India, a 50:50 democracy? Founding fathers of the country should have done slightly better though they could have done a lot worse, says noted historian Ramachandra Guha in his latest book “Democrats and Dissenters”
At a time when the country is facing issues like rising intolerance, Kashmir crisis and unrest among the youth, the book Democrats and Dissenters authored by Ramachandra Guha narrates the different facets of Indian politics and tries to find out the origin of these contentious issues. Indeed we had an opportunity to develop a vision for the nation under the leadership of great leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel after Independence. These leaders particularly Nehru, were convinced of their mission, seeking freedom and identity for Indians.
Certainly, they succeeded in their task, Guha notes in his obituary to the Congress. He feels the party should have performed “slightly better” after 1947, though there was an apprehension of the party doing “a lot worse”. A weak Centre indifferent to democracy could have destroyed India before it was born. However, Nehru and the first generation of home grown rulers also had to evolve after 1947 from being grand visionaries into pragmatic administrators of a country that presents contradictions in staggering diversity. Perhaps it was here that they compromised on democratic principles to fall back on colonial instruments to maintain “order”. Guha lucidly 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. The founding fathers had vision, but in their own time India had started becoming what Guha calls a “50-50 democracy”.
In one of the essays the author traces the origins of Tamil Activism in Sri Lanka and build a parallel with ongoing Kashmir crisis to point out how particular communities or regions in both the nations have not been treated as full citizens of their purportedly democratic governments.
Batting for greater autonomy for Kashmiris here and Tamils in Sri Lanka, Guha says, “It remains the most reasonable, the most viable and the most humane solution to the terrible and tragic conflicts.”
Guha’s take on Adivasis reflects on how state can diminish the voice of those who are guaranteed a voice but infelicitously nobody has 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”.
“Unlike the Dalits and Muslims, the Adivasis continue to be seen only in discreet, broken-up fragments. The Dalits are a minority in every state but unlike Adivasis, they live in mixed villages.
“This means, when election time comes, the Dalits can have decisive impact even in the constituencies are not reserved for them. On the other hand, Adivasis can influence elections only in a few isolated areas where they are concentrated,” he explains.
Instead of ensuring these citizens the rights and freedoms which has been guaranteed to them by law, the elected representatives who officially represent Adivasis have lack of understanding or knowledge of those they claim to protect. Consequently, in this process they are sidelined from the mainstream and somehow they are coerced to accept the political invisibility.
Talking about how retention of archaic colonial laws like section 124A, the section on sedition, pose a threat to the right to freedom of expression, he argues that even though the Indian left and right both claim to dislike Thomas Macaulay (who drafted sections of Indian Penal Code), both have used it with impunity.
Ideologies and Intellectuals Part 2 of the book switches 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. After intense reading on India moving to the arena of ideas regenerate things from an altogether novel perspective. Remarkably, the laudable insights into ignited minds like Benedict Anderson (featuring a friend who ate lice-filled bananas) to, Dharmanand Kosambi, a detached scholar of Buddhism. U.R. Ananthamurthy and Andre Beteille appear, but the most sparkling character is the sole woman, Dharma Kumar, who had wit, intensity, authority, and an intellectual backbone.
Guha describes fascinating exchange between Nehru and Jayaprakash Narayan on India’s parliamentary system. He feels that today’s leaders not only fall short to express real ideas but sadly they have stymied intellects. The part two of the book stresses on the fact that how indispensable it is to study various scholars of different era. He beautifully amalgamates the tales with lucid analysis and brilliant quotes that is surely hard to find such combination from contemporary pens.
The book is full of details that deserve exploration, and also functions as a travel diary, part memoir (he dedicates the book to Koshy’s restaurant in Bengaluru), and part social commentary (Delhi is all about saying “important things in obscure language”).
The apparent contextual accuracy and the collection of essays might not be compared to his magnificent volumes of history but Democrats and Dissidents is the voice of liberal with balance and reason in tone and argument.
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