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  • Ramachandra Guha an intellectual—one who has much to be immodest about. But, in this book, often the polemicist prevails.

Ramachandra Guha. Democrats And Dissenters. Penguin Random House. 2016.

Ramchandra “Ram” Guha‘s latest book, a collection of 16 essays, is a meandering but delightful read. Part I explains India. Part II is about the scholars who have helped Ram do so. The link between the two parts is a stretch unless Part II is the marshalling of a scholastic framework used in Part I. Inverting the sequence—reading Part II before Part I—helps.

In this pantheon of six scholars, Dharma Kumar (1928—2001) is the only woman. The Delhi School of Economics professor and economic historian was the archetypal “nurturer”—mentoring students; incubating research; being a role model for unselfconscious women’ s empowerment; a “liberal polemicist”; determined opponent of fundamentalism and of the politics designed to take advantage of such bigotry. Possibly Dharma Kumar is the engaged academic, the one Ram decided never to become. Eulogising Dharma is his way of atoning for the consequential social loss.

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Eric Hobsbawm’s (1917-2012) life-long commitment to Marxism illustrates the perils of sacrificing scholastic distance to wed ideology. Guha builds on this in the chapter on the eight barriers to freedom of expression in India—ideologically committed writers being one. The rooted, intellectual energy of the Kannada novelist U.R. Ananthamurthy (1932-2014) is implicitly contrasted with Hobsbawm’s dogmatic obsessions. Ananthamurthy, a Lohiaite, had scant regard for identity-obsessed Lohia descendants. His advocacy for sustainable development strikes a chord with Ram’s green roots, as does his dismay with Narendra Modi’s style of combative politics. For Ananthamurthy—and one suspects for Ram—building a “supple” India is far more important than building a “strong” India.

Benedict Anderson (1936-2015), an Irish scholar, earned his spurs by deepening the study of nationalism in Latin America and Asia. His is the framework Ram prefers for nation building—“modern, contingent, forged out of struggle and contest…replacing faith in God with faith in the nation…never rooted in ancient history or in ties of blood or soil”. This is Guha’s elliptical manner of pointing out where he thinks Indian nationalists are going wrong. Guha poses a provocative question: Why are there so few right wing, conservative Indian intellectuals, other than in economics? R. Jagannathan (editorial director of Swarajya), writing in The Times of India, has riposted that bench strength is not a good measure of intellectual vigour. Independent scholastic thought depends crucially on the availability of a supportive environment, which is rarely a feature of developing countries.

Guha’s gold standard for right wing conservatives is C. Rajagopalachari (1878-1972), who founded Swarajya. Out of sync in the post-independence ersatz socialist Congress party, Rajaji left to found the Swatantra party in 1959. Rajaji defies conventional pigeonholing—a devout Hindu and a liberal, he presciently advocated against “big government” and the “megalomania of…big projects”. His advice to the Hindu right wing Jan Sangh in 1968 was to go beyond mere toleration of the minorities. Guha’s view is somewhat similar: “a credible conservative intellectual tradition can only emerge outside the…(reactionary)…ecosystem of the Sangh Parivar”.

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Ram labels sociologist Andre Beteille as the C. Rajagopalachari of our times. Devoted to fieldwork-related research; committed to no ideology or utopia other than his vocation; far removed from the convivial seductions of Delhi (much like Ram), Beteille embodies the ultimate scholar. Consider this understated gem from him, which speaks to the divide between Bharat and India:

“While educated Indians are inclined to think and speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagers.”

There is a long chapter on Ram’s book review of Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian. Ram objects to Sen imposing modern concepts like “constitutional secularism” or “judicially guaranteed multi-culturism” to the pre-modern practices of emperor Akbar’s court. Sen’s motives are progressive, in portraying medieval Muslim rule as not wholly anachronistic. But Ram apprehends unintended negative consequences from other revivalists, similarly departing from historical rigour, by sanctifying the past to further current political objectives.

A distant glorious past dictating the present is Guha’s worst nightmare, as in Pakistan, a revivalist country so devoid of outstanding current accomplishments that it compulsively harkens back to medieval times for inspiration. Vignette one is Pakistani liberals being nostalgic over dinner for the “high noon of Muslim political power in the sub-continent”.

Vignette two is the rewriting of Lahore’s history, casting over it “an Islamic glow” whilst ignoring past accretions to its culture by the Sikhs, the Hindus and the British. Ram does not take kindly to the political philosophy of Hindutva. Accepting majoritarianism, he says, means abandoning inclusion and secularism—fundamental principles that India, unlike Pakistan, was founded on. In a similar vein, he privileges democracy over authoritarianism. This is the message Ram carries on his travels to China in 2008, to a conference on multi-culturism. His host—a Professor Lin, whilst generally approving of Ram’s credentials as a proselytising liberal, gently remarks:

“If India were not so economically backward, it would persuade the world more easily about how it has nurtured democracy and diversity.”

Ram is an intellectual—one who has much to be immodest about. But often the polemicist prevails. How does one square his more than fulsome praise of the Congress party for making India “less divided, less violent, less hierarchical, less patriarchal, less intolerant, less unequal and less unfree” with his assessment of its progressive decline and its imminent death due to its conversion into a family business by Nehru’s “abysmally incompetent and self-seeking” successors. He may yet have to eat his words. And what about the ill-judged abandonment of the party’s liberal, secular credentials for perceived political gains in 1975-77, 1984, 1986 and 1992? Three of these figure in Ram’s list of the eight worst years for India.

Consider also his assertion that India lacks a culture of actively preserving the constitutionally mandated freedom of expression and the acknowledgement that subversion of this right occurred as far back as 1951, right after India became a republic, via an amendment to Article 19 (2) inserting “public order” as an additional exception for curtailing this freedom.

On the use of violence as an instrument of self-determination, Ram’s conclusions are pragmatic and surprisingly conservative. He notes that in the past half century, only two nations have been born from armed struggle—Eritrea and Bangladesh. He could have also included the most recent case of South Sudan in 2010. His advice to armed secessionists in Kashmir is sound. Learn from the failed insurrection in Sri Lanka. Emulate the Dravida movement of Tamil Nadu and the Mizos. Both abandoned entrenched isolationist ideologies seeking independence—the former in 1963 and the latter in 1986. Both are better off for it.

The theme of alienation and marginalisation continues into the essay on the Adivasi tribes of central India. Unlike tribal communities in the North East, the Adivasis do not dominate the region they inhabit. In no state are they in a numerical majority, despite the creation of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. Consequently, they remain politically disempowered. Predictably, the result has been the convenient “harvesting of souls”, earlier by Christian missionaries and most recently by the Maoists—none of whom have the welfare of the Adivasi as their prime objective. Ram, ever the pragmatic peacenik, advocates that the government give Adivasi tribes the safeguards assured to them by the Constitution and the Maoists learn from the evolution of the CPI, the CPI (M) and the Maoists in Nepal and reconcile themselves to electoral democracy, though he admits that this advice is likely to fall on deaf ears.

This book is mixed fare from the high priest of Indian liberal thought. What is sorely missing is recognition that this “unnatural nation” has moved on, along the lines suggested by Professor Lin, to Ram, a decade ago. Even as revivalist conservative scholars dredge up past glories, right wing, conservative politics is creating the space—economic and political, for strengthening this great but “unlikely democracy” that is India. Meanwhile vigilant liberal alarmism to flag deviations from this path can only help.

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