“What am I? Asiatic, European, or American? I feel a curious medley of personalities in me.”
– Swami Vivekananda
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. 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. 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”.
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”. The capacious cosmopolitanism of the lonely, struggling reformer on the one side versus the paranoid xenophobia of the most powerful man in India, on the other. 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.
Through the 19th century and well into the 20th, the leaders of Hindu society were entirely aware of its weaknesses. They knew that the disabilities that Hindus suffered from were in part, indeed in good part, self-inflicted. Our failures could not merely be blamed on the malevolent foreigners who had colonised us. 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.
Three strands of social reform
The modern tradition of Hindu social reform begins with Rammohan Roy. 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. 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.
Rammohan Roy had travelled widely in the West, and interacted with many Western thinkers and activists. Yet, as Rabindranath Tagore once wrote, “with a wonderful breadth of heart and intellect [Roy] accepted the West without betraying the East”. 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.”
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. 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. 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”.
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”.
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. 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?”
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”.
Rammohan Roy and Rabindranath Tagore were visionaries who saw in a fuller engagement with other cultures the enrichment of their own. 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.
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. Meanwhile, the teachings of the philosopher, John Dewey, alerted Ambedkar to the vital importance of education in nurturing a sense of common citizenship.
Liberation from past burdens
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. For the Hindu society they knew and had experienced was at once unequal, uneducated and unfree. 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.
The work of generations of reformers in opening the Hindu mind culminated in the framing and adoption of the Constitution of India. This drew on the best practices from across the world, incorporating laws and ideas from Europe and America as seemed fit. 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”.
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...”
This disparagement of Ambedkar by the RSS was in character. 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. On the other hand, they claimed that Hindus had been put on earth precisely to teach the world. 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.
The worldview of the RSS is a peculiar mixture of triumphalism and paranoia. On the one hand, there is the fervent proclamation of global domination by Hindus. On the other hand, there is the continuing stigmatisation of Indians of other faiths, and of Muslims particularly. 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.
Over the decades, as the sangh parivar has grown in power and influence, the Hindu mind has shrunk – shrunk in its capacity for free thought, for self-critique and for self-reflection. 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. 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.
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. 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.
The author’s email address is email@example.com.
This article first appeared in The Telegraph.