Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)


There are very few books that can completely challenge our beliefs, instilled by decades of modern education and colonial conditioning. The first encounter with the writings of Dharampal could do this to anyone. I definitely went through that transformative experience, when I first read The Beautiful Tree, a few years ago. It helped me understand the historical background to the disillusionment of Gandhi with the modern education system, which I share with him, and his subsequent conception of the Nai Talim system. Later, during my interactions with Ramasubramaniam of Samanvaya, who has worked closely with Dharampal during his last years, I heard a good deal about his work and his personality. Ever since, I’d been thirsting to read more of Dharampal, and was collecting and going through his books available online (primarily from the wonderful website of Arvind Gupta). That thirst has now been quenched to a fuller extent by the ‘Essential Writings of Dharampal’, compiled by his daughter, Gita Dharampal, and published by Publications Division of India (and at Rs.135, quite an appealing price).

The book covers many of the major works of Dharampal: The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteen Century (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), India’s Polity, its Characteristics and Current Problems (1992), Some Aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present (1986), The Madras Panchayat (1972), Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991), and Reconsidering Gandhiji (1984).

[Though I set out to write a review for this book, the essay has grown to be an overall introduction to Dharampal, covering texts outside this book too.]


Poring through the archives, in India and Britain, of the various written accounts of the early British administrators of India, Dharampal vividly brings to life, the eighteen century India. This pre-colonial India of Dharampal is in complete contrast with the pre-colonial India of the history books, which is entrenched in popular imagination. Not many Indians doubt the glory of ancient India, its achievements in philosophy, literature and science. But most Indians also believe that the glory belonged to a distant past, and that when the British came, they met a civilisation in shambles, waiting to be pulled out of dark ages into the modern era: a region of famines, poverty, illiteracy, infighting, sati and untouchability. The eighteenth century India was, of course, a region deeply wounded by many centuries of foreign invasions; but despite those repeated invasions, Dharampal establishes that India was a ‘functioning and relatively prosperous society’ in the eighteenth century. It was not the British who pulled India out of destitution, but it was their colonial rule that pushed India deeper into destitution and decay.


A distant history is not difficult to come to terms with: it can be glorified or dismissed with ease. What we did or didn’t do during the Indus Valley period, or the Vedic ages or the Sangam age, may have no immediate implications on policy making. The distance of time allows us to view those with pragmatic detachment, though strongly tinged with nostalgic euphoria. But the history of our recent past is much more crucial, and ineluctable. The awareness about the efficacy of the social and political structures that existed just before the advent of the British could have huge ramifications on our present and future policies. It is this efficacy of the Indian system that the educated Indians question. Our colonised and corporatised minds are unable to comprehend the viability of any system that has not been tried and tested in the West. As Jayaprakash Narayan, wrote in his foreword (not part of this book) to Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition,

“After the first few years of euphoria since Independence, a period of self-denigration set in during which educated Indians, particularly those educated in the West, took the lead. Whether in the name of modernisation, science or ideology, they ran down most, if not all, things Indian. We are not yet out of this period. I am not suggesting that what is wrong and evil in Indian society or history should be glossed over. But breast-beating and self- flagellation are not conducive to the development of those psychological drives that are so essential for nation-building, nor so is slavish imitation of others.”

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A tomato farmer

May 31, 2016

Another old post from FB. With tomato prices getting to over Rs.50 per kg in the market, it seems ironic to revisit it now.

One of our farmers had planted tomatoes. I have often seen him tend his small farm with lots of care over the last few months.

Now his tomatoes won’t fetch him a price that will be sufficient enough to cover the plucking and transportation costs. So he has opened up the farm to the villagers. Whoever is interested can pluck and carry the tomatoes with them, for no cost. The lady who herds her goats near our land, had brought two bags of tomatoes for us. We offered to buy and she said he doesn’t bother any longer.

The tomatoes are not for sale now. But the land is up for sale.

He still waves at us with a smile, everytime we drive past him. And I think of our poor (income) taxpayers who believe that they subsidize his failures.

Being a farmer

September 10, 2013

In recent days, I have been reading a few intense debates on organic vs chemical/GM farming. But, after having some long discussions with a few farmers, I get the feeling that the question they grapple with is a different one:

To continue with farming, or to sell the land and live off the interest from deposits. To be, or not to be.

Right now, they seem to think that the latter makes more economic sense for them. “Our yields have grown; farming has grown but farmers have not grown (விவசாயம் வளர்ந்துருக்கு, ஆனா விவாசாயிக வளரவே இல்லை),” said one farmer-cum-officer from Agricultural Department. But yet, some inner sense holds them back and they continue to feed us, city folks.

Even though, I know that a major chunk goes to the middlemen, I suddenly don’t grudge that Rs.70/kg for onions, as much. That, one of the farmers said, has helped him partially compensate the losses he suffered with turmeric. That, another one said, helps to make up for the onions that are rejected because they are a shade lighter (in color) or a size smaller. And they know, this is not going to last. And they know, more of them are going to harness their herd mentality to sow more onions and face losses next season.

“We don’t need any help with the production – we will manage it well enough. Help me with the selling. Farmers are the only people who can’t fix the prices for their produce,” said one farmer, quite angrily.

What made me really despondent was when I heard this – “My mother always sells off the best tomatoes and brinjals; she keeps the bad ones for us, cuts off the rotten part and uses the good portion. Why lose any opportunity to save some money?”

Finally, “when we sometimes get everything right, we get a few visitors – one elephant is enough to destruct most of the crops that are ready for harvest, and they are invariably followed by dozens of wild boars, which dig the ground and pluck out even the roots. And if one wild pig dies on our field even by accident, we had it – we have to spend unto 5 lakhs to get out of the legal mess. These lovely peacocks – if they eat a few fruits we’ll be glad; they are after all the vehicle of Lord Muruga – but they always take a bite off every fruit. Even the small rabbit – searching for water, it bites off tubes used for the drip irrigation. The deer selectively eats only the grains with such human precision.”

One young man, quiet thus far, took me on his bike to drop me off at a nearby bus-stop. “Sir, don’t listen to all these old hands. They have turned too negative. I have been into farming for the last couple of years – I am gradually shifting to organic farming. Compared to my electrical contracting job, it has less mental stress and gives me joy. And I am confident that I will somehow make money – not as much as before but enough to keep me going.”

An IIT-IIM grad-turned-natural farmer told me last month, “Our farmers, more than even our soldiers, are the bravest in the country doing the riskiest jobs.” I agree.