A New Central Vista, and the Political Conceit of the Ruling Classes

The Hindu Right subscribes to a version of Indian history that has been manufactured by the colonialist.

India is still in the middle of a pandemic, every day we read of more deaths, people who were attacked by the virus are going to live with neurotic disorders/kidney/ heart/liver maladies, the bottomless trough of deprivation into which the sudden lockdown drove millions of migrant workers has neither been recognised nor dealt with, lakhs of farmers agitate for access to minimum subsistence, and India is in the middle of economic decline. Yet huge sums of money are going to be spent on the spatial remaking of history, from temples to Parliament.

The scale and the costs of the project of spatial reordering are enormous. The mind boggles. Emerald green, verdant lawns, impressive broad avenues, the sweep of architectural magnificence that extends from the national museum to Janpath via the archives, and above all our beloved and majestic Parliament will either be demolished or replaced. A major part of our history is going to be demolished and replaced.

The ‘new’ structures and spaces will bear no history and embody no collective memory. They will not speak to us of battles lost by the colonial power and won by the freedom struggle, of citizen’s demonstrations and protest movements against government policies, of political fasts, of celebrations, of family picnics and memories of romantic meetings on the lawns of the Central Vista. They will symbolise only the overweening desire for personal glory of a ruling class that wants us to forget our democratic past, howsoever flawed the past might have been.

The irony of history is that most ruling classes, intoxicated by power, forget that this phase will pass. Shelley’s evocative poem Ozymandias, which most of us learnt by heart in school, tells a story of the pathetic remains of a statue of a former king. Upon the pedestal of the statue was carved: ‘My name is Ozymandias King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Years down the line nothing remains of the boastful king. “Round the decay/Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away’. But people in power seldom think, so hallucinogenic is absolute power. All they want to do is to imprint history with their names. For this, they write a ‘new’ history for a ‘new’ country in ‘new’ spatial forms. They want to obliterate other histories that might tell a different story of men and women who secured and exercised power.

What we remember

Can there be a new history that replaces an old one? History is not a leather shoe that has grown old and needs to be replaced. History is a vibrant battlefield of ideas and memories that persist into the indefinite future. Some memories overlap and some clash. We remember all, for history is plural. When we remember our post-independence history, what is it that we remember? At the midnight hour which heralded the advent of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru gave his ‘tryst with destiny’s speech’ in the central hall of the Constituent Assembly, now Parliament. The address delivered in his usual elegant style and incomparable language is one of the most famous speeches in the world. His words exuded a sense of excitement and hope as he welcomed India’s independence for which generations had aspired and fought for.

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But Nehru was also painfully aware that independence had come to us bathed in blood. Partition was the price that India had to pay for freedom. The dark underbelly of independence was the violence that erupted even before the tricolour replaced the flag of the Empire. And Pandit Nehru was there, in the killing fields of Punjab and Delhi, persuading people to desist from violence, assuring Muslims of their safety, and appealing to Muslims who had left for Pakistan to come back. The deadly spiral of violence eluded the grasp of the interim Prime Minister of independent India, but he was there among his own people.

On the night of August 25 in a small town of Sheikhupura near Lahore which had a population of 10,000 Muslims and ten 10,000 Sikhs and Hindus, a massive battle exploded between communities. Twenty-four hours later several thousand people, mainly Sikh and Hindu, had been murdered in a frenzy of stabbing, shooting, beating and burning. Parts of the town were on fire. No attempt was made to quell the violence. A journalist wrote that Sikhs were afraid to go to the hospital and preferred to shelter in the Gurudwara without basic facilities.

The sight was appalling, hands and feet of men and women had been cut off and their forearms were reduced to black putrescent fly-covered stumps. Babies and children had been cut and slashed. When Nehru visited a few days later he found himself sick with horror at the sight; the stink of blood and burnt flesh was inescapable. He wrote to Mountbatten in deep depression, “I suppose I am not directly responsible for what is taking place in the Punjab…But in any event I cannot and do not wish to shed responsibility for my people. If I cannot discharge the responsibility effectively then I begin to doubt whether I have any business to be where I am.”

Jawaharlal Nehru addresses the midnight session of the Constituent Assembly of India in New Delhi on August 15, 1947. Photo: Wikimedia commons

This was Nehru, a man who was alive to the needs of his people, who celebrated with them but also mourned with them. Above all he mourned for himself as a leader who could not control the designs of a malevolent fate that was tearing at the seams of a newly independent Republic. How can we forget this man who never failed to recognise his own flaws; a man who refused to tom-tom his achievements? Only a Nehru could have said to a political cartoonist, “Shankar, don’t spare me.” Today political cartoonists are jailed for simple tongue-in-cheek comments. History tells us that there are a few leaders who simply cannot be marginalised either historically or spatially. Nor can they be appropriated. Nehru is one of them.

An obsession with the ancient

We have to learn from history, otherwise we will fall into the same traps as our forebears. Consider the focus on ancient India by the ruling dispensation. It has been stressed repeatedly that new structures of power will form the link between ancient and contemporary India. The thesis of the glories of ancient India holds proponents of the Hindu right in thrall. They do not recognise that they subscribe to a version of Indian history that has been manufactured by the colonialist.

British colonialism was unlike any other form of rule previously experienced by Indians. Pre-modern rulers taxed non-believers, even converted individuals to the religion of the group that was in power, but they seldom tried to regulate the personal lives of their subjects the way modern states seek to do. British colonialism, as a proto-modern state, set out to control not only the political and economic destiny of Indians, but also the way they thought about themselves, the way in which they interpreted their history and the present, and how they conceived of the future. They had a host of intellectuals to aid them in this task.

The idea that India is spiritual and child-like compared to the modern materialist West was first put forth by German Romantics in the 18th century. The 19th-century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Fredrik Hegel inherited from the German Romantics an attraction for the Orient. But he set out to demolish their assumptions. Accepting that chronologically, philosophy religion and art took root in the Orient that is in Persia, China, Egypt and India, he suggested that India has remained stationary and fixed. Stagnant was not the word he used, but this was the implication of his argument.

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After explorers, missionaries, traders and commercial companies conquered India, and as the exotic became the known, he suggested, it was clear that India had nothing to offer the world.  India’s tradition is a matter of the past; it never reached the level of philosophy and science. That is genuinely and uniquely European achievement, which culminated in 19th century Germany, with presumably Hegel as its most distinguished spokesman.

Hegel’s opinion on Indian philosophy was shaped by two factors, his response to the Indologists he drew upon, and his profound ignorance about the great debates that accompanied the consolidation of the four sacred texts that constitute the Vedas. Philosophies, such as Carvaka, Samkhya, Buddhism and Jainism repudiated the moral authority of the Vedas. The Bhakti movement challenged Brahmanical authority. And Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna in the second century C.E., gave to the world a sophisticated and rational philosophy.

A portrait of Hegel by Jakob Schlesinger.

But European Indologists/Orientalists isolated an abstract, metaphysical, and an upper-caste Hinduism from the welter of lived practices, and from struggles around caste discrimination. Purely on the basis of texts of ancient India, Hegel concluded that though India was the birthplace of philosophy, once philosophy left its shores and migrated to Greece, torpor followed. India has no philosophy. Hegel knew well that philosophy is the soul of any society; deny a country philosophy and you deny it history. For him the history of India is nothing but the pre-history of Europe. The necessary fate of Asiatic Empires is to be subjected to Europeans.

Though Hegel continued to be fascinated with Indian society till the end of his life, he was contemptuously dismissive of the India of his day. His thesis on the decline that followed ancient India legitimised the colonial project. India had to be saved from its own propensity towards collapse. It also motivated the attempts of Indian intellectuals and nationalists to return to a once glorious past. The culture of ancient India was the touchstone against which nationalists measured and evaluated their own country. The shadows of German Romantics and of Hegel who acclaimed a Golden Age of Hinduism and consequent regression, hover over us till today.

In retrospect, it is surprising that Indian intellectuals joined the Orientalist acclaim of a rich and sophisticated Vedic tradition without acknowledging its adverse impact upon society: the consolidation of Brahmanical superiority. Nor did they recognise the great debates in philosophy or the struggles against power. The textual tradition provided an anchor for the recovery of the collective self in the freedom struggle, but the self was deeply fractured.

Blunting the critical edges

The philosopher J.N. Mohanty tells us that the Vedas that developed around two thousand years B.C.E cover an entire range of subjects, but above all they represent an exemplary spirit of enquiry into the “one being” or ‘ekam sat’ that underlies the diversity of empirical phenomenon, and into the origin of all things. The lesson in wisdom was challenged both by supporters and opponents of the philosophy. Within the school of Vedanta endless debates took place on the nature of the self. Outside the school critical traditions challenged the dominant themes of the Vedas.

Towards the end of the Upanisadic period was born Gautama the founder of Buddhism (560 BCE). The emergence of Buddhism was politically significant because the philosophy mounted a strong challenge to the superiority of the Brahmanical class, to ritualism, and to the caste system that had banished its own people to the margins of society. Indian intellectuals proceeded to appropriate Buddhism. Vivekananda in his famous address at the Parliament of Religions in Chicago suggested that Buddhism had completed the highly metaphysical task of the Vedanta. In a short period of time the Buddha came to be seen as the eighth avatar of Hinduism. The critical edge of Buddhism that provides an alternative to the high tradition had been blunted, somewhat alarmingly.

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The marginalisation of critical and rational philosophical schools both by the Indologists and the nationalists gives us cause for considerable thought. If a rational, materialistic, empiricist and sceptical philosophical school such as Carvaka had been given prominence in the forging of a Hindu tradition, perhaps India would have escaped being slotted into the spiritual versus materialist dichotomy. We have to accept that the stereotyping of Indian society as exotic and other-worldly based on the obsession with ancient India has not helped us forge an equitable future. India with all its material inequities, communalism, patriarchy and casteism has been slotted into a spiritual pigeonhole.

Till today Indian society fails to accept the enormity of material inequities, fascinated as it is with the metaphysical spirit. In short, the privileging of a highly metaphysical tradition as the public philosophy of India leads us away from social oppressions and power. It cannot help us to pinpoint power equations, or remedy inequities. It leads to the skewed political priorities of today’s politics. Instead of securing to the Indian people their basic rights of freedom of expression and freedom from deprivation, the ruling class would rather concentrate on manufactured spaces that symbolise raw power. This is their conceit. It is bound to disappear. The new Lutyens Delhi ought to read Ozymandias.

Neera Chandhoke is former professor of political science, Delhi University.