Book review: Democrats And Dissenters by Ramachandra Guha

(Originally published in Mint, October 1 2016)

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In his magisterial India Conquered, Jon Wilson tells the story of the British who brought India to its knees not only by strength of arms, but also by dismantling existing institutions, anchoring in their place the beast we today call the Indian bureaucracy. Where populations negotiated terms with their rulers and government was a flexible (even amorphous) affair, the British introduced the structured reign of paper. One-size-fits-all rulebooks interpreted unbendingly by sequestered, letter-writing bureaucrats brought “order” but distanced rulers from the ruled. Local sentiments didn’t matter, for the objective of the Raj was not governance as much as the maintenance of a system that delivered taxes and (eventually) dividends to shareholders of the company that owned a country. Ruling India was to control India—”government” was gloss on an uncivilized enterprise.

Reading Part I (Politics And Society) of Ramachandra Guha’s latest collection of essays, Democrats And Dissenters, it struck me how much we have preserved of this machine (and mindset) that is designed to rule subjects, not govern citizens. After independence, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and others, we finally had an opportunity to formulate a vision for the nation. These leaders (particularly Nehru) were democrats convinced of their mission, seeking to bring to Indians that which had been denied us—freedom and identity. To a substantial extent, they succeeded—and Guha concedes, in his obituary to the Congress, that while the party could have done “somewhat better” after 1947, it could have done “a lot worse”. A weak Centre uncommitted to democracy would have destroyed India before it was born.

But Nehru and that first generation of home-grown rulers also had to evolve after 1947 from grand visionaries into pragmatic administrators of a country that presents contradictions in staggering diversity. And it was here that they compromised on democratic principle to fall back on colonial instruments to maintain “order”. After all, Guha writes, it was B.R. Ambedkar and Nehru themselves who brought in the first constitutional amendment to Article 19, beginning a cascade of official devices that are today arbitrarily deployed to silence critics of the powerful. (Chapter II, the driest in terms of style, has a paragraph that conveniently lists provisions endangering free speech).

Subsequent governments uniformly sought, when confronted with problems, to accumulate power to the state rather than uphold principle and fight greater battles—for all their contempt for liberal “Macaulayputras”, the right too (whose enduring weakness, Guha shows, is the lack of compelling intellectual depth) has exercised enthusiastically Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code. The founding fathers had vision, but in their own time India had started becoming what Guha calls a “50-50 democracy”.

Guha’s excellent chapter on Adivasis is a demonstration of how the state can bulldoze its way through the rights of those citizens who, in our national clamour, have never been able to make themselves heard (and while we are guaranteed a voice, nobody said anything about being heard). Unlike Muslims and Dalits, who have constructed pan-Indian alliances to assert themselves, fragmented Adivasis face a British-style “civilizing” mission from fellow Indians—Guha acquits neither Maoist nor Hindu and Christian groups, for whom Adivasis are mere “cannon fodder”. Add to this elected representatives who officially represent Adivasis, but have neither understanding nor knowledge of those they claim to protect. And they too prefer to push Adivasis into conforming to the nearest mainstream benchmarks (or accept political invisibility) instead of going through the inconvenience of ensuring these citizens are able to exercise the rights and freedoms guaranteed to them by law.

Part II (Ideologies And Intellectuals) is about (mainly male) luminaries. The switch from reading about riots to suddenly meditating on “The Brilliance And Dogmatism of Eric Hobsbawm” (a vastly superior chapter name to “Which Was Our Worst Year Ever?”) can feel abrupt. And after much reading centred on India, moving to the realm of ideas takes some reorientation. But there are, in Part II, beautiful insights into remarkable minds—from Benedict Anderson (featuring a friend who ate lice-filled bananas) to, Dharmanand Kosambi, that detached scholar of Buddhism (to whom Gandhi made a promise he went out of his way to keep). U.R. Ananthamurthy and Andre Beteille appear, but the most sparkling character is the sole woman among Guha’s democrats and dissenters, Dharma Kumar, who had wit, intensity, authority, and an intellectual backbone.

In an earlier chapter that excerpts a fascinating exchange between Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan on India’s parliamentary system, Guha laments that today’s leaders are unable not only to express real ideas but at best have abbreviated intellects. Part II reminds us why the work of scholars must be studied widely, even if the mood of our times is hysterical impatience, where immediate “answers” prevail over the layered sobriety of scholarship.

Guha’s language in some chapters is charming, especially in Part II, where anecdote merges analysis with a weave of brilliant quotes, the likes of which no longer emerge from contemporary pens. But with at least one lecture reincarnated as an essay, he seems not to have made an effort. The book is full of details that deserve exploration, and also functions as a travel diary (we know Guha broke visa rules in Pakistan), part memoir (he dedicates the book to Koshy’s restaurant in Bengaluru, a horror for eaters of fish), and part social commentary (Delhi is all about saying “important things in obscure language”). While one is taught to be uncomfortable with talk of morality in a book exploring the themes this one does, Guha carries such expressions with contextual exactness.

As a collection of essays, this book cannot and does not match up to Guha’s magnificent volumes of history. But Democrats And Dissenters is the voice of a liberal with balance in his tone and reason in his arguments. There is wisdom when Guha reminds us that democracies are not built in a day—the road is a long, painful one. Even in more culturally uniform nation states, the path was paved with blood, genocide, slavery, and worse before maturity dawned. With all our diversity, India’s path is triply challenging, but the promise of the destination can fuel persistence. For all our failures and fallacies, Guha reminds us that if India is a 50-50 democracy, it is because we are only halfway down the road. There is a long stretch that remains, and how we negotiate that stretch will make all the difference.

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