Home >Lounge >Features >Ramachandra Guha: ‘Each one of us has rejected close friends’ for the NIF

In the 2000s, when historian Ramachandra Guha was working on his book India After Gandhi, he was struck by the paucity of literature on India since 1947. Pre-independence India, especially the colonial era, was a minefield of information, teeming with historical, sociological, cultural, economic and ethnographic studies. But modern India was relatively unexplored terrain, yet to find many chroniclers.

Struck by the gap, Guha went on to propose the idea of starting a fellowship to entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani. It would include a handsome stipend to enable a writer with a compelling idea to take time off for up to a year to work on a book on any aspect of post-1947 India. Journalists, scholars, independent researchers, anyone with a solid proposal and proven track record would be eligible.

Since it was conceived in 2004, the New India Foundation (NIF) fellowship has been bestowed on a range of experts—from reporters and academics to film-makers and lawyers—including Rahul Pandita, Akshaya Mukul, Saba Dewan, Harish Damodaran, Kartik Shanker, Shashank Kela and Gautam Bhatia. A number of them have produced acclaimed books, and more are in the works. In an interview with Mint, Guha spoke about NIF’s journey over a decade. Awarded every two years, the deadline for the applications to the fellowship is 31 August. Edited excerpts:

Can you take us through the inception of the fellowship?

While working on India After Gandhi, I realized that post-independence Indian history was a blank slate. In contrast, there had been enormous focus on the British raj and the freedom movement. I felt every chapter of mine deserved to be an independent book, as did several sections. Themes I had barely touched upon should be written about more extensively. There was an extraordinary richness of researchable topics related to India since 1947, waiting to be written about.

A further provocation was that I knew many excellent journalists who hadn’t written books, though they should be doing so. At the time, I knew Nandan Nilekani a bit. So I invited him to lunch at Koshy’s Parade Café in Bengaluru and proposed my idea of a fellowship scheme, open to anyone, to write a book about independent India. In 2003-04, when we started, the buzz in India’s publishing industry was all about fiction rather than non-fiction, though now the scene has turned now. At the time, I felt we should start something that would encourage people to write on the history, politics, sociology, culture of independent India. I suggested we should peg the amount of the stipend at a professor’s salary (it is currently 1.5 lakh per month for 12 months), regardless of age, and give it for a year. Nandan agreed to fund it.

How did you go about forming a jury?

We had two excellent intellectuals as part of the jury—Andre Beteille and Niraja Gopal Jayal—who, on the basis of a lifetime’s experience of teaching and research, ensured there was strict quality control in the selection process. I put together a shortlist that went to the jury, in which I sat but didn’t have a vote. The jury not only identified the potential in the proposals but also helped shape them. Other members included Rukmini Banerji, N. Ravi, and so on.

For a fellowship like NIF, we have a 60% conversion rate into published books. Around 22 are published till now, with eight-nine in the press. This, I believe, is possible because of Nandan’s one very pragmatic suggestion. He asked us to give two-thirds of the money as a monthly salary or stipend to the winners, and one-third when their manuscript was finished, as a reward. This system would act as an incentive to finish a workable draft.

What is the selection process like?

It’s completely blind (based on a CV, book proposal, writing sample, and interview with each shortlisted applicant). Each one of us has rejected close friends and often made enemies because of it. We have a jury of five people who interview them rigorously for 45 minutes to an hour. Then we have a conversation and come to a consensus about our selection. I am pleased that none of us has succumbed to any pressure. People critical of my work, or say of Aadhaar, have also been given the fellowship because of the quality of what they planned to do.

The foundation has grown to include an annual lecture (named in memory of Girish Karnad since last year) and a book prize. Could you tell us about these?

The first few annual lectures were delivered by scholars like Jean Drèze, Ela Bhatt, Yogendra Yadav, and so on. The venue used to circulate among major cities before we decided to hold it exclusively in Bengaluru because the city doesn’t get as many iconic public lectures.

About two years ago, we decided we had to hand over to younger trustees. We got Srinath Raghavan, the historian, and Manish Sabharwal, an entrepreneur, on board. They started an annual book prize—the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Book Prize for the best non-fiction book in India, with a prize money of 15 lakh. I believe they may be thinking of starting a journal on public policy, but it’s not confirmed as yet.

Are the chosen candidates supervised by anyone from the jury?

So far, I have been working with each one of them. I read the drafts, shape their work, critique them, sometimes put them in touch with publishers, especially when it comes to the younger writers. Now Srinath and Niraja will also take on some of this responsibility. It’s a real opportunity to grapple with high-quality minds. One of the most encouraging trends for NIF is the number of excellent first-time writers its has published: Akshaya Mukul, Harish Damodaran, Saba Dewan, to name a few.

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