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