Antara Das talks to the author of Makers of Modern India, a book that profiles 19 Indians who, between 1820 and 1970, contributed to democracy and social reform in India
In the prologue to your book, you argue that unlike Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian, you have relied on proximate characters.
I feel that they are much more relevant to our predicament. The thoughts of a 16th century emperor are not really germane. India's encounter with the modern world — technology, democracy, making of the nation state — confronts us with the challenges of how to make a just society given our feudal, inegalitarian past. Over the last 15 years, reading and re-reading these thinkers, I was impressed by the clarity and sophistication of their understanding of society.
How did you arrive at this figure of 19?
Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar have to be a part of any list. Some others are powerful adversarial figures, like C. Rajagopalachari. Then there were slightly lesser known figures —Jotiba Phule, for example, is known only to specialists, Tarabai Shinde to feminist historians while Hamid Dalwai is virtually ignored. I followed three criteria: the quality of their analysis; the lucidity of their prose and their relevance to their times as well as to our times — for example Rammohan Roy writing about the freedom of the press in a totalitarian society is relevant to China today.
Or Verrier Elwin, debating whether to treat the tribals as Noble Savages or co-opt them, is topical to the contemporary debate on Maoism.
Elwin worked both in Central India and the northeast. In the context of Manipur and Nagaland or Bastar, Dandakaranya and Dantewada, what he said sounds very contemporary.
You have not included any Marxist thinker.
Maybe, if Bhagat Singh had lived a few years more, he could have become one. He came from a Marxist perspective but his jail diaries show him moving from a dogmatic, certitude-based Marxism to a more open-minded socialism. But he died at 23 and did not leave behind a significant corpus of work.
Why have thinkers like Hamid Dalwai been languishing in the fringe?
Firstly, there is the accident of history. Dalwai, a creative writer deeply concerned about the ghettoisation of the Indian Muslim, died in his 40s. Secondly, they often wrote in their regional languages. E.V. Ramaswamy is very well-known in Tamil Nadu but not outside. Third is the complete neglect of intellectual history within scholarship. Historians write about political, social, legal and cultural history. But the history of ideas is a completely neglected field in India.
Which explains why India has not been able to influence the global discourse.
We have not tried to understand the intellectual origins of our democracy — how this bizarre, unprecedented political experiment came into being and how a country so diverse constructed itself as a single nation. It did not happen by accident or luck, nor was it a gift of the British. It was worked upon by generations of unusual, interesting Indians. Our political experiment is flawed, but its achievements and failures have lessons for us and other parts of the world.
Do you think Said's description that an intellectual must take a contrarian position applies to these thinkers?
I would say a critical, reflective position attentive to the faultlines and fissures of their own society, which recognises the quality of those who preceded them. We have within us the resources to create a more humane society. The adversarial Indian intellectual does not know this tradition. Post-Saidean scholars think in black and white — they cannot think of inclusiveness or borrowing.
Why do you think that robust tradition of thought is lacking in India now?
I don't think one should ask that. We were lucky it lasted 150 years. What should worry us is that the political class today is ignorant of that legacy.