Rajmohan Gandhi’s Retelling Of South India’s History Is Almost From The Elite Colonial Perspective
Rajmohan Gandhi’s latest book betrays a point of view that appears to belong to a visiting alien who is looking at a foreign cultural landscape.
Modern South India: A History From The 17th Century To Our Times. Rajmohan Gandhi. Aleph Book Company. 544 pages. Rs 510.
How does the elite of our establishment perceive and write our history and how much does it differ from the way we perceive and experience it? Rajmohan Gandhi is an establishment elitehistorian with access to voluminous source material. But he carries with him the name and legacy of two personalities, who defied and rebelled against the elitist history of their period thrust upon Indian masses by the British colonial mechanism — Mahatma Gandhi and C Rajagopalachari. So, naturally, his account of the history of South India ‘from the 17th century to our times’ evokes interest at different levels.
Rajmohan Gandhi does not disappoint such a reader either. The book moves more with a point of view that resembles (more) a visiting alien looking at another cultural landscape. Often, there is the back-engineering technique, a favourite of the colonialists: looking at events from the point of view of present day value system and then harping on judgements of the past.
For example, consider his description of Italian missionary Robert de Nobili. He says: “unlike other European priests who stressed Christianity’s principle of equality before Hindu society’s lowest castes, de Nobili aimed at the highest castes.” (p 26)In reality, almost all Catholic missionaries of the period, as well as Lutheran missionaries, like, say Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, carried out missionary activity from 1706 to 1719 in the small Danish colonial enclave of Tarangampadi (Tranquebar). Constantine Beschi or Veeramamunivar, a well-known Catholic missionary, actually spoke affirmatively about untouchability, while Ziegenbalg was not at all concerned about ‘caste’. The idea of ‘Christianity’s principle of equality’ was indeed a very late colonial invention that probably emerged during the late 18th century. However, the propaganda has been so strong that we have here a twentieth century historian rehashing and reinforcing it.
Equally interesting is the fact that Rajmohan Gandhi does not forget to mention missionary Jesuit John de Britto, who was executed for creating problems in the clan families of the local chieftains. Gandhi seldom mentions Thayumanavar (1705–1744), or even Kumaraguruparar, who belonged to seventeenth century, and took Tamil Saiva Siddhanta to Mughal-occupied Kasi and established an order there. Moving into the nineteenth century, we do not find a mention of even Vallalar (1823-1874). This is akin to writing the history of Bengal of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries without mentioning Sri Ramakrishna.
But, then, there is a definite pattern to such omissions.
Gandhi speaks of Thirukkural as being brought into public conscience, as if, only by the missionaries, and even presents the faulty and discredited notion of G U Pope that Thirukkural was influenced by Christianity. Here are Rajmohan Gandhi’s own lines:
Surmising from his research that 800-1000 CE was the period encompassing Valluvar’s life, Pope detected traces of Gita and also of Jaina thinking in the Kural. Whether Valluvar was a Hindu or a Jaina remains contested to this day: and we may mark also that Pope, who spoke of passages in the Kural as being ‘Christian in their spirit’, speculated that ‘the Christian Scriptures were among the sources from which the poet derived his inspiration’. (p.144)
Given the strong evangelical movement in Tamil Nadu to appropriate Tamil Hindu traditions, one need not say whom such passages by Rajmohan Gandhi could actually benefit. One wonders if Rajmohan Gandhi had read in Tamil the works by Rajaji where he brings out the striking parallels between Kural and Gita. Unfortunately, while family surnames lend credence to certain individuals and make people credulous in accepting their views, the truth, that genetic heirs need not necessarily be memetic heirs, is often forgotten.
Throughout his narration until the nineteenth century, the book could well have been titled ‘South India, her culture, society and religion as seen by missionaries retold with approval by the author’. Every fault line in Hindu society is mentioned and details presented the way evangelicals and colonials saw it. What about how the Indic sources viewed them? The author, who carries the weight of Rajaji and Gandhi in his name, does not actually seem to care.
Take for example his mention of the Nadar community. He describes in detail, through the missionary lens, particularly that of Robert Caldwell, how they were degraded and denied justice. He even mentions the riots that took place between Nadars and the antagonistic communities in Nagercoil in January 1859 (pp. 209-211) — but you search in vain again for Iyya Vaikundar (1809-1851). There is not a single mention. Iyya Vaikundar, who is revered by his followers as the incarnation of Rama and Krishna along with an aspect of Shiva, created a movement that fought simultaneously against proselytising as well as social stagnation.
He criticised the colonial exploitation of the British East India Company for aggravating social stagnation in puranic language. So, he called the colonial forces ‘Vennesan’ – white demon, and forces of social stagnation, ‘Kalineesan’ – kali or black demon (not to be confused with Kali the Goddess). With the twin triangular saffron flag as the flag of the movement, which he called the flag of love, he established a network of Indic learning centres, which imparted religious education and generated social awakening.
Missionary reports of the time express horror at how this movement had stopped their conversion activities. The movement for self-respect among Nadars mostly came from this movement. The missionaries used it for their colonial-evangelical propaganda. That the biological heir of Rajaji and Gandhi should accept the missionary version rather than searching for the truth in multiple dimensions, is indeed a telling sign of what animates such elite-establishment scholarship.
Even with respect to Sri Narayana Guru, while having to admit the spiritual advaitic basis of his social reform, Rajmohan Gandhi finds it necessary to inform his readers that the guru ”did not join campaign against conversion”, and that the guru said ”pragmatically and wittily”, that, when one leaves one’s religion, that religion gets rid of one non-believer, while the other religion gains a believer (p.235). However, while the guru had no problem with an individual changing his or her religion on one’s own volition, he had criticised the proselytising itself, in his most important treatise Atmopadesa Satakam.
To become of one faith is what everyone speaks of:
this the proselytizers do not recognize;
wise men freed of objections to another’s faith
know this secret in full. (verse 47 trans. Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati)
When it comes to the freedom struggle, particularly the non-cooperation phase, the narrative begins to gain a more sober Indic tone. The usual non-cooperation and Khilafat movement as a sign of Hindu-Muslim unity, aimed clearly at the British colonial rule, is emphasised. The Moplah pogrom unleashed on the Hindus by Islamists is given the usual socio-economic twists, but the sheer numbers bring out the horror of what happened. Rajmohan Gandhi brings in castes of the victims, almost rationalising the massacre in his narrative skilfully:
Frenzied Mappilas massacred an unknown number of Nambudiris and Nairs, gruesomely, in several cases. In Tuvur in eastern Ernad, thirty-three Hindus and two Mappilas were put to death in September for having aided British troops halting there. Other Hindus may have been killed for alleged injustice towards tenants, or in the name of establishing a Muslim kingdom, but terrorizing civilians into refusing to help the government seemed the main motivation. (p.264)
In the whole narrative, Rajmohan Gandhi sets a tone. The number of Hindus massacred is not mentioned. The number of Muslim perpetrators of the massacre killed later by the British is clearly given (5,955 captured, 2,339 killed and 1,652 wounded). If the massacre itself was as much as contextualised, and almost rationalised, what Rajmohan Gandhi found as ‘arduous’, is the shuddhi rites that the Arya Samaj employed in getting back the forcibly converted. To reconvert one had to consume Panchagauvya and repeat a few thousand times the names of Shiva or Vishnu. Now, is that more ‘arduous’ than getting violated or witnessing one’s family dishonoured and massacred in front of one’s own eyes, and then forced to get converted?
However, the book does contain some interesting titbits. Edwin Montagu,the secretary of state for India, when visiting Madras in 1917, was not taken in by the non-Brahmin leaders who presented themselves as the so-called backward class leaders. He seemed to have been impressed by the pro-Indian theosophist Annie Besant, and he was mistrusted by the British officials. “His being a Jew was held against him and he was accused of pro-Brahmin bias”(p.246). Perhaps, the relation between anti-Brahminism and anti-Semitism made a historical manifestation here, albeit briefly.
Rajmohan Gandhi also gives a wonderful example of how the innovative education scheme brought about by Rajaji was perverted by Dravida Kazhagam’s (DK) E V Ramasamy (EVR) as a Brahmin-Aryan ploy to perpetuate caste inequalities.
Now as chief minister, he could enact the dream, lighten a child’s burden, double literacy, and restart the village polytechnic, all at no cost.Had this magic ball been thrown at them, a team of educators and administrators might indeed have done something practical with it, but Rajagopalachari insisted on scoring the goal himself, and at once. It was a self-goal, as he always knew it would be. In fact, he had handed the ball to EVR, who ran with it across the Tamil country, declaring: “Here is the proof from the old Brahmin’s own mouth. He wants to perpetuate the caste system.” (pp.364-5)
Unfortunately, when discussing the support of EVR to Kamaraj, Rajmohan Gandhi does not give the context. Actually, the conflict could be traced to Satyamurthi, a Brahmin Congress leader, comparatively more orthodox than Rajaji, with whom Kamaraj sided. Further, EVR was seething with anger at the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which he felt had betrayed him by breaking away from DK after his marriage with a younger woman who he chose as heir to lead the party. This encouraged him to support Kamaraj during election. However, when Kamaraj was defeated in the elections and when DMK came to power, the opportunist in EVR surfaced and went onto taunt Kamaraj over his defeat. Kamaraj also openly stated that while he could not stop someone from supporting him, he never accepted the communal politics of EVR.
This aspect is missing in the book and the reason is not far to seek. But discussing the shooting of M G Ramachandran by pro-DK actor M R Radha, Rajmohan Gandhi brands him as “pro-DK and pro-Kamaraj actor”(p.382). In reality, Kamaraj was against M R Radha, who used to stage an obscene version of the Ramayana as an alternative perspective. Kamaraj went to the extent of getting ‘Dramatic Performance Act’ passed in the state assembly specifically to stop these plays.
Overall, this book is an excellent peep into the way history gets written by the establishment elite cabal. Once it was done by the colonialists and those who accepted the colonial narrative. Later, the colonial mantle had been inherited by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty historians. Unfortunately, Mahatma Gandhi and Rajaji were among those who challenged the colonial historiography and the stereotyping of Hindu culture and spirituality.
Clearly, Rajmohan Gandhi, who has in his name both Rajaji and Mohandas Gandhi, has only in his name the names of his illustrious ancestors. If one expects a Dharampal from Rajmohan Gandhi, one will be disappointed. Going beyond those names, looking at him as an establishment person belonging to the elite colonial power structure, one can understand how the colonial administrators and their present day heirs view our society, its culture and history.
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