Photo by Shakeb Tawheed.
Hansong Li (Mittal Institute, Harvard University) spoke with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi; Laurance S. Rockefeller Distinguished Professor at the Center for Human Values, Princeton University) about the South Asian political sphere ahead of the 2022 Global Political Thought Conference on April 8. Both interlocutors are founding members of the Association for Global Political Thought – an international, interdisciplinary, and intercollegiate project founded in 2021, supported by humanists and social scientists from global institutions. What follows is a short excerpt from their conversation. To read the full text, visit the article in Comparative Political Theory.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta (left) and Hansong Li (right).
Hansong Li: What does a sensible and holistic picture of the “history of Indian political thought” look like? And if there is one, how would it accommodate the multiplex historical, rhetorical, and methodological contexts—from ancient, Mughal, colonial, to post-colonial eras—towards the making of modern India?
Pratap Bhanu Mehta: The enterprise of Indian intellectual history labors under several burdens. The first and most obvious is the fact of colonialism. One of the features of modernity is that India, like so many colonized countries, has had to define its relationship with the West in two different ways. On the one hand, the West politically dominated India. Colonialism put India into a relationship of subordination. In some ways, this subordination was total. It was founded on a racial rule of difference, with some races being more advanced than others. It was founded on the exploitative control of India’s economy and its resources. But perhaps most importantly for the purposes of intellectual history, it was founded on an epistemic rupture: all forms of knowledge that existed in India—sciences, mathematics, medicine, literature, and the arts—were for the most part relegated to mere antiquarian interests. There were some exceptions, but by and large, the view was that the achievements of this civilization belonged to the past, not to the horizons of the future. In some cases, an even stronger argument was made, that India deserved to be colonized precisely because its culture had stagnated; indeed, that stagnation was the cause of its colonization. This culture needed to be swept away by the tides of modernity. And since India was colonized, many Indians have also internalized this narrative. They agreed that the seeds of Indian decay were to be found in its culture.
But this argument did not just come from colonial powers. It became the dominant style of thinking in modernity, most exemplified by G. W. F. Hegel. Hegel’s views are complex. But to simplify, for Hegel, the West became the embodiment of a properly realized freedom. While the rest of the world— China, India, Africa—may have represented a particular stage in the full devel- opment of the Spirit (Geist), these civilizations had by then become ossified. The central claim here was that the peoples in these civilizations were not, in any sense, agents. They were merely expressions of their culture. This claim was tied to a second claim that only the West could be the bearer of universality. All other cultures had nothing to offer that was of universal significance. This underlying attitude was the dominant attitude of the West towards the rest. It is not an accident that almost all the universalizing ideologies of the 19th century—Marxism, Liberalism, even a reformed Christianity—were all at peace with the enterprise of colonialism.
In a way, modern Indian intellectual history begins as an attempt to overcome this burden. How does one contest India’s subordination? How does one rescue the past from Western condescension? How does one argue that the Indian civilization itself has something to offer that is of perhaps more than parochial interest? And how does one demonstrate that the Indians are agents actively making and remaking their world, rather than passive reflections of a culture fixed for all time?
So, in a way, modern Indian intellectual history begins as an attempt to overcome this burden. How does one contest India’s subordination? How does one rescue the past from Western condescension? How does one argue that the Indian civilization itself has something to offer that is of perhaps more than parochial interest? And how does one demonstrate that the Indians are agents actively making and remaking their world, rather than passive reflections of a culture fixed for all time?
There were several responses to this challenge. One response, which largely characterized Indian Marxists and the Left—was to first agree with this story. While they decried colonial exploitation, their interest in the past was largely confined to the material basis of Indian civilization, the modes of production that characterized it and the relations of power that defined its society. I am being simplistic here, but it is for the most part true that their readings of the texts of the past were quite reductive. Their goal was to mine those texts to expose the structures of power in Indian society. For example, a text like the Mahābhārata was read, not for its debate over values, or its literary qualities, but for what it revealed about the transition from, say, a nomadic to a settled society, or a kinship-based society to a monarchy. Some of this work is extremely valuable. But there was a kind of reductionism involved in these readings. At the contemporary moment, there is a lot of pushback against the notion that ideas or cultures are no more than a set of encoded power relations, and therefore have no universal values to offer.
But other responses took a different turn. The first premise of a lot of twentieth-century Indian history was built around the idea of retrieving a nation. One of the claims of colonial rule was that India was not a nation—it was just an endless series of political conquests and formations. This narrative legitimized the colonial right to rule. In response, the task of a particular kind of intellectual history was to demonstrate the contrary, that there was a unity and continuity to the Indian civilization. Is there an Indian intellectual history? Is India more than simply a geographical designation? A second task of intellectual history was to argue that India itself had universal values to offer. It was not just an ossified culture, but it had a dynamic history. This history was the crucible of important human values: non-violence, religious toleration, aesthetic forms, all of which are of universal significance.