In the preface to his latest book Patriots & Partisans, environmentalist, cricketologist and historian Ramachandra Guha writes, “I am a person of moderate views, these sometimes expressed in extreme fashion. This makes me an anomaly, an oddity even, for polemics are normally the preserve of the right and the left.” In this wide-ranging collection of essays, Guha defends the liberal centre against the dogmas of the Left and Right, with polemical verve and provocative audacity.
The book begins with an overview of the major threats to the Indian republic as Guha perceives them. Other essays turn a critical eye on Hindutva, the Communist left, and the dynasty-obsessed Congress party. Guha then explores the contemporary relevance of Gandhi’s religious pluralism and analyses the fall in Jawaharlal Nehru’s reputation after his death.
The essays in the second part of the book focus on writers and scholars. Guha explains why bilingual intellectuals, once so dominant in India, are now thin on the ground. He presents sensitive portraits of a magazine editor, a bookshop owner, a great publishing house, and a famous historical archive. Whether writing about politics or culture, profiling individuals or analysing social trends, Guha comes out with strong and not infrequently contentious views.
Despite the wide ground covered by Guha, a cursory reading of his book would reveal the principal target of his political polemic. Whether we consider an ‘enlightened’ believer of Hinduism as the ‘Hindutva troll’ or ‘true patriot’ depends on our perspective. According to Guha, of the three enemies of the plural, inclusive idea of India, the best known is the notion of a Hindu Rashtra, “as represented in an erratic fashion by the Bharatiya Janata Part (BJP) and a more resolute (not to say bigoted) manner” by the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh. His vision of the hyper-vocal Hindutvadi is invariably male, upper caste and often a non-resident Indian.
Guha’s vituperative attacks on the Sangh Parivar, the RSS, the Hindutvadis, the Hindus of the diaspora, the Internet Hindus etc seem to have been provoked by private emails he received from various quarters which berate him, rebuke him for being anti Hindutva and so on.
Surely someone described as a ‘leading’ Indian historian can do better than indulge in these infantile gimmicks? For some one whose earlier environmental work represented a serious effort in the genre of historical chronicle, the present collection of essays represents a somewhat jaundiced vision. His ideological dislike of anything that represents a view of India that does not subscribe to his ‘liberal’ version borders on ‘hatred’.
Hindutva, which is Guha’s target, has been written about since the time of Savarkar in the 1920s. Savarkar defined a “Hindu’ as “any citizen of the future independent India, regardless of race, religion, caste, creed.” He was one of the first caste Hindus who initiated inter-caste dining. It prompted K B Hedgewar to establish the RSS in 1925. If Indian liberalism is represented by the ignorance of the country’s Sanskrit tradition it is not surprising that the Hindus of the country are in turn contemptuous of this failure. The binary opposition that Guha sets up between patriots and partisans is reflective of the limited nature of his own perspectives.
As for the question of minorities, he rightly raises the question of violence, but is selective in pointing out only that which is committed by the Hindus and is silent on the atrocities committed by other religious groups both historically, in recent times and at present. In penning his thoughts, Guha seems to have adopted the role of an inquisitor rather than that of a historian.