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Ramachandra Guha on the Makers of Modern India
JAI ARJUN SINGH  7th Nov 2010

In Makers of Modern India, the historian Ramachandra Guha presents excerpts from the speeches and writings of 19 men and women – beginning with Raja Rammohan Roy – whose ideas influenced the formation of the Indian republic. Sharing space with iconic figures like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar are lesser-known thinkers such as the 19th century feminist Tarabai Shinde, the author of a powerful tract comparing the situations of men and women, and the liberal Muslim writer Hamid Dalwai, who encouraged social reform and modernism within his community. A conversation with Guha:


Q. How, for the purposes of this book, did you define "modern India"? What criteria did you use while selecting these thinkers?

A. "Modernity" here is defined in terms of the challenge posed to the culture and civilisation of the subcontinent by a more technologically dynamic and aggressive civilisation – which is what happened when the East India Company came in. These challenges provided a wake-up call, which was accepted by Raja Rammohan Roy. I call him "The First Liberal" because he confronted head-on this encounter with another civilisation.

There were several criteria for choosing these thinkers: the originality of their ideas, the quality of their writing, and whether their ideas travelled across the centuries. Some people – such as Aurobindo or Vivekanand – are excluded partly because of the archaic nature of their prose, which hasn't travelled well. But when Roy talks in the 1820s about the freedom of the press, you can still see the relevance of what he's saying.

Also, they had to be thinkers AND doers. I didn't take pure intellectuals and I didn't take pure practising politicians. Indira Gandhi, for example, didn't write much, unlike her father.

Q. The disagreements between these thinkers make for fascinating reading – there are differences of opinion that range from the respectful arguments between Tagore and Gandhi to the outright hostility that Ambedkar shows towards Gandhi, to the complex relationship between Nehru and Rajagopalachari. What conflict do you find most illuminating in terms of how it pits one idea of India against another?

A. I wouldn't want to pick just one. I think there are a series of very interesting conflicts, starting with Bal Gangadhar Tilak (who I designate "the militant nationalist") vs Gopal Krishna Gokhale ("the liberal reformer"). The book is constructed as a series of arguments and debates, which are part of any political tradition. These are debates about principles, and sometimes they can have a sharp edge. For example, Ambedkar is quite bitter about Gandhi personally. But the substance is about the origins of the caste system, the structural inequalities and how one can remove them. Gandhi's perspective was that the upper-caste Hindus should purify themselves, while Ambedkar said no, the lower castes should assert their self-respect. These are two different routes to the emancipation of the Dalits, and that's what makes it so interesting.

In a sense, this is a multi-vocal book, about multiple legacies. It's not a prescriptive book at all. One can sympathise with Gandhi, or with Ambedkar. There's a brilliant polemic by Rammanohar Lohia against the English language, while there's an equally vigorous argument by Rajagopalachari in its favour.

Q. In Part III ("Nurturing the Nation"), you have a selection of Gandhi's writings on various subjects, followed by the views of his adversaries like Jinnah and Ambedkar. Then in the final chapter you return to Gandhi, who revisits or clarifies his position while answering his critics. Why this unusual structure?

A. Gandhi was the fulcrum around which these debates arose, and though he's developed a reputation for rigidity, what's always struck me is his open-mindedness – his ability and willingness to revisit certain positions he took, to modify them. When I was doing this section, I thought this would be a nice way of showing that side of the man.

Having said that, he was certainly not above a bit of sarcasm or point-scoring in certain situations. At one point, when he mentions Ambedkar publishing a speech at his own expense, he says, "Dr Ambedkar has priced the pamphlet at 1 rupee. It would be better if he had priced it at 8 annas – then it would have reached a wider public." A completely gratuitous piece of advice!

Q. The excerpt from Tarabai Shinde's book about the suppression of women in Maharashtra is such a raw, angry, sarcastic piece of writing – truly remarkable for its time. Why is she not better known?

A. I was fortunate that Shinde has been very skilfully translated, by Rosalind O'Hanlon. The whole pamphlet was a goldmine for scholars, but the bits I excerpted were the ones that would appeal to a reader who isn't an expert on Maharashtra but is interested in the history of India or in literary craftsmanship more generally. One shouldn't get the impression from my book that everything these thinkers wrote was brilliant or incisive; often there was bombast and meandering. These excerpts might give a slightly exaggerated picture of the quality of their writing. I had to cull out the irrelevant stuff.

Q. You've also included excerpts from Nehru's more obscure writings – his letters to chief ministers. Are efforts underway to make his less-known, post-Independence writings more accessible?

A. For Nehru, it would require a detached eye – it can't be done by an official historian or a paid-up devotee of the Gandhi-Nehru family. The writings would have to show some of the ways in which he was wrong, and locate him in his time. Unfortunately, it's only darbari, courtly historians who are allowed access to Nehru.

But Nehru aside, I hope some young scholar does a good one-volume anthology of Rajagopalachari's political writings. Or Lohia's political writings. In this book they are represented in only 30-40 pages.

Q. You include the RSS leader M.S. Golwalkar, who stridently called for a "Hindu Rashtra". What legacy justifies his inclusion in a book full of nuanced thinkers?

A. Golwalkar presented a very influential philosophy in very direct and clear terms. I had to have someone who expressed the Hindu political philosophy – the point of view that Hindu ideas and thought are the bedrock of Indian civilisation and should continue to be so. Veer Savarkar may have been more intellectually sophisticated, but Golwalkar had a much bigger impact, in terms of the RSS and the BJP: Advani, Vajpayee and others were trained by him. His ideology, his ideas about statecraft, our attitude towards the West, and the relationship between religions, had a profound impact on one of India's major political movements. So even if I personally didn't like him, he had to be there – he had helped shape modern India.

Q. You end the book with a very intriguing figure, the Muslim liberal Hamid Dalwai, who is relatively obscure even though he lived recently. What makes him so significant?

A. I discovered Dalwai in the mid-1990s. I bought his book Muslim Politics in Secular India, became fascinated by it, and talked about him with his friend and translator Dilip Chitre. I quoted from his work in a newspaper article around 10 years ago, and that got my Muslim friends very angry because they couldn't stomach his radicalism. As you know, these things become very black and white. A Hindu can't say Muslims must reform themselves, even if he's already been telling Hindus to be less bigoted – someone like me, for instance, whose views on Hindutva are well known (chuckles).

But Dalwai's real significance struck me in the post-9/11 global world, and given the crisis Islam is facing now. He speaks to that issue. He and Rammohan Roy are complementary figures, because both were fighting the prevalent orthodoxy of their time – Rammohan Roy was as much of a heretical Hindu for his time as Dalwai was a heretical Muslim in his. But Roy lived into his 60s and became well-know, whereas Dalwai died in his early 40s.

Q. If you had to pick one person to make this a round number – 20 – who would it be?

A. It's interesting you ask this, because just this morning it struck me that there was one person I should have included. He represented a very influential and important point of view, and he was very eloquent: I'm talking about the engineer M. Visvesvaraya, a technological modernist who wrote a famous book Industrialise or Perish. He was an outward-looking, rational person who was famous for building a steel dam in Karnataka, much before Nehru. He anticipated the model we have now, with technology transforming society, and he also anticipates Nehru, J.R.D. Tata, Narayana Murthy in different ways. He would have made a fitting twentieth.

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