Monday, 8 November 2010


Ramachandra Guha at the Crossword bookstore
on SB Road, Pune, India
It is a fact that the British did bring in political unity to the land that we know as India. But it was the splendid leadership and ideas of several of our own thinkers, writers, reformers and politicians that provided the solid foundation for the Indian nationhood and enlightened the citizens of one of the most diverse countries in the world. Noted historian and author Ramachandra Guha has edited and introduced the works of some such leaders to relook at the history of India between the 1820s and 1970s, in the recently-published book Makers of Modern India. The author was in Pune recently to launch the book and I caught up with him.

“The citizens of this country must know about he ideals that were behind India. One need not join politics to know that, but one should be curious and be told about the political traditions of this country,they must know about this great political experiment called India,” Guha says. But why experiment? “Because, India is so diverse --- socially, economically, yet the leaders thought of making it a democracy, allow voting rights to all, let the all the languages and cultures flourish within the nation,” the historian elaborates. “The world can learn from India in this regard, how to deal with diversity”.

According to Guha, though the historians have written extensively on the events and lives, rarely have the history of ideas been tilled. “I hope that this book stimulates the minds so that we can have similar works on the ideals of those who contributed to the different regions of India,” he says.

In the book we see writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehu, Rabindranath Tagore, Lokmanya Tilak, Mahatma Phule, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Tarabai Shinde, Ramaswami, Syed Ahmad Khan, Ram Manohar Lohia, Jay Prakash Narayan, C Rajagopalachari, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, BR Ambedkar, Verrier Elwin and Hamid Dalwai among others. “They all wrote extensively on different topics, from caste, gender, economics, religion, democracy to nationalism. They all were influential, but to my mind, Gandhi, Ambedkar, Tagore and Nehru have been more influential among them,” Guha tells me.

He mentions Dr Ambedkar who “warned” about the effect of worshipping political leadership which leads to dictatorship. “That is a tendency among the Indians”. And it leads to parochial labels. “But Ambedkar is not just a Dalit leader, he's a national leader. Similarly, Tagore is not just a Bengalee poet, he's nation's poet, or for that matter he's views are of universal appeal. And Nehru is not Congress party's property,” Guha explains. “I tried to rescue them from those labels”.

I ask him about his choices of the figures --- the inclusions and the exclusions some of which seem to improper to me. “I took a judgement call, when it came between Justice MG Ranade and GK Gokhale. I included Gokhale. I will be happy if my exclusions lead to new works by others on them. Moreover, since my purpose is to make all of you read, the size of the book must remain manageable,” he replies in his defence. Similarly, he excluded the Indian Marxists because their written works were “derivative” in nature and “not original”.

Referring to the figures featured in the book Guha says, “They were all open to the outside world. The exposure to foreign rule challenged them to reflect upon the the idea of India and provoked them to think on how to deal with a dynamic military power (the British)”. And in the process, they influenced each other: Justice Ranade to Gokhale to Gandhi, and the rest. “Gandhi was open to criticisms, Nehru used to write letters to the chief ministers on several issues. Hamid Dalwai, the Muslim modernist from Konkan who wrote in the 1960s, referred to Raja Ram Mohan Roy, thus transcending the centuries. There used to be exchange of ideas between the thinkers and leaders,” Guha adds, declining to comment about the present political leadership's abilities.

Discarding the classifications of 'popular historian and 'academic historian, Guha says, a historian, must be “open minded” about all sorts of idea that he or she has to deal with. “It is not easy to keep one's own views out, but an ideal historian cannot fit in the facts to suit his own ideological beliefs. It is for the readers to make up their mind whether to accept someone or not,” he asserts. “Nation building is a work in progress. It never ends. Similarly, history cannot define a character or events with finality. It is a continuous process of analyses, debates and interpretations,” Guha says.

Photograph by: Biswadip Mitra