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Unbiased recitals

As a just-released anthology on the men who built modern India shows, our heroes often become means for our self-fulfilment. But history owns no favourites, only facts. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: May 21, 2011 19:27 IST
Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Hindustan Times

Ramachandra Guha’s new anthology gives us some carefully selected writings from what he chooses to call Makers of Modern India. The book cannot but offend adherents of those excluded and offend some for its inclusions. “Where is Patel?” he has been asked. “Where is our Netaji?”

The plaintive questions are not invalid.But it is his anthology, not that of the questioners. He can choose what to include and what to leave out.

But he has to explain the procedure he has followed, which is to select the works of those ‘Makers’ who were original thinkers and have left a body of writing behind. This fact is not immediately grasped by readers of the book, for which difficulty the title of the book is partly responsible.

At the book’s launch in Chennai, he was asked: “Why have you left Kamaraj out ? Was he not a maker of modern India?” Ram said Kamaraj was a giant of a man and he (Ram) had paid Kamaraj the huge tribute he deserved in his India After Gandhi, but then Kamaraj was a doer, not a thinker and did not leave a body of published material behind.

The questioner was not quite mollified, nor was I.

“What about Annadurai?”

“Yes, he was an extraordinary political figure too but his influence outside Tamil Nadu is limited and then again his thought is not available to a wider non-Tamil readership…” Then, an ‘inclusion’ was raised. “You have included Jinnah who did not make India, rather he broke it…”

“Thank you for that question,” Ram said, “it is important for us to know Jinnah’s mind precisely for that reason…We should know the negatives that make our positives…We should know how the Muslim India of Jinnah’s conception and a Hindu Pakistan of Golwalkar’s are the antithesis of Nehru’s secularism.”

In his comments at the Chennai launch, Ram said something that tallied with a recent experience of mine, totally. He said that followers of some Indian icons know their hero’s life-line well, but not his thought-line. Others, academics among them, know the thought-lines well and do not share the ‘followers’ bhakti-like fascination for the icon’s person.

Both deficits are unfortunate, for the first leads to hero worship which does understanding little good, and the second leads to dry-as-dust intellection that leaves out the human dimension entirely.

An experience I had some days ago bore out Ram’s point totally. At a lecture in London in memory of BR Ambedkar, I made the point that Ambedkar cannot be monopolised anymore than he can be marginalised. He cannot be fenced-in anymore than he can be fenced-out. To typecast a man like Babasaheb as a spokesman, howsoever formidable, for one section of India alone, for one interest, and one cause, or to label him as the chief architect, howsoever formidable, of one legislative edifice, one enactment, is to deny and impoverish the totality of his legacy.

Some questions followed and I responded to them in various degrees of inadequacy. Just as one last hand went up, the question slot was over and the meeting closed. But as I had noticed the raised hand, as the audience dispersed, I invited the young man to come over for a chat. I said I was sorry he could not put his question. Whereupon the young man said: “You referred to Babasaheb as ‘Ambedkar’, as ‘Dr Ambedkar’ and as ‘Babasaheb’…For me he is Babasaheb and he is my God.” There was little for me to say to this beyond indicating respect for his feeling. He added: “I also wanted to ask you a silly question”. Saying it may not be silly at all, I encouraged him to pose it. He said: “You have just spoken about Babasaheb…can you please tell me: first, his full name, the expansion of the initials of his name. Second, the date and place of Babasaheb’s birth. Third the date and place of his death. That is all”.

I did not expect the question to be this simple and this challenging, this courteous and this startling. I had just expatiated on Babasaheb and made what I had thought was a point worth making, but I had clearly ‘reckoned without the host’. I may have known the sum, but did I know my tables ?

Now, I was aware that ‘B’ stood for Bhimrao but told him, honestly, I did not recall the expansion for ‘R’. This was inexcusable. If I knew that the ‘K’ after ‘M’ in Gandhi’s full name stands for ‘Karamchand’, ought I not to know what the ‘R’ in ‘BR Ambedkar’ stands for? Of course, I should. Next, I knew the dates of his birth and death (having attended the Ambedkar Jayanti and Ambedkar Nirvana Divas in Kolkata annually for five years) but, again, was not sure of the year of his birth, nor of the place of his birth.

If I knew axiomatically that Gandhi was born in Porbandar and Jawaharlal Nehru in Allahabad, could I afford to not know where Babasaheb was born? Especially, when I was giving a bhashan claiming an intellectual kinship with him? In three minutes, I had learnt more from him than my audience had from me, over my 30-minute lecture. And I am not referring to the bare facts alone.

The young man had made me realise the inherent hypocrisy in pompous public speaking. His question also reminded me of a television ‘operation’ that had some MPs scurrying for cover when asked by a TV channel on Independence Day simple ‘GK-type’ questions like “Who wrote Vande Mataram?” I had laughed at their ignorance. This time round, it was my turn to be shown up for my ignorance.

But my questioner has also made me reflect on India’s and Indians’ attitude to their Founding Fathers.

Everyone is entitled to favourites, intellectual or emotional. For us, however, our favourites have become means for self-fulfilment.

Guha’s eclectic anthology helps us see that history is different from humans. It owns no favourites, only facts and these go beyond ‘mere’ awareness or ‘pure’ bhakti. And history’s destination is neither the self-projecting speaker’s podium nor the selfless devotee’s pedestal, but a straight unbiased recital.

Which recital shows Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (born 2.10.1869 at Porbandar, died 30.1.1948 in New Delhi) and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (born 14.4.1891 in Mhow, died 6.12.1956 in New Delhi) giving a psychologically splintered India very similar messages in differing vocabularies.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor The views expressed by the author are personal.

First Published: Dec 18, 2010 00:10 IST