harvard university press
Rs. 995 PP 366
Righteous Republic, Ananya Vajpeyi's contribution to the idea-of-India genre, describes how Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar imagined the moral-political motives of independent India.
For Vajpeyi, these five 'founding figures' reconfigured their 'rich intellectual traditions' to create an idea of an independent modern Indian nation state and an independent Indian 'self'.
Now, when globalisation and neoliberal economic policy have again put India's sense of self in peril, Vajpeyi suggests we place our faith in the dominant nationalist political tradition of these founders, who provide an Indian civilizational blueprint for resolving the country's socio-economic crises.
Vajpeyi's argument hinges on the reader making two assumptions: one, that the dominant tradition of imagining Indian civilization can be represented using specific texts and the art work of five founders chosen by her; and two, that the dominant tradition is the only legitimate one.
So, non-dominant, non-textual traditions - based in caste, region, class, religion - become irrelevant to this book's idea of India's civilizational 'self'.
'Indian' civilization is here defined as flowing from 'classical' Sanskrit, Buddhist and Jain texts, not from lived traditions. This issue remains unresolved despite Vajpeyi's discussion of Ambedkar and Kabir.
The book glosses over Ambedkar's politics when evaluating his conversion to a 'classical' tradition, Buddhism, and Kabir's syncretism is simply portrayed as an ideal Indian trait.
It gets uncomfortable when Vajpeyi delegitimises other ways of seeing modern India. Her remarks about Indian academia being 'essentially derivative' and fearful of Hindutva in its analysis of Indian modernity are surprising.
The argument about the 'limits' of the subaltern school of writing history begins with a biased rendering of the school's ideas.
Vajpeyi's critique revolves around her rejection of the school's anti-elite stand and ignores its central insight that people, not just leaders, practise politics.
To give credit where it is due, her span of reading is enormous: she moves from the founders to Kalidasa, the Vedas, Asoka and Kautilya.
This book is well written and interesting for its insights into the texts it studies, but is intended for those who already agree with the author's notion that Indian civilization is defined by a single authorised tradition.
Despite quotes by a subaltern studies stalwart and a left-leaning scholar on the cover, for those who are less convinced by this premise, Vajpeyi's idea of the Indian self remains a partial one.
Anupama Ramakrishnan is a publishing professional and research scholar at Delhi University