‘Debating India: Essays on Indian Political Discourse’ by Bhikhu Parekh


Reginald Massey

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The intellectual and highly respected academic Bhikhu Parekh has just published Debating India: Essays on Indian Political Discourse (OUP India) which has a dozen of his epochal essays written over a period of two decades. No one who is concerned about India or who studies or writes and lectures about that country can afford to ignore the wisdom and the immense sweep of Professor Lord Parekh’s persuasive prose. Basically being a Gandhian he is not given to dramatic flourishes though the Mahatma himself often resorted to some natak, drama. No wonder Parekh has thus far been denied the Nobel Prize. No matter. Let us wait for the morrow.

It is well recognized that India is a complex, convoluted and thoroughly corrupt society.

Parekh has attempted to make some sense of this absolute mess. May Bhagwan bless  Bhikhu Bhai (if an agnostic sort of secularist such as me is allowed to use good old Hindu terminology). BB  has done a marvellous job. Let me highlight some of the salient points of his book. Parekh claims that India has a long tradition of public debate but, he admits, it has been confined to the cognoscenti. He pulls back from saying ‘the Brahmin castes of Hinduism’. The lower castes were not even permitted to hear the Vedic chants. The belief was that the sacred scriptures would be polluted by entering the ears of the lower castes.

Millions were denied entry into places of worship. It was only during British rule that Temple Entry Acts were instituted.

So who is a ‘True or Real Hindu’? I would have liked BB to address the simple question: ‘Who is a Hindu?’ This is an important issue, especially in today’s India. I was born into a north Indian Rajput family. My wife Jamila is a Chauhan. Neither of us practises Hindu rituals apart from two: Dewali, the Festival of Light, and Raksha Bandhan. My dear sister who lives in Noida always sends me a ‘Rakhi’ and I, as her elder brother, send her a loving present. Therefore, am I a ‘Hindu’?

I REJECT the caste system upon which ‘Hinduism’ is based.

Parekh takes Amartya Sen head on when discussing The Argumentative Indian. While agreeing with some of  Sen’s theses, he writes: ‘My difficulty begins with the title of the book itself … it refers to someone who argues for the sake of arguing, finds fault with whatever the other person says, and is in general disagreeable.” Parekh stresses that for centuries organized debate in India was not always adversarial or designed to refute rival views:  they were often a cooperative attempt to discover the tattva or truth about a given subject. This is an amazing revelation. Parekh further states that classical Indian tradition was not as homogeneous as some commentators glibly suggest. It was “vigorous, rigorous and radical in its discussions of epistemological, logical and metaphysical issues but rather timid in relation to social and political matters”. (My italics). Hence the caste and class hierarchy was largely accepted and “dubiously defended”.

It was only later that foreign educated Acchuts (‘Untouchables’) such as Ambedkar who openly challenged the concept of ‘Untouchability’ in caste-dominated India. In 1932 the British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald announced his Communal Award which gave all minorities the right to elect their own representatives to the various legislatures. The Acchuts were not regarded as ‘Hindus’ since they were beyond the pale and therefore had no caste. They did not belong to any of the Four Hindu Varnas. Hence MacDonald said that they (the ‘Depressed Classes’) be allowed to elect their own representatives.

It was here that Gandhi stepped into the fray. He went on a hunger strike to death.

He called the ‘Untouchables’ Harijans (God’s Children) and wanted them to be counted as ’Hindus’. Gandhi was acutely aware of the mathematics; if the ‘Untouchables’ were excluded the Hindu majority would be reduced by about 50 million. In such circumstances the ‘Untouchables’ had to be firmly brought into the Hindu fold. Thus Gandhi was the first who proposed ghar wapisi, return home, a term now popular with Hindu activists. It implies that those who were enticed away from their Mother Religion ought now to do the decent thing and return home. Ambedkar  called Gandhi’s fast a “political stunt” but signed the Poona Pact (1932). The ‘Untouchables’ were accepted as Hindus in theory and in return were awarded some seats that should have gone to caste Hindus. Thus in reality the ‘Untouchables’ were bribed to enter the Hindu fold.

While we are on this subject let me stress that Gandhi was a great believer in the Hindu caste system. He said it was the very bedrock of Hinduism; a man could not change his caste by merely changing his occupation. But he was against the concept of Untouchability. However, I have done much research on this subject and have found no evidence that even while living in ‘Bhungi Colonies’ did Gandhi ever eat food cooked by a ‘Bhungi woman’ in a ‘Bhungi kitchen’. He then drank goat’s milk and ate fresh fruit. Or else was on one of his famous fasts. In South Africa he held the black Africans in utter contempt and made no secret of it. He called them kaffirs.

Ambedkar’s life was recently celebrated in India. However, no one dared to quote two of his most potent statements: “The Hindus wanted an epic, and they sent for Valmiki who was an Untouchable. The Hindus wanted a Constitution, and they sent for me.” About Gandhi he was sceptical: “Mahatmas have come and Mahatmas have gone, but the Untouchables have remained Untouchables.” He therefore advised all his friends and followers to become Buddhists. Many did; but the stain and stigma of untouchability stayed. It is still very much alive in spite of Ambedkar’s great Constitution.

This book is the most authoritative account of Ambedkar’s thinking that I have read. Let me quote: “As he put it in moments of despair ‘Hindu thy name is inequality’. To be a Hindu was to belong to a particular caste, and that involved getting caught up in a system of inequality. One could not escape the system of inequality without escaping the caste, and one could do the latter only by ceasing to be a Hindu.”

A pity that Professor Pakekh did not reproduce some of the choicest verses from the Manu-smriti which I have quoted in my book India: Definitions and Clarifications (Hansib, London).

Here are a few sentences from the Sage Manu, the ‘Great Lawgiver of the Hindus’:

“Anybody who offends powerful Brahmins will be destroyed.”

“To kill a Shudra is as simple a sin as to kill a cat.”

“The Brahmins are the masters of everything in this world, because since birth they are the best.”

Well, well, I could go on but I will not.

The Gandhi  — Tagore differences and debates have been impartially presented with the utmost precision. Gandhi who strode between both saintliness and realpolitik had no sense of aesthetics. Whereas Tagore had high regard for the Taj Mahal, Gandhi believed that the Taj was a mere folly created by a despotic Mughal, a Magroor Sahenshah.

In 1934 the Bihar earthquake created havoc. Gandhi claimed that it was divine retribution for “the sin of Untouchability”. Tagore was incensed. Untouchability, he said, was not the only cancer that afflicted India. He said that Gandhi had no knowledge of science or geology and, in any case, why were so many ‘Untouchables’ and innocent children killed? Gandhi had no reply.

A marvellous part of this book is Gandhi and Osama Bin Laden: Is a Dialogue Possible?

It is an imaginary but illuminating correspondence between the Apostle of non-Violence and the Apostle of Violence, both now dead. Hopefully with their Ishwar or Allah.

You will have to read this book to savour it and learn from Professor Parekh’s vast and glorious erudition.

This is an important document. It must be read by Shri Modi and his entire cabinet.

Every Indian university should insist on it as required reading.

Pictures taken during a panel discussion on Lord Bhikhu Parekh’s “Debating India: Essays on Indian Political Discourse” took place at London Nehru Centre on Monday 23 November 2015.

 Left to right: Professor Lord Bhikhu Parekh with panellists Professor Sir Richard Sorabji (Emeritus Professor of Classics, Oxford University), Dr Faisal Devji (Reader in Indian History, Oxford University), Dr Shruti Kapila (University Lecturer in History, Cambridge University) and Professor Lord Meghnad Desai (Emeritus professor, London School of Economics). 2nd picture: A section of the audience.



 Rregiland messieginald Massey has been writing a regular Book Page for CONFLUENCE for years. His poetry and prose on a variety of subjects have been widely published.  Most of his books are available from Amazon UK.