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Rationalism, Scientific Thought and Mysticism – Relevant sections from M.N.Roy

1. What is rationalism?

“The most acceptable definition should be that rationalism is accordance with reason. That is platitudinous. Verbal definitions usually suffer from that defect. The definition of this particular term immediately provokes another question: What is reason? Unless we can trace reason to the common denominator of monistic Materialism, rationalism has no meaning for me. I attach greater importance to meaning – than to verbal definition. Albertus Maguns, for example, was a great rationalist one of the greatest of all ages. But there is a world of difference between his rationalism and ours. Modern rationalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was essentially teleological. Reason was conceived as a metaphysical category or it remained veiled in mystery. It was not a personal idiosyncrasy of Robespierre to have raised Reason to the pedestal of a goddess; nor was it a perversity on the part of the Hibbertist members of the Convention to have a Parisian prostitute impersonate the deity of the Revolution. Unless reason is identified as inherent in physical nature, and its operations are brought within the reach of – intelligence, rationalism is hardly to be differentiated from a sophisticated religion, a philosophical or scientific faith. Therefore, we are searching for the material content of the concept of reason.

In biology, we come up against such terms as instinct, intuition, impulse, etc. Are they all elementary indefinables? Are they just given a pariori? Materialism knows no elementary indefinable. It reduces everything to the common denominator of the physical Universe, subject to its fundamental law. Not finding a rational explanation of reason – in biology, I go farther. The entire physical Universe is a determined process of becoming. Therefore, I identify reason with determinism in nature. All biological processes, including man’s mental activities, take place in the context of the physical Universe, being integral parts thereof. So reason is a property of physical existence. It is neither metaphysical nor a mystic category.” (Pages: 43- 44, ‘BEYOND COMMUNISM’)

2. Monistic Explanation

“We trace the origin of ideas into the context of the pre-human biological evolution. Biological evolution, in its turn, takes place in the context of physical nature. Thus, our ideas, the ideas to which we must concede a sovereign independent role, if we are to interpret history without teleology, rise out of the background of physical nature. By doing that, we do not leave the ground of Materialism, to fall into the morass of metaphysical Idealism. On the contrary, by doing that, we solve one of the baffling problems of philosophy, the problem of dualism. There is no contradiction between the living and the non-living world. We reduce everything to one unitary background.” (Page: 93, ‘ BEYOND COMMUNISM’

3. The Problem of Ethics

“My approach to the problem of ethics is also materialistic. I believe that not only is a materialist ethics possible, but that materialist morality is the noblest form of morality, because it enables man to be moral without debasing himself before imaginary super-human powers. Unless ethical concepts and moral values can be derived from the process of pre-human biological evolution, they cannot stand criticism except on the authority of God or some ad hoc metaphysical assumption. Either morality is inborn in us, or we are moral under the dictate of some external agency. You cannot have it both ways. If you reject the proposition that man is moral because he is rational, then, you have to reject morality, or you have to accept the morality of the priests and pundits. Morality is a kind of human conduct. If human beings are rational, there must be a connection between morality and rationalism. Morality is an appeal to conscience. But what is conscience? Here is another concept which has remained veiled in mystery even in modern rationalist moral philosophies. I conceive conscience as awareness of social responsibility. The sense of social responsibility does not necessarily run counter to individual freedom. On the contrary, it can easily be shown how it results from the urge for freedom. The struggle for existence, in the form of that urge in human beings, led to the foundation of society. Unless the relation was deliberately distorted, means should not defeat the end. Founded with the purpose of enabling its constituents to pursue the urge for freedom more successfully, society should not be an instrument for the suppression of freedom. The existence and continuation of society are conditional upon its individual members feeling their social responsibility, and discharging it loyally. In a rational system, social responsibility, therefore, is not antagonistic to individual freedom. If human beings become conscious of their essential rationality, the harmony of social responsibility, that is to say of respect for others’ urge for freedom, with the freedom of each citizen would be automatically established. Let me illustrate what I mean.

If I started with the conviction that I was a member of society because, in cooperation with others moved by the same urge, I could develop my potentialities more successfully, social responsibility should be my natural impulse. I do not like anybody restricting my freedom; therefore I should willingly grant the same right to every other member of society. Consciousness of the urge for freedom is the decisive factor; once that is there, the respect of others’ freedom naturally follows, and social responsibility is voluntarily undertaken by all. Imagine a community of people, every one of them acting according to this conviction, and we shall have a moral society. It will be moral, because it is rational. Because I do not want anyone to do any harm to me, I should not do any harm to others. This reciprocity is the foundation of society. In a rational society, appeal to conscience is not a mystic device for subordination to some metaphysical compulsion or divine coercion.
If we do not trace ethical sense to the rational instinct of man, then moral values become dogmatic propositions: somebody dictates them to us. The relativist attitude to morality is the natural reaction to dogmatic, irrational, coercive ethics. And moral relativity is immorality. As soon as you take a relativist attitude to morality, you take your stand on the declining plane of Jesuitism. Everything will be tested by result, and if the most immoral behavior will lead to a good result – good for you – you will say that it is moral. Therefore, if we want at all an ethics, we shall have to start from the proposition that there are such things as human values; and human values are eternal, in so far as humanity is eternal. The term eternal is not used in the physical sense. What is meant is that ethical concepts and moral values originated with homo sapiens; they have no super-human origin, nor any divine, transcendental sanction. Since all human urges can be traced back to pre-human biological evolution, morality also must ultimately be derived from that source. There was no class struggle in the pre-human world. Ethical behavior being of pre-human biological origin, moral values of the human world are universal. The humanist approach to history, the humanist philosophy, enables us to conceive of universal human values. Therefore, I place ethics in the context of the rational scheme of the physical Universe. A rational ethics is possible only as a part of materialist philosophy.” (Pages: 46- 48, ‘BEYOND COMMUNISM’ )

4. Soul, Instinct and Conscious Thought

“Modern science knows a good deal about man’s emotions, and can trace them wholly to physico-chemical processes. Once you know these processes, you can actually change the emotions of men. We can therefore make the hypothetical assertion that emotions have no extra-physical origin or significance. Of the soul, however, nothing is known for the obvious reasons that there is no such thing. But if it is identified with man’s highest emotions, then it is reduced to a part of man’s psycho-physiological nature.

Much emphasis is laid in modern theories on instincts and intuitions. On which moral judgment is supposed to be based in preference to man’s reason and intelligence. But if we trace the biological development of man back beyond the appearance of the human species, you can find rudimentary forms of the power of thinking and reasoning and even of moral judgment already in the lower animals. Instinct and intuition are nothing mysterious, but an undifferentiated form of rationalism, which can however teach us a good deal about the working of man’s reason. So long as the cortex in the cerebral processes was not sufficiently differentiated, these functions took place in the neural system as a mechanical biological reaction. Therefore they cannot be analysed in terms of conscious thought. But the cerebral activity was there in elementary form even before the appearance of homo sapiens.” (Page: 137, POLITICS POWER AND PARTIES )

5. Science and Philosophy

“But scientific knowledge as learned in schools and colleges is not enough to make a Humanist. You may learn something about physics and yet not be a scientist. There may be even recognized scientists who have not necessarily imbibed the scientific spirit. Knowledge in our days has become departmentalized. But true scientific knowledge presupposes an understanding and coordination of all the departments of science. The function of philosophy is precisely that. It must supply a coherent picture of the various branches of knowledge acquired by human experience at a given time. An integrated picture of the knowledge of modern science leads to an integral scientific Humanism, because it can explain man.” (Pages: 136- 137 , POLITICS POWER AND PARTIES )

6. Man’s Basic Urge Is Not To Believe

“Man must regain faith in himself if the civilized world is to get out of the crisis of our time. But he cannot be self-reliant unless he outgrows the time-honoured prejudice that, if he is ever to shine, he can do so only in the reflection of a Divine Light. New Humanism maintains that modern science, particularly the science of life and man, that is, biology, has destroyed the foundation of this prejudice. The foundation was ignorance. The light of scientific knowledge has revealed the truth about human nature. Man is essentially a rational being. His basic urge is not to believe, but to question and to know. He gropes in the darkness of ignorance, a helpless victim of blind faith in forces beyond his control, until the light of knowledge illumines his path. The only truth accessible to man is the content of his knowledge. Anything beyond the reach of his knowledge is nothing-an illusion.” (Pages: 107- 108, POLITICS POWER AND PARTIES )

7. Materialism Explains Existence

“The so-called spiritual or idealist philosophies have brought the world to its present state.The collectivist ideologies have wrongly been attributed to materialist philosophy. But philosophical Materialism is a more rational and consistent system of philosophical thought than other schools of philosophy. If the object of philosophy is to explain nature, explain existence, explain the world, and if for explaining the world we have to go beyond the world into regions of which nothing is and can be known, that would not be an explanation. Materialism is the only philosophy which has tried to explain the world without having to transcend this physical universe. A reasonable philosophy cannot possibly have unreasonable results as its logical consequence unless it is misinterpreted and misapplied.” (Page:29, POLITICS POWER AND PARTIES)

8. Search For Truth Is The Corollary To The Search For Freedom

“Freedom is a human ideal, whereas truth is a metaphysical category. How can we deduce the one from the other? Quest for freedom in human evolution is purposive. The struggle for existence is no longer carried on by mechanical adaptation. On the human level, it is carried on by purposive efforts for the conquest of nature. What differentiated man from his immediate ancestor? ……………………………………………………… ……………………..The moment an ape discovered that he could break a branch and pluck fruits with it, the process of mechanical evolution ended; purposiveness became the basic feature of the subsequent biological evolution. Man’s struggle for the conquest of nature began. The struggle of existence became quest for freedom. From that very modest beginning, we have come to the twentieth century with its modern technology; powerful instruments for conquering nature, all invented by man, no longer for mere existence, but in quest for freedom. Science is a search for truth, and it is the result of man’s quest for freedom. Therefore we say that search for truth is the corollary to the quest for freedom. In quest of freedom, ever since biological evolution became purposive, man strove for the conquest of nature; knowledge of nature was a precondition for the success of that striving. Science was thus a by-product of man’s quest for freedom, and science reveals truth.” (Pages: 30- 31, ‘Beyond Communism’)

9. Religious Mode of Thought and Scientific Mode of Thought

“Ever since antiquity, European culture developed as part of church. The conclusion that we can deduce from this fact is that, at some stage of development, every group of people, no matter where they live, necessarily thinks in terms of religion. That is to say, the entire intellectual and emotional history of any people during a certain period of its development is influenced by the religious mode of thought. Later on, the religious mode of thought becomes inadequate. Within the framework of that mode of thought, human intelligence, will and emotions find no further scope. Consequently, human genius, which had previously created the religious mode of thought, created a new mode of thought. That new mode of thought was the scientific mode of thought, which has dominated European intellectual history ever since the time of the Renaissance.” (Page : 40, Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage)

10. Origin of Religion

“A critical history of the development of religion reveals the fact that religion originated in the ignorance of man. The primitive man’s inability to explain natural phenomena in terms of nature, without going beyond the limits of nature, compelled him to assume super-human beings as the prime movers of various natural phenomena. Those assumed natural forces eventually came to be the gods of natural religion. The polytheism of natural religion was subsequently replaced by monotheistic religions.

One specific feature of the history of Hinduism is that Vedic polytheism was never rejected in favour of a monotheistic religion. The idea of a Supreme Being as a Super-God was conceived. But the conception lacked uniformity. The religious thought in ancient India developed from polytheism to pantheism. The concept of a personal God, as in Islam or Christianity or Judaism, is absent in Hinduism. The Avatars are not personal Gods. They are incarnations of some divine force which is impersonal. The Hindu conception of the Supreme Being was never personified. It logically led to pantheism, which identified the entire existence with God.” (Pages : 50- 51, Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage )

11 . Man As Creator of Concepts

“As a matter of fact, the concern for the physical aspects of life is fundamental, common to all human beings. Religion originated in it. The urge to explain the various natural phenomena induced man to assume the existence of super-natural forces. In course of time, scientific knowledge enabled him to dispense with ad hoc assumptions which constituted the basis of religion. Consequently, the psychological necessity of religion disappeared: the foundation of the religious mode of thought was blasted. This happened in Europe several hundred years ago. The concern of European mankind reverted to the original human nature, that is, concern with the world in which he lived, concern with his power as a human being to acquire greater and greater knowledge and derive greater and greater power from this knowledge, power for still greater conquests of nature. That is the way of modern thought. It is clear to see that it is not a peculiarity of a particular race or people, but results from the ability of man to explain natural phenomena no longer by assuming super-natural forces, but in the light of ever expanding knowledge of nature.” (Pages : 55-56, Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage)

12. Spiritual Aspects Inherent In Man

“Materialism does not preclude the appreciation of what is called the higher aspects of human life. It only maintains that all the so-called spiritual aspects of man’s life do not transcend this world, but are inherent in man as a biological being. In proportion as man develops intellectually, his knowledge broadens, the higher values inherent in man, the capacity of taking interest in other things than the physical existence, the cultivation of finer sentiments, arts, science, etc, become more and more possible. But the uninformed criticism of Materialism is that, believing himself only slightly differentiated from lower animals, man is concerned only with eating and drinking, and consequently degrades himself morally and spiritually. The corollary to this unfair and unfounded criticism is that modern thought being materialist, India must eschew it if she wants to preserve her spiritual integrity.” (Pages:56- 57, Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage )

13. The Danger of Neo-mysticism

“You must be aware that there is a very popular movement on the basis of the teachings of number of “modern saints”. This movement is composed of educated people. They are not advocating a religion without God and without Revelation, as their European counter-parts are doing. As a matter of fact, mysticism which is the rationalized form of religion, and which is very popular among our intellectuals, in the last analysis relies precisely on a kind of revelation. This revelation may not be the revelation of a Prophet or a Seer, but a revelation believed to be within the reach of every single individual. It means that reason, spirit of enquiry, quest for knowledge, are subordinated to a faith; that knowledge, science and all the conquests of man during the last four or five hundred years, are inferior as human values to what one can find in himself in an imaginary moment of beatitude, a state believed to be sublime, though impossible to understand, explain and know.

As far as I know, it seems that this kind of neo-mysticism or pseudo-scientific religion is gaining ground among the literary people of our country. It is almost of the same order as the popularity of dogmatic Marxism among another group of intellectuals in our country. Thus, the literary life of India seems to be getting polarized between dogmatic Marxism and cultural reaction.
Consequently, there must be room for a “Third Force” in the literary and cultural life of our country. The rise of this third force alone will be able to resist the danger of cultural reaction and Fascism, on the one side, and of dogmatic Marxism, on the other. The attention of those who are getting alarmed by the possibility of a rise of dictatorship in our country is generally directed towards the Left, against the anticipated danger of a dictatorship coming from the Left. But if you analyse the relation of political forces in our country, you will see that, if India is going to have a dictatorship, it is not so likely to be a communist dictatorship as a fascist dictatorship.

That need not mean that we shall have Storm-Troops or mass massacres, because all these things are not necessary in our country. The vast bulk of the people are so deeply predisposed to accept any authority, so eager to be regimented, so afraid of the hardship of thinking for themselves, that, if and when, for whatever reasons-political or economic – any party or group of politicians will find it necessary to establish a dictatorial regime, they will be able to do so with as much popular support as they care to whip up. Since Fascism can be established in our country with popular support, since we can practice one of the fantastic ideas of Lenin, namely, a democratic dictatorship, Fascism is clearly a very insidious danger.” (Pages : 65- 66, Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage )

14. We can combat Spiritualism

When the European Renaissance asserted the sovereignty of man and placed man in the centre of the world, man himself was unknown. They drew inspiration from the early philosophers who had said that man is the measure of things. But man himself remained a mystery. Until then the prevailing belief in Europe was that man is superior to other animals because the divine spark operates through man. Man is some representative or fraction or expression of God. Therefore man is superior to other animals. If that is the conception of man, if human dignity and sovereignty is deduced from that belief, then certainly the height of man’s ambition must be to get out of his human existence, because it is subsidiary to a divine existence, to merge in which is the ideal of mankind. With that kind of mentality any society will come to stagnation and ultimate break down.

History shows us that the same experience was made by other peoples who attained a high degree of civilization, but because of the total absence of initiative to improve their worldly conditions, because of this fatalistic mentality, those civilizations broke down. To believe that life is something bad and we must run away from it, is not a philosophy which can improve human existence. People who are not fascinated by such a philosophy are welcome to do so, but those who preach it do not usually believe in it themselves; they only preach it to others, to the common people. The belief that life is a predestined evil keeps the common people plodding and suffering until they die. A philosophy which may give us a few saints, but can produce for vast bulk of mankind only such debased results, cannot be really called divine.
Our business is not to go and argue with the preachers of that philosophy. Our task is to inspire the common people to revolt against it, to make them feel that, if they are miserable, it is not because it is predestined, but for certain causes which can be changed. We can do this even in terms of their own religious beliefs. If God is good, how can he make such a bad creation, a world in which there is no sympathy, no kindness, no goodness? If God has made such a mess of our life, let us take our life in our own hands and try to make something better of it.

The need for a philosophical revolution compels us to oppose the established traditional, authoritarian philosophy with a new philosophy. We shall have to oppose the philosophy of spiritualism, or whatever you may call it, by one of Humanism. Our spiritualists will combat Materialism. Therefore I do not use this term. I oppose their spiritualism with Humanism, which is a philosophy with the object of enabling man to attain freedom. What is freedom? Freedom is not a distant utopian ideal. It is the progressive liberation of man from the various limitations on the development of his potentialities. The modern science of biology teaches us that every human being, barring the mentally defective, is endowed with the properties of developing intelligently, morally and mentally. It is merely a question of opportunity to make these potentialities actual. Freedom is nothing more than that opportunity: the opportunity for all human individuals to develop their potentialities. That is freedom and nothing more, nothing metaphysical, nothing mystical or abstract.

The second question will take us a little further. One may ask whether we can make men conscious of these potentialities. Our answer will be in the affirmative, and it is on the strength of scientific knowledge. When an individual or a group of men are habituated to a certain way of thinking, it naturally takes some time to jolt them out of that mental rut and persuade them to travel a different way. But as that habit was created over a long period of persistent preaching, it can be changed again by appealing to those instincts of mankind which are antagonistic to those other-worldly proclivities. We have in man the tendency to believe as well as to doubt. The first has been fostered and glorified in our country for ages. Therefore our people are very largely believers. But the tendency to enquire, to doubt, and ask questions is also inherent in every human being, as the history of mankind teaches. So, if we continue to insist that man must enquire about the Why and How of everything, that tendency in men will be strengthened and will ultimately prevail. And in proportion as this scepticism, this spirit of enquiry will develop, the habit of belief, created by the religious mode of thought, will be undermined, and the beginning of a mental change, of a philosophical revolution will be made.

Therefore, the fundamental principles of the philosophy of Humanism, with which the spiritualist philosophy has to be confronted, can be very simply stated. These principles are that man is inherently a rational being, and being rational, it can be shown that he is also inherently a moral being. Given rationality and the sense of decency on the part of its members, you will have a well organized, harmonious and moral social order. If these properties were not inherent in human beings, you could never have a harmonious and decent social order. Previously, we had to refer back to God in order to attribute those properties to mankind. Man had to be moral because a universal moral principle operated through him. In other words, man as man cannot be moral. Therefore, even today, if anybody doubts the dogmas of religion, he is condemned as immoral which implies that man can be moral only under the coercion of a police man, whether he be in heaven or at the street- corner. Man does not steel because of the police man at the street corner, and he does not commit a sin because of the policeman in heaven. I don’t call this a very high moral principle.

It is only when we can prove that the ability of moral judgment is inherent in man as man, man as a biological being, that rationality, the ability to judge and discriminate, is also inherent in man as a biological property , that we can possibly subscribe to the doctrine that man is the maker of history and of his own destiny. So long as man is ultimately subordinated to a super-human power, obviously he cannot make his destiny. To remove man’s faith in super-human powers is a precondition for any improvement of his condition on this earth. That is what we mean when we say that a philosophical revolution must take place which will establish the scientific mode of thought in the minds of the Indian people in the place of the outworn fatalistic and paralyzing religious mode of thought. (Pp: 109 – 112, Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage).

15. Human Action and Human Will the Primary Factors of Social Existence

The essence of religion is primitive rationalism; man creates gods as hypotheses for an explanation of natural phenomena. Because man is rational by nature, rationalism is the essence of man. To have discovered this real essence of man was a great advance in the struggle for freedom. The aggregate of social relations presupposes existence of individuals, who entered into relation. They did that because of their essence of rationality; obsessed with the Hegelian organic conception of society, Marx ignored the self-evident truth that society is an association of individuals. That obsession led him to take society as simply given, as if by Providence, and regard social relations as the ultimate reality. Social relations result from the activities of individuals constituting the society. Being human creations, they can be altered by man. Human will and human action are the primary factors of social existence.” (Page: 392, Reason Romanticism and Revolution )

16. Importance of Conceptual Thought

“The brain indeed is a part of the physical organization; and sensation and perception can be explained as physical functions. But conceptual thought is a purely mental phenomenon, and it distinguishes the most primitive man from the highest animal. The discovery of fire might have been an accidental physical act without any thought. But subsequent application of fire for the purposes of the most primitive human existence presupposes mental activity.” (Page : 393, Reason Romanticism and Revolution)

17. The Precedence of Matter over Mind

“The origin of mind is to be traced in his physical and biological history. In that sense mental activities are determined in the earlier stages by physical existence and thereafter by social conditions. But the becoming of man involves the parallel process of mental and physical activities. The relation between the two is not that of causality, but of priority. From primitive consciousness mind evolves in the context of a biological organism. The latter being an organization of matter, the priority of being must be conceded to matter.” (Pages: 395- 396, Reason Romanticism and Revolution)

18. As Thinking Being Man Endowed With power of Judgement

“It is an unfortunate fact that owing to long disuse, because traditions and social institutions never appealed to them, a large number of men have been made to forget that they are born as thinking being and endowed with the power of judgment, that they can discriminate between what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad, without having to rely on any external authority for that knowledge. If the modern world is to come out of this perilous crisis, if the sovereign people is to emerge from this state of degradation, there is no other way than to make a growing number of men conscious of their essential human attributes: To awaken their self-respect and self-reliance, their pride to be men.”(Page:58, ‘Politics Power And Parties’)

19. Philosophy of History

“The fundamental principle of the philosophy of history is humanist. History is the record of man’s evolution. Man’s evolution out of his biological background is not a part of history proper. History is very largely social history. It records the events of man’s life as a social being. There is a very large gap between the appearance of homo sapiens, the appearance of the human species, and the origin of society. That is a very long period, which has to be counted in terms of geological time. Events taking place during that period generated the driving forces of social evolution. The investigation into the earliest stages of social evolution belongs to anthropology, the science of man. How did man as an anthropological phenomenon develop before he became a social being? Then follows the development of particular groups of men: how a herd of homo sapiens, a herd of biological beings who were removed from other animals, but not yet quite human, develop into an organized unit called society? Instincts, intuition and such other mystic human properties grew in the context of the process of biological evolution during that period of the early history of mankind, which may be called the prehistoric period. It is quite evident that, unless we understand the mechanism of the mysterious forces called instincts and intuition, it will not be possible for us to understand how events took place in history as they did and not otherwise.
In order to dig out the roots of human society, we need not only to study anthropology; we shall have to beyond: to study biology and geology. In the opposite direction, anthropology throws light in the dark corners of psychology, and the latter merges into physiology. That leads us to an understanding of the entire structure of the human body and the various branches of science which have developed from the understanding of the human organism, including the brain, the seat of thinking and all the properties which distinguish man from the lower animals.”(Pages: 27- 28, ‘Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage’)

I. BEYOND COMMUNISM, M.N.Roy and Philip Spratt ,(First Edition: December,1947
Third Reprint: October, 1986) , Ajanta Publications (India), Jawahar Nagar,
Bungalow Road,Delhi, 110007.

II. POLITICS POWER AND PARTIES, M.N.ROY ,(First Edition : April 1960
Reprint : January 1981), Ajantha Books International,I – U. B Javahar Nagar,
Bangalow Road, Delhi – 110 007.

III. Humanism, Revivalism and The Indian Heritage, M.N.Roy
Renaissance Publishers Private Limited, 15, Bankim Chatterjee Street,
Coffee House, 2nd Floor, Calcutta, 700 073.

IV. Reason Romanticism and Revolution, M.N.Roy,
Ajanta Books International, L – UB, Jawahar Nagar,
Bungalow Road, Delhi – 110007.

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