History India South Asia · Politics · Recommended movies, books etc. · Religion

Ram Guha and the Idea of India

As an Indian citizen, the present times give me much cause for worry. Just when we thought Indian society is on the way to getting more mature in terms of prioritizing issues, there has been an unfortunate rise of low-level politics and intolerant societal attitudes. The ‘idea of India’ has suffered from numerous setbacks. It is in this background that the thoughts and writings of historian Ramchandra Guha assume special significance.

Guha, who understands India much better than most of us, has also been concerned about recent events in India, and has been constantly trying to make Indian citizens, especially the younger folk, understand the dangers of succumbing to pernicious intolerant tendencies. Here I list five of his articles, with excerpts, in which he elaborates wonderfully some important lessons we need to learn and understand from our own recent history.

Why I’m Not Nostalgic For An Undivided India

“It must always be remembered that when the British left the sub-continent, they left behind not two political entities but more than five hundred. For they departed without in any way resolving the problem of the princely states. It was left to Vallabhbhai Patel, V. P. Menon, and their team to painstakingly integrate these chiefdoms, one by one, into what is now the Republic of India.

Had [Partition not happened], there is no saying what would have happened with the Maharajas and Nawabs. The Centre would not have had the powers it in fact enjoyed after 15 August 1947. The princes would have driven a harder bargain; the larger ones might even have stayed out. They might, out of vanity, have wished to retain their stamps, their archaic rail systems; some may have even applied for membership of the United Nations.

This is the first reason why we must not be nostalgic for an undivided India… this would have created a wholly disunited India, with not just the provinces but the princely states free to threaten, blackmail, or secede from the Union.”

Social media is a world of conspiracy theories, innuendo, gossip, paranoia, sheer craziness

Social media is a way in which [especially young Indians] vent your frustrations and disown your own responsibility — you don’t take responsibility for your own future, for your community’s future, your city’ future,  your country’s future; you blame somebody else for the problem. It’s a strange phenomenon — and it’s not very pleasant.

The kind of Twitter and social media army that was unleashed when Narendra Modi decided he wanted to become prime minister (in 2013)… it was a very bitter campaign. The cyber hooligans or cyber gundas, as I call them, their perspective was, if you don’t support Narendra Modi you are an apologist chamcha of the Gandhi family… All nuance was lost.

On one side you had Gandhi and Nehru saying ‘whatever Pakistan does to its minorities, in India everyone is equal — Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or Christian, and also man and woman and Dalit and Brahmin’. That’s a really far-sighted position to take. Whereas the Hindutva line was vengeance: ‘If Hindus are treated badly in Pakistan we won’t allow a single Muslim to live in India’. And this battle continues… it’s a choice Indians have to make. Do you want a plural, tolerant, accommodating society, or do you want a Hindu Pakistan?” [bold font added]

Can Hindu Liberals Criticize Muslim Bigots?

“While there are many Hindu writers and politicians ready to criticize Hindutva fanatics, Muslim writers and politicians are hesitant to take on the bigots in their own community. It is disappointing to see even professedly modern, cosmopolitan, politicians like Salman Khurshid and Omar Abdullah so reluctant to openly confront the likes of the Owaisi brothers and Azam Khan.

Goodness knows that Muslims in Bangalore and Malda suffer from all kinds of handicaps; poor schooling, inadequate housing, patriarchy within, discrimination in the work place without. Tragically, rather than focus on these vital issues of everyday life, Muslim ‘community’ leaders seek to channelize the energies of their followers only in a defence of the Prophet.

Back in 1937, Gandhi suggested that Hindus should stay clear of criticizing Muslim precept and practice, and vice versa. Perhaps in the peculiar conditions of colonial rule one had to be careful, since the British wanted Indians to divide, so that they could rule. But now that we are all citizens of an independent and democratic Republic, the same constraints do not apply. To be sure, one need not be unnecessarily provocative. But one must still have the right to offer friendly advice, and even criticism, to fellow Indians, regardless of what religion or community they belong to.”

Politics and Pluralism

“Indian pluralism was always hard won. The riots during Partition produced an enormous sense of insecurity among India’s minorities. Mahatma Gandhi’s death, by creating a sense of shock and outrage, allowed Nehru’s Government to isolate extremist Hindus, and bring the mainstream towards a more moderate, inclusive, plural sense of what it meant to be Indian. Through the 1950s there were no major communal riots.

This extended period of social peace was broken in 1963 by riots in Jabalpur and in Rourkela. For the next twenty years, many towns in north and central India witnessed sectarian strife between Hindus and Muslims… Then, in the early 1980s, there was conflict between Hindus and Sikhs.

In the second half of the 1980s, violence between Hindus and Muslims intensified. The Ayodhya movement led to a series of riots, small and large, across northern and western India. These claimed tens of thousands of lives and rendered several million people homeless… In the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in the late 1980s, a secessionist movement took on an increasingly fundamentalist and jihadist cast, leading to the forced expulsion of perhaps three hundred thousand Pandits from the Valley.”

Our Best and Worst Prime Ministers

“Nehru’s best years in office were 1952 to 1957. The foundations of a democratic, plural, modern, society were laid. An independent foreign policy was forged. Economic development based on science and technology was promoted.

Had Nehru left office after his second term, we would remember him as the finest Prime Minister in our history… [But] his last few years as Prime Minister were distinguished by growing corruption (the Mundhra affair), the arbitrary use of Central power (the dismissal of the Kerala Government), and humiliation on the battle-field (against China, in 1962)…

Indira Gandhi was a thoroughgoing patriot, yet an uncertain democrat… [She] introduced the idea of the ‘committed’ bureaucrat and judge. She also converted the Congress Party into a family firm. Her authoritarian tendencies led to the Emergency of 1975-7, when opposition politicians were jailed, the press censored, and civil liberties of ordinary citizens held in abeyance.

[Vajpayee’s] greatest political achievement was that at his third try he completed a full five-year term as Prime Minister. This signalled a wider reorientation in Indian politics, which had hitherto been ‘a one-party-dominant system’. Vajpayee managed his coalition partners skilfully, and encouraged further economic liberalization. However, he failed to intervene when RSS hardliners infiltrated the education system and contaminated it with their antediluvian ideas. Moreover, had he dismissed the Gujarat Chief Minister in 2002 (he was talked out of it by his partymen), he would have more firmly consolidated our Constititional commitment to the rights of religious minorities.”

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