Patriots, Poets and Prisoners: Every Thinking Indian Should Read This Book
Patriots, Poets and Prisoners Selections from Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review, 1907-1947. Edited By Anikendra Sen, Devangshu Datta, And Nilanjana S. Roy. Harper Collins. 325 pages. Rs 450.
The one thing we don’t lack these days is opinions. We all have them, and we express them freely. Currency, LPG and goodwill may sometimes be in short supply, but not opinions. This is a global phenomenon. In America, Donald Trump ran a largely fact-free campaign. He just expressed a variety of opinions, and a lot of Americans agreed with him. In India, Arnab became a superstar without once setting a foot out of the studio, although his voice could be heard from quite far away. For that matter, what is Swarajya but a forum for expressing and debating opinions?
Everyone here has a strong point of view. Some people long for the days of fact-driven, neutral journalism. But the truth is, more opinions make us more democratic. People often complain today about the return of the Emergency, but unless the government permanently switches off the internet, it’s hard to see how anyone can replicate the conditions that Indira Gandhi so lovingly achieved, with her songs about the 20-point programme playing constantly on the only media that we had access to.
Our opinions have made us freer. Of course, we are also not free to put a bullet in the head of someone we disagree with, but that’s more to do with the rule of law than freedom of speech. If the police are selective in taking action, all kinds of criminals are going to fancy their chances. And yes, there are laws that we need to look into. We should probably use the word “presstitute” less. On the whole, though, we are freer than we used to be.
It was not always like this. In the India of the late 19th century, opinions were few and far between. By this time, the British had been sucking our blood for over a hundred years, and most of us were too hungry to have opinions. Only a few upper class men and women were lucky enough to be educated. By the beginning of the 20th century, some had begun to agitate for greater rights and freedoms. Ramananda Chatterjee was one of them. Politically, he was aligned to the original Hindu Mahasabha, and he rose to become its president. But his biggest contribution was to the field of journalism in India.
The Modern Review, which he founded in 1907, set a very high standard for the future. Its primary thrust was political, but it also covered history, culture, science and philosophy, had a keen interest in events across the world, and published stories, novels and poetry, both originals in English as well as translations of works across many Indian languages. It produced 1,500 pages of material every year, of very high quality. Contributors included Tagore, Netaji, Gandhi, Nehru, Sister Nivedita, C.F. Andrews, J.C. Bose, Bankim Chandra, and Premchand. For 40 years, it was where India gathered her thoughts.
Circumstances were different then. Debates between left and right were less important. The primary goal was to gain greater freedoms from the British. The Modern Review was one of the first publications to support the demand for swarajya. The sedition laws were very much in force, as they are now, and Chatterjee had to be very careful in how he placed his arguments. He was helped by the fact that many European thinkers had spoken eloquently in favour of the rights of man, and instead of making direct statements in favour of freedom for India, he often used quotations from European thinkers to support this position. He also used history and logic. In his very first essay for The Modern Review, “Towards Home Rule”, he conclusively proved that democracy was part of our heritage, to counter the British argument that Indians were too primitive for self-rule.
The Licchavis, he pointed out, practiced democracy over a wider geographic area and for far longer than any of the Greek states, which are celebrated throughout the Western world as the cradle of democracy. He lists out the many Indian states, through history, which have had a council of wise men to act as a check on the power of the ruler.
He gives the lie to Lee Kuan Yew’s later assertion that Asia has no tradition of democracy, an argument which has helped keep him and his son in charge forever, turning Singapore into a glittering, modern state capable of producing everything except leaders. This essay, which begins this book, elegantly destroys all the arguments against self-rule, such as the fact that we are too big, too stupid or too weak.
Contributors to Modern Review evolved a uniquely Indian perspective to democracy, rooted in our traditions. For example, here is Sister Nivedita on “India and Democracy”.
“Swaraj does not mean an attempt to plant ‘English democracy’ in India, it means the human right of Indian democracy to find self-expression in its own country and amongst its own people in its own way. Speaking of democracy, however, English people may be startled to hear that in the Indian opinion India has been from ancient times immensely more skilled in the mode and habit of democratic self-government than England has ever cared to know or believe.
“Were not our wonderful self-contained village communities democratic? Are not our caste panchayats and biradaris, which still maintain a vigorous existence in most provinces, run on democratic lines?”
Reading this book is like walking through the mind of an emerging nation. Lala Lajpat Rai, just back from Mandalay Prison, writes an essay which foresees the future evolution of India with uncanny clarity. In this regard, he was very similar to Rajaji himself, whose perspectives on politics and society are still very relevant, and can be read in the Archive section of this magazine. Like those archives, this selection from The Modern Review is a living, breathing slice of history. It helps us to see our great men in a new light. We see them as human, with vanity and ego and a taste for snark. For example, in “The Nation and the Cult of the Charkha”, Tagore dares to question Gandhi, and hurts so many sentiments that had he done it today, he would never have been let out of jail. He pulls no punches, and given that Gandhi was the popular favourite at the time, the abuse Tagore received must have been frightful. Luckily for him, this was before Twitter. This is what he has to say about Gandhi’s charkha programme:
“In Bengal we have a nursery rhyme, which soothes the infant with the assurance that it will get the lollipop if only it twirls its hands. But is it a likely policy to reassure grown up people by telling them that they will get their swaraj—that is to say, get rid of all poverty, in spite of their social habits that are a perpetual impediment and mental habits producing inertia of intellect and will—by simply twirling away with their hands? No.”
Fundamentally, he disagreed with Gandhi’s approach of telling the Indian masses exactly what they had to do, and sulking if they refused to listen. He preferred the promotion of active minds to blind obedience. This was why he opposed the Khilafat Movement.
“The obedient Hindus may flock to join the Khilafat movement. They may even yield some of their worldly advantages in favour of the Moslems, for though that be more difficult, it is still of the outside. But the real difficulty is for Hindus and Moslems to give up their respective prejudices, which keep them apart. That is where the problem now rests. To the Hindu, the Mussalman is impure: for the Mussalman, the Hindu is a kafir.”
Jawaharlal Nehru also wrote for The Modern Review, and his contributions are the weakest. His “The Mind of a Judge” is a rambling meditation on the evils of the Indian justice system, which sound pretty strange coming from the man who did not change a single sentence in the Indian Penal Code of 1861 once he himself was in power. His celebrated piece, “We Want No Caesars”, written under the pseudonym of Chanakya, humorously warns us about Jawaharlal, and the danger of him becoming too princely. You can’t shake off the feeling that in his heart of hearts, he was quite pleased to be Caesar. Only a monstrously self-absorbed person could have written it. In another act of self-absorption, Subhas Chandra Bose writes a 13-page essay on an imaginary illness. He dwells at length on his many symptoms, and his feelings about them. Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes with a Bengali family will know that physical ailments, described in gruesome detail, form 60-70 per cent of all conversations. Apparently, Netaji was part of this grand tradition.
Due to the constraints of space, this collection sticks mostly to the political, although there are a few pieces of fiction. These include an extract from Krishnakanta’s Will by Bankim Chandra, which was a runaway hit at its time. I remember Bankim Chandra as being rather grim and judgy. But reading this extract, he felt more like an Indian version of Jeffrey Archer. “He raised the pistol and took aim at her forehead. She uttered a terrified scream. The next moment she fell. There was a deep gash in her forehead, from which the blood gushed.”
Stories by Premchand and Bibhuti Bhushan Bandyopadhyaya, on the other hand, seem quite modern, with Premchand’s “The Actress” giving us a very clear idea of the position of an actress in 19th century Indian society. The poetry of Verrier Elwin should probably be avoided. Just because you have purchased a book does not mean that you have to read every page.
It ends with an interview section, which includes an epic encounter between Tagore and Einstein, in which they debate whether a chair in the room, right in front of them, actually exists. During the course of the conversation, Tagore seems to stumble upon the underlying principle of quantum theory. Naturally, Einstein disagrees.
This selection from The Modern Review provides a fascinating perspective on our history, culture and evolution. Every thinking Indian should read it.
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