Real India: A historian’s cautions on "the Indian Century"

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with the Ramachandra Guha. (58 minutes, 28 mb mp3)

BANGALORE — Ramachandra Guha, the provocative, critical historian of India After Gandhi, has vitality and charisma to match his country’s. Writing and talking with fire-hose force, he’s come to mirror India’s sense of it’s 63-year-old self. For all of the nation’s grave wounds and faults, Ram Guha says, it’s “the most interesting country in the world.” He’s in sync with the foreign diplomat who remarked, on retiring to another post, that “if I was an intellectual, I would want to be born again and again and again, in India.”

Ram Guha’s recurring point is that the working core of India today is a thoroughly modern invention, following a sharp 19th Century break with the oppressive hierarchies of Hindu antiquity. So much for Amartya Sen‘s rose-colored retrospectives on Ashoka the Great (304 – 232 BC) and Akbar, the third Mughal Emperor (1542 – 1605 AD). Ram Guha gives some credit to the Raj and “Pax Brittanica” for bringing territorial integrity to a chaos of mini-states — also for railroads, a tax system, and a unifying language at least for the elite. But Guha’s big theme is that the real Indian political experiment was the work of modern-minded liberal rationalists, starting with Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774 – 1833), who took the reform fight against sati, the burning of widows, to England; and culminating in the 20th Century giants Gandhi, Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar, the Untouchable with a Ph.D. from Columbia, who wrote India’s Constitution. Their achievement was a new template of nationalism, breaking the European model of “one religion, one language and a common enemy,” where “to be French means you’re a Catholic, you speak French, and you hate the British.” Modern India put 13 different scripts on its Rupee, and officially renounced its traditions of caste and intolerance. And it’s managed to stick together. Something new was born in the world, and in India.

The West’s grand bets about India have been wrong since the Forties, Guha cautions. The first condescending line was that India was a Malthusian basketcase in the making — that it would fall under military rule, or fall apart. It didn’t happen, he argues, because “we had extraordinarily far-sighted leadership, in every way comparable to the generation of Washington, Jefferson and Adams.”

But the other big bet, that superpowers India and China might somehow take over the world in a Century of Asia, is a loser, too, not least because the quality of Indian political leadership has “declined precipitously,” Guha says, and because the country is still “beset with inequality.”

A now dynastic democracy has neglected public education and healthcare. The new rich in India have neglected the slums all around them. India’s diaspora, most notably in America, has been spectacularly successful — “the first wave of migrants since the Mayflower who went from the elites at home to the elites in the host country.” But those NRI’s (non-resident Indians) have typically kicked away the ladder and have weak links with their homeland — unlike the Chinese today and many generations of American immigrants. India’s nuclear weapons and its powerful software industry are not the stuff of domination in the new world, so give up the idea of a “Century of India,” Guha instructs me. And yet… and yet… he closes on a rapturous vision of everything else, besides domination, India has to offer:

If India has anything to offer the world, it is political and cultural, not economic and technological, and this political and cultural offering is based not on ancient spiritual wisdom but on modern achievements such as the construction of a plural, inclusive, democratic society. In this respect we can teach not just Africa and Latin America, but the United States and Northern Europe too. You Americans are paranoid about the invasion of Spanish-speakers: make Spanish an official language and be a bi-lingual nation! We are a multi-lingual nation for God’s sake! The Europeans are paranoid about Muslims coming in and how they will handle it. Look at how we have handled our Muslim minority; we have 150 million Muslims. Four or five years ago there was a big debate in France over the headscarf. And the French, who are obsessively secular, banned the headscarf in schools and colleges. When that debate was going on, I was giving a talk in the University of Calicut, which is a Muslim majority district in the southern state of Kerala. In my talk there were 200 students; there were 80 women in headscarves. And the headscarf was liberating! The headscarf allowed them to go to University. There is a distinction to be made, which the French never made, between the headscarf and the full veil, or the Burka, which is not fine, because that completely covers you. But the headscarf is like the turban a Sikh gentleman wears, or a crucifix, or even, Indian women, they wear a sari, they cover their head with a sari when it’s hot — it’s absolutely fine! We allow our different religious minorities to maintain their cultural and — as one Indian sociologist memorably put it, the Americans follow a melting pot approach. Our’s is a salad bowl approach. The different cultures retain their ingredients, their smells, their colors, whereas you guys all homogenize in one melting pot.

What India can offer the world is ways to handle religious, linguistic and other forms of diversity, including diversities of dress, of culinary traditions, of musical styles. You know, one of the things that unites India is Indian film. Bollywood is a great unifier. And Bollywood is a testament to cultural pluralism. You can have a dance sequence in Indian film which starts with the Bhangra, a dance from the Punjab in North India which is an early folk dance associated with peasants. And it will seamlessly move into the Bharatanatyam, which is a high classical art associated with temples in South India. And it’s fabulous, and we’re all completely okay with it. Just like our Rupee note, which is 17 languages and 17 scripts. India is a glorious, remarkable, admittedly flawed, experiment in multi-cultural, multi-religious, multi-ethnic living. That’s what the world can learn from us. It’s not about colonialism, it’s about living together separately, as someone said, and doing so democratically. The Muslims are a great example. We have 160 million Muslims, and, according to one observer, not a single member of Al Qaeda. That maybe an exaggeration; there may be five or ten. But by and large, Indian Muslims articulate their reservations — and they have many reservations, they’re poor, they’re excluded — through the democratic process. When there was the terrible terror attack in Mumbai in November, 2008, and the terrorists were killed, the Mumbai Muslims refused to bury them because, they said, these are not Muslims. What they practice, this cult of terror, is not Islamic.

It’s a flawed experiment, it has had hurdles, there has been intolerance, there has been discrimination. Because, after all, we are 60-years-young. We are a nation 60-years-young battling against 5000 years of social prejudice, economic inequality, cultural intolerance and so on. And it’s this modern experiment of trying to create a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic democratic political community that is what we can export to the world. We still have to improve it, we still have to refine it, we still have to live up to our best ideals. But, contrary to what I’ve been arguing, most Indians think that this century will be the Asian century; they think that this means we will dominate the West by our technology, our software, our military prowess — so they’re massively enthused about the fact that we have nuclear bombs. That’s not what appeals to me. What appeals to me is our experiment in plural and democratic living.

Ramachandra Guha in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

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  • Chris

    Thanks again for another great program, your work is an ongoing treasure,

    Very nice analysis of modern India by Ramachandra Guha, whose book India after Gandhi is one of the best on the subject and which I enjoyed immensely. I guess I was not surprised to hear is critique of Arundati Roy -that is quite wide-spread almost fashionable in today’s neo-liberal India. Her response to these charges however are more interesting, rather than runaway from the charge of romanticizing the Maoist she has flipped the rap and happily embraces it as she has demonstrated in interviews such as this one:

    -She explains her reasoning behind siding with armed insurrectionists, embracing the ‘romantic’ label of which her detractors accuse her. “I believe in the romance of revolution,” she agrees. She also celebrates the victories of the revolutionaries: “They have stopped these corporations in their tracks, so far. And if we join them, we can make it stop.”-

    Perhaps the solution to the issue could be as Guha suggest that the Government invoke schedule 5 of the Indian constitution which give the tribals a share of the cash from the Iron Ore, or Bauxite sales. However, even if that occurred with the extraordinary level of corruption in the Indian government does he really think any of those funds will trickle down to the Tribals? In fact Arundati claims:

    “But if you look at the royalties that the government gets e.g for iron ores Rs 27 for 5,000 tonnes profit for the private company. We are paying without ecology of other people’s economy. So it’s a myth of this thing called growth.”

    If Roy’s figures are correct the prospect for the tribals ever getting a penny appear remote.

    While I admire his erudite scholarship on Indian history. Guha seems to overstate the charge of “romanticism” in that in this interview he uses the term almost a dozen times. Besides Arundati Roy he also accuses Amartya Sen of romanticizing ancient India and well as those who favor pre-1990 (globalized) India as romanticizing the old social state of India, left wing intellectuals of romanticizing Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. Even if there is some or even a good deal of truth in the essence of his statements it would be more helpful in these instances to nuance language here a bit that attempts to understand these points of view rather than to simply invoke clichés to dismiss them.



  • Thank you, Rich Carlson.

    Two notes. First, don’t miss a rich conversation we had with Arundhati Roy in April, on the heels of her immersion with the Naxalites and “Maoists.”

    Second, I met nobody in India who doesn’t acknowledge the truth of her picture of the cruel power being brought to bear on the tribal people; and I’ve met nobody who doesn’t believe she’s done a great service by bringing her own writing resources and fame to bear on this heretofore one-sided confrontation. Even Ram Guha, I think, says pretty much that Arundhati Roy’s description of greed vs. helplessness is the right one. Almost everyone I heard on the subject seemed to think that a great deal more news converage and consciousness-raising can head off a vicious war in the darkness — a war the Naxalites would probably lose.

    It goes without saying that Suprabha Seshan’s account of commerce and consumerism vs. the rain forest of Kerala is a version of the same choices ahead for India and for all of us.

  • Hi Chris,

    The comments on the Indian diaspora don’t ring true to me– in my experience of the community, there has always been an obsession about the home country, and a strong desire to do something. The real problem has been that there was a mismatch between the pace of change in India and the cultural changes people in the diaspora experienced as they assimilated. The latter much faster than the former. Of course this may be more true for the “liberal” slice of life. It is only in the last 15 – 20 years that there has been enough change in India in the private sector to create the space for more activities in entrepreneurship and NGO-style activism. These days the diaspora communities are positively bubbling with activity reconnecting to do good in the old country. Of course, It is just mathematical that once this sphere started expanding in India, the contribution of the diaspora pales.

    On the other hand, if he’s talking about investment of capital, which is what it seems with the comparisons to China — wait another 10 years — the opportunities have only just emerged on a mass scale, about 15-20 years behind China

    Still, an impressive eloquent guy.

    Arundhati Roy’s rhetorical flourishes in opposing the build up to the Mesopotamian expedition were valuable for the moral invigoration they imparted. Haven’t kept up with her romance with the Naxalites, but having watched so many pals being uncritical of various socialist vanguards over the years, Guha’s position warrants a lot of respect. While there is no question indigenous peoples all over the world have gotten shafted by the modern world system of industrial production and incessant growth, the central task is not to wage rearguard actions but to develop and articulate and then struggle for a new model of economic organization everywhere.

    I used to track the Naxalites with some interest in the early 70’s (when they really were Naxalites), but lately not at all.

    Which road to socialism do they espouse? The Chinese way? Mao? Lin Piao? Hua Guo Fang? Comrade Deng? The Vietnamese way? The Yugoslav model? As they say on the internets, Puhlease!

    India needs a radical political party rooted in the masses which can help lead us all to the world we must have if we are to survive. But I’m certain the path to that does not require a long march through Yenan.

  • Hey, Chris — I love this series and I just sent out a link to my followers on Twitter:

  • Interesting article, yet I see many things differently than the stated position.

    To talk of India as a successful democracy or multi-cultural society is a big leap. Let’s begin with democracy. Democracy means rule by and for the people. As an American who lived for six plus years in India I never had the feeling that the people had any control over how things were run (or not run for that matter). My then fiancee couldn’t get her used scooter registered because the Pune public servants had no interest in processing the papers for her. Polluted water came into our Mysore home’s water lines because the government didn’t bother with proper filtration. And, water wasn’t always flowing. Roads were in bad condition because of corrupt government contractors. Power constantly went off. Government officials were totally corrupt in every way. And those who were not corrupt got lots of resistance from their superiors for not passing the money upstream. And, the non-corrupt are legally gagged- they can’t speak a word publicly of all the corruption that they see. Everyone, including the police, were in fear of the local mafia dons and the thugs. The marketplace was full of misrepresented goods, including non-food grade dyes in many processed items. Etc, etc, etc.

    So, would the author argue that this is the wish of the Indian people? That within their democracy they have chosen to create and maintain a system that promotes selfishness and corruption? That India reflects their truest intentions of how things should be run for and by the people?

    A political note- in a country run by corruption it is very fitting that an Italian has manipulated the system so that she can control much of the country’s direction. Mafia mentality knows how to succeed in a corrupt system.

    The second disagreement I have is on the statements highlighting India’s multi-cultural success story. First of all, it is hardly a fair comparison to compare India’s multiple religions, tongues, and cultures to the case of immigrant nations. India is not an immigrant nation. India’s multiple religions is a shift in world-view of groups within a given ethnic stock (broadly). So, a Keralite who is Muslim has common ancestors as one who is Christian or Hindu. They have risen from the same DNA, from the same land, from the same history, yet at a given crossroad they have taken separate directions in terms of thought and identification. This is very different to the American experience where most Muslims are from Central Asia, most Christians from Europe, and most Hindus from India. This latter case is true diversity- not just the diversity of belief system and identification. So, it is obviously a very different situation, that can’t really be so simplistically compared.

    In other words, in my eyes all Indians are Hindus. Some are Hindus who have taken on Christian beliefs, others have taken on Muslim beliefs, others still Jain or Buddhist or Zoroastrian beliefs- yet they are still Hindus. The Hindu-ness of them remains strong. It is hard to intellectualize this innate Hindu-ness that I refer to, but it can be easily felt. Just like modern American Jews who have taken on Buddhism (BuJews) or Hinduism (HinJews) still carry their Jewishness with them. (I refer to myself and many of my friends). Many generations later, if we pass on Hindu or Buddhist religion/spirituality/beliefs/word-view, our ancestors will still have some innate Jewish qualities to them. It is inevitable. So, the Muslim India still carries on innate Hindu qualities (possibly including religious tolerance that comes from seeing the Divine in all aspects of Life), which help lubricate Indian culture.

    So, I would argue that in the sense being discussed in the article that India is NOT multi-cultural. In fact, the “outsiders” to within India, whether refugees (Tibetans) or conquered peoples (Sikkim, Kashmir/Ladakh, and the North-East folk) or even modern expats, are clearly not interwoven and integrated into common Indian life. Kashmir and much of the Northeast has been a constant battle scene. The Ladakhis and Sikkimese are living isolated lives not too different in some ways (although very different in other ways) from the Native Americans. The Tibetans mainly live separate from the Indians in refugee settlements. And despite all the welcoming energy that expats get from the Indians, we are always and clearly outsiders. There is no room for us to be considered Indians, although my Indian wife became American in the eyes of American the moment she stepped past immigration in the airport.

    Well, I haven’t touched on the genetic mix in India, as traders and soldiers have entered the country many times by land and sea, and have added some true diversity to the Indian stock, but that is a whole other conversation.

    So, in response to Guha’s statement:

    “If India has anything to offer the world, it is political and cultural, not economic and technological, and this political and cultural offering is based not on ancient spiritual wisdom but on modern achievements such as the construction of a plural, inclusive, democratic society.”

    Having lived for years in India I have never seen the “plural, inclusive, democratic society” that he talks about. But, it does sound like a great idea, and I recommend taking on corruption as the first step to bringing the necessary integrity and security that is required to foster such conditions.

  • Dhananjay Tambe

    I am most pleasantly surprised by the kind of work pursued here at OpenSource. Coming from Brown University myself I would had opportunity to relish the riches of knowledge and ideas shared at this website. I will certainly do my share to spread the word. Thank you!

  • If you draw a line from Casablanca ( Morocco) to Calcutta (India) it is about 5000 miles (8000km). If you go 200 miles on either side of this line so that you have a rectangle that is 400 miles wide and 5000 miles long you can get an area that has very common cultural, food and overall mindset that has been stuck in time.

    The lands geographically are rugged/arid with pockets that are oasis.

    But education of women is very low on priority which leads to basically everything being stuck in medieval times.

    Literacy rates are low, womens rights are negligible or non existent, willingness to accept the rule of law is glaringly missing and thuggery is the default value for governance.

    The way to bring about change in this land is to have NGO’s work in educating women and creating a critical mass of women who stand up to the thuggery that masks itself behind the veils of religion be it Islam or Hinduism or Christianity. All of them in this region tend to put down women and thereby making it the way it is.

    Why don’t people see this and understand that in the last 100 plus years this region has not really contributed much to world society other than be a hot bed for high rates of illiteracy and thugs masquerading as leaders sustain the medieval structures that help them sustain their own pithy lives.

  • np

    Ramchandra Guha (and Amartya Sen) spoke more eloquently and convincingly than all the other “Real India” guests. Thanks for a great interview. In my view, he is the first one of your guests so far to speak without the upper class affectations and pseudo-American business-speak (mangling catch-phrases like “synergy”, “innovation” and “entrepreneurship”) that were used like crutches by too many of your other guests.

    After listening to this interview, I felt that the ability to be self-critical is something that distinguishes India from China, and what makes India, in some ways, more like the U.S..

    Ken Lewis’s comment above rings true. Over the course of 20-odd years lived outside India (in the U.S.), I have come to believe that the beauty and genius of India becomes apparent only at a remove. And Ram Guha did a great job of articulating that.

  • Potter

    HE’S truly FANTASTIC! So it’s a good thing that his wife supports his work. Thank you Chris for a great interview. Will listen again to the Roy interview, but certainly again to this one for history, ideas and very sober ( non-romantic?) views on India. Wonderful series- as I make my way through……

  • Nat

    I must disagree with Guha’s views on Gurus. It is common for the Indian intellectual to deride all Indian Gurus. As a middle class Indian citizen, I find that these very spiritual leaders are a cohesive force in our varied society.

    I am 21 and Hindu. My Muslim friends attend spiritual seminars by prominent Islamic speakers and it is not uncommon for me to join them. As a Hindu, I am not out of place there either. Vice versa, attending meditation courses under Hindu Gurus (and volunteering with them), I meet several Muslims, Sikhs as enthusiastic about the meet as myself or any other Hindu present there.

    I read and watch many Indian intellectuals and wonder why do they not talk about what is really happening- the change in social culture of the middle class.

    Sure, there are cons! But this movement would not be gaining so much ground if all of these leaders were fake and had nothing genuine to offer. Only success inspires imitation, right?