Author interview: 'Swaraj was a quest for an Indian self,' says Ananya Vajpeyi

In Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, Ananya Vajpeyi presents a considered look at five "founding figures" of India. Vajpeyi suggests Mohandas Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ambedkar contributed to creating the notion of a modern independent Indian state by reimagining the idea of an Indian self. This new Indian self was largely born out of these five men's understanding and interpretations of Indian classical texts, ranging from the Sanskrit poetry to Buddhist traditions. While elements of Western thought may have influenced the five, Vajpeyi suggests it was a quintessentially Indian intellectual legacy that they drew upon to fashion a modern Indian identity.

Author Ananya Vajpeyi

Author Ananya Vajpeyi

Righteous Republic won the Crossword Award for Non-Fiction this year as well as the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize from Harvard University Press, and the Tata First Book Award for Non-Fiction (2013).

Vajpeyi is presently with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi. She is also working on her next book, which will be on Ambedkar.

How did the idea of Righteous Republic come about?

The idea of this book came to me around September 2007, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I began working on Righteous Republic by late November 2007. At first I had nothing but a title, an outline of less than 3 pages, and some sense that I wanted to write a book about Gandhi, and make an argument that stretched from early pre-modernity right up to the present.

In 2009, I wrote my two Tagore chapters which took several months each and really got me feeling very charged up about the book. The crystalline structure of correlated founders - political categories - aspects of the self only emerged in the latter part of the four years it took to write the book.

One of the main ideas of the Indian independence movement was the concept of "swaraj". Can you tell us what it meant to the Indian leadership at that time?

In a sense, the book itself is about what swaraj meant to different thinkers in the period between the late 19th century and Independence. It meant "self-rule", of course, as the word suggests. But the connotations varied from "home rule" to "dominion status", from to "azadi" to "swatantrata", from limited self-government to writing a separate constitution. Those are all aspects of partial or complete political independence from British colonial rule.

What I try to argue is that there was all along a search for the self too - because it wasn't clear to many leaders and intellectuals who or what that self would be, whose rule they were seeking. The quest for swaraj was a political quest, a struggle for sovereignty, yes; it was also a deeper, existential quest, a journey to understand and define the very idea of India.

And there were many different ideas, mind you! In this way swaraj kept changing shape, evolving and mutating as a concept, now receding, now coming within the grasp of the founding generations.

In the book you argue that your five founding fathers worked with political ideas that were mostly indigenous and not foreign.

Suffice is to say that it only makes sense that indigenous traditions of political thought and political practice would play an important role in shaping the politics of the nationalist period. After all, Indians were not operating in an intellectual or historical vacuum, nor did they learn everything that they knew from their  foreign masters - even though they did learn a lot. They had their own histories, contexts, cultural traditions, their ways of living, thinking, acting and being.

Naturally we would expect old, deep-rooted and widely prevalent ideas about self, sovereignty, state, virtue, law, norms, morals, power and so on to affect the way in which Indians dealt with colonialism, imperialism and modernity. I try to show how this did indeed happen, despite the fact that most of our nationalist elite was highly Westernized and Anglophilic.

When globalization and neoliberal economic policy have put India's sense of self in peril, why should Indians turn their attention to the political ideas of the five founders chosen by you?

I hint at this in my conclusion. The reasons we turn to the past almost always lie in the present. By looking at how the founders dealt with the crisis they experienced, we can get a handle on our own problems today. India is not where it was a hundred years ago, but there is a similarity in that we have to think about who we are, what we want for our future, where we are headed, how we will get there, what we have lost, what price we have to pay, and so on.

Huge social and economic transformations such as those we've experienced since about 1990 require a great deal of soul-searching and introspection. Historical reflection can be very helpful in this regard... . The answer is not for us to do what Tagore or Nehru suggested or taught three quarters of a century ago, but to look at the creative and interesting ways in which they handled their own situation, and came up with new insights and unprecedented ideas for massive change.

Some of the best centers for the study classical Indian texts are in Western capitals, not in India. Is there something wrong with Indian institutions that one has to go so far away in order to understand India?

Yes this is a big problem and I am hardly alone among Indian scholars in relying on archives, libraries, universities and other kinds of intellectual and financial resources that are either located abroad or originate abroad in order to do my research on India. All my major research and writing projects thus far have only been possible because I was able to be at one or other major Western institution - first Oxford University, then the University of Chicago, then Columbia and Harvard Universities, and now the Library of Congress.

In the past 15 or so years I have traveled and lived all over India too, doing research, but what is best about India is talking to people who know this country and its traditions and know their materials thoroughly. If you need sheer bibliographic access, an extensive library, the ability to look up any document you need, then it is still very hard to work in an Indian academic environment. I've done a lot of work here too and it's at least 50% harder because of physical, logistical, bureaucratic hurdles.

My generation has had to deal with the discrepancies and lag between India and the West but I am very keen that the gaps be closed in the near future. The best research can and should happen right here, not elsewhere. The knowledge traditions, the languages, the texts, the art forms, the depth of understanding, the human resources, the historical riches in India are invaluable and cannot be replicated anywhere else. It is only a question of marrying these strengths with some basic institutional infrastructure and Indian scholarship can be the best in the world.

Your book has just won the Crossword Award for Nonfiction 2013 and the Tata First Book Award for Nonfiction 2013. How does that achievement feel?

It has indeed been surprising and rather lovely, yes. I am married to a reporter and writer of non-fiction and many of our friends are journalists. There have always been jokes about the dreary, boring and academic work that I do in contrast to the more "sexy" writing of my husband and his crowd. I always accepted this as my lot and took the barbs with good humour! I was teased for being a "stack mole" and a "human paper shredder", and for prose that could potentially put people to sleep.

Scholars are never in the business of scholarship because they expect either fame or money. To lift up your head from your desk and emerge blinking in the sunlight from half a decade spent inside a library and then receive some recognition, some reward, that's really gratifying.


Updated Date: Dec 17, 2013 12:39 PM

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