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Book review: Makers of Modern India
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Book discussion with Ramachandra Guha:

It was during the recent Indian Lok Sabha elections that I began considering reading this book by Ramachandra Guha. This was an election which engaged more people and aroused more intensity than those in the recent past. Many of us felt it to be a high stakes battle. At the same time the polarizing nature of all the main contenders likely forced quite a few among us to do some soul searching in order to figure out where our loyalties lie. Questions like what is core to one’s conception of India, what can be compromised and can’t be, what constitutes development and which issues deserve priority were debated like never before. This election was also notable for the deep involvement shown by the youth. And finally, it even evoked comparisons of the Westminster and Presidential electoral systems.

All of which made me wonder about an earlier period in Indian history when such definitional battles would have been fought, when contending visions would have clashed in an unprecedented manner drawing in the young and old alike with the strong undercurrent that we could be entering a new era of politics - namely when the nation itself was being formed, both in the minds of the masses and as manifested by the emergence of various public figures. Even as the nation was being constituted as a political entity, there was far from universal agreement among people as to what India ought to become, what is its essence and what is peripheral.

These arguments about various aspects of India and their (unresolved) evolution over time is what Guha highlights in the book, using a selection of writings from most of the leading figures from modern Indian history: Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Tagore, Tilak, Gokhale, Golwalkar, Rammohun Roy, Syed Ahmad Khan, Rajaji, Jinnah. Periyar, Lohia ...and so on.

The transfer of political power from the colonial masters was just one marker of the many sweeping changes going on in the country: the five “simultaneous revolutions” as Guha calls it (national, democratic, social, industrial and urban). The forced encounter with the West set off far reaching changes in this society. It was at such an intersection of these various revolutions and the presence of a gifted set of thinker-politicians that the modern Indian nation state took shape, claims Guha, as opposed to any tradition of political continuity from medieval or earlier eras.

Much of what we take for granted today as the sound, sensible political bedrock of our country was decided upon by these founders, but was considered untested and radical in their own times. A poor, colonized country was adopting multi-party democracy with universal adult suffrage, inspite of being deeply divided along religious, regional and caste lines and having no past experience of being united politically unless under duress. Thus India, in Guha’s words, was the “most reckless political experiment in history”!

So what were these leaders own thoughts regarding these revolutions that they were part of? How did they seek to understand and reason about their own positions and their opponents’ as they went about this unprecedented project? This book is a great glimpse into their minds, unmediated by excessive commentary or theorizing.

For example, nearly 200 years ago, Rammohun Roy wrote about equal rights for women, the freedom of the press, and a great essay on the need for a modern education system incorporating “mathematics, natural philosophy, chemistry, anatomy and other useful sciences, which the nations of Europe have carried to a degree of perfection that has raised them above the inhabitants of other parts of the world.” Close on his heels was Syed Ahmad Khan, who established the Aligarh Muslim University. His outstanding essay called “A Modern Curriculum” outlines his vision of what young Indians ought to be learning, and recommends a modern approach to history and political economy, along with European science. Implicit in their writings is the argument against prevailing social attitudes on these topics.

Gokhale is at his best when exhorting students to serve the country in whatever capacity they can, and not to consider their education to be over just because they have finished college. Being a faculty at Fergusson College teaching English, mathematics and political economy he is apologetic about the fact that while one of the University’s main goals is to produce students capable of doing world class research, the current material condition of the country made that impossible for a while to come. So he encourages them to apply their privileged education to solve any of the pressing problems facing the country.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak is the first social conservative we encounter in this book. His overarching desire to rid India of British rule (“Swaraj is my birthright”) made him differ from Gokhale on many issues though they taught in the same institution and pursued similar activities. His speech “The necessity for a militant nationalism” is brilliantly argued, and befitting of someone who had degrees in mathematics and law. Just by reading it one can imagine what a charismatic figure he would have been.

Gandhi, of course, is given a lot of coverage. And since he invested his entire personality into these various revolutions, we get to read his thoughts on political resistance, ethics, non-violence and untouchability - his “multiple agendas” as Guha calls it. Issues like “temple entry” for Harijans seem quaint to us now, but appear to have been wide problems at that time. His speeches are a strange mix of simplicity, persuasiveness and honesty.

Tagore’s writing is full of lofty ideals, and seems removed from the day-to-day issues that Gandhi is fighting. But his warnings against blind nationalism and thoughtless protests might have been a tempering force. His relatively privileged background enables him to closely experience the more civilized aspects of the West, and bemoans the fact in India we only get to see the most inhuman facets of their civilization.

By far my favourite writer in this collection is B.R. Ambedkar. Though Tagore was the “best travelled Indian of his generation” (US, Europe, Japan, China, Russia) as Guha puts it, it is in Ambedkar that we see clear, modern arguments about concrete issues while drawing upon suitable examples from world history. With a Ph.D in economics from Columbia and another degree from the LSE, he brings to bear on Indian problems his intimate acquaintance with Western ideals both in theory and practice. During a campaign to allow untouchables to drink water from a community lake, he likens their situation to the peasants and common folk before the French Revolution! Because his larger point is that broader political equality is the ultimate goal: “We are not going to the Chavadar Lake merely to drink its water. We are going to the Lake to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.“

His famous essay “The Annihilation of Caste” (sections 4-7) is a must read, and takes an economic and egalitarian angle unlike the somewhat patronising arguments of Gandhi (it’s no wonder they had irreconcilable differences).

Jinnah makes for poignant reading. If you take him at his word, he genuinely believed that Hindus and Muslims are two separate nationalities. And he was too pessimistic to try out the reckless experiment of a democratic India. He explicitly cites the Balkan peninsula as a better possibility. “Democracy of the kind they want to impose on India is an impossibility, for even the conditions which make diluted democracy possible in other countries are absent from India. The sooner the idea is given up the better”. What a humongous tragedy could have been averted if he could have been persuaded otherwise.

E V Ramasamy (Periyar) is represented by his rants against religion. His speeches start off by asking basic questions (like Socrates), but since he restricts himself to folklore and literal interpretations, one is not much the wiser at the end of it. His annoyance with irrational rituals is plainly seen: “If the child trips and falls we have to perform a ritual. To cast the horoscope, to put it in a cradle, to feed it, to tie a nappy, to tonsure, to pierce the ears, to send it to school—rituals have to be performed for each one of these. Even if the child develops a fever a ritual is needed.” His other speech on widow remarriage is personal and deeply moving.

The book has a section called “Debating Democracy” where the decade immediately following independence is represented - the constitution, the role of English language, the monopoly of the Congress and so on.

Ambedkar comes to the fore again. He defends the Constitution against specific criticisms. “I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit” (probably aimed at Gandhian ideologues). On centralization: “Conditions in [the] modem world are such that centralization of powers is inevitable. One has only to consider the growth of the Federal Government in the U.S.A. which, notwithstanding the very limited powers given to it by the Constitution, has out-grown its former self and has overshadowed and eclipsed the State Governments.”

He has too many other good things to say so I urge you to read his “Grammar of anarchy” speech for yourself.

For Nehru, Guha wishes to showcase his post-Independence thoughts, and thus relies on a series of letters he wrote to Chief Ministers while he was the PM. Many of them deal with keeping communal tensions at bay in the aftermath of Partition. Other topics include the Five Year Plans, India’s role in the world, defeat in the Indo-China war. Incidentally, along with Ambedkar, he was instrumental in passing the Hindu Code Bills against much opposition from conservative minded folks. These bills put Indian women on an equal legal footing with men, among other things.

Golwalkar, a pre-eminent leader of the RSS has some strong communal speeches. His understanding of India’s cultural and poltical history is questionable, going by what's presented here.

Ram Manohar Lohia is another fascinating character. He did his Ph.D in economics at Berlin University. And came back to India to lead the Socialist movement within the Congress. He also writes against the caste system, “A true doctrine of equal opportunity would have to undo the work of five thousand years by giving preferential treatment to the lower castes over a period of at least a few decades”. There have been few more contentious statements in Indian history :) He tries to show quantitatively how caste has become encoded as class, drawing upon real examples all over the country. Another essay simply titled “Banish English” cavils at English being the administrative and educational language as so few Indians understand it, “If the child in India is relieved from this burden of learning a foreign language, his knowledge will be widened and deepened, undoubtedly”

Rajagopalachari was another leader with many facets to his life, and exhibited a remarkable ability to break away from groupthink. Though he worked alongside Nehru for a large part of his life, the years after Independence saw him oppose Nehru both on ideological and practical grounds. From his essay called Our Democracy, “Since the Congress Party has swung to the Left, what is wanted for the body politic is not an jjJtra or outer-Left, but a strong and articulate Right.”. His essay “Wanted: Independent Thinking” tears apart the sycophancy in the Congress. He is aggressive about the same themes in the manifesto of his Swatantra Party, which looks like it might have been written last year. He makes his position even clearer in an essay called “The India We Want” which is a very much an economically conservative vision.

The book has a fantastic prologue by Guha, and resources for further readings on specific topics.

As Guha says in this discussion with Barkha Dutt based on the book, the idea of India is a hard sell to today’s youth. In the absence of an overarching mission or crisis, this unlikely coming together of various cultures and disparities is difficult to relate to. Considering that we have few leaders of such stature any more, it needs some effort to appreciate the uniqueness of this project that we are unwittingly (and perhaps even unwillingly) part of. The shadow of history still does hang heavily over this new nation.


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