Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Guha and the thinkers and makers of modern India.

Ramachandra Guha's book on 19 'thinkers and makers of modern India' is out and seems to have been well received.
I find it puzzling. I'd have thought, the people whose ideas and actions might still be relevant to modern India would have been those possessed of superior rationally and maturity and independence of character rather than mere publicity mongers who abandoned even such see-through intellectual garments as Indian modesty requires, in their headlong rush to jump on every bandwagon or head up any passing mob.
Prior to Independence none of the people mentioned in this book had much power and, perhaps for that very reason, little motive or leisure to think rather than simply strike attitudes. Since the British were brokers of both Power and Knowledge rather than hegemonic monopolists of both- though India could boast its exiles, it was not the case that its exiles competed at the level of pure thought and analysis.

Keynes, in his book on Indian monetary policy, drew attention to a special sort of narrowness that arises from having knowledge only of India and England, that too only at the level of leader-writer Punditry. It is noteworthy that already, at that point in time, there were Indians with a larger vision- however, their failure to synthesize an intelligentsia with a wider horizon than that of the hacks and windbags the British had insisted on engendering meant that Thought, as a shaping force, remained a dead letter- though no doubt it might ricochet unpredictably at rarefied levels of policy framing (a necessary and sufficient qualification for participation in which, the British considered, was an impartial Mandarin ignorance of both empirical conditions in the market and the manner in which public institutions actually implemented policy).

This is not to say there was no dialogue between specialists in different fields. On the contrary, there was a sort of lowest common denominator dialogue such that the Scientist might abruptly claim that the latest radio-carbon results prove that the Vedas were written before the formation of the mountains, or a former President of India, an old Socialist, suddenly start quoting some Ananda Margi nutjob, an Econ Lecturer at some Mid West Community College, who predicted that the Western Economy would collapse in 1990 or something equally silly.
Of course, the President in question had already seen to it that his own children were all 'well-settled' in the U.S and thus his satisfaction in contemplating the downfall of the West was of a purely Philosophical sort.

Yet, India has had thinkers and shapers. Our administrators and  lawyers, even journalists and historians were, if anything, a cut above what one might expect in such a poor country. Who were they? Well, for a lot of 'Indglish' speakers they were Mummy and Daddy and Uncle and Aunty and Granny and Grandad and so on.
But- in so far as they thought and acted in a manner promoting the commonweal- were they not mere imitators of the British, Macaulay's Babu class?
To answer this question, we might begin by asking the question- what features does India have which do not flow, in a purely mechanical faction, from the fact that it was ruled by the British and that it's intelligentsia had some exposure to thoughts expressed in the English language?
What institutions, or adaptions of institutions, make independent India different, rather than inferior merely, to the probable trajectory it would otherwise have taken?
Well, we might start off with concepts and programs unique to India- Ahimsa (ghastly failure), khaddar (a bad joke), Panchsheel (hilarious till the Chinese bloodied our nose), Swadesi (apparently some Burmese nutjob actually implemented this as 'Buddhist Economics', greatly to Schumacher's delight, thus setting back his country by 80 years), Sampoorna kranti (which meant replacing Indira Gandhi with Raj Narain!) and, of course, the grandest success of them all- viz. Bhoodan which culminated in Bihardhan- i.e. the redistribution of land by the voluntary action and consent of the land-lords which resulted in the whole state of Bihar (or at least 97%) being donated to ....urm dunno...but it was what Vinobha Bhave wanted and he had vowed not to leave Bihar till it happened and then it happened and so he finally did leave Bihar and...urm...that really shaped modern India and represented like truly visionary thinking because everybody else thought it was impossible BUT only the Indians actually tried it and thus PROVED ...that they can't think or shape events worth shit.
What of Women and doing away with feudalism and stuff like that? The China got rid of 'foot-binding' in half a generation, India completely did away with things like child-marriage and ban on svagotra marriage and the tyranny of khap panchayats and so on way back in ...urm, except we didn't at all.
The Koreans get rid of untouchability and caste and land-lordism and poor hygiene in the villages and so on- all in the space of what? ten years? fifteen years? In India, Ambedkar converts to Buddhism, though he knew it was the most successful exporter of the concept of Untouchability in history, and... well... urm... the good news is that not only will the Caste system be constitutionally preserved but everybody wants to be classed as 'backwards' if not outright retarded..  
True, every nation has a bunch of wind-bags gassing on about democracy and 'wimmin's' rights and so on. But, not every nation has had democracy for over 60 years with more or less Left wing Govts in power both at the Center and the States. The inescapable conclusion we must draw is that either
a) thinkers and shapers of the sort Guha celebrates had shit-for-brains and zero practical ability
b) thousands of Indians have shown an unexampled genius as thinkers and shapers in ensuring that the thoughts and schemes of the wind-bag do-goodniks ended up frustrating their own ends.

I suppose another possibility exists- viz. Guha's brand of caramel centered historiography is an exercise in meaningless pi-jaw of a sort that we, at this time of crisis when the clash of civilizations of the environmental greenhouse gasses of the collapse of the global capitalist system and like I'm sure those fucking Germans will soon go all Nazi and start invading Poland again and like check out that Narendra Modi dude- what if his beard reaches Ayatollah proportions?- and isn't Arundhati Roy silly because in these illiberal times I will defend to the death something or the other and free speech and human rights and like that old song of Amitabh Kumar says 'Hum ko pyaar chahiye'- 'All I wants is Love' and, guess what, I'm doing another fucking big book on guess who- yup, Gandhi- coz that always sells.

But what was original in Gandhi? Hunger strikes? That was borrowed from the Suffragettes and it had already failed. Non-Cooperation, Rent strikes and so on. The Irish had been there, done that and, on balance, won their historic struggle albeit by an own goal. Yes, I suppose Gandhi was doing something novel in supporting Khilafat. But it was novel because it was silly.

More broadly, if we leave aside programs initiated or catalyzed by the British- including ex-I.C.S liberals like Hulme, Wedderburn and Cotton and so on- what are we left with?

Guha includes Jinnah perhaps because his 'hostage-theory' (whereby Indians won't kill Muslims for fear Pakistanis might retaliate against Hindus) was as hilarious and purely Indian as Gandhi's hunger strikes. But both refer to an absence of thought and were destructive rather than constructive of the inheritance from the Raj.

It is a great criticism of Guha's book that he does not mention truly great men and original thinkers like Tanguturi Prakasam who, as C.M of Madras Presidency, proposed the destruction of the textile mills so that they might be replaced by Khaddar. This led to clashes with the Communists whom he locked up- surely the only occasion when that was the wrong thing to do.

Thinkers and Shapers? I praise the wreckers and the mindless bribe-takers. It is they who, between them, have kept India going and salvaged for it such relicts of modernity as the Raj bequeathed it.

The odd thing is that there are plenty of good writers and policy-makers- Judges, Doctors, Engineers, School Inspectors and so on- who weren't the sort of futile numskulls Guha lists. What they tended to avoid was single valued solutions to complex socio-economic problems. In Economics, we have Tinbergen's rule- the number of policy instruments must equal the number of policy objectives. Any ideologue who thinks otherwise- for e.g that women's education /micro-finance or whatever  is a panacea- is either a careerist or  a nutjob or both.

Guha is looking for non-Marxists nutjobs because there is some other Guha who has cornered the market in talking up Marxist nutjobs.
Yet Guha is taken seriously.

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