Book Review in Wall Street Journal

March 18, 2013

India’s Founding Fathers

By the time Queen Victoria was declared Empress of India, the subcontinent’s ancient political traditions had been all but erased.

Britain dominated India for almost two centuries—initially through the East India Co. and later directly as the Raj—finally granting it independence in 1947. The Indian anti-colonial struggle was unique in that it reached its goal without violent overthrow. This was one of the great achievements of the nationalist movement’s enlightened leadership.

In “Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India,” the historian Ananya Vajpeyi shows how these leaders looked to ancient Indian texts and traditions as they led the nation toward swaraj, or self-rule. The author profiles five prominent anti-colonial leaders and examines how each of them contributed to the nation’s successful “search for the self”: Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, who need no introduction; the Bengali poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore; his nephew, the artist Abanindranath Tagore; and B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution.

India had a glorious past, with millennia of learning, literature, science and art, culture and tradition. Yet by the time the country became the jewel in the crown of Queen Victoria, who was proclaimed Empress of India in 1877, knowledge of the ancient Indic political tradition—the ideas and practices by which “the precolonial kingdoms of the Mughals, the Deccani Sultans, the Nayakas, the Marathas, the Rajputs, and the Sikhs” ruled the subcontinent—had been all but erased thanks to a combination of colonial rule and internal decay. When Indians were told that democracy was a gift of the West, for example, very few questioned the assumption, even though panchayats, or self-governing village bodies, had existed for thousands of years on the subcontinent.

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Righteous Republic

By Ananya Vajpeyi
(Harvard, 342 pages, $39.95)

Most historians credit liberal ideas from Britain, absorbed by the Western-oriented Indian elite, with giving birth to modern India. (The Congress Party of Gandhi and Nehru was founded at the suggestion of A.O. Hume, a British civil servant, in 1885.) Few are aware of the extent to which nationalist leaders turned to Indic texts to revive Indians’ sense of collective selfhood, and how extensively these shaped their own political practice and the country’s post-independence social compact.

The author argues that the essential concepts from which her five Indian leaders drew their ideas for self-rule were mostly indigenous. They include:dharma (the self’s aspiration for ethical order); artha (practical purpose); ahimsa(non-violence); duhkha (suffering);viraha (the self’s longing); and samvega(the shock of self-recognition). These concepts are distinct from but not in opposition to Western ideals such as equality, liberty and fraternity.

Nehru’s quest for national selfhood, for example, revolved around the two central ideas of dharma and artha, or ethical order and pragmatism. The first was exemplified by the inclusive reign, more than two millennia ago, of the Emperor Asoka. The second was embodied in the realpolitik pragmatism of Asoka’s grandfather, the Emperor Chandragupta. Aspirational dharma inspired Nehru during the freedom struggle; after independence, he leaned toward purposeful artha.

As Ms. Vajpeyi explains, Nehru married “these opposing vectors in his thought and practice.” But his conception of these ideals wasn’t merely nostalgic; both had to be reinterpreted for the 20th century. “I should like you to think that the Asokan period in Indian history was essentially an international period,” Nehru told the Indian constituent assembly. “In the Asokan era,” Nehru instructed, “India’s ambassadors went abroad to far countries . . . as ambassadors of peace and culture and goodwill.” Asoka’s inclusiveness also inspired the clear-cut secularism that Nehru wanted for modern india. “It is strange that anyone should be so foolish,” Nehru wrote, “as to think that religion and faith can be thrust down a person’s throat at the point of the sword or a bayonet.” His fortnightly missives to the chief ministers of the states of the Indian federation make evident his transition from a philosopher into a philosopher-statesman.

When it came time to choose the newly formed Republic of India’s national emblems, Nehru selected artifacts unearthed from the Asokan era to visually represent these ethical categories. The state seal of India, for example, is based on the lion capitals that topped Asokan columns and posts. The dharmacakra (wheel of law) at the center of the Indian flag likewise harks back to the Asokan era. “The author of every one of these choices, at the time of Independence, was none other Jawaharlal Nehru,” says Ms. Vajpeyi. The appeal of these symbols for Nehru, the author writes, was that in both their ancient and modern incarnations, they represented not just the vastness but also the ethical imperatives of the Indian state.

Noticeably absent from Ms. Vajpeyi’s account is the Muslim contribution to the struggle for the Indian self. The author notes a lack of academic or other narrative attention to the quest of Indian Muslims for selfhood and sovereignty and acknowledges her inability to adequately address the subject in her book. India’s pre-independence Muslim-Hindu rupture and the subcontinent’s descent into a bloodbath at partition reveal the difficulties faced by the Indian founders in uniting a massive, disparate nation to overcome the most powerful empire at the time.

Today the country struggles with sectarian strife as well as corruption and poverty. Ms. Vajpeyi, though, sees hope. The founders’ purposes were served by the turn to the past, and she believes the country can learn from the founders’ experiences. “By reflecting on the crisis that India went through less than a century ago,” the author writes, “we may discover what kinds of soul searching, acts of reading, and interpretive leaps are necessary at such junctures in history.”

Ms. Koul is the author of a memoir, “The Tiger Ladies.” She has just finished writing “The Kashmir Chronicles,” a novel.

A version of this article appeared February 25, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal

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