Ramachandra Guha | I chose people who were both thinkers and doers

Ramachandra Guha | I chose people who were both thinkers and doers

New Delhi: The well-regarded and influential writer and historian Ramachandra Guha is not the author of his newest book, Makers of Modern India. Instead, he has selected and compiled the writings of 19 Indians who he feels played a formative and pivotal role in the shaping of modern India over the last two centuries. In an interview Guha explains his choices. Edited excerpts:

Some names in your list are very familiar while others are virtually unknown. What selection criteria did you follow?

I chose people who were active in politics and social reform, but at the same time left behind a significant corpus of writing. That is to say, those who were both thinkers and doers. Which is why, for example, Sardar Patel is not in the list—he didn’t leave behind books or essays of any substance or depth. Nor did I want pure writers. So, they had to bridge the barrier between thought and action. Then, they had to speak to their time as well as ours. Even among the famous figures, I have highlighted their less-known works. Jawaharlal Nehru wrote three celebrated books before Independence, but since I was interested in Nehru the state maker, I focused on his fortnightly letters to chief ministers, which deal with minority rights, foreign policy, economic planning, etc. Similarly, we are familiar with the writings of B.R. Ambedkar on the caste system, but not with his profound meditations on democracy and constitutionalism.

Is it fair to say that Gandhi is the most influential person in this list?

It is for the reader to decide which of these 19 individuals is the most compelling. This is a book of conversation and argument. The two core sections of the book, sections III and IV, have Gandhi and Nehru as their central figures, respectively. In section III, the debates revolve around Gandhi and his work. In section IV, Nehru plays the same role. Thus Nehru’s writings are followed by the writings of his critics to the right, such as Golwalkar, and to the left, such as Ram Manohar Lohia and Jayaprakash Narayan (JP). A forgotten figure this book rehabilitates is the Muslim liberal, Hamid Dalwai, who spoke of the need for modernizing Islam. In the 1960s he wrote that unless an avant garde liberal elite Muslim developed in India, there would be a revival of Hindu conservatism. Dalwai is relevant not just to present-day India but to a post-9/11 world.

Gandhi once reportedly referred to Rammohan Roy as a pygmy. Can one sum up their different philosophies in a few lines?

You can’t. My hope is for this book—which is the first serious compendium of modern Indian political thought— to act as a spark for other books.

There are only three Muslim names. Are there any common threads in their ideas?

Syed Ahmed Khan and Hamid Dalwai might have some aspects in common. I would like the readers to draw these out. The place of Indian Muslims is very important and unique because they are a large minority. In other countries, Muslims are either an insignificant minority or the ruling majority. Indian Muslims thus face peculiar dilemmas. The theme of inter-religious relations in a multi-religious state runs through the book—it is articulated in different ways by Dalwai, Syed Ahmad Khan and Jinnah on the Muslim side and Gandhi, Golwalkar and Nehru on the Hindu side.

Mohammad Iqbal is missing.

Iqbal was an interesting and original poet and thinker, but he is not among the makers of modern India. A more real complaint would be the absence of Subhas Bose, Patel and Indira Gandhi.

Would you call any individual a negative influence on India?

In my epilogue I have written that 16 of them are still relevant. The three I excluded are Golwalkar, Jinnah and Tilak. Tilak is a representative of militant nationalism. He saw people like Gokhale as being too accommodating of the British. Now that we are a free nation that debate is no longer relevant. Jinnah is not relevant either because he wanted a Muslim nation and obtained it. Golwalkar’s ideas shaped our society but the fate of Pakistan and other theocratic countries is a warning for us not to follow him. These three are important for historical and antiquarian reason, while the other 16 still speak to us—Tarabai Shinde and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya on gender, JP on the rights of the Nagas and Kashmiris, C. Rajagopalachari on economic freedom and election reforms to curb the influence of money and business, and so on.

Who besides Gandhi in this list can be called a thinker of global significance?

Gandhi does have a global reach, but others are relevant too. India is a large, diverse and very complex country. Nation building here was a massive project. Given the scale of this enterprise and the quality of thinkers it has produced, the Indian experiment is relevant to the emerging multiculturalism in Europe, and to African transitions from dictatorship to democracy.

And there are three Bengalis in this list.

Only two. Bengalis dominate the humanities in India—and Bengali historians tend to exaggerate the importance of their compatriots. I didn’t start out with the idea of debunking the Bengalis, but the Maharashtrian social reformers played a much more important and fundamental role in shaping modern India. Amartya Sen, for example, never talks about Shinde, Phule and Ambedkar, while he has plenty of time for Tagore. In this he is representative. Our leading historians and social scientists tend to be Bengalis; this is to the detriment of the recognition of the substantial and enduring contributions of other regions.