Milinda Banerjee of University of St. Andrews traces the roots of Indian democracy through the reformer’s work
Analysing Rammohun Roy’s work and outlook can help us understand what was lost in the making of Indian democracy. Milinda Banerjee, lecturer in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews, underscored this aspect at a webinar organised by the Victoria Memorial Hall to celebrate the 250th birth anniversary of Raja Rammohun Roy on August 25.
In the talk ‘Rammohun Roy and the roots of the Indian democratic self’, Banerjee spoke at length on how the social and educational reformer’s work and line of thinking blossomed into a multi-contextual approach to Indian democracy.
Jayanta Sengupta, secretary and curator of Victoria Memorial Hall, made the welcome address at the webinar. The event was moderated by S.V. Raman, the programme consultant to the Hall.
Banerjee on Rammohun Roy’s major contributions to social change in 19th century India:
The meaning of democracy
The idea of democracy goes back a long way and refers to something beyond the arithmetic of votes. There was universal adult suffrage and the right to vote was limited by gender, class, property rights and race across colonial hotspots in Rammohun Roy’s time. We would have a myopic history of democracy if we were to concentrate only on the 20th century.
Broadening the scope of democracy
This would include aspects like a critique of patriarchy and hereditary social hierarchy, equal rights for men and women, a civil and political freedom, and the rule of law. In this respect, we can confidently say that Rammohun Roy’s contribution is seminal for the evolution of Indian democracy.
Most of the fundamental aspects of democracy were first conceived by Rammohun Roy. He inhabited a very complex early modern world, which was characterised by deep-rooted social struggles. Both these aspects and the struggles are very much present in today’s India.
If one looks at Dalit and Adivasi politics, there is ample evidence of a vibrant indigenous subaltern democratic heritage. This pluralistic outlook and the vibrancy are two essential features of Indian democracy.
Global intellectual history
The history of political and social ideas in India started to take shape in the 19th century. It was heavily influenced by British intellectual history. However, modern academics consider intellectual history as the documentation and analysis of production and collation of ideas around the globe.
Rammohun Roy’s outlook
Though born in Bengal, Rammohun Roy’s entire outlook was profoundly international. His ideas cannot be understood through the lens of Indian political thought alone. It has to be gauged by the very complex relation between Bengali ideas, Islamic ideas, Sanskrit ideals and various strands of European socio-political thought.
Defining the idea of ‘self’
It’s important to understand how Rammohun Roy envisaged the idea of ‘self’. In all of his works, the term ‘atman’ is referred to again and again. He translates, perhaps inaccurately, this Sanskrit word as ‘soul’ in his English writings. This word contains the seeds of a cosmopolitan and fluid idea that goes back and forth between the universal and the individual.
Social reforms: Sati and property rights
Rammohun Roy was the first person to say women have the right to salvation. He argued that women should be allowed to live even after the death of their husbands so that they could attain salvation. This logically leads to the argument that widows should not be burned at the stake with the corpse of their husbands.
Property rights involve topics related to ethical, moral, social and political autonomy. Roy fought to improve the property rights of women in Bengal during his lifetime.
Panchayat and press censorship
Promoting the panchayat system as an example of government reforms, Rammohun Roy said it could be a model of how to ensure greater participation of natives in the judiciary. Citing the history of Sikh and Maratha rebellions due to the oppression of the Mughal emperors, the great reformer warned the British government about the possible consequences of putting curbs on press freedom.
Rammohun Roy was against any form of restricted state sovereignty. He argued for the removal of travel restrictions from one Asian country to another within the continent. He believed that ‘all mankind is one great family’, of which numerous nations and tribes now coexist.
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