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The Indian Conservative: Hindu apologism goes mainstream

Jaithirth Rao is an Indian businessman who founded Mphasis, a cookie-cutter IT outsourcing company based in Bangalore, India. In time, his stature as one of India’s aspirational new tech elites gave him space to air his views on politics, history, culture and a range of other social subjects. Rao calls himself a true-blue conservative in the Burkean sense – small government, free markets, traditional family values, continuance over radical change … the whole kit and kaboodle. “The Indian Conservative” is a compilation of his various lectures, talks and thoughts on an assortment of issues that Indian conservatives have concerned themselves with. It seeks to put forth an argument that conservatism in India has a long and colourful history that deserves further study. In doing so, Rao tries to elevate the status of conservative figures like Sardar Patel and Dadabhaoi Naoroji who’ve been given short shrift due to independent India’s wholesale adoption of Nehruvian liberalism.

Before reading the book, I was genuinely curious about a lack of cohesive picture of the conservative movement in India. Other than recent speculation about how different India would have been if Sardar Patel had been made PM instead of Nehru (a long shot considering the zeitgeist of the time), there’s very little we know of the other side of Nehru’s liberal India. The previous hints I’d seen were through Guha’s books, and even he laments the lack of scholarship on Indian conservatism. So when I came across this book, I picked it up without even checking reviews online. In a way, this turned out to be a good thing because I could start with no prejudgments about the author, content or style, and could appreciate the book for exactly what it was supposed to be – an overview of conservative thought in India, and a case for why it should be studied more intensively.

Boy was I wrong! In this post, I want to do two things: firstly, review the book for what it is, and then talk about all the things that it isn’t – so you can see for yourself the various ways in which Jaithirth Rao missed the mark in entirely avoidable ways. My overall assessment of Rao’s book is mixed – on the one hand, it brings conservative thought to the mainstream and gets us talking about it on an intellectual level and without the baggage of Hindu extremism. Equally, the book fails to deliver on every single claim it makes at the outset: it’s not historically accurate or complete, it never explains what makes Indian conservatism different from its Western cousin, isn’t held up by solid arguments so much as statements of intent, and finally, is too heavily reliant on the author’s 10-mile-high understanding of Indian society.

What follows is an expansion on these two sides of the coin. This post is going to be longer than average (which is already much longer than most blogs) so if you’re liable to get bored, I’d suggest skipping the next section and jumping straight to the second part where I make my case for why Jaithirth Rao’s latest book is only a 4/10, and can be ignored by most people.

What It Is

“The Indian Conservative” considers various spheres of conservative thought, namely political, cultural and social. The book also includes a small chapter about Rao’s own views on aesthetics and education. The chapters on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres cover what it means to be Indian, and how the conservatives of history, legend and imagination have all combined to create a rich, vibrant, multiethnic and multicultural polity we know as India. These chapters are all fairly boring with very little to stand on other than a smattering of religious texts and some well-intentioned proclamations by leaders.

The really interesting bits are actually all in the first chapter: the political sphere. Here, the author begins with a broad definition of what Indian conservatism is and what its guiding principles are.

Conservatism is a school of philosophy which is not characterized by rigid contours or definitions. It believes that human beings as individuals and as communities have evolved over time, developing laws, institutions, cultures, norms and associations. This evolutionary process undoubtedly contributes to practical utility.

The conservative position is that improvements have to be gradual, and preferably peaceful. Sudden, violent attempts at so-called improvements are viewed with suspicion, because they are likely to backfire, destroy much of the good in the past and the present, and deliver a situation substantially worse than the earlier one.

For those with an interest in political theory, it’s not hard to notice a direct and strong link to Western conservatism – more specifically as a school of thought containing Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke and Adam Smith. However, Rao reminds us that these ideas are not foreign imports to India. Indeed, if one were to consider the Mahabharatha and Tirukkural to be foundational texts of the Indian civilization, we would see that the Indic civilization itself is a deeply conservative one.

These two texts – one a religious epic and the other a collection of words of wisdom – deal with the three pursuits of humankind: artha (material, political and economic wellbeing), kama (beauty, passion and sensous pleasures) and dharma (virtue and morality). A fourth pursuit – moksha – is attained when the other three are achieved.

Then, the author makes the link between ancient Indic thought and modern history.

Let us switch gears and consider names associated with modern Indian conservatism, focusing for the time being on the pre-Independence era. The first is Rammohun Roy, who was a political conservative and a supporter of British rule, while being a social and religious reformer – a reformer and not a radical. The second is Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, who can be characterized as almost the founder of Hindu conservatism. […] Bankim and Lajpat Rai along with several others realized that a shared Hindu cultural identity could be the basis of overcoming vertical and horizontal boundaries among Hindus, like caste.

Hinduism, in other words, formed pre-Independence India’s “imagined community” a la Benedict Anderson. This is where Jerry Rao (that’s what the author goes by apparently) brings modern day Hindu nationalism back into the conservative fold. In his analysis, the roots of Hindu nationalism and that of Indian conservatism are one and the same. There may be some merit to this line of thought, but I think there are some gaps in Rao’s reasoning that someone else will have to fill. We’ll pick up this thread later in the post.

To those who might argue that conservatism everywhere is merely reactionary hand-wringing, Rao has a ready response:

The view that conservatives love the old and oppose all change is both simplistic and wrong. Conservatives are most certainly not reactionaries. We only love those parts of the old and inherited that are constructive and creative and not dysfunctional. We are committed to change, which as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, and as the Yajur Veda articulates, is inevitable. We, however, do not believe in jettisoning features of the past that are worth preserving or that we feel are worth cherishing.

While this is a sensible position to take and I personally find it hard to refute, it’s nigh impossible to shake the feeling that much of Rao’s analysis is based on European and American conservatism, with all the Indian bits retrofitted to prove his point. We’ll return to this objection in the next section.

Returning to the question of political conservatism, the author details how the Indian National Congress until the late 1920s saw British rule as a benevolent protector state. Its only demands were only for ‘home rule’, on the lines of what the Irish were fighting for. We know that Dadabhai Naoroji’s strongest allies in the British parliament at the time were Irishmen, and even before Naoroji’s time, Raja Rammohun Roy was received in England by the liberal Unitarians. So almost unwillingly, the author concludes, Indian conservatives ended up in the wrong camp due to the obstinacy of the British Conservative party. He doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that this is just how politics is played and there are no unconditional alliances in the pursuit of power.

[…] even though Rammohun Roy went to England as a very conservative emissary of the impoverished Mughal emperor, he was feted not by the High Church party, but by nonconformists like the Unitarians. Willy-nilly, even conservative Indians ended up being seen as liberal fellow travellers. In the decades that followed, British Tories preferred Indian maharajas to scholars like Naoroji. It was only the Liberal Party which would nominate Naoroji for a parliamentary seat. Gokhale faced the same situation. His only interested audience in England was to be found among liberals.


In the struggle for independence, Rao makes a case for why conservatives largely supported India’s British overlords, and why many chose fight their own countrymen alongside the colonial powers. His argument is a tried-and-tested one about maintaining continuity, making incremental progress, sticking to available remedies etc. In this regard, he sees Ambedkar, Gokhale and Savarkar as incrementalist heroes who ensured that when India did gain freedom, it would retain much of the old legal and civic structure. The Indian Constitution – despite the devious machinations of socialists and Soviet sympathizers – is thankfully only a minor facelifted version of the Government of India Act of 1935.

Here, Rao anticipates an objection from the other side: given that in one stroke the Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste, gender or religion, all so deeply embedded in our history and our country, would it not be more appropriate to call it a revolutionary document, far from being a conservative one? His answer is a firm “maybe”. He argues that under the British, all Indians were treated alike – as chattel to be thrown out of trains when caught travelling in the whites-only carriage. So, Indians had already internalised some of this non-discrimination anyway, and the constitution only ensured that the progress made was not lost at some later time. A supremely weak argument; but a coherent argument nonetheless.

From independence, Rao draws a straight line to the modern-day Modi government, through Partition, the Emergency, 1984 Sikh riots, 1992 Babri riots and the single-term Vajpayee government from 1999-2004. Needless to say, he papers over inconvenient pieces of history. For example, this is what he had to say about the way Advani and the BJP riled up millions of Indians to march to Ayodhya and destroy a centuries-old mosque:

BJP put together a well-crafted national programme in support of the proposed Rama temple. The party organized a motorcade, referred to as a rath yatra, from different parts of the country to Ayodhya. […] The BJP also used the Rama temple movement very intelligently on the caste front. The volunteers in the marches and motorcades came from all castes. Dalit volunteers were specially honoured as layers of foundation stones. The BJP had successfully broken away from the accusations of its critics that it was an upper-caste Brahmin-Bania party.

The denouement of the temple movement came on account of mob violence, which the Uttar Pradesh state government had solemnly assured the Supreme Court would not happen. The inability of the Hindu nationalist forces to control extreme elements remains problematic for conservatives.

And in that one line, he sweeps aside all the many ways that conservative forces – much more than any leftist threat – threaten to pull this nation apart by force. To Jerry Rao, the problem with the Babri demolition wasn’t its complete illegality, or the fact that the Hindu side has no historical claim to that piece of land, or the months of communal provocation by Advani, Uma Bharti. No, the problem was that a handful of extreme elements resorted to mob violence, which was not controlled by the Uttar Pradesh government. So really, we’re told, the UP government was at fault.

But regardless, I’m quite aware that this kind of reasoning is not entirely uncommon in Indian political circles, and even in some intellectual quarters. We can excuse Jerry Rao this piece of unoriginal falsehood as just another symptom of the moral bankruptcy that infects modern-day conservatives everywhere. While their forebears were willing to go against king and society to defend individual freedoms and bring about real change, the modern conservative movement increasingly busies itself with engaging in revisionist storytelling and name-calling instead of getting its house in order and taking a stance against extreme elements.

In responding to any and all critique of this kind of reactionary rationality, Rao likes to fall back on the concept of yuga-dharma to illustrate how the nature of Indian conservatism has evolved over time.

[…] Apastamba Sutra of the Yajur Veda, which the historian P.V. Kane dates to the fourth century bce, talks of Yuga Dharma: the virtue or the ethic that is appropriate to the age. It is Parel’s case that Mahatma Gandhi in his own inimitable way figured out that in the present yuga, it makes sense to walk away from the excessive emphasis on moksha. […] The dharma of Gandhi’s times demanded an active involvement with this world, with his country, with his city.

Modern day conservatives like Jerry Rao fail to consider that in this yuga, yuga-dharma demands that the most conservative thing to do is to stand up against Hindu extremists and defend the Indian way of life from a complete dismemberment from the inside.

In the subsequent sections on cultural, social and aesthetic spheres, Rao has precious little to offer, even when you try very hard to see his point. In the chapter on social issues, Rao offers a tepic objection to the caste system, concluding that the caste system has some limited utility in modern India but society needs to be reformed to make sure that things like untouchability are not brought back in fashion. On the role of women, Rao acknowledges wholeheartedly that women have been mistreated and marginalized for millennia – an unusually candid admission from a writer who seems to skirt all other issues, no matter how obvious they may be to Indians or outsiders:

The same issue received considerable attention from our detractors like Kipling who argued that Indians did not deserve freedom principally because we were given to oppressing our women and our poor and in fact it was the British who protected these unhappy residents of our fair land

Lost in the chapter on aesthetics is another easily-missed admission of guilt: the mistreatment of Muslims. Rao accepts that Muslims are treated as purely political entities to be herded and cajoled into voting for whichever party represents their interest. He sees much to be achieved to bring them back to the mainstream and open up the floor to debate on social issues affecting Muslims.

Issues connected with Indian Muslims that do not deal with religion are largely seen through a political prism and not a social one. I believe that this is a mistake. Muslims are more than just voters. They have given to the country important legacies in architecture, painting, music, dress, food, landscape gardening, literature and much more.

Mysteriously, however, his thoughts on purdah, the role of women in Islamic society and hot-button issues like triple talaq are never clarified. More importantly, his expression of solidarity with Muslim conservatives is entirely undercut by the fact that this is the only time in the book when the author considers the plight of Muslims. You need to be three-quarters of the way through the book to find an acknowledgment of Muslim contribution to Jerry Rao’s “Indic culture”. This and other substantive issues with the book are the subject of the next section.


What It Is Not

At the outset, Jerry Rao’s book is not an honest retelling of Indian history. It leans too heavily on upper-caste tropes of “centuries of humiliation” under successive Muslim rulers, falls prey to the same trite upper-class arguments about the “benevolent British”, and consistently diminishes the serious differences that have always existed between various schools of thought. Let’s consider the matter of Muslims first.

The Islamic Question

In his entire chapter on Indian conservatives in the political sphere, Rao does not find space to drop a single Muslim name. I can name a few stellar individuals right off the bat: Maulana Azad, Shafaat Ahmed, Sir Muhammed Iqbal, and the indomitable Sir Allah Bakhsh.

The last name may be unfamiliar to some, and in all fairness deserves a whole post to himself, but here’s the run-down: Allah Bakhsh was the Premier of Sind in British India – up to 1942 a career conservative within the British Raj. An inveterate secularist, he championed a popular movement against the divisive Muslim League. His popularity was so immense that the Muslim League made nearly no advances into the province of Sind until his death in 1943. In 1942, Churchill’s infamous speech to the British parliament where he refered to Gandhi’s “Quit India” movement with utter disdain and made some unsavoury remarks about the possibility of granting independence to Indians. Allah Bakhsh made it clear that he’d had it – he renounced his post and fully intended to dedicate the rest of his life to gathering support for a free, secular and united India. The united part of his personal manifesto bothered the Muslim League, and every clue points to their involvement in his eventual assassination in 1943.

Was this not relevant to Rao’s case for conservative thought in the country?

Rao might counter my objection by stating that Allah Baksh was indeed a conservative for the most part but by renouncing his premiership, he also renounced all claims to being part of Indian conservatism. Fair enough. But if one is to buy this argument, why does Naoroji figure so conspicuously in Jerry Rao’s narrative? Naoroji too began as a conservative who thought he could make a difference from within the British parliament. Although he made some progress towards his goal of Indian home rule, he soon realised that the powers in Britain wanted control over India at any cost, and saw the predatory Crown as a leech sucking the Indian body dry. By the time Naoroji died in 1917, he was thoroughly disillusioned with the British ability to govern India and wanted them gone.

Naoroji was as radical as they came in 1917. And yet, Rao has no trouble including him in the political narrative. Wilful omission? Maybe. Double standards? Most definitely.

This exclusion of Muslim individuals isn’t restricted to the Independence movement – Rao ignores all Muslim contributions to Indian political thought despite the fact that for over 600 years, this nation was ruled by Muslim rulers. I want to go easy on the author and assume that he ignored them because they were causing many changes to Indian culture by bringing their new ways of life to this land of Hindus. At the risk of being accused of whataboutery, I want to put to Rao this following: if this is the case, why not at least mention Akbar, a man who fought his own zealous family to ensure equal treatment of all citizens regardless of their religious, ethnic or cultural background? For a man so fond of name-dropping, the silence on political changes due to Mughal rule is deafening. On the matter of trade and economic issues, why not mention Sher Shah Suri, the man who facilitated free and fair trade so much that during his time, a caravan could travel unmolested from Peshawar in modern Pakistan to Chittagong in Bangladesh – a distance of over 2000 km. Such free movement is still only a distant memory in modern India, where highway robberies are painfully common. As a lover of free markets and open trade, shouldn’t Rao appreciate this unprecedented effort a bit more?

The 16th century Grand Trunk Road, a truly impressive trade route connecting Bengal to the Hindukush

In the end, it is obvious to all but the most intransigent that Jerry Rao’s recounting of Indian political history deliberately omits Muslim names while trying to secure ‘Indian conservative’ firmly in the hands of Hindu actors. In case you needed more convincing, here’s how the author summarizes what Indian culture is:

I would argue that “we the people” is meant to be a reference to people with a shared culture, however limited or tenuous that idea may be. We call it Indian culture. The fact that many of its traditional elements have a Hindu touch does not make it an exclusively Hindu culture. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are doubtless central. But so are the Jataka tales, Jain sutras, Sufi music, the Sikh gurbani, Reverend Beschi’s Tamil epic Thembavani, Abraham Panditar’s Carnatic music compositions on Jesus, Avestan verses, Bene Israel psalms, Santhal chants and so much more.

So it’s everyone on the planet except mainstream Muslims. Good to know, Jerry!

Conservatism and Its Masters

Perhaps the most cringeworthy parts of the book are where Jerry Rao echoes Indian conservatives in his defence of the British Raj as a benevolent, positive addition to Indian history. A century of poverty, strife and gradual resurgence seems to have granted him a doe-eyed version of what the British were actually doing in India. This is how Jerry Rao views the

The fundamental political dispute that defined the first half of the twentieth century in India had to do with the approach to the Raj. Many conservatives believed that with all its faults, on balance the Raj must be leveraged as a force for the good. […] It is not uncommon to keep running into the view that we were in a sense lucky not to have been colonized by the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Dutch or even the French. The Indian encounter with the Anglo-Saxon has been seen as one that resulted in a refreshing outburst of creativity, which had constructive outcomes.

A “refreshing outburst of creativity”? In what, massacring peaceful protesters?

And yet, Rao does not spare the pre-British Mughals the same generosity; this despite the undeniable fact that everything from food to clothing to our culture itself was made infinitely more colourful by Mughal patronage.

Rao’s claim that the 1950 Indian Constitution must be seen as a conservative document is comical in its absurdity. His whole argument hinges around the Manusmriti, an ancient Indian document that lays out the various rules governing Hindus, codifies the ways in which they may interact with each other and prescribes a very rigid set of roles that individuals of each caste, creed and gender could perform. Many devout Hindus consider this document to be divinely handed down from God to the sage Manu – therby making it inviolable and sacred. Most contemporary discourse about “Brahminical orthodoxy” ultimately refers back to this text. Let’s consider the evidence presented before us:

One can argue that the idea of non-discrimination too had an evolutionary history through the Raj. […] The jury is out on whether the Manusmriti was simply an idealized text or if it was practised. But for what it is worth, it did have a measure of social sanction and it did provide for differential punishments for identical crimes committed by persons belonging to different castes. It turns out that the Raj successfully subverted this ideology fairly early in the game.

[…] in the area of gender, the practices of the Raj were not necessarily much behind those prevalent in Britain and America. In the late nineteenth century, the Madras Medical College did admit women. In the early twentieth century, Cornelia Sorabji was not allowed to practise in the Bombay High Court because women were not allowed to practise in English courts at that time. The enhancement of women’s rights can also be seen as a gradual and phased affair, rather than one which was parachuted in by our Constitution.

Some have argued that the grant of universal adult franchise by our Constitution was truly revolutionary. The very chronology by which the political institutions of India evolved from the Regulating Act, Pitt’s India Act, the Charter Acts, Queen Victoria’s Proclamation, the creation of Councils, the Minto-Morley Reforms, the Montagu-Chelmsford Act and the 1935 Government of India Act all the way to our Constitution makes it an evolutionary, gradual, constitutional process. The retention of the key features of the political institutions bequeathed to us by the Raj makes the process a conservative one. The new Constitution did go against doctrines like the Manusmriti. But that process had started long ago.

Much has been written regarding the status of Manusmriti in pre-colonial Indian culture, and I don’t want to belabour this point too much. However, two things need to be noted: first, as pointed out by historians such as Ram Guha and Shashi Tharoor, the Manusmriti was considered as useful in daily affairs as the Bible is to Americans today. Laws existed separate from the rules laid out in the Manusmriti, and it was really the British who gave Manusmriti more weight than society did. The Gentoo Code that the British adopted in their dealings with Indians was the first time in centuries that the Manusmriti came to be regarded as anything more than a historical relic. This is not to imply that all pre-colonial Indians were casteless hippies enjoying life freely. No, by codifying these loose and amorphous rules as the basis of all Indian law, the Raj actually cemented the very discrimination that Jerry Rao so gleefully tries to downplay.

Second, if Jerry is fine with the British state because it subverted the provisions in the Manusmriti, one wonders if this is a matter of principle or a convenient factoid the author is exploiting. Supposing a Muslim ruler had done the same thing by imposing a set of rules that applied to Hindus without any regard to their castes, would Rao be equally glad that age-old shackles of caste had been broken by a wise ruler? What if Jerry Rao reads a bit more Indian history and learns that Aurangzeb did exactly this? Would he start singing praises about the great ruler Aurangzeb who ruled over all of India and destroyed the caste system for all eternity? I doubt it very much, and I think this inconsistency proves that for Jerry Rao, the Manusmriti matters purely because the British first legitimized it, and then subverted it. That’s not conservatism; that’s just boot-licking.


Coda

It’s now getting tiring to point out the fact that Indian conservatives are without exception drawn from the same mold of upper-caste, upper class urbanites who seem to be entirely removed from the rest of India’s “unwashed masses”, all while simultaneously preaching what the caste system actually is to people whose daily lives are defined by it. Trust me, I hate this dreadfully boring continuance as much as anyone else. And it brings me no small amount of frustration to be saying that of a writer who I thought could make a genuine attempt at wrestling with the vexed issue of conservatism in India. But Rao shows neither the self-awareness nor the honesty required to carry out such a task. In the end, his book is just another in a long line of sad restatements of cliched elite truisms about India’s glories and its colourful past, and adds nothing to enrich popular discourse. If I’d gone my whole life reading this book, I don’t see how I would have been poorer by a paisa, an ounce or a thought. However, I suspect that “The Indian Conservative” is going to be instructive to liberals looking to rebutt Indian conservate arguments. If nothing else, it goes to demonstrates all the reasons why it may be considered at best a hollow intellectual space, and at worst a dangerous normalisation of previously taboo apologisms.

In one word, Jaithirth Rao’s attempt at mapping out the history of conservative thought in India can best be summarized as ‘dishonest’. It papers over many issues in Indian culture purely because the author finds them inconvenient to his narrative that ther is a positive thing called “Indian culture”. Where impossible to ignore, Rao’s hamfisted arguments only delegitimize the conservate case, even while exposing his less-than-adequate research. Nevertheless, the book is important as an emblem of the growing brazenness with which Hindu apologism is seeping into everything in India. If nothing else, it may be a sign of the books to come.

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