A book review Ramchandra Guha may want to forget

Bloody Hell, even in Shillong one can’t escape Ramchandra Guha. In the dusty magazine shop in Laitumkhrah, a magazine unleashes his 60th Birthday. In mostly collegial banter and luvvies, you can discover that he is from Doon School, St Stephens, a Dylan fan, a cricket enthusiast, failed UPSC aspirant, historian, prose stylist, liberal without his brahmin pony tail(okay nowhere is his caste mentioned, but with such pedigree he can only be a Brahmin). You can’t escape Ram (that’s what they call him) for he has been one of the most visible of the breed called ‘public’ intellectuals. Even though he wants Muslims to jettison their burqas and skull caps, Naxals their revolutionary anthem, Ambedkar his followers, Sardar Sarovar its Sardar, Kashmiris their whatever, North East its fascination with KPop, Ram as the nightwatchman of contemporary Indian Liberalism deserves this thick vanity birthday card.  Everybody loves a good cover after all. World’s largest democracy (WLD) which can conduct regular elections can not grudge him that.

And then whatsapp brings forth an invitation for the pre Birthday party to which we are not invited. First we are in Shillong and then we are not supported by New India Foundation of which along with Aadhaar Nilekani, Ram is one of the trustees. This intellectual orgy of a Birthday party leaves us festering in our swamp of marginality. We also want to be there. We want to be The Ornithologist Amongst the Powerful.

So then what should we pack as a present for Ram? A ballot box someone suggests. But that would be too obvious. Why not a text from his intellectual history? So dear raiot-readers here is a response to Ram’s Sahitya Akademi Award winning ‘magisterial’ eulogy to the WLD, India After Gandhi reviewed by Sanjay Kak and first published by Biblio magazine in 2007. 


Ramachandra Guha is among Indias’ most visible intellectuals, and his newspaper columns and television appearances mark him off from the more reticent world of academic historians. At 900 pages his new book India after Gandhi is not shy of claiming its own space on the bookshelf: from it’s title page, where it announces itself as “The History of the World’s Largest Democracy” (not A History, mind you, but The History); to it’s end papers, which tells us that the author’s entire career seems in retrospect to have been preparation for the writing of this book.

So first the happy tidings from the back of the book: things in India (after Gandhi, that is) are overall okay. They could be better, he agrees, but for now we must be satisfied with what the Hindi cinema comic actor Johny Walker kept us amused with: phiphty-phiphty. For those hungry for a modern historical understanding – or even an argued opinion – on 60 years of the Indian Republic, this piece of dissimulation is an early sign of things to come.

There are some notable features of the paths by which The Historian arrives at this facile and frivolous conclusion of fifty-fifty. The first is that all that is troubling and challenging in the short history of this republic is co-opted into the nationalistic narratives of ‘success’ and ‘victory’, turning our very wounds into badges of honour. “At no other time or place in human history” he says, “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”.

I can think of at least five issues that have bedeviled India all the way from 1947 which simply fail this assertion: Kashmir, Manipur, Nagaland, Naxalism, and of course, Dalit rights. These are at the head of a very long list which seriously challenge Guhas’ assertion that the Indian nation has been successful at even addressing conflicts, leave alone dealing or managing them. I use the word ‘successful’ here because justice has not even appeared on the horizon on most of these fronts.

Right at the outset of the book he lets us know that the real success story of modern India lies “not in the domain of economics, but in that of politics”. So it’s not the software boom that he offers for approval, but Indias’ political success as a democracy. Politics for him is, in the main, narrowly defined, and remains the domain of parliamentary politics. From Prologue to Epilogue, Guha vicariously digs out every negative prediction ever made for India’s future as a democracy, and then since India has had elections for 50 years, turns it into a vindication of it’s democracy.

No surprise then, that it’s the romance of the Indian elections for which he reserves his unqualified enthusiasm. Every General Election since 1951 is celebrated in tourist-brochure speak, so by 1967, elections no longer are a “top-dressing on inhospitable soil”, they are “part of Indian life, a festival with it’s own set of rituals, enacted every five years”. As evidence we are offered statistics of large turnouts, and accounts of colourful posters and slogans. By the 1971 polls, the logistics are offered in giddy detail: “342,944 polling stations, each station with forty-three different items, from ballot papers and boxes to indelible ink and sealing wax; 282 million ballot papers printed, 7 million more than were needed…”.

Extract from a response by Jaitirth Rao to the review of the book

To so easily substitute ‘election’ for ‘democracy’, to be preoccupied with the procedural – rather than the substantive­ – aspects of democracy, and indeed of politics, is conceptually problematic, and not a mistake any serious scholar of politics would make. The obsession with parliamentary democracy, with its first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all bias, also means that descriptions of India’s recent political history remain here focused on those in Parliamentary Power, and at best, those in Parliamentary Opposition. But when he has to deal with the more fundamental questions raised about Indian democracy from outside of this, by the Naxalites in the 1960s, or by Jaya Prakash Narayan and Sampoorn Kranti in the 1970s, or indeed the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the 1990s, Guha seems to lose his way, and his enthusiasm for ‘politics’ is more subdued.

A second clue as to how he reaches here seems to lie in methodology, and Guha explicitly states his: to privilege primary sources over retrospective readings, and “thus to interpret an event of, say, 1957, in terms of what is known in 1957, rather than 2007”. One of the reasons he cites for this is the paucity in India of a good history of India after Gandhi: by training and temperament, he says of Indian historians, they have “restricted themselves to the period before Independence”. So combine this ascribed lack of historical interest with Guhas’ own stated preference for ‘primary’ sources: together they lay out before him a vast – and clearly unchallenged – canvas.

This is a curious methodological assertion. With the exception of some primary sources (and some first-time sources, like the PN Haksar papers) the bulk of the book seems to draw upon the excellent work of at least two generations of historians and social scientists. The copious Notes at the back of the book happily acknowledge at least some of this to be so. With the work before us of Sumit Sarkar, Partho Chatterjee, Rajni Kothari, Tanika Sarkar, Yogendra Yadav, Zoya Hassan, Christopher Jafferlot (amongst others), why does Guha pronounce this area to be a tabula rasa, one that this book alone bravely sets out to fill?

Ramchandra Guha’s earlier book on Verrier Elwin was proof of his dexterous use of archival material, and over the years his newspaper columns have been rich with his joyful – even eccentric­ – use of the archive. Here too he locates some nuggets, which its sources may now well want returned to the darkness of the archive. In 1944, the Bombay Plan, mooted by a group of leading industrialists, making a case for ‘an enlargement of the positive functions of the State’, going so far as to say that ‘the distinction between capitalism and socialism has lost much of it’s significance from a practical standpoint’. In 1966, as groups of Mizo National Front rebels appear ready to storm at least two towns in Mizoram, the strafing of Lungleh by the air force, the first time that air power had been used by the Indian State against it’s own citizens. Or in 1977 India’s favourite businessman, JRD Tata, speaking to a foreign journalist during the dark days of the Emergency, finding that things had gone too far, adding that ‘The parliamentary system is not suited to our needs’.

But this history by bricolage inevitably ends up with embarrassingly ahistoric conclusions. For example, to bolster his own naïve view that “Rural India was pervaded by an air of timelessness” at the time of Independence, he quotes a British official writing in an official publication in 1944: ‘there is the same plainness of life, the same wrestling with uncertainties of climate… the same love of simple games, sport and songs, the same neighbourly helpfulness…” I don’t doubt that this qualifies as ‘contemporary narrative’, but surely even within the impoverished state of Indian social science that Guha seems to encounter, he has heard of enough respectable scholarship, that contests – and even confounds – this static image of the “Indian” countryside? The peasant rebellions, the tribal movements, the caste conflicts?

What this often results in is a naïve – even absurd – acceptance of what is described to us by the privileged ‘contemporary narrative’. “Living away from home helped expand the mind, as in the case of a farm labourer from UP who became a factory worker in Bombay and learnt to love the city’s museums, its collections of Gandhara art especially”. This is no doubt true for this exceptional individual, but does this aid our understanding of the processes of rural deprivation and urbanization that translate into the journey from village in Uttar Pradesh to textile factory in Mumbai? (And where did that worker go, refined sensibilities and all, once the textile mills began to shut down in the 1980s?)

And when Nehru formally inaugurates the Bhakra dam in 1954, “for 150 miles the boisterous celebration spread like a chain reaction along the great canal…” Because Guha is committed to understanding 1954 in its own terms, we’re often left just there, in 1954, without the illuminating oxygen of contemporary scholarship on the Bhakra dam and its consequences, for both the people displaced by the dam (still without re-settlement 50 years on) or for the land and waters of Punjab (now feeling the ill effects of the massive hydraulic meddling and its handmaiden, the ‘Green Revolution’.) At such moments we must be forgiven for feeling that we are rifling through the brittle pages of an official, sarkari history of India.

Where official archives and histories don’t exist, the excessive – and selective –reliance on newspapers and journals seems even less convincing. Who amongst us has not read the newspaper of the day about an issue or event that we know about and understand, and not despaired at the errors and biases inherent? Who amongst us has not shuddered at the thought of some future historian trawling the pages of the Times of India and the Indian Express and forming a narrative of what is happening in India in 2007?

Through the book, Guha’s writing on Kashmir, for example, is peppered with insights from a journal called Thought, apparently published out of Delhi. Forgive me, but what was Thought? Insights extracted from such narratives can be useful to the historian, but also highly problematic, unless we can contextualize them, compare them with other assessments, and understand the nature of the biases we are dealing with. Otherwise we are simply left with arbitrary assessments of shaky provenance: in1965, of Lal Bahadur Shastri, second Prime Minister of India, who gets a positive appraisal by the Guardian newspapers’ Delhi correspondent, as well as a condescending exchange of letters between two ex-ICS men: “I can’t imagine Shastri has the stature to hold things together… What revolting times we live in!”

Guhas’ selective dependence on ‘contemporary’ narratives, and his distaste of politics that is not ‘parliamentary’ comes through most clearly in his treatment of Jaya Prakash Narayan. He musters the following: RK Patil, a former ICS officer who asks of JP: “What is the scope of Satyagraha and direct action in a formal democracy like ours…? By demanding the dismissal of a duly elected assembly, argued Patil, the Bihar agitation is both unconstitutional and undemocratic”. To this Guha adds the opinions of the “eminent Quaker” Joe Elder, who hectors JP on launching a mass movement “without a cadre of disciplined non-violent volunteers”. And finally, Indira Gandhi herself, who dismisses JP as a “political naif… who would have been better off sticking to social work.” With such a slanted set of ‘contemporary’ narratives, it’s no surprise who Guha is able to pin the blame on for the tumult of those years, asserting that the honours for imposing the Emergency should henceforth be equally shared between Indira Gandhi and Jaya Prakash Narayan!

For the first 600 pages of his chronicle, Guha piles up the bricks and artifacts of this structure sort of chronologically, 1947 through to 1987. Then quite arbitrarily he announces a change in tack, moving from ‘history’ to ‘historically informed journalism’. He approvingly cites the thirty-year rule of archives, adding grandly, that as a historian “one also needs a generation’s distance. That much time must elapse before one can place those events in a pattern, to see them away and apart, away from the din and clamour of the present”.

The claim of ‘history’ and ‘historically informed journalism’ is at once too strong for either section of the book. Because if indeed the section from 1987 onwards is ‘historically informed’ then shouldn’t history actually inform our understanding? Should this method not prepare us for some things: the emergence of the non-Congress governments; of Kanshi Ram-Mayawati and the BSP; for Liberalisation and India’s relationship with the International Financial Institutions? Why then does each of these appear on the horizon of this book fully formed, with no lead-ins or alerts?

The relentless, even plodding attempt at being comprehensive, and the dizzying collation of disparate facts, seems to tire Guha out too, and then his usually elegant prose begins to flag, and the ideas it carries become tedious, eventually grinding down to a sort-of Year Book listing of significant facts and figures, people and events. In a chapter called ‘Rights’ (and which in news-magazine style is followed by sections called ‘Riots’, ‘Rulers’ and ‘Riches’), a brief 28 pages races us through Caste, the Mandal Commission and Dalit assertion; and an update on the conflicts in Assam, Punjab, Kashmir, Manipur, and Nagaland! But wait, there is also demography and gender – in a single paragraph that begins with “there was also a vigorous feminist movement” and then deals with the women’s movement in 15 lines. Tribal rights fares a little better than Women’s rights (or perhaps worse, I’d say fifty-fifty): it just crosses a page, much of it about the Narmada Bachao Andolan, where the 18 year old history of the Andolan is reduced to it’s leader, “a woman named Medha Patkar”, who we are told, “organized the tribals in a series of colourful marches… to demand justice from the mighty government of India”. And then, “The leader herself engaged in several long fasts to draw attention to the sufferings of her flock”.

This is India’s most well-known non-violent resistance movement, engaged in articulating the largest internal displacement in our recent history, and in case you had missed anything, it’s her flock. Without prejudice to either Vogue or Cosmopolitan, this condescension could probably never even make it to their pages, and defies belief in a work of history written in the 21st century. Apart from the fact that the NBA is only one of the hundreds of people’s resistance movements in India, many of whom are in the front ranks of the struggle against neo-imperialism.

Quite early in the book, in assessing the historian KN Pannikar’s opinions of Mao Zedong, Guha reminds us that “Intellectuals have always had a curious fascination for the man of power”. He then puts on display his own unseemly fascination with Power, with History from Above. (With a few exceptions, even the small selection of haphazardly organized pictures in the first edition of the book seems fixated by the man – or woman – of power, from Lord Mountbatten to Amitabh Bachhan.) This I suppose is symptomatic, this disinterest, even condescension, towards the fragile and powerless, and this is what finally prevents his version of history from illuminating our times. Because the powerless may not always be so, and ‘historically informed journalism’ would need to tell us what brought Laloo Prasad Yadav, and Mayawati to us. Even what preceded Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan. (What forms of Adivasi and other organization made their movement possible? And what in its turn did the NBA make possible, not in the struggle against large dams alone, but in creating a climate in which the resistance to SEZs can be contemplated today?)

For in the privileging of the ‘primary’, the question is, what are your ‘primary’ sources? Will they be restricted to the libraries of the India Office, London and the Nehru Memorial, New Delhi, or are they going to go beyond? Will we, for example, look at Urdu papers in Srinagar (and Muzafarabad) to understand what was happening in Kashmir from 1947 to 1987? Will we look at Dalit Hindi language little magazines to understand the phenomenon of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati? Because if we don’t do that, The History of the World’s Largest Democracy – like the Indian State – will continually be surprised by the events and consequences of the day to day history of the little in this country.

In the past, however arguable his ideas, Guhas’ prose has been highly readable. But here, hobbled by some Herculean compulsions to be comprehensive, to reduce everything down to the manageable scale of one grand narrative, ambition eventually does damage to his book. Impatient with the increasingly workmanlike narrative, but determined to see it to it’s end, I found myself drifting into marginalia: for example Guha’s peculiar obsession with certain kinds of academic pedigree. Jawaharlal Nehru was of course a “student at Cambridge”, and so was the “Cambridge educated physicist” Homi Bhabha. Krishna Menon and P N Haksar are identically “educated at the London School of Economics”. P C Mahalanobis is “a Cambridge-trained physicist and statistician, Saif Tyabji too is “an engineer educated at Cambridge”, and of course, Manmohan Singh has “written a Oxford D Phil thesis”. I’m then curious as to the reasons why the same insight is not provided to us for Acharya Kriplani, Ram Manohar Lohia, Shiekh Abdullah, Zakir Hussain; or for Indira Gandhi, Kanshi Ram, Mayawati, or even Medha Patkar? Of course, BR Ambedkar makes it, because he has “doctorates from Columbia and London University”. Jagjiwan Ram scrapes through because he is the first Harijan from his village to go to High School, and then onto Benares Hindu University. (Equal Opportunity in the New Republic!) Kamaraj doesn’t, but he does get a fuller description: “K Kamaraj… born in a low-caste family in the Tamil country… was a thick-set man with a white mustache… he looked like a cross between Sonny Liston and the Walrus”. I looked in vain for an equally entertaining description of former President APJ Abdul Kalam.

If these obsessions with pedigree were the only things impeding my reading of the book, there would be little to worry about. But armed with the dangerous licence of ‘historically informed journalism’ for the crucial last two decades of his book, he seems at liberty to comment without even the minimum disciplines of ‘history’. To take one example, he draws together what he thinks of as “the two critical events that… defined the epoch of competitive fundamentalisms: the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits” (from Kashmir). He then goes on to make the astonishing comment: “Would one trust a state that could not honour its commitment to protect an ancient place of worship? Would one trust a community that so brutally expelled those of a different faith?” Neither needs to be established, both are stated as a priori facts.

He sees a striking similarity between the two pogroms he acknowledges in independent India: that directed at the Sikhs in Delhi in 1984 and at the Muslims of south Gujarat in 2002. “Both began as a response to a single, stray act of violence committed by members of the minority community. Both proceeded to take a generalized revenge on the minorities as a whole”. Guha is careful to quickly wipe his sleeve, and draw attention to the innocence of the victims, but I do wish he had shared with us what was the “single, stray act of violence” committed by minority Muslims in Gujarat? After all, the jury on the terrible burning of the train in Godhra is still out, is it not?

At another point he describes the protests against the acquisition of land by the Tatas in Kalinganagar, Orissa, where in the first week of 2006, “a group of tribals demolished the boundary wall provoking the police to open fire. The tribals placed the bodies of these martyrs on the highway and held up traffic for a week ”. How does he establish who was provoking whom, and how?

Or what can explain his saying, about the aftermath of Sant Harchand Singh Longowals’ killing, in Punjab in 1988: “The sant’s assassination was a harbinger of things to come with a new generation of terrorists taking up the struggle for Khalistan”. I carefully looked over at least a dozen references to the troubles in the Punjab in his book, there are never Militants, always “Terrorists”.

The point of bringing together these instances is simply to underline the inherently establishment nature of the positions taken by Ramachandra Guha’s History. This sometimes leads him to places the intelligent reporter – leave alone the historian – would not want to be stuck in. About the early 1990s in Kashmir he says: “As the valley came to resemble a zone of occupation, popular sentiment rallied to the jihadi cause. Terrorists mingled easily with the locals, and were given refuge before or after their actions”. Once again: hugely contested words like ‘Jehadi’ and ‘Terrorist’, which scholars the world over are cracking their brains over, slip off like the slipshod words of television anchors.

And finally, on the difficulties of nurturing secularism in India in the aftermath of Partition, Guha says: “The creation of an Islamic state on India’s borders was a provocation to those Hindus who themselves wished to merge faith with state”. Does one need to repeat here that the RSS, with its fascist ideology borrowed directly from Mussolini, and it’s ideal of a Hindu-rashtra, was set up in 1925, and long preceded the idea of the Islamic State of Pakistan. But Guha dives in head first: “My own view – speaking as a historian rather than citizen – is that as long as Pakistan exists there will be Hindu fundamentalists in India”. Can such a completely ahistoric assertion make its place into a history? And then remain unchallenged by historians, commentators and reviewers in the India of 2007?

Incredibly, in the last few pages of the book, Guha does admit that only in three-quarters of the “total land mass claimed by the Indian nation” does the elected government enjoy a legitimacy of power and authority, and only here do they feel themselves to be part of a single nation. How then does this admission that in a quarter of the World’s Largest Democracy people are substantially alienated from the Nation sit with his insistence on phiphty-phiphty? At what point will our historians ring the alarm bells? When Half the nation is holding the Other Half by force? When it really reaches fifty-fifty?

From the books’ well-publicised entry into the world we learn that the author has spent the last eight years working on it. I too seem to have coincidentally spent the same years ruminating on the World’s Largest Democracy, not as a historian, but as a film-maker, and not with the grand purpose of this book for certain, but just fishing in it’s troubled margins: first in the Narmada valley, and then in Kashmir. Like many others who are somewhat bewildered at events around us, and have failed to join in the celebration of democracy this August, the book is an important marker. It demands to be read seriously, and it’s flaws and omissions ask to be taken seriously by us. Because, in our tumultuous times, when change is fast forcing all of us to choose sides, fifty-fifty has to be seen as too cautious an answer, so safe as to translate into an almost mathematically calibrated cowardice.

What then does the book represent? It’s timed for the celebrations of the 60th year of Indian Independence, and arrives amidst the giddy hosannas to India’s success as a democracy, and our newly unfolding status as an emerging economic power. The recent enthusiasm to burnish our ‘shining’ democracy is, as we all know, tightly tied in with the desire to set India up as a next destination of global capital. (Essentially, India 1, China 0). So the grinding poverty, the dispossession, the cruelty and oppression are made charming, and discord and chaos is turned into a tribute to our democratic credentials. For all the book’s sophistry then, Ramachandra Guha emerges as the chronicler of India Shining. In this season where we celebrate Indian democracy, surely a reassuring book to pass on to CEOs and investors at the next Davos.




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Sanjay Kak Written by:

Sanjay Kak is an independent documentary film-maker, whose recent films include Jashn-e-Azadi (How we celebrate freedom) and Red Ant Dream. He is also the editor of the critically acclaimed anthologies Until My Freedom Has Come - The New Intifada in Kashmir, and the photobook Witness - Kashmir 1986-2016, 9 photographers.

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