NDTV Dialogues: The man behind the Mahatma

NDTV Dialogues: The man behind the Mahatma

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New Delhi Noted historian Dr Ramchandra Guha talks about his new book and how to take Mahatma Gandhi's ideas out of history books and make them relevant today. He speaks to Sonia Singh on NDTV Dialogues. Here's the full transcript of the interview:

NDTV:
Hello and welcome. 66 years after Independence what would the father of the nation make of Indian polity today as we celebrated his birth anniversary this week? How do we actually take his ideas out of history books and make them relevant today? How much do we actually even know of the man behind the Mahatma? Joining me tonight is historian Dr Ramchandra Guha who has just released his new book, "Gandhi before India". Thanks very much for coming in Dr Guha
 
Ramchandra Guha: Thank you Sonia.
 
NDTV: One aspect which really struck me in this book is how much Mahatma Gandhi, as a young man even, he retained so much of the orthodoxies of his cast, yet completely rejected one aspect which was crucial at that time especially, the discrimination between different communities especially with Muslims. And interestingly even in South Africa when he had brought the Indian movement together he recognized attempts to try and split it, when you had groups saying that, you know that he only represented the Hindu aspect and he said, he pointed towards what's happening in India and said this is what the British are trying to do there. A message particular relevant today when we see what's happening in Muzaffarnagar, when we hear warnings again and again that these elections may be the most communal we have seen in recent times.
 
Ramchandra Guha: Absolutely and you know Mahatma Gandhi lived and died for Hindu Muslim harmony. Of course religious plurals were more, broadly he also had Jewish friends, Christian friends, his first patron in South Africa was a Parsi called Rustam ji, and as I show in my book when he had no funds, it was the Parsi philanthropist Ratan Tata, not the current Ratan Tata, but his ancestor who bailed him out. So Gandhi had this extra ordinary ability to cultivate friendships and develop understanding and respect across religious boundaries. It's vitally relevant in India Sonia as you point out, but is also relevant in all of the world, I mean if you look at the treatment of minorities in Pakistan, if you look at the trouble with Jews and Arabs, Israel, if you look at the rising tides of the Christian fundamentalism in some parts of Latin America, North America, I think Gandhi's message of inter faith harmony and mutual respect and tolerance, I think its phenomenally relevant. Of course its more relevant in our country because of the complexity of the religious dynamics and as you say at election time is when politicians start playing sectarian and dirty games. But the great thing about Gandhi is that he is not an Indian, he's a universal figure. Even if India forgets him he will be remembered elsewhere.
 
NDTV: And as you said in elections campaigns, somehow especially in Indian election campaigns. We had, President Obama used him in his election campaign, but the Gandhian ideals, even the Gandhi rhetoric, some would say, have disappeared.
 
Ramchandra Guha: It has in many ways. Of course our politicians daily violate it. I mean in terms of personality, no one could be farther from Gandhi than his fellow Gujarati, Narendra Modi, because Gandhi listened, Narendra Modi only speaks. Forget the Hindu Muslim side, but just the megalomania, the self-obsession of Modi, but likewise with the Congress party. Gandhi by the way kept his own children scrupulously away from politics and even from financial gain. He willed the royalties to his writings, which are in calculably valuable, to a trust and not to his family. So Indian politicians by and large deny Gandhi everyday, but other Indians affirm him. I mean if you look at the work of, extra ordinary work of Ela Bhatt and SEWA; if you look at such wonderfully selfless social workers like Abhay and Rani Bang who in Gadchiroli, the doctors who have eliminated leprosy and malaria among Adivasis; look at the environmental movement, people like Medha Pathkar, look at young Indians. I mean the most heartening thing is that when my book was released in Delhi, a couple of days ago there were so many young people, you know, of course it was nice to see my friends, my contemporaries, middle aged men and women like myself. Young people are curious to know about him, so the great thing about Gandhi is even if India denies him, even if the official policy is only to remember him on 2nd October and go to Rajghat and put some flowers, some how his message of pluralism, interfaith harmony, his opposition to gender discrimination and I mean its quite extraordinary that Gandhi bought more women into public life that you know Marxism did or Lenin or Churchill. I think there are various ways in which ordinary people discover, re-discover, re-interpret and affirm Gandhi across the world.
 
NDTV: So his messages is always of hope, even when it seemed that there was no way out, when he was first battling, the message always of hope even at a time; when say fellow intellectual Ananthamurthy faced so much criticism for saying he wouldn't want to live particularly in Modi's India and made the point that I wouldn't even want to live particularly in India led by Rahul Gandhi, so that the growth of the intolerance has also risen, if not just of physical but actually intellectual intolerance
 
Ramchandra Guha: And verbal intolerance you know, animosity and anger. I mean Gandhi was extraordinarily compassionate and he believed in dialogue, he believed in listening you know, when he ran his journal Indian Opinion in South Africa and later Harijan in young India here, when he came back home, he would give a huge amount of space to his critics. He would say someone has written it and he would reproduce the criticisms of one of Gandhi's ideas of non-violence or on health, and he would say, and he would patiently, carefully try to argue back. He would explain his arguments, sometimes he would elaborate, sometimes he would define them; but as one historian said Gandhi's was a dialogic imagination, his politics were of dialogue, reciprocal understanding, listening and also Gandhi was the wonderful face, the beauty of compromise. I think one of the things lacking in our politics today, and this particularly true of the Congress and the BJP, I have never seen such a poisonous partisanship you know, the name calling by both sides. I don't want to single out one, but even on crucial national issues like national security, a corruption act; you know Gandhi would say, I mean Gandhi was always prepared to have a dialogue with his adversary, even the most racist adversary, General Smuts in the case of South Africa, the Viceroys here you know, the run up to partition he was willing to talk to Jinnah, kept the dialogue with Ambedkar going continuously. So I think that is one of the great things about Gandhi is that his imagination is the dailogic imagination, it is not a monologic imagination
 
NDTV: Do we actually also need to re invent, move beyond? In a sense we limit our discourse always on Narendra Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, given there are other politicians available, the Mayawatis, the Mulayam Singh Yadavs, even say Jairam Ramesh or Digvijaya Singh. Why it is that we haven't been able to invent a new kind of politics or politicians for India today?
 
Ramchandra Guha: You know it is kind of a short term-ism, the cynicism, you know, the inability to build bridges, to think in the long term. But I am not that despairing, but I think there are some state chief ministers that are quite good. I think all the mistakes that we make in the, especially the middle class makes and media plays into this, is to present things as a national thing, Sonia. Is it Modi or is it Rahul? Now I don't care whether Rahul or Modi becomes Prime Minister because I know what India needs is not one great redemptive heroic figure in Delhi, but 10 or 12 good chief ministers. I think Nitish Kumar, Manik Sarkar you know, even Narendra Modi, some amount of good work he's done in; or you know Siddaramaiah in my state. Siddaramaiah says the narrative round. I mean the BJP was hand in glove with the mining lobby. Siddaramaiah is known to be an honest man. He's trying to involve poor people in politics. Manik Sarkar in Tripura I mentioned, so I think we are ready to look for low-key people. 10 or 12 good chief ministers of the Nitish Kumar, Manik Sarkar kind, would transform India much more effectively than a single charismatic person in Delhi could do. Because many issues are state based whether it be health, education, law and order. I mean look at the consecutive failures of Akhilesh Yadav you know, he had a great chance, I mean a young man who won a important victory, campaigned for it and yet you know failed the citizens of UP, unlike Nitish Kumar or Siddaramaiah who changed around the narrative. Who would have thought that Bihar would be a state where people talk positively, where non-resident Bihari's went back? So I think it is, you talk about hope I think there are two kinds of politics Sonia, there's a politics of hope and there's a politics of fear. Too many politicians play the politics of fear, but having said that I am not that despairing. I think there's some young MPs, young MLAs and politics is not only about electoral politics. Politics is also about citizens' actions, it is about activism, it is about constructive work, it is about writing, it is about thinking and in that sense there are elements of Gandhi's legacy that are alive. Having said, I just try to make one last point, Gandhi is a sounding board. Gandhi doesn't provide you all the answers. You know there are some of his ideas, for example you don't have to all follow his food fads, a fruit and nut diet. You don't all have to be celibate; you don't have to be viciously opposed to modern technology as he some times was, but particularly his emphasis on pluralism, on dialogue, on an end to gender and caste discrimination and on understanding alternate points of view and respecting the right of someone to disagree with you. I mean the case of Ananthamurthy, it was very clear I mean, what he said was I would not accept that. I would have said if Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister I will stay here in India and fight him. But the vicious abuse that he got, displays the extremely intolerant mindset. I think that's really where we need to get beyond Gandhi because we need to listen not just to speak, but to listen.
 
NDTV: But it's interesting because mentioning Ananthamurthy, that there's feeling, a whole lot or opinion of, oh there's a group of intellectuals or left-leaning intellectuals that perhaps you would fall into, that Prof Amartya Sen, Prof Ananthamurthy, Dr Ram Guha wouldn't support the Narendra Modi government, but who cares, India doesn't need them, we need Modi
 
Ramchandra Guha: That's sad. Maybe we need Modi. I mean I said, which is why I said if Modi wins I will stay here and critically scrutinise his policies, if he does good things I will praise it, if he displays the kind of authoritarian arrogance he has in the past, I will criticise him. So I think intellectuals are very important. I said; Gandhi, there was so much dissent against him you know, people in his; even his closest colleges dissented against him. They wrote against him. Patel or Nehru or the anthropologist NK Bose, who opposed his celibacy experiment in Noakhali you know. Rabindranath Tagore, most important, the towering, is a great example because you know, Rabindranath Tagore criticised Gandhi. Gandhi listened and modified his views, especially on the questions of English language. You know Tagore was; Gandhi was saying only mother tongue, only mother tongue and Tagore said mother tongue yes, but also English because it's a window to the world. Then he said we must glory the illumination of the lamp lit anywhere on the globe and we saw that he had, unconsciously in his fight against colonialism, he had unwittingly got into a xenophobic closed mindset, and he changed his mind, and as a result of the debate with Tagore Gandhi said, "I live in a house where my windows are open and the breeze from all parts comes in"; so I think this is what politicians can learn from Gandhi not just intellectuals. Intellectuals in a sense are insignificant, that's not important. It's important that when Mr Kapil Sibal and Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad are arguing on your show, they are listening to each other. At the moment they are not. They are out shouting at one another. And I think, this is one of the most depressing things about our politics, is the poisonous partisanship; by the way which may be even worse at the state level. You know between Jayalalithaa's ministers and Karunanidhi's ex-ministers the hatred and the animosity may be even more or between the Trinamool ministers and CPM ex-ministers, that is what is worrying to me

NDTV: But they can't have tea together, socially boycotted
 
Ramchandra Guha: Exactly, democracy rests on understanding and listening, of course, the party in government will follow its own policy, that's fair enough, but at least listen to an alternative point of view
 
NDTV: As a biographer now of Mahatma Gandhi, it must have struck you as fitting that the Ordinance, already called the 'criminal ordinance', was withdrawn on Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary. I don't know if that symbolism was welltimed, but its interesting that there was at least protest against it, and not giving credit to Rahul Gandhi at all, but there was an onslaught of protest. In that sense, the Gandhian model is alive somewhere?
 
Ramchandra Guha: Absolutely, I think that has raised the bar for the people. I should say by the way, just on Ordinance, something your viewers may not know, is that one of the most outstanding civil society organizations in India called the Association for Democratic Reforms, has consistently campaigned to clean up politics, they are not visible, they are not on TV, there are no names of individuals, its the ADR. They filed the case in the Supreme Court making it mandatory for criminal records and assets to be declared. They filed the PIL arguing that political parties' accounts should be made transparent. They are responsible for the judgment of the Supreme Court that people convicted should be debarred from contesting in Parliament. So its really a victory of, to begin with, of weighted, concerted action by a citizen's group called Association for Democratic Reforms. They are IIM professors working with competent lawyers, like Kamini Jaiswal who represented them in the Supreme Court and this was sought to be overturned by the political class. It is quite interesting that the BJP was quite happy to overturn the judgment, that in some sense infuses new hope, that slowly we can start taking the steps towards the decriminalization of politics. It will be a long haul. We need electoral reforms. The ADR has some very interesting suggestions. If you go to the website, there are various systematic ways in which we can make the election funding, the conduct of polls more transparent, more fair, more responsive to the wishes of people. So that is happening even if you have a cynical, amoral political class, you have citizens' groups that are not just blindly oppositional, but are looking for constructive legal ways to clean up the system.
 
NDTV: Is the issue however that even in citizens groups, and of course the ADR did remarkable work, many others, is that its kind of diffused, because you lack, say, a unifying leadership, which may be apolitical, behind which they can gather? For instance at some point Anna Hazare seemed to represent anti-corruption, Arvind Kejriwal, then General VK Singh emerged. Is that an issue, of course these are all names quoted out of Delhi, Maharashtra, but there is no really pan Indian force or unifying civil force?
 
Ramchandra Guha: That's true. And may be one needs a network, a coalition of civil society organisations that can take it forward. But take Anna Hazare, I also mentioned Gandhi's idea of beauty, of compromise; you know when Anna Hazare went on that fast it drew the whole nation together and the coverage on television, at that stage the government capitulated. The government said we'll appoint a committee of five cabinet ministers, with five un-elected society representatives. It was a great victory for Team Anna. Now had Gandhi been in their place and I'm not saying this retrospectively, I don't want to reveal the name of the person with the team, I called him up that day, even if I have to say so I called Arvind Kejriwal that day; I said this is a great victory for you, you have five ministers and five of yours, keep the press out. The media is great at flagging a problem, its not good at solving it. Have your discussions behind doors and work out a good anti-corruption act. Do not say it will be telecast live. Instead of that, the Team Anna went to studios, called Sibal names. Sibal called them more names and the whole thing collapsed. At that stage a smart Gandhian would have said I brought the government to its knees, this is the time to compromise, to say keep the media out, keep everyone else out. For two weeks, five of you, five of us, we'll sit together and hammer out a good anti-corruption legislation. So I think there are lessons from Gandhi that civil society activists need to learn in the 21st century age, and one of the lessons is that media is brilliant at highlighting a problem, media is not very good at solving the problem. If you want to solve the problem, keep the media out till you get a proper good Act in place.
 
NDTV: Interestingly Narendra Modi just said that he thinks Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest communicator. So interesting there because Narendra Modi seems to have learnt the art of getting a simple message out. In that way perhaps he has learnt from Mahatma Gandhi?
 
Ramchandra Guha: But I would like to disagree, because Gandhi was allowed to speak up. You try and hear Gandhi. He didn't have this stirring, macho, leonine voice of Narendra Modi. He talked quietly, in an understated way, he was a very skilled writer and he wrote everything he did himself. I'm not sure that books that are in Narendra Modi's name are written by himself, So Gandhi wrote in Gujarati and English, he had clear ideas but he had consistent ideas. I think the problem with Narendra Modi is that his adviser is telling him you say this here and you say that there. In Karnataka this will work, in Gujarat that will work, in UP a third thing will work, in Bihar a fourth thing will work. That's cynical instrumental messaging. Gandhi was clear about what he said. If he changed his mind it was because he respected the opponent's disagreements. So it's nice to invoke Mahatma Gandhi. But in my view purely in terms of personality, a self-obsessed, macho, powerful figure like that of Narendra Modi, is world's removed, in terms of personality, from a reflective, self-effacing, understated, open-minded person like Mahatma Gandhi.
 
NDTV: Well, if you say self-effacing. I don't know about reflective, but one of the points Narendra Modi has also hammered home about Rahul Gandhi and Congress, is also that Mahatma Gandhi had said that Congress should be disbanded, and many have said that Congress has perhaps become complacent with the years of power, Rahul Gandhi may well be reflective, but we don't really know what his reflections are all about and in the sense he may talk the language of Gandhi, but do you see him more of...
 
Ramchandra Guha: Not at all, Congress violates Gandhi almost on a daily basis. As I said the thing about Gandhi is that he doesn't live in formal, electoral politics, he is alive in civil society. Even if India rejects him, other people will affirm him, in Tibet, in Burma, in Adams Spring ideas on satyagraha were circulated. President Obama said, when asked whom you would like to dine with, he said Mahatma Gandhi and then he added it would be a frugal meal, of course it would be. In Brazil there's a wonderful music group named after Gandhi. So Gandhi is kind of a universal figure and his ideas, his world-views, his philosophy was really shaped in those 20 years in the diaspora in South Africa. Which is why in this book, I've tried to keep India out of this story, salt satyagraha and his great anti-colonial freedom struggles out of it and to show how, in the conditions of diaspora, as a searching, struggling lawyer and community activist he developed his really profoundly original and still compellingly relevant moral and political philosophy.
 
NDTV: At a time when today we started discussing the Muzaffarnagar riots, the message of inter-faith harmony of Mahatma Gandhi, but what we see today, and I think the attack on the word secularism, the idea that seems to imply, there seems to be a belief that secularism has come to mean, for some parties including the Congress and other parties, that you appease one group versus the other and that's what's leading to the divisive feelings. Would you, perhaps in implementing secularism, think some parties have gone too far?
 
Ramchandra Guha: Absolutely, which is why I don't use the term secularism, I use the term pluralism, anti-majoritarianism. You are right in some ways, the Congress party has nurtured some of the most reactionary elements in the Muslim community. Nehru didn't do that. Nehru got some brilliant Muslim intellectuals into Parliament, there was a lawyer from Aligarh, Prof Khwaja, there was a brilliant Bombay scholar called Saifuddin Tyabji. He wanted to get modernist Muslims into politics because unfortunately the Pakistan movement took away all the Muslim intellectuals to Pakistan. So I think the Congress sometimes pandered to reactionary elements, like Rajiv Gandhi's decision to overturn Shah Bano's judgment was a great example of this. So that's true, Congress has played cynical, manipulative instrumental politics often. The BJP on the other hand has shown no clear signs that it rejects the Hindu Rashtra, that it rejects Hindu majoritarianism. The great thing about Nehru and Gandhi was that immediately after the backdrop of partition they said, whatever Pakistan does to its minorities in India everyone will have equal rights. So which is why I've stopped using the term secularism, contaminated by its misuse by the Congress party. If you talk about inter-faith harmony, pluralism, anti-majoritarianism, India should not and must not be a Hindu Pakistan. That to me is a non-negotiable credo of any democratic Indian. One of the most transformative events in my own life, after the Bhagalpur riots of 1989-90, when I personally went, many young people are too young to remember this, I went, after the riots, and I saw what Hindus, my fellow Hindus, had done to village after village of Muslims. Likewise in Kashmir the reverse happened where Pandits were purged by the rampaging Jihadi mobs in 1989-90; which is a story, written about beautifully by Rahul Pandita in his book. So that personal experience, of this kind of purging of a minority, would stand against it and I think that's why, since Hindus are in a majority in India, one must be very careful not to reproduce what the Pakistanis have done with their minorities. And I think that was the greatness of Gandhi and Nehru. Nehru may not have followed him, but I deeply admire Nehru. I have a difficult task, because when I praise Nehru people think I'm praising the Congress party of today. But I admire Nehru because without Nehru we might have really become a Hindu Pakistan. The courage he showed after Gandhiji died, '48, '49, '50, the first General Election he fought on the basis of inter-faith harmony, the Jan Sangh put up a reactionary sadhu, who wanted women to go back into purdah, against him. This was the kind of man he was. He was modernist, he was pluralist, and that's what he learnt from Mahtma Gandhi. We have to continually reaffirm that India is not a Hindu Pakistan. Modi said I'm a Hindu Nationalist. In my view there is no Hindu nationalist, only Hindu chauvinist. You cannot be a Hindu nationalist, because by prefacing the word Hindu, you are denying people of other faiths or no faith at all their claim to be as Indian as you are.
 
NDTV: He also said toilets for temples, so there's a little movement, he's moved
 
Ramchandra Guha: He's changing a bit, but I think he must be consistent. So long as the RSS believes in a Hindu Rashtra I can't trust them
 
NDTV: Well Dr Guha we'll wait eagerly for the next book of this two-part biography. It was a fascinating read, thank you for joining us.
 
Ramchandra Guha: Thank you.
Story First Published: October 04, 2013 21:47 IST

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