To be a right-wing intellectual in India
Why is there such a dearth of quality thinkers among the right?
My friend Sagarika Ghose has written an interesting piece in The Times Of India wondering why “India’s right wing has failed to create intellectuals of global stature”. She offers her speculations: “One of them could be that the bharatiya inheritance has not really produced writers and thinkers on political philosophy and liberal governance. The Indian tradition may have had a preponderance of thinkers on spirituality, divinity and other-worldly concerns, but where for example is the bharatiya John Locke or Thomas Paine? Where’s the bharatiya Magna Carta? The exception is the Arthashastra, but that’s over 2,000 years old. The Bhagavad Gita does not contain tenets of liberal governance but is predominantly concerned with good and bad conduct. The Manusmriti cannot really be a blueprint for a liberal progressive society.” Quite true.
She also points out that one of the problems “is the nature of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) itself. Line and command organizations like the army rarely encourage original thinking or revisionism or fresh ideas”.
We must not expect nationalist organizations to produce texts on liberal governance, since they are opposed to that sort of thing. To me the real question is why there hasn’t been a quality thinker on the nationalist side, even if illiberal. The fact is that intelligent and intellectual bigotry is very difficult. There are very few people who can pull that off and that is why we can count the major ones on our fingers.
The subcontinent produced one of the most important such figures in Abul A’la Maudoodi. He is the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami. While only in his 20s, he started writing tracts that defined political Islam in a new and original way. Maudoodi was an autodidact and not the product of a madrasa. He had access to European thinking and freely used the architecture of communism, including the idea of a “vanguard” that would bring about the Islamic state.
This is hardly by way of liberal governance. But there is no question that he was so good at what he did that his texts are still used by fundamentalists in the Arab world today for their global jihad.
Another man I can think of, a century before Maudoodi, is Ernest Renan, whose most important text is his volumes on the early history of Christianity. Armed only with the New Testament, sharp observational skills and a brilliant instinct, he set about reconstructing the life of Jesus and the rise of the faith after Paul. It’s true that modern scholarship has superseded a lot of that work, but it is still thrilling to read Renan, though he would be rightly seen as someone prejudiced against Jews.
In more modern times, one entertaining source of conservative opinion is the British magazine The Spectator. When I used to read it 20 years or so ago, it had a very amusing tag line: “Firm, but unfair.” And so it was.
The Spectator operates from inside a tradition where “right wing” means something very specific. It’s linked to hard power, to race and colonialism, to taxation, to “family values” and such things, quite clearly. And so it is easy to locate a thinker within it, unlike in India, where there is no clear tradition that separates left and right. Another thing lacking in our parts is the aristocratic aspects of conservatism. It is of course the idle rich, those who have squatted for centuries on ancestor-bestowed land, who are liable to oppose the values of liberalism. But because of this connection, there are other things that colour their conservatism. To be conservative is to be elegant in dress, lean of body and expensive of taste. From there one may look down on the rabble.
This is something which, as I have said, we do not have in our parts. I can think of two people here who claim to or are seen to write “from the right”, which is to say, in support of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its agenda. These two are friends Swapan Dasgupta and Ashok Malik. Reading them, one gets the sense that there is something defensive about their positions. I suspect—I could be wrong, of course—that they feel shame to be playing on the same side as Niranjan Jyoti and Giriraj Singh.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, I was on a panel with Dasgupta. He said that after the Babri Masjid was torn down in 1992, his friends abandoned him because he took the considered view that it was a fine thing. It occurred to me that someone like him would be uncomfortable in the company of what passes for the Hindu right. What on earth would they talk about?
There is some really good conservative writing by Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar in the Sunday edition of The Times of India. It is conservative because it is realist. Another such writer, though very different in subject, is my murshid, my guru, Khaled Ahmed, in The Indian Express. There is no question that anyone from the Hindutva side can produce such quality, because prejudice alone is not a good creative tool, as Ghose has also observed.
Aakar Patel is the executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.
To read Aakar Patel’s previous Lounge columns, click here
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