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DEMOCRACY AND ITS INSTITUTIONS by André Béteille. Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2012.

CONSTITUTIONALISM and constitutional morality provide the normative scaffold for the diverse strands of argument in this book. In Professor André Béteille’s view, constitutional practice in India expresses a tension between constitutional democracy informed by legality, and populist democracy informed by the imperative of numbers. This finds reflection and affirmation in his interpretation of Indian democracy as resting on a delicate balance between two competing principles: the rule of law and the rule of numbers. It is Béteille’s case that Indian democracy has survived by moving in a populist direction, largely forsaking the path of constitutionalism. It is his lament that the idea of constitutional morality, so eloquently presented by Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly, is all but lost.

Béteille is by no means unmindful of the dangers of attributing intrinsic value to legalism and constitutionalism. The limits of constitutionalism, disconnected from democratic ideals and practices, are manifest. The author’s own reference to Germany before the Third Reich shows that without a consolidation of the democratic ideal, the attachment to the idea of the constitutional state could not save that country from falling into a fascist embrace. In India, however, Béteille writes, the weakness of constitutional values renders constitutionalism fragile and hollow as ‘the democratic urge for equality appears to have gripped the political imagination far more firmly than the idea of the constitutional state’ (p. 82).

Must the democratic impulse contradict constitutionalism when it is the Constitution itself that guarantees the egalitarian promise? How do we account for this deficit of constitutionalism as a value? Apart from a wry comment, blaming it on the Leninist orientation of the Indian intelligentsia, Béteille’s explanation for the failure of institutions is a generalized lack of trust. It is to this absence of trust that he attributes the unproductive relationship between government and opposition, the decline in universities and above all, the politics of identity that pit special rights for disadvantaged groups against the equal rights of individual citizens. This last recalls Robert Putnam’s distinction between bonding and bridging social capital, the assumption that the ties that bind members of ascriptive communities are not conducive to the practice of a secular individuated citizenship informed by norms of reciprocity that transcend these bonds.

Béteille acknowledges that an overemphasis on trust can be detrimental to the interests of disadvantaged sections like women. But he is disturbed by the imbalance between the contemporary strident assertion of rights, on the one hand, and the undermining of the fiduciary basis of society, on the other. In the liberal imagination, these are not contradictory impulses; citizens’ rights are indestructible but not incompatible with solidarity.

For Béteille, the constitutional state and universal citizenship are twin projects, and civil society as a set of institutions in a society of citizens, properly belongs within the legal framework of constitutional democracy. Citizenship too is about more than rights – it is ‘a social value based on respect for the individual as an autonomous moral agent’ (p. 69). This value is denied in societies made up of castes, communities and tribes, which do not yield a conception of citizenship precisely because they do not respect the autonomy of the individual. By implication, such affinities undermine the constitutional state. Social movements too cannot be admitted to the ranks of civil society because they are not always secular or willing to work within a constitutional framework; instead, they are often transitory, and tend to ‘demoralize’ public functionaries by putting them under pressure.

Both these requirements – first, that membership in civil society be dissociated from membership of caste and community, and second, that civil society be sharply distinguished from social movements – bespeak a conceptual purism that runs the risk of demanding that social and political reality fit the concept or else be treated as aberrations and remain forever unexplained. How might particularities of context be accommodated? Scholarship on conceptual history has for some time now persuaded us that language is constitutive of politics and political meaning as much as changes in political beliefs and values contribute to mutations in the meanings of concepts. Received concepts are frequently invested with new meanings and, where they are unequal to the task of describing or explaining social phenomena, new conceptual vocabularies are forged. It is in this vein that Partha Chatterjee has redefined civil society and political society in a manner that claims to describe ‘popular politics in most of the world.’

An idealized conception of the universal citizen is similarly vulnerable. As is well-known, political theorists in North America articulated a normatively weighty conception of group-differentiated citizenship almost two decades ago. The complexity of cultural diversity within the nation state has arguably rendered the ideal of the ‘pure’ citizen – one detached from all affiliations of caste and community – an unreal aspiration, as Béteille himself avows. Further, the concern that the language of rights is used to a greater extent in making claims based on caste and community rather than those based on the redress of disadvantage, obscures the fact that these are two quite distinct and equally legitimate types of citizenship claims, one speaking to the dimension of cultural citizenship and the other to that of what T.H. Marshall called social citizenship. Apprehending citizenship in all its complexity entails an account of how citizens are differentially empowered (and disempowered) on different dimensions of citizenship.

This erudite and elegantly written book is an elegy for a promise of constitutionalism that stands belied. It prods us to think more creatively than we have done about our political culture and how it shapes institutional norms.

Niraja Gopal Jayal


FALLING OVER BACKWARDS: An Essay Against Reservations and Against Judicial Populism by Arun Shourie (2nd edition). HarperCollins, Delhi, 2012.

THE central theme of Arun Shourie’s second edition of Falling Over Backwards is the failure of the judiciary to enforce the constitutional mandate on affirmative action. This theme runs counter to the popular imagination of the judiciary being a countervailing force against attempts of the state to expand caste-centric quotas in education and state employment.

The trajectory of affirmative action cases is in many ways similar to the property rights cases. In the first two decades, judicial dicta on property rights were reversed by a constitutional amendment, which was again read down or qualified by judicial interpretation, in turn leading to another constitutional amendment offsetting the said ruling. This process finally culminated in the removal of the right to property as a fundamental right. The same pattern applies to affirmative action where judicial verdicts negating the attempts of the state to enlarge the use of quotas were invariably reversed by a constitutional amendment. This was manifest right from the First Amendment and was increasingly used in the last two decades to overcome judicial verdicts after Indra Sawhney. But unlike property rights, the contest with respect to scope of quotas continues till date.

In his book, Shourie does not attack the political consensus on quotas; he takes that as a given. Instead, he focuses solely on the failure of the judiciary to objectively evaluate the consensual state action on quotas based on strict constitutional requirements. Shourie may probably be right and any scholar who closely follows Supreme Court opinions on this issue may be compelled to agree with his analysis. But in examining Shourie’s analysis on the role of Indian judiciary in affirmative action cases, three aspects stand out.

First, judicial decision making, particularly in contested areas like affirmative action, cannot be completely immune from the political process, more so when there is complete unanimity. The views of non-judicial players like the legislature and executive and important social groups cannot be completely shut out in constitutional adjudication. Shourie may be correct in asserting that the court reasoning may be flawed and does not reflect the true meaning of the Constitution, but under-enforcement of constitutional norms is a key instrument in constitutional adjudication. In balancing competing interests, the court may have to often compromise on the strict mandate of the Constitution. Failure to do so may put the very survival and legitimacy of the institution at risk. Shourie begins his book by quoting Nehru as to how India cannot afford second grade people to run the public sector and doing so would only lead to folly. But even Nehru could not withstand the political consensus which led to the constitutional amendments (First and Seventh Amendment) during his time to negate the judicial decisions restricting the use of quotas in the first decade after independence.

Second, a dispassionate observer may also be compelled to question the rationale for the variance in the approach adopted by the Supreme Court towards reviewing social and economic policies. With respect to economic policies like tax amnesty schemes or allocation of scarce natural resources, the Supreme Court has evolved the doctrine of deference, almost bordering on abdication; the same court has adopted a close scrutiny of social policies like affirmative action. And unlike economic policies, the close scrutiny extended not just towards executive action, but also towards legislature power and constituent power. Is such a variance warranted? This argument is often supported by characterizing the judiciary as the last bastion of the middle class, which has protected economic reforms, but looked down upon quotas. Although economic policies do not focus on identity like social policies, they do affect some of the core fundamental rights like equality and liberty in the same manner as social policies.

Third, one key point which Shourie articulates very well is the opportunity foregone by the Supreme Court in preventing caste-centric identification of the backward class. The Supreme Court had opportunity at every point of time to affirm quotas for the backward class, but change the measure by which the backward class was identified. This opportunity came before the Supreme Court in 1992 when a nine judge bench was constituted to examine this issue. However, by blessing a caste based identification of the backward class, the Supreme Court not only deepened the institution of caste, but also prevented a more holistic assessment of backwardness that is genuinely linked to achieving equality of opportunity. An individual right to equality transformed into a group right. There was only entry and rarely any exit from the list of backward classes and there was never a review of the list of backward classes.

Our Constitution makers categorically prohibited discrimination on the grounds of caste. However, the Supreme Court ensured that a prohibited criterion for discrimination become a permissible criterion for identification of the backward class.

The Supreme Court ruling had larger consequences for the polity by giving momentum for political mobilization based on caste, which has in turn prevented genuine identification of backward classes. A historic opportunity to transform the polity was lost. Contrast this approach with what the Supreme Court did during the same time in Bommai (1993) where several safeguards were devised before invoking the Presidential emergency power to dismiss state governments (Article 356). In many ways, the Bommai ruling led to a rebirth of federalism in India and the rise of state level parties which completely altered the Indian polity. A caste-centric identification of backward classes created an incoherent system and led to several difficulties for the state in providing quota for backward classes, as demonstrated below.

(a) The Supreme Court in Indra Sawhney case mandated that before a caste or a group is included in the list of backward classes, certain objective criteria need to be satisfied and there must be a comparative evaluation of the group with the rest of society. However, a political process mobilized on the basis of caste precluded any such independent verification of eligibility for inclusion in the list of backward classes.

(b) The judicial dicta in Indra Sawhney led to requirement of demonstrable empirical evidence before inclusion of any group in the list of backward class. Based on this criterion, several quota programmes were successfully challenged. In response, the backward class groups demanded that a caste census be held, which further deepened the institution of caste. This went against the very objective of the constitution makers. A practice which has been abandoned by the British after 1931 got revived.

(c) The Supreme Court also directed that there must be a periodical review of the list of backward classes every ten years. However, till date, the government has never been able to review the list of backward classes, since any exclusion from the list of backward classes would create a crisis. This has led to a stalemate and the direction given by the Supreme Court has been flouted. Had the Supreme Court mandated identification of backward classes based on neutral criteria, this problem may not have arisen.

(d) Since the Supreme Court blessed caste as a permissible means for identifying backward classes, the law-makers made efforts to use caste even in other religions (like Islam and Sikhism) where caste was an anathema, as a mode for including them as beneficiaries in the affirmative action regime. This has dangerous consequences as was evident from the rulings of the A.P. High Court declaring as unconstitutional reservation for certain specified groups in the Muslim religion identified on the basis of caste.

In conclusion, Arun Shourie’s book certainly makes for a compelling reading for any person interested in affirmative action jurisprudence of the Indian Supreme Court. This is by far the only book which critically examines the various court rulings on quotas in India which is equally accessible to the lawyer and the layman.

Vivek Reddy


JUDICIAL POWER AND JUDICIAL REVIEW by Anirudh Prasad and Chandrasen Pratap Singh. Eastern Book Company, Lucknow, 2012.

A book review of a thousand words can seldom do justice to a book of nearly a thousand pages. Authors Anirudh Prasad and Chandrasen Pratap Singh have clearly poured countless hours of painstaking work on their new book, Judicial Power and Judicial Review, which consequently deserves to be examined in an in-depth, law review length essay. In this book review I do much less – I comment only on a few annexures in the book.

The book is divided into nine parts that span out over more than 800 pages. Its comparative approach is perhaps the most attractive feature, and it is also one of the rare constitutional law books that does not confine itself to doctrinal discussions alone – in short, the authors adopt an interestingly unconventional approach to an over analyzed administrative law subject. However, one also gets a sense that the book is primarily descriptive, and designed to be a textbook. In Part I, the authors discuss the origins of judicial review in the UK and US, touching upon themes like the counter-majoritarian difficulty, judicial activism, and interpretivism.

In Part II, the authors discuss models and theories of judicial review, citing authors like Ronald Dworkin, John Hart Ely, and Upendra Baxi. Part III is comparative too, and the authors compare the organization of judiciaries in countries like the US, UK, Australia, Canada, and South Africa, to that in India. This chapter would perhaps be particularly helpful to scholars of comparative constitutional law and judiciaries. The discussion in this chapter ends with interesting questions, e.g. whether the political background of judges impacts decision making in a court. However, the absence of a quantitative study, which might have helped in answering these questions, is sorely missed.

In Part IV, the authors devote separate chapters to judicial review in the UK and US, and one chapter to judicial review in other countries, including, interestingly, Israel, New Zealand, and Ireland. Part V deals primarily with judicial review in India, where the authors touch upon familiar themes, often seen in Indian administrative law textbooks – grounds of judicial review, prerogative writs, etc. Part VI roots the discussion in India’s constitutional scheme for judicial review by identifying provisions in India’s Constitution that deal with the subject, including constitutional amendments. A doctrinal section follows, with discussions of subjects like prospective overruling, pith and substance, and eclipse. One gets a sense, however, that the discussion in the Constituent Assembly of India was not given enough attention. Interestingly, the authors often highlight contemporary debates surrounding the Supreme Court – e.g. the use of the word ‘keep’ by the court, for determining which women qualified for maintenance. Part VIII deals with judicial statesmanship, amongst other things, while Part IX ends with a discussion on post-retirement jobs for judges, and the principle of a ‘reflective’ judiciary, amongst other things.

However, tucked away between pages 831-880, in Annexures I and II, the authors set out a profile of Supreme Court judges who served on the court between 1950-2011, and discuss judicial appointments for that period. There are hardly any studies that examine judicial appointments on the Supreme Court of India between 1990-2011 and, perhaps for this reason alone, the authors need to be congratulated for attempting to fill this enormous gap in the literature.

In Annexure I (pp. 833-856), the authors set out a useful table of information for each of the 198 judges appointed to the Supreme Court of India between 1950-2011 – a table which could serve as the basis for more substantive quantitative studies of the court and its behaviour, going forward. However, though the table is useful, it leaves some gaps that may need to be addressed. For one, information concerning the state High Court from which judges were appointed to the Supreme Court of India is incomplete. For example, under the column ‘Name of the HC coming from’, Justices Brijesh Kumar and B.P. Singh are shown as hailing from the High Courts of Gauhati and Bombay respectively, which is where they served as Chief Justices respectively. However, in the tally of state-wide representation on the Supreme Court of India, Justices Brijesh Kumar and B.P. Singh would be counted as judges from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively, where they were first appointed as High Court judges. Saying that they came from Gauhati and Bombay, though technically correct (because that is where they served before getting to the Supreme Court), is misleading.

Further, the column marked ‘Community’ is also incomplete. Information concerning the religion and caste of judges who served on the Supreme Court of India between 1950-1989 can be pieced together by reading the work of George H. Gadbois, Jr., recently published by the Oxford University Press.1 However, it is far harder to come by reliable information concerning judges who served on the court since then. Neither the Supreme Court of India itself nor the Ministry of Law and Justice (Department of Justice) maintain information concerning the religion and caste of judges of the Supreme Court of India.2 Consequently, when an author sets out to identify the religion and caste of judges of the Supreme Court of India, she exposes herself to the highly probable risk of error.3 I would, therefore, view the information the authors have set out in column 10 of their table of judicial profiles with some skepticism. In the authors’ table, I could identify at least one instance where a Jain judge was identified as professing the Hindu faith, and at least one instance where a Brahmin judge was identified as belonging to a Scheduled Caste. Additionally, at times the authors identify the caste of a judge in parentheses, but they do not do this for every judge.

That is not to say that the study in Annexure II does not make a useful contribution to the literature. The authors have collected information in this chapter which is very useful to have all in one place. For example, at pages 862-864, we see the names of judges who were appointed to the Supreme Court after having retired from the High Court. At pages 864-865, we see the names of judges who were appointed to the Supreme Court without having served as High Court judges for five years – even Gadbois does not point this out for two of these judges (Alagiriswami, Krishna Iyer). That said, the authors admittedly get too much of their information from Gadbois’ book,4 and they regrettably provide too little information that could be considered new, especially about the judicial appointments process between 1990-2011. For example, in the section on lawyers who refused direct offers of judgeship on the Supreme Court, the authors end by discussing that Fali Nariman and others declined invitations to be appointed directly to the Supreme Court in the 1970s. But what of the three decades thereafter? That notwithstanding, Annexure II is useful mostly because it puts together information that one would otherwise have had to dig out of Gadbois’ book oneself.

It is hard to deny that we already know much of the information set out in Annexure II from the existing literature on Indian judges, and much of it is not written in the most elegant of prose (for example, on page 872, consider the title ‘Some paid price, others got prize’). However, every now and then one comes across paragraphs that promise to make a contribution to the literature. For example, on pages 873-874, one finds an interesting table, based on the results of an RTI application made by S.C. Agarwal, of 20 instances of High Court Chief Justices being bypassed for elevation to the Supreme Court. For example, the authors tell us that Justice A.K. Patnaik was ‘superseded’ five times within two years when he was serving as Chief Justice of a High Court. However, might this be considered a ‘supersession’ in the conventional sense of the term? Today, the ‘seniority convention’ is the norm in appointing Chief Justices, but all-India seniority seems to be quite routinely bypassed in appointing judges to the Supreme Court of India. In fact, it is not clear that all-India seniority is strictly considered while making judicial appointments to the Supreme Court at all.5

Consider the following example. Justice A is appointed to High Court X on 19 March 1991. Justice B is appointed to High Court Y on 22 February 1993.6 Intuitively, one would feel that Justice A is senior to Justice B, since he was appointed a High Court judge first. However, it would not be considered highly uncommon for Justice B to become the senior-most associate judge on High Court Y quicker than Justice A on High Court X, and for Justice B to get appointed to the Supreme Court before Justice A. ‘Supersession’ is a loaded word, and it is doubtful if this kind of bypassing of the all-India seniority list deserves the kind of indignation that the word ‘supersession’ evokes. If all-India seniority were adhered to strictly, it might perhaps have been that much more difficult to preserve a regional/geographic balance on the bench. Despite these mildly critical observations, there is little doubt that this book is a valuable addition to law libraries across India.

Abhinav Chandrachud


1. George H. Gadbois, Jr., Judges of the Supreme Court of India: 1950-1989. Oxford University Press, 2011.

2. Consequent to requests for information filed by the author under the Right to Information Act, 2005.

3. Even George H. Gadbois, Jr., made an error in identifying the caste of Justice N.H. Bhagwati in his piece in the Law and Society Review in the 1960s. George H. Gadbois, Jr., ‘Indian Supreme Court Judges: A Portrait’, Law and Society Review 3, 1968, p. 317. Likewise, this author erroneously identified the religion of Justice M.H. Kania in Abhinav Chandrachud, ‘An Empirical Study of the Supreme Court’s Composition’, Economic and Political Weekly 46(1), January 2011, pp. 71-72.

4. See p. 857.

5. See R.M. Sahai, A Lawyer’s Journey. Universal, 2005, p. 75.

6. My example draws on Justices D.K. Jain and R.V. Raveendran’s appointment dates respectively. Despite being appointed to the High Court after Justice D.K. Jain, R.V. Raveendran was appointed to the Supreme Court before Jain. However, for the reasons described, this would not be considered a ‘supersession’ in the conventional sense of the term.


THE INDIAN CONSTITUTION by Madhav Khosla. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2012.

IN the series of Oxford India Short Introductions, Madhav Khosla has written a brief but telling account of the working of the Indian Constitution for the last 60 years. Madhav Khosla is a young student currently doing his PhD in political theory at Harvard University and the scholarship which he displays is remarkable for a person of his age. He states that his small book has a modest aim, with its chief intention being to introduce the Indian Constitution and raise some questions which will stimulate debates about our constitutional culture. In this he has succeeded well.

The small book is divided into four chapters on Separation of Powers, Federalism, Rights and Goals, and Changing the Constitution, though encompassed in these four chapters the range of problems which the author considers is far reaching and topical. Some examples are given. He rightly criticizes the judgement of the Supreme Court in the Kuldip Nayar (2006) case which, contrary to the constitutional understanding that members of the Rajya Sabha must have a residence within the state they represent, holds that there is no requirement and such a member of the Rajya Sabha is only an elector for a parliamentary constituency in India.

The author also rightly criticizes the power given to a Speaker of a legislative assembly to decide on the disqualification of a member for defection under the 10th Schedule to the Constitution. He rightly points out that such a power should not be given to a Speaker considering his political background and erratic ways of the Speakers of legislative assemblies, and that such a power should have been conferred on an independent body like the Election Commission.

Madhav Khosla is rightly critical of the decision of the Supreme Court in the parliamentary privilege case of P.V. Narasimha Rao in 1998. The majority decision in that case surprisingly held that under parliamentary privileges in Article 105 of the Constitution, a Member of Parliament even had immunity for a criminal offence involving taking of a bribe with the aim of securing a vote in Parliament. The author rightly states that this reasoning reflects an impoverished understanding of the immunity granted by the Article 105 of the Constitution. He points out the flawed logic of the decision which implies that a member would have no immunity if he took a bribe and abstained but would be granted immunity if he took a bribe and voted.

Surprisingly, the author is rather mild in his criticism of the notorious habeas corpus judgment of the Supreme Court in 1976, which held that there could be no relief to a person even if his detention was clearly without authority of law or malafide. The author also appears to be benign in his interpretation of the judgement in the controversial Supreme Courts Advocates on Records case (1992), which by dubious interpretation of Article 124(2) of the Constitution appropriated the power of appointment of judges to a collegium of judges of the Supreme Court. He believes that the criticism that the power to appoint judges of the Supreme Court has been taken over by the judiciary is an exaggeration and that the decision only ingeniously made both the executive and judiciary powerful as regards appointments. Evidently, the author has not sufficiently realized the practical working of the collegium system of judges which today is regarded as lacking in any transparency and, worse, contributing to the inferior quality of judges appointed by the system.

In a very perceptive chapter on amendments to the Constitution, the author rightly identifies the principal failing of the Golak Nath case (1969) as the inability to distinguish between constitutional law and ordinary law. With regard to the Kesavananda Bharati case (1973), the author poses the question whether the doctrine of basic structure is limited to constitutional amendments only and whether an ordinary statute would also not be void for violating the basic structure standard. The author does not, however, favour the latter view and thinks that it is bizarre to believe that a statute could pass the usual test for constitutionality but would breach the basic structure standard. The author rightly states that having laid down the basic structure standard, judicial review involved in testing the validity of the Constitution for violating the basic structure involves a low threshold which possibly explains the limited number of cases in which constitutional amendments have been struck down by the court.

For constitutional lawyers and students of the Constitution, this small book is a valuable contribution to constitutional law.

T.R. Andhyarujina


RIGHTEOUS REPUBLIC: The Political Foundations of Modern India by Ananya Vajpeyi. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2012.

Swaraj enjoys a resonance unequalled by any other term in modern India, capturing the aspirations of several generations of Indians, particularly during the freedom struggle. Other cognate terms like azadi, swatantrata or swadhinta were also used to express the nature of political aspirations of Indian people. None of these terms could, however, invoke the dual sense of ‘rule by the self’ and ‘rule over the self’ which are innate to the semantic structure of swaraj. Perhaps, the resonance of the term lies in this possibility. Swaraj could be conceived of and practised even in the absence of a state of slavery or political bondage, as also while being in a state of bondage, as Gandhi argued. It is located within the individual and the collective simultaneously.

‘Rule over the self’ opens up an entire realm of practices that arise from the self and are extended to the collective. Gandhi’s khadi or his idea of individual satyagrahi point to this possibility. It creates the possibility for self-realization. ‘Rule by the self’ invoked the idea of collective political freedom, but this collective had to be conceived and nurtured by individual striving to ‘rule over the self’; as swaraj could not be granted or obtained by someone else, each was required to experience it. Swaraj is the only term to simultaneously capture political aspirations and spiritual longing.

Ananya Vajpeyi’s Righteous Republic is an exploration of the ligature of the term. She begins by alerting us to the immense political and philosophical potential of such an endeavour. Of swaraj she says, ‘The "self" thus is either the subject of the rule, or the object of the rule, or both the subject and the object at the same time… It was to be a relationship of the self with the self; India was to be the ruler, India was to be ruled’ (p. ix). Those striving for freedom had to ask not just ‘what is India’ but also ‘what is Indian self-rule the rule of?’ This question had to be asked. She, following Alasdair MacIntyre, argues that this imperative was rooted in a crisis of self. This predicament was a crisis of the tradition in and through which ideas about the self are conceived and explained; ‘a crisis in the self is a crisis in the tradition which has formed the self.’ This crisis, she argues, was threefold: one, the decline and atrophy of the Sanskrit tradition by the middle of the 19th century; two, by the lack of creativity in Indian science and particularly mathematics in the modern age; and three, by the weakened and delegitimized political traditions, be they Hindu, Mughal, Sikh or those of the Marathas and the Deccani Sultans. Thus, neither the traditions of thinking about the self nor about sovereignty were available to Indian nationalists in any creative or meaningful ways.

Tradition for her is essentially a textual one, which through a continuous process of reading, rereading, critical interpretation, is formed into a core set of texts wherein anyone entering the tradition is expected to grasp the architecture of this tradition.

This search for the self whose ‘political sovereignty had to be reinstated’ (p. xxi) is grounded in the strivings of five founder figures: M.K. Gandhi, Rabindra Nath Tagore, Abanindra Nath Tagore, Jawaharlal Nehru and Babasaheb Ambedkar. Her purpose is not to examine as to where these five founders stood in respect to ‘tradition’, but to explore their intellectual engagements with particular texts of this tradition to discern a line of moral inquiry about modern thinking regarding both self and sovereignty. She argues that through these engagements, the founders of the Republic sought to resolve the crisis in the tradition by using resources internal to it, and with that created a moral imagination for the self and sovereignty.

Righteous Republic does this through Gandhi’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita, poet Tagore’s reading of Kalidasa’s Meghaduta, Abanindra Nath’s engagement with the Taj Mahal and its aesthetic experience, for Nehru the text in question is Arthasastra, and for Ambedkar, the Buddhist canonical literature that he read in the last stage of his life. Each read and reread these texts, almost anew. For example, Gandhi in his ashrams so recited the Gita as to complete one reading each week; in addition every evening he recited the verses from the second discourse of the Gita which deal with the attributes of sthitpragnya (one who is intellectually and in Gandhi’s reading morally secure). Vajpeyi demonstrates that despite their individual proximity to aspects of the tradition with which they engaged, the founders never took these traditions for granted. Her reading of these five figures and their strivings is informed by an intimate acquaintance with the vast range of scholarship that surrounds them. She relates to this scholarship without any acrimony, but states her points of departure with candour. What emerges from this sensitive and sophisticated reading is a cluster of five categories. These are ahimsa (Gandhi), viraha (Rabindra Nath), samvega (Abanindra Nath), dharma, artha (Nehru) and dukkha (Ambedkar). These, she argues, are five possible orientations of the self – the self as understood and grasped in its orientation to others, in its longing, in its capacity to experience aesthetic ‘shock’, in its aspirations and purpose, and in the burden of the self.

Thus, in her elucidation, swaraj, both as sovereignty and self-realization, is constituted by these five orientations. This philosophically opens up swaraj to a much wider varieties of meanings and pursuits, some which may have hitherto remained outside its ambit. Righteous Republic creates a ground from which the moral in modern Indian conceptions of selfhood and the founding moment of the sovereign Republic can possibly be thought anew. It would also allow an understanding of the dialogues that these five figures engaged in with each other and with India from a new perspective.

A question that she might have asked is whether Gandhi’s ahimsa had a space of equability for Tagore’s ‘longing’ and Ambedkar’s ‘dukkha’. But, of course, that is neither her question, nor her burden. Her inquiry is into the moral basis of swaraj. Overall, in her reading, swaraj emerges even more evocative, filled with newer possibilities to engage with our times and ever more moral. She teaches us, without so stating, that our task is to bring this welter of orientations into conversation with each other once again. If we were to make this attempt, it would make the movement from sovereignty to ‘rule over self’ possible. It might also allow us to grapple with the challenge of ‘Swaraj in Ideas’ posed by K.C. Bhattacharya, because swaraj in ideas has to be not only about indigenous forms of knowledge, but equally about a theory of morality and ethics which should inform our intellectual and public life. Therein might lie a chance of making this Republic truly righteous.

Tridip Suhrud