What is Indian Right-wing thinking? With the Left, there is no problem. They get their ideas from abroad, primarily but not exclusively from continental Europe. Hegel, Marx, Fichte, Schelling, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Gramsci, Mao, Pol Pot, Guevara, Castro and, for some, Foucault, are the intellectual forebears of the Left. The Right too can claim western intellectual influence, primarily from Anglo-Saxon thinkers. Burke, Hobbes, Adam Smith, Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Disraeli and Roger Scruton come to mind.
But the interesting difference is that the Indian Right can also claim intellectual descent from authentically ancient Indian/Indic thinkers. We get our ideas as much from the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, from the classical Tamil work the Tirukkural, from the Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda, from the Atharva Veda, from Kautilya in part and from the likes of the sixteenth century Telugu poet Allasami Peddanna.
In modern times, the Indian Right in the political sphere has been represented by two continuing threads. The first thread comes down from Rammohan Roy, through RC Dutt, RC Bhandarkar, Gopala Krishna Gokhale, Srinivasa Shastri, Mirza Ismail through to C Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani and BR Shenoy, among others.
The second thread comes down from Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, through Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lajpat Rai, VD Savarkar, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee down to Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, among others. These two modern Right-wing schools can be broadly referred to as the Rammohan School of Burkean Conservatism and the Bankim School of Hindu Nationalism. The influence of the Indian Right-wing extends well beyond the sphere of politics. In the discipline of Aesthetics as an example, Ananda Coomaraswamy can be seen as its most important representative.
What does Indian Rightwing thought consist of? And what are the similarities and differences between the two threads referred to above?
Western orientalists and their Indian followers, who ascribe the entire idea of India to British rule, are plain wrong. We need to note that the idea of India is not a new one – it has been imagined since ancient times and is touched by a sense of the sacred. The Right also views this Indian culture as having a largely Hindu texture to it. The Hindu patina is not dismissed as majoritarian, but seen as respectful of the sentiments of the majority – an idea also articulated by the British philosopher, Roger Scruton.
The classical idea is that the land that stretches from “the Bridge on the Seas” to the “Abode of Snows” is Bharatavarsha. This is not just a geographic expression. It is a cultural statement no less valid than the claim of the Jews that their holy land stretches from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south. In the Right-wing view, India is not a mere geographic expression or merely a convenient conglomeration of disparate territories. It is verily a thought in the minds of our gods and of our ancestors, its “imagination” both ancient and organic.
The idea of India is intertwined with the idea of the sacred. It cannot be constrained within merely materialistic barriers. The early twentieth century historian Radha Kumud Mukherjee refers to Indians as “pilgrims” who live in India and traverse across the land. Our literature, music and dance in virtually all our languages describe it as the land where blackbucks roam, koels call, peacocks dance, pipals and banyans grow, jasmines suffuse our olfactory sense, tigers leap, and ragas like Hamsadhwani and Bhairavi freeze our aural nerve-ends.
And in this land, the krouncha bird inspired our Adi Kavi, or primal poet Valmiki, who was then followed by poets in all our languages to re-tell the overarching story of Prince Rama. It is the land of seven sacred rivers and multiple shrines for the great goddess. It is the land traversed by Rama and blessed by Shiva. It is the land of pilgrims and pilgrimages.
The Post-Modern argument that Indian culture is dismissive of so-called marginal groups has been comprehensively demolished by the art historian Pupul Jayakar, who points out that be it the Savara attendants in the Puri temple in Odisha or the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, the name of Sabari, the tribal woman of the Ramayana, keeps re-occurring across the land. Pandharpur and Srisailam are examples of how the adivasi element in our heritage lives in broad terms in our country. The modern artist Jamini Roy certainly understood this.
And this feeling is not sectarian. There is a Jain pilgrim circuit from Karkala and Shravana Belagola in Karnataka, through Jharkhand and Bihar and circling back to Rajasthan and Gujarat. There is a Sikh circuit from Amritsar all the way east to Patna and south to Nanded in central India. India is also the only country with a Sufi circuit from Delhi through Ajmer, Ahmedabad, Gulbarga to Nagore in the deep south and back up through Cuddappah, Patna and Fatehpur Sikri. The land remains sacred, be it called Bharatavarsha or Hind.
Bharatavarsha, according to the brilliant Kannada writer Maasti, is “bahuratna vasundhara” – the earth studded by many gems. And it is a “bharata samudayam” or Indian commonwealth belonging to its inhabitants, in the words of the great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati.
It is important to note that both Rammohan Roy and Bankim fell back on Indian, even Hindu traditions as they developed their intellectual positions. The former was influenced by the Bible, but chose to go back to the Upanishads to seek the wellsprings of his roots. The latter decided that Krishna was the archetypal hero he would recommend to his countrymen and countrywomen.
In the political sphere, nineteenth and early twentieth century conservatism in India did not accept an automatic anti-British position. British rule and Raj were seen as the proverbial curate’s egg, with many good things about it.
These good features were therefore sought to be cultivated and preserved. Rammohan argued that British rule should continue for many years in order that we may leverage its positive features. Rammohan also constructively interpreted the Apastamba Sutra idea of “Yuga Dharma” – a dharma in tune with the times, that discards regressive, oppressive practices of the past like slavery and caste-based oppression – to justify the need for constructive change, even as we attempt to preserve the best of our inherited legacy.
Bankim took the position that British rule was providential for Hindus and would help them achieve a renaissance. Swami Vivekananda was also of this view. Indian Right-wing intellectuals actually felt that we were better off with British rule than we would have been with the rule of any other imperial power. RC Bhandarkar made the point that we should consciously imitate the British in our social and political actions.
The attitudes of Indian conservatives to World War II are interesting. The Hindu Mahasabha took the position that recruitment into British Indian armed forces represented a good opportunity for our countrymen to acquire military and administrative skills.
Rajagopalachari broke ranks with the Congress when he opposed the Quit india movement. Shyamaprasad Mukherjee was clear that the Japanese needed to be opposed. Clearly Indian conservatives understood that British rule, with all its drawbacks was better than the Japanese alternative. In the princely states, sober conservatives like Mirza Ismail and MA Sreenivasan supported the allied war effort for similar reasons.
In independent India, the Rammohan school of conservatism was represented by Rajagopalachari, Minoo Masani and the Swatantra Party, who had their supporters inside the otherwise statist left-leaning Congress. The Bankim school of Hindu Nationalism found its intellectual offspring among the Jana Sangh and later the BJP.
Indian conservatives fall back on the Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, the Tirukkural, the Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda and the Atharva Veda.
Rajagopalachari wrote Tamil and English prose versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He also translated parts of the Tirukkural into English. The Swatantra Party with its plea for a limited state reflected the views of the Shanti Parva and the Tirukkural, neither of which have much time for an intrusive, rapacious sovereign. It reflected respect for wealth creation, so central to the Tirukkural. It reflected due regard for property rights free from the covetous eyes of all – something that is articulated in the Isavasya Upanishad.
It is fascinating to see that our present prime minister went back two millennia when he quoted from a Tamil classic: “Yaadum Oorey, Yaavarum Kayleer”, which translates as “Every country is my country; every human is my kin”. Clearly, the conservative love for the best part of the legacy that our ancestors have left for us comes through.
With the disappearance of the Swatantra Party, the Rammohan school of conservatism has no political party as its home today.
But that does not mean that this school loses relevance or influence. The Indian political scientist Rajni Kothari has pointed out that it is possible to successfully influence caucuses within larger political parties. Today’s conservatives in India can and should try to strengthen and influence the market-friendly and the universalist forces within the BJP, and also the market-friendly and non-statist, gradualist groups within the Congress.
The success with the BJP has been considerable. For the first time ever, India has officially recognised its fighting men of World War I and World War II as national heroes. Our government has worked with governments of countries like Belgium and Israel in order to make it happen. The Raj is no longer an embarrassment and India’s brave soldiers who fought in the world wars are not dismissed as traitorous mercenaries.
The BJP is also working assiduously to gradually but inexorably remove from Indian academia the charlatans of Marxist, Freudian and Post-Modern persuasions who have gained prominence in those portals. The pro free-market positions in the BJP are there, but perhaps need strengthening and cheering along. Despite excessive Leftist influence in Congress think tanks, there remain thoughtful leaders like Manmohan Singh and Amarinder Singh who can form the nucleus of an ongoing conservative caucus within the Congress.
Conservatives of the Indian Right have an important role to play in matters dealing with the environment. After all, “conservatism” and “conservation” are words derived from the same roots. The Atharva Veda tells us that even as we plough or otherwise hurt Mother Earth, we must do so gently, for She sustains us.
Edmund Burke was clear that conservatives have a loyalty to ancestors and to descendants. In one of his brilliant parliamentary speeches, he praised “the kings of India” who in centuries past built reservoirs and canals, not for their benefit, but for the benefit of future generations. In order to keep faith with this central conservative theme, we need to make sure that we leave behind for our children and their children a fair, sacred and healed land where blackbucks continue to roam and where the Ganga flows fresh and free.
Jaithirth Rao’s book The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought has been published by Juggernaut Books.