Controversies in India leave one jaded and jarred because they produce neither debate nor resolution. The protagonists live contentedly in the silos of their mind, happy to insult each other. As intellectual debate gets devalued, what we have is an upsurge of violence. The battle between the political Left and Right is a good example. It doesn’t explore the possibility that both might be wrong.
This essay is an attempt at a dialogue not across traditional opposites but within the Right, with its great enthusiasm for nationalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party have voiced ideas about science, religion and technology that have upset Leftists, rationalists and progressives who see in Mr Modi the caricature of scholarship.
The BJP’s ideas about ancient science — including its notion of astrology, history and medicine — have been lampooned mercilessly. Rationalists have attacked his idea that India discovered plastic surgery and advocates of scientific temper feel that sessions in the Indian Science Congress, where bureaucrats presented ideas which sought to establish rocketry as an ancient Indian science, embodied the tenets of jingoism. Yet few scholars point out that the real causality of this fetishism for ancient science is the vitality of indigenous knowledge. Or that there is another vein of scholarship which critiques Mr Modi closer to the core of BJP thought. These are the ideas of the brilliant historian Dharampal.
One wishes the BJP would read Dharampal more carefully. Born in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, Dharampal, who passed away at Sevagram (Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram) in 2006, was the author of Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition: With Some Early Nineteenth Century Documents. A man who understood what swadeshi and swaraj meant as possibilities, Dharampal was not just a committed Gandhian deeply involved in the Freedom Movement and rural reconstruction, but also, as K.S. Sudarshan, RSS’ fifth sarsanghchalak has written, “removed our inferiority complex and raised the feeling of pride towards our culture and legacy”. An associate of Mirabehn and Jayaprakash Narayan, his entire historical work can be seen as a great footnote, an addendum to Gandhi’s great manifesto, Hind Swaraj.
Dharampal tried to locate Gandhi’s ideas not as an addendum to the Western thought of John Ruskin and Henry David Thoreau, but as extensions of indigenous thought and practice. Unlike the BJP, which sought to emphasise cultural ownership or intellectual property, Dharampal was more interested in cultural embeddedness, in the local roots of thought. In exploring the roots of local systems, practices and knowledge, Dharampal as archivist, historian and interpreter created the outlines of a more sophisticated argument from which both the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh could learn a lot. Dharampal, while being politically astute, was clear that politics needed sound scholarship, that facts from archives can speak more eloquently than the rhetoric of jingoism, like we’ve heard from the Indian Council of Historical Research chairperson.
For Dharampal it was civilisation not nationalism that provided the roots of cosmology and epistemology. Further, civilisational narrative had a complexity and nuance that the ideologies of history did not have. As a result, Dharampal could provide a critique of the West, while the BJP, in being nationalist, becomes a mere mimic of the West. When Dharampal talked of Indian science and technology, he was talking about culture and cultural styles of science, while the BJP’s idea of “Make in India” and “skilling” is located in a Western tradition of innovation.
Dharampal used documents in English archives to demonstrate the rapacity of colonialism. And, paradoxically, he used these very same documents to show that the Indian society was alive and creative, not the heart of darkness and stagnation many historians assumed it to be.
Dharampal showed that Gandhi’s ideas of swadeshi and swaraj were part of an oceanic circle of ideas where the local was not aridly a space, but a place for the indigenous, the traditional and the vernacular. The idea of swadeshi was not the same as Mr Modi’s “Make in India”. Swadeshi was an attempt to revive the local and the indigenous; it embodied both ethics and creativity. The BJP’s “Make in India” is a location, an invitation to investment without a theory of locality and community. In that sense, Mr Modi, who sees nuclear energy as the second modernity, lacks the civilisational ethics of swadeshi and swaraj. He belongs to the arrogance of Davos, not to the ethics of a civilisational India.
Dharampal argued that Gandhi was sensitive to local communities, to the creativity of NGOs, to the self-empowering power of civil society and civil disobedience. The BJP, by suppressing civil society, becomes anti-Gandhian. More interestingly, Dharampal used history to make society understandable. History provides nuance, but for the BJP history is a fiction created for the herd. Dharampal and Gandhi had a more nuanced understanding of colonialism which they saw not merely as a mode of exploitation, but as a disempowerment through an imposition of alien logic and categories. The British not only destroyed agriculture as a revenue system, but also wrecked agriculture as an epistemology, a theory of food, of myth and hospitality. The BJP, on the contrary, was a modernising force.
But through development it merely sought to impose the West on India. Its jingoism about culture does not really hide its illiteracy about it. India, Dharampal showed, operated in terms of a cosmology radically different from the modern perspective. By relying on the categories of civilisation, Dharampal showed the reductive powers of the nation-state and the BJP, by being of the nation-state, lost the creativity and empowerment that civilisational ideas provided. Its knee-jerk ideas of nationalism, sexuality and security are inauthentic, gleaned from its ersatz sense of civilisation.
Mr Modi’s idea of India thus represents a failure of scholarship. His overt nationalist rhetoric hides the fact that his economics has no sense of the sacredness of nature and leaves India open to the deprivation of rapacious industrialists. Worse, the idea of corporate social responsibility becomes phoney if one were to use swaraj and swadeshi as indicators. If one reads the BJP and the RSS through Dharampal’s scholarship, one sees a nationalism which is illiterate, mechanical about security and which actually lacks a theory of governance located in an understanding of history.