The New York Times has referred to him as ‘perhaps the best among India’s non fiction writers’; Time Magazine has called him ‘Indian democracy’s preeminent chronicler’. Meet Ramachandra Guha, one of the few intellectuals in India, who is a liberal in the classic sense of the term.
He has pioneered three distinct fields of historical inquiry: environmental history (as in The Unquiet Woods, 1989), the social history of sport (A Corner of a Foreign Field, 2002), and contemporary history (India after Gandhi, 2007). He is currently working on a multi-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi.
His latest book Patriots and Partisans (Penguin/Allen Lane Rs 699) is a collection of 15 essays based mostly on all that has gone wrong in modern India.
“Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre… He has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession,” he says in this interview to Vivek Kaul.
You write that “Indian constitution had always been impalatable to the Marxist-Lenninists since it did not privilege a particular party(their own), and Hindu radicals since it did not privilege a particular faith (their own).” Can you discuss that in a little detail?
Marxist-Leninists the world over believe in a state run for and by a single party, their own. Hence the problems encountered by the Communist Party of China, which is paranoid that a call for freedom and democratic rights will lead to the dismantling of their monopoly. Indian Marxist-Leninists are no exception. The Naxalites fantasize about planting the Red Flag on the Red Fort. Even the CPI(M) still somewhere believes that one day it will be the sole party in control in India.
And what about Hindu radicals?
A core belief of the RSS(Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh) is in a Hindu Rashtra, a state run and for Hindus. Muslims and Christians in this scenario have always to prove their loyalty, in fact, they have to acknowledge their distant or proximate, real or fictitious, origins in a Hindu family and in Hindu culture. When the NDA came to power, under the influence of the RSS they constituted a Constitutional Review Commission. Knowing that the former Chief Justice, M. N. Venkatachaliah, was a practising Hindu with a profound knowledge of the scriptures, they asked him to head the Commission, hoping he would advocate amendments in the direction they desired. To their dismay, Justice Venkatachaliah said the secular Constitution of India was completely sound.
Which is a bigger threat to India, naxalism or Hindu bigotry?
In the 1990s, Hindu bigotry; now, Naxalism. Things may yet again change, or an altogether new threat may emerge. Historians cannot predict!
In one of your essays you talk about the senior Congress leader Gulzari Lal Nanda, who was twice the acting Prime Minister of India, dying in a small flat in Allahabad. You also talk about Lal Bahadur Shastri to highlight how upright Indian politicians used to be. What has made them so corrupt over the years?
Ironically, leaders of the CPI and CPI(M), despite their strange and archaic ideology, are perhaps the least corrupt of Indian politicians. They do not have Swiss bank accounts and do not sup with corporates. The compulsions of election funding, the state’s control over natural resources (including land), and sheer venality and greed have encouraged leaders of all other parties to become grossly wealthy by abusing their office.
There remain exceptions. Manmohan Singh is completely honest in a personal sense (though complicit in the corruption of his party and government). And there still remain some outstandingly upright judges, IAS officers, and Generals. The day his term ended, Justice Venkatachaliah moved out of his Lutyens bungalow in New Delhi and returned to his modest home in Bangalore. Others would have at least stayed on for the six months allowed for by the law, using that period to lobby for another sarkari post with perquisites.
You also suggest that if Lal Bahadur Shastri would have been around for sometime more India would have been different country than what it is today. Could you elaborate on that a little bit?
Shastri has been greatly under-rated both as politician and Prime Minister. It was he who laid the foundations of the Green Revolution (although Indira Gandhi took the credit). He was a far more focused leader in defence and military matters than his mentor, Nehru. He had initiated moves to open out the economy and encourage entrepreneurship. And he was scrupulously honest and completely non-sectarian. Had he lived another five or ten years India may today be a less discontented democracy and a less corrupt society.
Normally when people want to refer to dynasty politics in India they talk about the Nehru Gandhi family. You say it should be just the Gandhi family. Why do you say that?
I show in my book, with concrete evidence, that the dynasty originated with Indira Gandhi, not Nehru. I think this dynasty is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation. And Rahul Gandhi is completely mediocre. Rajiv at least had a vision–of making India a technologically sophisticated society. Sonia has enormous stamina and determination. Rahul has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.
Has chamchagiri increased in the Congress party over the years? Are the chamchas of Sonia Gandhi bigger chamchas than the chamchas of Rajiv, Sanjay and Indira Gandhi?
Quite possibly. As there is less to go around, there is more active chamchagiri to get what remains. The cult around 10 Janpath in Congress circles is sickening.
Are the Internet Hindus the new kar sevaks?
Yes and no. They have the same bigoted worldview and fanatical fervour of the kar sevaks, but express this through the safe medium of the Web. The kar sevaks had more raw energy, travelling to Ayodhya, provoking riots on the way there and on the way back. The Internet Hindus are as narrow-minded and sectarian as the kar sevaks, but, since their abuse is verbal and not physical, far less dangerous.
Gurucharan Das talks about the need for a new party which understands the Indian middle class in his new book India Grows At Night. You also make a slight mention in one of the essays. Do you see that happening? Does the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) look like filling in that gap?
The anti-corruption protests of 2011 were an important wake-up call to large sections of Indian society, not just the politicians. However, for the energy and passion to have a substantial and enduring impact, the movement must stay focused, and be patient. Too much media attention is inimical to solid grassroots work. The leaders of AAP should, for the moment, stay away from TV studios and build state-level units and forge alliances with civil society groups across India. To fight the next General Elections would be foolish and premature. They should aim rather to make an impact in the General Elections of 2019.
Over the years have we become less liberal as a society than we were before?
It may not be accurate to say that we have become less liberal as a society. On the whole, Indians are more aware of the rights of Dalits and women than they were 50 or 60 years ago. Sectarian religious sentiments on the ground are markedly less intense and polarizing than they were 10 or 15 years ago. At the same time, the media only gives space to extreme positions. And the state capitulates to bigots when it should stand up to them. This capitulation is sadly true of all parties.
Why did the UPA encourage India’s greatest artist to flee into exile? Could it not protect his life and dignity in his own homeland? Why did the Left Front not provide protection to Taslima Nasreen? The tragedy is that the so-called secular parties cave in most easily to the sectarians and the bigots—the Congress to the Hindu right, the Congress and the Left to the Muslim right, the NCP and the Congress in Maharashtra to the Shiv Sainiks.
Could you elaborate on that?
About four years ago, I wrote a piece in a Delhi newspaper known to be read by senior Congress leaders and Ministers. I said there than when the next Republic Day awards were announced, the Government should give MF Hussain the Bharat Ratna and Salman Rushdie the Padma Vibhushan. This would be just reward, no less than their artistic and literary genius deserved. It would strike a blow for artistic and literary freedom. And it would simultaneously insult Hindutvawadis and the mullahs. The rest of India (namely, the majority of Indians) would praise the Government, and the bigots would be speechless, the Hindutvawadis not knowing whether to praise the Government for honouring Rushdie or abuse it for honouring Hussain, and the mullahs confused in the other direction.
But that moment has now passed…
Sadly, Hussain is now dead, the moment has passed, and one does not see the Government—any government—stand up boldly for liberal and democratic values. This is the tragic paradox—that while society as a whole may be becoming slightly more liberal, the further progress of liberalism is halted by the encouragement to illiberal forces by the state and political parties.
The interview originally appeared in www.firstpost.com on December 17,2012
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])
My standard tenth exams got over on March 12, 1993. It was late evening, around 6pm, and I was having a vanilla ice-cream (or was it chocolate I don’t remember) in a cone along with some of my friends standing outside Firayalal, the premier shopping destination for clothes in the city of Ranchi, where I grew up.
A small kid started pestering me to buy a copy of Sandhya Ranchi Express, an evening newspaper that had been recently launched. I tried to shoo him away. He wouldn’t go and was determined to sell the last copy that he had.
The trouble was I did not have a single rupee in my pocket. My parents never came around to the idea of giving me pocket money, being forever bothered that I would use it to buy the music cassette of the latest Hindi film, which was one of the two interests I had at that point of time. The other one being religiously listening to Cibaca Sangeet Mala, a countdown show of Hindi film songs hosted by the one and only Ameen Sayani every Monday on the government owned radio channel Vividh Bharti (He started with Radio Ceylon and during the later years moved to Vividh Bharti).
My friend Anshuman, who had also paid for the ice-cream (if I remember correctly), first gave me a stare and then a one rupee coin. I bought the newspaper. A small piece of news which seemed to have been inserted at the last moment as the paper went to press talked about bomb blasts in Bombay (now Mumbai).
Those were the days when evening newspapers were not meant to be taken seriously. They usually had their share of masala and gossip. I thought the news about the blast was not true and would have just been put in to hopefully sell a few copies more.
In fact I was sure of this primarily because all kinds of news that appeared in the local newspapers. A few days after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, a local newspaper had even gone to the extent of reporting that he was alive, living in the United States of America (USA) and having fun there.
The news about the blasts in Bombay turned out to be true. By the time I reached home, people had tuned into BBC Radio on the short wave and confirmed the same. Those were the days when people did not believe in anything unless they had heard it on the BBC (and if not them, someone else they knew had because it was not always easy to tune into the right frequency).
The evening news on Doordarshan, first in Hindi and then in English, also reported on the blasts. I went to sleep peacefully that night, the first time since January 29, when I had started preparing for my tenth standard exams, on the day Vinod Ganpat Kambli made his test debut and batted ahead of his schoolmate Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. The blasts in what was a ‘far away’ Bombay did not effect a small town boy who was just happy that his exams were done and out of the way.
Investigations soon revealed that the blasts were carried out on the orders of the much feared Dawood Ibrahim, the mafia don who ruled what was then Bombay. By the time the news of his involvement came out, Ibrahim had left the country , never to come back. It is said that Ibrahim carried out the blasts to revenge the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed against the Muslim population in the city of Bombay.
Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished on December 6, 1992, twenty years to this day. I clearly remember that rumours were abuzz in the colony that we lived in, about the Masjid having been brought down. The rumour mongers used the usual ploy of saying “BBC par bol diya hai (they have said it on the BBC)” to give a kind of an authenticity to what they were trying to spread.
But cable television had already arrived by then. We had got a connection on February 22, 1992, on the day India lost to England in Benson and Hedges cricket World Cup being played in Australia and New Zealand.
Earlier on the same day the New Zealand captain Martin Crowe had surprised the entire cricket fraternity by asking the off spinner Dipak Patel to open the bowling in the match against Australia. Something like this had never happened before.
And it was on cable TV we got some confirmation of the Babri Masjid having been brought down. The BBC (television and not radio) showed some kar sevaks getting on the dome of the Babri Masjid and starting to hit it with rods and hammers.
Lal Krishna Advani of the Bhartiya Janata Party and Ashok Singhal of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad could be seen rushing towards the disputed structure and asking kar sevaks to stop what they were doing. Whether they really meant it or not is something even they won’t be able to tell.
Those were the only visuals of that were broadcast on the BBC. In fact from what I remember it was not BBC’s original footage and they were broadcasting a tape that was put together by news agency ANI. The media was thrown out soon after the kar sevaks starting demolishing the Masjid and those are the only visuals that anyone ever got of the Masjid being brought down.
The only other news show was on Doordarshan and nobody of course believed what they were reporting. So people would tune into BBC on their cable television and waited with a baited breath to hear something being reported on the scene in Ayodhya and the riots that had broken out in different parts of the country in the aftermath of the Masjid being brought down. Given that a lot of people did not have cable television, they waited with a baited breath in homes of people who had it.
Schools, colleges and offices had been closed down and a curfew had been imposed on the city of Ranchi. Shoot at sight orders had also been given. But we were safe inside the confines of the CMPDI colony. I was advised to start preparing for my tenth standard exams which were due in less than three months time. I remember studying some Chemistry or at least pretending to, just to ensure that my mother did not bother me too much. And I was really kicked to know that the word Oxygen is an oxymoron. But being the news junkie that I was, I was more interested in all the rumours that were going around rather than studying for my tenth standard exams.
Most of the people around me were happy at what had happened. “Advani ji ne kar dikhaya (Advani ji has got it done),” was an oft repeated phrase. People also talked about the time when Advani had come visiting us in October 1990.
Advani was on his Rath Yatra across the country starting from the Somnath Temple in Gujarat on September 25, 1990. He arrived late one night to stay “overnight” in the guest house in our colony primarily because there wasn’t a hotel good enough for him in the city of Ranchi. At least, that’s what the rumour was.
In fact, in the years to come I saw a spate of BJP leaders from Atal Behari Vajpayee (who was sitting in the front seat of a Maruti Omni), Murli Manohar Joshi and the late Pramod Mahajan, all stopping overnight at the guest house.
Early next morning, before Advani was supposed to leave, a small crowd, which included me, had gathered in front of the guest house. He came out and was requested to speak a few words. I don’t remember anything of what he said except the last line, which was “Saugandh Ram ki khaate hain, mandir wohin banayenge”.
He was out of the place in five minutes. But the crowd that had gathered continued to mingle. Some were happy to have seen him. Some were amazed to know that his so called rath wasn’t actually one. Some women spoke about the glow Advani ji had on his face. Some others said “kam bole par bahut acha bole. (he spoke less but spoke very well).”
And some others who thought they were worried about the state of the nation asked “mandir banega ki nahi? (Will the temple be made or not?)”. With the Babri Masjid out of the way the first step towards the making of the temple had been made.
The slogan going around was “ye to kewal jhanki hai, kaashi mathura baaki hai (This was a just a trailer, Kashi and Mathura are still remaining).” Ranchi was a hardcore BJP constituency returning its candidate Ram Tahal Choudhary to the Lok Sabha four times in a row between 1991 and 2004.
People who had gone to Ayodhya from Ranchi as kar sevaks became minor celebrities once they came back. One of my older friends claimed to have met one such person who had told him “ke masjidwa ekbak hi gir gaya (The masjid fell rather suddenly with ekbak being the Ranchi lingo for suddenly)”.
So those were the days.
Its late in the night as I sit writing this and wonder about all that has changed since December 6, 1992.
Vinod Kambli now sports a weird hairstyle and recently had an angioplasty. He never fulfilled all the potential he showed in the early 1990s. He is probably the only test player to have played just 18 tests with a batting average of 54.
Captains now regularly use spin bowlers to open the bowling in T20s, one day internationals as well as test cricket. Ravichandran Ashwin, India’s latest spinning sensation is regarded as the best new ball spinner in the world. Talk about oxymorons!
Ranchi now has much better hotels. And it no longer votes for the BJP. Since 2004 its turned to the Congress and voted for Subodh Kant Sahay, who till very recently was a minister in the Union government but has since been dropped due to his role in the coalgate scam.
Nobody listens to the BBC Radio in India any more. Very few watch its World News Service on cable television. And Cibaca Sangeet Mala has been long gone.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee went onto become the Prime Minister of India and started travelling in bullet proof BMWs, with the days when a small town boy could catch a glimpse of him sitting in the front seat of a Maruti Omni being over.
Pramod Mahajan was murdered by his younger brother.
Ameen Sayani’s voice still continues to be strong. On the two occasions I have heard him live in the last two years I went back to the time two decades back when life was fun and simple.
The internet hindus who are highly educated, well paid and normally upper caste, have replaced the kar sevaks who largely belonged to the middle class and the lower classes.
Today we have mobile phones and the internet unlike two decades back. If an incident like this were to happen, the media would cover it in a more detailed manner. If they are thrown out like they had been 20 years back, the kar sevaks (or should we be saying the internet Hindus) would be recording the event on their mobile phones and uploading pictures on Facebook with messages like “I was there.”
But some things are still the same.
Dawood Ibrahim continues to be a free man.
Lal Krishna Advani still goes on rath yatras whenever he does get the time and still hopes to become the Prime Minister of this country some day.
Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar ironically continues to look like the best batsman we have.
And Rahul Gandhi is still a bachelor!
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 6, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])