Book Review: Assorted leaves from the diary of an Indian liberal

Book Review: Assorted leaves from the diary of an Indian liberal

By ROHIT CHOPRA | | 12 January, 2013
Ramachandra Guha
Despite the occasional blinkered statement, Ramachandra Guha’s latest book of essays is an erudite, engaging guided trip through India’s socio-political zeitgeist, writes Rohit Chopra

In a footnote to an article written for the Economic and Political Weekly, Ramachandra Guha recalls a saying of the renowned Indian sociologist MN Srinivas: "Media attention is the enemy of scholarship." One can think of any number of scholars, from Niall Ferguson to Camille Paglia, for whom that holds true. Luckily for readers everywhere, Ramachandra Guha—India's most visible public intellectual and an academic rock star—bucks that trend. Guha, who has been experiencing something of a purple patch since the publication of his bestselling India After Gandhi, has now given us Patriots & Partisans, a collection of previously published essays revised for a broad audience.

A chronicle of a life lived between and across journalism and academia, Patriots & Partisans reflects Guha's many concerns as historian, commentator on Indian state and society, citizen committed to the protection of civil liberties, and member of that rare species, the Indian

liberal. The essays collected in the book are organized into two categories, though themes are shared across the divide. The first part of the book gathers nine essays on the promises and challenges of Indian democracy. The second part, consisting of six essays, is an intimate ethnography and geography of the worlds of the Indian intellect.

In essays in the first section that are vintage Guha, he offers a nuanced assessment of the Indian political left, a moving meditation on the nature of Gandhi's faith and its centrality in his vision of politics, and a robust, combative, defense of Nehru in which Guha seeks to restore the battered reputation of the once universally adored Indian leader. The reparatative project continues in Guha's essay that takes a fresh look at the Sino-Indian conflict. Guha is a fine prose stylist, up there with Ranajit Guha and Tony Judt. Reading him is the literary equivalent of watching Brian Lara on song. But, as is also the case with Ranajit Guha and Tony Judt, his eloquence is one that brooks no dissent. This will-to-conclusiveness bedevils some of the essays, especially "Redeeming the Republic," which discusses the inclusive pluralism represented by the idea of India and the serious challenges to that idea, and "The Beauty of Compromise," which advocates the virtues of political moderation as a strategy of resolving the intractable political conflicts that plague South Asia.

Guha is a fine prose stylist, up there with Ranajit Guha and Tony Judt. Reading him is the literary equivalent of watching Brian Lara on song. But, as is also the case with Ranajit Guha and Tony Judt, his eloquence is one that brooks no dissent. 

In both essays, as across the work at large, Guha proposes that a moderate, democratic, secular, and liberal worldview committed to gradual reform and incremental progress is essential for viable South Asian states and societies. Guha also writes consciously as a nationalist, seeking to wrest back the term from adherents of Hindutva and to rehabilitate it as a positive word. But the details of his analysis do not always square with his overarching claims, highlighting tensions in his thought and the limits of the liberal nationalist framework that he advocates. In "Redeeming the Republic," Guha treats Hindu nationalism (or Hindu chauvinism as he insists it should be called), Maoism, and ethnic separatism as three major threats to the Indian nation. But the compelling explanation that he provides for the rise of Maoism, from the abject condition of tribal communities to the abhorrent human rights abuses promoted by the state-backed Salwa Judum movement—militates against the possibility that the "plural and inclusive" idea of India might provide the basis for a solution. Likewise, one could argue that the ideology of political moderation might work to further disenfranchise groups locked in profoundly unequal conflicts with powerful states.

Dropcap OnThe second part of the book is much more personal in nature. Guha writes with deep respect, affection, and gratitude about people, institutions, and organizations that have sustained him as a scholar. The delightful tribute to Premier's Bookshop and its owner Mr. T. S. Shanbag will resonate with anyone who has found sanctuary in a bookstore. The essay on the Economic and Political Weekly is a treasure, capturing the unique, singular character of the journal and relating its history to the tangled weave of intellectual debates in independent India. Guha's cherished memories of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and Oxford University Press are laced with a powerfully expressed sadness at their decline. The essay on pluralism in the Indian university similarly charts the downfall of many formerly prestigious Indian universities, while also presenting a series of somewhat idealistic principles for reviving them to their former glory. The loss of the bilingual intellectual, to which another essay is devoted, is another trend in the India of the late twentieth century. Key themes from the first set of essays echoed in this lot include the culture of sycophancy common to all political parties (but taken to an art form by the Congress) and the value of an inclusive, moderate approach as a general principle of intellectual life.

As reflected in his numerous references to great leaders, thinkers, editors, academics, writers, and bureaucrats, Guha is mildly intoxicated by the idea of greatness as a mover of history. The nostalgia for a lost golden era of Indian political and intellectual life begins at times to sound like a lament, suggesting a lack of openness to new intellectual developments. Both these traits may be explained by Guha's conservatism as a scholar, which are articulated more categorically in some of his other writings. In the EPW essay in which he quoted M. N. Srinivas, for instance, Guha described poststructuralism and cultural studies as trends of "dubious intellectual worth." Numerous Indian scholars, based in India and abroad, have undertaken excellent work in these fields, which Guha is unable or unwilling to recognize. Some of that work, interestingly, presents an insightful critique of the liberal, secular, democratic ideology championed by Guha.

Nonetheless, in an era in which descriptive work is the fashion, Guha is willing to be prescriptive. He is willing to admit that patriotism, even of his preferred liberal variety, can be a form of partisanship. He writes with a joy that contrasts the dour objectivism seen in much academic work. India, Guha tells us, can be exasperating but is always interesting. Patriots & Partisans shows that something similar might be said of Guha. Even when guilty of an exasperating moderation, his remains an interesting, provocative, distinctively brilliant, and uniquely Indian voice.

Rohit Chopra is an Assistant Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University

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