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When Ramachandra Guha defended Jawaharlal Nehru at Kolkata’s Centre for Social Sciences, his “immediate boss” who was “then a coming political scientist in his mid-30s and (is) now a scholar of world renown” told a colleague, “Ei shala Jawaharlal Nehru shapotaar!”
A thick Bengali accent (“shapotaar” for supporter) isn’t usual for scholars such as Guha describes. But the “shala” (Hindi sala) suggests he wasn’t naturally English-speaking. While readers try to guess his identity, let me recount my only experience of the Centre. I had gone ostensibly to discuss an article one of its scholars had offered The Statesman but really to see again a house that was familiar in my childhood when Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the historian, lived there. Warned we were not interested in ideological tub-thumping, the scholar replied, “Don’t worry. I’ll write it exactly as you would!”
And he did. That was my first experience of Indian Communist flexibility. To be published in The Statesman was a huge achievement in those days and our scholar wasn’t going to miss the chance. If Guha found his colleagues less accommodating, obviously they weren’t offered the right incentives. “To be a supporter of Nehru in a Marxist stronghold of those days” he says, “is much like someone now defending the emperor Babar in a shakha of that hard-core Hindu organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.”
There, in a nutshell, you have the author’s likes and dislikes. Rejecting both the Hindu right and Marxist left, he proudly ploughs the centrist furrow Nehru laid, and which — it must be admitted — remains India’s necessary ideal. That thread runs strongly through these 15 essays. Referring to the reassertion of orthodoxy by all faiths, Guha claims right at the outset that “Hindu bigotry is indisputably the most dangerous of them all.” That, too, was Nehru’s belief. His biographer tells us that echoing Sartre’s view of France’s Jewish question, Nehru thought majority communalism was to be most feared. The RSS wouldn’t disagree. Has it not declared, “Let the minorities understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority community”?
Some of these essays were written specially for this anthology. Some are revised and expanded versions of earlier publications. Drawing on professional scholarship to support personal perspectives, they cover a range of subjects like Sino-Indian friction and Mahatma Gandhi, the author’s brushes with Hindutva militancy, and declining academic bilingualism. There’s an admiring piece on Krishna Raj of the Economic and Political Weekly and an endearing one on a Bangalore bookshop. All the essays are engaging, incisive and eminently readable.
However, like the parable of the six blind Brahmins whose differing individual descriptions of an elephant depended on which part of the creature’s anatomy he had felt, they failed to create for me an overall picture of “India’s heroic and flawed compact with nationhood and democracy”. They remain separate vignettes, expressions of personal experience. Even if the kaleidoscopic images don’t contradict each other, they emphasise different features rather than conjure up a loftily coherent whole.
That might actually support Guha’s claim that “the Indian nation state is the most plural on earth.” He treats the university as the metaphor for diversity, saying intriguingly, “I have long believed that while India is sometimes the most exasperating country in the world, it is at all times the most interesting.” Certainly, India’s processes and procedures often tax human endurance to the utmost. “Exasperating” is a mild way of putting it. But we enter the murky depths of subjectivity when declaring one country more “interesting” than the rest. For all Orson Welles’s jibe about the cuckoo clock being the only outcome of Switzerland’s 500 years of brotherly love, democracy and peace, no doubt some Swiss also find their country the most interesting on earth.
What Guha doesn’t say is also worth noting. For instance, sycophancy (the theme of two essays) is not exclusive to Congress circles; it’s a national characteristic and just as rampant in academia or journalism. Similarly, there’s much in the writing to suggest that others also lap up the “self-importance” he attributes to the “world citizen” label he spurns. If the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library inspires “exhilarating” conversation despite serving “execrable tea and worse samosas”, it can be only because plain-living high-thinking scholars are impervious to the clearly visible kitchen’s filth. I hope Mahesh Rangarajan, the new director of whom Guha has high hopes, will also replace the creaking microfilm readers that are a disgrace to any library. Mention of Walter Crocker’s admirable biography of Nehru might have included a line about Arnold Toynbee’s Foreword which is sadly missing from the latest edition.
The title brings to mind an exchange between two diplomats representing the Federal Republic of Germany and the erstwhile German Democratic Republic in Kolkata. The FRG consul-general was speaking of his government allowing all Germans freedom of choice and maximum political and economic opportunity. The GDR’s commissar burst out, “That is exactly our position!” Or to repeat an old Jacobite toast, “God bless the King,/ The Faith’s Defender./ God bless — what harm in a blessing?/ The Pretender./ But who Pretender is / And who is King./ God bless us all,/ That’s quite a different thing.”
Ditto for the confusion between Patriots and Partisans. Perhaps a person’s response to Narendra Modi is the litmus test. Understandably, Guha doesn’t care for him. One gathers here that Gujarat’s chief minister knows enough English to reciprocate the dislike.
PATRIOTS AND PARTISANS
Author: Ramachandra Guha
Publisher: Allen Lane
Price: Rs 699