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Review of Ramachandra Guha’s Democrats and Dissenters

In his new book of essays, Ramachandra Guha writes lucidly about everything from the slow death of the Congress to the absence of conservative intellectuals

books Updated: Oct 21, 2016 19:10 IST
Manjula Narayan
Ramachandra Guha

Jayaprakash Narayan and Jagjivan Ram (right), former Deputy Prime Minister of India, at a Janata Party rally in New Delhi on 06 February 1977(N Thyagarajan/HT Photo)

Democrats and Dissenters, Ramachandra Guha’s fourth book in his series examining, as the preface says, “the creation and subsequent career of the Republic of India” is divided into two parts: Politics and Society, and Ideologies and Intellectuals. Reminded of his excellent piece on the late Krishna Raj of The Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) in Patriots and Partisans, the book that preceded this one, you begin reading The Wisest Man in India: The Career and Credo of Andre Beteille and, quite unexpectedly, arrive at an understanding of how to stay uncorrupted by the proximity to power that the capital affords some academics and journalists too.

Andre Beteille (Ishan Tankha/Getty Images)

“Andre Beteille is a sociologist who has lived in Delhi all his life but has never been contaminated... He’s virtually never on television; he doesn’t hang around politicians and the IIC,” Guha said during an interview in the capital last month, adding that he lived in Bangalore because it allows him to be free, to retain an independent perspective. Other essays on Dharma Kumar and UR Ananthamurthy are similarly interesting. The best one in this section, perhaps in the book, is the last which asks: “Where are the Conservative Intellectuals in India?”

Anti-intellectualism dominates the current regime and few young BJP-oriented scholars have a substantial body of work. “Appearing on television cannot make you an intellectual; going on Facebook and Twitter can’t make you an intellectual. For that you have to write serious books,” Guha says pointing out that while Leftists are often contemptuous of religion, the family, community and cultural traditions, conservatives care deeply about them.

“These are things that conservatives of the past like C Rajagopalachari and RC Majumdar talked about. But today, you have no serious reflection on the Right Wing. In my view, if you are justifiably appalled by the dogmatism of the Left and want to create your own intellectual tradition, the first precondition is to distance yourself from the RSS. The RSS has daft ideas and you can’t have that kind of irredentist, utopian fantasy and encourage scholarly work!” he says pointing out that the current government has marginalized Arun Shourie, the only credible scholar on the Right.

“It is worrisome for the future of India because with the lingering death of the Congress, the BJP, for the foreseeable future, will be our only national party and unless a political party has an intellectual ecosystem, it will be run by narrow minded chauvinists and bigots,” he says. “You’ll have this gauraksha nonsense going on all over the place.”

A mix of anger and despair permeates the book’s first essay – an examination of the lingering death of the Congress.

“There is a sense of loss because the Congress meant so much to this country. It nurtured an all-India coalition against the British; the Congress of Gandhi talked about Hindu-Muslim harmony... Now it is just a nepotistic, corrupt, inward-looking family firm,” he says revealing that he would probably have felt happier if the party had altogether perished. “The Swatantra Party was quite important in Indian politics but after they merged with the Janata party they just disappeared,” he says.

Master Tara Singh (standing) speaking at a conference. Seated next to him are Kanyalal M Munshi (C) and Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari (R). (William Vandivert/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

The Swatantra Party’s founder C Rajagopalachari and other critics of Nehru including BR Ambedkar, EMS Namboodiripad, Ram Manohar Lohia and Syama Prasad Mookerjee all feature, even if only fleetingly, in the excellent ‘Debating Democracy: Jayaprakash Narayan versus Jawaharlal Nehru’. The essay, which focuses on the correspondence between the two leaders, impresses the reader while simultaneously leaving her depressed.

“… such debates do not take place any more, at least not among full-time politicians. No politician now alive can think or write or speak in an original or even interesting fashion about the direction Indian society and politics is or should be taking. The discussion of what Narayan, in his letter to Nehru, had called ‘dispassionate political principles’ has now been left to the scholars.’ Guha writes.

Nostalgia runs through a few essays in Democrats and Dissenters but many study difficult contemporary issues like the nation’s (mis)treatment of Adivasis and the right to freedom of expression. Indeed, Eight Threats to Freedom of Expression in India brings much clarity to this vexed question: “It is not just imperfect laws, but the complex interplay of social forces, ideological biases and political choices that inhibits freedom of expression in India,” Guha writes. He lists archaic laws, imperfections in the legal system, the rise of identity politics, the behaviour of the police, mendacious politicians, the dependence of the media on government and commercial advertising, and careerist writers as threats to freedom of expression. Incidentally, Taslima Nasrin’s latest book Exile, A Memoir mentions that Guha was among the few who argued that she had the right to express herself even as the Government of India confined her to safe houses ‘for her own protection’ in 2007.

Ramachandra Guha (Kashif Masood/HT )

The volume contains some surprises: The essay on Dharmanand Kosambi, father of historian DD Kosambi with that excellent twist in the tail, highlights a largely forgotten figure while pieces on Pakistan, and Sri Lanka steer readers to a keener understanding of the Republic of India “the most reckless experiment in human history.”

Watch more: FB Live interview with Ram Guha

“Never before was a country so diverse and divided run as a single nation without privileging a single unifying force There is no single glue except the Constitution no language, no religion, no common enemy, and never before were the poor people granted the right to vote,” Guha says.

This diversity and the absence of a “single glue” makes the India project a challenging one. Ramachandra Guha’s writing leads us to a nuanced comprehension of the concerns that agitate us every day, and to a greater appreciation of this reckless experiment that we are all so invested in.

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