Author Jaithirth Rao on his new book about the history of Indian right-wing thought, and what makes him anxious as a conservative

“The view that conservatives love the old and oppose all change is both simplistic and wrong. We only love those parts of the old and inherited that are constructive and creative and not dysfunctional,” writes Jaithirth Rao in The Indian Conservative – A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought. He holds that conservatives are opposed to revolutionary change, preferring the evolutionary variety.

As different spheres of Indian society get swept up in an overarching right-wing wave, Rao’s new book offers a fascinating deep-dive into its origins – placing it within the larger context of conservatism. From Edmund Burke and Roger Scruton to Rammohun Roy and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, the author looks at pre-Independence India and how the idea of a shared “Hindu cultural identity” came to be. The book explores modern Indian conservatism in five spheres – economic, political, cultural, social, and aesthetics and education.

Rao notes that even within the Hindu nationalist movement, there remains an ongoing tension between those who push for economic growth and technological process, and those who are more concerned with temple building, cow protection and opposition to genetic technologies. In an email interview, the author opens up on conservatism and philosophy, the Indian diaspora, and what makes him anxious as a conservative.

 Author Jaithirth Rao on his new book about the history of Indian right-wing thought, and what makes him anxious as a conservative

The Indian Conservative – A History of Indian Right-Wing Thought, by Jaithirth Rao

In the introduction, you make a distinction between Hindu conservatism and extremism, adding that it's the latter that remains problematic. Don’t you think that the two are inextricably linked though?

Every moderate movement is linked with its extremist aberration. That’s not saying much. The important thing to note is the existence of the distinction. Incidentally, social democrats and Maoists are linked. So what?

You write of how PhD students today focus on Foucalt and Derrida, with Indian history being treated as an upper-caste hegemonic conspiracy, and that Hindu nationalism is a respectable political doctrine worth studying. Tell us more about this.

The overwhelming dominance of Marxist, Freudian and post-modern bogus ideas in the social sciences and humanities in the West has resulted in the absurd dismissal of Shakespeare and TS Eliot as “dead white males.” Similarly, in India, any attempt to study Sanskrit or Tamil classics and to refer to historians like Radha Kumud Mukherjee or Jadunath Sarkar or Nilakanta Shastri are derisively dismissed in order to retrofit Indian history into preconceived metropolitan modes – which, today, happen to be Marxist, Freudian or post-modern. Freud, incidentally, is dismissed by psychiatrists and neuroscientists. It’s only cultural anthropologists and literature critics who seem to have time for this dubious guy.

There's a brief mulling over whether Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar were political conservatives. Can we delve a bit more into this?

The book is very clear. Trying to slot these two individuals into any one school is futile. It mentions the fact that Ambedkar was well-disposed towards the British Raj, something that is usually not mentioned. The book also mentions, tongue-in-cheek that leftists frequently refer to Gandhi as a conservative. Touche!

With conservatives' belief that most human problems are inherent to our predicament and destiny, do you see a deeper connection between conservatism and philosophy?

I am not arguing that conservatives are philosophers, while liberals are not. I am arguing that their respective philosophical positions are derived from Rousseau for liberals and from Hobbes for conservatives. Rousseau believed that primitive humans were “noble” and that subsequent social conditioning was the problem. Hobbes argued that primitive humans were “brutish” and subsequent human civilization has improved them.

On a separate note, conservatives are deeply sceptical and dismissive of utopian solutions and liberal claims that the human condition can be greatly improved by institutional change. We believe that the human condition is unlikely to have any leaps of improvement. It’s likely to improve gradually, a bit here and a bit there and will never attain perfection.

In the Political Sphere, when you talk about the Partition, there's mention of intractable issues like Kashmir and cross-border terrorism, and that there's no happy or permanent solution. How do you view the current situation in the State?

I have written elsewhere that the present move on Article 370 finally sets one argument to rest — the idea of self-determination advocated by Woodrow Wilson at Versailles is a deeply flawed idea as no territory has a completely homogenous population. The Slovaks and the Sudetens hated the Czechoslovakia that Wilson created and preferred Austrian imperial oppression to Czech oppression. Many of my pandit friends, who forty years ago were opposed to outsiders buying land in J&K, have been persecuted the most by so-called insiders. It is high time that in a heterogenous country like India, where no state is free from minorities (linguistic, ethnic, religious) that we comprehensively discredit Wilsonian self-determination. That has happened. How it moves on remains to be seen. It is very much a work-in-progress that should be studied and supported.

There's great curiosity about the support (financial and otherwise) that Hindu nationalism gets from the Indian diaspora. What’s your perspective on this?

The earlier position was that the diaspora should forget India and identify solely with their host country. This was Pandit Nehru's advice to Indians in East Africa. The new position is to embrace and support the diaspora. The Pravasi awards are an example of this. I think that on balance, the new position is the correct one. I see no reason why we should reject emotional and/or financial support from the diaspora. We should be open to all ideas.

As a conservative, what are the issues you remain most anxious or conflicted about?

I worry that support for free markets is based on the fact that markets work better not on the premise that the market is a moral, voluntaristic, trust-building, consensual, great human institution that has evolved over time and that it should be supported on moral grounds.

I worry that this categorisation of “dead white males” in the West and “dead upper-caste Hindu males” in India is going to lead progressively to us losing our connect with so much that is wise, beautiful and grand in our inheritance.

I worry that in our political dialogue not enough voice is given to the inter-generational issue of our debt to our ancestors and our commitment to our descendants.

You conclude that the push for social reform and religious evolution must happen while preserving Indian culture and the idea of India. How feasible do you think this is?

This is not only feasible, but it is the only sensible way. Rammohan Roy argued against sati by saying that it was not sanctioned by Indian texts. Today, [Narendra] Modi argues for better treatment of girl children by referring to them as “lakshmis”. This approach of discarding the worst in our traditions and emphasising the best is what the Apastamba sutra of the Yajurveda advocated. It is a matter of amazing human synchronicity — this is what the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke advocated.

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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2019 09:23:03 IST