RAMACHANDRA GUHA, historian, scholar and public intellectual, has just come out with a revised edition of his 2007 seminal work, India after Gandhi. The book, as Guha says in its preface, happened after Picador’s Peter Straus met him in Delhi sometime in the late 90s and suggested that he abandon the project he was working on and write a history of Independent India instead. The new edition brings the narrative up to the present. Excerpts from a conversation with Guha:
The first edition of India after Gandhi came out in 2007. In the last 10 years, what is the most significant moment in India that you have felt most compelled to write about?
It is a pairing—the decline of the Congress and the rise of Narendra Modi. It’s the story of the decline of a political party and the rise of an individual who belongs to a particular party and exudes an air of authority and charisma not seen since Indira Gandhi. Good or bad, we can discuss that. But after Indira Gandhi, he is the first political leader with a footprint across almost all of India… not all of India.
So these have gone in parallel—the steady decline of the Congress which is going on but unnoticed… and whether the elections of 2009 gave a false sense of complacency to the Congress… But otherwise, one of the things I wanted to write about is the colossal impact of environmental degradation across India which is the flip side of the economic liberalisation. In the first edition, I felt I had not paid much attention to the environment.
There is a perception that there is an atmosphere of insecurity in India, especially among its minorities. Vigilantism, lynching… Do the current developments worry you?
The thing about India is that it operates at many levels in very diverse ways in different parts of the country. It is progressive in some spheres of life, and in some, there is a fear of life. There are attacks on writers and artists, but at the same time, there is greater freedom elsewhere. I argue in the new edition that there are two areas where there is greater freedom in India today. One is that delinking has happened—the delinking [or] semi-delinking of caste- based occupation where the young do not have to follow the profession of their father. Also, there is delinking of family from marriage, particularly in the case of women. Maybe not so much in Haryana, but the fact that the khap panchayats are there and are banning cellphones tells us that women are asserting themselves.
The Left has ceded the space of patriotism to the Right
I was writing the first edition when people were saying India was becoming a superpower. And I was researching the 50s and the 60s when all kinds of knowledgeable observers were saying that India is going down the tube. So India watchers often oscillate between triumphalism and despair. I think I wanted to avoid that even this time. Take Kashmir. There is a very serious crisis in Kashmir. But there is relative peace in Nagaland. Now if you look at our history from 1947, these have been two extremities—one part is more trouble, the other part is less trouble. The Maoists are on the decline, but on the other hand, there are things that worry you because there is this cow goondagiri on the rise. So it is a complex and nuanced thing, which is why I believe that the 50-50 democracy formulation still works, and I think that captures India.
Do you think the Left has failed as an idea and has contributed to the rise of the Right in India?
Absolutely, and one of the failures of the Left is [that it] has ceded the space of patriotism to the Right. If you want to go to the Indian Left space of the 30s till late 60s, there were broadly two kinds of Leftists: communists and socialists. So the communists were in the CPI; then it broke into CPI and CPM. The socialists were different from the communists in that they were patriots; they were identified with the freedom struggle. Whereas for the communists, their primary allegiance was to some other power. Their fatherland was the Soviet Union or China; then later on, it became Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela. So the JNU leftists, for them Hugo Chavez is God, not Mahatma Gandhi. The socialists were not like this. They were invested in both gender and caste equality and social emancipation and human dignity. And they were committed to this country. The decline of the socialists after the 60s… now one part turned from samajwaad to pariwarwaad, that is the Yadavs [in Uttar Pradesh], and people like JP [Jayaprakash Narayan] went into social work… and that is the real tragedy because that ceded the space of patriotism to the Right. The communists regained political importance in West Bengal and Kerala. And they retained intellectual importance in the universities. And they promoted social justice without love of India. I think this is really a problem. Socialists like JP or Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, even [Ram Manohar] Lohia, their primary allegiance was to this country. They wanted to make it a happier, less unequal more contented place. They knew India was flawed.
There is a double tragedy for liberals in India. The first is that Hindu liberals, once influential in their community, have ceded space to the bigots. Second, there has never been a robust movement of liberalism in the Muslim community
You recently took part in the ‘Not in my name’ protest. What made you do that?
It was an ordinary act of citizenship—of civility, decency, humanity. I very rarely protest. I believe that this whole beef and cow slaughter business is very dangerous. It goes back to the Ram Janmabhoomi in the 90s, the only dispute in a north Indian town to which the entire country became hostage. And now this beef business—to me, it is worrying. And I am glad that the protest happened under no political party.
But many believe that Left liberals are selective in their fight against injustice. For example, the organisers of the ‘Not in my name’ protest did not mention the Kashmiri police officer, Ayub Pandith, lynched by a Muslim mob.
I feel some of this tu tu main main must stop. I have often argued that there is a double tragedy for liberals in India. The first is that Hindu liberals, who were once influential in their community, from Rammohan Roy to Nehru, [and] defined the agenda [have] now ceded space to the bigots, the reactionaries. The second tragedy is that there has never been a robust movement of liberalism within the Muslim community. That remains an issue. Liberals must be consistent. But having said that, I must emphasise that outside of Kashmir… In Kashmir, Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to civility, humanity, democracy, but outside Kashmir, in the rest of India, Hindu fundamentalism is more dangerous. It is inevitable, if you are a liberal in Pakistan, you will speak much more about Muslim fundamentalism. Or in Bangladesh. In India, because it is reversed, it is inevitable. I wish this whataboutery would stop.
I think the greatest favour Rahul Gandhi could do himself and to Indian democracy is to retire
A cogent opposition should have been able to take on this government on so many issues—from demonetisation to cow vigilantism to China. But it seems it is not even able to stand on its feet.
That is because it has got a weak, pusillanimous and incompetent leadership. I have said Nitish Kumar is the only [opposition] leader, but he doesn’t have a party. So if he takes over the Congress— if a party without a leader is taken over by a leader without a party—then some thing could be done. The socialist parties are totally gone; the [communist] Left has its own problems. I think we are in a long period of BJP dominance. But like in the 50s and 60s, when the Congress was dominant, you will have pockets of opposition; they won’t have it all their way. Some opposition by regional parties and some by civil society will keep on. One thing I have noticed which heartens me since Narendra Modi came to power [is that for the past] one year, social media is no longer dominated by right-wing forces. Reasonable voices are speaking out. So that will continue.
But I think the greatest favour Rahul Gandhi could do himself and to Indian democracy is to retire. It’s unbelievable. After Mandsaur, he went [there and then] to Europe for one month. He showed his face and got his photograph clicked and went away. I am mystified how the Congress can put up with it.
I think we are in a long period of BJP dominance. But like in the 50s and 60s, when the Congress was dominant, you will have pockets of opposition; they won't have it all their way
What is your assessment of the situation in Kashmir?
I think nobody’s hands are clean in Kashmir. There are four parties to Kashmir: there is Pakistan; there are militants, homegrown or foreign—that is the violent upsurge; there are citizens of Kashmir; and citizens of India outside Kashmir. Pakistan has only mala fide and malevolent intentions. So we should not be dealing with them. I disagree with the line that you should be talking to Pakistan on Kashmir. We can talk to them on other issues. Pakistan has no locus standi in the Valley, as far as I am concerned. Then there is a real issue with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The old Sufism is gone. Also, there is the failure of even the most moderate among the separatists to honestly acknowledge the persecution of Kashmiri Pandits. But having said all this, they are our citizens and if we think that Kashmir should be a part of India, the rest of India has to find a way of giving them assurance, faith, dignity.
I am not responsible for the Pakistani government. I am not responsible for what Kashmiri militants do. But as a citizen and public intellectual, I feel that in the current crisis, Prime Minister Modi has made some serious errors. The first was not meeting Mehbooba Mufti when she came immediately after the killing of Burhan Wani. Even if Mamata Banerjee comes today and says there is a problem in Gorkhaland and I want to speak to you, he should be speaking to her. The other error was when Yashwant Sinha went and was able to talk even to the Hurriyat, and he wanted to give a report to Modi, and Modi did not meet him. Symbols are important.
I also see that most of the mistakes were made by the Congress party in the past, but still we have to find a way. It is good what happened after the Amarnath attack that all Kashmiri voices came together. It would help that the denial of the exodus of the Pandits stopped. It would help if people like the Mirwaiz said that ‘it was our fault, we persecuted them’. But the Mirwaiz is not answerable to me, Modi is.
How has the current government treated public institutions? Are they the same, diminished or more robust?
They are diminished, but again, the Congress started the rot. The Congress [appointed] its friends; the current Government, those who are ideologically Right. I have had disagreements with my friends in JNU about it because they feel I have blamed the Left. But the Left started it. And the Congress. Particularly when it came to universities or institutes like the Teen Murti—when it came to choosing a head, they didn’t choose the No 1, No 2, No 3, but No 10, because he was loyal to them. Now these guys [appointed by the NDA] are going to be No 100 or No 200 because they have no one. But the procedure was tainted by the Congress and the Left.