Freedom Issue

A Loss of Character

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The wild onrush of individualism and the vanishing sense of national purpose. Can India avert a moral decline?
In 1945, perhaps to coincide with the Simla Conference convened by the Viceroy Lord Wavell to discuss the post-War settlement of what was called the ‘Indian problem’, the Liberal Party leader Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru invited suggestions from like-minded Indians. Among those asked was India’s foremost historian of the time, Sir Jadunath Sarkar—an austere Bengali scholar who, while undeniably a patriot, hardly had any sympathy for the nationalist movement led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Sarkar’s quixotic response to a pressing contemporary concern was entirely forgotten until historian Dipesh Chakrabarty in his riveting book The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar & His Empire of Truth, published earlier this month in the US, resurrected it. Extending his disapproval of the “false sense of values” imparted by the “white-cap patriots” he had first made in a series of lectures in 1928, Sarkar felt that “a unitary legislature (and consequently ministry) in the provinces and at the Centre, elected solely by a general constituency proportioned to the population is theoretically possible in India…” However—as a sting in the tail—he added, “it will do more harm than good if set up before Nineteen-hundred and ninety-five.”

To debunk Sarkar as a reactionary codger unreconciled to the passing of an Empire that had conferred on him the highest honour available to an Indian is tempting. Indeed, one of the reasons why Sarkar’s magisterial histories of Aurangzeb, Shivaji and the fall of the Mughal Empire fell into academic disfavour after Independence could be attributed to his unflinching defence of the Raj. Yet, his belief that India wasn’t ready for swaraj wasn’t based on blind loyalism to the Crown or even Anglophilia. “When the British resigned their trusteeship for India, they had failed to give the Indian people a political education which would enable them to stand on their own feet.” Despite putting in place an institutional framework, England had “failed to form a nation in India”—a project it had undertaken after it was interrupted since Aurangzeb and the derailment of Shivaji’s Maratha Empire. India, in his view, needed at least another 50 years of benign trusteeship or “a long course of preparation or practical education and a surging up of the masses in search of a new practical ideal” before it could attain “true nationhood”.

Reading Sarkar’s grave prognosis of the future 68 years after Jawaharlal Nehru announced an alternative “tryst with destiny” prompts conflicting responses. At one level, Sarkar was horribly wrong—just as Winston Churchill was wrong—in seeing an unprepared India led by poseurs flaunting “a coat without a collar (as) the symbol of true patriotism” degenerating into the type of anarchy, chaos and political fragmentation that marked the final chapter of the Mughal Empire. Indian unity has not merely withstood all initial challenges, it has been strengthened immeasurably. More to the point, the past 26 years has witnessed more economic growth than the previous two centuries combined. Indeed, had he been around today, Sarkar would not have been entirely displeased, although he would doubtless have shed a tear at the relative marginalisation of his home state.

At another level, however, some facets of India’s post-1947 encounters with freedom may well have suggested that Sarkar’s misgivings were prescient. The historian steeped in the Victorian values of intellectual rigour, self-discipline and austere living was a very proud Indian, even if he didn’t share the objectives of the nationalist movement. For him, the craft of history wasn’t merely an abstruse intellectual endeavour or even a fascination with antiquity: it was a relentless search for the ‘truth’, an exercise in chittasuddhi (purification of the soul). This implied that neither national pride nor attachment to the ancestral faith could compel him to paper over what he perceived as the imperfections of the past. The ‘truth’ could well offend national sensibilities, but revealing it was an inescapable dharma of the historian and, indeed, of the patriot.

Nor was Sarkar alone in articulating clinical detachment. In a lecture on historical method in 1888, the pioneering Indologist RG Bhandarkar, one of the first Indian graduates of Bombay University, shocked fellow countrymen by saying: “It is no use ignoring the fact that Europe is far ahead of us in all that constitutes civilisation. And knowledge is one of the elements of civilisation.”

Far from being the ‘truth’, Bhandarkar’s assessment may well have been subjective. But its importance lies in the fact that in the value system of a generation trying to reconcile ‘scientific knowledge’ with political subordination, national self-improvement couldn’t be achieved without an overdose of candour.

In 1957, Sarkar was sounded out by his former student, President Rajendra Prasad about overseeing the writing of a ‘national’ history of India. The historian was no doubt flattered, but his reply was laced with revealing preconditions: “National history must be comprehensive, true, accurate and impartial…It will be national not in the sense that it will try to suppress or white-wash everything in our country’s past that is disgraceful, but because it will admit them and at the same time point out that there were also other and nobler aspects in the stages of our nation’s evolution. [The historian] will not suppress any defects of the national character but add to his portraiture those higher qualities which, taken together… constitute the entire individual…”

This preoccupation with ‘character’, both national and individual, as an attribute of purposeful nation building was a widespread feature of the public discourse till fairly recently. In her study of historical memory in Maharashtra, historian Prachi Deshpande has noted the importance attached to charitra (character) in the late-19th and 20th century Marathi plays on historical themes: ‘In these representations, [Shivaji] embodied a moderate individualism that preached the necessity of individual action and enterprise and a healthy respect for religious and social tradition.’ Against this, his son Sambhaji who was subsequently killed by Aurangzeb, was portrayed as hot-headed, overcome by bad habits and surrounded by dodgy friends.

The depictions of the good Shivaji, unworthy Sambhaji and distrustful Baji Rao II could have been taken straight out of Sarkar’s histories. To Sarkar, the “dry rot” that overwhelmed the Mughal Empire after Aurangzeb had much to do with the “weaklings and imbeciles” who succeeded him. Muhammad Shah, the hapless emperor who succumbed to Nadir Shah was, for example, compared to a “country clown”. The derision was also extended to Indians who copied “the externals of European civilisation without undergoing a new birth of spirit…” Mindless imitation, he felt, “cannot produce a renaissance.” Perhaps over-extending the European experience of nation building into a universal principle, Sarkar identified an “eternal truth” from his study of history: “there cannot be a great or lasting empire without a great people.”

Whether Indians had the necessary attributes to become great once again preoccupied educated minds from the mid-19th century. With the rare exceptions of those who fell back on attributing the periods of darkness to the perfidy of the Jaichands and Mir Jafars, most of the conclusions were unflattering.

Bankim Chandra Chatterjee—author of the iconic Anandamath and, arguably, the most over-researched public intellectual after Mahatma Gandhi—frontally addressed the question of prolonged subordination and came to the conclusion that Indians rarely had the urge or inclination to fight for their own liberty: “Hindu kings or the rulers of Hindustan have been repeatedly conquered by alien people, but it cannot be said that the bulk of Hindu society has ever been vanquished in battle, because the bulk of Hindu society has never gone to war.”

In a curious sort of way, Bankim’s indictment of Hindu passivity was echoed by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj: ‘The English have not taken India: we have given it to them. They are not in India because of their strength, but because we keep them… Recall the Company Bahadur. Who made it Bahadur? They had not the slightest intention at the time of establishing a kingdom. Who assisted the Company’s officers? Who was tempted at the sight of their silver? Who bought their goods? History testifies that we did all this… Is it not then useless to blame the English for what we did at the time? ... [It] is truer to say that we gave India to the English than that India was lost.’

And how different is Gandhi’s assessment from that of Bhandarkar? In his presidential address to the Bombay Provincial Social Conference in Sholapur, 1902, he too said: “India has lived an individual life, not a corporate or national life… Hindus had, in all likelihood, no conception of a national existence, and therefore did not concern themselves with questions about the national weal… The effect of this indifference to corporate or national interests was that, from time to time, the country was governed by foreigners.”

The conclusions the three drew from this walkover conceded to the alien conqueror were different. Bankim stressed the need for national solidarity and even a national religion; Gandhi dreamt of pouring cement down the spine of Indians and helping them overcome fear through collective, non- violent satyagraha—a quest for the truth; and Bhandarkar would probably have agreed with Sarkar that the upcoming Indian nation needed “to assimilate modern thought and modern arts into her inner life without any loss of what she had long possessed.” On his part, while emphasising a blend of spirituality and social activism—particularly a concern for the poor—Swami Vivekananda stressed the need for India to engage with the world on terms of equality.

What unites these divergent assessments of national shortcomings is the importance all these stalwarts of the 19th and 20th centuries also placed on character—not merely the charitra of the rulers and the governing elite, but all the citizenry. John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith may well have made a deep impression on the early Indians who tasted English education and were intoxicated by it to the point of turning their backs altogether on India’s cultural inheritance. However, once the lived everyday humiliations of second-class citizenship began to be experienced, the intellectual focus shifted from wild individualism to collective self-realisation. It would, in fact, not be entirely inaccurate to suggest that the importance once attached to the traditional Hindu path of individual self-discovery of the Godhead, whether through saadhana or bhakti, was subsumed by a tentative collective quest that overrode other differences.

Maybe it is the venality of today’s political class or maybe it is the unintended consequence of a particularly amoral variety of market economics or even the sheer rapidity of technology-inspired social disruptions, but it is undeniable that India’s success as a vibrant, if occasionally dysfunctional, democracy has been accompanied by the loss of national purpose. Worse, the very idea that India needs a national purpose to achieve its ‘tryst with destiny’ is coming under attack from an intellectual vanguard that sees nobility in unregulated individualism. The sense of self-regulation that was a natural consequence of the joint family—an institution that insulated society from political upheavals of the past—has understandably eroded. So too has the sense of community—except in terms of electoral politics in rural communities—among the socially mobile and migrants. As Bankim noted with a sense of disgust of “self-seeking and greatly disunited” Bengalis some 120 years ago, “instead of the slogan Vande Mataram, let us cry Vande Udaran (glory to the belly).”

That the discounting of character as an attribute of good citizenship has also egged on an individualism that assaults common decencies is perhaps self-evident. Some of it may be an inevitable consequence of the sheer rapidity of change and the breakdown of traditional institutions. But its real tragedy is the growing disconnect between the purveyors of ‘liberal’ (mostly cosmopolitan) sensibilities— often mocked as ‘#adarshLiberals’ in the social media—and those still grappling, if somewhat unsurely, with the disruptions of change. This isn’t unprecedented and there are parallels in other countries. However, unless the wild onrush of individualism is offset by a consensual national purpose that doesn’t compromise basic freedoms, India may well have to confront another form of decline- ology—maybe one that is morally, not economically, triggered. Some 68 years after India imagined it attained political fulfilment, it may be opportune to at least start revisiting some of those issues our forefathers grappled with. Inherited wisdom is always worth a second look.