Even in an age where physical meetings are no longer necessary for communication, it remains interesting to see the human face behind the paper or the e-mail up close. So, today (8 March 2012) I took a trip to my hometown Leuven where Indian sociologist Ramachandra Guha was scheduled to speak in the Grote Aula, a major lecture hall of the Catholic University Leuven normally used by students of Liberal Arts and Theology. He is part of the liberal academic establishment after making his name as a pioneer of “Subaltern Studies”, a soft-Marxist discourse advertised as giving a voice to the voiceless in history, such as women, low-castes and tribals.
The lecture was a big event, organized by the Leuven Centre for Global Governance Studies, with welcoming introductions by spokesmen of the University, the City of Leuven, and the Indian Embassy. Next, Prof. Idesbald Goddeeris, who used Guha’s books India after Gandhi and Makers of Modern India in his own Dutch-medium book on Indian history, gave a eulogy of this internationally acclaimed public intellectual. After twenty minutes of Indian-style floral tributes, Guha himself finally took the floor.
He started out with an “entirely non-controversial” statement: “India is the most interesting country in the world.” Nobody had any quarrel with that.
What he meant by that was mainly India’s diversity. He mentioned Sonia Gandhi as “Italian yet completely Indian. None of us regard her as anything less than completely Indian.” Well, I am hearing other opinions on that, pointing to her fleeing abroad or to the Italian Embassy in times of crisis. Second example: “India’s most highly regarded development economist was born in Leuven: Jean Drèze, son of a Belgian economist, but himself an Indian economist and holder of an Indian passport.” Opinions on the wisdom of Drèze’s socialist policies differ, but in his case there is no doubt about his Indianness.
Why is India the most interesting country? “There are twice as many Christians in India as in Belgium”, and certainly more than that, especially if you include the crypto-Christians and take into account that most census Christians in Belgium and Europe are only nominal, effectively lapsed Christians. And this Christian presence “goes back to the first century” CE. Here, like most Indian public figures mentioning Christianity, Guha buys into the legend that Saint Thomas came to Kerala in 52 CE, a belief even the Pope has rejected. But never mind, we can agree that there is an ancient and well-integrated Christian presence in India, 4th-century or so. Further, “in 1947 Pakistan was created as a state for Indian Muslims, but now there are more Muslims in India than in Pakistan.” More exceptionally, “India is the only country in the world that has never practiced anti-Semitism.” Next to the religious there is the linguistic diversity. Guha counted 17 languages on the rupee notes.
All this helps to make India “the world’s most ambitious and most reckless experiment”. No nation was born in more hostile circumstances. Divided, with a bloody civil war raging from August 1946 to (well after) Independence in August 1947, barbarities, and 8 million refugees to be resettled. But no nation had such capable generation of founding figures, on a par with those of the USA. Mahatma Gandhi became world-famous as a non-violent agitator (Nobel-winning writer Wen Jaibao published a book acknowledging his debt to Gandhi), social reformer, interfaith dialogue pioneer and feminist. Many will frown upon reading the latter claim, and even the other ones are disputed, but let that pass.
The second figure was Bhimrao Ambedkar, 14th son of a soldier in British-Indian army, who with the help of a progressive Maharaja went on to obtain Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University and the London School of Economics, then returned to India in 1926, spurning a comfortable career in the West. He pioneered the emancipation of the Scheduled Castes and of women through the Constitution.
The third one was Jawaharlal Nehru, who was, like Gandhi (but, we may add, poles apart with Ambedkar), a prophet of Hindu-Muslim harmony, as well as an upholder of linguistic diversity and of women’s rights. When he piloted the Hindu Personal Law Code through Parliament, with equal rights to inheritance, divorce etc., no less than 149 demonstration against it took place in one year.
India was expected to fail. Illiteracy stood at 65% in 1952, when the first general elections took place, allegedly “the biggest gamble in history”. Election commissioner Sukumar Sen came up with idea of party symbols, still in use: the Congress Party’s hand, the BJP’s lotus flower, etc. Winston Churchill predicted that in an independent India, the Brahmins (indeed the main enemies of colonial power, vastly overrepresented among freedom martyrs -- KE) would take power, “relying on the support of German mercenaries”! Aldous Huxley, though a yoga enthusiast and friend of India, predicted that after Nehru’s death, the military would take over. Yet, Indian democracy has endured. As they say, “India has general elections, her neighbours have elections of generals”. Paul Ehrlich, author of the doomsday book The Population Bomb, wrote that he understood the population problem emotionally during a taxi ride in Delhi, surrounded by these endless waves of people. He predicted, over 40 years ago, that soon so many millions would die of starvation.
So, why has India proven these predictions wrong? Why has democracy survived? Why no military coup? Guha listed five reasons:
1) Democracy. There have been 15 general elections with over 400 million people voting. 5 states just now polling, and over 70%. Democracy is a release for discontent etc. Even in Kashmir, there were 70% voting. Villagers defy the Maoist interdictions to vote. Not that Guha is in the pay of the politicians: “Of the three national parties, Congress dislikes me, the Communists distrust me, and the BJP detests me.”
2) Inspired by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, India deliberately didn’t follow the European model of nation-building, with one language, one religion, and one common enemy. To be Polish meant to speak Polish, to be Roman Catholic, and depending on the time of history, to hate either the Germans or the Russians. By contrast, “in India the Gandhian model of embracing diversity has succeeded”.
3) Another factor is the existence of an independent judiciary.
4) The Hindi film industry and its output in popular music has promoted the knowledge of Hindi throughout the country. Hindi as prospective national language has been abolished, but its voluntary spread through film is successful.
5) Cricket, the most popular sport and topic of one of Guha’s books.
As for the economic surge: it is impressive in the aggregate and in certain sectors. It is changing the Western perception: from basket-case to emerging superpower. But both images are vastly exaggerated.
Some challenges to India’s unity
Challenge 1. The opinion is for a Hindu version of Pakistan. Pluralism is hard-won and fragile, threatened by Hindu majoritarianism and by international Islamic fundamentalism. The 2002 Gujarat riots were horrible, but since then no major riots have occurred. Religious tempers have cooled on both sides. To Guha’s knowledge, there is no Indian member of Al-Qaida.
Challenge 2. Out of 28 states, 25 are totally reconciled to being Indian. There is still discontent in Kashmir, Manipur and Nagaland. Baptist Nagas were fighting till 1998, but their situation is unsolved constitutionally. In Manipur there are no less than 3 wars: the hill Kuki, the hill Naga and the plains Vaishnava all have something against the other.
Challenge 3. Instability in neighbouring countries.
Challenge 4. Growing Maoist insurgency in Central India, comprising 5 to 7% of territory. Its origin lies in the dispossession of the tribals (bauxite, iron, environmental degradation): that is the brutal side of globalization.
Westerners underestimated Indians then, and overestimate them now. Visionaries found democracies, but these can be led in mid-career by mediocrities. Compare Jefferson with GW Bush, or Mahatma Gandhi with Sonia Gandhi. India is plagued with weakness, sectarianism, nepotism, corruption. So, not a superpower, only the most interesting country in the world. Thank you very much.
Questions & answers
After his secular but realistic discourse, Prof. Guha agreed to take some questions.
On regional parties: multiple layers are part of the strength of Indian Democracy. Tamil is as Indian as Bengali, low-caste is as Indian as high-caste etc. Since the sixties, these sectional interests seek political expression.
On Panjab. In the 1980s, some Sikhs staged an insurgency for independence. Today the state is completely at peace. Is was a triumph of Indian democracy. Till 1963, a Tamil party wanted a separate homeland; Mizoram got likewise reconciled to India. Then, in Panjab, there was violence of both Hindus and Sikhs. But in these three states, the conflict was successfully and honourably resolved.
On law (books vs. action), on the progressive Constitution, on the activist judiciary and Supreme Court, on equality promoted yet discrimination continued, on practice vs. principle: it’s a fifty/fifty democracy. 2000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat, most human rights are violated by the State Government, which refused to implement the Supreme Court verdict. Part of the problem is the simultaneity of building a nation, a democracy, and modern industry. I admire Norway, it never made war on another country, neither has India. Norway is maybe 65% democracy, India 50%, not a “formal” but an “imperfect democracy”.
On “truly frightening” right-wing Hindu nationalism (by an Indian questioner), whether it will always be a force: As a citizen, I detest right-wing Hindu nationalism, I will vote for any other party. As a historian, I would say; so long as you have Pakistan, you will have Hindu nationalism. If the political class is alert, it will weaken, but if the political class is weak, Hindu nationalism will be in the ascendant. The Jihadis bomb Bombay to provoke Hindu-Muslim violence. The Kashmiri movement started for rights, was taken over by Jihadis, and expelled Hindus from the Valley.
On the difference between the electorate and the politicians: you need a lot of money for the elections (which you recover after winning), so reforms should make it transparent and state-funded.
On his favourite political leader: Nitish Kumar in Bihar. He is focused on development etc., not corrupt, sectarian, nepotistic. Politicians are more imperfect than us because they inherit our imperfections.
On corruption and movements against it: Part fault of the movement itself, they disregarded Mahatma Gandhi’s “duty of compromise”. The media are good at highlighting the problem, not the solution.
On caste, art. 17 abolishes discrimination on caste, there is affirmative action along caste lines, hence there is more caste voting, yet the Tata Institute says nothing has been done: This is ridiculous, much remains to be done, but much has been done. Vide Mayawati, a woman of Scheduled Caste origin who has been Chief Minister of the most populous state repeatedly. Dumont described the homo hierarchicus, but this is changing. Taliban antifeminism is just a “South Asian practice”?
On superpower claims (affirmed by an Indian): Political/business/media elites chase this superpower thing, this male thing. But so many internal problems remain. In India this claim looks absurd, but Non-Resident Indians might say it (cfr. Jews in New York are crazier than in Israel, Khalistan sustained from Canada).
On affirmative action for SC/ST/OBC, upto 70% of the population. This presupposes identifying them, hence strengthening these identities. Caste is declining as a social practice, in terms of marriage, but it is gaining a new lease of life in politics. The Supreme Court kept it at 50% though some states have it higher. I think it’s too much. Not just for income, but for discrimination itself. I would advocate 25-30%. Thus, Lingayats are no longer backward, but a concession once given is hard to withdraw.
On “Population Bomb predictions didn’t materialize, but problems are sure to grow”: Population growth is steadily going down as women join the workforce. In China it was compulsory, we do it voluntarily. The crucial challenge is not numbers but consumption: how much per person? This way, there are too many Belgian, not too many Indians. Bangla Desh is a basket-case: 1 American = 70 Bangla Deshis, 1 American cat = 1 Bangla Deshi person.
On poverty and the vast difference between China and India: This is a complex issue, but India defied the skeptics. However, there are problems with the declining standards of public services. Every citizen should get decent education and healthcare. Education is demand-driven, better, but healthcare is seriously deficient.
On Islam in India, not on Jihad: Bangla Desh sw a brief spike in Islam in the 1980s, now it is making strides in development, Indonesia moves slowly towards democracy, so Islam is not equally everywhere predisposed to violence (though Muslims everywhere are upset about the American invasion in Iraq). But there is a battle in every religion between liberals and reactionaries. Indian Muslims sense Pakistan is a failed state, that’s where Islamic fundamentalism goes.
On how relations between West Bengal and Bangla Desh are worse than those between India and Bangla Desh, and on how Foreign Investment Laws are not implemented by Karnataka: I disagree on how you represent it. It is true but not systemic, it is just due to the weakness of Manmohan Singh. Bihar is patriarchal, run by a Rajput, Nitish Kumar. But every girl passing middle school will receive a cycle to go to highschool in town, and unexpectedly this didn’t lose him the election.
True enough that India survived thanks to a decentral model, but that model was hardly Gandhi’s invention: it followed ancient Hindu practice. Much of what Ramachada Guha credits the unknown entity India with, accrues to Hinduism. Thus, the asylum given to the Syrian Christians without any questions asked would not have occurred under the Indian Muslims.
On the role of Chief Minister Narendra Modi in the Godhra riots, it must be said that the judiciary has moved towards Modi’s position, viz. his innocence. The rest of the world has mainly been sensitized to his good governance, by his economic successes and by his total absence of religious riots in the last ten years.
Like most secularist urban dwellers who read the conformist media, Guha is under-informed about what the dear neighbours are doing to their minorities. Thus, right now there is a problem in both Bangla Desh and Pakistan of Hindu girls being abducted, forcibly converted and married off into Muslim families. He recognizes the problem of Islamic fundamentalism but fails to realize that when protected by state power, Islam itself is bad enough.
In his account of linguistic diversity, it seems Guha implies a pro-English bias. Among the attempts to overrule diversity with uniformity, he mentioned how a Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh (viz. Mulayam Singh Yadav) sent a letter in Hindi to his colleague in Kerala, received a reply in Malayalam, then “got the message” and sent an English translation. In fact, what Yadav did was merely a belated implementation of the constitutional provision to adopt Hindi as link language by 1965, then successfully sabotaged by the English-speaking elite. There was no plan whatsoever to displace the other Indian languages the way France had outlawed and largely destroyed its own local languages. To be sure, the elevation of one of the local languages, even if it is the biggest by far, to a national status above the others, remains a problematic issue, but resorting to the colonial language can hardly be a fair solution. Not just Hindu nationalists but many progressives, like Hindi pro-Communist novelist Kashi Nath Singh or well-known feminist Madhu Kishwar, have argued that the dominance of English is fundamentally undemocratic and certain to remain a major factor of social inequality unless and until the entire population adopts it as first language.
Nevertheless, these quarrels aside, we have to admit that Prof. Ramachadra Guha is an Indian patriot and, in a real sense, a Hindu.