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Dharampal (Hindi: धरमपाल) (1922–2006), Gandhian thinker, historian and political philosopher from India. He authored The Beautiful Tree (1983), Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971) and Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971), among other seminal works, which have led to a radical reappraisal of conventional views of the cultural, scientific and technological achievements of Indian society at the eve of the British conquest.
Dharampal was born on 19 February 1922 in Kandhala, a small town in the Muzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, and died on 24 October 2006 at Sevagram (Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram), near Wardha, Maharashtra, which had been his main abode since the early 1980s. He has been associated in various ways with the regeneration of India’s diverse people and the restoration of their decentralized social, political and economic organization manifested through their local communities.
Involvement in the Freedom Movement Dharampal was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi throughout his life; he received his first glimpse of Gandhiji at the age of seven, when he accompanied his father to attend the 1929 Lahore Congress. In March 1931, when Sardar Bhagat Singh and his colleagues were sentenced to death and executed by the British colonial authorities, Dharampal recalls that many of his friends took to the streets of Lahore, shouting slogans in protest. Yet remaining critical of this rebellious assertion, and despite the influence of his semi-westernized education at school and college, he was drawn towards the movement led by Mahatma Gandhi: soon he started wearing khadi, a practice he followed all his life. Mahatma Gandhi’s call for Individual Satyagraha in October 1940 marked the beginning of his involvement in national politics and the subsequent abandonment of his B.Sc. in Physics. In August 1942, he was present as a fervent spectator at the Quit India session of the Congress in Bombay, whereupon he joined the movement and was active as an under-ground member of the AICC group run by Sucheta Kriplani until his arrest in April 1943. After 2 months in police detention, he was released, but debarred from Delhi. A year later in August 1944, being interested in village community work, he was introduced to Mirabehn (the British born disciple of Mahatma Gandhi) and joined her soon after at the Kisan Ashram, situated midway between Roorkee and Haridwar.
Engagement in national reconstruction, post 1947
At the time of Partition, he was put in charge of the Congress Socialist Party centre for the rehabilitation of refugees from West Pakistan, and came in close contact with Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Ram Manohar Lohia, as well as with numerous younger friends, such as L.C. Jain, in Delhi. He was also a founding member of the Indian Cooperative Union set up in 1948. The following year he intended to visit Israel for the purpose of studying its rural and community reconstruction programmes, but due to the closure of the Suez Canal had to reschedule his route via England where he met and married Phyllis who was English. On their way back to India by land, they stayed in Israel to study the communitarian life-style in Degania Alif, the oldest kibbutz, set up by Russian Jews. In 1950, Dharampal resumed his work with Mirabehn, and the community village of Bapugram near Rishikesh began to be formed. However, disillusioned by the futility of this idealistic experiment in community development, which seemed to have no impact on the Nehruvian mainstream, he left the village in 1954 to join his wife and two small children in London where he spent three years, mostly working for Peace News, a journal published by the War Resisters International, focusing on peace issues and nonviolent social change. Dharampal returned to Delhi in late 1957 after a visit to several Buddhist and Hindu holy places in Sri Lanka and South India. From 1958 to 1964 he was elected General Secretary of the Association of Voluntary Agencies for Rural Development (AVARD), founded in 1958 by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya who, a year later, passed on the couch of President to Jayaprakash Narayan(known as JP), with whom Dharampal developed a very close relationship of mutual respect and appreciation.
While at AVARD, Dharampal made regular contributions to the AVARD Newsletter, often taking to task governmental planning and development projects. In 1962, he published a small monograph containing the proceedings of the Indian Constituent Assembly relating to the discussion on the subject of Panchayat Raj as the Basis of Indian Polity which highlighted the failure of the Constitution to incorporate indigenous administrative and political structures. In November 1962, incensed by the debacle of the Indo-Chinese war, Dharampal wrote an open letter to the members of the Lok Sabha asking for Jawaharlal Nehru’s resignation on moral grounds. For this act of protest, Dharampal (along with two friends, Narendra Datta and Roop Narayan, who were co-signatories of the letter) was arrested and imprisoned in Tihar jail. After some months, the three satyagrahis were released after Lal Bahadur Shastri, the then Home-Minister, and JP had intervened. Towards the end of 1963, Dharampal was appointed Director of Study and Research of the All India Panchayat Parishad and spent more than a year in Tamil Nadu collecting historical material that was later published as The Madras Panchayat System: A General Assessment (1971) in which not only the destruction of the indigenous panchayat-based polity due to the colonial land revenue system, compounded with systematic political and bureaucratic intervention, is underscored, but also its replacement in the 19th century by a colonial bureaucratic apparatus which has continued even after Independence, more or less unchanged, despite its debilitating influence.
Historical research into 18th and early 19th century Indian society
Convinced about the urgent need for an objective understanding about India’s past, before the onslaught of colonial rule, Dharampal, from the mid-1960s, living in London for family reasons, decided to embark on an exploration of British-Indian archival material, based on documents emanating from commissioned surveys of the East India Company, lodged in various depositories spread over the British Isles. His pioneering historical research, conducted intensively over a decade, led to the publication of works that have since become classics in the field of Indian studies. The first book on Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century (1971), containing detailed empirical data on sophisticated Indian astronomy, medical science and practice, the technologies of iron and steel, of ice making, and agricultural implements, created quite a stir in academic and political circles, and with subsequent extensive research a new perspective on the development of Indian science and technology could have emerged, if substantial institutional backing had been forthcoming. Dharampal’s second book on Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition (1971) foregrounds the Indian roots of Gandhian satyagraha by focusing on British administrative reports of a major protest against the imposition of a house-tax in Varanasi and neighbouring regions which took place between 1810-1811. The documentation exemplifies, firstly, how socio-political popular assertions, governed by deeply rooted conceptions of justice, explicitly aiming to safeguard the interests of the governed, were simultaneously attempting to redress the balance of power between the rulers and the ruled. Secondly, it underscores that colonial intervention changed the hitherto practised “rules of the game” with regard to negotiating political asymmetries of power. This was achieved, on the one hand, by illegalizing such traditionally exercised “trials of strength”, and on the other, by redefining relationships between social groups. Consequently, the starkly rigid asymmetry between colonial authority and the colonized became the hallmark of the socio-political arena. Dharampal’s third major work entitled The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century (1983) provides evidence from extensive early British administrators’ reports of the widespread prevalence of educational institutions in the Bengal and Madras Presidencies as well as in the Punjab, teaching a sophisticated curriculum, with daily school attendance by about 30% of children aged 6–15, where those belonging to communities who were classed as Shudras or even lower constituted the majority of students, and in some areas, for instance in Kerala, where Muslim girls were quite well represented.
The impressive picture of early colonial India that emerges from this pioneering historical re¬search is supplemented by an extensive collection of essays in which Dharampal stresses the need for further investigation, firstly, into the sophisticated societal, economic, and cultural mechanisms that had facilitated these accomplishments, and secondly, into understanding the processes by which these institutions declined and gradually fell into oblivion, and thirdly, into how knowledge generated in India had been appropriated, refined and integrated into early modern British and European scientific and cultural institutions, and fourthly, a rigorous study of the mechanisms by which Indian society had been shattered and cognitively colonized under the impact of British rule.
Other significant publications
• An incisive understanding of the Indian cultural ethos, and the manner in which it differs from modern conceptions, is presented in a slim volume in Hindi entitled Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala (1991, English translation: 1993).
• The British Origin of Cow-Slaughter in India (2002), besides providing historical evidence about the genesis of mass cow-slaughter under British auspices, presents extensive documentary material about one of the most significant resistance movements in India against kine-killing by the British during the years 1880-1894. By highlighting the support given by some prominent Muslims during phases of this mass protest as well as by emphasizing the crucial fact that it was the British and not the Muslims who were the main consumers of beef, Dharampal is able to dispel one of the deep-seated myths perpetuated in the interest of reinforcing divisive colonial strategies.
• Understanding Gandhi (2002) is a profoundly insightful portrayal of the unfolding of Mahatma Gandhi’s genius in leading the Indian struggle for Swaraj.
A complete listing of his published works is compiled below.
Activities and influence in the public sphere
• Founder General Secretary of the Indian Cooperative Union (ICU) of which Smt. Kamladevi Chattopadhyay was the Founder Chairperson; the ICU, established in the early 1950s by a group of freedom fighters, played a vital role in the post-Independence period
• At the behest of Jayaprakash Narayan, Dharampal was appointed a Fellow of the A. N. Sinha Institute, Patna during 1972-73.
• From the mid-1970s onwards Dharampal articulated his views most forcefully in public venues, academic conferences and Indian national papers.
• In the 1980s, Dharampal’s historical research and understanding of Indian society served as an inspiration for a group of young scientists called the Patriotic and People-oriented Science and Technology (PPST) Group to engage in serious research into indigenous scientific and technological traditions with a view to underpinning their civilisational anchorage, technical sophistication and contemporary relevance.
• During 1990-2006, he was Emeritus Fellow of the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai
• In early 1990s, he was elected Member of the Indian Council of Historical Research for two terms and for a third term during 1999-2001.
• In 2001, he was appointed Chairman of the National Commission on Cattle set up by the Government of India
Whereas Dharampal’s published oeuvre, in dispelling colonial myths about India’s recent past, serves as a seminal and powerful inspiration for engaging in crucial reinterpretations about the nature of Indian society, the enormous portent of his research (much of which in the form of extensive notes and typed extracts of documents from British and Indian archives still remains in manuscript form) has yet to impact more extensively on radically transforming conventional historiography of modern India. Copies of Dharampal’s extensive archival collection are lodged in the library of the Gandhi Seva Sangh, Sevagram, Wardha and at the Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai.
- 1. Dharampal, Panchayat Raj as the Basis of Indian Polity: An Exploration into the Proceedings of the Constituent Assembly (with a foreword by Jayaprakash Narayan), AVARD, New Delhi, 1962.
- 2. Dharampal, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century: Some Contemporary European Accounts (with a foreword by Dr. D.S..Kothari and Introduction by Dr. William A.Blanpeid), Impex India, Delhi, 1971; reprinted by Academy of Gandhian Studies, Hyderabad 1983.
- 3. Dharampal, Civil Disobedience and Indian Tradition: with Some Early Nineteenth Century Documents (with a foreword by Sri Jayaprakash Narayan), Sarva Seva Sangh Prakashan, Varanasi, 1971.
- 4. Dharampal, The Madras Panchayat System, Vol II: A General Assessment, Impex India, Delhi 1972.
- 5. Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, Biblia Impex Private Limited, New Delhi 1983; reprinted by Keerthi Publishing House Pvt Ltd., Coimbatore 1995.
- 6. Dharampal, Some Aspects of Early Indian Society and Polity and their Relevance to the Present, Indian Association for Cultural Freedom, Pune 1988; Hindi translation published as Angrazon se Pehale ka Bharat Shatabdi Prakashan, Vidisha 1988; Tamil Translation, by K.Ramasubramanian, published as Mundeya India Samudayam, Arasamaippu, Sila Amsanga: Avattrin Inreya Poruttam, Cre-A, Chennai 1992.
- 7. Dharampal, Bharatiya Chitta, Manas va Kala (Hindi), Pushpa Prakashan, Patna and Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai 1991; English translation (with a Preface and Glossary) by Jitendra Bajaj, published as Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala, Centre for Policy Studies, Madras 1993; Kannada translation, by S. R. Ramaswamy, published as Bharatiya Chitta, Manasikate, Kala, Rashtrotthana Sahitya, Bangalore 1996.
- 8. Dharampal, Bharat ka Svadharma (Hindi), Vagdevi Prakashan, Bikaner 1994.
- 9. Dharampal, Despoliation and Defaming of India: The Early Nineteenth Century British Crusade, Bharat Peetham, Wardha, 1999.
- 10. Dharampal and T.M.Mukundan, The British Origin of Cow-Slaughter in India: with some British Documents on the Anti-Kine-Killing movement 1880-1894, Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas, Mussoorie 2002.
- 11. Dharampal, Understanding Gandhi, Other India Press, Mapusa 2003; Tamil translation, by Janakipriyan, published as Gandhiyai aridal, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Nagercoil 2010.
- 12. Dharampal, Rediscovering India: Collection of Essays and Speeches (1956–1998), Society for Integrated Development of Himalayas, Mussoorie 2003.
Nos. 1-7 above, along with a few other articles by Dharampal, published as Dharampal: Collected Writings, 5 Volumes, Other India Press, Mapusa 2000; reissued in 2003 and 2007. Gujarati translation of 1-12 above, along with a few other articles by Dharampal, published as Dharampal Samagra Lekhan, 11 volumes, edited by Indumati Katdare, Punarutthan Trust, Ahmedabad 2005. Hindi translation of 1-12 above, including other articles by Dharampal, in 10 volumes, Dharampal Samagra Lekhan, Edited by Indumati Katdare, Punarutthan Trust, Ahmedabad 2007.
- : Multiversity Library, has several published works of Dharampal as free download
- : Other India Bookstore
- : SIDH, Mussoorie
-  Centre for Policy Studies
- Dharampal page from the Infinity Foundation
- : Collected Writings of Mahatma Gandhi
- : India Office Records and Private Papers
-  : National Archives of India
- : Tamil Nadu State Archives