Millennium Post

Who's afraid of the Indian mind

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. 

The journey, as Vajpeyi sees it, is therefore not just an inward sojourn into the realm of imaginations and conceptions of Indian selfhood, but also into the story of how the mighty river has been variously filled in by articulations that have emanated from the pioneers of India’s intellectual self-formation, great minds that themselves were confluences of thought streams coming from various corners of the world—MK Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru, and BR Ambedkar.

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. 

Vajpeyi boldly claims that the so-called founding fathers were, in reality, intellectual pariahs in their own times, and their interventions, which now appear to be sophisticated articulations of the self grappling with a confounding modernity, were, in fact, unfashionable and radical ideas that met with stupendous resistance at first, only to be accepted and assimilated  as if blood and bone.

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
(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.  

These fringe ideas , which nevertheless, had a contiguous presence in the ideological netherlands, were pretty much picked up and reconfigured by the five thinkers, so that an ‘epistemological break’ is achieved in the conception of the self, refashioning it in a more political and grounded manner, although also taking into account the traditional but non-influential tenets that had been languishing in the dark alleys of colonial era ideologies.

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?
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