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Review: ‘Interpreting the World to Change It - Essays for Prabhat Patnaik’ | Rishav Sharma

Friday 2 June 2023



Interpreting the World to Change It:
Essays for Prabhat Patnaik

C.P Chandrashekhar and Jayati Ghosh (editors)

Tulika Books, New Delhi
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 9382381937
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-9382381938

Interpreting the World to Change it: Essays for Prabhat Patnaik is a collection of essays celebrating the life of the stellar Marxist economist Professor Prabhat Patnaik. The contributors include Ashok Mitra, Irfan Habib, Amiya Kumar Bagchi, Akeel Bilgrami, Prakash Karat, Sitaram Yechury, Aijaz Ahmad, and Teesta Setalvad among others. Overall, the book comprises sixteen chapters on variegated themes ranging from Jawaharlal Nehru, Indian secularism, Economic Planning in the context of India, Neo-liberalism, and Imperialism, making the book a treasure trove for Left enthusiasts in India.

On Jawaharlal Nehru and the national movement, Irfan Habib writes that Nehru represented a positive break with Gandhi and Gandhism, despite being declared his political heir. The break occurs in the aftermath of the Khilafat and Non-Cooperation movement when Gandhi did not have a proper constructive program to offer. The controversy over individual non-cooperation versus limited non-cooperation between Swarajists and Gandhians did not attract the young Nehru. In 1926, he traveled to Brussels and in 1927 attended the Congress of the League Against Imperialism after which he went to the Soviet Union. He was greatly impressed by the ‘socialist collectivist ideas.’ It is interesting to note that after independence Nehru had called for ‘collective farming’ for the Indian agricultural sector. However, it was not adopted as a policy, thanks to the bureaucrats, and the right-wing within the Congress.

After Nehru returned to India, he along with Subhash Bose insisted on something more radical and concrete as a program for the Congress which led to the passing of the Madras Congress Resolution of total independence in 1928.

During the Civil Disobedience Movement, whilst in jail, Nehru wrote the Glimpses of World History and his Autobiography which demarcated his ideas from that of Gandhi’s. Habib writes that Glimpses marked Nehru’s first celebration of reason wherein ‘he was not prepared to accept that religion contributed anything positive to humanity...(his) major complaint against religion was that it not only deadens the intellect, it makes the human being servile to the illusion of an afterlife’ (p 18). Similarly, in his Autobiography, Habib avers, ‘Nehru spoke of Gandhiji’s dangerous addiction to metaphysics and his arbitrary declarations of policies that contradicted agreed decisions, thereby causing much confusion in the movement’ (p 18). Despite all that Nehru said, it is a testimony to the conjugated nature of the national movement that Gandhi anointed Nehru as his sole successor. Today’s Indian politics is a dual negation; first, a complete negation of tolerance, for even a semblance of dissent and disagreement that marked the national movement seems to be missing. Secondly, Nehru’s great-grandson, Rahul Gandhi, confesses of himself as being a ‘proud Hindu’ and a ‘Shiv Bhakt’ (devotee of Lord Shiva). In his political life, he is often seen hopping temples and asserting his Hindu identity (albeit not in the manner the BJP does). At both, Nehru would certainly be turning in his grave.

One of Nehru’s most important intellectual contributions was the drafting of the Fundamental Right’s resolution of the Karachi Congress, 1931 which, for the first time ‘proclaimed the equality of men and women, which Gandhi had not even recognised in Hind Swaraj’ (p 20). Riding his on the principles of socialism, the resolution also acknowledged, albeit partially, the slogan of ‘land to the tillers’ and clause 15 of the resolution spoke of state control of ‘key industries and services such as mineral resources, railways, waterways, shipping and public transport’. It must also be remembered that it was the Karachi Resolution which was made to be the basis of the election manifesto of the Congress in 1937 wherein it gained huge success.

The second chapter by Akeel Bilgrami, Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, is ‘the’ most stimulating contribution of the collection. He argues that for the nationalist leadership the idea of ‘secularism as a doctrine, if it is properly understood in its non-arbitrary and historically situated terms, was not a very central ideal in the period in which they lived and worked together—not even for Nehru (p 27). The secular discourse in India began, argues Bilgrami, as a corrective or countermeasure to the discourse of nationalism founded upon religious majoritarianism. And this was so because, firstly, unlike Europe, the nation-building strategy in India did not go through ‘any socio-political damage on religious lines’ (p 31). Secondly, the idea of a timeless pluralism pervading India since time immemorial was the cornerstone of the thought process of leaders like Nehru and Gandhi. And thereby the need was never felt for the adoption of a self-conscious adoption of secularism as a doctrine.

C.P Chandrashekhar in his chapter Nehru, Planning and India’s Socialistic Pattern brings to the table fine insights on the nature and working of early Indian economy immediately after independence. At the very outset he declares that Nehru, despite his strong socialist predilections, was cornered and pressured from all sides and was forced to admit that ‘bourgeois as the outlook of the Indian National Congress was, it did represent the only effective revolutionary force in the country. As such, Labour ought to help it and cooperate with it and influence it, keeping, however, its own identity and ideology distinct and intact’ (p 71). In this vein, Nehru also envisaged that ‘the course of events and the participation in direct action would inevitably drive the Congress to a more radical ideology and to face social and economic issues’ (p 71).

As it played out, Nehruvian socialism was hardly about socialism in terms of the dominance of labour over capital. It was a mixture of public ownership coupled with a strong bourgeoisie put together to strengthen the basic structure of Indian industry whilst sacrificing in the immediate future, the consumer market, and to make India self-reliant through the policy of import-substitution. The conscious choice of wording/phrases too represented the Congress’s attitude towards socialism. For instance, at the Avadi session (1955) of the Congress it was the achievement of ‘a socialistic pattern of society’ that was adopted as the objective, and socialism was left to be cleverly used by Indira Gandhi, two decades later, against her challengers both within and outside Congress.

I have touched on three major contributions of the book, and it goes without saying that the other chapters are equally stimulating and readable. And given the paucity of space, it is difficult to enumerate their novelties and strengths. To sum it up, the book will serve well for both specialists and the educated laity.

(Reviewer: Rishav Sharma is a legal practitioner based in Delhi)

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