Literary Review

A rare voice of sanity

Democrats and Dissenters; Ramachandra Guha, Penguin Random House, Rs. 699.

Democrats and Dissenters; Ramachandra Guha, Penguin Random House, Rs. 699.  

Ramachandra Guha is many things but to this reviewer, he is first and foremost a historian of ideas-as-told-through-people. And that is a delectable combination, because it brings together substance and soul, gravity and levity, and makes his books a pleasure to read.

His latest collection of essays, Democrats and Dissenters, is no exception. There are 16 essays in this 317-page book, which is broken into two parts: ‘Politics and Society’ and ‘Ideologies and Intellectuals’. Since the essays are reworked versions of his writings that have appeared in various publications earlier, the topics range widely from the ‘Long Life and Lingering Death of the Indian National Congress’ to ‘The Brilliance and Dogmatism of Eric Hobsbawm’. If that looks unwieldy, rest assured, the smooth-flowing pen of Guha and his consistent (and self-conscious) stance of an independent liberal beholden to no ideology and no party, makes it all hang together pretty well.

As you start reading the book, don’t be too hasty to judge though — Democrats and Dissenters is like a crescendo; it starts with the slow and the familiar and then picks up momentum, especially when it gets into the second part. That’s because the first part covers well-trodden ground — such as the inexorable decline of the Congress — and Guha, while continuing to be interesting, has not been able to add significant new perspective.

But even in this part, two pieces stand out: ‘Debating Democracy: Jayaprakash Narayan versus Jawaharlal Nehru’ and ‘Tribal Tragedies in Independent India’. The first because Guha has ‘exhumed’ long-forgotten and overlooked correspondence between Nehru and Narayan, and reading the essay is an education in democracy as it used to be practised in the early years after Independence. The piece on tribal tragedies stands out because it meticulously paints a picture of what is the deepest continuing injustice in Independent India. In trying to grasp why this horror show has continued for so long, the analytical framework Guha adopts is a comparative one that weighs the relative political influence of tribals and Dalits which, according to him, explains the disparity in their situation.

One may object to this on the grounds that comparing two oppressed groups in this way distorts the problem by framing it wrongly, but Guha could argue that the comparison helps bring out the reason for the political marginalisation of the tribals — they are geographically concentrated, not spread out like the Dalits, and hence the number of electoral seats which they influence is relatively much smaller. The second argument that Guha makes — that it has been easier to organise Dalits who face oppressions of a similar kind, while tribals are far more disunited and face different kinds of oppression, doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny. It has been tough to organise the fragmented Dalit society on a national level, even for a formidable leader like Ambedkar, and that difficulty still continues. Moreover, the oppression tribals face can mostly be boiled to down to one fundamental issue: their traditional right to land and its resources.

One piece in the first section that is promising but ultimately fails to deliver is titled ‘Democracy and Violence in India, Sri Lanka and Beyond’, for a number of reasons. For one, it substantially ignores the role of external actors in fomenting violence within democracies, whether it is in northern Sri Lanka or in Kashmir. For another, Guha’s analytical framework, which involves dividing the essentials of a well-functioning democracy into two baskets — hardware and software — falls short of what is required. Hardware as he defines it includes free and fair elections, multiple political parties, freedom of the press and freedom to live, work and own property anywhere in the country. Software includes essentially pluralism: freedom to worship any god of your choice, freedom to speak, write, think and learn in the language of our choice, and freedom to dress, eat, sing, cohabitate, etc. according to the dictates of group tradition or individual conscience.

The problem is, if you go by these definitions, India would fare as high as one can reasonably expect any country to fare, but we know that is not the true picture. Institutional weaknesses of executive, legislature and judiciary have played havoc with our democracy and so has the tendency to see pluralism from the point of view of groups with rights rather than individuals with rights. Guha does mention the second point, but it doesn’t really fit into the hardware-software framework as he has defined it. The result is that reader is left feeling that facts have had to be carefully chosen to fit into the model. The substantial differences between the Sri Lankan situation and the Kashmir situation — Sri Lanka actively and consistently tried to marginalise Tamil language and culture, while in Kashmir, special measures have been taken to protect the local culture and land ownership — have also been papered over in the search for common lessons.

Once we get to the second part of the book — ‘Ideologies and Intellectuals’ — we find Guha in his element. ‘The Brilliance and Dogmatism of Eric Hobsbawm’ brings out the essential contradiction of the Marxist historian, as captured in the title itself. The piece on Benedict Anderson, who passed away last year and is best known for his path-breaking book, Imagined Communities, is equally fascinating. With the backing of dazzling, painstaking research, Anderson explained how nations emerged at a particular historical period, as ‘imagined political communities’ — among the Europeans who conquered the New World, in Europe itself, and in the countries colonised by the Europeans. He didn’t treat nationalism with the kind of distaste that many political scientists have had for it, conflated as it often is with chauvinism and parochialism. Anderson looked at nationalism with sympathy and perhaps even awe in its ability to move people to act with common purpose. His interactions and exchange of letters with Guha adds a personal touch to the essay.

The essay titled ‘The Life and Death of a Gandhian Buddhist’ is just as interesting — it portrays a rare scholar with an amazing personal story: Dharmanand Kosambi, the father of well-known historian D.D. Kosambi. The piece on Andre Beteille, titled ‘The Wisest Man in India’, is engrossing, though there is one blemish. Guha quotes Beteille attacking Louis Dumont, the French author of the well-known book on the Indian caste system, Homo Hierarchicus, and one of the lines of attack is Dumont’s alleged failure to grasp the fact that ‘homo hierarchicus’ or the hierarchically-oriented human, is not uniquely Indian. But this is a misrepresentation of Dumont’s position — he is a defender of hierarchy against the individualism of the modern and western kind, and his portrayal of the caste system is probably one of the most sympathetic accounts of written in recent centuries! In fact, he warns the modern western society with its individualist obsession that no matter how it tries to eliminate hierarchy, the latter will make itself felt: “make distinction illegitimate, and you get discrimination; suppress the former modes of distinction and you have a racist ideology”. Beteille is right to lock horns with Dumont, but that cannot be over the issue of his alleged nastiness towards India. Dumont’s scepticism and criticism are directed at those who value individualism; not those who value hierarchy — irrespective of whether they are Indians or Europeans.

The two most fascinating and illuminating essays in the book are titled ‘Arguments with Sen, Arguments about India’ and ‘Where are the Conservative Intellectuals in India?’ The first is a respectful but bare-knuckled review of Amartya Sen’s collection of essays titled The Argumentative Indian. The central criticism that Guha levels against Sen is that he is playing on the enemy’s turf — in a manner of speaking — by using ancient history rather than recent history to make arguments about contemporary issues. To quote Guha: “How far must arguments about the present be derived from the arguments of the past? Amartya Sen is less than consistent here. Sometimes he claims that, in living and acting in the here and now, we must take our clues from reason rather than history… In making these (very large) claims for the relevance to modern politics of ancient history, Sen is at one with the Hindutva camp, except that he differs in who or what to uphold from India’s past. They revere the Vedas, whereas he identifies with Lokayata and other atheistic trends in Hindu philosophy.”

More than a year after Guha wrote this review, Sen responded in the Economic and Political Weekly (of November 25, 2006) with a 10,977-word response spectacular, a tour de force — thus proving once again the case for the ‘Argumentative Indian’! The response is still on the EPW website, and reading it in conjunction with Guha’s essay is a riveting experience. Sen starts from first principles, enquires into the nature of position-dependent objectivity, and slowly builds up the case for why there is nothing illegitimate in looking for the (ancient) history of arguments in India in the light of the significance of that practice for contemporary democracy.

The last piece in the book — ‘Where are the Conservative Intellectuals in India?’ — is an interesting scan of the intellectual landscape of India as it has been since Independence, with names named and classified. Guha suggests that the problem could lie here: “Hindu conservatism tends to be revivalist, harking back to a pure past uncontaminated by foreign influences or alien faiths. Meanwhile, Hindu nationalism tends to be triumphalist, seeking to make other nations and other cultures in its own image. Both tendencies are inimical to reflection and self-criticism, those two crucial, even indispensable, elements of the intellectual’s craft”.

Guha has a role model in mind for any aspiring Indian conservative intellectual: C. Rajagopalachari — “a devout Hindu, albeit one who could see beyond the pieties and prejudices of his own caste and faith. Among Gandhi’s close disciples, he was the only one who understood, and fully supported, the Mahatma’s campaign against untouchability. He was also committed to Mahatma’s programme of inter-religious harmony.” Without doubt Rajapalochari is one of the most interesting political leaders of India, but Guha could also have mentioned that his new education policy that envisaged children learning the trades of their parents (dubbed hereditary education policy by his critics), and his introduction of compulsory teaching of Hindi in schools, changed the face of Tamil politics forever, and almost eliminated Congress from that state.

The beauty of all Guha books is not that you will agree with him on every point, but that he will provoke you to think and argue in an engaging and interesting manner. Guha’s is a rare voice of reason and sanity in contemporary India that is turning intellectually deaf due to the noise pollution created by TV anchors chasing eyeballs. Buy the book.

Democrats and Dissenters; Ramachandra Guha, Penguin Random House, Rs. 699.

Tony Joseph is a writer and former editor of Business World and can be contacted on Twitter @tjoseph0010.

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