Ananya Vajpeyi, undoubtedly one of the best young intellectuals in India at present, embarks on an ambitious journey in her brilliant and extremely engaging book Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India. Vajpeyi, a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, and a Senior Fellow with the American Institute of Indian Studies, gently prods us to ‘retrain our minds to enter an imagination from which we are almost terminally estranged.’ Her epistemological journey is one which seeks the idea of the ‘self’ through the struggles for swaraj or self-rule, a notion running in the river of philosophical thought that has watered and nurtured, in turn, the idea of the Indian intellectual self.
Vajpeyi calls them the five founding fathers, interpreters and conduits of Indian political imaginations, with each of them having compiled a distinctive corpus of writings and meditations on what is meant to be an Indian, especially in the wake of the two-century-old colonial rule. In fact, the five intellectuals, as Vajpeyi asserts, had succeeded in rehabilitating ‘fugitive’ ideas, marginal notions, discarded and neglected concepts that have operated and stayed on at the fringes of sociocultural and historical-political thought that has come to define the Indian intellectual self, the questioning and argumentative, the interrogating and speculative mind, that fuses together disparate elements that have fertilised the political tradition, no matter how splintered and broken that might have been.
In doing this, the thinkers not only consolidated a modern Indian self, original in its conception of the world and eclectic in its formative influences, but also created an idea of ‘selfhood’ which was in stark opposition to the wider notion of the self, particularly the Western, protocapitalist and materialist framework that had defined much of the 19th and early 20th century formulations. For example, Gandhi’s notion of ahimsa (political non-violence and passive aggression), Rabindranath Tagore’s idea of viraha (longing for the beloved and constantly pining to be united with the Other), Abanindranath Tagore’s concept of samvega (an aesthetic inclination and propensity towards beauty), Nehru’s dharma and artha (righteousness and materialism) and Ambedkar’s dukha (capacity for pain and empathy) -- are not only ideas that have an ‘indigenous’ origin, as it were, but also had an underground existence for long, often ridiculed and contradicted by the mainstream, particularly during the prolonged postcolonial moment.
Thus, through the new conceptions of the self and through swaraj, or self-rule, a sociopolitical critique of the older idea of the self is propounded, indicating a sovereignty that is beyond mere political independence, but imbibing the intellectual freedom and versatility that became the hallmark of the postcolonial subject, the worthy citizen of what Vajpeyi calls the ‘righteous republic.’
Thus, through a potent combination of close literary reading and excellent sociolpolitical and methodological analysis, Vajpeyi puts forward a coherent narrative, which is the story of the formulation of the Indian intellectual self. Vapeyi’s claims are ‘foundational’, insofar as the postmodern political thought from the subcontinent is concerned, and also has bearing upon the curricular anxieties of South Asian studies, particularly in the Western universities, which still look for and advocate a definite break as far as precolonial and postcolonial histories are concerned.
Vajpeyi, therefore, makes a case for engaging more with these thinkers, who for her, create from the scratch a cultural, aesthetic, historical and political entity called the composite Indian self, its questioning mind, its desiring soul, that makes a departure from previous understandings of the same.
Hence. the colonial encounter is seen not just as a rupture, but also as a filter that sieves through its hegemonic and ideological matrix, the various streams of thought, thus rearranging them in a brand new order, giving a fertile twist to the ‘Indic elements’, while also incorporating the internationalism of these thinkers, particularly Tagore and Ambedkar, whose critique of nationalism was embedded in a quasi-Kantian understanding of one world.
The intellectual outcome of Vajpeyi’s endeavour is scintillating intuitions into the discourse of the self, offering up contrapuntal readings of the seminal texts written by these preeminent scholar-thinkers.
However, if there’s one problem with Vajpeyi’s otherwise lucid and original argument, it is that she chooses not to engage with the other side of the intellectual spectrum. For example, what about the academic accusations against Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru of upholding ‘brahminical elitism’? And, while she includes Ambedkar in the pantheon of the intellectual gods of modern India, is it out of a chronological compulsion and political afterthought, or is it because she considers Ambedkar’s contribution as significant as that of Gandhi’s or Tagore’s or Nehru’s?
And, beyond the axes of authorship, individual interventions and scholastic debates, isn’t there much that she has left out from the ambit of the righteous republic? Moreover, does Vajpeyi’s reading of the authorial voice take into account the entire historical-political pantomime that inflects the writerly leanings and overt articulations? Finally, is Vajpeyi’s righteous republic as inclusive as it seems to be?