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Remembering Dharampal on His Birth Centenary

by Ashwini B. Desai

Dharampal was a great Gandhian thinker and a prolific writer and this year happens to be his birth centenary. He was convinced about the imminent requirement for an unbiased understanding of India’s past than what is painted as Indian History today. He laid his hands on the archival material of the British period. His reflections on the Indian past, though ignored in the contemporary debates, have indeed proved to be of great significance and have great implications now. Dharampal’s work challenges the colonial description of India.

Detailed exploration of his works could lead us to radical reappraisal of the Indian image constructed by the Europeans and even by the contemporary scholarship of India. He authored many important texts like Panchayat Raj as the Basis of Indian Polity: An Exploration into the Proceedings of the Constituent Assembly (1962), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (1983), Bhàratiya Chitta Mànas and Kàla (1993), Understanding Gandhi, Rediscovering India, Despoliation and Defaming of India: The Early 19th century British Crusade, The British Origin of Cow-Slaughter in India: with some British Documents on the Anti-Kine-Killing Movement 1880-1894, The Madras Panchayat System, Vol II: A General Assessment and so on, among other seminal works.

I want to briefly sketch an initial introduction to his work, Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition which is more relevant today than when it was written. When we observe the social movements and protests that occurred in the past decade, we can clearly see a lot of confusion over the issues raised and the foundations of the claims of certain movements. Thanks to social media it has become clear that general public has lost interest in such movements.

Even the over-exposure to media has not brought people together to fight for many causes that we think are important. The mockery of the situation is best expressed by a Kannada intellectual who says that people have lost interest in the so-called people’s movements. The question is why it is the case and how could people like Gandhi, not only draw attention of large masses but also could sustain such movements for very long time. This is exactly where Dharampal becomes very relevant today.

Let us remember how we talked about our freedom struggle. Normally we invoke people like Gandhiji, Nehru, Bose and the revolutionaries. Though there is a lot of discussion about these legendary figures and their role in resisting colonial regime, we seem uninterested to find out from what cultural resources Gandhi derived ideas of civil disobedience and non-cooperation. Dharampal’s work on this very issue shows the roots of Gandhian resistance. In his book, Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition, Dharampal tries to examine the sources of Gandhian resistance. Some claim that Gandhi derived his ideas on civil disobedience from Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin and other western intellectuals.

Others opine that it was Gandhi’s own invention, and he may have got this from Indian Itihasas from characters like Prahalada. Contrary to these claims, Dharampal recognises the Gandhi’s view through Hind Swaraj, wherein he says, “in India the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to co-operate with our rulers when they displease us”. Dharampal gets into various historical material to examine this claim.

To his surprise, he discovers that in 1680, there were records of peaceful protest against the rulers in Madras Pattinam. It is recorded that people protested in a novel way by using trumpets and other instruments. Further, Dharampal gives another account of a similar protest which spread like wildfire from Bengal to Banaras, Patna, Mursheedabad, Sarun and other places. This movement during 1810-11 were against certain tax levied on house and shops. In these passive resistances, people closed shops, stopped all kinds of transactions and production till the rule was withdrawn by the rulers.

Dharampal says, doing ‘dharana’ to attract the attention of the rulers was a common thing. Dharampal argues that Gandhi had an insight into this nature of Indian society and devised strategies of resistance through those ideas that could actually hold Indians together. Dharampal says that Gandhi had the ability to understand as how Indians act and react to various issues. He was able to find out the inner core of Indians and his call for independence movement was more successful. Not that Gandhi discounted the role of the revolutionaries in the independence movement, but that was not his way.

Dharampal further observes from the British records that the Moghul Sultans were wary of such civil disobedience movements by the Indians, and they were very guarded and extremely careful while levying taxes on house, businesses, or temples. There seems to be a fear amongst the Islamic rulers about these kinds of protests by Indians. There is another significant passive resistance in 1830, which Dharampal makes a note of wherein around 11000 farmers all over Canara region of Karnataka protested.

The list of the nature of resistance shown by Indians are plenty in 19th century. What do these records tell us? There are many things to learn today from these records that British documented. Primarily, these documents point us towards how Gandhi was drawing his resources from Indian traditions to develop a resistance to colonialism which was never heard hitherto. It also tells us that it is not possible to mobilise Indian people until and unless one shows them certain serious moral grounds which Indian society has been considering very crucial for centuries. It is also clear that the ordinary people from Indian culture, though labelled subservient and backward had an unbelievable mode of resistance against their rulers irrespective of whether they are Indians or invaders or colonial masters.

Given this attitude of Indians, one could see why a large majority of India disapproves of these resistance movements based on ideologies or identity politics. It is also the same ground on which entire India was hurt by witnessing the Republic day violence. Here we understand what insights Gandhi had about India. This is the reason why, for Gandhi, civil disobedience was not just a resistance but a “Satyagraha”, a way of being in this world. Today that Gandhian understanding can be seen in the response of Indians. This is also exactly the reason for which even in 21st century, Indians who are allegedly labelled as illiterate, backward villagers disapprove of these movements. It also tells us how one should think about building movements in India and why most of the ideological and identity-based movements do not succeed in India.

It is high time that our universities and other institutions of higher learning should open their eyes widely to not just appreciate the agile intellect of the phenomenon called Dharampal but also to challenge the contemporary image of India. This could be a mark of respect to such a giant scholar on his birth centenary.

Rashtrotthana Sahitya, Bengaluru has initiated publications of these texts by Dharampal under the title “Dharampal Classic Series”. Soon we will have the Kannada translation of most of his works under Kuvempu Bhasha Bharati, Government of Karnataka. These publications would open new vistas for a better understanding of India and her traditions.


  • Ashwini B. Desai

    Ashwini B. Desai has her master’s in English literature from the University of Mysore and has submitted her Ph.D. thesis in English literature. Her research is an enquiry into how colonialism has impacted literary studies in India and how even the contemporary literary practices are shaped by European description of India by taking Literary criticism and Literary history. She is making an attempt to understand how colonial consciousness impacts the experiences of people using the literature domain as an example.

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