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Independent India at 60—Part II-A Historian on Modern India

September 2007
Independent India at 60—Part II-A Historian on Modern India

The growing clutch of internationally praised Indian authors who write in English are mostly known for their novels, some of which have won major awards and found a place in university curricula. But the nonfiction writers in this group, admittedly fewer and less visible, can be just as impressive in producing works that hold broad appeal. Ramachandra Guha—a versatile, prolific historian based in Bangalore—is an excellent example, and his authoritative new book, India After Gandhi, is bound to cement his reputation as one of the most perceptive interpreters of modern India. Currently a bestseller in India, his book has already received wide attention in the Western press.

"It is impeccably researched and documented, but Guha is no dry-as-dust academic historian," a review in The Independent states, adding, "He avoids self-congratulation and celebrates the survival of democratic India without overlooking the nation's countless failings and shortcomings."

In a manner reminiscent of some prominent Indian novelists, Guha's rise to fame took a circuitous path, reflecting not only his eclectic interests but also the depth of his talent. Starting out as an environmental historian, he went on to write an acclaimed biography of the anthropologist-activist Verrier Elwin (Savaging the Civilized). Above all, Guha is known for his trenchant newspaper columns and well-received books on cricket. A connoisseur of Indian classical music, Guha has taught history at, among other universities, the Indian Institute of Science, Yale and Stanford.

Guha spoke to Khabar from his home in India. Excerpts of that conversation follow:���

While working on your prodigiously researched book, you had access to newly available archives. What were your most startling findings?

Well, there were many findings because my book was based on materials no historian had seen, for the simple reason that while some post-1947 materials became recently available, historians in India had generally focused on the pre-1947 period. But I'll tell you a few interesting findings. Though the Congress was India's main nationalist party, the first government included—at Gandhi's request—Indians from parties opposed to the Congress. B. R. Ambedkar was an example. So that was a startling finding, you know, that the Congress couldn't monopolize, but got talented people for the different jobs. Another one was that Indira Gandhi in 1971 was consciously planning the division of Pakistan. It was a very thought out strategy and not forced upon us by the refugee crisis or by, you know, the Bengali movement against West Pakistani domination. The third finding, which I'm very pleased with even though it's not 100 percent foolproof, has to do with the lifting of emergency rule in January 1977. She imposed it because she was afraid of losing her job—there was a court verdict against her—and her son, Sanjay, had advised her to do it. But why did she lift it (without her son's knowledge)? They were totally secure, there was no popular discontent, the countryside was quiet and the economy was doing well. I argue that she lifted it because of persistent liberal supervision, particularly by friends of her father's in the Congress movement, and distinguished Western (including British) writers who'd been associated with freedom struggles. There were many such findings, sometimes challenging preconceived notions.

The author Mihir Bose, while pointing out that you didn't rely on oral testimonies or private lives, recently said that this was the big difference between Indian and Western historians. How do you respond?

I believe Mihir Bose in not a true historian and his comments are misplaced. First, you must understand the scope and scale of my work. My work is a wide-standing history—economic, political, military and social—of all of India over 60 years. Oral history is notoriously, as I found in my previous work, unreliable. It can be used only in a focused work—a slice of history. Likewise, in a macro work of this kind, the private lives of politicians have no place at all. If I were writing a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru, his personal relationship with Edwina Mountbatten, the depth of their love, whether their love was ever consummated, would have legitimate place. Mine is not that kind of work.

The reorganization of states along linguistic lines, one could argue, reinforced parochialism and prevented the spread of multilingualism and intermarriage, to give two examples. Yet paradoxically, as you note, linguistic states deepened and consolidated Indian unity. How can we explain this?

Now this is a counter intuitive argument I've reached. I didn't start my book with the idea of linguistic states, but the more I thought of and researched it, I found that the key rebel movements in India had nothing to do with language. They dealt with territories: Kashmir, Nagaland and so on. The way linguistic states have evolved, I found, it was perfectly consistent for one to be Andhra and Indian, Tamil and Indian, or Kannada and Indian. Of course, there were frictions and problems. For instance, I live in Bangalore and they have a conflict between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu over the water of the River Kaveri. But if you look around, Pakistan was divided over language and Sri Lanka is in an unending civil war over language. So if linguistic states hadn't been granted, the tension would have continued over their formation, because language is the first and fundamental feature of human identity, and in the Indian case—unlike in Europe—each language is identified with a distinctive script; in India, there are 17 scripts on a rupee note. Finally, I think the place of a linguistic state should not, and has not, impeded multilingualism.

That's interesting because, towards the end of your book, you draw parallels between America and India. You compare the traditional melting pot model to the Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) movement, while the salad bowl model you think is more appropriate for a country like India.

Yes, absolutely. I was in Delhi last week. The street signs there are in four different scripts. I mean, it must be the only capital in the world which has street signs in Urdu, Gurmukhi, Devangri and English. Linguistic states have interior multilingualism, so you can still be multilingual. For example, many Kannadas also speak Konkani and Tamil. You speak English because that's the language of science and commerce. You speak Hindi because that's what is made in Bombay cinema and it's the language of interstate communication. Democracy is not about creating a perfect society. It's about maintaining a society where the minimum harm takes place. So, as I was saying, you may have problems with the linguistic states, but you'd have greater problems if you divide the linguistic people. So democracy is about pluralism, accommodation and compromise; it's about working out the least hard solution, not the best solution, because if we try for the perfect solution, you may only give rise to discontent and disorder and anarchy.

"The inability—some would say unwillingness—to educate all or even most of its citizens counted as independent India's greatest failure," you write. Why do you think this happened, especially since Nehru was known for his emphasis on modernization and higher education?

One speculation is that Nehru was so enchanted by high modernism and scientific research—IITs, atomic physics, microbiology, etc—that he forgot the grassroots. Gandhi, being more down to earth and attuned to the masses, might have had a different approach. Another reason could be that the high castes in the Congress Party didn't want the low castes to be educated, so they deliberately downplayed it. The third reason is that no new nation is born easily. The tasks were complex and daunting because of the diversities, styles of leaders, partition and so on. They had to do a lot of things—integrate the states, contain Hindu-Muslim tensions, form the democratic constitution, deal with Pakistan, build up the infrastructure, kick start the economy. Some things got short changed, a lot of things got short changed. I think our failure to eliminate illiteracy has given rise, among other things, to the caste conflicts of recent years. One hope I have for the book is that younger scholars will probe more deeply into the reasons for these failures.

Speaking of caste conflicts, you noted how coalition governments have led to the widening and deepening of democracy. That being the advantage, would you say the disadvantage of such governments is an inherent instability?

Yes, but more than instability, what I mentioned in my book is the lack of policy quality: you can't have systematic or long-range policy because you're always making compromises. Because if you want to plan, say, for a recycled energy system for the country as a whole, some coalition member may come in your way because there is an oil refinery in his state. Policy and governance becomes a series of short-term ad hoc compromises. However, the cost is not as great as one might suppose, because we're moving towards a more federal system. It's the state government that takes most of the initiatives, and most of these states are run as a two-party system. But there are problems—instability and lack of policy coherence would be the main ones.

How does it compare with America's two-party system?

It's difficult to say. The American system is a presidential system, which we don't have. The Indian freedom movement was a great rainbow. And the Congress Party was the first great coalition, in the sense that everyone—Hindus and Muslims, low caste and high caste, men and women, northerners and southerners, easterners and westerners—had a place in it. That kind of rainbow coalition was possible when it involved getting rid of a foreign oppressor. But once you had independence, the different constituents of that coalition kind of decomposed into their own special interest groups. So I think India is too diverse a country to even hope for a two-party system in that sense. It's the price you have to pay for the sake of holding India together.

You said how Western observers in the ‘60s thought India was on the brink of disaster, to be replaced by either communism on the left or communalism on the right. Now on the other hand, India is being hailed as a major player among nations. Do you feel India is being oversold today just as it was undersold back then?

My sense as a historian is that earlier predictions underestimated the caliber of the Indian political class and its commitment to democracy. The new anticipation of India's rise to economic power overestimates the capability of India's political class, which has seriously degraded over the last 40 to 50 years, and they ignore deep divisions and the need to advance the backward regions. Amongst the consequences, industrial development and consumerism may hit the wall of environmental sustainability. That is an open question. I mean, the government of India today does not really pay much attention to environmental sustainability, and while the surge in economic growth is to be welcomed, and has now generated a great amount of prosperity not only for the rich but also for the middle class, it's come at an environmental cost. If you see the levels of pollution in our cities—the fact that most of our rivers and lakes are dead because of sewage and chemical contamination, the amount of depletion of ground water aquifers—then obviously this is not sustainable forever. Much more care has to be taken of the natural endowments and the natural resources, which are needed in order to sustain human life. So for political, economic and environmental reasons, I think India is a long way from becoming a superpower. But the Indian elite is in a very self-congratulatory mood at the moment. I mean, there is no longer any fear that India will break up or become a military dictatorship. India, I believe, will stumble along in the middle. It has gone from B- to B+.

As you said, this degradation of the political system took India from constitutional democracy, which was Nehru's legacy, to populist democracy, which was Indira Gandhi's legacy. Can Indians hope to regain what they lost in the process?

It's difficult to say anything about the future because I'm a historian and not an astrologer, even though in India it'd be much more profitable to be an astrologer! But the other more serious reason is that history in general, and Indian history in particular, has a way of throwing up the most unexpected surprises. Nehru and others feared that the linguistic movement would lead to the division of India. It actually contributed to the deepening of Indian democracy. When Indira Gandhi imposed emergency rule in the ‘70s, many Indians such as myself—I was a university student back then—felt that democracy would never come back. And yet it came back. At the moment I feel we're in for a prolonged period of coalition governments. But who knows? In the next election, a single party might win 400 seats in parliament.

You point out that the major axes long which social conflict occurs in India include caste, language, class, religion and gender. Have any of these diminished over time?

I think amongst these, if seen historically from the ‘40s, the importance of language as a marker has diminished. The importance of religion, I think, is still important. But I don't think there is a fear anymore that India will become a Hindu state. I'd even say that the BJP has at least moderated some of its policies; for example, they recently had a Muslim woman as a vice presidential candidate. But I do think that caste and class remain important axes of discrimination and mobilization. For example, the movement against scheduled castes in the economic zone is basically about class. In the southern states you see conflicts between Dalits and the upward peasant castes. Gender enters into all of these. It's very rarely articulated in and by itself. The feminist movement in the American sense is really an urban middle class phenomenon. So, I suppose, gender does not really stand apart as an issue-based movement, as it would in America. There are exceptions, like the women's association in Ahmedabad, but even there, the rights of unorganized women workers will be clubbed with the rights of unorganized workers in general.

One issue that concerns many is the growing inequality in the sex ratio.

Absolutely. That's very grim, particularly in the states of Haryana and Punjab in the north and in parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh in the south. I mean, it's one of those cases where access to new medical technology has made gender discrimination more pronounced. It's quite worrisome.

Going back to Nehru, his economic policy had both defenders and detractors. But on the international front, India experienced setbacks in Kashmir and over non-alignment, lost a border war with China, and allegedly forfeited a permanent seat at the UN. Is it fair to say that Nehru's foreign policy, despite his worldwide renown, was a failure?

What would have been the alternative? Would it have been an open alignment with the West? Many of these policies were forced upon us by Nehru. For example, the Americans went into an arms pact with Pakistan in 1974. They trusted Pakistan and went against India, you know, even though India was a democracy. The strength of Indian democracy was never recognized, by the way. So the distance non-alignment provided was good because that way we could benefit from both sides. The problem was that the distance wasn't consistently kept. As I argued in my book, there was a double standard when we criticized the Anglo-French invasion in 1956 (Suez Canal crisis), but then failed to criticize the Soviet Union's invasion of Hungary the same year. So I think the problem sometimes was the application. I wouldn't say non-alignment was a failure. Even now Indian foreign policy is moving towards a neo-Nehruvian tradition. They prefer to align with the U.S. but also with the others—China and Russia—and get the best deal from all three. Considering the size of India, complete alignment with one superpower could be fatal. I mean, look at what happened to Britain because of Tony Blair's alliance—no, not an alliance but a kind of subordination to the United States. It cost him dearly, and it cost the British dearly. We're a much larger country than Britain, so I think independence in foreign policy is necessary.

Recently declassified CIA documents, while saying that the Chinese had duped Nehru, claim that China had wanted to humiliate him and India. They also show how India had bungled the '62 war right from the start. What do you make of it?

I think it's very difficult to assign blame in these conflicts and say that one party is good and another bad. Take Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan have a reasonable claim. It was the same in the dispute with China. I quote Nehru in my book where he says that these are new nations coming into their own and friction is inevitable. You know, that's a historian's take on it. Only partisans seek to assign blame and see everything in black and white. I think history and human relations are complex shades of grey, and the dispute with China was just that. In the eastern border, the Chinese had a strong case—that was Arunachal Pradesh. In the western border, India had a strong case but China's needs were greater. So they made a road across Ladakh to Tibet. They were willing to overlook India's claim over Arunachal Pradesh if the Indians overlooked China's transgression in the west. That could have been settled by compromise, but compromise is not possible because India is a democracy, and you couldn't solve it with negotiations. You had to share it with parliament—which means you'd have opposition MPs claiming that the Chinese didn't have claim to even one inch of Indian territory. It's true that the invasion came as a surprise and the military defeat was humiliating for the Indians.

With regard to Kashmir, some experts have said that the only viable solution at this stage is to turn the LOC (Line of Control) into a permanent boundary separating India and Pakistan. Any comments?���

The leader Sheikh Abdullah once described the valley of Kashmir as a beautiful woman desired by two males—India and Pakistan. And now there is a third suitor, the jihadis, complicating the situation even more. The popular movement is not in the hands of the Kashmiris but in the hands of global Islamic fundamentalists. I think the Indians would love to convert the LOC into an international border, but I don't think Pakistanis would accept it easily, because the idea that Kashmir has to be a part of Pakistan is so deeply interwoven in their national psyche—‘K' in Pakistan stands for Kashmir. So my sense is that it'd be very hard to sell that to the Pakistani public. The Indian government has taken some good steps recently. For a long time the Indians denied real democracy to Kashmir; the elections were rigged. But the last election was relatively free. Now this was followed by a steady decrease of troops in the valley. If there is some economic development and enterprise in the valley, then it's possible that the popular sentiment in the valley may be reconciled to the idea of living with India, which is after all much larger and growing economically. But I don't see this as likely. Tragically, I see Kashmir as a historian. I see the conflict carrying on for sometime yet.

You noted how the U.S. supported Pakistan when it suited them. Does recent material, such as the Nixon-Kissinger tapes released in 2005, revise our previous understanding of the American role in South Asia?

I don't think so. I think it only deepens it. The kind of remarks that Nixon made about Indians in general, and Indira Gandhi in particular, in those tapes [during the Indo-Pak war in ‘71] has only confirmed that the Republican government back then was deeply suspicious and resentful of India.

Fascinating as your book is to the general reader, one is struck by the emphasis on politics. There is not much on non-political trends like popular culture and sports.

Yeah, I think it's true that politics played an important role in my book, but the politics itself is understood or resurrected to a sociological level. So the various leaders are seen in the context of that particular language group, caste, class, region or ethnicity. So it's political and social history. There probably should have been more on culture, but as I say, the idea of this book is to open up the field for more intensive research by other scholars. Each of my chapters should be a book, and many of the sections in my chapters should be books. Some topics not mentioned in my book should be books. Independent India's history has been shamefully neglected by both Indian and foreign historians. The thriving historical discourse is obsessively focused on the period of the Raj between 1757 and 1947. To cover everything, I'd have to write 9000 pages rather than 900 pages!

With the young adopting English and increasingly following Western ways, do you feel that vernacular languages and traditional Indian culture will suffer? Also, does the widening gap between the metropolitan elite and the rest pose new challenges for the nation?

I think these are connected because the metropolitan elite is not just Indian. They also aspire to a global lifestyle, which is the other part. Their number is growing, with a rising middle class now accounting for 200 to 300 million people. They have to deal with the challenges of retaining our languages and culture. I think some aspects will remain. I think there is no threat to Indian cuisine, for example. About 15 years ago when economic revolution first started in India, Kentucky Fried Chicken opened an outlet in Bangalore. Some anti-globalization activists went in and broke all the windows. But, in fact, many Indians in Bangalore prefer to eat Chettinad chicken or tandoori chicken or Kerala prawn curry. Our cuisine is so rich that nothing can threaten it. Our film industry has successfully withstood competition from Hollywood. Cricket will always be India's national sport. We will never succumb to baseball. In some ways, Indian classical music is enjoying a great revival. But there are other aspects. Language is the most important one. Multilingualism is, I think, under threat from English. You can't stop English. I mean, it's desired, it's a vehicle, it's an entry into the modern world, it's a way to employment. So English will spread and it'd be foolish to stop it. But ways could be found, through teaching and communication, of adding other languages to English.

Finally, you point out that India's appeal to the U.S. these days is primarily economic. What about other factors like the rise of terrorism, acting as a counterweight to China, and Pakistan's growing instability?

Acting as a counterweight to China, I'd say, is important. Indians also want that. I'm not sure about terrorism, because Indians have gone their own way. The BJP wanted to join the ‘war on terror' and send troops to Iraq, but the bulk of Indian opinion was against it. So I don't think Indians are aligned with the Americans in that sense. Americans know that the Indians will not commit troops in the way that, say, the Australians did. Indians are cultivating Americans because, at some level, they want the Chinese to know that they have other options—which is a smart thing to do. The economic reason you mentioned can also be understood through the rising influence of the Indian American diaspora and their greater visibility in American politics. Their association with funding activities, senators and so on is important. I think that makes American foreign policy more oriented towards India. I think we should discount the fact that these two nations are democracies. That's more about rhetoric, because foreign policy is never about ideology. The Americans supported Pakistan even though Pakistan was not a democracy and India was; so I think that's the least of it. Another reason is the Indian elite. Many are going to (or have gone to) American universities. Previously, they'd go to Oxford or Cambridge. Now they go to Harvard and Yale. And then there is the Indian business elite—the people who run Wipro, TCS (Tata Consultancy Services), Infosys and so on. Since their business is so intertwined with America, they're naturally interested in maintaining good relations.���


Bye, bye, BANGALORE. Here comes BENGALURU. Why not? says Guha.

Bangalore, arguably the most globalized Indian city today, is known the world over as India's Silicon Valley. The city's name is, in fact, often used as a verb to evoke the phenomenon of outsourcing. So doesn't calling it Bengaluru, now that the Indian government has approved the name change, seem chauvinistic? It doesn't, feels Guha, using the sort of counter intuitive reasoning that makes him such a stimulating writer.

"The arguments for renaming it Bengaluru were recessive," Guha told Khabar. "It is a global city but it's also a Kannada city and the capital of a state founded in the interest of the Kannada people. Other Indian cities have also changed their names. You know, they're not asking for 50 percent of the jobs in the state. Now that would be really chauvinistic and it'd hurt the economy and efficiency and it'd be discriminatory against Indians. But this is a symbolic change. It's a trivial demand and if you oppose it with intensity and anger, then you'll be faced with other serious demands. It may come to that if the metropolitan elite is arrogant in its treatment of local sentiment.

"So while I agree that nativism and chauvinism can be dangerous, there needs to be a distinction when it comes to this kind of symbolic nativism. The name change is a legitimate demand because it's the logical culmination of the formation of linguistic states. That doesn't stop you and me from calling it Bangalore in our everyday conversation. The postman won't refuse to deliver it because it's not Mumbai. So I think the multiple names can continue."

By Murali Kamma

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