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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’s choice of ‘makers’ opens up inevitable arguments. Where are Bose, Patel, Indira Gandhi, Kanshi Ram, Manmohan?
In publishing this book, Guha has got people talking and thinking—which I suspect is his intention. His choice of ‘makers’ opens up inevitable arguments. Where are Subhas Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Indira Gandhi, Kanshi Ram and Manmohan Singh? (Though Patel did once say that he was not interested in writing history, but in making history.) Why is Tarabai Shinde included rather than Savitribai Phule? Why was Verrier Elwin chosen over Edwin Montagu? Guha proposes that other people might wish to edit companion volumes with titles like ‘Makers of Modern Bengal’ and ‘Makers of Modern Tamil Nadu’. Marathi writers are heavily represented here, and with justification—he portrays Maharashtra in the late 19th century as ‘the epicentre of critical thinking and social reform among Indians coming to terms with modernity and alien rule’. Through his focus on aspects of liberal nationalism, Guha has annoyed Bengalis and Marxists (the two are not synonymous), riled southerners and got Maharashtrians excited. Makers of Modern India is also consciously nostalgic, lamenting the absence of the kind of engaged, ardent, all-India politicians whose ideas are now constricted by party manoeuvres. Sadly, it is true when the author writes: “The tradition that this book has showcased is dead. No politician now alive can think or write in an original way or even interesting fashion about the direction Indian society and politics is or should be taking.” It is hard to imagine any leader matching the intellectual subtlety of Jawaharlal Nehru’s collected writings.
The projection of the ideas of these makers takes place in a contemporary context, in a way that is at times uneasy. Jinnah and Nehru are represented exclusively through their later writings, which place them in a historical frame and shuts down the possibility that their political careers might have had different trajectories if events had turned out otherwise. Raja Rammohan Roy—the first and one of the greatest ‘makers’—becomes plain Roy: Guha says, “I have also not used his title ‘Raja’ (awarded by the Mughals)—it can perhaps be dispensed with in this republican age.” Similarly, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is stripped of his handle. “I have dispensed with Khan’s title,” we are told brusquely, “which in this case came from the British having awarded him a knighthood.” So the man known by his contemporaries and by his successors as Sir Syed becomes ‘Khan’.
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)