Ram Guha writes in Scroll.in
In 1873, the social reformer, Jyotirao Phule, published a searing critique of the caste system. Entitled Gulamgiri, the book was written in Marathi, yet it carried a dedication in English.
Why? Phule was financed by Whites and stood well with the British administration. He wanted them to read the English dedication so they might reward him suitably. There was nothing wrong in that. Lots of people sucked up to the Rulers and claimed that 'Gulamgiri' (slavery) had been imposed on them by Muslims, or Marathas or whoever had preceded the Brits.
Sadly, Phule forgot one thing. If the Ruler thinks you support him because you fear some other group, then the Ruler has no incentive to help you. Instead, the Ruler will concentrate on placating the other group- perhaps by letting them exploit your people more intensively. That is what actually happened to the loyalist classes. Phule was smart in the short run but a fool longer term.
This expressed the author’s admiration for “the good people of the United States” for their “sublime, disinterested and self-sacrificing devotion” to the abolition of slavery.
The US had fought a Civil War in which over a half million died. This was more than in both the World Wars put together and that too with a much smaller population base. Sadly, the position of most African Americans in the South tended to fall after the end of 'Reconstruction'.
Phule hoped that the passion for racial justice expressed by reformers in America would act as a “noble example” for Indians who sought “the emancipation of their Shudra Brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom”.
But India was ruled by Whites. The Brahmins, no doubt, were delighted to be equated with Whites. It occurs to me that Guha is of Brahmin heritage.
Of course, the obvious remedy was conversion to Christianity. The problem was that Christianity too had a caste system in India while, in America and South Africa and so forth a color bar obtained.
I was reminded of Phule’s dedication when reading reports of the prime minister’s speech in Parliament, warning Indians against what he damned as “foreign destructive ideology”.
Why? Phule wanted foreigners to rule over India. But they left some 50 years after his death. Many in India may mourn this outcome. But the Prime Minister is not one of them. He considers an ideology which says foreigners should rule India is destructive for India.
The capacious cosmopolitanism of the lonely, struggling reformer
who was supported by the British because he was doing useful work and was properly appreciative of the many positive aspects of British rule
on the one side versus the paranoid xenophobia of the most powerful man in India, on the other.
Xenophobia? Modi seems to enjoy himself on his foreign trips. At any rate, his party does well by them. As for paranoia- that is perhaps a subject Guha has personal knowledge of though folie de grandeur would be a more apt diagnosis.
Clearly, the Hindu mind was far more open when we were still under colonial rule than at present, when we are a professedly proud and independent nation.
That's true enough. Hindus don't think they'd be better off being ruled by Boris Johnson or Imran Khan. If Guha thinks differently, why does he not say so? There are plenty of Tamil Brahmins who have fled India for White ruled countries so that their kids get an equal chance of getting a Government job or a place in a medical college.
Through the 19th century and well into the 20th, the leaders of Hindu society were entirely aware of its weaknesses.
Because the country was ruled by foreigners from a distant, much smaller, island.
They knew that the disabilities that Hindus suffered from were in part, indeed in good part, self-inflicted.
No. They knew all Indians were shit, compared to the West Europeans, regardless of religion. But the same was increasingly the case of Iranians and Turks and so forth.
Our failures could not merely be blamed on the malevolent foreigners who had colonised us.
Indeed. They had to be blamed on the benevolent foreigners who were freezing up the violent means by which those who were a little less shit conquered those who were more shit and then forced them to change their ways. That's how Western Europe rose up.
In ridding ourselves of these disabilities, in preparing to meet the challenges of a complex, interdependent and ever-changing world, Hindus had to take counsel from, and listen to, critical voices both internal as well as external.
Nonsense! Listening to shit don't change shit. Tardean mimetics is the way to go. Phule was imitating those communities who had got a little ahead through education and a display of loyalty to the Raj. That was the smart thing to do.
Three strands of social reform
The modern tradition of Hindu social reform begins with Rammohan Roy.
Who begged the Brits to send more colonists so as to form a bulwark against any reassertion of Muslim power. For Roy & Tagore, 'gulami' was associated with Muslims just as it was associated with High Castes for Phule.
Far from thinking (as our present Hindutvawadis do) that Hindus were pure, perfect, infallible, Roy faulted his compatriots on three grounds in particular – their treatment of women, their lack of interest in modern knowledge and their trust in scripture over reason.
The silly man thought idol worship was very evil. Catholics and High Anglicans were bound to go under while the Unitarians rose up.
A society which treats women like shit can still rise up if it kills and enslaves those around it. Modern knowledge doesn't matter a fart. Military technology matters but you can always import technicians and then get slave labor to mass produce the thing. Nobody gives a toss about scripture- why pretend otherwise? As for reason- Roy couldn't reason his way out of a paper bag.
These three strands of social reform were deepened and furthered by activists who came in the wake of Roy, who pressed for, among other things, the raising of the age of marriage, the encouragement of the practice of widow remarriage, the promotion of modern education for men and for women, an end to caste discrimination and a culture of open debate through a free press.
All of which would have still left India unable to feed, clothe or defend itself. What was needed then and now was to get rural girls into factory dormitories. A little basic literacy and numeracy would raise their productivity. As for boys- conscription of some sort would be needed to make them useful.
The Soviet Union and China and so forth did not rise up thanks to a free press.
Rammohan Roy had travelled widely in the West,
No. He'd made the sea journey to England where he died.
and interacted with many Western thinkers and activists.
Some of a certain cast of mind- yes, but he died on his first trip.
Yet, as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, “with a wonderful breadth of heart and intellect [Roy] accepted the West without betraying the East”.
He demanded that more Brits come and take Estates in India so as to keep the Muslims in check.
As a scholar of Sanskrit, Bengali and Persian, Roy “had ground of his own on which he could take his stand and where he could secure his acquisitions. The true wealth of India was not hidden from him, for this he had already made his own. Consequently he had with him the touchstone by which he could test the wealth of others.”
Tagore's grandfather was another such 'touchstone'. But he went bankrupt. Indeed, it seems only one Bengali comprador did well out of lending money to British officials.
Like Rammohan Roy, Tagore was a Bengali deeply curious about other parts of India, and an Indian keenly interested in other parts of the world.
So what? Did he do anything to make India stronger or richer? No? Then fuck him.
Notably, his range of cosmopolitan reference was not (as is often the case with Indians) merely restricted to Europe and North America. His search for knowledge took him to Japan, China, Java, Iran and Latin America too.
He was drumming up money for Shantiniketan. He'd have gone to the moon if the lunatics there had any money to give him.
When, as a consequence of these travels, he established a university in rural Bengal, he named it “Visva-Bharati”, which we may translate as “The World in India”.
First came Shantiniketan, then the travels. Previously, he'd been content to travel on business in East Bengal or to London. The Nobel Prize lifted his horizon. He went wherever some cash might be collected. I suppose you could say Tagore anticipated the begging bowl diplomacy of Nehruvian India. R.K Laxman had a cartoon of a Minister trying to find some spot on the map from which foreign Aid had not been forthcoming so as to rush there and plead for charity.
The university’s memorandum of association described its objectives as the bringing together of “thinkers and scholars of both Eastern and Western countries, free from all antagonisms of race, nationality, creed or caste...”, and their realisation “in a common fellowship of study [of] the meeting of East and West”.
What was the outcome? Hot air- though, I suppose Tan Yun Shan was an exception.
In 1920-’21, Mahatma Gandhi launched the non-cooperation movement. While wishing for India’s liberation from colonial rule, Tagore worried about the xenophobic tendencies within the popular movement for freedom.
Why? He had Estates in the Muslim majority East. He knew he'd lose them- indeed Hindu would be massacred- if the Brits left.
Are “we alone to be content with telling the beads of negation”, asked Tagore of Gandhi’s followers, “harping on others’ faults and proceeding with the erection of Swaraj on a foundation of quarrelsomeness?”
Tagore was rich. The rich can be as stupid as shit and yet possess a shrewd survival instinct.
In a private meeting with the Mahatma, 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”.
Tagore needn't have worried. Gandhi called off Non Cooperation and meekly went to jail. Both men were Phules under the skin. They knew they'd be fools to let the Brits run away.
Rammohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore were visionaries who saw in a fuller engagement with other cultures the enrichment of their own.
Fuck off! They were boring cunts. The Brahmo Samaj has a miniscule membership. Shantiniketan is an utterly shitty place.
So did the other Indian reformers of the day. Hence Phule’s invocation of the abolition of slavery in America as an inspirational example for his own lifelong struggle to abolish caste distinctions.
Is Guha utterly mad? How is the American Civil War an 'inspirational example' for India? 2 percent of Americans perished in that war. In India that would be 27 million people!
Phule himself never travelled outside India; but his great successor, BR Ambedkar, did. Ambedkar’s education in the United States of America made a profound impression on him. Like Phule, he came to see the striking parallels between the treatment of Blacks in America and Dalits in India.
African Americans were former slaves. Dalits were not. There was no 'striking parallel'. Ambedkar studied Sociology and Anthropology. He was aware that European castes- which were associated with serfdom- had been dissolved by proto-Capitalist relations of production before America was settled.
Meanwhile, the teachings of the philosopher, John Dewey, alerted Ambedkar to the vital importance of education in nurturing a sense of common citizenship.
Dewey was talking about something else entirely- viz. educating citizens to see through the lies of the Yellow Press. Universal education as the necessary corollary of citizenship was a shibboleth as old as the Republic.
India, of course, was different from America. Education would involve linguistic sub-nationalism.
From Roy to Ambedkar via Phule, Gokhale, Tagore, Gandhi, Periyar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and many more, there was a long line of social reformers who worked assiduously to liberate their compatriots from the burdens of the past.
But who are now merely burdens of the past. They have nothing to teach us because they didn't get that the only thing which matters is getting rural girls into factor dormitories and letting small farmers go bankrupt. End Agricultural involution, embrace demographic transition and fight ferocious wars with nations not too much weaker than you. That's how countries rise up. Talking bollocks changes nothing.
For the Hindu society they knew and had experienced was at once unequal, uneducated and unfree.
Like every other country caught in a Malthusian trap which was not required to defend or govern itself.
These reformers were determined to make their society more equal, by ending discrimination against women and low castes; more educated, by promoting modern secular learning in schools and colleges, and making such knowledge accessible to all; and more free, by cultivating a culture of public debate and discussion.
They failed. Why? The poorest increased their numbers faster than they could be catered for in this manner.
The work of generations of reformers in opening the Hindu mind culminated in the framing and adoption of the Constitution of India.
Coz Cow Protection is totally scientific!
This drew on the best practices from across the world, incorporating laws and ideas from Europe and America as seemed fit.
But the thing was still quickly amended into being 'anything goes'. Its utter useless was demonstrated for all to see by the Emergency.
Notably, this open-minded engagement with other constitutional traditions drew the ire of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In the last week of November 1949, after the final draft of the Constitution had been presented by BR Ambedkar, the RSS mouthpiece, Organiser, complained that “the worst [thing] about the new Constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it... [T]here is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it”.
This was true enough. The thing was based largely on the 1935 Act and the Nehru Report.
A letter in the Organiser expressed outrage at a writer who had praised Ambedkar as the “Manu of Modern India”. This, said the RSS ideologue, “is an instance of depicting a Lilliput as a Brobdingnag. It borders on ridicule to put Dr Ambedkar on par with the learned and god-like Manu...”
Ambedkar had the last laugh by becoming a Boddhisattva. That's one up on a Mahatma. Incidentally, Buddhism had exported Untouchability to Japan. Hindu Bali has Brahmins but no Untouchables.
This disparagement of Ambedkar by the RSS was in character.
Which is how come the RSS is still around and going great guns. It turns out worshipping Gandhi or Tagore or Ambedkar or Phule doesn't really do any good.
For, unlike the reformers I have praised in this column, the sangh thought there was nothing Hindus had to learn from other cultures or countries.
Nonsense! It had to learn how to fuck up internal and external enemies rather than babble on and on and on about learning from the Taliban and the Nazis and so forth.
On the other hand, they claimed that Hindus had been put on earth precisely to teach the world.
As opposed to sucking random cock.
This conceit that Hindus were destined to be some sort of “vishwa guru” permeates the writings of prominent Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologues from MS Golwalkar onwards.
Cool! At least the guy wasn't saying you've got to learn from random dicks by getting them to jizz down your throat.
The worldview of the RSS is a peculiar mixture of triumphalism and paranoia.
Guha's worldview is paranoid simply.
On the one hand, there is the fervent proclamation of global domination by Hindus.
In Guha's imagination.
On the other hand, there is the continuing stigmatisation of Indians of other faiths, and of Muslims particularly.
I wonder why.
And there is an absolute unwillingness to acknowledge that some, perhaps many, of the failings within Indian society may be attributable to the thoughts and actions of Hindus themselves.
By contrast, Guha is always willing to attribute his failings to his own thoughts and actions and the fact that he isn't gargling enough with random jizz.
Over the decades, as the sangh parivar has grown in power and influence, the Hindu mind has shrunk
while Guha's ego has grown to gargantuan proportions
– shrunk in its capacity for free thought, for self-critique and for self-reflection.
Because stuff of that sort is a waste of time when there is only one sensible course of action and no time to lose in taking it
Now, with the BJP and the RSS so dominant in our political and institutional life, this closing of the Hindu mind is manifest at the highest levels of government, as Union ministers and chief ministers exalt superstition over science, disparage the independence of women and issue periodic rants against the West.
but only in Guha's opinion. The real work that is being done is opaque to him.
Lower down the sanghi hierarchy, this closing of the Hindu mind is displayed through the thuggish attacks on journalists, artists, writers and film-makers who dare present the truth about the continuing injustices in our society.
Fuck is so important about saying 'India is a shithole. Lots of people are starving and those who aren't are raping the shit out of each other. Why can't we be like China? Do we have to keep adding another 400 million to the population every other decade? At this rate, the country will be 'standing room only' by the time China catches up with Amrika.'
Back in the 19th century, long before air travel and the internet had been invented, Jyotirao Phule could mentally reach out across the oceans to study the process of social emancipation in a country far distant from his own.
No he couldn't. Don't be silly. You are talking of astral projection. The thing does not exist.
Now, in the 21st century, when the world is so closely interwoven, the prime minister of India asks us to turn inwards into ourselves. We shall not listen.
We only listen to Guha to laugh at him. The fact is, a country where less than one percent earn enough to pay Income tax has little to learn from countries where the median voter is a net contributor.
Still, it tickles the Indian funny-bone to have Huccha Venkat type Historians pretend Phule thought a Civil War in India would be a good idea.
Why not simply demand that Indians get Casino licenses for their Reservations like they do in the States? Has Guha's Hindu mind shrunk so small he is no longer capable of raising such vital issues?