Book review: Democrats and Dissenters by Ramachandra Guha, here’s a history of hope

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New Delhi | Updated: October 16, 2016 7:20:40 AM

Meticulously researched and narrated with a storyteller’s flair, a collection of essays by Ramachandra Guha evokes respect, but might not unsettle

A file photo of Jawaharlal Nehru signing the Indian Constitution. Guha swears by the Constitution and calls himself a ‘constitutional democrat’ (file photo)A file photo of Jawaharlal Nehru signing the Indian Constitution. Guha swears by the Constitution and calls himself a ‘constitutional democrat’ (file photo)

Distinguishing between ideologues and intellectuals, Ramachandra Guha notes in his latest book, Democrats and Dissenters, that the former merely promote their beliefs and “care little about the reception of their work by scholars”, whereas the latter aspire to contribute to the “course of knowledge”. The essay, Where are the conservative intellectuals in India?, aptly mirrors the concerns and stance of Guha. A liberal historian seeks an intellectual counter from the right-wing, doesn’t want to win over an argument in vacuum, and is worried that if the present establishment continues on its path, then public discourse might soon be “defined by thugs and bigots rather than by scholars and thinkers”.

Guha swears by the Indian Constitution and calls himself a “constitutional democrat”. Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar constitute his trinity. Besides, he engages with almost the entire spectrum of the freedom movement. Archives are his temples of devotion. For a rare note, a handwritten letter, he has scoured institutions across the country and abroad—from the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library to the record rooms of Oxford University Press.

Such constitutional foundations and love for a “classical, elegantly understated” style ensure that he will inspire and illuminate, but perhaps never surprise. This scholarship will evoke respect, but might not unsettle.

His politics, again founded on the debates of the constituent assembly, is understandably clear. Passionate about free speech, he calls the present BJP establishment “the most anti-intellectual government India has ever seen”, and while believing that the dynasty-ruled Congress perhaps “deserved to disappear”, also reminds us that it “helped make India a less divided, less violent, less hierarchical… and less unfree society that it might have otherwise been”.

This book has two sections—his essays on politics and society, and long pieces on important figures. The latter mark perhaps his most significant intervention in contemporary history writing in India, as he introduces some relatively untouched personalities and enlivens them with a deft personal touch—the stroke of a painter on a canvas, the nib of a kathakaar that lends a new shade to the existing colours and characters. It’s obvious that he would admire Benedict Anderson for combining “solid scholarship and literary flair”, and enjoy the “novelist” in the scholar who salvaged nationalism from the Marxists.

One turns to history to explore, explain and even explode the present. Historical writings can have a narrative too. Guha peppers his historical accounts with personal anecdotes to an extent that even distant events that preceded him give a semblance of being personally lived.

So the essay about historian DD Kosambi suddenly becomes a near-memoir when the author mentions his chance encounter with a Berkeley scholar, Padmnabh Jaini, who had introduced him to Kosambi’s scholar father Dharmanand Kosambi. Some 15 years later, Guha was to somehow learn that the man who first told him about the senior Kosambi was the first and, so far, the last beneficiary of a scholarship instituted in his name “by his mentor and admirer, Mohandas K Gandhi”.

Anderson believed that a scholar should “employ the methods, if not the gifts, of nineteenth century novelists: rapid shifts of scene, conspiracies, coincidences”. When Guha met Anderson first in 1989, he did not have a single book published. Given that Guha’s long tribute to Anderson, who died last December, is the most fulfilling work in this book, it’s not difficult to gauge where the Indian scholar drew his narratorial flavour from.

Guha gathers raw material from the archives and the field without forgoing an authorly desire to record the peculiarities of life. For him, history is as much an objective discipline as it is an introspective exposition of personal revelations.

He assertively sets forth his disagreements too, especially when the achievements of the freedom movement are overlooked. Here, the pitch of the otherwise subtle Guha is suddenly raised. Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian is torn apart for “ignoring Indian intellectuals and arguers between the age of Akbar and the age of Hindutva”. The Nobel laureate, for him, carries the “characteristic insularity of the Bengali intellectual”. The Bhadralok intelligentsia is also not spared. “One member of the species (the writer Amit Chaudhuri) has written that ‘Bengal was the site of the most profound response to the colonial encounter’.” For Guha, the honour must go to Maharashtra.

Some 15 years ago, in a famous polemical with Arundhati Roy, Guha had termed her essay on dams “unoriginal, self-indulgent and hyperbolic”. For him, India’s perhaps top-most celebrity dissenter was characterised with “unreal vanity”.

He also has an issue with Indian academia. When he was offered a professorship at the Delhi School of Economics in the 1990s, his worry was: “Would I get into endless arguments with my colleagues about the relevance of French post-structuralism to Indian realities? Would I have to begin to say important things in obscure language?”

It reflects the anxieties of a public intellectual—someone not withdrawn to a reclusive chamber, who wants to get his feet and hands spoiled in the field. Obviously then, his intellectual heroes are stalwarts like Kannada authors Shivram Karanth and UR Ananthamurthy, and Bengali author Mahashweta Devi, who actively engaged with people. In that sense, Guha is a historian of hope, a chronicler of compassion. Read him to delve into the ignored chapters of the freedom movement that built this nation, but have been forgotten and neglected by its ungrateful progenies; to realise the subtle, but formidable force the prose and the idea imbibe when the narrative marks the wedding of a meticulous historian-anthropologist with an inquisitive kathakaar.

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