Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic is a unique addition to the discourse around the themes of India’s negotiation with its colonial past and its present political framework. Hers is an original quest that, instead of focusing on India’s struggle to gain sovereignty, tries to understand the nature of the Indian national self — the ‘swa’ in ‘swaraj’— whose independence was being sought. She does this by examining the intellectual-imaginative negotiations with a “welter of Indian traditions” by five extraordinary men of early modern India who, in her reckoning, were the key figures in shaping the country’s vision of itself, its past and its postcolonial future. These are M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar. Following Alasdair MacIntyre’s theorisation of “texts as the building blocks of tradition” the book explores the unique ways in which each of these stalwarts conceived the idea of India through their re-interpretations, in the light of their Western-educated sensibilities, of traditional Indian “texts”, literary, religious, artistic and architectural, that “mediated on self, sovereignty, and their ligature.”
The book seeks to understand the radical imagination that enabled Gandhi to posit a relationship of the Self with the Other premised on the idea of non-violence (ahimsa), a position derived from his lifelong readings of the Bhagwad Gita. The author also probes, through Gandhi’s 1909 tract Hind Swaraj,into the techniques of self-mastery that Gandhi cultivated — techniques essential for the realisation of a non-violent society and a non-violent world. However, largely absent from Vajpeyi’s exposition is the perception of Gandhi’s ahimsa as a tool, a weapon, if the oxymoron be permitted, in his real, non-violent political fight with India’s British rulers. The ‘satyagraha’s, the fasts, and the marches that she lauds as imaginative means to cultivate personal and societal non-violence were primarily utilitarian and part of Gandhi’s use of ahimsa as power. An understanding of non-violence as power is, one would think, necessary to any account of Gandhi’s intellectual contribution to the political bases of modern India.
Rabindranath Tagore is discussed in relation to “a cycle of his poems” that engages with Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, a text with the theme of viraha (‘the self’s longing’) which is central to our being in time. She discusses, particularly, a set of symbols that Tagore evolves of classical India, of Indian history and of the rupture and the pathos that characterise India’s relationship with its past. She tries to show how the poiesis resulting from the self’s longing to unite time past and time present is the essence of the great poet’s visions of India — visions that are still palpable in the way we relate to our country, its history and its present.
The author also looks at the poet’s essays against nationalism in conjunction with Abanindranath Tagore’s famous painting Mother India, which became an icon for nationalist politics in Bengal in the early 20th century. The junior Tagore’s engagement with Indic tradition is also read through his paintings that show Shah Jahan contemplating the Taj Mahal at different points in its construction — a reading that is given perspective by their being placed in conjunction with a poem on the same theme by the great bard.
In her chapter on Nehru, Vajpeyi explores his re-imagining of the Mauryan past, particularly through the moral statutes of the Emperor Asoka carved on rocks and Kautilya’s political tract, Arthasastra. She examines how for Nehru this engagement with the past yielded the values of ethical sovereignty, pacifism and benign rule — values embodied in his choice of the Sarnath lion capital as the Indian State Seal and the Asokan dharma-chakra forthe national flag.
The final chapter of the book explores B.R. Ambedkar’s conception of equal citizenship in the matrix of deeply entrenched social and economic inequality embodied in the Hindu caste system. By his complex engagement with Buddhism Ambedkar evolved the concept of societal misery (samajik dukha) in place of the individual’s suffering (karmic dukha) that was the central category of that religion. Through a reading of Ambedkar’s book The Buddha and His Dhamma Vajpeyi makes us marvel at the imaginative daring that enabled this “least understood of the great moderns” to propel India out of the dehumanisation and misery incident to colonialism and caste into the equality and dignity enshrined in the Constitution of which he was the chief architect.
The author justifies in the “Preface” her choice of the five figures from amongst a plethora of influential Indian thought leaders and, given her “textual” criterion, the defense seems convincing. However, the inclusion of Abanindranath Tagore in her selection of “founders” niggles the reader a little as the artist’s link with the politicalfoundations of India does appear somewhat tenuous, despite Mother India. Indeed, the author seems rather to explore the philosophical foundations of modern India or, to be punctilious, the philosophical foundations of the modern Indian polity than what the subtitle of the book denotes. She isolates a philosophical/aesthetic category for each of the “founders” she discusses and identifies that as the cardinal theme informing his engagement with the (Indian) “self” and thence his contribution to its “sovereignty”. Thus, Gandhi is associated with ahimsa (‘the self’s orientation’), Rabindranath Tagore with viraha (‘the self’s longing’), Abinindranath Tagore with samvega (‘the self’s shock’), Nehru with dharma and artha (respectively, the self’s ‘aspiration’ and its ‘purpose’) and, finally, Ambedkar with dukha or the ‘self’s burden’.
In the “Introduction” the author anticipates the reader’s potential discomfort with such a perception of the political and justifies it on the ground that these apparently apolitical categories of thought and feeling were “germane” to Indic “ways of being, thinking and writing”— as opposed to the “derivative” political categories springing from Western reason — and were central to the “political thought of the founding fathers”. She also asserts that four of these categories — ahimsa, dharma, artha and dukha — crossed over into the political via Jain and Buddhist “histories of political power.” Still, the dialectic of these apparently apolitical themes with the political framework of India — the dialectic of “aspiration and instrumentality”— could have been made clearer. An indication could have been more thoroughly worked out of how and how far these philosophical/aesthetic categories derived through engagements with tradition really came to shape the emerging Indian state beyond tokenism. In the relative absence of such an account the book is in some danger of appearing more idiosyncratic than original.
Vajpeyi excels at what she does in the present volume, however, and the book is informed with high standards of intellectual rigour, analytical acuity and — last but certainly not the least — an eminently readable, nearly jargon-free prose.
Righteous Republic by Ananya Vajpeyi; Harvard University Press, Massachusetts. Distributed by Harvard Business Publishing, 4378/1, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110070. Rs. 995.
(Suparna Banerjee is a researcher and writer based in Kolkata)