Updated: January 4, 2011 11:09 IST

Capturing the voices of national heroes

B. Surendra Rao
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The thrill and travails of the making of ‘modern India' had begun in the 19th century and are not over yet. Historical experience belongs to the past but it may not really end in the present, particularly when it is distilled in, or recounted as, ideas. That is why history carries a fond, or irritating, sense of contemporaneity. Ramachandra Guha's sensitive antenna captures the voices of 19 men and women who, according to him, made modern Indian history and also wrote authoritatively about it. The voices still ring true in their variety, frustrations, and hopes. Hearing them gives a sense of immediacy, notwithstanding (or, is it because of?) the preferences of selection and felicitous editorial interventions.

The ‘makers of modern India' are broadly shown as representing the different phases of national experience. While Rammohun Roy figures as the first liberal to have opened the Indian mind, Muslim modernist Syed Ahmad Khan, agrarian radical Jotirao Phule, liberal reformer Gopal Krishna Gokhale, militant nationalist Bal Gangadhar Tilak and subaltern feminist Tarbai Shinde are grouped under “Reformers and Radicals.”

Among those who nurtured the nation are listed M.K. Gandhi (a leader with multiple agendas), Rabindranath Tagore (rooted cosmopolitan), Bhimrao Ambedkar (annihilator of caste), Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Muslim separatist), E.V. Ramasami (radical reformer), and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (socialist feminist). Then the Indian democratic experience is debated with reference to the views of Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, M.S. Golwalkar, Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, C. Rajagopalachari, and Verrier Elwin. The ideals and practice of secularism are discussed in the context of the views of brilliant but, sadly, less known Hamid Dalwai.


The choice of the ‘makers' and the projection of their views have necessarily to install the presence of the compiler-editor. There can be questions regarding the preference for ‘thinker-activists' or about the ones left out. This holds also for the choice of views presented, from out of so many available. In fact, some may even scoff at the very idea of ‘the makers of modern India', either in the Carlylean sense of heroes making history or, in specific contexts, their inability to make it. But then, for all the original flavours retained in the anthology, this is very much Guha's work, and thankfully so. If he has allowed the privilege of answering the critics only in respect of the Father of the Nation, he has thrown up a few pleasant surprises by making some of the less known voices to speak to us — Tarabai Shinde and Hamid Dalwai, for example. He has also unwrapped some of the not-so-familiar views of J.P. on Tibet, Nagaland, and Kashmir. For instance, in 1964, he wrote thus on the Kashmiris(without being accused of sedition): “There has been no credible proof yet that they have freely accepted the legal fact of accession… States are passing shows but the people are eternal.”

If the voices of Phule and Ambedkar continue to birch Indian conscience, the exhortations of Golwalkar are working to mould and freeze it, and those of Nehru and Rajagopalachari, in their own different ways, counsel the Indians on moderation, cosmopolitanism, and progress. In fact, Guha's makers of modern India speak on various issues — domestic, foreign, social, economic, religious, and emotional — which the country is still grappling with. As the editor points out, this disputatious tradition (Amartya Sen's Argumentative Indian) is a fine reflection of India's democratic tradition and self-reflexivity. He hopes to make “the Indian experience more central to global debates.”

This is a laudable idea at a time India wants to be heard and taken more seriously, not just as a vendor of spirituality but as a working model of pluralism of various kinds — ideas, peoples, and institutions. But the relevance of the views on myriad issues packaged in this book derives from the fact that — contrary to what the title seems to suggest — modern India is not yet made.

Nation is always in the making. It is ‘a daily plebiscite.' No doubt, the process occasionally gives it an illusion of fulfilment, of timelessness. But the many frustrations and impediments it runs into are stark reminders that the project is incomplete. The ideas that have historically gone into its making keep popping up at intervals either to serve as a goad or as a warning signal. Guha's anthology shows us how.

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