Filling the gap by Girilal Jain

It is necessary to look afresh at our history of the past two centuries to make sense of current developments. This, as I see it, is the history of the rise of Hindus after a lapse of centuries of Muslim invasions and rule. This is a wholly revisionist view of history and would be fiercely resisted by the dominant elite which has both made history in this period and written it. But precisely because mine is a rad­ical departure, it merits to be spelt out even if it is possible to do so only in bold strokes. I regard the task urgent in view of the havoc history, as written and taught, has wrought.

The Hindu re-emergence took place under the auspices of the British which is one reason why the phenomenon has not been seen to be what it has in fact been. The British themselves became aware of it even before the formation of the Indian Na­tional Congress in 1885, which was to serve as the vehicle of Hindu assertion. This proposi­tion too shall be resisted. But the narration to follow should help settle this issue.

The British began to take steps to contain the Hindu resurgence by the end of the 19th   century. The grant of separate electorate to Muslims and partition of the Bengal presidency dominated by Western-educated Hindus in every field in 1905 were such early steps. More were to follow leading finally to partition in 1947. But even the mighty and shrewd British could not reverse the overall trend which they had promoted in no small way by undermining the Ottoman empire.

Broadly speaking, two process­es have been on in Hindu society since the early 19th century – modernization based on the Western model, and self-renewal through social reforms. The two processes have been interlinked and must be seen as such. In view of obvious Western dominance in most fields of human activity, Hindus had no choice but to come to terms with   it. Otherwise, they would have stagnated.

Muslim rule had debilitated them to a point where a mean­ingful attempt at renewal was just not possible in the absence of the stimulus the Brit­ish provided. The degradation of almost   one sixth of the Hindu population to the status of untouchables, rigidity of the caste structure and excessive emphasis of rituals were expressions of that debilitation.

Hindus in sufficient numbers were ready to accept the British, as is evident from the demand for Western style education with English as the medium in Bengal. The Hindu college in Calcutta, it may be recalled, was established before the Anglicists won against the orientalists and Macaulay wrote his famous minutes. But the process of modernization would have been devastating in its consequence if it was not accompanied by a new awareness of, and pride in, our cultural heritage. As it happened, British official-scholars were busy dis­covering India’s past. The dis­covery amply justified the pride.

This dual reality about Hindu society is not recognised suffi­ciently and widely enough in our public discourse. Thus it remains fashionable to speak of Raja Rammohan Roy as the father of modern India and to ignore the contribution of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, though the latter and even more significantly, his disciple, Swami Vivekananda, helped restore self- respect and sell-confidence among the Bengali bhadralok without which they could not have played the role they did in bringing about what is called the Bengal renaissance, precur­sor of a similar ferment in the rest of the country.

Similarly, it is a commonplace to say that the Indian National Congress was the handiwork of the Westernized intelligentsia and to disregard the point that it would have remained a body of petitioners if men such as Lokmanya Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi had not brought in the people with the help of ancient symbols and indeed, if Swami Vivekananda had not paved the way for them. Thus while Tilak used external symbols such as the Ganesh festival, Gandhi made himself into an icon millions of Hindus virtually worshipped. All these three individuals can be said to have embodied in their persons the two processes at work in Hindu society.

Of the two processes – modernization has in a sense been the stronger. For one thing, behind it has stood the appeal and power of the dominant Western civilization. For another, it has plainly been out of the question to organise economy and polity on a non-Western basis. All attempts to conceptualize an alternative, be­ginning with Gandhiji and ending with Mr Jayaprakash Narayan in the 70s, have come a cropper. For our purpose the power and appeal of modernization is best illustrated by the easy sway Pandit Nehru acquired in the wake of independence.

Nehru was Gandhiji’s lieutenant and heir-designate during the freedom movement. But he stood for a very different India from the master’s and as independence approached, he left the latter in no doubt that he was determined to have his way. The letters exchanged between them on the eve of independence speak volumes.

Nehru was dismissive of the Mahatma’s approach as outlined in Hind Swaraj (1908) and the Mahatma acquiesced in it virtually without protest, though it may be recalled, Gandhiji had taken the initiative in raising the question of what kind of India was to be built on achievement of freedom, emphasizing that he still stood by his old vision. Gandhiji did not reply to the issues raised by Nehru.

Perhaps he realized that he had played his role. Regardless, however, of whether he realized it or not, the time was truly up for him. This is not to deny either his heroic role in the struggle to contain passions unleashed by partition or the historic importance of his martyrdom. But in the final analysis that only facilitated Nehru’s pre­eminence and the downgrading of his only potential rival Sardar Patel, who incidentally was no Gandhian either.

The Sardar had better insight (not just administrative and/or organizational skill) into India’s needs. But the atmosphere was not propitious for him precisely because the Hindu element in his personality was stronger than the modernist with its emphasis on socialism and secularism as articulated not only by Nehru but also other leaders such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Ram Manohar Lohia who had come into prominence in the 1942 Quit India movement. But that is another matter.

For us right now, the pertinent point is that while Gandhism and Gandhians have been a marginal phenomenon in independent India, Nehru continues to dominate the thinking of the Indian intelligentsia 28 years after his death. Modernizers are still in command.

Modernization has unavoidably been a double-edged instrument. If it has helped Hindus to achieve independence and cope with the modern world reasonably well, it has at the same time prevented them from coming truly into their own and realizing their full potential. India has doubtless been autonomous in the field of foreign and defence policy and till recently economic policy. She has also witnessed a significant revival of traditional art forms such as music, dance and crafts. But this revival has been subordinate to continuing Western dominance in the intellectual realm. It has not been informed by the rise and assertion of the Indian spirit. Our continued de­pendence on English as the lan­guage of learned discourse and higher learning illustrates this reality.

There has been no lack of Hindu intellectuals, especially before independence, who have spoken of India’s spiritual heritage and of the continuity and, in fact, uniqueness of Indian civilisation. But this talk has mostly been superficial, defensive and even misguided though, of course, it has not been without its use.

It has been defensive in that the country’s obvious economic, political, and military weakness has been sought to be compensated by reference to spiritual values and past greatness. It has been misguided because it has involved an unconscious acceptance of the Christian dichotomy, alien lo the Hindu vision, between the spiritual and the material and between science and religion. In plain terms, the Hindu attempt at self-awareness and self-assertion has been less than adequate. The movement to fill this gap has however begun.

The Observer of Business and Politics, 12 January 1993

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.