Dharampal: Unravelling the Unknown India

June 2, 2017

(To be published in the Sarvodaya Talisman magazine.)

I

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.]

Dharampal1

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.

II

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 Beautiful Tree

May 28, 2014

‘A Beautiful Tree’ by Dharampal, led me to this intriguing story about Andrew Bell and his Madras System.

Most of us think, we owe our education system to the British. But I was completely surprised to learn that the Madras System, which was inspired by what Bell saw in the late-18th Century India and his experiments in a Madras Asylum,sowed the seeds for the dramatic improvement in education standards in England in the first half of 19th Century, along with Joseph Lancaster who had modified Bell’s system.

From a mere 40,000 students attending school in Britain in 1792, the number increased to 21,44,377 in 1851.

In contrast, one-third of the boys (but hardly any girls), surprisingly belonging to a wide variety of castes, went through the native primary schools, in Madras Presidency in 1820s.

It is, however, the Madras Presidency and Bengal-Bihar data which presents a kind of revelation. The data reveals the background of the teachers and the taught. It presents a picture which is in sharp contrast to the various scholarly pronouncements of the past 100 years or more, in which it had been assumed that education of any sort in India, till very recent decades, was mostly limited to the twice-born amongst the Hindoos, and amongst the Muslims to those from the ruling elite. The actual situation which is revealed was different, if not quite contrary, for at least amongst the Hindoos, in the districts of the Madras Presidency (and dramatically so in the Tamilspeaking areas) as well as the two districts of Bihar. It was the groups termed Soodras, and the castes considered below them who predominated in the thousands of the then still-existing schools in practically each of these areas.

But the decay had started setting in much earlier with the advent of the British and got worse over the next century. The situation was similar in Bengal, Punjab and elsewhere. The quality of content taught in schools can be subjected to scrutiny and debate, but, these schools, at the minimum, ensured basic literacy and arithmetic.

Macaulay and others, whatever were their intentions – not all of them were nefarious, seem to have only led to the reversal of the gap between UK and India.

Most of these arguments had been put forth by others earlier, especially some of Gandhi’s associates, based on the reports of the early English administrators. Dharampal has developed on that work by meticulously going through the old archives and piecing together the whole story.

I am usually a skeptic, when it comes to grandiose claims about our past glory. But going through this book, and all the supporting archives that have been published in detail in the annexures, and glimpsing through a couple of other books which had been published much before this one, my skepticism has definitely been shelved for now.

I will be curious to read any criticism of Dharampal’s work. Interestingly, a strong criticism is already in the book, in the form of the decade long debate between Sir Philip Hartog and Gandhi.