The Irrelevance of Gandhian Liberalism

In Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, U.R. Ananthamurthy sets out to prove that V.D. Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva is dangerous to the idea of India but ends up situating him as an important and respectable thinker alongside Gandhi.

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Is Gandhi’s anti-modernist reactionary “liberalism” still the answer to the ultranationalism of Hindutva? Credit: thierry ehrmann/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Hindutva or Hind Swaraj, which Shiv Visvanathan in his foreword calls “a manifesto”, pits V.D. Savarkar’s Hindutva against Gandhian liberalism to draw our attention to the evils inherent in ultranationalism. However, U.R. Ananthamurthy’s colourful, Brahminical language (“The Hindutvavadi Godse’s action, committed with utmost detachment in cold blood, was the sacrificial offering made at the yajna of nation building. And Savarkar’s ideology was the text for this yajna.”) is ambiguous at times and reads like a Bhagavad Gita-like glorification of a ferocious, bloodthirsty ideology.

Is Gandhi’s anti-modernist reactionary “liberalism” still the answer to the free market embracing reactionary ultranationalism of Hindutva? The book sets out to say it is, but beyond the author’s intentions, the book suggests something else.


U.R. Ananthamurthy
Hindutva or Hind Swaraj
Harper Collins, 2016

Influenced by Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, Ananthamurthy begins by setting up a simplistic Manichean binary of good and evil and lists everything supposedly from the West as evil and everything decidedly from India as good: Our craving for modern civilisation and greed are evil; man’s hubris is evil; “Benthamite utilitarianism” is evil; Savarkar is evil because he has an instrumentalist view of history and because he is a “rationalist”; Rajasik quality (perhaps because it is a non-Brahmin, Kshatriya attribute) is evil; dams, mines, power plants and smart cities are evil; “IT-BT”s are evil; industrialisation and globalisation are evil; “development” is evil; Modi is evil; Roman Empire is evil; Napoleon is evil; Christianity is evil; Marx, communism, Stalin and Mao are also evil, and Congress and Nehru, because they are influenced by the West, are evil.

Self-control is good, (“when we say that goodness is not natural, we mean that it is not self-inspired but acquired by learning to lead a life of self-control.”); “a sense of the sacred” is good; small-is-beautiful subsistence economy is good; agriculture is good; folk arts, music and festivals are good; the idea of Sarvodaya (though it is derived from John Ruskin’s Unto this Last and ultimately from a New Testament parable) is good; Hind Swaraj is good; satvik quality is good (“Goodness is present naturally and effortlessly in sage-like people”); moderationism is good; introspection is good; Hinduism, the Puranas and the Hindu trinity are good; the reactionary Tolstoy, who praised Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance, is good; Raskolnikov’s sense of guilt is good; a Gandhian left-wing Hindu liberalism (the liberal and acceptable face of Vedic orthodoxy) is good; and even Savarkar’s love for India’s past and Bankim’s ‘Vande Mataram’ are good.

But since this Gandhian “Manichaeism” is glaringly simplistic, Ananthamurthy provides the Puritan formula of Gandhism:

“Recognising that the evil that has tasted power is inside us, and then striving to overcome it is the Gandhian path. Believing that the evil is outside us is Godse’s path.”

In true Navya (Kannada literary modernism) fashion, Ananthamurthy identifies that the past was just as messy, chaotic and evil as the contemporary world; Vyasa and Gandhi, he says, understood this, but Savarkar who idealised the past, and had a utilitarian idea of it, didn’t. He, however, contradicts himself when he says that “Satanhood does not die” in Abrahamic religions, while “there is no Satan in the Puranas” and the Hindu trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara, with the departments of creation, preservation and destruction allotted to them, function like a level-headed bureaucracy within the system of checks and balances.

He sums up the difference between Semitic faith and Hindu faith in their relation to evil as follows:

“In Christianity, a sinner pays only for his own sins. The Hindu vision is ecological. If one individual commits a crime, all of creation is guilty.”

The first statement can easily be refuted by remembering that Christ died on the cross to redeem mankind of its sins and so it is not the individual sinner who pays for his sins. But since Christian theology contains diverse and contradictory views, it is possible that there is a school of Christianity which maintains that the sinner pays for his own sins.

U.R. Ananthamurthy. Credit: HPNadig/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

U.R. Ananthamurthy. Credit: HPNadig/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, Ananthamurthy’s attempt to dignify a mumbo-jumbo worldview by branding it “Hindu” and by calling it “ecological” is unconvincing to say the least, and it becomes quite preposterous when he makes a connection between partition violence and Gandhi’s ability to control lust:

“To see whether the violence that erupted during India’s partition remains in him as traces of lust, Gandhi tested himself by lying naked between two young women. Gandhi gave up the experiment because of his disciple Kripalani’s censure.”

Why can’t the explanation to Gandhi’s lack of arousal be the obvious low libido of a septuagenarian? And what about the puritan disapproval of sexuality as “lust” and connecting it with murderous violence?

Another instance of narrative inconsistency is when Manmohan Singh’s face is described as “satvik” – as opposed to Modi’s “rajasik” face – on page four, but the same face is called “bland and expressionless” on page 41. This detail is telling as Ananthamurthy cites his inspiration for writing the book as “satvik” and “not one arising from the aggressiveness shown by Germany or modern China or America.”

His disillusionment with the bland inexpressiveness of satvik temperament, and his secret fascination with the power of rajasik temperament, is evident throughout. Though he briefly mentions that Gandhi “appears to be useless” to his eye of turmoil, he quickly dismisses the thought with the cliché that “he is in fact more relevant today than ever before.” And his Manichean binaries, satvik and rajasik in this case, force him to caricature all worldviews opposed to Gandhism as aggressive and violent – they can’t be better than the fascism of Nazi Germany and the neo-imperialist ideologies of the US and China. It is on these very same grounds that Ambedkar’s rationalist thought countering religious obscurantism and superstition is run down as extremist by Gandhian ideologues like Devanur Mahadeva in Karnataka.

The book, divided into ten small chapters, is at its most interesting in chapter five where Ananthamurthy analyses the impact of the writings of Savarkar and the editor of The Indian Sociologist, Krishna Varma, on Gandhi, especially on his writing of Hind Swaraj.

The rejection of modernism forms the core of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj – and Ananthamurthy embraces this rejection uncritically. This makes the book an extremely woolly-headed glorification of Gandhi’s reactionary Luddite text.

Also, since Ananthamurthy speaks in grand metaphors of seeds and trees, he can bypass the laws of causality and connect unconnected incidents – like partition violence at Noakhali that Gandhi couldn’t suppress with violent incidents in contemporary Pakistan.

This loose metaphorical language becomes unforgivably slipshod when it makes claims about India’s past. “It was possible,” writes Ananthamurthy, “in ancient India, for a low-caste individual to become a ruler. A Shudra with his bravery could climb the caste ladder and become a Kshatriya. Shivaji was crowned like this.”

What exactly does “ancient India” mean here? How can the example of a 17th century king serve as evidence about a claim made about ancient India? Gandhi’s uncritical acceptance also means Ananthamurthy does not see Gandhi’s contradictions: that Gandhi’s ideal of Sarvodaya is made unrealisable by his own conservative conviction about the importance of varna and caste system to the Hindu society – a conviction which makes “the emancipation of the last person” impossible.

Ananthamurthy constantly refers to Hindu nationalists’ hostility towards Muslims and Gandhi’s generosity towards them but not once does he mention the antagonism between Hindu Raj and Ambedkar’s enlightenment thought. This is a very interesting blind spot. The central debate in Indian society, as conceived by a thinker much admired by Ananthamurthy, the late D.R. Nagaraj, was between Gandhi and Ambedkar; it is the resolution of this debate which constituted the historical progression of Indian society.

In this book, Ambedkar seldom appears; the entire book is about the choice between Savarkar and Gandhi. The disappearance of Ambedkar from the field of discourse is an interesting maneuver; Ananthamurthy tries to present the central conflict in Indian society as between conservative capitalist ultranationalists and antimodernist liberal Gandhians – not between conservative Savarkarites and conservative-liberal Gandhians on the one hand and progressive Ambedkarites on the other.

Why do I say Ambedkar is central to the discourse? Because Ambedkar questions the very existence of a Hindu identity and a Hindu religion – his orientation is the very antithesis of Hindutva. Establishment liberals are forever talking about saving Hinduism from the RSS and BJP, yet they are never ready to investigate the very existence of the religion or “way of life” they want to save. What is there to save if what they want to save is nothing more than an ideological dream and fantasy cooked up in the white heat of 19th century nationalism?

Ananthamurthy, by accepting both Gandhi and Savarkar by the end of the book, lives up to his reputation in the Kannada world as a ‘dwandva murthy’, an image of contradictions. He sets out to prove that Savarkar is dangerous to the idea of India but ends up situating him as an important and respectable thinker alongside Gandhi. If the book manages to do anything, it is to lend credibility to the otherwise discredited thinker Savarkar.

The translation by Keerthi Ramachandra and Vivek Shanbhag is free-flowing and readable. Shiv Visvanathan spouts the usual liberal jargon about confronting “the axiomatics of the regime” as he rambles confronting trite textbook notions like “the nation state” in the safe “non-place” of his secular imagination.

Ankur Betageri is a poet, short fiction writer and visual artist based in New Delhi. He is the author of The Bliss and Madness of Being Human and Bhog and Other Stories. He teaches English at Bharati College, University of Delhi and is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at IIT-Delhi. 

  • Sumanta Banerjee

    Excellent review – although a bit uncharitable to Ananthamurthy, who in both his literary works and public activities, displayed courage in challenging the religious and state Establishment – a rare act among today’s intellectuals. The reviewer should have acknowledged this before launching the critique. But I agree that a retreat to Gandhian thought and programme (much of which is based on Hindu obscurantist and patriarchal prejudices and practices) is no answer to our present attempts to advance to the much desired goal of a modern egalitarian and democratic society (a goal from which both the Soviet and Chinese socialist experiments drifted away). We need a new ideology and programme of action to suit that goal. And for that, we’ll have to tear out our umbilical cord from the womb of Hindutva – a topic which I dealt with in my article `Break the Umbilical Cord’ in Economic and Political Weekly, June 4, 2016 (sorry for projecting myself – but I thought it may be relevant !)