Monojit Majumdar: Rebels Against the Raj documents seven remarkable foreigners who gave up their country and their old lives to embrace and immerse themselves in India. Why is it important to know them now?
This book has been in the making for a very long time. I wrote a biography of Verrier Elwin, an Oxford scholar who came to India in the 1920s, became the leading authority on Adivasis, was close to both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, and was the first foreigner to be granted Indian citizenship after 1947. One of his abiding regrets was that despite all his books on Adivasis, having met Madeleine Slade (later Mira Behn) at Sabarmati Ashram, knowing Gandhi and Nehru and understanding their nationalism, he didn’t have that absolute mark of identification with India, which was going to prison during the Raj. That’s why I wanted to write about people who took this rather radical step of identifying so completely with their adopted country, that they were willing to undergo arrest and incarceration. After I finished the second volume of my Gandhi biography in 2018, I began writing this book. It just so happens it is out in the 75th year of Indian independence but it is timely because it is principally a group portrait of seven extraordinary individuals and through them, provides a newer understanding of 20th century India and its encounters with the West. It’s a challenge to xenophobia, insularity and parochialism. It also questions the sense that Indians know everything and can’t learn anything from foreigners. Jingoism is sweeping the world and these lives are a challenge to that kind of view. I think they uphold the best traditions of our freedom movement; people like Gandhi and Tagore, who were completely grounded in India but willing to engage with open minds and learn from other countries and cultures.
Monojit Majumdar: Seventy-two years after the Constitution was adopted, where does India’s republican experiment stand today?
In some ways, democracy has deepened. Narendra Modi is the Prime Minister with an OBC background. Mamata Banerjee, who has no dynastic connection in politics, is also completely self-made. Our voting percentages are still high. Many of our entrepreneurs are no longer from standard business families like the Ambanis, Birlas and Tatas.
In other ways, I think we are facing a decline, particularly in the quality, capability, and effectiveness of our public institutions. The civil service, the judiciary and the media are performing at below optimum levels, at levels the framers of the Constitution would never have anticipated. If Ambedkar and his colleagues had seen the turbidity, laggardness and delays in the judiciary, seen how much of the media is completely captive to the ruling party, how bureaucrats and police officers just serve their political masters and not what is laid down in the Constitution, they would be horrified. Our institutional decay has been going on for a very long time and isn’t just a product of this government. It dates back to the ’70s and the Congress governments. More recently, of course, our ruling party is completely silent on sectarian polemics. So secular institutional decline is something that should worry us.
But for a country as large and complicated as India, things don’t always move in a unilinear direction. It is always harder for a historian to pass judgment on what’s happening today as compared to what happened 15 or 20 years ago. But in my interim opinion, this is the Republic’s fourth major crisis. The first was Partition. The second was the ’60s, when we had wars with China and Pakistan, severe droughts and food riots. The third was the Emergency. And now it is the fourth. The rest of the world knows this, though some of us might be navel-gazing. Either the ruling party will claim India is more powerful and respected than ever before, which is complete nonsense, or the Opposition will only see Modi as the problem. But what about institutional decline, sectarian mobilisation and finally, the galloping pace of environmental degradation? Even if there was no climate change, India today would be an environmental basket case, exacting a huge social, economic and medical health cost. India came through the previous crisis, rebuilt itself and rededicated itself to constitutional values. I can’t say the same will happen this time.
Sandeep Dwivedi: Once princely states invited foreigners, now we have Jaspreet Bumrah getting spotted by John Wright in the IPL. What is the role outsiders have played for cricketers in India?
The global context starts from Ranjitsinhji, who had to make his name in England before being accepted as an Indian cricketer. Sunil Gavaskar said how an English coach called TS Worthington, who was opening batsman and played Test matches for England in the 1930s, taught him how to play the rising ball at a school camp in the 1960s. There have also been reverse examples. Bishan Singh Bedi taught Alan Knott yoga to improve his flexibility. The great thing about cricket is that it is truly non-xenophobic. The fans are xenophobic, but cricketers are not.
Sandeep Dwivedi: You were in cricket administration…Is there an inevitability in the Indian cricket system that the political class will prevail regardless of who is the chief or his qualifications?
I agree. I think Sourav Ganguly’s tenure has been disappointing in that a person who was independent-minded and stood up for what he believed was right as captain has become so submissive and deferential. Why didn’t he fight for the Ranji Trophy? I hope that our defeat in South Africa leads to some introspection about how not having a Ranji Trophy may have contributed to us not having a very good bench strength. Is there a great young Indian batsman now after Kohli? No. You learn batting in the long haul only in Ranji Trophy, you can’t learn it in IPL.
Liz Mathew: The BJP has managed not just an electoral victory but succeeded in making an ideological intrusion. It has changed the narrative. How is this happening?
I think of the poet WB Yeats’ lines — “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity”— when I contrast Manmohan Singh with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, or Rahul Gandhi with Shah. No one should underestimate the political intelligence of Narendra Modi. I think the political intelligence of Amit Shah may be overrated; he’s a manipulator and a divider, an intriguer but Modi understands things. He understands how to shift the narrative. The fact that the BJP has claimed Patel and Bose — two life-long Congressmen — as its icons, is a sign of how clever he is, and in some ways, diabolically clever he is. But of course, it’s the Congress party who has ceded them. At a state level, I think they face robust ideological opposition. But absolutely do not underestimate Modi’s intelligence, his ability to manipulate symbols, ideas, names, rewrite the past and paint dreams of what the future might be like. Clearly, Rahul Gandhi is incapable of opposing him, not just politically, but also ideologically. In many ways, the Gandhis are Modi and the BJP’s best friends and this is becoming more evident every day. History will pass its own verdict on what’s happening. I am looking beyond symbols, ideas and statues and events to the deeper degradation of Indian democracy. We should be worried about all that has gone on under Modi’s watch for the last eight years, and particularly after 2019, after Amit Shah entered the Cabinet.
Liz Mathew: Being a historian, you must have assessed the purpose of this history rewriting for the right wing, and it is in the process now. How far can it go?
As long as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi are in charge of the Congress, it can keep going on. Because in Sonia Gandhi’s history, the Congress is all the Gandhi family, except one person, Mahatma Gandhi. Even they have to make an exception of Mahatma Gandhi. Otherwise, it is Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi. A lot of this rewriting has been enabled by the ignorance and nepotism of the leadership of the Congress, which has allowed the BJP to so daringly claim not just Patel, who was Gandhi’s right-hand man and then later Nehru’s right-hand man, but Bose, who named the brigades of the Indian National Army (INA) Gandhi brigade, Nehru brigade and Azad brigade. This has only been enabled because Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party discarded Patel, Bose, and many others. They discarded Gokhale, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Kamraj, Shastri — a lifelong Congressman and a principled secularist. So I think a lot of this has to do with the family capture of the Congress party. And the sooner it goes, the better for the Congress and the better for Indian democracy. I think Modi and Shah want the Gandhi family there forever, for both political and ideological and history rewriting reasons.
Harish Damodaran: Do you think that maybe the first 68 years were actually an aberration; the majoritarian impulse was always there? What exactly happened in the ’40s? How is it that we became a ‘secular’ state and lasted 68 years? Suppose Godse hadn’t killed Gandhi, what we are seeing today maybe would have come a little earlier?
My great teacher, the sociologist Andre Beteille, told me many years ago that the fundamental blocks of Indian society are family, caste, and religion. A modern secular framework requires individuals to detach themselves from these. That was the attempt of our Constitution makers, certainly of Gandhi and Ambedkar. It’s no accident that none of Gandhi’s children joined politics after Independence. Yes, constructing a secular state was not just against the grain of Indian but South Asian culture. Pakistan and Bangladesh are Islamic majoritarian states, Nepal is Hindu, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are Buddhist majority, Bhutan has treated Nepalese minorities barbarically while Turkey has destroyed its democratic models at the altar of Islamic fundamentalism and the cult of personality politics. India is now approximating this norm. In some ways, Partition is the original sin and fundamentalism has forced a mirror image reaction.
Devyani Onial: You were born and grew up in Uttarakhand and in The Unquiet Woods you wrote about peasant uprisings against commercial forestry. What do you think of projects like the Char Dham corridor and do you see any local opposition to them?
I have been in touch with those opposing the Char Dham project and was dismayed by what the Supreme Court has decided. If you just look at the pictures that the Ravi Chopra committee gathered, you realise that it’s an utter environmental and social disaster. I think my home state has made some terrible strategic mistakes, the first being making Dehradun the capital instead of Nainital or Gairsain, which is so far away from the hills. This obviously distorted Dehradun and led the real estate
mafia to take over. Why can’t it learn from hill states like Himachal and what it has done in education and health besides horticulture? I have no nostalgia for Uttarakhand being part of Uttar Pradesh but broadly speaking, Uttarakhand has not fulfilled its potential.
Monojit Majumdar: Do you believe that non-historians have rushed into the space to explain India’s past because purist and scholarly historians have stayed away from writing for a wider audience?
The problem with popular history writers is that the research is shoddy. To me, history is both social science and a branch of literature. It requires original research, analytical thinking and knowledge about the complexities of caste, race, religion, gender, ecological landscapes and so on. A physicist or a mathematician would have to dumb down findings for the general reader. Historians don’t have to do so; they use everyday language and can persuade the reader with the depth and originality of their research. Both elegance and accessibility of the writing style are crucial.
Amateurs also have their place because you don’t need a degree in history to become a historian, you simply need to do original primary research. DD Kosambi, the greatest historian of ancient India, had a degree in mathematics. Sanjay Subrahmanyam, the greatest historian of medieval India’s encounters with Europe, had a degree in economics. I’m not a disciplinary chauvinist but learn the languages, go to the archives and do the hard work.
Kaushik Das Gupta: How do you see the undermining of environmental institutions as a cause for our ecological crisis?
Governance in the environmental field, more broadly in the developmental field, is knowledge-proof. India has a vast cadre of highly qualified scientists, environmental scientists, whose advice is disregarded. The depressingly well-known example is the Madhav Gadgil report on the Western Ghats. Had it been implemented, it would have saved states like Kerala and Karnataka from environmental disaster.
Rinku Ghosh: What impact will the cultural appropriation of icons, the rewritten history and the ritualisation of the Hindu way of life through spectacles like the one at Kashi Vishwanath have on the next generation?
I don’t actively deal with the young nor do I project into the future. But I certainly worry about the conversion of India into a de facto Hindu majoritarian state. It does not just change the way we think, it distracts attention from the urgent tasks of economic and social renewal. Modi sees himself as an emperor. Not as an emperor of Hindu minds or even as the first Hindu emperor; he sees himself as doing what Shivaji and Prithviraj Chauhan could not do, which is to create a unified Hindu state. That chills me, frightens me. And that’s absolutely not good for the Republic.
Raj Kamal Jha: A refrain today is how polarised we have become. Are we more polarised than ever or is it that we are spending too much time on our phones? How do we expand the common ground? Are there issues in politics today, for example, on which the BJP voter and the non-BJP voter would agree?
The obsession of people, particularly young people, with their phones is universal across all democracies and they reinforce each other. I’m increasingly horrified by the fact that on Twitter I only get feedback that comforts me and I have to follow different kinds of people from the other side of the spectrum. Every morning, I take a walk in Cubbon Park, which is next to the cricket stadium. Around 7.30 am, I see boys coming in for practice, all of them on their smartphones. When we played cricket, we chatted with each other. You go to board a flight and you see the airline staff on their smartphones. This is a peculiar disembodied experience we are leading. Whether that contributes to polarisation, I’m not sure, but certainly visual images of a certain type reinforce your prejudices.
Can we have a common ground? Not in the short term. Maybe in mature democracies we can have a transformation. I think young people have to find a way of connecting with each other and getting their information from other places as well — from reading, writing, travelling and listening to music.
Raj Kamal Jha: You referred to Andre Beteille’s formulation that family, caste, and religion are the building blocks of society in India. Where do you situate free speech and dissent in these?
First, it must begin at home; there must be dissent within the family, within the caste system, and within religion. At the time of our freedom movement, Ambedkar was showing a different path on how caste should operate. Gandhi was showing a different path on how Hindus and Muslims should operate. Family, caste, and religion do constrain dissent and free speech within the territories they control. And if family, caste and religion are so overwhelmingly important, the society as a whole, the political system as a whole, will also constrain dissent.
Shivani Naik: As a historian who interacts with India’s educated elite, do you think the lack of a humanities education keeps people from getting a more balanced view of our realities?
My short answer is yes. The longer answer, it works both ways. History and politics graduates have absolutely no understanding of the complexities of the scientific and technological world and vice versa. So we are a nation of two cultures. We have to find ways of breaking the silos within the university system itself.
Monojit Majumdar: What might Gandhi have said about putting Netaji under a canopy at India Gate that was for some time considered for him?
Netaji was a fascinating and complex figure. When he took over the leadership of the INA, he constituted four regiments. One was called Bose Regiment; the other three were called Gandhi, Nehru and Azad. He had profound respect for his colleagues, his past, and what he thought would be his future colleagues in the Congress-led national movement. He was all for Hindu-Muslim harmony, detested the Hindu Mahasabha and would have detested the RSS. Also, in 1943, when Gandhi was in jail, Bose gave a wonderfully moving address over the Azad Hind Radio on October 2, the former’s birthday, calling him “the father of the nation” for the first time. Bose talked about how Gandhi was the fountainhead and inspiration not just for him but for the freedom movement as a whole. I think Gandhi would not have minded being displaced by Bose. They had great mutual affection for each other. INA soldiers worked with Gandhi in Noakhali for his vision of Hindu-Muslim reconciliation.
Why is the BJP celebrating Bose? One, it does not have icons in the freedom struggle. Second, he’s not Nehru.
Third, he seems closer to the BJP’s idea of masculinity.
All these are being done as distractions from unemployment, inflation, our declining status in the world, attacks on minorities. Quite likely on August 15, the Sangh will appropriate Aurobindo Ghosh as it will be his birth anniversary.
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