Thursday, June 13, 2013

[Book Review] Self-Righteous Republic

- Rochelle Pinto
I doubt that Ananya Vajpeyi's Righteous Republic is the 'ground-breaking assessment of Indian political thought' that some scholars have claimed it is. The preface is a revisionist primer on Indian nationalism, written perhaps for a western audience entirely unfamiliar with any aspect of Indian political thought. The opening lines of this text resonate with tired normative phrases from the trite history textbooks students are prescribed year after year by the Indian government - swaraj is self-rule - and all nationalist leaders were supposedly absorbed and united in this one endeavour.

Righteous Republic by Ananya Vajpeyi.

A few political theorists and several historians of national history have, over the last six decades, pulled themselves away from these formulaic enforced accounts of Indian history, pointing instead to the different and often contradictory approaches to political life in India and to colonialism. As a result, Indian political history and political theory is at the very least a contested ground.

The preface reads like a panacea for the country's different elites who have the ground of Indian history restored to them by the brutish repetition of that schoolbook mantra - swaraj is 'self-rule'. Despite reams of political contestation that would make this assumption difficult for any honest writer, the preface assumes that anti-colonial movements began in 1885, incidentally the date of the formation of the Indian National Congress, the date that has effortlessly helped the Congress segue anti-colonial movements into their less glorious post-1947 futures seamlessly.

It is difficult to tell which is more frightening - that these assumptions are reproduced out of ignorance - an impossible ignorance we would think for a PhD student from a prominent university in the US, for a book from Harvard University Press - or that with their refusal to acknowledge anything that has ever been said or written to the contrary, the book works as a reassertion of the past and present of Indian elites.

Let us not assume that this book is a covert pro-Congress publication. It coopts Alasdair Macintyre to state that the self (the swa of swaraj) can only be accessed through the crisis in 'the tradition which has formed the self'. This quote is used in an easy cynicism to draw the nationalist umbrella once again over those who had fought it off. All the great nationalist men had to rework tradition we are told. Even Ambedkar, who thought he could step outside it, find another route out of oppression, into another political formation, eventually had to remain within, to contend with tradition. This Preface, devoid of finesse or complexity of argument that others have brought to this debate, knows however how to teach the lessons of cultural fascism to those who dare to challenge the stony footfall of a singularized national tradition.

It inaugurates the world of the neo-liberal Indian elite, is written simply, breathlessly, and is comfortably cliche-ridden. Why it is backed and reviewed by those very Indian political theorists whose work this book ignores and whose work challenges it, is not puzzling. If it's not one reason, it will be the other.

The preface of this book may after all be the most complex and thought out piece of writing available in the text.

Those anticipating that subsequent chapters may offer an interpretation of concepts as they appear through the textual tradition celebrated in the book may be disappointed. The chapter on Ambedkar for instance, tells us that Ambedkar distanced himself from Buddha's four noble truths, save for duhkha, which he interpreted in a manner that departs from Buddhist tradition, seeing it as socially experienced and constituted suffering instead of a foundational premise of life. This is one of the four reasons, the book suggests, that Ambedkar chose Buddhism as the religion of choice on which to base a political consolidation rather than Kabirpanthi.

If Ambedkar's interpretation is a departure from tradition, at no point are we offered an interpretation of duhkha as a concept, or as a practice of the self or as a political principle through the history of Buddhism in any part of the world. The author limits herself to the Indian sub-continent by saying, in parenthesis at some point in the essay, that she cannot speak for Southeast Asia, though she appropriates it as evidence of the continuity of a singular tradition.

It appears however, that she cannot speak for India either, for without any conceptual tradition laid out, it is impossible to gauge by reading the chapter alone, whether this translation of duhkha as social suffering has been taken directly from Ambedkar's text, or is a translation by the author, or is a translation that has been borrowed without a gloss from a secondary text, or is a translation that has been justified in the work of some of the scholars quoted, but never actually discussed in the chapter.

At any rate, despite the author's dismissal of Ambedkar's attempts at reclaiming Buddhism as a 'failure of imagination' and a 'grave sundering from tradition', the sections which actually paraphrase his arguments and interpretations are the ones that have some promise, by virtue of being propositions and responses that have the potential to be explored, even if, as the text suggests, these explorations are incomplete and unavailable in the original writings.

This chapter at no point clarifies how we are to understand religion - there is no engagement with writing that may offer conceptual readings based on a set of buddhist texts, or on their interpretations, or on the reactivation of some meanings and concepts in contemporary practice and theory. In fact, the repetitive appearance of the word tradition and continuity without a hint of explanation about how we are to understand these indicates that the author distances herself from a consideration of religion as practice, as practice that combines concepts and action and belief systems. In fact, we have no idea what religion is supposed to constitute when it is used seamlessly for Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism etc., across ages, and across all kinds of belief systems and practice. This leads the author to ask disingenuous questions that a book with the pretensions to scholarship that this one has, should have considered in detail if not answered: 'Was Buddhism in fact "dead" in its original home, or had it somehow been absorbed into its rival philosophies and theologies to such an extent as to become indistinguishable as a separate system or set of systems? (I don't think these questions have been answered satisfactorily, even today.)'

This text is premised on a conundrum that is never addressed and that poses a fundamental problem to its claims - it considers the constitution of an Indian political self entirely through a written textual 'tradition'. It at no point demonstrates any consciousness of the fact that a political self can only be partially be explained through a textual tradition, and even that part in the case of modern India, would have to be quite clearly demarcated. However even on its own terms, the absence of textual exegesis or conceptual history leaves us with discussions that often lack any of the methodological rigour that this kind of text demands. For though this is written simplistically, it does not present itself as a coffee table book or a popular history, both of which can be imaginatively and intelligently written and are often empirically sound. Since this text does not aim to produce empirical material or description, it unfortunately descends into declamations and opinions with a schoolroom fervour that could have been avoided had it had a more rigorous anonymous reader and editor.

As a brief aside, since the text itself takes the liberty of judging Ambedkar’s sensitivity to language, here are some examples of avoidable writing that an editor's intervention would have helped:

On Ambedkar: 'In converting to Buddhism, he wanted to pull into an empty spot in the parking lot of tradition.'

On Kabir: 'Kabir by contrast was never personally invested in any kind of institutionalized belief. He was a breaker, not a maker.'

On Hazariprasad Dwivedi's monograph on Kabir: 'But it also raised Kabir up as a shining star in the firmament of India's poetic canon that stretched from Kalidasa to Rabindranath.' One would have thought this kind of ecstatic expression had grown rare once past the early Orientalists and Nationalists and perhaps was restricted to the writings of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Note the unexplained continuity between Kalidasa and Rabindranath.

To continue with the discussion above, there is a gratuitous valorisation of the idea of renunciation, based on nothing more than the fact that it has been 'central' to 'Indic' thought - with little substantiation of this claim to continuity. Ambedkar's refusal to engage with it generates a lengthy if repetitive critique that is condescending and slightly presumptuous. Condescending, because the terms of judgment are familiar enough to upper caste and upper class Indian society and have been problematized often - that he does not contend with concepts that are venerated in this book as central to 'Indian metaphysics', a category that we are supposed to accept as self-evident and universally recognized - and that he doesn't read any of the epics valorised once again within a restricted and self-celebratory idea of Indian tradition 'poetically' enough.

At one point, the author urges that older epics and texts cannot be read as historical accounts, nor can deductions about social oppression be read directly off these works. The point is well taken, but this book should have taken this statement, which is not new, as the beginning point of an exploration into the status of the texts and the protocols of reading, and perhaps tried to gauge what interpretive leaps were being attempted by Ambedkar, instead of assuming that the statement of a protocol of reading alone could stand in for a critique of his interpretation.

The steady criticism of Ambedkar's interpretive capacity that the latter part of the chapter is preoccupied with, rests on this thin opposition and is presumptuous in its inability to account for the political resonance of these interpretations and their transformative capacity that would need to be read off other kinds of texts, not only the ones valorized by offshoots of very specific nineteenth century representations of Indian philosophy.

The text also poses questions that it does not trouble itself to answer and that it closes off with conversational truisms that do not sit well with the somewhat grandiose judgments and pronouncements: 'Ambedkar is adrift in precisely the kind of modernity where Buddhism loses some of the character of a religion and approaches the state of politics. He might have deemed this necessary, even urgent, but is it, in the end, a good thing? It's difficult to say. The answer turns on what work it is that we expect religion, or religious experience, to do for us, whether as individuals or as a society.' Surely the content of some of this text should have turned on the question of what it is that 'religion' in fact was to 'society' across the 2500 years that it announces repeatedly as the span of tradition.

Some more examples of rhetorical questions and gratuitous polemical condemnation that are better suited to schoolroom debates or elocution competitions: 'He said he took the Buddha as his guru, and yet, in some fundamental way remained tone-deaf to the Buddha as well.'

'Did Ambedkar hear the poetry of Kabir? I doubt it, though I don't know for sure.'

Why mention it in that case? Also, not just the author, but can anyone know for sure if someone heard the poetry of Kabir? An uneasy combination of a rhetorical question answered as though it were an empirical one.

The author seems inconsolable with regard to Ambedkar's estrangement from tradition, and compensates for this with a trumpeting crescendo of comparisons between the favoured great men of Indian nationalism who engaged with tradition, and Ambedkar whom this work triumphantly disciplines and brings to order with monumentalizing blinding imagery that should have alerted the author, had she been remotely able to read poetry, of its alarming authoritarian cadence:

'At least he realized this much: no individual, no caste community, no religious group could flourish in India without constructing some kind of relationship to tradition, some narrative of selfhood compatible with India's quest for its proper self, some foothold in the past to stabilize its presence in the future. In recasting the Untouchables as Buddhists, Ambedkar was conceding that tradition remained the firmament that would slowly flood with light as the sun of modernity climbed to its zenith, much like the dhammacakra that dominated the sky of the once and future righteous republic.'


Rochelle Pinto is Assistant Professor at the Department of English Literature, University of Delhi


Akhil Katyal said...

Thanks for this, Rochelle. Enjoyed reading this.

Anonymous said...

Ha ha ha ha. Yeah I agree. This Vajpeyi is illiterate.

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