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Manu Bhagavan
Monday , October 29, 2012 at 11 : 11

A review of Ananya Vajpeyi’s new book, 'Righteous Republic'


'Righteous Republic', the terrific new book from Ananya Vajpeyi, focuses on the idea of swaraj, a term liberally used both historically and historiographically, but one that has never been fully and effectively interrogated. Vajpeyi suggests that scholars have only focussed on a portion of this term, the raj, or the concept of sovereignty, but swa-raj properly understood is about the rule of the self, and the complex relationship between self and sovereignty. She reads the search for the self through five founders of modern India: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, and the Tagores, Rabindranath and his nephew Abanindranath. To each of these she assigns a category that best defines the parameters of their engagement with the idea of self, so for Gandhi ahimsa (non-violence), for Ambedkar dukha (suffering), for Rabindranath viraha (longing), for Abanindranath samvega (aesthetic shock), and for Nehru both dharma (aspiration) and artha (purpose).

Vajpeyi unpacks each founder's engagement with what she terms Indic tradition, in the case of Gandhi, his reading of the Bhagavad Gita, Rabindranath Kalidasa, Abinindranath Shah Jahan. Nehru Ashoka, and Ambedkar Buddhism. In each case, she argues against common understandings of each of the founders, and here I paraphrase from her own summary: that Gandhi's use of the 'Gita', a text set in the midst of war, confounds his advocacy of non-violence, that Nehru the modernist had no relationship to tradition, that art and aesthetics were peripheral to nationalism proper, that Tagore's classicism was not political, and that Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism represented some kind of effort to withdraw from India's history. (p. 247)

This encapsulates the book, but does not encompass it, for this is a work of rich texture and broad scope. It is borne out of a commitment to philology and a belief in its centrality to true understanding. It branches out across multiple terrains: art history, cultural crticism, literary theory, religious studies, and political and cultural history. Poetry, paintings, murals, religious texts, archaeological finds, and the specter of the past all fall within its ambit. The 'Mahabharata' and the 'Ramayana', Iqbal and Kabir, Marx and McIntyre, Kautilya and the Dalai Lama, Galileo and 'Hamlet', and so much more combine on her marvelously complex canvass.

This would be enough to make this important, but it is, additionally, written with real care for the crafted word, unsurprising I suppose for one so centrally concerned with language. Vajpeyi notes for instance, that "a 'faraway island', having swallowed India whole, became the whale inside which sat the entire leadership of the future nation-state, unable to recall, recapture, or reconstruct the vast ocean-that past 'rich and immemorial that had once been India's reality-unable to swim out into the wide deep waters of the traditions that had once been their own." (p. xvii) Elsewhere: "It is the taking of a deep breath in the moment before the Mahatma, and together with all of India, plunged right into the turbulent waters of history, to emerge on the other shore nearly four decades later as a sovereign nation." (p. 5) Beautiful stuff this.

Now this is a book that must be read, not just for its arguments, which are innovative, and not just for its language, which is evocative, but for its singular achievement in making the familiar unfamiliar, and for demanding the asking of new questions. In this vein, I'd like to share some of the puzzles that 'Righteous Republic' raised for me. In thinking about Rabindranath and viraha, longing, for instance, and his separation of self from a distant history, I am struck by parallel deployments in Urdu poetry of longing, though this is a longing for a distant future. So Ghalib in 1857 says, and I use CM Naim's translation here: "I sing away, warmed by the ecstasy of Imagination; I'm the nightingale of a garden not yet created."(i) Much later, in 1947, Faiz: "let us keep moving, for we have not yet reached our destination."(ii) How were these ideas circulating? Was there a shared poetic sphere, and ergo an intertwining of the distant pasts and futures?

I am curious about the relationship of Raja Ravi Varma to samvega and the Bengal School's nationalism. Ravi Varma was, after all, a photo-realist who engaged with tradition and puranic imagery as Tapati Guha-Thakurta has elsewhere pointed out.(iii) The first "Indian" painter, whose support from the princely states of Travancore, Baroda, and Mysore, and the nationalist princes Sayaji Rao Gaekwad and Krishnaraja Wadiyar, helped to frame his alternative modernity.(iv) Was it Ravi Varma's work through which tradition was made real and accessible again? Ravi Varma's paintings, many of which focused on women, were displayed in Vienna and Chicago, and challenged the boundaries of home and world. Yet he came under scathing criticism from none other than AK Coomaraswamy, also a critic of Abanindranath, for "want of Indian feeling".(v)

Righteous Republic discusses Nehru's imaginative and purposeful deployment of Ashokan symbols, including the Sarnath Lion Capital and the dhammacakra found now at the centre of the Indian flag. In partial explanation, Vajpeyi returns to a speech Nehru delivered in the Constituent Assembly. This is Nehru: "Now because I mentioned the name Ashoka I should like you to think that the Ashokan period in Indian history was essentially an international period of Indian history. It was not a narrowly national period. It was a period when India's ambassadors went abroad to far countries and went abroad not in the way of Empire and imperialism but as ambassadors of peace and culture and goodwill." (p. 200)

This to Vajpeyi represents Nehru's intents and purposes best, and I think that she is absolutely correct.

My one point of departure, though, is in the presumption that Nehru was a nationalist. Indeed, in his 'Discovery of India', he says that "We shall have to put an end to the national state and devise a [different] collectivism...."(vi) Nehru forever after, through the 1962 war with China, tried to deliver on this ideal, and his ideas of internationalism. He and Gandhi (and many others- including Radhakrishnan, who also features prominently in Vajpeyi's book) concurred on their objective, which would erode the sovereignty of nation states.(vii)    

As we consider the sources of Nehru's internationalism, and those of his compatriots, our inclination might be to turn to Kant, perhaps to Hobbes, though I have found but a mere mention of the former, once, in 'Glimpses of World History'.(viii) But here in Righteous Republic I think we might begin to discern the answer. For Nehru drew heavily on an Indic tradition, precisely as Vajpeyi suggests, on Ashoka, but also on Gandhi and Tagore and their rejection of nationalism. For Nehru, and for Gandhi as well, the future is at a distance, one perhaps that might be imagined through the whisper of a friendly cloud, if Nehru were to channel Tagore in inverted fashion. But if we can now frame Tagore within a broader context of a longing for an alternative futurity, then I think we can begin to distill both the traditions and the milieu that broadly informed the founders and their search for a righteous republic. The India of 1947 was not of their hopes, but in recovering and reinterpreting their search for self and sovereignty, we might yet rekindle the imagination and begin the quest anew. This is the great service that Vajpeyi's book provides.

Author: Ananya Vajpeyi; Title: Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India; Genre: Non-fiction; Published by Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2012


(i) CM Naim, "Ghalib's Delhi: A Shamelessly Revisionist Look at Two Popular Metaphors (for Ralph Russell)," The Annual of Urdu Studies 18 (2003): p. 23, n39.

(ii) Manu Bhagavan, "The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World" (Delhi: HarperCollins, 2012), p. 116.

(iii) Tapati Guha-Thakurta, "Westernization and Tradition in South Indian Painting in the Nineteenth Century: The Case of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)," Studies in History 2, 2 (1986), pp. 165-195.

(iv) Cf. Manu Bhagavan, "Sovereign Spheres: Princes, Education and Empire in Colonial India" (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(v) Guha-Thakurta, "Westernization and Tradition," p. 165.

(vi) Bhagavan, "The Peacemakers", p. 65.

(vii) Ibid.

(viii) Jawaharlal Nehru, "Glimpses of World History" (New York: The John Day Company, 1942, 1st pub 1934), p. 518.


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More about Manu Bhagavan

Manu Bhagavan is the author of "The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World" and associate professor of history at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.