Ramchandra “Ram” Guha’s latest book- Democrats and Dissenters – a collection of sixteen essays – is a meandering but delightful read. Part one explains India. Part two is about the scholars who have helped Ram do so. The link between the two parts is a stretch unless part two is the marshalling of a scholastic framework used in part one. By this logic inverting the sequencing – reading part two before part one, helps.
Ram Guha’s thought leaders
In this pantheon of six scholars, Dharma Kumar (1928 to 2001) is the only woman. The Delhi School of Economics professor and economic historian is the archetypal “nurturer” – mentoring students; incubating research; being a role model for unselfconscious women’ s empowerment; a “liberal polemicist”; determined opponent to fundamentalism and to the politics designed to take advantage of such bigotry.
Professor Dharma Kumar, Ram Guha’s “fellow radical” and the “last Liberal”
Possibly Dharma Kumar was the engaged academic, the one Ram decided never to became. Eulogising Dharma is his way of atoning for the consequential social loss.
Eric Hobsbawm’s (1917-2012) life-long commitment to Marxism illustrates the perils of sacrificing scholastic distance to wed ideology. Guha builds on this theme in the chapter on the eight barriers to freedom of expression in India -ideologically committed writers being one.
The rooted, intellectual energy of the revered Kannada novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) is implicitly contrasted with Hobsbawm’s dogmatic obsessions. Ananthamurthy, a Lohiaite had scant regard for identity obsessed Lohia descendants. His advocacy for sustainable development strikes a chord with Ram’s green roots, as does his dismay with Narendra Modi’s style of combative politics. For Ananthamurthy – and one suspects for Ram – building a “supple” India is far more important than building a “strong” India.
Benedict Anderson (1936 to 2015), an Irish scholar earned his spurs by deepening the study of nationalism in Latin America and Asia. His is the framework, Ram prefers, for nation building – “modern, contingent, forged out of struggle and contest…. replacing faith in God with faith in the nation …. never rooted in ancient history or in ties of blood or soil”. This is Guha’s elliptical manner of pointing out where Indian nationalists are going wrong.
Guha poses a provocative question – why are there so few right wing, conservative Indian intellectuals, other than in economics? R. Jagannathan, writing in the Times of India, has riposted that bench strength is not a good measure of intellectual vigor. Independent scholastic thought depends crucially on the availability of a supportive environment, which is rarely a feature of developing countries.
Guha’s gold standard for right wing conservatives is C. Rajagopalachari 1878-1972. Out of sync in the post-independence, ersatz socialist, Congress party, Rajaji left to found the Swatantra party in 1959. Rajaji defies conventional pigeon holing – a devout Hindu and a liberal, he presciently advocated against “big government” and the “megalomania of …. big projects”. His advice to the Hindu right wing Jan Sangh in 1968 was to go beyond mere toleration of the minorities. Guha’s view is somewhat similar – “a credible conservative intellectual tradition can only emerge outside the…. (reactionary) …. ecosystem of the Sangh Parivar”.
Andre Beteille is to sociology what Amartya Sen is to economics. More high praise for the sociologist comes by way of Ram labeling him the C. Rajagopalachari of our times. Devoted to field work related research; committed to no ideology or utopia other than his vocation; far removed from the convivial seductions of Delhi (much like Ram), Beteille embodies the ultimate scholar. Consider this understated gem from him, which speaks to the divide between Bharat and India: “While educated Indians are inclined to think and speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagers”
Andre Beteille, sociologist extrodinaire and diligent practioner of evidence based analytics.
Roots and how to not abuse them
There is a long chapter on Ram’s book review of Sen’s, “The Argumentative Indian”. Ram objects to Sen imposing modern concepts like “constitutional secularism” or “judicially guaranteed multi-culturism” to the pre- modern practices of emperor Akbar’s court. Sen’s motives are progressive, in portraying medieval Muslim rule as not wholly anachronistic. But Ram apprehends unintended negative consequences from other revivalists, similarly departing from historical rigor, by sanctifying the past to further current political objectives.
A distant glorious past dictating the present is Guha’s worst nightmare as in Pakistan – a revivalist country so devoid of outstanding current accomplishments that it compulsively harkens back to medieval times for inspiration. Vignette one is Pakistani liberals being nostalgic over dinner for the “high noon of Muslim political power in the sub-continent”. Vignette two is the rewriting of Lahore’s history – casting over it “an Islamic glow” whilst ignoring past accretions to its culture by the Sikhs, the Hindus and the British.
“likes” and “unlikes”
Ram does not take kindly to the political philosophy of Hindutva. For him accepting majoritarianism means abandoning inclusion and secularism – fundamental principles that India, unlike Pakistan, was founded on. In a similar vein, he privileges democracy versus authoritarianism. This is the message Ram carries on his travels to China in 2008, to a conference on multi-culturism. His host- a Professor Lin – whilst generally approving of Ram’s credentials as a proselytizing, liberal, gently remarks “If India were not so economically backward, it would persuade the world more easily about how it has nurtured democracy and diversity.
India: Free to be desperately poor
The Congress party – makers of modern India or merely savvy rentiers
Ram is an intellectual- one who has much to be immodest about. But often the polemicist prevails. How does one square his more than fulsome praise of the Congress party for making India “less divided, less violent, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less intolerant, less unequal and less unfree” with his assessment of its progressive decline and its eminent death due to its conversion into a family business by Nehru’s “abysmally incompetent and self-seeking” successors. He may yet have to eat his words as political Phoneixs rise routinely in India. Add to this that he flags the ill-judged, abandonment of the party’s liberal, secular credentials for perceived political gains in 1975-77, 1984, 1986 and 1992? Three of these figure in Ram’s list of the eight worst years for India. Consider also his assertion that India lacks a culture of actively preserving the constitutionally mandated freedom of expression and the acknowledgement that subversion of this right occurred as far back as 1951 via an amendment to Article 19 (2) inserting “public order” as an additional exception for curtailing this freedom. Put all this evidence together and you would be hard pressed to align it with Ram’s assessment of the largely benign impact of the long years of Congress rule.
Make peace not war
On the use of violence as an instrument of self-determination Ram’s conclusions are pragmatic and surprisingly conservative. He notes that in the past half century only two nations have been born from armed struggle – Eritrea and Bangladesh. He could have also included the most recent case of South Sudan in 2010. His advice to armed secessionists in Kashmir is sound. Learn from the failed insurrection in Sri Lanka. Emulate the Dravida movement of Tamil Nadu and the Mizos. Both abandoned entrenched isolationist ideologies seeking independence – the former in 1963 and the latter in 1966. Both are better off for it.
The no-where people: Adivasis of Central India – caught between joining the rat race at the bottom or remaining at the top of a hunter-gatherer past.
The theme of alienation and marginalization continues into the essay on the Adivasi tribes of central India. Unlike tribal communities in the North East, the Adivasi do not dominate the region they inhabit. In no state are they in a numerical majority, despite the creation of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Consequently, they remain politically disempowered. Predictably the result has been the convenient “harvesting of souls”, earlier by Christian and Hindu missionaries and most recently by the Maoists – none of whom have the welfare of the Adivasi as their prime objective. Ram, ever the pragmatic peacenik, advocates that the government give Adivasi tribes the safeguards assured to them by the constitution and the Maoists learn from the evolution of the CPI, the CPI (M) and the Maoists in Nepal and reconcile themselves to electoral democracy – though he admits that this advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.
This book is mixed fare from the high priest of Indian liberal thought.
Ram Guha, historian and creator of word symphonies.
What is sorely missing in this book is recognition that this “unnatural nation” has moved on, along the lines suggested by Professor Lin, to Ram, a decade ago. Even as revivalist conservative scholars dredge up past glories- somewhat futilely; right wing, conservative politics is creating the space – economic and political, for strengthening this great but “unlikely democracy” that is India. Meanwhile vigilant, liberal, alarmism – as by Dharma Kumar earlier and now by Amartya Sen and Ram, to flag deviations from this path, can only help.
Adapted from the authors book review in Swarajyamag, November 2016 http://swarajyamag.com/magazine/in-guhas-latest-book-the-polemicist-often-prevails-over-the-intellectual