Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India
By Ananya Vajpeyi
(Harvard University Press, 342 pages, $39.95)
SOMEWHERE BACK IN THE 1980s, at a small dinner gathering at the Indian Embassy in Washington, the then-ambassador (K.S. Bajpai if memory serves), who knew that I occasionally wrote about Indian history and literature, asked me why I had never visited his country. I told him the truth: “I’m afraid if I ever dived into India I might never come out again.” There is so much to the Subcontinent, so many dissonant layers of history and so many conflicting races, ethnicities, creeds, and cultures, that you could literally waste the rest of your life trying to explain the unexplainable, to make sense of the illogical, and to discover an underlying—and probably non-existent—philosophical basis for the seething, sprawling managed anarchy that is modern India.
Not for nothing did that brilliant Bengali gadfly, the late Nirad Chaudhuri, call his native land “The Continent of Circe.” India is as beguiling and bewitching as the mythical temptress who nearly turned Odysseus into a mindless beast. And many of the most important questions about India just don’t have answers. Which is why it seemed to me that the urge to look for them was pointless. Pointless and potentially addictive, as it would fuel an obsessive belief that an enlightened, cohesive answer was always just over the horizon. Definitely not my kind of vocation…or, for that matter, my kind of vacation.
Ananya Vajpeyi, a talented young Indian historian, is made of sterner—or more quixotic—stuff. In Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, Ms. Vajpeyi tries to convince her readers that much of the foundation of modern, post-independence India was based on or inspired by indigenous beliefs and philosophies of life and governance forged thousands of years ago. She does so with sincerity, a graceful writing style only occasionally muddied by academic jargon, and impressive erudition.
The problem is that she marshals her considerable skills in pursuit of a non-existent quarry. One can sympathize with her desire to find native roots—rather than borrowed Western values of democracy and the rule of law learned from colonial masters—as the basis for what many Indians like to boast of as “the world’s largest democracy,” but which some informed observers wryly dismiss as “the world’s largest hypocrisy,” a republic more self-righteous than righteous.
Ms. Vajpeyi attempts to build her case for “authentic” Indian roots by beginning with a slightly labored deconstruction of swaraj, the Indian word that characterized the goal of the modern independence movement and is generally—and logically—rendered as “self-rule” in English. That, however, is not good enough for Ms. Vajpeyi:
The Sanskrit form whence swaraj is derived has two elements: rájya, meaning “rule,” “dominion” or “mastery,” and swa, a reflexive particle meaning “of the self,” “to do with the self,” or “having reference to the self.” The ambiguity in the exact nature of the ligature between swa and raj, evident in the Sanskrit and preserved both in Indian languages and English, results in two meanings: “rule by the self” and “rule of the self”—the “self” thus is either the subject of the rule, or the object of the rule, or both the subject and the object at the same time…but who or what is the “self”…?
What follows is several hundred pages of identity search and character analysis focusing on the lives and evolving thinking of four of modern India’s founders, Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948), Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), the author-poet-philosopher Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), and the remarkable champion of India’s “untouchables”—who was one himself—Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), along with the lesser figure of Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), a prominent artist with close ties to the independence movement.
Each of these men was brilliant in his way and is well worth studying. And when she isn’t trying to fit them into her theoretical mold, Ms. Vajpeyi treats them knowledgeably and gracefully. All five subjects, in different ways, did, indeed, dip into the Indian past in trying to define the Indian present and future. But, more often than not, what they were after—especially the more politically engaged of them—was a thin layer of cherry-picked, often idealized bits of native history to confer a traditional, authentically “Indian” patina to their notions of modern, essentially Western democratic values.
IN ORDER TO DO THIS, they—and Ms. Vajpeyi after them—have placed a vastly disproportionate emphasis on the legendary Mauryan emperor Asoka who, after presiding over the mass slaughter of various conquered peoples, embraced the teachings of Buddha and governed humanely for the remainder of his 37-year reign. Not long after his death, his empire collapsed and the Brahmin Hindu elite—embodying most of the prejudices and abuses that still poison Indian society today—stamped out Buddhism as a major religion in India even as it took firm root, in varied national forms, in Tibet, China, Indo-China, Japan, Ceylon, and elsewhere.
To take a brief, dead-end detour in ancient Indian history and fashion it into a defining force in the subcontinent’s political and spiritual development makes about as much sense as trying to explain thousands of years of ancient and modern Egyptian history by the deviant 17-year-reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten who briefly tried to impose a monotheistic cult of his own design on his polytheistic empire and may have been murdered as a result. Ironically, the stories of both Asoka and Akhenaten—or as much of them as can be pieced together across the millennia—were only brought to light thanks to pioneering efforts of European archaeologists and language scholars working in the now-despised colonial era.
For all its interesting insights and its wide array of references, Ms. Vajpeyi’s book, like modern India itself, is balked of its fullest potential by wishful thinking, selective hindsight, and a reluctance to face up to sometimes unpleasant—and often unflattering—facts.