Dilip Menon, author of The Blindness of Insight and currently the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, has offered an incisive critique of Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic on H-Net, an international interdisciplinary online organization of scholars and teachers. Menon says, “This book (which puzzlingly comes with fulsome encomiums by leading scholars) is an exemplar of how intellectual history ought not to be done.” Vajpeyi seems desperate to weave a fugitive continuity between an Indic tradition and nationalism—which she calls “the distinctive nature of Indian reality.” According to Menon, “To assume an Indic tradition is a beginning but perhaps a wrong path to travel on since we have a miscegenated diversity of thought in India.”
She takes up Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore, Nehru, and Ambedkar, on account of “ways in which these men were not, intellectually Europeans,” and studies their thought through concepts that ostensibly act as a condensation of their histories of intellection. Of course, this is a heuristic device; these concepts need not be seen as central to the thought of any of these individuals. It is just that Vajpeyi carries out an intellectual exercise where she asks the question: what if we were to think through the oeuvre of these individuals through just this one concept? So far, so good. However, the essays glide over the surface of the writings and thought, avoiding the rigors of serious and textured engagement. She includes a poem here, a few paintings there, and references to works without citation from them or engaged explication. The word “apodictic” comes to mind often: we have to take the opinions offered on trust and assume that the author knows what she is talking about. And sometimes when we encounter sentences like “in converting to Buddhism [Ambedkar] wanted to pull into an empty spot in the parking lot of tradition”, our hearts can only be filled with misgivings.
There perhaps is good reason why histories that sweep across perspectives and historical epochs do not find much favour. Vajpeyi talks of nationalism as a myth that never was, ignoring the many forms of contestation that rose up against it. She conveneintly makes the Indic tradition, the nationalist version of it, and her own heuristic definitions replaceable categories. As Menon says:
There is the peculiar strategy of assertion (“in my opinion”) and of unbounded speculation that substitutes for careful argument. For example, there is the guesswork as to why Ambedkar did not convert his followers to the Kabirpanth, the religious community founded by the bhakti poet Kabir. The author offers the opinion that Ambedkar “did not trust his followers to be able to keep Kabir apart from mainstream Hinduism.” No evidence is offered for this assertion. She brings up Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s “monumental” work on Kabir (no discussion is offered on why it is monumental) and then goes on to say that perhaps Dwivedi’s reading alienated Ambedkar, or “perhaps he never had the opportunity to read this ground breaking book”! The paragraph ends with a stunning denouement. The author says that it is likely that the fact that it was Tagore who had published an English selection of Kabir may have “put Ambedkar off.” She adds disarmingly, “This is of course pure speculation on my part”.
Biased claims are one thing but lazy scholarship entirely another. The book, as Menon points out, suffers too from lack of research, the dearth of rightful citations and sweeping assertions used to elide the responsibility behind making such broad claims. Luxurious metpahors do not help either. For example, sentences like “A faraway island having swallowed India whole, became the whale inside which sat the entire leadership of the future nation-state, unable to recall, recapture, or reconstruct the vast ocean,” throw up a deeply misleading image of India as a homologous ocean.
Her lens of interrogation valorizes the Sanskritic episteme in opposition to the English but fails to see the many ways in which Sanskrit and its proponents in turn oppress and continue to stifle other knowledge systems. Perhaps, as Menon argued in his book, that is what“the blindness of insight” does to us. The question Vajpeyi’s book begets is that is it valid to hold nationalism to be the dominant political idiom in India? From plastic surgery to IVF—the recent spate of assertions about the many inventions of the scientific pre-colonial Indians should be a grim reminder of what such romanticization of tradition can lead to. In these fraught times, it is far more important to record instances of resistance and uphold differences than seek solace in the myth of the past.
Buy The Blindness of Insight here.