Response & riposte

Published : Jan 13, 2012 00:00 IST

The Indian discourse on civilisation was not produced as a parallel to the discourse of nationhood, but as part of it.

THE colonial experience of India has been, among other things, excitingly or sometimes sickeningly wordy. The British conquered India as much and as often with words as with swords. They had much to say about the land and the people that came under their rule, to tell them what they had been before and what they would be under their rule. For the best part of the 19th century they had the rostrum all for themselves and had their monologue going, but thereafter, to the accompaniment of stirring nationalism, Indians began to talk back. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, in this brilliant exploratory book, traces the patterns and rhythms of the Indian response, which produced a good harvest, both sentimental and intellectual. If they did not quite trigger a dialogue, they could at least produce an alternative discourse that increasingly grew more assured as Indian nationalism gathered strength.

But the initial British evaluation of Indian civilisation was polyphonic. There were curious explorers, critical missionaries, enthusiastic Orientalists, serious scholars, swaggering dilettantes and a whole lot of people who wanted to make sense of India. There was both Indomania and Indophobia, the former represented by Orientalists such as Sir William Jones, Charles Wilkins, H.H. Wilson and their ilk, and the latter by missionaries who hoped their gospel would exorcise the primitive cults and religions of India, as also the philosophical historian' James Mill, who hoped to order the British administration differently. Mill's History of British India (1817) had imperiously evaluated the Indian civilisation, both Hindu and Muslim, and did so censoriously, declaring that Indians were merely crawling pathetically at the lowest rung. Mill's inferences were impudent and he did not seem to have any serious knowledge of, or familiarity with, India. Since his History received official recognition at the Haileybury College and he himself got an influential position in the East India Company, his judgments seemed to out-shout the findings and views of romantic Orientalists or even the occasionally sympathetic administrator-historians such as Mounstuart Elphinstone and Sir Alfred Lyall. They formed the basis of the imperial theme of the white man's burden of civilising Indians.

It was in the fitness of things that the earliest graduates from Indian universities should respond to the British reproaches against Indian civilisation. Bankimchandra Chatterjee and R.G. Bhandarkar indeed did so. Influenced by the writings of Buckle, Lecky, Comte, Herbert Spencer and others, Bankim found that a drive for material betterment, which propelled Europe to the pursuit of rationalism and the cultivation of the natural sciences, was missing in Indian civilisation. Bankim's early writings tended to excoriate Brahminism for this backwardness, although his later writings contained several tomes on religion and philosophy. While he was intensely patriotic, he did not find ancient Indian civilisation an ideal inspiration; he was sure India had many things to borrow from the West, particularly lessons in modern science and nationalism.

Bhandarkar was an assiduous Indologist who admired the Rankean ideal of critical scholarship. He was no blind admirer of ancient Indian civilisation, or of European scholarship on it. Reflecting the reformist mood of 19th century India, he believed that without a reform of our social institution real political advance is impossible. He was also happy that some competent Europeans, the apostles of a higher and progressive civilisation had come out to rouse the mind and conscience of India

The mood, however, did not last long. Though history had but a feeble presence among the welter of interests of Mahatma Gandhi, his iconic little book Hind Swaraj (1909), written in 10 days while on a ship on his return from England to South Africa, has much to say on the theme of civilisation. Written in the form of a dialogue, it berates the materialistic, acquisitive Western civilisation for trampling the rest of the world under its heels. Indian civilisation is projected as its antonym, as it were. The Mahatma owes his debt to Western thinkers like Ruskin, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Schlegel and others and yet indulges in gross simplification of a complex European culture. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya rightly thinks that here the Mahatma was using the West as a metaphor for the culture of materialism, of the conquerors. He would much rather define civilisation in moral terms.

Rabindranath Tagore's engagement with the theme was, however, much more tortuous, nuanced and tension-ridden. Melding history with patriotism, he began with history as hero worship, but after 1902 increasingly came to contrast the aggrandising propensity of the state-centred civilisation of Europe with the assimilative genius of India. His famous critique of nationalism (1917) that it reeked of power and conquest was made against the backdrop of the First World War. He declared that India has never had a real sense of nationalism and though brought up on the teaching that idolatry of Nation is almost better than reverence for God and humanity, I believe I have outgrown that teaching. He was critical of the nationalist adulation of India's past, particularly of the caste system, whose immutability had become an anachronism, for mutability is the law of life. His ideas of India's syncretism underwent changes in the last phase of his life, and he became increasingly sceptical of the role of religion. The forces of casteism, communalism and purblind traditionalism that stalked the country were too great for him to retain faith in the syncretism to which he was so fondly attached earlier.

In the nationalist perspective, Indian civilisation was often shown to possess a strong adhesive in Hindu culture, as may be seen in Radha Kumud Mookerji's The Fundamental Unity of India (1914) or even Vincent Smith's Oxford History of India (1919), though neither was impressed with the idea of the assimilative chemistry of its civilisation. V.D. Savarkar's notion of Hindutva, on the other hand, sought to set apart the timeless glory of Hinduism from the intrusive diversities that beset the country, depriving the civilisation of its precious exclusivity a wrong screaming out for redress. There were also scholarly responses to the phenomenon of diversity in the nationalist context, and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya reminds us of the archival movement in Maharashtra with which the names of M.G. Ranade and V.K. Rajwade are associated, as also of the work of Akshay Kumar Maitreya in Bengal.

Spiritual and material

But mostly the association of Indian civilisation with spirituality seemed mulishly insistent, which could be slippery in the context of nationalist activism. Swami Vivekananda, who interpreted India to the West in nationalist idioms, sought to strike a balance between the spiritual and the material. For, mere reflective spirituality could be a recipe for retreat; what Indians needed was nerves of steel; and if Indians needed to learn from the West, the West too had much to learn from the East. It was a striking riposte to the familiar colonial prose. Aurobindo, a revolutionary who turned a philosopher-sage, developed the same idea, though at a more abstract level, and highlighted the difference between the East and the West without conceding the inferiority of the former.

The most well-known nationalist portrait of Indian civilisation appeared in Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India (1946), which seemed to orchestrate the familiar idea of unity in diversity with occasional poetic exuberance, as if to mask the harsher realities outside the Ahmedabad Fort Jail in which he wrote the book. But he was aware of its setbacks. He was aware that if the caste system had given the civilisation its continuity, it had also produced stasis and degeneration. History for him was not a mirror of Narcissus but a school of learning. Yet syncretism remained a refrain in many of the reflective histories written on India after Independence, by Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar K.M. Panikkar, M. Mujeeb, S. Abid Hussain and others, carrying the debt of Nehru's Discovery.

Sabyasachi Bhattacharya also follows the trails of evaluation of civilisation in India after Independence, in terms of its material basis, as D.D. Kosambi had done, or on synchronic lines, which sociologists like G.S. Ghurye and Nirmal Kumar Bose preferred. He takes notice of the burgeoning literature on nationalism, figuring such scholars as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, which have sought to see nations as civilisations, reaching its reduction absurdum in Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilisations. Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) highlighted the hegemonic Euro-centrism stalking the world of knowledge and it has triggered a whole lot of debate in the post-colonial contexts and thinking. Once dismissed as a history-less culture, India is now shown as possessing her own historical sense and literature by Romila Thapar, A.K. Warder, David Schulman, Sanjay Subrahmanyam and others. Sabyasachi Bhattacharya also looks at the critical evaluation of European master narratives by Dipesh Chakrabarty and the India-centred thinking that has gone into it in the writings of Ashish Nandy and Amartya Sen.

The Indian discourse on civilisation was not produced as a parallel to the discourse of nationhood, but as part of it. Civilisation does not suo moto describe itself; it does so only when it is inspired or provoked by an evaluation from outside. India's nationhood was also similarly argued out as a response to its denials. The nationalist discourse of Indian civilisation was thus a response-discourse. It had accommodated many facts and hopes, navet and wish-fulfilments. They all go into the making of the nation. Their real test lies not in their truth value' but in the dynamic forces they released. Talking Back brilliantly brings out the complex terrain in which history speaks while making it.

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