Monday, November 08, 2010

On liberal reformers, Muslim modernists, subaltern feminists and a conversation with Ramachandra Guha

In Makers of Modern India, the historian Ramachandra Guha presents excerpts from the speeches and writings of 19 thinkers – beginning with Raja Rammohan Roy – whose ideas influenced the formation of the Indian republic. Included in this tidily organised anthology are views expressed by Gandhi, Ambedkar, Nehru, Jinnah, Jyotirao Phule, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and others – some of these are complementary while others are in direct opposition, and it makes for quite a tapestry. Also included 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.

Here's an interview I did with Guha some time ago (a shorter version of this appeared in The Sunday Guardian):

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

“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 then accepted by Raja Rammohan Roy, who scrutinised his own tradition to find its deficiencies and so on.

There’s a very good textbook I've read which defines modern India as starting in 1858, when the Crown assumed direct control. Another book defines modern India as starting in 1757, the year of the Battle of Plassey. But since this was a history of ideas, I had to start with an individual rather than a specific date or a battle or an administrative happening. I call Rammohan Roy “The First Liberal” because he was clearly someone who confronted head-on this encounter with another civilisation.

As for the criteria for selection, there were several: the originality of their ideas, the quality of their writing, and whether their ideas travelled across the centuries. Some people – such as Aurobindo or Vivekananda – are excluded partly because of the archaic nature of their prose, which hasn’t travelled well; it was very much of its time. 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. Two obvious omissions are Patel and Indira Gandhi, but they didn’t write much. Indira Gandhi, unlike her father, didn’t write most of her speeches.

More than once, you state your view that the modern manifestations of democracy and secularism didn’t have ancient origins; you’ve had an argument with Amartya Sen on this topic. Why (for instance) would someone like Akbar not be included here, given his very liberal – for the time – attitude to religion?

Akbar comes to us as second and third hand. He was probably illiterate, he never wrote anything. (Other thinkers like Kautilya wrote treatises, though again those were very much products of their time; they don’t travel well.) Secondly, there is a hiatus between what Akbar said in the 1580s and what happened in the 20th century. People like Akbar and Ashoka were rediscovered for us by British scholars – that’s when we started thinking about them and looking at them. There’s a disconnect.

Most importantly – I mentioned this in my debate with Amartya Sen – if you look at the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly of India, which went into the shaping of the Indian Constitution, Akbar’s ideas on secularism are NEVER discussed. The Indian idea of secularism is an adaptive, innovative response to Hindu-Muslim conflict in the 20th century. Hindus and Muslims have become political blocs in the modern voting system, they vote as blocs, as parties, and those are things Akbar never had to deal with. Akbar had great religious acumen, and he’s an interesting figure from a historical point of view. But he’s problematic in many ways to invoke: he had no influence on Gandhi or Nehru or Ambedkar.

Having said that, of course the history of ideas as a field has an ancient lineage. It would be wonderful if historians pay attention to social debates in the medieval or pre-medieval period, in different linguistic traditions – not just in Persian. And scholars ARE beginning to do that – there’s some very fine work now, particularly on Telugu and Tamil ideas of politics, by a great scholar Velcheru Narayana Rao, with his associates David Shulman and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. They are working on ideas of politics and statecraft in late medieval south India, which is very interesting as a scholarly exercise. But to understand the making of the modern Indian nation-state, the framing of the Constitution, the practice of politics in the 21st century, you have to really start with Rammohan Roy.

In a sense, what you’re saying is that one should abandon the rose-coloured view of the very distant past as a brilliant, utopian, highly developed period – and that the social and political developments of the last 200-300 years have been progressive in a more immediate sense.

Absolutely. And they are related to our current predicament. The fact is, things like gender equality were not on the horizon five hundred or a thousand years ago. Neither was freedom of the press. These are thoroughly modern concepts.

The disagreements between these thinkers make for fascinating reading – there are differences of opinion ranging 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. Is there a conflict that you find particularly illuminating or relevant, in terms of how it pits one idea of India against another?

I wouldn’t want to pick just one. I think there are a series of very interesting conflicts, starting with Tilak (who I designate “the militant nationalist”) vs Gopal Krishna Gokhale (“the liberal reformer”), and even Phule versus the Congress. Then you move on to Gandhi’s friendly debates with Tagore and polemical debates with Ambedkar, and so on. The book is constructed as a series of arguments and debates and dialogues, and that’s part of any political tradition. It’s cumulative, continuous, interactive, dialogic, and that’s how I’ve tried to arrange it. I’m glad you see it that way.

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. If you can get beyond the sneering remarks, it’s really a debate about (as the very fine Kannada scholar D R Nagaraj said) “self-purification vs self-respect”. Gandhi’s perspective was that the upper-caste Hindus should purify themselves, while Ambedkar said no, the lower castes should assert their self-respect. So these are two different routes to reform, to the emancipation of the Dalits, and that’s what makes it so interesting, even though there is sometimes a personal colouring to them.

This is a multi-vocal book, with multiple legacies. It’s for the reader to decide – it’s not a prescriptive book at all. Obviously there is my editorial hand and my decisions, but all these voices do come out. One can sympathise with Gandhi, or with Ambedkar. Similarly, on the subject of the English language, there’s a brilliant polemic by Lohia against it, while there’s an equally vigorous argument by Rajagopalachari in its favour.

I thought your structuring of Part III (“Nurturing the Nation”) was very interesting. First you have a selection of Gandhi’s writings on various subjects, followed by the views of his adversaries like Jinnah and Ambedkar, and then in the final chapter you return to Gandhi who revisits or clarifies his position while answering his critics. Why this unusual structure?

Gandhi was the fulcrum around whom these debates arose. In 1997 I taught a course at the University of California called “Arguments with Gandhi”, where I had Gandhi, Tagore, Ambedkar, Jinnah, the Marxists – and since then I’ve been interested in the history of arguments in modern India. And though Gandhi has 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.

There is a tendency to create polarised images of these people – a Gandhi person on the one hand and an Ambedkar person on the other hand. But as I’ve argued in the past, they were both necessary for Dalit emancipation. They may have been adversaries in their own time, but for us, 60-70 years later, they are co-workers in a cause.

In any case, I wanted to avoid presenting stereotypes of these figures, which is one reason why I took care to select Jayaprakash Narayan’s slightly more moderate writings. He was more than the man who opposed Indira Gandhi!

The excerpt from Tarabai Shinde’s book about the suppression of women in Maharashtra is such a raw, angry, sarcastic piece of writing. To a modern eye, it’s also shrill and repetitive in places, but one can see how difficult it must have been for a woman to write something like this in the 1870s – it’s truly remarkable for its time. Why is this “subaltern feminist”, as you call her, not better known?

I was fortunate that Shinde has been very skilfully translated, by Rosalind O’Hanlon. But there are books where certain excerpts travel well and others don’t. When O’Hanlon did her first translation of the whole pamphlet, it was a goldmine for scholars. But the bits I excerpted were the ones that would appeal to a reader like yourself, who isn’t an expert on Maharashtra but is interested in the history of India and literary craftsmanship more generally.

One shouldn’t get the impression from my book that everything these thinkers wrote was so 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 relevant stuff. Gandhi, of course, is consistently clear and direct. So is Ambedkar.

There are excerpts here from Nehru’s more obscure writings – his letters to chief ministers. Are efforts underway to make his less-known, post-independence writings more accessible?

For Nehru, it requires a detached eye. It can’t be done by an official historian, a paid-up devotee of the Gandhi-Nehru family. It has to be done by an independent historian. The writings would have to show some of the ways in which he was wrong, locate him in his time, show some aspects of his writings about China which proved foolish. 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.

You’ve included the RSS leader M S Golwalkar, who stridently called for a “Hindu Rashtra”. Though you don’t say it explicitly, you mention in the Introduction to the section featuring him that one member of this section is perhaps less sophisticated intellectually than the others. What legacy justifies his inclusion in a book full of more nuanced thinkers?

Golwalkar wrote and spoke, and 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. Aurobindo and Vivekanand expressed similar views in a more open-ended way – saying we should learn to adapt, engage the modern world etc, but the basis of modern Indian culture should be Hindu culture.

An extension of that idea is that the basis of the modern Indian state should be Hindu political principles
, and Savarkar and Golwalkar belong to this line of thought. I had to choose one of them. Savarkar may have been more intellectually sophisticated, but Golwalkar had a much bigger impact, in terms of the RSS and the BJP. Advani, Vajpayee, Murli Joshi were all trained indirectly or directly by him. His ideology, his ideas about statecraft, our attitude towards the west, relationship between religions, had a profound impact on one of India’s major political movements. So even if I didn’t like him, he had to be there – he had helped shape modern India.

His writings express the Hindutva paranoia one sees even today, about the possibility of the Muslim population growing out of control and becoming increasingly powerful.

Very much so, and what’s equally important is that he articulates these thoughts in a very paranoid way! It’s intense and compelling and alarmist, and it resonates with his followers today for that reason.

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? Is it because of the omnipresent problem of Islam being a religion that exists in its own cocoon, at odds with modernity, and with not enough moderate voices representing it?

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 – Chitre did a great service by taking time out, setting aside his own work, to translate Dalwai.

Anyway, Dalwai stayed in my mind as a very interesting figure. I quoted him in an article I did for the Times of India 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 crises Islam is facing now. He speaks to those issues. If I had done this book 8-10 years earlier, maybe he would not have figured. You’re right, he’s the most obscure figure in the book, but he is utterly relevant, and to my mind it made sense to end with him, especially because I began with Rammohan Roy, whom everybody knows. They are complementary figures. Both were fighting the prevalent orthodoxies 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, became well-know, while Dalwai died in his early 40s just as he was moving from fiction writing to political commentary.

If you had to pick one person to round off the number of thinkers in this book to 20, who would it be?

It’s interesting you ask this, because the one thing I knew for sure about this book was that people would ask me questions about the exclusions. That always happens with a work of this sort! Last week (before the book came out) I got a letter from a very dear friend – an IIT/IIM student who could have got a job anywhere but was inspired by Vivekananda to devote his life to the tribal poor of West Bengal. He wrote to me, saying “Why is Vivekananda not there? He shaped both progressive Hindus like Gandhi and reactionary Hindus like Golwalkar.” So that was the first complaint. Then, when the ToI ran a story on the book, Swami Agnivesh rang me up and said I’m very pleased your book is out, but Dayanand Saraswati kyun nahin hain iss mein?

Then I came to Delhi and a friend I respect greatly said “Why is Bhagat Singh not in the book?” Now, I have answers for all of them. With Dayanand Saraswati and Vivekananda, I’ve mentioned in the book that Gandhi superseded them. With Bhagat Singh, my answer is that if he’d lived 10 years more he might have been the first original Indian Marxist thinker. Because he was broadening his mind; if you look at the reading he was doing – Tolstoy etc – you don’t know where he might have gone. But his writings are the writings of a young man who was still searching for his place in the world, and the corpus as it is doesn’t merit his inclusion.

However, 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 and precocious in his articulation of this view: I’m talking about the engineer M Visvesvaraya, a technological modernist who wrote a famous book Industrialise or Perish. He would have been a critic of Gandhi (who said “industrialise and perish”). He was an outward-looking, rational person who was famous for building a steel dam in Karnataka, much before Nehru. He anticipated the high-tech model we have now, with technology transforming society, and he also anticipates Nehru, J R D Tata and Narayana Murthy in different ways. He would have made a fitting twentieth.

Verrier Elwin [about whom Guha wrote the book Savaging the Civilised] was the last inclusion – I wasn’t going to include him, but given the growing importance of the Naxalite movement, the adivasis, I thought he should be included. I’ve deliberately let Savaging the Civilised go out of print, but it will be out next year in a new edition. I want to do a long epilogue on his relevance to the Naxalite issue.

What are you working on now? You mentioned a biography of Gandhi.

Yes, that will be in two volumes – the first will be about Gandhi in South Africa, the second about the subsequent years. It will take a few years to complete.

I want to locate Gandhi in the history of South Africa; most people have located South Africa in the history of Gandhi. But he was there for 22 years and there’s lots of interesting material which people skip over. He was there at a very important time, when the Apartheid state was being made and the relations between different races were being solidified. He was right in the middle of an important transformation in the country’s history.

I’ve also renewed my interest in environment, and might go back to that after the Gandhi biography is done. Otherwise, there are collections of essays, and I’m also updating the history of environmentalism I wrote.


I was amused by the excerpt (“Revisiting Nationalism”) where Gandhi repeatedly refers to Tagore as the Poet – the word almost becomes a poetic refrain in its own right! Notwithstanding the mutual respect between the two men, do you think there could be a tinge of sarcasm there? Using “Poet” to connote a dreamy, impractical figure who doesn’t quite face up to hard realities?

Oh, it certainly could be. Gandhi was not above sarcasm, and he certainly could be suggesting that Tagore was “only” a poet, not a political thinker.

Incidentally I edited out something from the essay “Revisiting Caste”, where Gandhi mentions Ambedkar not being allowed to make an address. (Reading aloud) He says: “Dr Ambedkar was not going to be beaten by the Reception Committee. He has answered their rejection of him by publishing the address at his own expense...”

I removed a line that follows this, where he gives Ambedkar a completely gratuitous piece of advice. Gandhi 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.”

So he was not above a bit of point-scoring, though normally he was very decent and civilised, of course.


We spoke earlier about the excessive glorification of the very distant past. There’s an ancient-world chauvinism one often sees in the views of hardliners today – in the idea, for example, that rishis who lived 5,000 years ago knew all about nuclear weapons and were more advanced than modern scientists. Do you see this sort of thing as an impediment to the debates and discussions about modern India?

There’s nothing wrong with looking back, as long as there is some relevance or focus. When people talk about 1857, it’s all about the Mutiny, and those discussions quickly become about heroism or patriotism – but that was also the year in which the first Universities were formed, and that’s something that tends to get forgotten. But it was so important in terms of taking us forward. I mean, did anyone really want a political order based on the ideas of Bahadur Shah Zafar? (Laughs). One has to confront these ideas. There tends to be a kneejerk anti-Westernism sometimes.

As you point out, the Indian electoral system is based on the Westminster model.

Yes, and the greatness of people like Rammohan Roy, Tagore, even Gandhi and Nehru was that they told you what to take and what not to take from foreign cultures – what could be grafted on, what could be adapted.

I think the idea that India once dominated the world and was superior in so many things and we HAVE TO recover our pre-eminence in the world – that idea is a very male thing. A young male, macho thing.

I take it you’ve seen message-boards like, which are full of the most astonishingly jingoistic comments, mainly by young people?

I have seen some of it, but two things: one, how representative is something like It’s only the most frustrated guys who write – most people who have moderate views, who may constitute the majority, don’t write in.

Also, how many of these commenters are NRIs who are totally dislocated from their home country and not integrated in their new country, and venting their frustrations?

My own sense is that this sort of thing is going down. I have with me a long, unpublished essay that I've written about the Hindutva hate-mail that I’ve received over the last 15 years. But one reason I haven’t published it is that the mail has been declining in recent times.

In any case, non-fiction history is getting more prominence than it did 10 years ago. The books that have made an impact in this field - Dalrymple, P Sainath, Sunil Khilnani, my work – these are all, in one way or another, non-Hindutva or explicitly against glorifying the past. And they are all being published and doing well, and coming out in Indian languages. So I think the hardliners have been pushed into a corner, and as a result they are shrieking louder and louder.

[A little more on Makers of Modern India in this post]


  1. You know, this Guha guy may be a popular historian in India. But having read bits of his new book, he is almost completely out of his depth on most non-Hindu issues and shapers of modern India. It's just that he toes the prevailing "convented" brand of secularism (or anti-Hindutavism that demands an equal and countervailing rejection of religion by other believers, only since it seems fair to him that if he is willing to bash saffron others should do likewise in what he thinks is a parallel context), so he gets a lot of media oxygen. He is quite shallow, but he works to keep the Indian peace. So in that sense, some filmi type shallowness is good for us all. More power to Guha. Just let him not pretend he has any intellectual standing beyond the backbenchers who need to be told that non-Hindus are not evil

  2. Waiting you hear your review on the Difficulty of Being Good by Gurcharan Das

  3. I loved the way he replied to your query concerning rediff troll. He could've taken the bait and launched into a tirade against the growing "intolerance" among middle-class youth. Instead, he wisely chose to underplay it and question the representativeness of the sample.

    That's what I like best about him. He is probably the least ideological among all the liberal commentators one gets to hear.

    I wish he had also discussed the writings of Western intellectuals who have significantly influenced Indian intellectual life. Thomas MacCaulay and the Sanskritist William Jones for instance.

  4. Swami Vivekananda influenced people but he could not influence himself.
    Vivekananda hated hypocrisy. But he himself, was a hypocrite, like hundreds of other world leaders.

  5. A nice read, Jai. The first question was the best of the lot (ignored by a battery of journos who had been lined up by PenguinPR). And of courser your proddings on gandhi, ambedkar and golwalkar (how you missed a query on jinnah is surprising when everyone wanted to score a point on inclusion of Jinnah and exclusion of any leftistP) were well thought-out. You should join a media school as a guest lecturer,. It will do good to your bank and prospective media thinktank. (kuch jyada tareef toh nahi ho gayi,bhaijaan; since I am a little tipsy right now).

    ps: being an old school journalist, I sincerely avoid use of 'very' but I feel this comment deserved the adjective at least twice. I need to learn the art of interviewing from you, boss.

  6. But Nehru aside, I hope some young scholar does a good, one-volume anthology of Rajagopalachari’s political writing

    I guess Guha must be aware of this. But a two-volume collection of all his political writings (fifties onwards) does exist. Titled Satyam Eva Jayate published by Bharatan publications in 1961. Over 1000 pages in all priced at Rs.12!

  7. Sorry. Just discovered that it is a four-volume work though I possess only the first two volumes (thanks to the family heirloom!)

  8. Hi. (This is not connected to the post.) I'd like to read something on books from the National Book Trust (NBT) treasure and Nehru Bal Pustakalaya from you, considering you have a large readership and also mainly because I don't know too many people who have read these books as children. Possible for you to highlight them? I read some of them as a child (I'm an '80s-born; my father brought me up on Indian literature for children more than the usual Cinderella and Snow White fare) - Ruskin Bond's World Of Trees, Uma Anand's Be Prepared and Mahashweta Devi's Ekkori's Dream. It'll be great to have you write something on them.

  9. BTW, it is not only Gandhi who referred to Tagore as the Poet - in those days, he was very often addressed thus (or Kavi in Bengali), both in oral and in written conversation, as a mark of respect. I don't think sarcasm was involved - to my mind, it is a bit like the way Sherlock Holmes referred to Irene Adler as "the woman."

    Interesting points of view, though I suspect the final basis for selection was biased towards literary merit. And any list like this will always have exceptions.

  10. Jai: I know this is an old post.
    But re-reading this interview was such fun. Guess you ought to give this more footage.

    I got around to re-reading it today after discussing something closely related with a friend.

    Some great vignettes -

    1. The first universities in this country were founded at around the same time that Bahadur Zafar was battling the British.

    2. The sheer wonder of being Rammohun Roy - This guy was born in the 1780s! You almost sense the first intellectual meeting of the Orient and Occident when you think about him. Imagine his shock when he'd have visited England in early 19th century. It's a bit like Gulliver traveling to Brobdingnag or Lilliput.

    3. And yeah. I agree with Guha on Visveswaraya being a very glaring omission.