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R-Day special: Ramchandra Guha on Indian democracy

Last updated on: January 25, 2011 10:43 IST

'Indian democracy is in a state of crisis'

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When the country's most admired politicians in recent times, Nitish Kumar, spoke about his decisive victory in the Bihar polls in November 2010, the one person he made special reference to was historian Ramchandra Guha.

Guha had lauded the Bihar chief minister's politics of inclusiveness, his good governance and his understated style -- which Nitish Kumar alluded to in his trademark modest manner after being re-elected to office.

A historian-writer-commentator well known for speaking his mind, Guha is one of the country's leading intellectuals, whose writings, observations and commentaries elicit great interest and thought.

In his recent book, The Makers of Modern India, Guha brings together 19 illustrious Indians -- not only lesser known figures but lesser known aspects of well-known figures -- who shaped Indian nationhood.

From Raja Rammohan Roy, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, B R Ambedkar to the forgotten like Tarabai Shinde, Kamladevi Chattopadhyay and Hamid Dalwai, Guha has compiled the speeches and writings of these eminent political thinkers.

The book provides an informed glimpse into India's robust culture of political debate and its long tradition of political thinkers whose perspectives about the challenges and torments confronting India were sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory.

Ramchandra Guha spoke to Archana Masih about his latest book and its resonances in today's India. A Republic Day special: 

Your book reveals the rich culture of debate leaders of the past had even though they were often critical of each other's views. Compared to that past, the present level of political debate has sunk very low. Is it because the calibre of our leaders is such or is it a sign of our times?

In some way it should provide us come consolation that it is not as if in other countries there is very sophisticated political debate -- David Cameron is not an original thinker, neither is Nicolas Sarkozy. Of course, there is a debate about ideas and it does not descend to the level of personal character assassination like it does here sometimes.

We were fortunate in having such a long and continuous tradition of political thinkers who thought deeply about major issues confronting society as it sought to modernise, democratise, reach outwards towards the world -- as it found its feet as an independent nation. They thought in many profound, interesting ways of the challenges and torments we faced.

That resource is available to us, and maybe with the exception of Gandhi we have ignored it. Even when we look at these thinkers, we see them from the prism of a particular sect or party, so the Congress says Nehru is ours, Dalits say Ambedkar is only for us, Bengalis have a possessive attitude towards Tagore.

I've tried to break that by bringing back their work into circulation, connecting them to each other, showing them that they were part of a long tradition of debate, argument, contestation and that they belong to all of us. You don't have to be a Dalit to appreciate Ambedkar; you can vote for a non-Congress party and still admire Nehru.

We shouldn't bemoan the fact that there aren't any original thinker-politicians [in India] because there are no original thinker-politicians anywhere in the world today. Maybe with the exception of Obama, which also is a question mark. What we should really worry about is why we -- not only our political class -- are so collectively ignorant about our intellectual legacies.


Image: In his latest book, Makers of Modern India, Ram Guha (inset) profiles 19 Indians whose ideas have shaped India

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'It is a flawed nation but it is ours and we have to understand it'

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Why are we so ignorant about these legacies of our past?

I hope this book will be read by all kind of readers -- professionals, politicians, lawyers, doctors etc so that they get a sense of the richness and robustness of our tradition. I have tried to start a debate where we at least connect our past to our present. That we understand and appreciate the agony and struggle of those who made this nation, and made it into a democracy.

It is a flawed nation, a flawed democracy -- my writings never hide all these things -- but it is ours and we have to understand how it was made, how it can be improved, how it can be refined by drawing on the available resources, that includes especially the legacies of these remarkable Indians.

So it is not unique to India that our leaders are not original thinkers like their predecessors were, in a way this is very much a political trend across the world?

It seems to be everywhere. What we should worry about is that the politicians do not understand the legacies they claim to represent. I have no proof of course but based on what he says and does, I can be quite certain that Rahul Gandhi has never read Nehru's letters to chief ministers.

I have no proof but based on what she says and does Mayawati erects statutes of Ambedkar but has never read his books and certainly not his speeches to the Constituent Assembly.

I can be quite certain that Mulayam Singh Yadav, who claims to be a Lohia-ite, cannot name a single book by Ram Manohar Lohia. So what should worry us is the ignorance and illiteracy of the politicians with regard to the traditions they claim to represent.

An Ambekar is born once in a 100 years, a Gandhi is born once in 500 years. In terms of the originality and vision, one can't expect that miraculously a Gandhi or Ambedkar will be reborn and all our problems will go away. But we should understand these legacies, appreciate them and be more critically aware of them. That's what I've tried to do in the book.


Image: Military buglers on the ramparts of Delhi's Red Fort
Photographs: Kamal Kishore/Reuters
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'The jury is still out on Obama'

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Unlike leaders of the past who wrote about their political ideas, the writing that leaders of today do is perhaps restricted to a biography after demitting office.

But I'm not particularly worried about that, I am worried that they should be reading not just these leaders but also contemporary writers.

We have very good critical writers in India today, not extremists -- left wing or right wing -- whom the media loves to highlight. In terms of deep insights into the society today we have the great sociologist Andre Beteille about caste and politics. Informed commentators like Pratap Bhanu Mehta, P Sainath, Sunil Khilnani... so serious reflective thinking is going on in India today, forget in the past, it's happening even today. It is outside the political class but the political class doesn't read it.

Obama may not be a great intellectual but he listens to what the original thinkers in America are saying today. When he wants to formulate his energy policy he will get his greatest energy expert and listen to him. Our prime minister will do what is politically expedient. So it's the lack of input in decision-making, whether from our past thinkers or current intellectuals and scholars, that should worry us, not the fact that we don't have great original thinkers in our political class.

In his recent book Harvard historian James Kloppenberg calls Obama a Philosopher President in the mould of John Adams, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Even George Bush was no intellectual but he knew the legacies of Lincoln and Jefferson. He understood where his country was coming from. I don't know if Rahul Gandhi, who is a well meaning fellow, understands the history of modern India, its anguish and struggles. Since Mayawati praises Ambedkar, he is persona non grata for the Congress party but Rahul Gandhi could become a deeper, more thoughtful politician by reading Ambedkar's writings.

Lincoln was a Republican, Obama is a Democrat. When Obama took oath he invoked Lincoln, he didn't say he belonged to another party. So this is the kind of petty-minded sectarianism which is the problem and we should try and go beyond it.

Would you say that Obama is a man of ideas and action like some of the leaders in your book?

I say in my footnote that the jury is still out on him. We don't know yet. Generally there is a poverty of originality but at least David Cameron knows what Winston Churchill stood for and argued, he is aware of the social and political legacies of his democracy.

The leaders of our democracy who are heirs and fortunate to have this extraordinary continuous tradition of reflective and original thinking of the making of Indian democracy are unaware of it.


Image: Barack and Michelle Obama at Humayun's Tomb in Delhi in November 2010
Photographs: Jason Reed/Reuters
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'Nehru's most important writings are what he wrote after Independence'

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You say in your book that three of Nehru's main books were written before Independence and have been continuously in print...

But his most important writings for us today are what he wrote afterwards -- that is his letters to chief ministers that are ignored or forgotten. Those letters speak directly about Hindu-Muslim relations, economic policies, regionalism, India's place in the world...

I've included them in my book because they are so much more relevant than his older books which are about himself and the freedom struggle, but his letters to chief ministers are about our predicaments today.

You have not included leaders like Patel and Bose because you call them doers rather than thinkers. Do you think we have now moved to an era of doers where intellectual inputs comes from committees like the National Advisory Council while people like Sonia Gandhi use their charisma to draw in votes and maneuver the world of politics?

We're talking about debate and understanding at a much deeper level than what we currently see. These people thought very profoundly and deeply not about concrete policies but broader deeper questions about the conflict, the divisions in our society, how they can be healed, what is the nature of our political system and our democratic orientations special to India.

Those are the sort of things they should be thinking about, not short term-ism -- if I have this subsidy programme I will win the next election -- that is basically the orientation of most of these people including Sonia Gandhi. It is not really a deep understanding of the dynamics of Indian democracy as a work in progress whose faultlines have to be attended to.

So the big loss is that leaders of today are not drawing from the leaders of the past?

Even our citizens should be more aware. We know some of these people [in the book], some we don't. We don't read them. Like I said, this is just a beginning of a conversation, I want to encourage and provoke younger scholars to write better books, to do more focused books, start a rich public debate based on our own intellectual traditions.


Image: Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
Photographs: India Abroad Archive
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'There are prophetic warnings contained in the book'

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Have the foundations laid by Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Golwalkar been so strong that their inheritors -- Congress, BSP, BJP -- can make changes within that framework suitable to the demands of politics without contributing new thoughts, new ideas themselves?

That's not true. Our foundations are now shaky. It is true that they built robust foundations but that is now damaged and destroyed. India today is plagued by terrible problems.

There's a great challenge from Naxalism which wants to create an absolute State; a great challenge from the Hindu Right which wants to create a Hindu Pakistan; there is Islamic terrorism from across the border; the discontentment in the Northeast; the continuing oppression of Dalits and women; the whole issue of female foeticide...

So the foundations are crumbling and we are presiding over this crumbling. Indian democracy is in a state of crisis despite this absurd fantasy about our becoming a superpower and all these ridiculous claims made out of Delhi. We are stumbling along from crisis to crisis.

That is why we need to be attentive to this and to the way our thinkers have thought through all these problems.

I have included Verrier Elwin on tribal rights and how their land and forest are important. The mining boom is destroying not only the ecology but the livelihoods of tribal people and delivering them into the waiting hands of the Naxalites. There are all these prophetic warnings contained in this book and we have to be deeply attentive to that.

So the foundations of Indian nationhood are not very robust. I am not saying we are going to collapse or break up and become 20 countries but we have to be attentive. We are a work in progress, we still have problems, faultlines, divisions and we shouldn't have this hubris that because we have these 4-5 billionaires and 8 per cent growth rate we are doing damn well. Not at all.

From the ideas contained in this book, what are some ideas that need to be relooked or even reframed by today's leaders to make them relevant to India's youth?

I cannot prescribe to politicians. This book is catalyst to a debate, not a guidebook for improving India. I am not qualified to do more than write a work of history. I cannot be a policy adviser, a prophet, a counsellor. I write books and write them in a way every Indian understands them. I don't write them for fellow academics in jargonised, obscure prose, and what people make out of it is up to them.


Image: A Maoist training camp in Jharkhand
Photographs: Rediff Archives
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'Parliamentary debate is non-existent now'

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Mahatma Gandhi dominated India's nation-building process and remained its conscience-keeper, after him there were other leaders who were considered statesmen-leaders like C Rajagopalachari, Jayaprakash Narayan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, APJ Abdul Kalam. Do you think it is important for India to have such leaders at any given time who are acceptable across parties and are more consensual?

Absolutely. Consensus is very important. One of the problems of Indian politics today is personal vilification, the lack of dialogue, the refusal to listen to each other.

In the '50s and '60s there was very rich parliamentary debate, it is non-existent now. And also, on some core issues, there should be real bipartisanship, like on Kashmir. If the BJP is in power it makes an approach to the people of Kashmir, the Congress shoots it down, if the Congress is in power and makes an approach, the BJP shoots it down.

Kashmir is a real terrible problem. In my book I have JP talking about the importance of emotional integration, you can't keep a people against their will through a military occupation. It is an issue which the government recognises when it is in power but the Opposition, to score political points, doesn't care if the national interest is damaged.

For example, in 2008, Manmohan Singh was talking about a long term solution to Kashmir with Pakistani leaders where there would be soft borders, won't have changing of the LOC or national boundary but more autonomy for the people of Kashmir and so on.

While this discussion was going on the controversy over the Amarnath yatra started and the BJP supported the very reactionary agitation in Jammu which blocked the highway. By blocking the highway what are you telling the people of the Valley is -- we don't want you, we don't care if you die. Then how can you consider them citizens of your country?

In a time of crisis when you deal with a part of India that has been discontented for 60-63 years -- I'm not saying concede them azadi, I'm saying respect them as human beings. Sympathise with their concerns and discontent.

In my book, read C Rajagopalachari's obituary on Nehru, it's extraordinarily generous and so moving. Ambedkar called Gandhi all these names but Gandhi realised that Ambedkar was a brilliant lawyer and when India became independent he told Nehru to put him in the first Cabinet. Nehru was hesitant because Ambedkar was a critic of the Congress but Gandhi said no -- that Independence had come for all of us. This is the kind of broadmindedness and generosity present leaders can learn from the leaders of the past.


Image: The Central Hall of Parliament.
Photographs: Reuters
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'A culture that produced Tarabai Shinde, Phule, Gokhale, Ambedkar is dominated by chauvinists'

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You write in the early part of the book that Bengal was the epicentre of reform and debate in the early 19th century. This position was then held by Bombay in the late 19th century, now with instances of banning of books etc in the city, do you think that culture of debate has been thwarted?

Certainly. How could a culture that produced Gokhale and Ambedkar have been reduced to this that they are scared of a book?

The answer to a book is another book. Not a ban, not a burning of a book, attacks on teachers, buildings. It is very sad -- this narrowing of the Maharashtrian mind. A culture that produced a Tarabai Shinde, Jyotiba Phule, GK Gokhale, BR Ambedkar is dominated by chauvinists and bigots. It is deeply distressing and worrisome to everyone.

Your book includes leaders from almost all parts of India -- Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, even a Britisher who made India his home...

This book has South Indians like PV Ramaswamy, North Indians like Nehru and JP. At that time there was a ferment going on everywhere. This book is called Makers of Modern India and has a national sweep but there should be a Makers of Modern Bengal, Makers of Tamil Nadu, Makers of Modern UP so that there is a sense of the rich flowering of political debate through the 19th and 20th centuries. One of my hopes is that it will start a debate on these issues.

You have also included thinkers like Tarabai Shinde, Kamladevi Chhattopadhyay, Hamid Dalwai, figures that many do not know of.

One of the ideas of this book was to draw attention not only to less known figures but to less known aspects of well known figures. In this book there is Nehru the statemaker not the freedom fighter, and how he conceived the career of Independent India while he was prime minister; Ambedkar as a Dalit activist but also as a democratic thinker and the warnings he uttered about our democracy in the Constitution.

The book also tries to rescue figures like Hamid Dalwai who have been forgotten.

Who all do you think would be the makers of future India?

History will judge. Fifty years later some other historian must judge. That's why my last thinker is from the 1970s, so you have that distance in time.


Image: Rohinton Mistry's book Such A Long Journey was withdrawn by the Bombay University

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