How Ramachandra Guha epitomises what ails Indian liberalism, and yet shows hopes of redemption

It was more than 25 years ago that noted writer and historian Ramachandra Guha first came into my life. Through his book, of course. Finding...

It was more than 25 years ago that noted writer and historian Ramachandra Guha first came into my life. Through his book, of course. Finding me fanatically in love with cricket, my father got me a bat and a book. Seeing from a distance, I ran towards him. Hugging him, I grabbed the bat. So excited I was that I couldn’t see the other gift: Wickets in the East: An Anecdotal History by Guha. Later, as things settled down, I opened the book and loved the style of writing. Over the years, I read most of his books on cricket, my favourite being A Corner of a Foreign Field.

Today, I don’t admire Guha. My father is one of the reasons for that!

Last week, Guha was back in my mindscape when at an Express Adda, he complained that India’s civil service, judiciary and media were performing at below optimum levels. He further added that the framers of the Constitution would have been horrified to see this state of affairs. On the face of it, what he said holds water. But his assessment becomes problematic when one is made to believe that all this is a recent phenomenon. Guha, an ace historian and a sharp intellectual mind he has, however, understands the lacunae of his argument and instantly points at the institutional harm Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv had done.

What this ardent Nehruvian doesn’t tell is that this has been the case since Independence. The Savarkar case is a classic example where BR Ambedkar, then law minister in the Nehru government, conceded that the attempt to implicate the Hindutva leader in the Mahatma Gandhi assassination case was politically motivated and the orders had come from the top. Vikram Sampath, in his authoritative biography on Savarkar, quotes Ambedkar as saying that he, as India’s law minister, saw no merit in the case and that the Hindutva leader would ultimately go scot-free. This happened right under the nose of Nehru and one suspects at his behest. It’s difficult to believe that this kind of politico-administrative subversion — one can easily cite several such instances — evades the sharp eyes of the “Indian democracy’s pre-eminent chronicler”, as the Time magazine introduces Guha in one of its articles.

File image of Ramachandra Guha. Image courtesy News18

So, who is Ramachandra Guha? A cursory look at him would suggest that he is unlike other sarkari intellectuals who would readily do the rounds of the corridors of power for petty political pelf and patronage.

Guha loves his intellectual independence and takes pride in staying “far away” from Delhi.

“For the past 25 years I have made my living entirely as an independent writer, with no foreign grants or sarkari or other subsidies, but exclusively from the fees that newspapers pay me and from my book royalties,” he once told me in an interview. And to vindicate his political neutrality, he would remind us how in 2018, he was not allowed to take up a prestigious chair at Ahmedabad University “by the gentleman who is currently our Home Minister”, and back in 2004-05, “I was vetoed for the post of Director of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library by the lady who is currently the ‘interim’ president of the Congress party”.

Yet, Guha epitomises everything that’s wrong with liberals today.

I met Guha on a couple of occasions, the last time at Delhi’s India International Centre soon after one of his Gandhi books was released. We discussed books, his admiration for Gandhi and Nehru, how the Congress had no future till it remained the fiefdom of a family. (Later, he revised his opinion to say that the Congress is well past its expiry date, with or without the Gandhis.) And in a ‘Modi-fied’ India, how could there be no talk on Narendra Modi?

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Image courtesy Twitter/@PBNS_India

We didn’t find ourselves on the same page on the need for Gandhi to be “recognised as being among apartheid’s first opponents”, as he wrote in his Gandhi biography. Would Gandhi be less significant had he agitated about discrimination being meted to his fellow Indians, but kept quiet about the plight of the South African natives whom he disdainfully called kafirs? Why deny him the benefit of being a product of his time? Gandhi would still be great and relevant with all his limitations.

On Nehru, Guha appeared too defensive, to the extent of being apologetic. He behaved like an ardent admirer who thought his hero couldn’t do any wrong, though he conceded Nehru erred in a big way on China! For every mistake Nehru committed, he would invariably come up with one explanation or another, and when nothing was left to defend he would invoke Nehru’s role in India’s foundation as a secular, democratic republic! He would be just short of saying we are a democracy because of Nehru. Really!

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Agence France-Presse

The fact of the matter is if India is liberal, secular and democratic today, it’s largely because it is predominantly Hindu. Even a culturally rich Bangladesh couldn’t sustain secularism for five years despite the persecution East Bengalis faced at the hands of their West Pakistani coreligionists. Guha seemed to suffer the same liberal fallacy that inherently affects most liberals in India: To turn a Hindu baiter and an Islamic apologist (at varying degree) to bolster one’s secular claims! Is it any surprise that Guha regards, as he does in his book Patriots and Partisans, Hindutva and the notion of Hindu rashtra as the main challenge to plural, inclusive and secular India?

Also, was Nehru really so successful in implanting the idea of democracy? And if that was the case why were so many India obituaries written in the early 1960s? Aldous Huxley, visiting India after a gap of 35 years in 1961, was overwhelmed by “the prospect of overpopulation, underemployment, growing unrest”. He found the country “almost infinitely depressing” and believed that “when Nehru goes, the government will become a military dictatorship”. By any stretch of imagination, no regime can be termed successful if this is the evaluation it gets at the end of its 17-year-long regime.

Like most liberals, Guha reserves his most scathing assessment for the Modi government, calling it “anti-intellectual”, “authoritarian”, “majoritarian”, et al. As a commentator, he has every right to have this opinion. But when one compares the parameters he uses for the Modi government with the Nehruvian dispensation, the bluff is called.

For instance, how for all his democratic pretensions, Nehru, when he found it politically expedient, acted undemocratically to oppose his own party president, Purshottam Das Tandon, forcing him to leave the office. Writes Shashi Tharoor in Nehru: The Invention of India, “…Tandon had Patel’s backing, and despite Jawaharlal’s open opposition, won handily with over 50 percent of the votes in a three-man field. Nehru publicly grumbles… He spent the next year undermining Tandon, much as his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi, had undermined Bose 13 years earlier. In September 1951 Jawaharlal brought matters to a head by resigning his party positions and making it clear that he and Tandon could not co-exist: One of them had to go: Tandon did. Jawaharlal was elected Congress president, his earlier scruples about the Prime Minister serving in such a position completely forgotten.”

It took Nehru three years to again realise the error of a Prime Minister holding the position of a party president. By then there was no one left in the party to oppose him. He was the all-powerful democrat who, as a contemporary observer recorded, “wielded an authority reserved to dictators”. To his credit, however, Nehru did eschew any dictatorial desires even when, as Bertrand Russell wrote, “every conceivable argument has been available to tempt Mr Nehru to forgo democratic institutions in India”.

As for the charge of pushing his daughter into politics, Nehru never directly promoted Indira Gandhi as a possible successor, but he did not either object “when others in the Congress party pushed his daughter into politics, at first as organiser of the party’s women wing in 1953 and most notably when they elected her president of the Congress party, nationally, for 1959”.

Nehru’s biggest fallacy, however, was his ideological obsession and tendency to fall for flattery, making him a bad judge of people.

An admirer and former cabinet colleague, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, found Nehru “not a good judge of character and is therefore easily deceived”. She also accused him of having “a conceit in him which makes him at once intolerant to criticism”. It is this flaw in Nehru’s character that ensured his cabinet lacked diversity, deliberation and discussion — a hallmark of the party till Sardar Patel was alive. Following Patel’s death, Nehru “had progressively turned into a leader without equal and without a rival”, as Tharoor writes. No wonder Frank Morales, a Nehru admirer and also biographer, said matter of factly that “in India today there is no one to restrain or guide Nehru. He is Caesar, and from Caesar one can appeal only to Caesar”.

***

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And where there’s flattery and sycophancy, how far can corruption be? In 1959, on his birthday, Nehru’s youngest sister Krishna Nehru Hutheesing wrote quite scathingly: “Nehru the Prime Minister no longer remembers or adheres to the ideals or dreams that Jawahar the Rebel had… (H)e can no longer arouse his people as he did in years gone by, for he has allowed himself to be surrounded by those who are known to be opportunists and the entire government machinery, corrupt and heavy with intrigue, rules the land with no hope of an honest hearing from any quarter.”

One can go on and on with references from the likes of Khuswant Singh, who accused Nehru of being “given to nepotism and favouritism”, to Nirad C Chaudhuri calling him “a snob” who was “contemptuous to those who spoke English with an English accent”. But the question is: Will the apologist in Guha and his ilk hear that? Will these liberals care to realise that for every Romila Thapar sidelined today, there was RC Majumdar pushed to the margins in the 1950s and 1960s; for every Marxist historian denied an award today there was a Sir Jadunath Sarkar who was not given a Padma award despite being recommended by the then President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad! If India was liberal then, India is very much liberal today, if not more. It’s just that those who were thought to be untouchables then are now brought into the mainstream of politics, academia and more. The citadel of leftist exclusivity has been breached, and those denied these exclusive elitist refuges find liberalism retreating in India today.

Guha is right when he says, “Democracy is all about debate, dialogue and dissent.” What he doesn’t say is that for most of the post-Independence era, this privilege was confined to a particular ideology with which Nehruvianism found great affinity. It was an exclusive club where only the like-minded people were entertained and allowed entry. Just as Nicholas Kristof, not very long ago, wrote in The New York Times on the great liberal fallacy: “We want women, blacks, Latinos, gays and Muslims at the table — er, so long as they are not Conservatives.”

Yet, I believe Guha offers a hope for liberal redemption. It so happened that on 9 May 2017, he wrote a stinging post on Twitter: “Past ICSSR Chairmen have included those great scholars DR Gadgil, Rajni Kothari, and Andre Beteille. Now we have this semi-literate Sanghi.”

The tweet startled me. The man Guha accused of being a “semi-literate Sanghi” was my father. I knew he wasn’t a Sanghi. And he definitely wasn’t “semi-literate”! The man Guha accused of being “semi-literate” had double MA, was PhD, had authored/edited more than 100 books, besides being a well-regarded professor in Nagaland. He spent over three decades in the North East not just teaching but also setting up institutions that attempted to bridge not just the peoples of the Northeast with the rest of Indians, but also their languages, cultures and religions. Yet, he was semi-literate! Why? Was it because he didn’t have a degree from St Stephen’s, or was it because his work was not acknowledged in Lutyens’ Delhi?

Two years later, when my father died while he was still the ICSSR chairperson, I wrote an obituary for a magazine. I marked a copy to Guha, little realising that he would respond. “An obituary of the person you thought was a semi-literate Sanghi,” I wrote in the message. To my surprise, Guha responded, thanking me “for sharing your fine and moving tribute to your father”. He then apologised “for hurting you (as well as some others) with my somewhat crude characterisation”. He continued: “It was unbecoming for me to use that sort of language, even if I felt (as I still do) that he was not an appropriate successor to the likes of Andre Beteille and DR Gadgil as Chairman of ICSSR. I should have made that case in more neutral and polite terms. I deeply and sincerely apologise, and since even at my age I can learn a lesson, I will make sure not to use such careless language in future.”

I was still angry. I thought so many times of responding to him. In fact, I wrote a letter, thanking him for being a gentleman. But still, I couldn’t send the mail. Maybe because I still somehow couldn’t forgive him for being so reckless, for being intellectually dishonest, for judging a person he hardly knew.

But, for me, Guha redeemed himself, even if partially. And I was relieved to see him do that. For, the man who brought alive in his books so many of my cricketing heroes deserved that. His apology also offers hope of redemption for Indian liberals who may be willing to see beyond their ideological blinders. Time has also come for them to understand that there is nothing in common between them and their strange Leftist bedfellows, and that liberalism/secularism in India is not a Nehruvian gift. India is liberal/secular because of its inherent Indic civilisational values.

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