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Book Review

Unlocking an alternative politics

Print edition : Jul 28, 2022 T+T-

Unlocking an alternative politics

The book calls upon the reader to get rid of the communal-secular binary to understand the various ways in which the politics of knowledge is played out. 

THE book Gyan ki Rajniti: Samaj Adhyyan aur Bhartiya Chintan (Politics of Knowledge: Social Studies and Indian Thinking) destabilises three dominant conceptions about Indian knowledge. First, it makes a crucial distinction between Indian knowledge and Hindu knowledge. Without undermining the philosophical contributions of Hindu religious traditions, Manindra Nath Thakur, the author, challenges the Hindutva argument that whatever existed in India in the past can only be understood in Hindu religious terms. The book takes us to intellectual resources that evolved over the centuries to produce a uniquely Indian and highly diversified perspective of critical thinking.

Second, the book critically engages with the much talked about notion of secular knowledge. The author is not interested in recovering the lost secular Indian tradition. Instead, the book calls upon the reader to get rid of the communal-secular binary to understand the various ways in which the politics of knowledge is played out. Finally, the book refuses to get involved in any discussion on Indian knowledge versus Western knowledge. Thakur does not treat Western intellectual traditions as merely orientalist conspiracy. Critically evaluating the role colonial knowledge played in constructing a deeply problematic self-image of Indian thinking, the author introduces us to a new intellectual possibility. In his view, an intellectually open and politically egalitarian framework of creative thinking can produce a humanistic, democratic, and innovative imagination of human knowledge.

Gyan ki Rajniti: Samaj Adhyyan aur Bhartiya Chintan (Setu Prakashan, 2022)
By Manindra Nath Thakur
Pages: 360
Price: Rs.350

This book revisits the idea of multifaceted dialogue: “dialogues between philosophies, dialogues between intellectuals and the common people, dialogues between folk tradition and classical tradition, dialogues between the West and the East, dialogues between cultures, dialogues between different religions” (p. vii). However, the author does not want us to get involved in the process of dialogue just for the sake of it because any form of dialogue would be meaningless if the participants do not understand the purpose of dialogue. Thakur argues that dialogue is a plea for truth, an attempt to move from non-knowledge ( avidya) to knowledge ( vidya). And, the purpose of vidya is to achieve the most desirable human attribute: emancipation.

These seemingly idealistic objectives should not be misunderstood as an old-fashioned sermonette. The book is based on a well worked out analytical schema. It examines six broad issues: dialogue with Indian philosophy; the concept of human nature and its applicability in modern Indian social science discourses; the contemporary Indian debate on the form and substance of social sciences in India; the possibilities of creative thinking; the search for an emancipatory religious tradition; and, finally, the critical evaluation of Indian democracy. These questions are creatively organised as chapters and provide an engaging thematic architecture to the book.

The book, more broadly, raises two sets of questions. First, how do we evaluate the existing research techniques and modes by which the idea of Indian knowledge tradition is explored, especially in the realm of social science thinking? Second, what are the intellectual resources available to us in the Indian context that can be employed to deal with present social challenges, economic crises, and cultural predicaments? The author constructs an interesting theoretical framework to deal with these overlapping concerns. I identify three interrelated elements of this theoretical construction.

Thakur ... remains committed to excavating intellectual ideas from the reservoir of the past without getting into the troubled history of religious violence and victimhood. He draws inspiration from Gandhi, who used exactly the same technique in his writings, especially Hind Swaraj and his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. 
Thakur ... remains committed to excavating intellectual ideas from the reservoir of the past without getting into the troubled history of religious violence and victimhood. He draws inspiration from Gandhi, who used exactly the same technique in his writings, especially Hind Swaraj and his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita. 

First, an important distinction is invoked between the past and history to get rid of the given Hindutva-centric imagination of India and its pre-Islamic intellectual universe. Although Thakur does not highlight this point directly, he remains committed to excavating intellectual ideas from the reservoir of the past without getting into the troubled history of religious violence and victimhood. He draws inspiration from Gandhi, who used exactly the same technique in his writings, especially Hind Swaraj and his commentary on the Bhagavad Gita.

Second, the author avoids giving fixed definitions for the terms and concepts he uses to construct an argument. He makes two claims to justify his position: (a) Relying on a fixed definition of a particular social phenomenon restricts the possibilities of analysis. The discursive constitution of social life, he argues, must be understood in its entirety. (b) The limitations of language is another crucial aspect. According to the author, many a time it becomes almost impossible to weave a definition with the given linguistic resources. Hence, we must use a context-oriented conceptualisation. This technique helps him engage with the works of philosophers such as Daya Krishna, Roy Bhaskar, and Karl Marx.

The newness of research material, the sources, is the third crucial theoretical element. Unlike the usual social science studies on this subject, this book does not entirely rely on conventional research material. The author engages with literature, especially the Hindi literary traditions, to offer an insightful framework of knowledge production. This is the reason why Dalit autobiographies are seen as a constructive mode to understand postcolonial Indian society and polity.

This three-layered theoretical framework is also important to make sense of one of most important findings of this study. Following Gandhi, the author envisages the concept of Purushartha as a workable tool to explore what he calls the outline of an emancipatory quest for universal knowledge. He argues that Gandhi was able to capture the dynamic intellectual possibilities inherent in the idea of Purushartha. For this reason, an attempt is made to re-examine the idea of Purushartha in the present context.

Pages from Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, the treatises, respectively, on artha and kama, two of the four purusarthas that include dharma and moksha. 
Pages from Vatsyayana’s Kamasutra, the treatises, respectively, on artha and kama, two of the four purusarthas that include dharma and moksha.  | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Pages from Kautilya’s  Arthashastra.
Pages from Kautilya’s  Arthashastra. | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thakur writes: “If it is assumed that the concept of Purushartha is universal and we, like Gandhi, can employ it to understand the society as it is, it would be appropriate to discuss its broad nature. This concept has twelve determining aspects: the four Purusharthas— Artha, Dharma, Kama and Moksha; Six Vikars (disorders): lust, anger, greed, item, infatuation, and jealousy; and two external regulators—time and space. I argue that Purushartha and Vikar need to be understood together. They regulate human nature in its entirety.”

The book argues that discursive, ever-changing human nature is determined by the balance between these 10 regulators in a particular time and place. Purushartha and Vikara are seen as natural human characteristics, while time and space refer to the external circumstances or broadly the context in which a particular human collectivity is formed. This reformulated conceptualization of Purushartha is further elaborated to make a broad claim that the primacy of “Purushartha would make society better, while the excess of Vikara can be fatal to human existence both as an individual as well as a social entity… Purushartha, in any case, depends on the nature of social order—the time and space” (pp. 234-235).

Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. It is worth noting that the existing scholarship on Gandhi focusses only on the four positive elements of Purusharthas.
Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. It is worth noting that the existing scholarship on Gandhi focusses only on the four positive elements of Purusharthas. | Photo Credit: Gandhi Smriti

It is worth noting that the existing scholarship on Gandhi focusses only on the four positive elements of Purusharthas. The author notices this limitation and makes two persuasive points. First, he argues that Gandhi is fully aware of human limitations and there is a serious discussion on Vikars in his writings. Hence, Gandhi must be seen as a creative thinker of the present. The second point is more innovative. Thakur takes Gandhi as a reference point to explore those possibilities by which a reformulated notion of Purushartha can be employed as an explanatory tool.

This innovative move helps him to evaluate the predicaments of the contemporary moment of modern life. The argument that globalised capitalism is the ultimate model of economic life is re-examined in the light of the virtually failed experiences of state-dominated socialism. Thakur argues that the crisis of capitalism encourages us to rethink the global consensus that the market is a self-regulating economic apparatus. He calls upon the reader to have a new imagination of the Artha, drawing upon available intellectual resources and experiences.

The chapter on religion elaborates this argument in the realm of Dharma. Thakur clarifies that the concept of Dharma is different from the term religion. He claims that the scope of Dharma is much wider and can be used in a number of different ways. This clarification is used to identify three types of religious assertions in the contemporary world: religion as a marker of political/communal identity; religion as a purely apolitical spiritual quest; and religion as a source of collective human emancipation.

Hindutva politics in India represents the first kind of religious assertion.
Hindutva politics in India represents the first kind of religious assertion. | Photo Credit: D.B. PATIL

Hindutva politics in India, Islam in Pakistan and Turkey, and Buddhism in Sri Lanka and Myanmar represent the first kind of religious assertion. In this case, religion is used to establish political supremacy over other religious communities and non-religious individuals and groups. New religious movements led by individual gurus, babas, and fakirs can be put in the second category. The author claims that these organised attempts to search pure spirituality are highly problematic. These movements justify the existing power structure and reduce everything to individual failures or the idea of fate/karma.

It does not, however, mean that religion does not have any positive potential. Thakur gives us a number of examples to show that religion can also be interpreted in a wider sense as Dharma to think of a possibility of a revolutionary social transformation. He discusses the liberation theology debate (especially in the Latin American context) to argue that material equality based on collective wisdom produces an enduring sense of spiritual existence.

This brings us to the most important aspect of this work: the language. I use the term language in two senses: the choice of language in a formal sense and the innovative use of that selected language in a conceptual sense. Thakur makes a bold decision to write this book in Hindi. His adherence to Hindi should not be reduced to the prevalent justification in favour of Hindi. Of course, he seems to share the position that serious social science works can also be produced in Indian languages; yet he does not emphasise this point. That might be the reason why he does not even bother to acknowledge it in the preface of the book.

In my view, there is a serious conceptual reason behind it. Thakur offers us an interesting configuration of ideas, experiences, and expressions. He not only translates available concepts from English to Hindi but also pays serious attention to the rendering of these concepts in the Indian intellectual context. This two-way process contributes significantly to his methodological priorities. Thakur produces the complex formulations in a clear, simple, understandable, Hindi/Hindustani supported by endnotes that give an additional research flavour to his language.

This brilliant attempt, in my view, opens up two crucial possibilities. First, the framework offered in the book might help us in problematising the given notion of alternative politics. It is important to remember that alternative politics is usually defined as a non-elite form of political engagement. The politics of social movements are often seen as the true representative of it. The book encourages us to go beyond the elite-subaltern framework to explore new meanings of an ideal, egalitarian social order.

The second possibility is also important. The book touches upon the question of political organisation, especially in the chapter on democracy. Thakur is critical of the idea of political party and expresses his unease with it. However, this criticism is not sufficiently elaborated on. The book is almost silent on the question of agency. These points cannot be called limitations; rather, we must envisage them as curious reflections that stem from the arguments this study makes. Thakur might consider writing a sequel to satisfy such creative expectations of his readers.

Hilal Ahmed, associate professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi, writes regularly on the nature of Muslim political discourse. He has published many books including, Siyasi Muslims (2019), and is associate editor, South Asian Studies , the journal of the British Association for South Asian Studies.