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Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India

Ananya Vajpeyi

Harvard University Press

Pages: 316 Rs. 995

Contemplating the Indian intellectual self

Ananya Vajpeyi’s book is an erudite examination of how five Indians who shaped our polity and politics married age-old Indian concepts with modern political thought, writes Rohit Chopra

Rohit Chopra  29th Dec 2012

Ananya Vajpeyi

n her extraordinarily ambitious and remarkable book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, Ananya Vajpeyi asks us to "retrain our minds to enter an imagination from which we are almost terminally estranged." It is in the realm of that elusive imagination that the distinctive conceptions of an Indian selfhood as articulated by five of India's founding fathers—Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nehru, and Ambedkar—are to be found.

Viewing the figures as sophisticated interlocutors of an Indic political tradition, Vajpeyi argues that each one of them fashioned a radically original understanding of Indian selfhood that would be adequate to the demands of an Indian political modernity. They did so by drawing on, rehabilitating, and reinventing "fugitive" concepts, norms, and ideas from indigenous political traditions that, while on the path of decline since the onset of modernity and further weakened as a result of colonialism, nonetheless retained a subterranean legitimacy in Indian political, social, and cultural life.The self, thus manifested, realized, or mastered, leads to the state known as swaraj, which refers to both rule of the self and rule by the self. The sovereignty represented by swaraj transcends mere political independence.The society that is founded on and enables the condition of swaraj is the righteous republic.

Vajpeyi's engagement with these seminal figures for modern Indian political thought is scaffolded on a set of unequivocally stated foundational claims that challenge many of the cherished principles governing the study of South Asia in the Indian and Anglo-American academies. She asserts that there is a cultural entity called India with deep historical roots. There is such a thing as a distinctive Indian reality; one whose uniqueness was not obliterated by the cataclysmic rupture of the colonial encounter. The dominance, even hegemony, of the English language in Indian academic discourse has blinded us to the existence, even if attenuated, of Indic norms and values. In the theoretical space cleared through making these arguments, Vajpeyi reads each founding father's deeply felt engagement with tradition, at once cerebral and visceral, through the lens of key concepts that are, importantly, not just political but aesthetic, ethical, moral, and spiritual: ahimsa for Gandhi; viraha for Rabindranath Tagore; samvega for Abanindranath Tagore; dharma and artha for Nehru; and dukha for Ambedkar. Each reading, to which a chapter is devoted, is a masterpiece, combining careful philological and historical work, deft close reading, and incisive political analysis and brimming with astonishing, often counter-intuitive insights.

Vajpeyi sees Gandhi's Hind Swaraj as an "epistemological break," proof of the recognition by Gandhi of a crisis in Indian political traditions and a statement of the possibility of a new form of ethical life beyond the compulsions of narrow political being. Gandhi's idea of ahimsa, which, Vajpeyi argues, is inaccurately rendered as non-violence, pertains to a mode of conducting the self so as to be able to live in a grounded manner in the midst of violence. For Rabindranath Tagore, a critic of the idea of nationalism, it is the aesthetic capacity of viraha, the longing for the beloved experienced by the Yaksa in Kalidasa's Meghaduta that is the critical quality of selfhood. The desire for the beloved, a metaphor for India's estranged past from herself, is tinged with the knowledge that this loss can never be made complete.

The dominance, even hegemony, of the English language in Indian academic discourse has blinded us to the existence of Indic norms and values.

ajpeyi reads Abanindranath Tagore's art, in conjunction with his uncle Rabindranath's poems on the same themes—Shah Jahan, Bharat Mata, the Yaksa—as evidence of an Indian way of seeing. The art embodies the quality of samvega, an aesthetic shock that occurs as revelation to the Indian self about its innate characteristics. Nehru's life, manifest as the voice of both the Discovery of India and Letters to Chief Ministers, reveals the imperatives of dharma or ideal selfhood and artha or purposive selfhood, mirroring the simultaneously affective and pragmatic demands of the modern state. The chapter on Ambedkar addresses the puzzle of his late conversion to Buddhism, through the category of dukha or suffering. Vajpeyi interprets the act as reflecting a tragic realization, on the part of Ambedkar, of the limits of liberal institutions in securing genuine equality for Untouchables in India. Along with legal and constitutional equality, Ambedkar recognized that full authentic selfhood for the oppressed in a society like India would need to be anchored in the absolute moral authority guaranteed by religion.

In an intriguing argument, sketched in the introductory chapter, Vajpeyi speaks to the role of Islam in a project of modern Indic self-fashioning. The Indian political tradition does not theoretically preclude or rule out the contribution of India's Islamic past. But at the level of articulation, Islam has been conceptually disposable, in a sense, in the manner in which that Indian political tradition has been imagined. "The rule of Muslim kings in the subcontinent for over a thousand years," Vajpeyi points out, "remains the blind spot." This argument operates as a limit of sorts across the readings of the struggles of the five founding figures to fashion authentic ideas of Indian selfhood appropriate for past and future.

Given the fact that the legacies of every one of these figures is bitterly contested in India, Vajpeyi's book runs the risk of drawing the charge of hagiography.To her credit, she lays her cards on the table in undertaking a good faith examination of the life and work of each figure, making it clear that she is not interested in the fallacy of competitive critique and in measuring the merits of one against another. Still, every interpretation brings with it an implicit claim of primacy. Critics of Tagore and Gandhi's "brahmanical revivalism," like Aijaz Ahmad, might want to see a stronger case for why Rabindranath Tagore's critique of caste should be seen as stronger than his defense of caste. Likewise, critics of Nehru might ask why Vajpeyi's generous understanding of Nehru's vision of the people should hold more water than Partha Chatterjee's skepticism about his elitism. A longer discussion of assumptions about intentionality and about the conflation of the textual voice with the historical voice—perhaps inevitable in a work that adresses the relationship between language, thought, and action—would be useful, though Vajpeyi is scrupulous in signaling any speculative and interpretive leaps on her part. Provocative, brilliant, and erudite, a magnificent reading of readings, Righteous Republic itself stands as a foundational work of scholarship.

Rohit Chopra is Assistant Professor of Communication, Santa Clara University

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