At the opening session of Spring Fever 2016, organised by Penguin Random House India at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, Ramachandra Guha addressed the challenges of contemporary Indian history. Guha is a leading historian, a well known biographer, author of many books like India After Gandhi, Makers of Modern India, Patriots and Partisans and Gandhi Before India.
Previewing his new book, Democrats and Dissenters, soon to be published by Penguin Random House in October, Guha talked about the paradox that India faces today. He mentioned that India is indeed the most interesting country in the world with surprisingly very little written about its contemporary history. Adding that his praise for the country is not a “chauvinistic or a jingoistic play”, Guha said: “When I say India is the most interesting country in the world, it is a factual remark. India can also be the most exasperating country in the world, the most disgusting country in the world. If I were a woman, I would rather live in Sweden or Norway and be treated with dignity than here. If I was a working-class person, likewise. Why I say India is the most interesting country is because it is both an unnatural nation and an unlikely democracy. Never before in human histroy was a country with a territory so large, so diverse, so disparate, sought to be consolidated as a single political unit and never before in human history, a population largely poor, largely illiterate granted the vote.”
Borrowing Sunil Khilnani’s critique from The Idea of India — that Indian revolution is the least written about among the three greatest revolutions that have taken place globally — Guha blamed the Indian historian’s narrow-mindedness on his obsession with the colonial period, from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to Partition in 1947. He said that although many historians have criticised how the period before colonialism has been completely neglected, his preoccupation is what came afterwards. Precisely what formed the crux of his talk: “It is true that the focus on colonialism and nationalism has led to the neglect of the pre-colonial period but in my view there has been an equal neglect by historians towards the post-colonial period.”
“The paradox lies in this that while the Indian experience with democracy and nationhood is an extraordinarily rich and remarkable one but so little has been written about this history, the Indian revolution as compared to the vast corpus of writings of the American or the French revolutions,” said Guha.
Guha then went on to cite reasons for the same by discussing the four major challenges faced by the contemporary Indian historian. Firstly, he said, the reader is not a passive recipient of the text anymore, but is an active, opinionated citizen of the country who has his own assumptions about the recent leaders as he lives in the consequences of their decisions. “Take for example, the case of Nehru. He is an important figure in the making of modern India. I have spoken about Nehru at length to a varied audience and come to the conclusion that there will always be some people in the audience who would have been perhaps better Prime Ministers than Nehru! I am sure that there are people in this audience as well who believe that had they been Prime Ministers, they would have solved the Kashmir problem, would have defeated China in the ’62 war, would have taken India on a growth path of 10% from 1947 onwards…”
Fourthly, he pointed out a most peculiar “Indian” problem that has to do with disciplinary boundaries in Indian Universities. “When the clock struck midnight in August 1947, history ended and political science began. Historians don’t deal with the post-’47 period because that then becomes the domain of the political scientist. This is a ridiculous problem that here the academic discipline is dependent on a single date.”Secondly, Guha continued, the historian is also a citizen with his own ideological and social perceptions and prejudices.Thirdly, there is a scarcity of reliable sources. He said, “Our governments either don’t keep files or shed them. Before they demit office they shed them. Or even if they keep them, they don’t transfer it to the National Archives.” Suggesting the importance of primary sources for a historian for his research work, he added: “Nehru wrote a great deal but his papers are in control of his family and are shared only with five scholars, I am not one of them. Papers of Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi and so on are closed, not even available. While in most democratic countries papers of retired or dead politicians are properly archived, filed and made accessible to scholars.”
“Hence, we don’t have individual biographies of key figures. We do have books on Nehru or on Patel but we don’t have books on some remarkable individuals in independent India. Take the leaders of states, take a person like Sheikh Abdullah. You cannot understand the history of modern Kahmir, or the history of modern India or modern Pakistan without Sheikh Abdullah. And if you move from politics to the arts, you will find no work done on M.S. Subbalaxmi, or M.F. Husain, or Ravi Shankar or anyone in the field of business. There are no histories of states, of a post-colonial Bengal or Karnataka.”
Alluding to these major hindrances for the massive deficiency in our historical knowledge, Guha nonetheless pointed out that contemporary histories can still be written even though government sources are closed by resorting to open private papers as sources as are available in places like the Nehru Memorial Library.
In the question and answer session after the talk, inevitable questions were raised on the most recent buzzword “intolerance”, with someone from the audience asking Guha that in a country caught now in the crossfire of polarised ideologies, should it not be blamed on the chain of post-Independence events for the intolerance towards someone who is politically on the extreme Right. Guha affirmed to the idea critically by saying: “It is sometimes said of Hindus that they are a majority with a minority complex. Not to say that there is also no truth in the criticism that universities were colonised by Leftists. That has to change but that can’t change if your principal spokesperson is Anupam Kher or Smriti Irani.”