Selective Intellectualism of Ramchandra Guha

Selective Intellectualism of Ramchandra Guha


to the Upanishads

by T.S. Eliot;

and to Tagore

by the early


and to the Indian Tradition

by Max Muller

(late of the Bhavan);

and to

Indian dance

by Bowers;

and to

Indian art

by whats-his-name;

and to the Tamil classics


(or was it Pope?);

neither flesh

nor fish-blood

nor stone totem-pole;


in thoughts

not his own;

eloquent in words

not his own

(The age demanded…’)

(From: Situation, KaaNaaSubramanyam (1912-1988). The poet’s own translation from the original in Tamil)

Sometime ago, in a piece titled In Absentia: Where are Indias conservative intellectuals? written in The Caravan magazine, Ramachandra Guha claims how views of “Hindu nationalists” border on xenophobia, and how they always allude to religion when talking of India’s past glories.

I aim to show that Indian leaders of the Freedom Movement used imagery of Hinduism creatively to the end of uniting a diverse people, that far from any xenophobia, they were motivated by their love of all Indians , and that later chants of VandeMataram which may were labelled as having a communal flavour is of no fault of either the author of the song or the likes of Tagore, Bipin Chandra Pal and Aurobindo who saw in it an ideal of national unity.

What did Tagore et al Actually Say?

While criticising ‘nationalism’, Ram Guha, along with confounding the meaning of the word with something Tagore never meant, has long contended that Tagore was an “internationalist”. While it is true that the great poet meant well and had a general sympathy with all people, I will contend that Tagore, like Aurobindo, Bipin Chandra Pal and so many others who were inspired by Bankim Chandra, bore a deep, almost religious love for the motherland.

First of all, it is abundantly obvious that any ideas of nationalismor patriotismare not at all the subjects of op-eds in any national newspaper today be it the Times of India or The Hindu. There is no self-avowed super-patriot out there who writes a weekly Sunday column in a newspaper rallying for the unfinished cause of National Education (which was close to the so-called “extremists”of the Congress Party of pre-independent India) to introduce Sanskrit to children on a war footing. Journalist Madhu Trehan in fact has asked if patriotism is a dirty word when “intellectuals dismiss it as pure jingoism”.

It is therefore apparent that we do not have any successor to a Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Aurobindo or Tagore today. The very few people who take to some form of the views and ideas that these great leaders held are some new print magazines such as Swarajya.

Bipin Chandra Pal

However, their glossy covers certainly aren’t popping out of airport book stalls (quite unlike the Caravans and the Outlooks). These ideas are very much outside of views that have come to be the mainstay of national political discourse. Of course for quite some time Mr. Dina Nath Batra seemed to fill that important gap, at least in the mind-space and oped-space of our Left-leaning liberal intellectuals. But then it cannot be said that the octogenarian is a particularly prolific writer.

Actually, if Tagore’s essay Nationalism (which is often cited to criticise ‘nationalism’, as Professor Guha has done) were to be read right, it is immediately clear that the noble poet’s criticism wasn’t in any way directed against ‘nationalism’if it were to mean simply a love for one’s country, people and culture, (which is the sense in which the word is used by most everyone today,) but it was reserved for the international Westphalian order of nations’sovereignty which had come to shape the world in the image of Europe during the colonial period—the period when nation-states emerged.

When Tagore says that he is not “against one nation in particular, but against the general idea of all nations”, when he says that it is “the Western Nation” with its “universal distrust of humanity”which has come to invade the“ideal”“East”, he is watchful of the excesses of nationalism which had come about when Indian revolutionaries had taken to violent means to liberate the country. But that was a later development in the life of the Freedom Movement.

We shall see that a simple love for India and her people was what informed the writings of one and all, from Bipin Chandra Pal and Tilak to Tagore.

Intellectual Apologists for Colonial Views on India

Then again, many “liberal”intellectuals of the day express quite a bit of anxiety when“conservatives”speak of a national unity based on “religion”. As we see Professor Guha complain that Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerji claimed that“early Hindu history unmistakably shows that the political consciousness of the people had from very early times grasped the whole of India as a unity”, [2] but Tagore referring to India’s “various manifestations”[3] professes that “There is something in all of them which is mine, which belongs to India as a whole, which, if only we can see it in its truth, will pierce through all littleness and incompleteness and reveal a vast and wonderful  being through which the secret of the worship of centuries will be made clear.”[4].

If it be granted that this “vast and wonderful being” is Vishnu, Tagore seems close to the idea that of Mookerji’s that in the invocation of Vishnu by thousand names throughout India is proof of an old collective (if not “national”) consciousness.

Commenting on this particular anxiety of Indian intellectuals Ronald Inden notes that in the backdrop of the rise of identity politics, “the ‘postcolonial historians’ have shifted away from imagining class and national unities in India’s past and have started pointing to diversities, but”, he points out, “many of these studies have a tendency to recuperate the older colonialist imaginings of India.”[5]

These imaginings are of course the claims of apologists of the British Empire that it was of immense benefit to India by way of uniting a land divided from north to south; and with whom, of course, our intellectuals today have found common cause.

Balgangadhar Tilak

Indeed it is an irony that during colonial rule, the likes of Bipin Chandra Pal and Tilak worked assiduously to debunk these very myths. Pal complains that

[this] is really the most popular and prevailing view of India in Europe and America. The European or the American visitor to India comes to us with this strong prepossession, and all his outer experience of our country and people, instead of dissipating, helps, on the contrary, to confirm and strengthen his view. He cannot discover any fundamental principle of unity at the back of these bewildering diversities, except perhaps that new administrative, political, social and economic unity which the establishment of the British Empire has been working in our own timeEvery Anglo-Indian publicist assiduously proclaims thatthere was never such an animal as an Indian, until the British rulers of the country commenced so generously to manufacture him with the help of their schools and their colleges, their courts and their camps, their law and their administration, and their free press and open platform.[6]

What Pal says next has been to the eternal chagrin of our Ivy League intellectuals: that it is the name Bharatvarsha by which the natives knew of India from “almost…the very beginning of our history”, and by understanding and grasping the meaning of which “the nature and reality of the fundamental unity in which all our divergent and even apparently conflicting usages and customs, cults and cultures, our racialities and provincialities…[will be] rationally reconciled”. [7]

Alive to this invocation of Vishnu’s thousand names across the length and breadth of India, says Tagore in Gora:

We shall see that the flame of sacrifice of past ages still burns through the ashes, and without doubt a day will come when, transcending the limits of time and place, that flame will kindle a fire throughout the world. Even to say in imagination that all the great deeds and words of India’s manhood in past ages are false is to show dishonour to truth; it is nothing but atheism! [8]

“Atheism”is what Tagore calls any insult of  “India’s manhood in past ages.” By implication, patriotism must be a religion to the poet. In fact, the entire novel Gora is dotted with passages of such searing worship of the motherland as deity, as Bankim Chandra called her Durga, as would put to shame any patriot of any country of any time.

Targetting Shyama Prasad Mookerjee

It is definitely curious that Guha has singled out Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, an erstwhile Bhartiya Jan Sangh leader (BJS later morphed into the BJP), and not Rabindranath Tagore for displaying such “xenophobia”and “triumphalism”.

Again, Tilak speaks of an old national consciousness when he says in an address delivered in Benares in 1906 that

Hindu religion as such provides for a moral as well as social tie. This being our definition we must go back to the past and see how it was worked out. During Vedic times India was a self-contained country. It was united as a great nation. That unity has disappeared bringing on us great degradation and it becomes the duty of the leaders to revive that union.[9]

Goddess Durga Dashaprahardharini

Just as Bankim Chandra wrote of Mother India, “tomari pratima gadi mandire mandire,, tvam hi Durgadashaprahardharini” (Your image is enshrined in every temple; You are Durga, the bearer of ten weapons in your ten arms), Pal argued in his book, The Soul of India that the manifestations at the local levels of various gods and goddesses was Shakti herself and who in essence was none other than the “Spirit of Mother India”.

And it is not as though these invocations to popular Dharmic symbols and deities had an anti-Christian or anti-Muslim edge: quite the contrary.

We also refer to Aurobindo who asked Hindus to see “Narayana”[10] in every Indian including Muslims because “to [the Muslims] too our Mother has given a permanent place in her bosom”.

And Pal wrote in the weekly New India that New India could “no more ignore the ancient spiritual treasures of the Hindus, than the higher elements of Mohammedan culture”[11]. But even as he professed that “hundreds of thousands of our people have commenced to hail their motherland today as Durga, Kalee, Jagaddhatree”, that

These are no longer mere mythological conceptions or legendary persons or even poetic symbols [but] different manifestations of the Mother, he clarified in the same letter that the political propaganda with which the cry of BandeMataramhas recently been associated, is not in any sense an organic element of the real cult of the Mother or Motherland. It is a purely accidental association. And this cult of the Mother is in no way connected with the impious excesses for which this political propaganda though in a very limited and sectional aspect, may be held responsible.[12]

Ram Guha writes in his book Makers of Modern India as if it’s a settled fact that it is Mahatma Gandhi who is the father of Indian nationalism.Furthermore, there is no mention of Bipin Chandra Pal in the entire book.

Contemporary Fate of Vande Mataram

That these contemporary historians will never engage with any seriousness the views and ideas espoused by the “new Nationalists”who came on stage at the turn of the 19th century, laying the groundwork for the Gandhian era with its excesses in both pacifism and aggressive nationalism, is of course no fault of the Fathers of our Nation, but is a serious commentary on the work and agenda of these so-called historians.

Not only is the tradition inspired by the song BandeMataram left out of history books, the same has also been maligned by new-age feminists. It is interesting that Charu Gupta leaves out stalwarts like Tagore and Abanindranath Tagore who drew heavily from the imagery of Durga as Mother India in their writings. Let me point out here that Tagore wrote a letter in 1937 to Jawaharlal Nehru in which he stated that “the privilege of originally setting its (VandeMataram’s) first stanza to the tune was mine when the author was still alive and I was the first person to sing it before a gathering of the Calcutta Congress”.

We also note that Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath’s nephew and the leading light of the Bengal School of Art known for its nationalistic fervour, drew a painting of Bharat Mata as a young woman dressed in the saffron of a Vaishnava saint and holding in her hands the Vedas, sheaves of rice, a maala, and a white cloth. He also drew a pen-picture of a VandeMataram procession with Rabindranath as the lead singer —this was in fact a reflection of an actual event of Rakshabandhan day in 1905 (the same year when Gora was published).

Sri Aurobindo and Lokmanya Tilak at Nationalist Conference, Surat, December 1907

It was in 1905 of course that Bengal was partitioned —an event which culminated into more violence in the decades prior to Independence and finally in more partition. Gandhi, who in an address given in Madras in 1915 where the song VandeMataram was sung, had said that “the poet has lavished all the adjectives we possibly could to describe Mother India”was more defensive decades later and confessed that the song “should never be a chant to insult or offend Muslims”. [13]

Anticipating these future events, towards the close of the novel, Gora asks of his mentor Paresh Babu to give him “the mantram of the Deity who belongs to all, Hindu, Mussulman, Christian, and Brahmo alike—the doors to whose temple are never closed to any person of any caste whatever—He who is not merely the God of the Hindus, but who is the God of India herself!”[14]

It can easily be argued that this ‘God of India herself’is none besides what the likes of Bipin Chandra Pal spoke of from the very beginning. Indeed, it is chiefly the momentum of such plural ideas that has since been carried forward and is today seen in popular culture.

Yet, even before this transformation of Gora, it is noteworthy that his avowed “Hindu nationalism”(and I can correctly call it that, for often he speaks of the “Hindu Nation”) is not lacking in its recognition of India’s diversity, in which in fact is steeped his deep, almost religious, love for India. Says he to Sucharita:

Please don’t think me to be a bigoted person, least of all one of those who have suddenly turned orthodox,—my words are not meant in their sense. My mind is in an ecstasy with the deep and grand unity which I have discovered running through all of India’s various manifestations and her manifold strivings, and this prevents me from shrinking to stand in the dust with the poorest and most ignorant of my countrymen. This message of India some may understand, some may not,—that makes no difference in my feeling that I am one with India, that all her people are mine; and I have no doubt that through all of them the spirit of India is secretly but constantly working. [16]

Concluding remarks

It is therefore quite clear that Indian leaders of the bygone era worked creatively towards effecting a national unity informed by a love and recognition of other peoples as simply the motherland’s “various manifestations”and “manifold strivings”.

For this, they often employed imagery from Hinduism which even to this day remains an un-selfconscious folk religion. Chief among this was the image of Mother India as Durga herself and the diverse Indian people with their many gods and goddesses as Durga’s many “manifestations”(tomari pratima gade mandire mandire).

“[A] culture”, says AshisNandy, “has to live and…has an obligation to itself, not to its analysts. Even less does it have any obligation to conform to a model, its own or someone else’s. Modern scholars of course have their own obligation to their disciplines”. [17]

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Actually if Ram Guha had cared to read the works of Bipin Chandra Pal, he would have found in the preface of the great nationalist’s book The Soul of India,the fourth paragraph of which reads as follows:

In presenting Shree Krishna as the Soul of India, I may be accused of sectarian prepossessions. But Shree Krishna is presented here not as a sectarian ideal, but as the Principle and Personality in and through whom, as in the past so also in the present and even in the future, the great Indian synthesis was, is being, and will be worked.

It is sad indeed that neither the words nor even a preemptive apology of those who lived and died for our countrys freedom ever reached the ears of our Ivy League educated intellectuals.Their toil and blood made possible today’s free India which gives unrestricted freedom to the likes of Ram Guha to thrive.

Not understanding either where their motivations lay or what the intent of our leaders was, it is nevertheless charitably mentioned that the likes of Tagore “did not work within frameworks derived from Western political categories”. It is this particular state of affairs that the Tamil poet KaaNaaSubramanyam discusses in his poem, Situation, written decades ago and calls this sort of intelligentsia neither “flesh”(of the land), nor “fish-blood”(of the sea), nor “stone totem-pole”(a mute insignia of one’s own culture). [18]



1KaaNaaSubramanyam, “Situation”, The Oxford Anthology of Modern Indian Poetry, Ed. Vinay Dharwadker and A.K. Ramanujan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1996), p 101

2 Ramachandra Guha, “In Absentia; Where are India’s conservativeintellectuals?”,Caravan Magazine,1 March 2015, accessed 7 August 2015,

3 Tagore, Gora (New Delhi: Rupa, 2014), p 143

4 Ibid., p 415

5 Ronald Inden, Imagining India, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000), p xii

6 Bipin Chandra Pal, The Soul of India (New Delhi: Rupa, 2010) p 61-62

7 Ibid., p 63

8 Ibid. 3, p 415-416

9 BalGangadhar Tilak, His Writings and Speeches, (Chennai: Ganesh and Co., 1922) p 36

10 Aurobindo Ghosh, India’s Rebirth (Mysore: Mira Aditi Centre, 2003) p 50

11 Ibid. 6, p xix

12 Ibid. 6, p 137

13 Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, VandeMataram: The Biography of a Song (New Delhi: Primus Books, 2013) p 1-2

14 Ibid. 3, p 569

15 Ibid. 3

16Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1988) p 82

17 Subramanian Shankar, Flesh and Fish Blood: Postcolonialism, Translation, and the Vernacular (London: University of California Press, 2012), p 6

Kush Arora

Kush Arora is a consultant with a Big Four American bank.