Rammohun Roy opposed the establishment of a legislative council for India as the British Parliament could make a dispassionate assessment of India’s needs and aspirations. He also made a case for European settlement in India. He thought that such settlements would create a better understanding between Indians and Europeans and would also help in the progress of literary, social and political affairs.
The logic of this argument followed from the conviction that colonialism need not necessarily be always exploitative and tyrannical; rather it could be a precondition of freedom in the colonies. Hence Rammohun regarded such a rule as beneficial and pointed out that the British contact taught Indians three important ideals of the modern world: (a) religious tolerance, (b) political order and (c) scientific outlook.
He thanked God “for having unexpectedly delivering this country, from the long-continued tyranny of its former rulers and for placing it under the Government of the English, a nation who not only are blessed with the enjoyment of civil and political liberty, but also interested in promoting liberty and social happiness, as well as free enquiry into liberty and religious subjects, among those nations to which that influence extends” Historically, Rammohun discovered that the ancient Vedic period was a golden era but the subsequent distortions led to idolatry, multiplicity of divinity, child marriage, and prohibition of widow remarriage, sati, caste system and priesthood.
He argued very convincingly that these widespread contemporary practices did not have roots in the Vedas and Upanishads and the task, therefore, was to restore the original tradition. This restoration and reform were a stupendous task and the state had to play a crucial role in social regeneration. Broadly, the state had to initiate actions in two areas, (1) prohibition of inhuman social practices and (2) to encourage the exercise of freedom by individuals. In this scheme, state-supported education would play an important role as education would remedy what had become habitual ignorance which had led to social acceptance of evils. There was a climate of unreason.
The British administration was the most appropriate agency to rectify this serious anomalous situation as he considered the British rule as a ‘benign act of providence’ destined to lead India to social progress and ultimately to independence. The immediate British task was progressive legal reforms which included areas like marriage, inheritance, revenue, criminal law and the judicial system.
Similarly, the actions of the government which aimed at denying the native population of fundamental liberty of thought and expression were ill conceived and ought to be opposed. The indigenous system of education would be replaced by Western education because the former had ‘no practical use to society’. He was for a liberal and enlightened system of instruction “embracing natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy and other useful sciences”. For implementing this new educational system, he prepared a forty-year plan.
He also established the Brahmo Samaj to get rid of idolatry, caste system and priesthood and associated himself with the establishment of the Hindu college, later Presidency College, to disseminate Western type of education and lead India towards modernization. Rammohun’s economic thought is not very significant but sketchy. He was conscious of the evils of the permanent settlement as he believed in the idea that every man was entitled by law and reason to enjoy the fruits of his honest labour and good management.
He was equally worried about the miserable condition of the peasantry and did not support the then prevailing taxation policy which according to him was exploitative. To compensate for the loss of revenue because of desired exemptions and reliefs he suggested reduction in expenditure, more taxes on luxury items and economic measures by administration like replacing expensive British personnel in the army with Indians. This, he felt, would be less expensive and elicit more cooperation from the people.
He also recommended exemption of the peasantry from taxation as that would lead to happiness of the peasants and make the government more popular. Susovan Sarkar points out that one reason for Rammohun’s proposal for European settlement in India was his awareness of British appropriation from India. Rammohun’s essential presumption was that the individual possessed some basic rights which included rights to life, property, speech and association. The state was a Benthamite state with the principle of the greatest happiness of the greatest number as the most important criterion for judging its performance.
This logically culminated in his plea for massive, political, social, economic and educational reforms in India. He was for a modern secular state with a welfare oriented popular government. In this sense he was one of the forerunners of the modern welfare state. There can be no greater testimony to the singular importance of Rammohun than the fact that all the important movements of nineteenth century India originated with him.
The reason for this stupendous achievement is that Rammohun as Ranade pointed out “was at once a social reformer, the founder of a great religious movement and a great politician. These three activities combined in him in such a way that they put to shame the performance of the best among us at the present time”. However, some observers also point out some serious limitations of Rammohun as well. First, it is argued that his religious reform was both sectarian and artificial. His religious views as well as his interpretations manifest confusion and contradictions.
It is also alleged that he did not realize the real spirit of Hinduism. Second, he was locally dated as he failed to envisage a national education. Third, his political views, it is said, lacked imagination as he could not transcend the English way of thinking nor could he abandon his belief in English sense of justice and liberalism. Fourth, he provided intellectual leadership only to the higher classes of society.
Regarding the first, it can be said that Rammohun categorically denounced sectarian dogmatism. His interpretation of classical texts was scholarly and reflected a considerable amount of clarity. As the Asiatic Journal wrote soon after his demise, “the light Rammohun obtained from his study diffused over the ancient theological writings of his race enabled him to recognize their pure original dogma the existence of one god, maker and precursor of the universe”.
Regarding the fact that the actual adherents of Rammohun were very small, he exerted considerable influence on a large section of educated people. As far as the second point was concerned, it can be said that his basic thrust was for developing the scientific temper in Indian educational setup which was lacking earlier. He was not against our own scholarship and tradition. But his major thrust was to have a firm grounding in science and scholasticism. In this sense he comprehended the spirit of the modern age.
He was for a modern secular and enlightened polity based on the realization of human freedom, equality and happiness. It was for this reason that Subhash Chandra Bose called him a ‘prophet of the new age’. One of Tagore’s major criticisms of Gandhi was the latter’s failure to understand Rammohun’s historic importance in laying the foundations of the Modern Indian state in a rudimentary way.
In 1930, when Tagore met Rolland, he mentioned Rammohun and acknowledged that he was influenced by Rammohun’s humanism and internationalism. History vindicated his projection of India’s political emancipation after a long and painstaking process of social reform and regeneration.
(The writer is a retired Professor of Political Science, University of Delhi)