Unmaking of Modern India

Hartosh Singh Bal turned from the difficulty of doing mathematics to the ease of writing on politics. Unlike mathematics all this requires is being less wrong than most others who dwell on the subject.
Page 1 of 1
There are no original thinkers in Indian politics anymore, says Ramachandra Guha

Makers Of Modern India, a book edited and introduced by Ramachandra Guha, features 19 Indians. The names range from well-known ones such as MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru to the obscure, such as Tarabai Shinde and Hamid Dalwai. In the course of a conversation, Guha explains his picks and his omissions, saying it is time for Indians to pay fresh attention to the vigour of India’s political debate from 1820 to 1970.

Q Did this book come out of the research for your book India after Gandhi?

A Actually, it was born out of a course I taught in Berkeley in 1997, ‘Arguments with Gandhi’. I looked at the Marxists and people like Sarvarkar. The debates were very rich and very robust. Then, in 2005, there was an exchange of articles with Amartya Sen in the EPW (Economic and Political Weekly) on the Indian political tradition.

Q How would you define modern India?

A Some have argued for 1858, the year after the Mutiny, when the British take direct control of India. But I go further back. For me, modern India begins in the early 19th century. The industrial revolution has taken place at the end of the 18th century and the ideas of democracy and nationalism are emerging at this time.

Q Do you think your choice of 19 thinkers will arouse many passions, raise many questions?

A A very dear friend of mine, an IIT and IIM graduate, works with the poorest Adivasis in West Bengal and has set up an ashram for tribal children. His reaction was, why is Vivekananda not there? Swami Agnivesh, a man I greatly respect, called me and said, why is Dayanand Saraswati not on the list? I think Gandhi supercedes Vivekananda, and then, it is difficult to relate to Vivekananda’s writing, his archaic and exhortative prose. So, this is a book that certainly reflects my biases.

Q Could I run through four names that do not figure in the list and try and understand why they were left out? a) EMS Namboodiripad, for making it possible for Marxists to co-exist with democracy.

A Namboodiripad calls for a good biographer. It would be enlightening to read the story of a Congressman—in fact, a landlord who joins the Congress—and then joins the Marxists. His writings on social and economic matters are voluminous, but they are not impressive. I did look closely at another Marxist, MN Roy, who is a slightly better stylist, but again he is not original.

Q b) Jaipal Singh Munde, a hockey Olympian whom you have written about extensively and who took up the case for tribals passionately in the Constituent Assembly debates.

A Jaipal Singh is a man I have written about, but if you consider the comparison between Verrier Elwin and Jaipal Singh, then Elwin has made the case for tribal people in a more cogent way. This is for me the real thing—how the writing holds up in terms of literary quality and robustness.

Q c) Muhammad Iqbal, for making the case for a separate nation for Muslims in South Asia, which eventually swayed Jinnah.

A I have focused mainly on politics and social reform, rather than culture. Rabindranath Tagore makes the cut because of his enormous influence. But I have not read enough of Iqbal—his poetry, though, is of the highest quality.

Q d) Bhagat Singh, whose writings even outside his socialist and Marxist thoughts—ranging from Why I am an Atheist to a passionate defence of Punjabi as a language—are exceptional.

A Bhagat Singh is an interesting figure and it is worth wondering how he would have evolved in 10 or 15 years. I have read his jail diaries and he was reading a varied set of people, including Adam Smith. Looking back, I can defend most of the omissions, perhaps with this exception. I could have given more thought to Bhagat Singh.

It is interesting to note that the very areas of modern India which have not contributed thinkers to this list are problem areas for the idea of India—Kashmir, the Northeast, tribals and, for a while, Punjab. Is this a coincidence?

I have quoted Jayaprakash Narayan on Kashmir and the Northeast in pieces that should come as a surprise to people who have a limited notion of JP. Perhaps, you mean [these areas are not included] in the same way Tara Shinde speaks for women as a woman and Ambedkar speaks for Dalits as a Dalit and Jaipal Singh spoke as a tribal for tribals. I have looked at the Sikh question and Angami Zapu Phizo’s point of view on Nagaland, but in the end, it comes to the question of whether the writing has the originality and merit to stand on its own.

Q Do these thinkers have relevance today?

A Of the 19 thinkers included in this book, I can say with certainty that at least 16 remain relevant today. Obviously, no such list is definitive, but I see this as the beginning of a conversation. There are some who are remembered for the wrong reason. JP and Ram Manohar Lohia are remembered for their hatred of Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru respectively, but they were original thinkers in their own right. You can add C Rajgopalachari to this list. It is not fair to see them in an adversarial light.

In the same way, to see Ambedkar only as a Dalit thinker is to do him an injustice. Partisanship is doing all such thinkers injustice. We have created a climate where a non-Dalit cannot access an Ambedkar, a non-Congressperson cannot access Nehru. Because JP and Lohia have not been appropriated in this way, it is possible for the young to rediscover them.

The aim of the book is to go beyond this partisanship, to look at the multiple legacy of these thinkers. A reader can reflect and choose to make of it what he or she will. To read Lohia arguing against English and Rajgopalachari arguing for English is to be swayed by both men. I hope the politicians of today do read the book across parties.

Q It seems that this robust intellectual tradition in the sphere of politics has vanished today. What happened?

A The period from 1820 to 1970 was exceptional, but now our democracy, like most democracies, has become routine and polemical. The thinking on such questions has shifted to universities and the media. A thinker-politician like Barack Obama is a rare exception; you cannot find his equivalent anywhere else. This is the general trend in democracies.

Q Do you see a politician today who could figure in the list if this book were updated 20 years on?

A (Laughs).