ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Importance of the Past

Gopal Guru’s article “The Idea of India: ‘Derivative, Desi and Beyond’’’ (EPW, 10 September 2011) breaks a certain consensus on both the “derivative” and “desi” interpretations of nationalist thought that has dominated the academic discourses of the last 20 years. It highlights two critical issues that have not been the central concerns in the readings of the above-mentioned two interpretations. As Guru argues, an examination of the nationalist thought “beyond” that has dominated the academic discourses of the last 20 years. It highlights two critical issues that have not been the central concerns in the readings of the above-mentioned two interpretations. As Guru argues, an examination of the nationalist thought “beyond” the understandings of derivative and desi offers a possibility to critique the notions of a “harmonious social and moral order” of the nation and helps us to bring out the “questions of historical injustice” in the forefront of an “Idea of India” debate.

Political theorists in India and elsewhere, generally, are not very much concerned about the past as a central category in their analysis and conception of a theory of social justice. Importantly, “dealing with the past” is always a difficult question and the memory and experience of historical injustice exists both within and outside state borders. It also has the capacity to frustrate the hegemonic consensus and political equations in the existing knowledge and power relations. However, as Valerian Rodrigues argued in “Reading Texts and Traditions: The Ambedkar-Gandhi Debate” (EPW, 8 January 2011), thinkers like Ambedkar were well aware of ‘‘the epistemological problems of access from the boundedness of the present to the past with all its otherness. Ambedkar thought that the past is always accessible from the present rather than there being a past independent of the present. We highlight those issues which mean to us in the present.’’ As Guru observes, the historical subalternity was central to Ambedkar’s conception of nationalist thought and hence he took issue with Gandhi and other nationalists in this regard. For them, it was irrational and counterproductive to rely on the “negative” identity of the untouchables and the history of social oppressions. However, Ambedkar realised the problems of such a cunning negation of the political and the moral consequences of the untouchables’ past, through a life and death struggle and put forward a convincing philosophical and political justification for the recognition of historical injustice suffered by the dalits. For Ambedkar, the stigmatised identity of the untouchables had to be “acknowledged” first and then refused.

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