Think Straight, Mr. Guha: Not All Ideologies Are the Same
This essay is in response to Ramachandra Guha’s article published in Scroll.in magazine, in which Guha labels Prime Minister Modi’s reference in Parliament, on February 8, 2021, to “foreign destructive ideologies” as xenophobic. He contrasts this with the image of Jyotirao Phule as a lonely,struggling reformer who sought to unshackle the Hindu mind. Guha asserts that the Hindu mind was far more open under colonial rule than it is at present.
Is it Mr Guha’s contention that all foreign ideologies must be accepted, in toto, as blessings? One ideology which India imported from the West is Communism. It continues to be represented in India’s political arena through the CPI and the CPI (M), and other Leftist parties like the Forward Bloc. This ideology birthed the position paper –Pakistan and National Unity– authored by Gangadhar Adhikari (1), which was confirmed by the Congress of the Communist Party of Indiain 1943. This paper was inspired by Josef Stalin’s Marxism and the National Question (2), which stressed the importance for a nation to share a common language, a defined territory, and a common national consciousness. Mr Adhikari’s premise was that India was never a united country “from Kashmir to Kanyakumari”. He characterized the various regions of India as “different individual nationalities,” which had the right to secede. He called the Muslim League’s demand for Pakistan, just and progressive. The Indian Communists helped the Muslim League, which was till then relying largely on bluster, make an intellectual case for Pakistan.
How different is this from what the British administrator John Strachey declared in 1888? He said: The first and most essential thing to learn about India… that there is not and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing, according to European ideas, any sort of unity, physical, political, social, or religious(3).
It is only fair to say that any ideology which denies the present-day Indian collective identity based on a positive view of civilization is destructive. Criticism and debate are par for the Indian intellectual and spiritual course but to deem the very concept of a collective Indian identity based on civilizational consciousness as illegitimate is not just problematic but both mischievous and dangerous, and meant to divide and dismember India across a thousand lines. We know it as “Balkanization,” don’t we?
The Indian mind, after independence, was certainly not exposed to the spiritual basis of India’s culture. In the name of “secularism” and “progressivism” there was an attempt to bring about a “cultural revolution” in India. This was somewhat like the Chinese Communist Cultural Revolution that targeted traditional Chinese culture and its spiritual ethos. This view is best exemplified by Jawaharlal Nehru’s unruly and ignorant statement at the opening of the Ramakrishna Mission Institute in Calcutta in 1961, together with the inauguration there of a conference on spiritual life. He angrily burst out, “I have always avoided using the word spirituality because of the existence of much bogus spirituality. India is a hungry nation. To talk of spirituality to hungry men does not mean anything….” (4). Our good “Fabian Socialist” PM forgot that while bread/rice is good, it is not enough to sustain a people, a nation. Nehru, who retained nothing but the convenient “Pandit” prefix of his Hindu faith, forgot the history of India and ignored the aspirations of the people.
This is in striking contrast to what Sri Aurobindo had said: It is an error, we repeat, to think that spirituality is a thing divorced from life…that the heights of religion are above the struggles of this world….The recurrent cry of Sri Krishna to Arjuna insists on the struggle…give up all thy works to me with a heart full of spirituality, and free from craving, free from selfish claims, fight!(5)
Mr Guha goes on to say that the modern tradition of Hindu social reform began with Raja Rammohun Roy whereas the present day ‘Hindutvawadis’(Mr Guha’s label/epithet)think that Hindus were always pure, perfect, and infallible. In the spirit of Raja Rammohun Roy’s acceptance of the West without betraying the East, it might be an interesting exercise to examine the historical experience of Europe in the context of discrimination and the efforts in India, through the ages, for social emancipation.
In his well-known short story Strike Breaker, the American science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov notes, “Lamorak (the protagonist) thought of Untouchables in ancient India, the ones who handled corpses. He thought of the position of swineherds in ancient Judea” (6).Discrimination was and is not unique to India alone.
In France, Cagots were a persecuted minority. They were typically required to live in separate quarters in towns, called cagoteries. They were not allowed to marry non-Cagots or touch food in the market. They were allowed to enter a church only by a special door and, during the service, a rail separated them from other worshippers. During the French revolution in 1789, Cagots had reportedly stormed record offices and burnt birth certificates so that they could then conceal their heritage (7).
Early modern Spain and Portugal practiced a system of discrimination called limpieza de sangre (purity of blood). It was based on the mythical goal of a society in which all but the humblest functions would be exercised by “pure-blooded” Christians. Blood purity was still a requirement for admission to the military academy until 1860, when it was legally abolished (8). This discriminatory practice was still present in the 20th century in some places such as Majorca. No Xueta (descendants of the Majorcan conversos) priests were allowed to say mass in a cathedral until the 1960s (9).
In Defiled Trades and Social Outcasts: Honor and Ritual Pollution in Early Modern Germany, Kathy Stuart writes, “Throughout the Holy Roman empire dishonourable tradesmen suffered various forms of…discrimination on a graduated scale of dishonour at the hands of ‘honourable’ guild artisans and in ‘honourable’ society at large….Executioners and skinners might be pelted with stones by onlookers, they might be refused access to taverns, excluded from public baths, or denied an honourable burial. Dishonour was transmitted through heredity often over several generations”(10).
Although the evidence of its existence is indirect, a feudal right called Droit du seigneur (right of the Lord) is said to have existed in medieval Europe. It gave the Lord to whom it belonged the right to sleep the first night with the bride of any one of his vassals (11). In a discussion related to Strike Breaker, Asimov had said that the caste systems evolved in societies with limited resources and mobility (12).
While discrimination was not unique to India, what was unique to India was that she also had a value system which promoted social justice. If there were forces of social discrimination and stratification, there were also forces of social emancipation in every era, every region of India. These attempts at social emancipation were driven by the powerful spiritual ethos, which celebrated the oneness of humanity, nay the oneness of all life, is an integral part of Indian culture.
The story of Satyakama Jabala from the Chhandogya Upanishadis illustrative. A boy approached his mother to find out his antecedents, as he wanted to become a disciple of a Guru. His mother declares that his clan was unknown as she had been a serving woman in many households in her youth. She tells him that her name is Jabala and his name is Satyakama, so he should declare his name as Satyakama Jabala to his Guru, which he does. The Guru recognizes the boy’s innate qualities as he had recited a lineage (pravara) which many would be hesitant to acknowledge. He accepts the boy as his disciple. Sri Aurobindo notes that this story suggests that while a system of social stratification was firmly established, there were also opportunities for the pursuit of knowledge and spiritual advancement. This has been so throughout the history of Hindus, and the shutting out of anyone from spiritual truths on the basis of caste was a practice that was developed only after the Fifth century CE (13).
In medieval times, the Vedantic principle that the same Brahman permeates all and that the Nirguna Self (Atman) was beyond all worldly divisions of names and forms inspired the reform movements of Ramanujacharya, Kabir, and Guru Nanak, saints who are grouped generally in the era of the Bhakti movement. Moving to the modern period, KN Panikkar writes that “…one of the early writings of Rammohun Roy was the translation of an Abridgement of the Vedanta…. Afterwards almost all reformers of this period invoked Vedanta for the reforms they were trying to undertake” (14).
In his book, Riddles of Hinduism, Dr Ambedkar is highly critical of many aspects of Hinduism. In the same book, he also mentions that one of the three strands of Hindu philosophic thought is Brahmaism. He says, “…If all persons are parts of Brahma, then all are equal and all must enjoy the same liberty which is what Democracy means. Looked at from this point of view Brahma may be unknowable. But there cannot be the slightest doubt that no doctrine could furnish a stronger foundation for Democracy than the doctrine of Brahma…” (15).
As far as “Hindutvawadis” thinking that Hindus were perfect, we may hark back to Veer Savarkar, who popularized the term “Hindutva”. Even before he penned Essentials of Hindutva in 1923, he had written in a letter in 1920 from the Andamans, where he was incarcerated by the British–“Just as I feel that I should rebel against foreign rule over Hindusthan, I feel I should rebel against caste discrimination and untouchability”. During the period of strict surveillance and internment in Ratnagiri from 1924 to 1937, he worked wholeheartedly in the field of social reform, and authored Jatyuchchedak Nibandh (Essays on the Abolition of Caste)(16).
After independence, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organized the World Hindu Conference (Vishwa Hindu Sammelan) at Prayagraj between January 22-24, 1966, during the Maha Kumbh that year. The conference was chaired by the retired Chief Justice of West Bengal High Court, Ramaprasad Mukherjee(17). The President of India, Dr Radhakrishnan, in his message of greetingsto the Conference, wrote, “…I am glad to know that there will be a conference on Hindu Religion. Incessant renewal from the Vedas… to the modern Bhaktas, has been assuming different emphases. They all stress the aspects, which are regarded by them as relevant to their particular generation. The same process of renewal is happening today, and Hinduism is getting modified from within…” (18). Among the resolutions passed at the conference, one was for the eradication of untouchability. This was reinforced at the Pandharpur Convention held in Maharashtra in 1970 (19).
It is interesting to the note that the current President of India, Ramnath Kovind, was born into a Scheduled Caste family and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s community is labelled as an Other Backward Class by the Government of India. Both the President and the Prime Minister come from an RSS background. Perhaps, what differentiates them from many self-declared champions of social justice is that both do not wear their caste identities on their sleeves and are comfortable being Hindus, serving India that is Bharat, as best as they can.
Any spiritual culture has an eternal dimension, free from taint. So it is with Hinduism. This is not true for external forms and practices, however. Sri Aurobindo says that there are two Hinduisms. One seeks the Divine through the cooking pot and social convention. The other seeks her in the soul. It is the latter Hinduism, which is that of Krishna, Shankara, and Chaitanya. It is enduring and shall be forever so (20).
Mr Guha then mentions that Tagore worried about xenophobic tendencies in the popular movement for freedom. He also refers to a private meeting with Mahatma Gandhi, when Tagore told him that “the whole world is suffering today from the cult of a selfish and short-sighted nationalism… I have come to believe that, as Indians, we not only have much to learn from the West but that we also have something to contribute. We dare not therefore shut the West out. But we still have to learn among ourselves how, through education, to collaborate and achieve a common understanding”.
In his work titled Nationalism, first published in 1917 during World War I, Tagore throws light on the Indian historical experience, which he says has not been of the rise and fall of kingdoms but is that of attainment of spiritual ideals. He elaborates on this by saying “India devoid of all politics, the India of no nations, whose one ambition has been to know this world as of soul, to live here every moment of her life…in the glad consciousness of an eternal and personal relationship with it. It was upon this… that the Nation of the West burst in”(21).
Tagore writes that the core of Western nationalism is not social cooperation, but the spirit of conflict and conquest. He opines that it has facilitated a perfect organization of power, but not spiritual idealism: “It is like a pack of predatory creatures that must have its victims” (22).
Outlining his thoughts for the future, Tagore says that those gifted with the vision of spiritual unity will take their permanent place in the times to come, and those who are developing an instinct of quarrelsomeness and intolerance will be eliminated (23). It is in this context that Tagore says that he is not against one nation, butthat he is against the general idea of all nations (24). He adds elsewhere that India never had a real sense of nationalism and that he had outgrown his childhood teaching that reverence of the nation is better than reverence for God and humanity (25).
The question then is this:“Can there be a unique Indian definition of nationalism”? Swami Vivekananda had said that India is the land of introspection and spirituality (26): The nation in India must be a gathering up of its scattered spiritual forces. A nation in India must be a union of those whose hearts beat to the same spiritual tune (27). He also said that while wonderful ideas had been carried forward in ancient and modern times, “it has always been with the blast of war trumpets and with the march of embattled cohorts” (28). What was unique to India was that Indians had never been a conquering race.
Thus, in contrast to the West, and other warring and supremacist nations elsewhere, the core of Indian nationalism is the idea of a spiritual humanism. This attaches sanctity not only to human life but to the entire cosmos. It allows for a deeper spiritual unity to exist in harmony with multiplicity on the material plane. In this view, nationalism and internationalism are not opposed to each other but are different expressions of the same truth. This is the universalism which India embodies and has preached through the ages.
Mr Guha recalls the framing and adoption of the Constitution of India. He says this incorporated best practices from across the world, and that this drew the ire of the RSS.
What did other members of the Constituent Assembly say about the framing of the Indian Constitution?
When Dr Ambedkar placed the draft of the Constitution before the Constituent Assembly and observed that the draft Constitution had discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit, only three of the 32 Constituent Assembly members who spoke at the time came to his defence. Damodar Swarup, a Congressman from Uttar Pradesh, said — “Constitution as a whole, instead of being evolved from our life and reared from the bottom upwards is being imported from outside and built from above downwards”. K Hanumanthaiah, who went on to become the second Chief Minister of Karnataka (then Mysore State) in 1952, commented, “…we wanted the music of the Veena and Sitar, but here we have the music of an English band…. because our Constitution-makers were educated that way” (29).
Mr Guha highlights a letter in the RSS weekly Organiser which he says expressed outrage at a writer who had praised Ambedkar as the “Manu of Modern India”. Guha implies that disparagement of Dr Ambedkar is endemic to Sangh thought, that there is nothing Hindus had to learn from other cultures or countries. What did non-RSS leaders have to say, in respect of Dr Ambedkar and the Constitution?
Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) was one of the founders of the Congress Socialist Party (1934), a socialist caucus within the Indian National Congress, was no friend of the RSS. Within ten years of the adoption of Indian Constitution, there was an increasing sense of unease among many, observing how it had led to widespread factionalism. JP expressed the same fear in his A Plea for Reconstruction of Indian Polity, first published in 1959 (30). In his foreword to Dharampal’s Panchayati Raj as the Basis of Indian Polity (1962), JP writes that there are two different concepts of society. One is that put forward by Dr Ambedkar and accepted as the basis of the Constitution, an atomized and inorganic view of society, which governs political theory and practice in the West today. The other is the organic or communitarian view, which sees human beings as living cells in a larger organic entity. In this view, the emphasis is more on responsibilities, as an individual’s rights flow from his responsibilities. This is closer to Gandhiji’s social thought too(31).
Mr Guha is critical of the RSS for continuing stigmatization of Indians of other faiths, and of Muslims particularly.
In the years leading to independence, many Indian leaders had expressed concerns about Pan-Islamism. Will Mr Guha describe those sentiments as “legitimate” or “stigmatizing of Muslims”? Rabindranath Tagore, whom Mr Guha has quoted in his piece, said in an interview to the Times of India in 1924– “A very important factor which is making it almost impossible for Hindu-Muslim unity to become an accomplished fact is that the Muslims cannot confine their patriotism to any one country. I had frankly asked (the Muslims) whether in the event of any Mohammedan power invading India, they (Muslims) would stand side by side with their Hindu neighbours to defend their common land. I was not satisfied with the reply I got from them…”(32).
Mr Guha contends that lower down the Sangh hierarchy, the closing of the Hindu mind is displayed through thuggish attacks on journalists and others who dare present the truth about the continuing injustices in society. He offers little evidence for the assertion. We have to ask him, however: Does violence inspired by ideologies whose votaries have spouted gems like “power flows from the barrel of the gun” and “first let’s stick the convict’s badge on him, and then after that, we’ll examine this case,” ever cause him to feel dismay?
IFEX is an international body that advocates free expression rights to all, including journalists. An article on its website mentions of a letter dated August 17, 2000, sent by RSF (Reporters Without Borders) to the then West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, protesting assaults on journalists by activists of Basu’s Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M). It also mentions an incident during the municipal elections in Barrackpore (in West Bengal), when several journalists were attacked by CPI-M supporters(33). Going back in time, the Sainpuri killings (1970), the Marichjhapi massacre (1979) and the notorious Bijon Setu attacks (1982) are just some of the incidents which should cause Mr Guha to pause and think, how much “openness of the mind” was there during the Communist Party rule in West Bengal or for that matter in many of the states ruled by Congress Party or regional parties. Has he paid attention to the thuggery of the Samajwadi Party or the RJD goons in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, of the Communists in Kerala, and the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal now? That the few, if any, attacks on the media by the Sangh/BJP workers pale in comparison to the sustained assault on reporting and reporters by the party workers that Mr Guha supports and celebrates. What, however, is the real violence in these matters is how involved the mainstream English media is in squelching news of the attacks on those who support and work for the Sangh, and demonizing people and ideas that do not pander to their deracinated, “secular,” and self-serving interests about Bharat that is India.
Mr Guha, as is the wont of members of his tribe, knows how to pick cherries, as well as knowing which side of the bread is secularly buttered. He has supped deeply from the Congress Party and the Establishment trough and so feels denied his due during the BJP regime. He therefore stirs up poison potions to demonize and caricature the people who believe in spiritual nationalism and who fight to unshackle the community from monopolist, supremacist, power-hungry forces.
Mr Guha, not all ideologies are the same.
Verse 1.89.1 in the Rig Veda says: ā no bhadrāḥ kratavo yantu viśvato which translates generally as “Let noble thoughts come to us from all directions” (34)
Using viveka (discrimination) to determine whether a thought is noble or not is not xenophobia. We do hope Mr Guha agrees with this.
Sincere thanks to the Center for Indic Studies and Shri Aravindan Neelakandan for the e-course “Social Justice: Indic Concepts” (https://cisindus.org/all-courses/), which greatly helped in writing this essay.
All web links accessed on 15 June 2021
- http://www.sacw.net/article5487.html , page 7
- ‘Nehru, a contemporary’s estimate’ by Walter Crocker, 2008, page 136
‘Sri Aurobindo and India’s Rebirth’ by Michel Danino, 2018, Loc 778, Kindle edition
- http://blog.ac-versailles.fr/villaroylit/public/Strikebreaker.pdf, page 136
- https://www.mea.gov.in/Images/attach/amb/Volume_04.pdf , page 286
- http://www.hvk.org/2014/0914/39.html , point 20
- http://www.hvk.org/2014/0914/39.html , point 33
- ‘Sri Aurobindo and India’s Rebirth’ by Michel Danino, 2018, Loc 1216, Kindle edition
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm , page 6,7
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm , page 22
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm, page 101
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm, page 110
- https://www.gutenberg.org/files/40766/40766-h/40766-h.htm, page 107
- Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol III, page 105
- Complete works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol III, page 371
- https://advocatetanmoy.com/2019/12/28/rousing-call-to-hindu-nation-swami-vivekananda/, mild Hindu
- ‘Essential writings of Dharampal’ by Geeta Dharampal, 2017, Loc 4845-4877, Kindle edition
- ‘Essential writings of Dharampal’ by Geeta Dharampal, 2017, Loc 4907, Kindle edition
- https://www.dharampal.net/publications Panchayati Raj and India’s Polity, 2000, page 9-11
- Interview of Rabindranath Tagore in `Times of India’, 18-4-1924 in the column,`Through Indian Eyes on the Post Khilafat Hindu Muslim Riots.’
- ‘Politics of Conversion’ by Devendra Swarup, 1986, page 148