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'You can't be neutral about Gandhi'

Historian Judith Brown

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January 30, 2007
Judith Brown is the Beit Professor of the History of the British Commonwealth at Balliol College, Oxford.

Born in India in 1944 and educated at Girton College, Cambridge, Dr Brown is a specialist in modern South Asian history -- The Times Literary Supplement describes her as the most interesting scholar now interpreting recent Indian history.

Her interests include not just 19th and 20th century South Asian history and politics, but modern Hinduism, gender and imperialism, South Asian migration and the modern South Asian Diaspora.

She has written books on both Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Gandhi: Prisoner of Hope and Modern India, and Jawaharlal Nehru (Nehru: A Political Life).

In Mumbai to release her latest book, Global South Asians-Introducing the Modern Diaspora, she took time to talk to Deputy Managing Editor Ramananda Sengupta.

How relevant is Gandhi in today's India?

Gandhi is someone who talked about crucial issues, and he is always relevant, not just for India. He talks about fundamental standards in public life and the relationship between public and private life, between ends and means. These are not peculiar to India, they are applicable worldwide. I think that's one reason students are always challenged by him.

You can't be neutral about Gandhi.

But are his teachings as relevant today as they were in his time?

Certainly his teachings about the use of non-violence, the need for fundamental social reconstruction, will always be relevant. Where I think it is difficult looking back at him as any sort of teacher is in his precise ideas about the economy. I've always felt that this was one of his weakest areas.

I think he would have liked to have thrown a ringed fence around India to 'keep out the modern world.' And no country can do that because we live in a age of globalisation. But you can safely underline ideas about simplicity, no over-consumption. As he said, 'there's enough in the world for every man's need, but not for every man's greed.'

I think when we see issues of global warming and other things we have done to the planet, I think he was intuitive that we were consuming resources fast, and that this was not only bad for those who consumed, but it also led to gross inequities.

What about Nehru? How would you classify him as a leader?

I think you have to put yourself back in his time, in 1947. Nehru was confronted with a completely new situation. India was the first country to gain independence from the old Empire. I think he was enthused, he said we have a wonderful opportunity here, we can make a new India.

He was absolutely clear, as Gandhi was, that independence shouldn't just mean the transfer of power, with Indian politicians stepping into the seats of power and behaving as the British had behaved.

'Nehru should have quit in the late 1950s'

Both of them felt that independence was about social reconstruction, about making new types of citizens. And Nehru strove for that. You have realise that he was utterly shaken to core by the violence that surrounded Independence and Partition. He had not expected it. He was heartbroken, ashamed, bewildered. He didn't know what to make of it.

His first impulse was to rush out into the streets and actually try and stop people. We talk about his secularism and whether this was some sort of a Leftie intellectual construct, but what he saw was neighbours killing each other, and he felt that this must not go on.

We have to have an idea of India which is inclusive, and for him the only basis for that sort of inclusiveness was secularism. Gandhi thought otherwise. He had a different take on inclusion. You can only understand Nehru's attitude if you see what a searing experience Partition was for him.

Would you agree that he was na�ve about the Chinese and that was what ultimately killed him?

My big book on him suggests that from everything that I've read, he was hostile to accept evidence that the Chinese were not Asian brothers. His idea of India and China being natural allies, natural leaders of the new order in Asia, went right back to the 1920s, when as a young man he had been to a conference of oppressed peoples against imperialism.

He wrote back to the Congress leadership saying that I've met these Chinese nationalist leaders, and we've got to take the Chinese seriously. They are our natural brothers. So he did not like to be told that there was a possibility that the Chinese were likely to behave differently. Even Vallabhbhai Patel, in the early 1950s, just before he died, said Chinese Communists make good nationalists, and they could be very dangerous neighbours to have. Which is very prescient.

But it really wasn't till about 1959 that Nehru, very belatedly, accepted that not everything that the Chinese said could be taken at face value. That, combined with very serious gaps in Indian intelligence. But then, China was pretty closed to all sorts of people. Very few people knew what was going on inside the country.

So is that what finally killed him?

I think he was physically weakened anyway, but this in many ways took the stuffing out of him.

After Nehru and Gandhi, what made you decide to write a book on the Diaspora?

Cambridge University Press came to me and asked me to write it. The idea was theirs, but they knew I was very interested in the subject. I jumped at the opportunity. My chair is in Commonwealth history, and one of the interesting things about this book is that it shows that the Diaspora is a fundamental part of the peopling of the Commonwealth.

So much of the earlier Diaspora, in the 19th and early 20th Century, followed Imperial networks.

So does the book only look at the Diaspora in the Commonwealth?

No, it's worldwide. It's an introduction to the worldwide modern Diaspora. So that's everything from Malaysia, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia, America, Canada, Britain.

Would you accept that most of the migration from South Asia immediately after Independence was from the less privileged sections of society?

That's partly true, that the people who left, left from areas where there was reason to leave. Obviously, sometimes there were pre-existing traditions of movement, but often there was reason why people left. For example, most of the British Indians originated in Jalandhar, Punjab, which was area badly influenced by Partition. There was an increasing population pressure on land. This encouraged people to leave.

But in the 1970s, you got an influx of a much more educated Indian population out of East Africa into Britain. And then, around the same time that Britain began to shut her doors, America, Canada, began opening up, though to a different sort of person.

They had, and still have, a point system, which encouraged highly skilled people to migrate. So you are right, there are all sorts of different flows out of the subcontinent.

Would you agree with the term 'brain drain' in connection when it comes to migration of the latter kind?

In the early 20th century, yes. A hugely, highly skilled technical population leaving. But there are also lots of people left behind. It's not as it there was a finite number of highly qualified people. And many more highly qualified people are coming through the system in India. So I don't think you can really talk about the drain.

When you were researching for the book, did you come across something which you felt was interesting or intriguing in this flow of the Diaspora?

Lots of things. But one of the things that fascinated me was that, at least in the earlier phases, very often when the people moved, the Diasporic movement was only the next step in an existing pattern of movement. It is as if you have to set up a culture of movement in order to make the decision to go overseas.

For instance, the people in Jalandhar, a lot of them had moved anyway from the Pakistan side. In Sylhet in Bangladesh, a lot of Sylhetis in British times went downstream to work in the British shipping industry. And it is the same villages along the river banks which began to send people after independence migrating to Britain.

So there is already a tradition of movement.

You were born in India and have been here often. Overall, what are the changes that you have perceived in India?

I was born here, but don't really remember much about India in those days. I came here when I was 17, to teach, before going to Cambridge. But one certainly is the pressure of the population, certainly in the big cities.

For instance, Delhi has changed beyond all recognition in terms of the pressure of people on the roads, cars, and huge buildings in new colonies. Delhi is so much bigger than it was 30, 40 years ago. And also, I suppose too the upsurge in income.

The disposable wealth of many people is infinitely bigger than it ever was. It is difficult to tell, because I have mostly mixed with people who are very cosmopolitan anyway. But I think far more people have kin abroad, have been abroad, and are really richly global citizens.

Is the average Indian more confident than he was a decade ago?

Who is the average Indian? Urban Indians are highly conscious of being part of a country which is a global player in many ways. Global in terms of its economic reach, its people -- that is why the Diaspora is so interesting -- and a leading power in Asia.

I can't tell you how say a Hindi speaker in a village from Haryana would see this. But the fact that even people at the village level have access to television now would suggest that they in their minds can position India in the world in a new way.

It is said the Indian Diaspora, particularly in the US, is punching way above its weight in terms of political and economic clout.

They are very well organised in the US. They have got a hang of the politics where you use the lobby system and so forth. I think they are making very much the best of what they have got.

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