In America at the moment, the grassroots protest movement known as the Tea Party puts great faith in the US Constitution. Popular devotion to the founding structural document of the United States extends some way beyond the bounds of reason, and much of the opposition to President Obama stems from the belief that he is betraying it. Tea Party goers regard the Constitution as divinely inspired, and believe it is the duty of politicians to interpret it to the letter, and to determine as closely as possible what the founders meant. India, with its many gods and sacred texts, does not regard its Constitution in this literalist way. Longer and more precise than the American version, it is seen as a well-balanced guide to managing a uniquely complicated and diverse polity, which must be honoured even while its message and directive principles are often ignored. Since many of the founders spoke fluently about their own ideas, it is usually possible to figure out what they hoped for, and intended.
Ramachandra Guha has put together and introduced the writings and speeches of nineteen figures who helped to inspire the modern idea of the nation. How well does each of them stand up to being anthologised: Do their words speak to the present, or only to the past? Not surprisingly, it is the social reformers who have the greatest contemporary relevance. Debates over political arrangements, which seemed fraught and important in their time, have usually blown away down the years. Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s militant ideas were overtaken by events, although he was highly influential in his day (and was defended in court against a charge of sedition by none other than Mohammed Ali Jinnah). Even the radical Rammanohar Lohia, when campaigning after independence against flexible prices and alien languages, seems oddly irrelevant: “Some people are infatuated by a mirage that English will become the international vehicle of thought and commerce. Such will-of-the-wisp has haunted people in all times.”
Two of the strongest voices are those of Hamid Dalwai and Jotirao Phule. Dalwai, writing in the 1960s, was able to pinpoint many of the conceptual problems that still face Indian Muslims. In his view, the ‘orthodox Hindu’ who agitates for a ban on cow slaughter and the ‘Muslim communalist’ who fights against modernity are followers of a corresponding agenda: “It must be remembered that the obscurantism of one community helps to strengthen the obscurantism of other communities.... We have to insist on a common personal law for all citizens of India.” Writing nearly a century before him, Phule evokes dramatic images of rural poverty that are depressingly familiar, even if the pressures are no longer dependent wholly on caste. “I sincerely hope that Government will ere long see the error of their ways,” he wrote, and “trust less to writers or men who look through high-class spectacles, and take the glory into their own hands of emancipating my Shudra brethren from the trammels of bondage which the Brahmins have woven around them like the coils of a serpent.”
Guha devotes a substantial part of the book to what he calls “the debates inspired by the life and work of Mahatma Gandhi” (does ‘mahatma’ qualify as a title?). The sheer range of Gandhi’s social ideas, and the imaginative ways in which he responded to problems that must at the time have seemed intractable, is made apparent. Gandhi’s opponents, like Ambedkar, are given the chance to debate with him, and the Mahatma has a chance to respond. Once of the more remarkable extracts here is from a conversation between Gandhi and a deputation of ‘untouchables’ who want to join his Harijan Sevak Sangh. This, Gandhi tells them, would be impossible. “The Board has been formed to enable savarna [upper caste] Hindus to do repentance and reparation to you. It is thus a Board of debtors, and you are the creditors. You owe nothing to the debtors, and therefore, so far as this Board is concerned, the initiative has to come from the debtors.” They had to go away defeated—for who could argue with Gandhi’s logic? Ambedkar could have a try. “The whole object of the [Harijan Sevak] Sangh,” he suggested angrily, “is to create a slave mentality among the Untouchables towards their Hindu masters.”
Looking at Makers of Modern India in the round, there is a progressive shift from the ‘loyal’ opposition of the early makers, to the radical proposals of the independence movement, to the questioning and exploratory tone of the later thinkers. Seen from a distance, or in a world-historical context, it is remarkable that although some of them were imprisoned, none was executed. During the 20th century—not far from India’s borders—Mao and Stalin would kill tens of millions of their own people, in some cases for having ideas that in retrospect appear wholly inoffensive. India, both before and after independence, succeeded in passing through tumultuous social and political change without intellectual dissent being made an impossibility. Guha suggests rightly that many of the makers deserve “a wider, or trans-Indian, relevance”, and that the traditions they represent would be pertinent in several, quite different, societies.
What are the ideas that should animate India in the 21st century? Just as some of the strains of thinking in this book have had their day, others provide thought-provoking possibilities for the future. In his introduction, Guha makes this marvellous—and unanswerable—statement: “I have long believed India to be the most interesting country in the world. This is the impartial judgement of a historian, not the partisan claim of a citizen. India may also be the most exasperating and the most hierarchical and the most degrading country in the world. But whatever qualifier or adjective one uses or prefers, it remains the most interesting, too.” Let the debates flourish.
(India: A Portrait by Patrick French will be published by Penguin in January)
How about French telling us what he thinks of the brilliant history by the hugely intelligent Madhusree Mukerjee of the great famine in Bengal in 1943 engineered by Churchill? French dealt with this topic in his overpraised book on Indian Indepence ("Liberty or Death") and it is instructive to compare Mukerjee with him.....The lovely Bengali woman, packed with intelligence and guts, is absolutely first-rate; French, the cynical sneering Britisher, is feeble.
Moderator's note: Please take the discussion about Madhursree Mukerjee's excellent book to any of the two relevant threads here:
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