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  • Moderating RevolutionV.S. Srinivasa Sastri, Toussaint Louverture, and the Civility of Reform
  • Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

In early autumn in 1869 in British India, two men were born who devoted their lives to the articulation of emergent political subjectivities in what would become, in 1947, independent India. The story of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the political agitator credited with having brought the British Raj to its knees through satyagraha, has been immortalized, inspiring 20th century civil rights movements around the world. The story of V.S. Srinivasa Sastri, diplomat, renowned writer and orator, leader of the Indian Liberal Party, and, at ten days his senior, Gandhi's "conscience-keeper" (Ramanan 24), is largely forgotten.1 If Gandhi, known as the "Mahatma," is the epic revolutionary hero of India's anticolonial resistance, the David to Winston Churchill's Goliath, then Sastri is the moderate footnote who countered the romance of Gandhian civil disobedience with the civility and pragmatics of reform.

Whose story is better suited to "the politicohistorical presents within which we now live and write" (Scott 57)? This essay returns to David Scott's 2004 argument that postcolonialists have for too long uncritically utilized a Fanonian "longing for total revolution" (6) as the template through which to evaluate all forms of anticolonial political practice. In Scott's telling, assumptions regarding the fundamentally "negative structure" of colonial occupation and the priority of "the colonized's agency in resisting or overcoming" colonialism have delimited the writing of postcolonial histories (6). I propose that the critical sidelining of Sastri, "a moderate in revolutionary times" (Hand 162), results from just such a preoccupation with conventionally narratable forms of radical politics. For instance, the introduction to a recent volume on Revolutionary Lives in South Asia begins with the familiar Marxist-Leninist account of revolutionaries as those who "catalyse the transition from capitalism to socialism" (Maclean and Elam, 1). Discussed revolutionaries, like M.N. Roy, were interested not in "social reform but an aggressive political rejection of … cultural conventions" (Manjapra 68). There is no place here—nor in any major history of South Asian anticolonialism to date—for Sastri, who rejected aggression and opposed non-cooperation, who described himself as "a lover of the [End Page 133] golden mean" ("Confession" 5), and who was "an unflinching proponent" of anglophone education as a tool for nation-building in India (Bayly 2011, 15).

Yet Sastri was an internationally renowned statesman in his time. When he died in 1946, a New York Times obituary recognized him as "leader of moderates in India." In addition to heading the Servants of India Society and attending major constitutional conferences on India's behalf, Sastri was India's representative at the 1921 Imperial Conference and the second assembly of the League of Nations. He was also a key figure in Indo-African relations who developed the principle of African paramountcy (Park 353). In Recovering Liberties, the historian C.A. Bayly credits Sastri and T.B. Sapru with not only establishing the Indian Liberal Party but with making it permissible for "Indian public men" to call themselves liberals in the tradition of Locke and Mill (3). While Indian liberalism has long been construed as an "appeasement of colonialism," Bayly shows that it was "foundational to all forms of Indian nationalism and the country's modern politics" (3, 1).

Following Scott's revisionist reading of C.L.R. James's The Black Jacobins and its figuring of Haitian revolutionary Toussaint Louverture as a "conscript [of] colonial modernity" (Scott 168), I identify in Sastri's philosophy and politics critical resources for a new anticolonial history that might illuminate both India's present postcolonial predicament—persistent structural inequalities, poverty, and sectarian violence, coupled with resurgent nationalisms—and the broader historical conjuncture of climate crisis and worldwide threats to liberal democracy, a catastrophic present which nevertheless "does not ring with the strong cadences of revolutionary anticipation" (Scott 97). Reading between the colonial contexts of Haiti and India, I argue that the rhetorical practices of Toussaint (as James refers to him) and Sastri, respectively, reveal not only the vexed compatibility of reform and revolution, civility and catastrophe, but the necessity of the former in each pair for the latter...


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