Inauguration function for Shri Dharampal’s birth centenary celebrations (Kandhla, 19th February 2021) Keynote text by Prof. Gita Dharampal

(Translated into Hindi by Smt. Sangeeta Jain, Dharampalji’s niece)

My most respectful and cordial greetings to all the eminent dignitaries on the dias – in particular to our chairperson, Dr. Mahesh Sharma, the invited guests, first and foremost to Dr. Sanjeev Baaliyaan, from the Central Ministry, and to the distinguished guests, in particular to Dr. Satyapal Singh, Chancellor of Gurukul Kangri, Haridwar, and to Dr. Narendra Kumar Taneja, VC of Chaudhary Charan Singh University, and also to the Organising Committee, its Chairman, Virendra Singh, Co-Chairman, Shri Subodh Kansal, its Convener, Shri Rajendra Chauhan; to all eminent guests who are gracing this event with their presence, and last but not least to all members of our Kandhla family who are generously hosting this centenary celebration for our iconic family member and renowned personality Shri Dharampal.

 Above all, I should like to express my deep appreciation, first and foremost to today’s Chairperson, Dr Mahesh Sharma for initiating and organising this event, secondly, to Subodh Bhai, my dear cousin for his unstinting commitment, and to Shri Rajendra Chauhan and his efficient team, for being the men on the spot. Without all their tireless efforts today’s event would not have been possible. And above all, my warmest thanks to my dearest cousin, Sangeeta, the younger daughter of my father’s youngest brother, my Chachaji, Shri Yashpal ji, who unfortunately expired much too soon, in 2015. Dearest Sangeeta, who, being a postgraduate study of history, is deeply interested in my father’s work, and therefore generously offered to translate my speech into elegant Hindi. I am most grateful to her for her dedication and commitment. And last but not least, my deepest gratitude to my elder Chachaji Yogendra Pal ji, aged 90, the doyen of our family, who is the guiding spirit behind this event, although he is unable to be here in person.

For me personally, it is a great honour and privilege to be invited to give a keynote address; above all, I feel truly humbled to be addressing this august assembly on this most special day (a once in a life-time event), to inaugurate the birth centenary celebrations for Shri Dharampal, my venerable and beloved father. The brochure (that I’ve prepared for this inaugural event and of which I trust you have all received a copy) gives a glimpse of his life’s journey and his extraordinary contribution.

It was considered befitting that his centenary celebrations (which will be extending over two years - with seminars, conferences, workshops being held in different parts of the country) should be launched from his ancestral home, Kandhla, where he saw the light of day 100 years ago – then in a very different world, at the height of the Freedom Movement reinvigorated by Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement.

Indeed, my father Shri Dharampal was a child of the Gandhian era; let me quote his own words: “Born in 1922, I consider myself a child of the Gandhian era as I spent the first 25 years of my life in Mahatma Gandhi’s reign. The British were there, of course, but for us they were usurpers and oppressors. My first glimpse of Mahatma Gandhi was in December 1929 at the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress.” This is from one of his iconic books entitled Understanding Gandhi (p.1), published in 2003. 

To be sure, towards the end of his life, it was Gandhiji’s extraordinary contribution that engrossed him intellectually and ideationally, and Dharampalji’s endeavour until the very last, in like manner to Gandhiji, was to make us appreciate our culture, realise our past achievements (though without glorification), not to feel subservient to the West, so that our societal organisation, our polity and our cultural and economic institutions are regenerated, locally and nationally, from within, in line with our swabhava– determined by the needs of our people, especially of ordinary Indians. Following in Gandhiji’s footsteps, for Dharampalji, it was our common people who represented the true Indian ethos – and so it was our responsibility (and that of the Indian State) that their welfare be ensured so that they might prosper. As a consequence, he was certain that our social and economic equity, that was once the hallmark of Indian society, would be restored. 

This patriotic sentiment and reverence for Gandhiji he had inherited from his family that for the last 6-8 generations has been enjoying a prominent status in Kandhla. During the Freedom movement, top ranking Congress workers, such as Sarojini Naidu, were often hosted in their impressive haveli. Notably, his father, Keshoram Gupta (the youngest of five brothers), had studied at Benares Hindu University (soon after it was inaugurated by Gandhiji in Feb. 1916), but in the mid-1920s moved with his young family (and first born son, Dharampal) to Lahore where he held a high position in the Reserve Bank of India. It was in Lahore, in December 1929, that 7 year old Dharampal accompanied his father to attend the historic Lahore Congress session.  

A decade later, for the student Dharampal, Gandhiji was an avatar, who, in his own words “had come to liberate us from the oppression of a foreign ruler and to enable us to live once more in our own way.” Enthralled by Gandhiji’s movement for Swaraj, he abandoned his BSc. in Physics to join the Quit India Movement – and listened with rapt attention to Gandhiji’s speech on 8th August, 1942, at the Gowalia Tank Maidan, Bombay. Thereupon, he became an underground member of the AICC (All India Congress Committee) group run by Sucheta Kriplani, and, as befitting a Freedom fighter, was imprisoned, together with Sadiq Ali. After being released, he decided to work with Gandhiji’s British born disciple Mirabehn for the regeneration of rural communities. During Partition, put in charge of the Congress Socialist Party Centre, he was involved in refugee rehabilitation and came in close contact with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Ram Manohar Lohia. Then together with L.C. Jain, he was a founding member of the Indian Cooperative Union, set up in 1948. This represented Dharampalji’s initial contribution towards our nation-building. 

Later in the late 1950s, Dharampalji was elected General Secretary of AVARD (Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development) founded by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and presided over by Jayaprakash Narayan with whom he developed a close relationship of mutual respect. While at AVARD, his role as an outspoken public intellectual became more pronounced, whereby he often criticized misconceived governmental planning and development projects. 

In 1962, he published a slim volume containing the proceedings of the Indian Constituent Assembly which highlighted the failure of the Constitution to incorporate indigenous administrative and political structures. But then in November 1962, incensed by the debacle of the Indo-Chinese war, Dharampalji wrote an open letter to the members of the Lok Sabha calling for Jawaharlal Nehru’s resignation on moral grounds. For this act of protest, Dharampalji (along with two friends, Narendra Datta and Roop Narayan, who were co-signatories of the letter) was arrested and imprisoned in Tihar jail. Some months later, they were released after Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Home-Minister, and JP had intervened (after a public debate had been initiated in the national press – underscoring the need for patriotism, the deconstruction of the personality cult around heads of state, and the importance of the freedom of expression in a democracy). 

Then, his life took a dramatic turn: As a result of his intimate interaction in village India, Dharampalji had developed a deep appreciation for the ingenuity of rural Indians, yet at the same time realised that the dysfunctionality of everyday life was a consequence of colonial intervention and its far-reaching repercussions. Moreover, as a provocative Gandhian thinker and being inspired by Gandhiji’s conviction about the basic viability of Indian society and culture, he radically questioned the commonly held assumptions of underdevelopment and degeneration before the advent of the British Raj. Driven by patriotic zeal, Dharampalji decided to set the historical record straight! So, from 1965 until the mid-1970s, whilst being based in London for family reasons, Dharampalji decided to remap the last few centuries of our history (with the ulterior aim of influencing contemporary policy-making). Thus, he began his courageous pioneering research (without having any formal historical training!) into the early colonial archive, lodged in the London India Office Library, and in several British university libraries. His objective was to contest the conventional image of India as a dysfunctional and degenerate society at the eve of the colonial conquest. Ironically, Dharampalji attempted to achieve this contestatory goal by deconstructing early official documents, generated by British administrators themselves who would have had no reason to exaggerate the positive features of Indian society.

As a result of his unstinting and meticulous research – with no official funding, - working for 10 hours, day after day, in the archives (despite the burden of his invalid son and his sick wife) – copying by hand and then, after returning home, typing his handwritten notes into his Olivetti typewriter, to send details of his discoveries to friends in India. As a result of his extraordinary commitment towards revealing the truth about India’s recent past, 3 seminal books were published, namely, firstly, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971) containing detailed empirical data on sophisticated Indian astronomy, medical science (including the widely practised inoculation against small-pox; this is noteworthy when today India is one of leading developers of coronavirus vaccines: indeed the reputation of India being the pharmacy of the world dates back to the 18th c. and before!), the technologies of iron and steel, of ice-making as well as of sophisticated agricultural implements (such as the drill plough) and of small-scale irrigation techniques. This incredible documentary evidence had a considerable influence, spurring younger scientists to begin serious work on the history of indigenous Indian science and technology. Above all, a new perspective on the development of Indian science and technology (including a paradigm shift in India’s modernizing agenda taking into serious consideration indigenous expertise) could have emerged if substantial institutional backing had been forthcoming. But this unfortunately didn’t happen. Perhaps today, in Dharampalji’s centennial year, in line with Atma Nirbhar, the upsurge and support of indigenous talent will have more of a chance!

His second book Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971) foregrounds the Indian roots of Gandhian satyagraha, which underscores that traditionally socio-political popular assertions or protests were governed by deeply rooted conceptions of justice and of a relationship of mutuality and trust between rulers and ruled. But, as a result of colonial intervention, such protests were considered as illegitimate and therefore brutally suppressed, for the British, intent on establishing ‘law and order’ demanded obedience and submission to their authority. Consequently, the starkly rigid asymmetry between colonial authority and the colonized became the hallmark of the socio-political arena that was to be contested, as we all know, from 1915 onwards by Gandhiji.

His third and most acclaimed book The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the 18th Century (1983) provides documentary evidence of the widespread prevalence in late 18th and early 19th century India of educational institutions funded entirely by the local village economy. These locality schools taught a sophisticated curriculum, with daily school attendance by about 30% of children aged between 6 to 15 years. Astoundingly the majority of students belonged to communities who were classed as shudra or even lower. This data was a real eye-opener for the reappraisal of the historical tradition of education in India. What’s more, the findings conclusively refute the hitherto widely accepted assumption that, before the British raj, education in India was the sole prerogative of the twice-born castes, if not exclusively of the Brahmins. Ironically, this undemocratic and unequal social prioritisation became the state of affairs only after the establishment of English medium schools towards the end of the 19th century – a skewed situation which persists in large measure in contemporary India. But maybe the New Education Policy is going to set matters right: let’s hope so!

These publications, that have in the meantime become iconic, revolutionised our understanding of the cultural, scientific and technological achievements of India at the eve of the British conquest. Although they comprise historical material, they were intended by him to initiate a program for the contemporary regeneration of India’s diverse people and the restoration of a decentralized social, political and economic organization manifested through local communities. However, the enormous portent and significance of his discoveries still needs to make more of an impact on our conventional perceptions of pre-colonial India. The commonly held assumptions of underdevelopment and degeneration before the advent of the British Raj – refuted by his painstaking historical investigations – had been induced (as he stated time and again) by colonial indoctrination and were maintained in place by a persistent sense of subservience to the west experienced, unfortunately, by too many so-called ‘educated’ Indians. According to my father, until his very last days in Sevagram Ashram, an ‘intellectual-psychological unburdening’ was a matter of urgency, so that Indian societal organisation, its polity as well as its cultural and economic institutions could be regenerated, locally and nationally, from within in tune with our Swabhava – and after intense self-reflection, determined by the needs of the people concerned.

Dharampalji’s focus of research and publications covered an incredibly wide-spectrum (including the functioning of Indian communities, the philosophical ethos of India, and Indian Ocean studies, etc.), details of which are given in the centenary brochure (see also contact information on p. 12). To honour his legacy and in celebration of his birth centenary, it is to be hoped that the research initiated by him will be continued by enthusiastic young scholars, and supported by eminent persons, such as Shri Narendra Kumar Taneja, VC of CCS Vi.Vi. Meerut. Besides further investigating the colonial archive collected by him (now available in digitized form), it would be necessary to conduct large-scale research into indigenous sources (written, oral and inscriptional) already collected by the National Manuscript Mission (IGNCA). Consequently, we would obtain a more holistic understanding of India’s recent past and the dynamic functioning of our society, especially at the local community level which had enabled such astonishing civilizational achievements. By fully comprehending our motherland’s pre-colonial vitality, we would be inspired to contribute to Bharat’s regeneration in line with her Swabhava. To conclude, let me sum up by stating the following about my father, Dharampalji: As a non-conformist with a creative mind, he remains refreshingly accessible for our youth, for he challenged the status-quo, interrogated the legitimacy of established socio-political constellations, broke through normative categories of thought, and opened up new philosophical and practical possibilities, forever intent on foregrounding the welfare of the common people. So let’s celebrate his legacy and carry forward his work with committed dedication!

My deep appreciation to all of you for being such attentive listeners!