THE CLASH WITHIN: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future by Martha C. Nussbaum. Permanent Black, New Delhi, 2007.
BEGINNING with the chilling facts of the Godhra carnage of 2002, Nussbaum amplifies the calculated nature of the genocide unleashed by Hindu fanatics and the complete breakdown of law and order in the economically prosperous state of Gujarat. She points to the fast paced industrialization and urbanization, the absence of a strong labour movement, the neglect of ‘quality of life issues’, the rise of ‘conservative’ Patels and the emphasis on technical rote learning over critical thinking as some of the reasons for an upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism in the state. Ironically, Samuel Huntington’s analysis of political decay attending certain kinds of economic development comes to mind here. But Nussbaum is preoccupied with challenging Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ prophecy with the idea of the ‘clash within’ all modern nations (heightened in today’s India) between people who are prepared to live with and respect difference and those seeking homogeneous nationhood.
Nussbaum identifies three faces of the Hindu right – the zealot epitomized by K.K. Shastri, president of the Gujarat VHP, rehearses Vedic glories, Hinduism’s tolerance, Islam’s proselytizing zeal and concludes that ‘peace is impossible while Christians and Muslims are around’ (55); the RSS scholar epitomized by Devendra Swarup, preaches and practices austerity, self denial and patriotism and rejects violence except in retaliation; the politician Arun Shourie rejects religion as an opiate and champions freedom of expression without respecting what others have to say. Common to all three is a demonization of Muslims, recourse to amateur ethnic theories and justifying violence as a ‘natural reaction’ of Hindu ‘victims’. Later chapters on Savarkar and Golwalkar show the western roots of their ideas and their affinity not so much to biological race science but to an older brand of anti-Semitism which required the Jews to assimilate; thus they want the Muslims and Christians to give up their distinctive culture and manifestations of religious difference. She points out that they cannot conceive of national unity as a political one based on common principles rather than one based on land, tradition or blood (163).
Returning to the ‘founding fathers’ of India’s pluralistic democracy – Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru – Nussbaum elevates Tagore’s contributions. Recalling Ghare Bhaire, she foregrounds his critique of a ‘colourless vague cosmopolitanism’ (of Nikhil) as well as the ‘fierce self-idolatry of nation-worship’ (of Sandip). The former repudiates ethnic hatred and sectarianism but neglects the emotions; the latter valorizes the Hindu nation and manipulates emotions. For the woman (Bimala), the cosmopolitan offers a cold freedom while the idolatrous nationalist requires her submission to an aggressive male. Nussbaum argues that Tagore’s Santiniketan experiment, oriented to world history, comparative religions and performing arts, exemplified another alternative, a politics of sensitive dynamic internationalism and internal pluralism (90). She suggests reviving Tagore’s emphasis on the humanities and arts to generate democratic citizens who can think critically, tolerate and respect differences. Mainstream education designed for scientific and industrial progress only stresses rote learning and marks, sapping the creativity of both the teachers and students.
In analyzing Gandhi’s asceticism, ‘moral rigidity’ and shrewd political acumen in the subsequent section, she foregrounds the ‘powerful egalitarian compassion’ that underlay nonviolent resistance, substituting the usual power politics of domination with the principle of equal dignity of all. Besides confronting the opponent with the force of justice and moral truth in a nonviolent and courteous manner, it involved the inner overcoming of anger and aggression. Distinguishing his idea of freedom from Tagore’s, Nussbaum writes that arguably ‘internal nondomination for Gandhi was not…a matter of rational freedom, freedom to debate, criticize and choose’ (99). One wonders if Gandhi’s debates with Ambedkar or Vaikom Namboodri brahmins were not rational. She claims that Gandhi linked ‘the future of India with suppression of bodily desire whereas Tagore linked it to an embrace of the sensuous delight of the body…’ (103). Referring to Tagore’s encouragement to Amita Sen, she asserts that Gandhi would not have encouraged her to develop as a dancer. Did not Gandhi exalt M.S. Subbalakshmi’s melodious voice when he said that he would prefer the bhajan ‘hari tum haro’ to be spoken by her than sung by others?
Nussbaum appears troubled by Gandhi’s vow of brahmacharya or sexual renunciation taken unilaterally without consulting his wife (95, 97) and his opposition to contraception. Given her openness to religion, it is surprising that she only focuses on ‘vengeful aggression’ and ‘the violence of moralistic denial’, thereby missing the complexities of forging ‘soul-force’. Across sects, brahmacharya has a metaphysical dimension in that the senses are withdrawn from external objects as a prelude to meditating and traversing different levels of samadhi or unified consciousness beyond the dualistic mind. As a preparatory restraint alongside nonviolence, non-stealing, truth-telling and non-grasping, sexual abstinence helps in pushing our creative energies beyond the body-ego matrix to aid contemplative ascent. Nussbaum’s privileging of psychoanalysis makes us wonder if the liberal tolerance of pluralistic religion can go beyond deconstructing the desire for transcendence as sexist and deluded.
Being sensitive to the utility of religion (if not the truths therein) in moulding the emotive, imaginative and rhetorical aspects, she faults Nehru for not forging a humanistic religion that could have fulfilled the public’s need for poetry of love and loss. The space that was thus left was occupied by the Hindu right. Is not the long tradition of devotional music ‘public poetry’? She ascribes the success of television Ramayana to the absence of religion in the public culture fostered by the Congress (173). Does she have in mind a state-sponsored public culture of pluralistic and tolerant Hinduism? Or is it a civic culture or civic religion she has in mind? Where would the state support for the Haj or the Amarnath yatra fit in?
After a brief review of the Indian Constitution, which among other things alludes to the mixed results of well intentioned caste quotas and personal laws, the book exposes the sexual politics of the Hindutva ideologues. It shows how the erotic aspects of non-brahminical Hinduism are jettisoned thanks to a Victorian sense of shame in the psyche of colonized subjects. This simultaneously produces self hatred and the projection of excessive sexuality to the Muslim other, especially the ‘hyperfertile’ Muslim woman who is mutilated and killed through metallic objects rather than abducted and raped so as not to sully the purity of the Hindu male body.
Elaborating the history wars, Nussbaum contrasts Romila Thapar’s scholarly and egalitarian commitments to Meenakshi Jain’s ideological approach. While the Hindu right is directly involved in India, the attacks on Wendy Doniger, Paul Courtright and Jeffrey Kripal, initiated by Rajiv Malhotra’s Infinity Foundation and supported by pious Hindus of goodwill may not be directly instigated (215). Conceding that the latter’s agenda is not nationhood but changing the tenor of American Hindu studies, she condemns their campaign of intimidation. But she neglects the possibility that these diasporic Indians may be reacting (howsoever crudely) to the nihilistic and reductionist strains in some of these works.
Throughout, Nussbaum performs the loudspeaker role for the Indian left liberal critics of Hindutva. Where she differs from them, say on the enriching role of religion, she is all too brief and unconvincing. Further, her approval of Gurcharan Das’s call to revive the Swatantra Party, infuse morality into business, reform public education and restore a humanistic Hinduism, harks back to the statesman-politician Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari who finds no mention at all in this book! Nor does a Periyar for challenging brahminical Hinduism or a Gaddar (AP) for ‘public poetry’.
THE POVERTY REGIME IN VILLAGE INDIA by Jan Breman. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007.
FOR far too long have economists hegemonized the debate on poverty, converting it more into an esoteric debate on measurement than providing an understanding of what makes for enhanced or constrained life chances, particularly for those less endowed with resources for survival. So we have elegant methodological discussions on what goes into the making of an arbitrarily constructed poverty line, on statistical techniques permitting cross-sectional and inter-temporal comparisons on the numbers and proportion of those classified as poor, and so on. Even the shift from measures like per capita income to human development indices fails to capture either the human story or the political processes governing inclusion/exclusion from a virtuous development cycle. Caught in a confusing numbers game, it is hardly surprising that the common citizen has wearied of the poverty studies industry. Clearly it is time that both our policy-makers and those controlling public discourse pay greater attention to the small tribe of social anthropologists, who through rigorous fieldwork provide insights into what goes on at the ground level.
There are few better practitioners of this craft than Jan Breman, Dutch scholar, who for close to five decades has made South Gujarat a second home, capturing in his voluminous writings the shifting fortunes of India’s labouring poor – rural labour engaged in both farm and non-farm work, migrant labour both rural-rural and rural-urban and, of late, labour in our growing informal urban economy. The present volume, a sequel to Labour Bondage in West India: From Past to Present, seeks to sum up Breman’s work in the region over fifty years, and thus helps us appreciate the shifts characterizing one of India’s fastest growing regions, more specifically on who loses, who gains, how and why. In many ways, despite the focus on a single region, Breman’s work can be read as exemplifying of our larger national story.
It is worth recollecting that Breman’s first forays into the region began in the early 1960s, when India was ruled by a political class socialized in the struggle for independence and shared a belief in equitable and inclusive development. Whatever the slippages in practice, and there were many, the intention behind policy and legal frameworks was to assume responsibility by the state apparatus, redistribute access to productive resources, dismantle exploitative and constraining structures and thus help the poor gain voice, confidence and subjecthood. Today, the governing ideology, and not just in the state of Gujarat, is very different. The distrust of the state runs deep, the market is accepted as the marker of efficiency, and the policy regime has been tweaked to facilitate growth by relying on those with access to resources.
That the shifts in the last two decades have accelerated growth is widely accepted, as also the fact that the proportion of those below the poverty line have declined, this despite furious contestation over actual figures. Most also accept the growth in inequality – inter-personal, inter-class, and inter-regional, though once again there is dispute over the political implication of these changes or whether our system is robust enough to weather the shocks.
Breman’s study focuses on four different sub-regions of South Gujarat, each with a different mix of the agricultural economy, proximity to urban centres, access to industrial employment, and the caste-class mix of employers. As such it becomes more than a case study and can be read as reflecting general trends. Overall, Breman establishes that alongside substantial growth and development, though the poor, particularly the landless, ‘may not have become poorer, the gap separating them from the better-off in the village economy has widened enormously’. ‘Freed’ of the earlier social relations involving both bondage and patronage and left to rely on an insecure market, they appear as, if not more, excluded as earlier from resources that might enhance their life chances. To state it more sharply, the poor have been left to fend for themselves. In the absence of skills, resources and networks, and facing neglect from a state apparatus that no longer accepts their welfare as a prime responsibility, the poor are being converted to footloose labour.
All this, Breman explicates through a riveting description of individuals and households, many of whom he had introduced in his earlier work, in a variety of settings. Using survey data, interviews, and participant observation as also through evocative photographs, Breman builds up a narrative that combines individual with social history – all this with a skill that would surprise even accomplished novelists. Of equal interest are his cryptic political and social observations, often laced with barely concealed distress over the diminished social values of our elite. What five decades back had begun as a story of hope is now, in the new millennium, far darker.
In a sense, for those familiar with Breman’s work, none of this comes as a surprise. He, after all, has been warning us of the disastrous social consequences of a creeping Social Darwinism. What, however, may surprise even his admirers is the sharp tone of his critique of the few social welfare measures initiated by the present UPA regime – both the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Social Security Bills for the informal sector. Breman finds both measures far too limited as also propelled by a palliative orientation instead of appreciating the nature of contemporary predatory capitalism. But should one expect a more pro-active and radical intervention by a state apparatus governed by political forces that Breman himself dismisses? Also, by pouring scepticism over the role of NGOs and civil society organizations, is he not adding to cynicism and defeatism? These debates are unlikely to be settled soon. Meanwhile, it is imperative that all of us draw on Jan Breman’s insightful work and labour towards policy regimes and schemes which can enhance the inclusiveness of our underclass. Otherwise, our exuberance with escalated growth rates and the country’s growing clout in the global market place, is likely to be short-lived.
THE NAXALITES THROUGH THE EYE OF THE POLICE: Selective Notifications From the Calcutta Police Gazette 1967-1975 edited by Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay. Dey’s, Kolkata, 2006.
IT is now exactly forty years since the incident of Naxalbari in North Bengal heralded a new chapter in the annals of revolutionary movements in post-independent India. Its immediate impact was limited, but the long-term significance of this somewhat chance-erected uprising against state power is beyond dispute. Its reverberations have been so widespread that a new word, the Naxalites, has now got added to the lexicon. As happens all too frequently within the corpus of India’s Left, the movement soon fragmented into many parts, as much for ideological reasons as on account of intrusion of subjective factors.
In the beginning the emphasis of its protagonists was on following the original Lin Biao script of choking ‘the cities’ by encircling them by ‘the villages’. One group, led by the original inspirer of the movement, Charu Mazumdar, however, took little time to cross over to the Latin American strategy of urban guerrilla warfare. Calcutta exploded as a result. The tactics experimented with by the insurrectionists included seizing effective control over particular areas of the city, creating an atmosphere of general terror by indiscriminate use of Molotov-type explosives, crudely assembled firearms and similar devices, damaging statues installed at public places of Bengali eminences dubbed as symbols of the bourgeois colonial culture, the forced closing down of educational institutions through selective mayhem and indiscriminate killing of junior police personnel such as constables – particularly the more vulnerable traffic constables – havaldars, sub-inspectors and inspectors. This last-mentioned feature of their operations took the Naxalites away from the tradition of Bengal terrorism established during the freedom movement. In the high noon of revolutionary terrorism in the first three decades of the last century, the armed revolutionaries targeted, and often succeeded, to kill district-magistrates, superintendents of police and similar high-ranking officers of the Raj; the small fry were left out.
Whatever that be, the Naxalites without question succeeded in one major respect. They created large-scale panic in the ranks of the city police. The morale of the Calcutta police force sank to a very low level because of the rampage let loose by the Naxalite hordes. Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay has broken new ground. The Calcutta police authorities had a legacy of issuing a daily gazette for internal circulation amongst its ranks: it was a convenient medium to keep the police personnel regularly informed about postings, promotions, rules and regulations, awards and punishments, and so on. Mukhopadhyay sought and was granted permission to delve into the issues of this gazette over the period between 1967 and 1975. His intent was to gather information on how the Calcutta police tackled the extraordinary situation the Naxalite insurgency had led to. His enterprise deserves applause, if only because he has established a precedence of citizens’ prerogative to pore into confidential police files, and he did not wait for the Right to Information Act to be put on the statute book.
Mukhopadhyay’s endeavour has amounted to an exercise in detection. He has succeeded – he himself is sure to agree – only in part. He must have entertained the hope that the contents of the confidential circulars would help him acquire detailed knowledge of the strategy and tactics of counter-insurgency measures the Calcutta police adopted in the period to combat the Naxalites. The extracts from the circular included in the book do indeed capture the flavour of the pervasive fear benumbing the police force at that point of time. The notifications deal extensively on issues of security of police personnel: providing details in regard to how they should protect their arms from sudden snatching, the precautions they should take while they move around, advice and admonition they must address to members of their family so that they do not become victims of sneak attacks, and so on.
The notes and circulars fall into a drab pattern and constitute an abysmally stylised heap. Every now and then, they include mournful references to junior police personnel killed by Naxalite action, and routine narration of the progress of investigations pursued and cases launched in connection of such killings. Every now and then, there is announcement of rewards for valour displayed by police personnel in quelling ‘the enemy’. One or two circulars mention punishment accorded to members of the force who had deserted the line of duty.
The circulars occasionally refer to government orders for seizing publications proscribed on the ground that they preached disaffection against the state. Some of these banned and seized publications were stated to have the intention of inciting the people against the government of the United States of America. If China’s Chairman could be the chairman of the Naxalites through some dialectical logic, the same logic, the Calcutta police bosses must have thought, should entitle them to protect and defend the interests of the U.S. government. The police, howsoever unintentionally, is capable of providing entertainment though. One of the books forfeited was a Harvard University Press publication, but it dealt with the dangerous issue of social inequalities and class relations.
The only departure in this reportage of hide-bound police proceedings was a notification during the first, very brief spell of the United Front government in West Bengal. This circular inter alia announced the right of policemen to form associations of their own to further their working conditions and career prospects.
It is the primitivity of the state of affairs which takes one aback. Mukhopadhyay’s extracts cover the span from late 1960 till the mid-1970s. Even after two full decades following independence, the framework of police administration was firmly rooted to hoary colonial tradition. A vast number of the circulars keep mentioning to the quintessentially colonial Indian Penal Code; the other two statutes interminably quoted from are the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898 and the Calcutta Police Act, which had its genesis in 1866. Law and order continued to be enforced in terms of the guidelines laid in these colonial statutes, and were supplemented by the re-promulgation of another piece of imperial legislation, the Bengal Suppression of Terrorist Outrages Act, 1936. The menu of punitive regulatory measures was rounded off by a new statute, the West Bengal Prevention of Violence Act, 1970. There was of course, in addition, the ubiquitous Maintenance of Internal Security Act so dear to the Union government.
The impression therefore refuses to fade away: the police continued to represent an assumed master race and at the receiving end of their dispensations were despicable native subjects. That the police are merely an administrative arm of the government elected by a free people on the basis of adult suffrage was a theme yet to percolate into the system. The policemen were evidently under instruction to commit to memory the details of every clause and section of the Indian Penal Code, the Calcutta Police Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure. In this sea of circulars, there is just one stray entry which is more like a teaser. In the late 1960s, a new Commissioner had taken charge of the Calcutta Police. This individual had intellectual pretensions and used to move about with scholarly looking books in his briefcase. In a circular he issued soon after assuming office, he reproduces a paragraph from a book by one Robert Thompson on the subject of communist insurgency, the purport of which was that, even when dealing with insurgency organised by the communists, the police should not transgress the four corners of law. Perhaps what the Police Commissioner intended to hint was that suggestions of this nature ought to be honoured in the breach.
For precisely during the months following the issue of this notification, the Calcutta police innovated the strategy of what has subsequently come to be known as ‘fake encounters’. Several young people, and even fairly well-known persons such as the poet and journalist Saroj Dutta, disappeared from the face of the earth in this period, victims of the Calcutta police’s anti-insurgency operations. Ruthless annihilation was, the panic-stricken police authorities decided, the only way to put down the Naxalite insurrections. The rule of law was bidden adieu. The circulars do not tell the story, but it was total war and the police did not flinch from adopting the roughest measures to win the war. Other tactics too were on the anvil. For instance, there was heavy infiltration by the police into the ranks of the various Naxalites groups and instigating them against one another. In the final round, para-military forces joined the police to launch indescribably harsh combing operations in city neighbourhoods thought to be infested by the Naxalites, quashing whatever remained of the will of resistance amongst the remnants of Naxalite stragglers.
As is only to be expected, the circulars Mukhopadhyay has reproduced or quoted from say not a word how the police organised raids, what they were supposed to do in face to face encounters with the ‘enemy’, or how to carry on cross-examination of those arrested. And of course torture in police custody and indiscriminate use of third degree methods – practices which even as late as today police personnel are reluctant to dispense with – are non-occurrences, if one were to go by the evidence of these circulars. Typically, while there are profuse references to awards given to policemen for bravery exhibited in the line of duty, no details are proffered of the specific nature of the ‘bravery’.
Mukhopadhyay’s compilation, therefore, proves its worth in a somewhat unusual way. It clinches the suspicion that, even in the post-independence phase, the police apparatus did not shed its colonial mind-set. It offers enlightenment on yet another matter: whatever their other infirmities, the police were no fools, they did not believe in leaving evidence in print. The situation, one fears, has not changed in the last three or four decades either.
A special reason exists for extolling Mukhopadhyay’s efforts. The Appendix to the volume should turn it into a modest bestseller. Charu Mazumdar, the patron saint of the Naxalite movement, was arrested on 16 July 1972 from a flat in central Calcutta; he was a very sick man, suffering from chronic cardiac asthma along with other complications. He died, in police custody, within ten days of his arrest. But, according to an entry which Mukhopadhyay must have come across in some issue of the Police Gazette, this very ailing, about-to-die person had, in the course of these ten days, volunteered to make a statement to the police, running easily to ten thousand words, offering exhaustive details of the organizational structure of the insurrectionary party, the number and nature of party cells, minutes of the proceeding of various secret meetings of the cells, names of individuals who attended each of these meetings, the background of the emergence of factions within the movement, the modalities of fund-raising and communications by party members, and so on; all your queries with respect to the movement will be satisfied once you have the opportunity to read the statement. It is a fantastically coherent, but equally fantastically absurd, document.
What is of equal or even greater import, it was not signed by Charu Mazumdar. One can here only indulge in speculation. Perhaps a group of zealous police officers put together bits and pieces of whatever information about the movement they had collected till then from different sources, contributed some further inputs that were products of their own imagination and, finally, added material which could prove helpful to frame people of the police’s choosing. By attributing such a statement to a safely dead Charu Mazumdar, conceivably the Calcutta police’s objective was two-fold: to discredit Mazumdar and, at the same time, demoralise his as-yet-fiercely loyal followers. Mukhopadhyay adds a postscript to the purported Mazumdar statement in which a close colleague of Mazumdar, Sadhan Kumar Ghosh, tears to shreds the police claim on the veracity of the statement.
The final surprise presented by Ashoke Kumar Mukhopadhyay is a set of rare photographs from the family album preserved by Charu Mazumdar’s daughter. One of the photographs is a veritable gem, demonstrating how opposites might meet. The picture must have been taken sometime in the 1950s when S.A. Dange was visiting Siliguri and spending the night at Mazumdar’s place: it shows a demure-looking Dange, a modest Bengali dhoti tucked round his waist, a bashful smile on his face, sitting next to Mazumdar’s mother, Mazumdar himself standing right behind. Another picture is of Utpal Dutt and Tapas Sen in the company of a lungi-clad Charu Mazumdar: a sort of a memento of the brief ultra-revolutionary phase of these luminaries of the Little Theatre Group. All of them are now gone; the banquet hall, if it was ever that, is deserted.
INDIA AFTER GANDHI: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha. Picador, London, 2007.
Erich Heller writes about the way in which anecdotes pepper Jacob Burckhardt’s The Culture of the Renaissance in Italy (published in 1860). Heller wonders whether contemporary historians would scorn at Burckhardt’s way of writing history because he seems to be ‘a storyteller determined to entertain and edify his public rather than to instruct it’. He concludes that before we ask questions about the extent of ‘sophistication’ that ought to inform historical writing, we must recognize that the picture that Burckhardt produced in our minds was ‘composed of intense evil and sublime beauty, of hatred and charity, of degradation and purification, of the unscrupulousness that inflicts pain, and the reverence felt for suffering, of sin, contrition and atonement’. Heller further elaborates the purpose with which Burckhardt, the historian of the Renaissance, chose to write what he wrote and the way in which he did so: ‘It has for Burckhardt the authenticity of the mind, imagination and the spirit of the Renaissance, and if it yields a negligible quantity of reliable facts, it nevertheless reveals something more important to him: the quality of life of the period, or as he would have called it, the Geist of the epoch.’
Ramachandra Guha’s compelling history of India after Gandhi is rich in the quantity of reliable facts it marshals to tell us the story of India’s sixty years as an independent nation state, but, more importantly, brings alive the quality of life Indians have experienced during this period. It is a narrative that doesn’t let the tyranny of the footnote or the accumulation of references interfere with the comprehensiveness of the writer’s vision. His vision is to be summed up in his unapologetic celebration of democracy and its institutions. This is done through identifying what he calls five axes of conflict and the manner in which modern, democratic India has been able to wade through successive crises, getting dissolved in certain instances, diluted at crucial moments, abandoning certain necessary pieties, and, yet, emerging triumphant. These axes of conflict are caste, language, religion, class and gender. In dealing with these conflicts, that ‘rubbing together’ so essential for democracy itself, India also has fabricated for itself a new interpretation and a new lexicon of democracy. ‘At no other time or place in human history,’ says Guha, ‘have social conflicts been so richly diverse, so vigorously articulated, so eloquently manifest in art and literature, or addressed with such directness by the political system and the media.’
Guha also acknowledges that writing contemporary history faces the challenge of meeting the reader as a critical citizen. At the same time, the historian too is a citizen. The historian-citizen in Guha is, therefore, compelled to acknowledge that while a degree of self-congratulation is in order for constructing and maintaining the ‘hardware’ of democracy, the picture pertaining to the ‘software’ of democracy leaves much to be desired. But it is the pure and the tainted, as Nirmal Verma once wrote, that constitute a civilization. Guha is acutely aware of this paradox. For him, the historian-citizen is also a critic, but the part he plays in being a critic leads neither to frothy neurosis, nor does it pave the way for abolition of judgement in the name of pseudo-scientific objectivity. The role he assumes leads to the purification of judgement. For instance, given his absolute fidelity to democracy, the historian-citizen does admit that, ‘Sixty years after independence, Indian remains a democracy. But the events of the last two decades call for a new qualifying adjective. India is no longer a constitutional democracy but a populist one.’ Or elsewhere, invoking the comic actor, Johnny Walker’s quip in a film (phipty-phipty, meaning a 50-50 chance of success and failure), Guha characterizes Indian democracy to be evenly poised between success in going through the motions of elections and freedom of movement and expression, and failure in terms of the functioning of politicians and working of political institutions.
Walter Benjamin, in his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities, likened the commentator to a chemist and the critic to an alchemist, both viewing a growing work as a burning funeral pyre. ‘While for the former, wood and ash remain the sole objects of his analysis,’ comments Benjamin, ‘for the latter only the flames itself preserve an enigma: that of what is alive. Thus the critic inquires into the truth, whose living flame continues to burn over the heavy logs of the past and the light ashes of experience.’ In this sense, Guha is an alchemist. He adores such formidable figures in Indian history such as Gandhi, Nehru, JP and Rajaji, and yet the essential inquiry into the truth leads to startling purification of judgement. Two examples would suffice. The first concerns the question of Partition and whether it could have been averted.
‘It is true that Nehru and Gandhi made major errors of judgement in their dealings with the Muslim League. In the 1920s Gandhi ignored Jinnah and tried to make common cause with the mullahs. In the 1930s Nehru arrogantly and, as it turned out, falsely, claimed that the Muslim masses would rather follow his socialist credo than a party based on faith. Meanwhile, the Muslims steadily moved over from the Congress to the League. In the 1930s when Jinnah was willing to make a deal, he was ignored; in the 1940s, with the Muslims solidly behind him, he had no reason to cut a deal at all.’
The other example comes from Guha’s evaluation of JP and Indira Gandhi.
‘As Elder’s [Joe Elder, the sociologist and Quaker] account suggests, the Emergency was a script jointly authored by JP and Mrs Gandhi. Both had shown too little faith in representative institutions: JP by asking for the premature dismissal of elected governments, Mrs Gandhi by jailing legally elected members of Parliament and legislative assemblies. Neither properly appreciated the role of the state in a modern democracy. JP wished simply for the state to disappear, for the police and army to ‘disobey immoral orders’. On the other hand, Mrs Gandhi sought to make the state’s functionaries ultimately dependent on the will of a single person at the helm.’
Towards concluding the fourth section in the book, Guha springs a surprise for his readers. He tells us that the conclusion of this section propels the book from ‘history’ to what might be called ‘historically informed journalism’. Why? Because of ‘our closeness to what is being written about’. After reading the fifth section, one sees the futility of Guha’s caveat and his unusual coyness. Not one bit of his acuity of judgement or his analysis is lost in these pages. The answer lies in book’s epilogue and ought to be quoted in his own words: ‘That said, the distance – intellectual or moral – between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, or between B.R. Ambedkar and Mulayam Singh Yadav, is not necessarily greater than between, say, Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush. It is in the nature of democracies, perhaps, that while visionaries are sometimes necessary to make them, once made they can be managed by mediocrities.’ Having said this, one wonders if distance in time and perspective would necessarily improve or enrich the history of this period. Perhaps the last two decades of India’s contemporary history are forever condemned to remain historically informed journalism, or, at best, a rambling chronicle of mediocrities. To invoke a Bollywood metaphor, and Guha employs these with deftness, the history of these two decades will remain the potted biographies of ‘half tickets’ (after a delightful Kishore Kumar film).
Vidya Rao, the great thumri singer, once described Mohammed Rafi’s voice as one with an internalized smile. Guha has written a remarkable and serious history of contemporary India, often with an internalized smile. Gandhi, then, for him was greatly admired by some and ‘cordially detested’ by others. My favourites are the following:
* ‘No event of any importance in India is complete without a goof-up.’
* ‘A month before the 1967 elections, MGR was shot and wounded by a rival film star M.R. Radha (the two, apparently, had fallen out over what men in general, and Indian film stars in particular, usually fall out over).
* On P.N. Haksar: ‘However, in this case intellectual force was not necessarily matched by intellectual subtlety.’
The triumph of Guha’s narrative lies in an unusual display of the aristocracy of the mind. This he shares, in ample measure, with Jacob Burckhardt. The latter, in his Reflections on World History, observes that ‘every successful wickedness is, to say the least of it, a scandal… The only lesson to be derived from the successful misdeeds of the strong is to hold life here and now in no higher esteem than it deserves.’ Guha, in learning this lesson, has given us a history of independent India that would remain unsurpassed for a long time to come.