The launch of historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha’s latest anthology, Makers of Modern India in the city was as much about what he’d included in the book as what he’d left out.
Makers of Modern India, edited and introduced by Guha, features fascinating excerpts of the writings of 19 influential Indian political thinker-activists whom he has chosen not just for how they shaped the formation of our republic, but also for how original their ideas were, and how accessible and relevant their words remain to this day.
“This is one of Penguin India’s most important non-fiction books of the year, and it comes, fittingly, at the end of a year of celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Indian Republic,” said Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India, introducing the book to the packed audience at the Ballroom at Vivanta by Taj, Connemara.
The book begins with the writings of Raja Rammohan Roy, whom Guha calls ‘The First Liberal’, and then proceeds chronologically to cover the works of great thinkers up into the 1960s, some well-known, such as Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore and Ambedkar, some almost forgotten, such as Kalmadevi Chattopadhyay, Tarabai Shinde and Jotirao Phule, and some rather controversial, such as Jinnah and M.S. Golwalkar.
At various points during his lively, nearly hour-long speech, Guha defended and explained his choices, whether it was the controversial inclusions: “These men shaped India; for good or bad, you have to decide. I have to keep my ideological biases apart, that’s my job as a scholar”, or apparently glaring exclusions: “I left out people such as Subhas Chandra Bose, Vallabhbhai Patel or even Indira Gandhi because they haven’t left behind a legacy of original written work. They were actors, not thinkers.”
In response to other omissions brought up by the crowd, such as those of Kamaraj or Annadurai, he welcomed other scholars to do follow up volumes to this 500-odd page work. “I hope to spark many more volumes on other thinkers – the history of ideas has been very neglected by Indian historians,” he said. “I’ve given a mere glimpse, and it’s a fat book already! This is an attempt to start a debate, not close it.”
The other running theme of the evening was encapsulated in a witty yet poignant and at times downright poetic speech by former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who launched the book. “The book betokens a very real sense of loss… we had him and him and her too – where are they now?” he said. “How truly they cautioned us, admonished us and put steel into our spines. Whither have they gone?”
Guha addressed this loss in his own direct, energetic and no-nonsense style (which he, in a characteristic cricket metaphor likened to the ‘orthodoxy of Gambhir’ after the ‘sparkle of Sehwag’ in Gandhi’s speech). “Yes, no politician or social reformer writes or thinks like this anymore, but we have this remarkable resource available to us, in the form of their writings,” he said. “What we should worry about is that so many of us are ignorant of this legacy.”
These works, he pointed out, were not just of archival interest but just as relevant today. This hit home powerfully in the few passages he read out – a chillingly prophetic essay by the relatively obscure Marathi scholar Hamid Dalwai, in which he foreshadows the Ayodhya and Babri Masjid issue, to a pithy piece by E. V. Ramaswami about religious gurus in the 1920s that could have been written today.
The question and answer session that followed was typically Guha – covering a number of subjects, from NCERT’s new history text books to L.K. Advani’s rath yatra, and at all times spirited, well-informed and highly opinionated. And, judging by the strongly-worded suggestions from members of the audience, it may spawn a sequel or two to Makers of Modern India.