Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dead thinkers, living ideas: A talk with historian and author Ramachandra Guha

Author and historian Ramachandra Guha calls Makers of Modern India, a book edited and introduced by him, as the public face of the Indian political tradition. In an interview with John Cheeran, Guha talks about how his 19 thinker-reformers hold a mirror to contemporary India and the rest of the world.


Dead thinkers, but living ideas. Was that the guiding principle behind this new anthology?

Yes. But I should add something else -- prose that is still accessible. There are many whose ideas are expressed in archaic, antiquarian prose. For example, spiritualists. We have Vivekananda, Aurobindo, Sree Narayana Guru. But translations of their work come across as stiff prose. The language, clarity was also important to me.

Why this book matters?

This book is a beginning of a conversation. It is not an end. This is an attempt to open up a new path. In one volume it gives a broad, comprehensive picture of our political tradition to readers. It has most of the important thinkers but not all.
The second objective of the book is to persuade other historians to dig deeper. Only Gandhi’s works are easily accessible. We don’t have Rajagopalachari, Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). What have I done is only selections. One could have an entire volume on each one of these thinkers. Also, I want to encourage more detailed research into these aspects of our political and intellectual history. It’s a kind of guide for average reader and an invitation to my fellow historians.
You always take Indian democracy for granted. Indian unity, you take it for granted. Indian democracy is alive as a result of the works of these men and women Makers of Modern India talks about. This book makes us aware of our tradition and critical appreciation.

Why were these 19 political thinkers chosen?
They are politicians and social reformers. They must be thinkers and doers. And their writings must be original. So I have left out Subash Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel. Dead thinkers, living ideas and readable prose. Whether in English or translation they are talking about important issues. These 19 people wrote about all kind of issues. But I have selected only works that are still relevant to us. Some of Gandhi’s writings are not relevant. Same goes for C Rajagopalachari. What CR wrote about Ramayana, Mahabharata and all that does not matter now. I only selected those writings that are relevant to democracy, social life and the situation of India today.

You have written in the epilogue of Makers of Modern India that Tilak, Jinnah and Golwalkar have lost their relevance to the realities of today. Still they figure among the chosen 19?

Because they had a defining impact on modern India, positively and negatively. Jinnah and Golwalkar negatively. Because Jinnah set out certain positions people like Gandhi and Nehru were forced to emphasise the plural, multi-religious nature of India. Likewise with Golwalkar, from the side of Hindu extremism.
So they defined the parameters of the debate, they shaped how people responded. And in a negative sense, they influenced India. So they were also makers of India. Tilak was a great leader of freedom struggle and called for political emancipation and we have that now. In that sense Tilak is not so relevant to contemporary India.

Some surprising omissions from your list of 19 are Bose and Patel. Don’t they qualify as thinking politicians?

Yes. Their writings are very dull. They are not readable. Bose wrote a book called India’s Struggle but it is extremely dreary and verbose. Such writing would turn off people.
It is very important for a historian to guide the reader. So I have given references to biographies of Bose, Patel and, similarly, of Indira Gandhi.
Even though these people do not figure in my book, if a reader wants to find about more about them, they can find it.

Then, these 19 are only choices, not endorsements of a historian?

Yes, these are not endorsements. The book captures the diversity of thought. There is a wonderful essay by Lohia on English, arguing that it should be banished. The book also has an equally wonderful defence of English by Rajagopalachari. So what matters is the quality of debate on either side. Similarly, on caste. Gandhi says the primary responsibility for ending untouchability is with upper castes. But Ambedkar says it is not so and we will organise from below. So, competing perspectives are there.
On economic policy, Nehru and Rajagopalachari offer different views. The quality, diversity, flavour and richness of the debate which is essential for our democracy you get in Makers of Modern India. Without pushing my ideas down the reader’s throat, I guide them gently.

One can’t find a single factor binding your 19 makers of modern India. As you have said, there is only a connected political tradition, disputatious in nature, that informs the book…

There is a continuous referring back to the past. Tagore refers back to Rammohan Roy. Phule is reacting to Gokhale. A whole section is on Gandhi and his critics. Hamid Dalwai answers to Rammohan Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan. There is a continuous, self-referential approach.
They have made departures from what had happened before. I have tried to bring back the tradition of dispute into the book. Most of our people don’t understand that how rich and productive our traditions, political debates were.
Right now debates are very superficial, especially on television channels. You find crude, simple minded, superficial, ill-informed debates on major issues and public policies. It could be on affirmative action, it could be on terrorism, globalisation, functioning of parties, democracy, election, etc. The whole debate is ill-informed and shrill. I want to write many more books like this. Entire volumes on Rajagopalachari, Lohia, Dalwai and many others. This book, I hope, will lead to a much more improved political debate.

You are a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. Apart from these two, who among the 19 you are fascinated with?

Most of the people I admire. Sixteen out of 19 them I admire. What has happened is that because it is so fashionable to attack Nehru today from all directions, left wing, right wing, because I have good things to say about Nehru, people focus more on that. Actually, as I said, I have a very, broad-minded, catholic approach to history. To me the five greatest Indians are Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Tagore and Rajagopalachari. Gandhi I would put slightly above others. Gandhi had a universal reach. Gandhi and Ambedkar are regarded as rivals but I admire both. Today we need most of these people. When I make some qualified defence of Nehru, in the face of concerted attack on him, people say I’m a worshipper of Nehru.
In my book, India After Gandhi, I pay a great deal of attention to the contribution of Patel. Patel played as an important a role that Nehru played in the early years. So in that sense there are a lot many Indians that I admire.

Do you think Nehru should have quit as prime minister much earlier than he did?

That’s a good question. He almost quit in 1958. In 1958, he took a long holiday – three weeks he went to Kashmir and thought about it, and almost quit. Possibly he could have nurtured a successor and we can’t say for sure. But it is sad that people think they can continue for ever. In Tamil Nadu there is Karunanidhi and LK Advani thinks he can become prime minister the next time.
It’s my view and I still stick to that Manmohan Singh should have quit in March –April 2009. He should have done only one term. He came in at a very difficult time, right? He came in 2004 against a backdrop of real polarisation of religious feeling, Gujarat riots, Kargil war, global terror, etc. If you look at the whole background he came in, we were really worried, all of us.
In March 2009, I actually met him and said “you should either come through Lok Sabha as a person in his own right or step down, saying that “I came at a difficult time and did a good five years. My work is done.” But the desire to cling on to power is there. And people now forget that he did a difficult job quite well when there was fear about many levels. So I think when to retire is a very difficult choice. In all spheres. Not just in politics. You know, Verghse Kurian, who contributed so much but eventually was kicked out of an organisation (Anand, Gujarat) which he built for sticking on even when he was a liability. Look at cricketer Kapil Dev and how long he kept Srinath out of the Indian team. It is very hard to judge when to retire. Mandela (Nelson) retired at the right time and transferred power. Yes, may be after two terms, Nehru should have retired in 1959 and thought of a transition.
Manmohan Singh is a good example (of not retiring at the right time). Now he is more of a lame duck prime minister. Tony Blair needed to be kicked out, so was Margaret Thatcher, she stayed 13 years and had to go finally.

While putting together this anthology, were there any surprising discoveries in terms of ideas, and even thinkers? For readers like me, Hamid Dalwai as a Muslim Nehru, is a revelation… You have done a similar thing in Corner of A Foreign field with Palwankar Baloo…

Surprising discoveries, in terms of ideas, certainly. In terms of thinkers, Hamid Dalwai is one. It was surprising and refreshing. I discovered him at a time when he was almost forgotten. The themes, yes. Rajagopalachari, I had read only as a critic of the licence-quota raj. But when I read deeply, I found his ideas about English language and his warnings about the need to control money power in elections highly pertinent.
Then there is Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). We know JP for his opposition to Indira Gandhi. But I found JP as a defender of ethnic minorities, including Kashmiris, Nagas, etc and these are still relevant today. For me, too, this book was a journey of education and understating. In that sense a quite pleasurable journey. But it was tough too. How much to keep of individual people’s writings in this book. There were many brilliant excerpts from Ambedkar and Gandhi which I could not include because of space constraints. All those decisions were to be made.
I want this book to be ready by everyone. Already enquiries have come about translations into Malayalam, Tamil, so that it will reach a wider audience.
I discovered Dalwai by accident. I saw his book called Muslim Politics In A Secular India at pavement in Bombay. And started reading him. This was a very long time ago. It must have been at least 15 years ago. The book was published in 1968 but now totally out of print. I was fascinated by his foresight. Then I had the good fortune to meet his translator Dilip Chitre, the late Marathi poet. So he told me more about Dalwai. He gave me the other articles by Dalwai and spoke about his background. How he came from the Konkan coast and all.

Were Dalwai’s writings the most difficult to access?

All were difficult. This book is the result of 15 years’ thinking and reflecting. It is not that I decided to compile the book 15 years ago. But for the last 15 years I have been reading and reflecting. If you look up the acknowledgements given in the book, you will see a quite few eccentric ones -- I have thanked Nehru Memorial Museum, and its staff. And I have also thanked secondhand bookshops. Makers of Modern India is based on books and pamphlets which are not available even at the most prestigious of libraries.
So 15 years ago, I was interested in these thinkers. Then 10 years ago, I started working on India After Gandhi. Then of course I had a long term interest in Gandhi. I’m now writing a two-volume biography of Gandhi. So all these things gave me a deeper understanding of these thinkers. So I decided I should bring all these in an accessible form for readers to learn about this extraordinary array of thinker-reformers. But this happened over a fairly long period of time. Over a long period of time, ideas were germinated and developed.
Then I started working on the book. How to select these thinkers, how to organise them and how to write the introduction.
I was working on India After Gandhi from 1999 onwards. In 2005 October, I published a critical review of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Then he replied to that. There was a debate. Then, consequentially, I decided to make my point.
It was a matter of curiosity. The world of emperor Asoka and the situations in the 19th and 20th centuries were different. The issues we are talking about now, gender equality, caste, freedom of the press, economic policy, industrialisation, linguistic diversity were unknown to Asoka. So in a sense those ideas of Asoka’s times were forgotten and not relevant to modern India.

You have, by careful selection, given fresh insights to these Makers of Modern India. For example, JP comes across as a defender of ethnic minorities, including Kashmiris, Nagas, etc. JP writes: “Constitutional integration has little meaning in the absence of emotional integration. It is impossible to hold down by force any sizeable population permanently. If we continue to do it, we cannot look the world straight in the face and talk of democracy and justice and peace.”

JP is so prescient and extraordinary in his views. How contemporary it is. It was written in 1964.

How do you think our political establishment would react to it?

The person this article should be shown to is LK Advani and ask him what he thinks about JP’s views. In the present establishment there are some sensible people, including the prime minister who thinks Kashmir is a genuine issue. But for political reasons they cannot openly acknowledge it but they know that it (Kashmir) cannot be permanently held down by force. Army and the security apparatus may want to do it. But we want emotional integration, not forcible, legal or political integration. JP’s article on Kashmir is a classic example of dead thinkers and living ideas.

A striking absence of gloom marks your writings about modern India. You are a great believer in the India story. Despite a plethora of problems you still consider India the most interesting country in the world. How pertinent is the Indian experience and makers of modern India to the rest of the world?

No, I’m not. That’s not true. My book says India is a 50-50 democracy. I’m a severe critic of our fault-lines. I’m an Indian democrat who wants to redeem and improve Indian democracy. You know, I don’t think in black and white, all right? There is a CIA view of the world and left-wing extremist view of the world. Leftwing extremists say India has a sham democracy. This book has so many critical essays on all aspects of our nation. Indian democracy is a work in progress. It’s a miracle.
Indian democracy and pluralism is hard-won. It will continue to be hard-won. We have to be vigilant about extremists. We have to be very attentive to the fault-lines. We have to continuously attend to renewing our institutions. And the processes. In that sense I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist.
I don’t believe in India story. I want a more peaceable and contented India. It’s a real struggle but what I don’t want is an India of 25 parts and that would be disastrous.
Southern states are a very good example. For example, Kerala. To think of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer wanted an independent Travancore. EV Ramaswamy wanted an independent Tamil nadu. That would have been disastrous for the country. The greatness of India is its diversity. The tragedy of India is the differentiation and inequality. Corruption of the political system.
These 19 thinkers in the book hold a mirror to us while holding a mirror to the rest of the world. India’s experiences can be central to a global debate.
In India After Gandhi I say that anticipation of our super stardom is premature. If the present trend continues one half will be like California and other half will be like sub-Saharan Africa.

Does putting together an anthology any way limit the role of a historian? Is this a less satisfying effort because you are only introducing the works of others to a wider audience?

I like doing anthologies. I did Picador Book of Cricket Writing. I have done three so far. I did an anthology of the writings of M Krishnan ---, Nature's Spokesman : M. Krishnan and Indian wildlife -- the naturalist, who wrote hundreds of wonderful columns on ecology, conservation but never a book. It’s a way of paying tributes. Bringing together diverse things under a connected theme.
I’m like a sutradhar. I’m behind the scenes. It’s complementary to my other work. Makers of Modern India is complementary to the work I have done for India After Gandhi.

How difficult an exercise was it to put together Makers of Modern India? You have dedicated this work to the selfless tribe of librarians…

It was pleasurable and difficult. Difficult because of the exclusions one had to make due to shortage of space. Each of these individuals deserves a whole book. Those who have been left out deserve another anthology.
We are very good on social history. Of peasants and workers. Or writing about political leaders such as Gandhi and Nehru. But not on intellectual history, history of ideas, how people argued and debated about culture, religion, language and democracy, justice, gender. Perhaps in regional languages there are some examples. In Malayalam there are good anthologies in the 19th century on arguments about religion, development, etc.

Makers of Modern India offers an entirely different picture of Indian politicians when compared to the current corrupt lot. Do you expect politicians to read your book?

I don’t think politicians of today are aware of their legacies. I hope politicians like Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati, Mulayam Singh and including Aditya Thackeray read this.

You are the closet we have for a historian as a rock star. Any comments…

No, no.

But in the sense that you made history accessible to a wider audience...

There are several reasons for this. The first thing is that I don’t work in an ideological straitjacket. I’m a liberal. I’m a middle of the road, pro-liberal and open minded. Most Indian historians are ideological. Either they are Marxist or they are Congress or they are Hindutva. And someone is closer to Sonia Gandhi and someone is closer to Prakash Karat. And that is disastrous for a scholar.
The second thing is that, of course, you must write accessibly, devoid of jargons.
And the third thing is that you should be open to influences. I travel everywhere. I go to archives and research, I do that at my study. But I also go and meet people. I’m traveling all the time everywhere. Recently I have been in Vizag, Lucknow, Trivandrum, Trichur and Coimbatore and absorb things. It’s not like you and your books and students. There has to be a willingness to travel, to learn, to listen. And ready to constantly reformulate your positions. Ideological historians have a line and everything has to fit into that line. But I keep changing. It is very important to get out ideological straitjacket and academic constraints.

About Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha is a historian and columnist based in Bangalore. He has taught at the universities of Yale, Stanford, Oslo and at the Indian Institute of Science. His books include a pioneering environmental history, The Unquiet woods and a social history of Indian cricket, A Corner of A Foreign Field. His India After Gandhi was chosen as a book of the year by The Economist, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle. Guha’s books and essays have been translated into more than 20 languages.

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