted his countrymen to awaken to, “Righteous Republic” that, in fact has turned into the “Fractured Republic”.

(This article was published on November 20, 2012)
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