This is an excerpt from Jerry Rao’s book The Indian Conservative: A History of Indian Right Wing Thought.
Indian conservatism has received scant attention from academia and rarely gets media attention except in its most caricatured form. Its relationship to indigenous intellectual sources going back to antiquity and to Western traditions that are derived from the work of the eighteenth-century English philosopher and public figure Edmund Burke have rarely been seen as worth analysing or understanding, let alone celebrating.
Intellectual discourse in India, especially from the second half of the twentieth century and into the current century, has been dominated by paradigms borrowed from the metropolitan centres of the West – the grammars used have been Marxist, Freudian, postmodern and so on, with India contributing a subaltern historical school within the postmodern dialogues. This has also been the case with intellectual discourse about India in Western academic and journalistic circles.
A certain amount of political discourse, not fully acknowledged as intellectual by academia, has had a particular Hindu nationalist flavour associated with it. This point of view has so far remained on the peripheries of academic respectability, within the entrenched cloisters of universities in India and in the West. Any attempt at seriously studying conservatism, let alone contributing to an ongoing intellectual conversation with it, has been avoided simply by using the assumption that at least in the political sphere, Indian conservatism is nothing but a Siamese twin attached to what is externally described as Hindu nationalism.
This attempt at defining conservatism by its intellectual adversaries ensconced in powerful academic positions – and in so attempting, also limiting its appeal – has, I believe, not been constructive for the broader development of healthy, mutually respectful points of view. Students and the general public end up as losers if the various brilliant strands and schools of conservative thought are excluded from study and contemplation.
I would reject the position that Hindu nationalism is not a respectable political doctrine worth studying. However, the fundamental argument that keeps recurring is whether Hindu nationalism is a subset within the broad tent of Indian conservatism or whether Indian conservatism and Hindu nationalism have some elements that overlap and others that do not. The creative tension around this argument is particularly highlighted when we confront extreme and violent elements in the Hindu nationalist fold. While moderate Hindu nationalism, which emphasizes Indian cultural unities, can be seen as a legitimate movement within a broader conservative umbrella, Hindu extremism remains more problematic.
Conservatism is a school of philosophy which is not characterized by rigid contours or definitions. It believes that human beings as individuals and as communities have evolved over time, developing laws, institutions, cultures, norms and associations. This evolutionary process undoubtedly contributes to practical utility. The process itself is one of trial and error. It is grounded in a deep sense of empiricism, focused heavily on what works on the ground and what is practical. It is suspicious, even dismissive, of utopian fantasies, and the point of view repeatedly asserted is that human beings seeking utopias are likely to end up in dystopias. In fact, conservatives would take the position that perfection cannot be achieved by individuals or societies. We must necessarily be satisfied with modest improvements, but improvements nevertheless, not regressions. The Scottish philosopher David Hume articulated this sense of empiricism and combined it with a consistent anti-utopian position. He and his compatriot Adam Smith were great believers in the ongoing improvement of human society, ideas which the contemporary philosophers Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari have subscribed to.
The conservative position is that improvements have to be gradual, and preferably peaceful. Sudden, violent attempts at so-called improvements are viewed with suspicion, because they are likely to backfire, destroy much of the good in the past and the present, and deliver a situation substantially worse than the earlier one. A philosophical approach involving the acceptance of the inevitability of violence is also resented by conservatives, on both moral and practical grounds. Conservatives have as their primary concern the freedom and well-being of individuals. Freely formed and voluntary, organic associative institutions are viewed positively while state-sponsored collectives are often viewed as inimical to individual interests.