Dec 19, 2010

Most history books in India are self-important and dreary. Either they are long lectures on the glories of Left or Right leaders and ideologies, or others, on the first, last and in between Mughals, are aggressively-marketed bores. So when historian-writer-thinker Ramachandra Guha decided to write a book on the men and women who made modern India, he was setting himself an intimidating task.

All lists are controversial and are open invitations to whiners. But it helped that inside Guha’s tousled head of salt-pepper hair throbs “one of the 100 most influential brains in the world”. Naturally, his “modern makers” were “thinkers” and not “doers”. So no Indira Gandhi, no Vivekananda, no Subhas Chandra Bose and no Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Marxists too were excluded because they made “no novel contributions”.
Makers of Modern India, like Guha’s earlier, seminal work, India After Gandhi, is an engaging introduction to some of the most inspiring and original dramatis personae who beat India into some sort of shape with their ideas and words. And they number 19.
These giants who walked this land and made it what it is today are men and women of dogged conviction and determination. And, there is not a dullard amongst them. Most, in fact, are uber cool. Think 1900. Now picture Lord Hardinge whinging about Gopal Krishna Gokhale, “the most dangerous enemy of the British in this country”, and a smile will creep up your face.
Guha begins his chapters on the 19 men and women he refers to as “my thinker-activists”, with a brief introduction and analysis of their ideas, speeches and contribution, and then reproduces their best writings.
There are “reformers and radicals” like Rammohan Roy and Syed Ahmed Khan who, in 1883, referred to India as “a bride which has got two beautiful and lustrous eyes — Hindus and Mussulmans” and added that “people of Hindustan, you have now the right to make this bride either squint eyed or one eyed”. There’s Jotirao Phule, “the agrarian radical”, Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Tarabai Shinde, “the subaltern feminist”.
Then there are “the nurturers” — Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Rabindranath Tagore, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, and E.V. Ramaswami who, it must be noted, didn’t just fight for the rights and freedoms of women, especially widows, but also for man and woman’s right to “pleasure and satisfaction”. And finally, “the debaters”: M.S. Golwalkar, Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, C. Rajagopalachari, Verrier Elwin, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Hamid Dalwai, “the last modernist”. That’s 17.
The remaining two, both men, appear in the book twice — M.K. Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar — sometimes to concur, often to clash on caste and Hinduism.
Guha, who believes “India to be the most interesting country in the world”, writes in the book’s epilogue: “These Indians undoubtedly made India the nation it now is, but their legacies may yet help make India a nation that more fully lives up to its (far more imperfectly realised) ideals”.
Do the words of these 19 men and women still have the power to drill sense into us? I don’t know. But I know for sure that Guha’s words do make Indian history a very sexy read.

Full transcript of an interview conducted over email by Suparna Sharma.

Q. You have included 19 people in your book Makers of Modern India. Could you explain on what basis you chose them?
A. My criteria were, first, that these had to be original thinkers (thus ruling out pure “doers” like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Indira Gandhi, both of whom feature prominently in my previous book India After Gandhi); second, that their writings had to deal with issues of substantial political and social import (such as caste, gender, nationalism, inter-community relations, etc); and third, that their prose had to be lucid and accessible even to the current generation (thus ruling out such admittedly remarkable figures as Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo, whose prose style is archaic, of its time but not of ours, unlike say Gandhi or Rammohan Roy whose writing is as fresh and alive in 2010 as it was in 1920 or 1820).

Q. Some of your “makers” are well-known, others not no much, like Hamid Dalwai. Why have several heroes been forgotten? Is it partly because of the history that is taught in our schools and what you have referred to elsewhere as the “Stalinist falsification of history”.
A. The history of ideas is a neglected field in India; my book seeks to open it up for fuller and more rigorous enquiry. In this sense, while aimed at a broad general readership, the book is also an invitation to my fellow scholars to dig deeper into these traditions of debate and argument. We need many more such volumes, these dealing with different themes, thinkers and regions.

Q. Jotirao Phule’s “reporter’s diary” of a farmer’s plight is very moving. Written in 1883, he talks of farmer’s suicide. Was it eerie when you read it the first time? And depressing?
A. Yes, it was extraordinarily moving — he could be writing about Vidarbha today. That you were stirred by it is, I think, an endorsement of the larger project of which it is part — a young woman in New Delhi in 2010 being impressed and moved by what a middle-aged man in Pune wrote in the 1880s! Phule’s prose is eloquent and direct even in translation; it must be even more powerful in its original Marathi.

Q. You have written that the tradition (writing, debating) that your book Makers of Modern India showcases is dead. Would you agree that today our politicians are not debating — drawn as they are from the general pool of Indians — because people don’t want them to? Because people want “doers” and not “thinkers”?
A. As I said when the book was released in New Delhi, what should worry us is not that we do not now have politicians who are original thinkers, but that the leaders of today are so ignorant of the legacies they claim to represent. I am reasonably certain that, for example, Mayawati is unaware of Ambedkar’s remarkable speeches to the Constituent Assembly on democracy; that Rahul Gandhi has not read Jawaharlal Nehru’s letters to chief ministers where he lays out his ideas on secularism, economic development, foreign policy, etc; that Mulayam Singh Yadav cannot name a single book written by his professed mentor, Ram Manohar Lohia. I hope that politicians too read my book!

Q. You have chronicled several ideological debates in your book – Gandhi-Tagore, Nehru-JP, Ambedkar-Gandhi. You talk of how civilised their debates were, how these men hardly ever stooped to personal attacks. You too have had your share of ideological tiffs, with Arundhati Roy and William Dalrymple. You have said that “we would all be better off were she (Roy) to revert to fiction” and that Dalrymple doesn’t even know of Ambedkar. For the aam newspaper/magazine reader, are these debates enriching or just entertaining.
A. Unfortunately, sections of the media tend to trivialise and personalise literary debate. As it happens, both the debates you refer to were about matters of substance. The argument with Roy was about whether celebrity endorsement harms or hurts a social movement; the argument with Dalrymple about whether the moral worth of a writer is to be judged by the social class he was born into or by what he or she makes of his or her later life. I should also point out that despite my reservations about her political choices, I praised the courage and commitment of Roy, while after my debate with Dalrymple I guided him to the relevant literature on Jainism when I heard he was writing on the subject (he has acknowledged my help in his book Nine Lives).
I wish the media, in reporting these debates, would focus on content rather than personality. Intellectual debates can often be productive and constructive. Thus Makers of Modern India is in part a product of an argument between Amartya Sen and myself in the pages of the Economic and Political Weekly. Sen argued that figures from the very remote past (such as Ashoka and Akbar) played a crucial role in shaping modern India; I answered that in fact it was 19th and early 20th century thinker-activists such as Rammohan, Gandhi, Ambedkar and Nehru who more fundamentally shaped the making of the Indian Constitution. Makers of Modern India can be read as a fuller elaboration of my thesis; but the debate shall not end, for, if not Sen himself, other scholars will certainly seek to rehabilitate thinkers of a more distant past.

Q. You talk of five revolutions in India — urban, industrial, national, democratic and social. And you have written that nations tend to produce thinker-activists at their birth and in moments of crisis. Is India not in crisis today?
A. The fact is that our country is always in “crisis”. As I have argued in India after Gandhi, this is both an unnatural nation as well as an unlikely democracy. Given its size and diversity, and its cleavages of caste, class, gender, religion, region and language, nation-building in India was always going to be a rocky ride. Our political experiment is a work in progress. We need to be more attentive to the tensions within, rather than entertain absurd fantasies of becoming a “superpower”, which, if enacted, will only intensify social conflict.
That said, the poverty of political debate in India is indeed a matter of worry. We need more thinking politicians, and politicians who are well read too!

Q. You have said that Indians are an unhistorical people. Given that, who is the book aimed at, and what do you hope it will achieve?
A. The book is a conspectus of the Indian political tradition, which showcases the diversity and richness of the work of thinker-activists of earlier generations. It is addressed to the general reader as much as to the scholarly community. It is also being translated into several Indian languages. I hope it will give the citizen a sense of the quality and calibre of political debate in past times, and alert them also to the continuing relevance of many of these “Makers”.

Q. You have written extensively of the women’s rights movement in India, and included several feminists — men and women — in your book. While delivering a recent Supreme Court judgment, one judge used the words “keep” and “concubine”. Do you think this is a language issue, or a gender one?
A. I haven’t followed this Supreme Court judgment, so can’t comment on it, but it remains a fact that the struggle against patriarchy is incomplete and unfinished.

Q. Bollywood. You have written about MGR and NTR in India After Gandhi. One of the reasons for their popularity and appeal, you have said, was the use of regional language. How do you see the Rajinikanth phenomena today. It’s international — Punjabis love him as much as Tamils.
A. This is wonderful to know. As the work of Mani Ratnam as director and A.R. Rahman as composer demonstrates, Hindi cinema itself has been hugely influenced by Tamil cinema, a pleasant irony since the Tamils once feared that they would be subjected to the cultural hegemony of the Hindiwallahs.

Q. Hindu-Muslim collaboration, like we see in Bollywood and cricket, is not seen elsewhere. Why?
A. Another realm where you see this collaboration is Hindustani classical music. Both the burden of history and the opportunism of politicians have tended to pull Hindus and Muslims apart. However, shared economic and social interests, and a common commitment to the plural, inclusive idea of India (as articulated in my anthology by Gokhale, Tagore, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Kamaladevi, Nehru, Rajaji, Jayaprakash, and others) may yet neutralise and overcome these poisonous residues.