Moderated by Associate Editor Pratik Kanjilal. Transcribed by Shikha Sharma
WHY NARAYANTARA SAHGAL?
Last week, Nayantara Sahgal, renowned writer and niece of Jawaharlal Nehru, returned the Sahitya Akademi award she had won in 1986 for her political novel Rich Like Us. In an open letter, she said she was returning the award “in memory of the Indians who have been murdered, in support of all Indians who uphold the right to dissent”. Citing the murders of Kannada writer M M Kalburgi and anti-superstition activists Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar, besides the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri over rumours that he ate beef, Sahgal criticised the Prime Minister for remaining “silent about this reign of terror”. Always opposed to authoritarianism, Sahgal fell out with her cousin Indira Gandhi at the time of the Emergency. Her writings have been critical of both the BJP’s Hindutva politics as well as the dynastic rule in the Congress
Pratik Kanjilal: Has the idea of India changed in the past year?
With the RSS coming to power, every side is now making an attempt to blow up the idea of India and to put in its place a kind of travesty of Hinduism, a kind of monoculture, which has nothing do with Hinduism.
Pratik Kanjilal: But wasn’t this made possible, to some extent, by the failure of the Congress?
Yes. I think the Congress is very responsible for giving the RSS the first big opportunity to come to power with this majority. You’ll notice that I’m saying RSS because that is what is ruling us.
Pratik Kanjilal: Yes, but in newspapers, we tend to make a distinction between the political party and the cloud organisation.
There’s no such distinction any more. That’s my view.
Pratik Kanjilal: Was there ever a distinction?
Yes, very clearly. The RSS, or rather the Hindutva philosophy, had to lie low after Independence, after Nathuram Godse murdered Mahatma Gandhi. For a while, the RSS was outlawed. It lay low because it had no opportunity for coming to power in a democratic fashion. In fact, the very first opportunity came during Jayaprakash Narayan’s (JP) movement in the mid-1970s. At the time, I had many opportunities to talk to JP. He knew my family very well. I had known him since I was a child. He said he had agonised long before admitting the Jan Sangh into the combined movement which they organised. Finally, he realised that because it was a political movement and coming together of all opposition parties, he could hardly keep them out. But that was their first entry into respectability.
Rakesh Sinha: So how do you explain the mandate for the BJP?
There are a few reasons. One is the failure of the Congress to meet its challenges. Another would be anti-incumbency. And the third, in my view, would be that the population has changed. A large part of the voting population is young, many of them first-time voters probably, and they are perhaps not very connected with our recent history, or with humanities generally. The accent on commerce and technology, on jobs, was a very big issue.
Pratik Kanjilal: Ritu Menon, who is also with us, has written Ms Sehgal’s biography, Out of Line. While you were researching it, Ritu, did you notice any change in what might be called the culture of politics from the time of Jayaprakash to the present?
Ritu Menon: Well, I think the change should be traced from before JP’s time, which is what Nayantara has been speaking about. And what was very fascinating for me as a biographer was to see how she had tried to plot the political evolution post-Independence through her writing—fiction, non-fiction, political columns, autobiography. She managed to preview the change in her fiction much before the JP movement. The erosion of the three cardinal values she has believed in—non-violence, secularism and democracy—she began to see these being diluted much before JP’s time, and it is reflected in the fiction. The change we speak about now, which is so explicit and in our faces and which there is no denying it, I could see in her work from the mid-60s.
Pratik Kanjilal: What do you fear? What do you worry will happen?
I am an optimist. I strongly believe that the foundations of modern India rest on sound principles. I would not call it a Nehruvian idea, but an idea built up by the national movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. That is the foundation modern India rests on. An earthquake might destroy the upper storeys of a building, but it’s much harder to uproot the foundations. Though I am extremely worried about the attacks being made on those foundations, I believe that in the long term, Indians are not going to give up on the secularism or democracy our country is built on. Those are not negotiable for modern Indians. The attacks that are taking place today have to be countered, have to be opposed in a loud, clear voice, not the muted voices we are hearing from very diplomatic commentators on TV programmes. There are times in history when you have to stand up and be counted. And this is one of them.
Maneesh Chhibber: Do you think under the present leadership, the Congress has any hope of revival? Second, if the BJP is communal, isn’t the Congress too — the party had opened the doors of the so-called temple?
I have been opposing dynasty since Indira Gandhi first promoted it by putting Sanjay Gandhi forward as her successor. From that time, I have been opposing Ms Gandhi. It was wrong for a great democratic party, which democratically elected its leaders from the ground up, to become dynastic. I don’t think if it carries on in this way, it can revive to the extent it’s required. I hope it is going through a big process of reinvention, and I’m convinced that it can revive. There’s a huge amount of talent in the Congress, its young leaders are articulate, well-informed and committed to Congress ideals. And there’s no reason why it can’t reinvent itself through them. About the second question, the Congress is absolutely against communalism. That is the main difference between the Congress and BJP.
Maneesh Chhibber: The PM says he wants development for all. The Congress, on the other hand, when it suited its interests, brought different quotas, like for Muslims during UP elections. Isn’t that communalism?
It’s not communalism, I wouldn’t call it that. But certainly, quotas have gone on for too long. Originally, quotas were meant to last 15 years, and then they were renewed and renewed, and they became a political vote-getting gambit for all parties. I think our greatest failure since Independence has been primary education. University education has thrived, but when it comes to education at the primary school level, we have failed greatly. Countries like Russia and China have achieved much greater success than we have. This would have solved the quota problem, because if you have an educated population, you don’t need quotas. So that has been the great failure of the Congress.
But as to Mr Modi having declared himself inclusive, I’m not sure I know what you mean.
Rakesh Sinha: How do you see Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi as leaders?
I don’t see them as leaders. I don’t believe in dynasty.
Seema Chishti: In 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru faced a difficult moment, with Partition, with the possibility of a resurgence of communal elements before Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination. Since then India emerged as a democratic, secular republic. Now, there is a similar kind of resurgence from the right. How is this India different from the one Nehru may have seen in 1947? Why does the idea of a modern India seem much tougher now?
Only the leader could ensure that, could set that example and we were lucky that we had really great leaders then.
But I have to say again that it did not begin with Nehru, it began with our first countrywide movement. There were many patriots earlier who fought for Independence in different ways. But the Indian National Congress was the first countrywide movement which crossed all borders of region, language, religion, gender. It had never happened before in Indian history. And this was the example before the country at the time of Independence. When the Congress formed the government, this was the creed that was put forward. It was a unique situation, where a devoutly religious country chose to become a secular republic with an atheist prime minister, which had never happened before in the world. And fortunately for us, Nehru had 17 years in power, in order to lay a solid foundation for this creed. That’s the foundation I refer to when I say it’s not very easy to destroy.
The difference between then and now is what we have seen happening in many countries. There’s a decline in idealism as you face problems as you go along. So it is not something we should be very surprised about. If enough of us believe that the idea of India which we have cherished is important to our being, it will revive.
You were right in a way when you mentioned 1947-48. There was an enormous fear of communal violence getting out of hand. But there was a committed leadership which was determined that azaadi should not become barbaadi. Take the question of refugees. They came post the creation of India and Pakistan, from the west and east. India is the only country that insisted that refugees be a part of the nation-building process. This is something extraordinary.
Refugees are generally considered to be a burden, a liability. Nehru was the only statesman of the time who said that refugees are a part of the nation building project, which is why he put someone like S K Dey in charge of rural development, mainly to involve refugees in rehabilitation. There are many reasons why the situation managed to contain itself. That is what is absent today. In this crisis situation, a crisis of confidence and identity, who are we after all, what identity do we want to adopt? That crisis is accentuated by the fact that we do not have a rallying point anymore.
Vandita Mishra: The idea of the Congress is as much under siege as the idea of India. That idea has involved looking at the Congress as a coalition of interests, idea, ambitions, agendas and then the family, which has for all its other problems, served as a binding glue for the party over the years. If not the dynasty, what do you see as the binding glue for that large coalition?
I will not call it a coalition; I would call it very much a party united on a strong basis and belief. I will not say it was a collection of ideas. The principles we have been talking about — democracy, secularism, multiculturalism — form the basis of the single character of the Congress. As far as the family rule is concerned, I do not think that it is any kind of glue. They have to win elections from the ground up and the party has to make use of the considerable talent it has.
Rakesh Sinha: Can you recount some instances, conversations with your uncle that you cherish the most?
I was very young when he died. He had been a father to me whenever he was not in jail. He and my father were great educators. They gave us what I see as true education. In school, the education was British history, British culture, religion. I was like an alien in my country. It was at home that I received from my father and my uncle education about the history of our past and present problems, of what Gandhi was doing in the country and a lot of other things.
Seema Chishti: When there is a strong political authority at the Centre, like during the Emergency or when you have a strong majority government, has the Indian elite done itself proud in the way it behaves?
They have done themselves disgustingly. Long before the Emergency, there was a tilt towards authoritarianism and Sanjay (Gandhi) was being pushed forward. The Indian elite and bureaucracy just bowed down before it, instead of saying that it is not right and we will not agree to it. Refusing to obey things that are unjust was expected but neither our elite nor academia or judges rose to the occasion. Most people just kept quiet.
Seema Chishti: How do you see them behaving now?
Exactly the same way. There are not enough loud and clear voices among those who can speak out. They prefer to speak very softly or not speak at all.
Seema Chishti: Why do you think that is the case with people whose job it is to speak, articulate and reflect?
You know self-censorship is a spontaneous response of a lot of people who you would think would speak for the opposite. Let’s take the Dinanath Batra case and many others. There is a tendency among the elite to protect itself.
There have been very few occasions in the past — it has nothing to do with the present government, it has happened for at least 20 years now — when people do not come out vocally in support of either an individual, or a group or a product that has come under attack. There are two reasons for it. One is that the protection or security that is bound to be given to the individual or the group by the law-enforcing agencies is absent. Let’s not forget that most attacks come with physical violence. A mob cannot be held liable, which is why mobs are used. An FIR cannot be filed against a mob. So the mob dissolves and the individual remains.
Aranya Shankar: Some Congress leaders like Mani Shankar Aiyar have said that one of the fundamental flaws in the Congress is that it discarded its socialist nature, which is why it did not do so well in the Lok Sabha elections. Do you agree?
In a country where millions are below the poverty line, how can one discard the socialistic approach to solve economic problems? Even today, if you look around the world, the only country that has risen to solve the health needs of the poor is Cuba. A tiny country against which America imposed huge sanctions. It is the only country that sent doctors all over the world and also to Ebola-hit countries to serve them. No rich country has done that. I never joined any ism but I would like to call myself a socialist. I don’t think the Congress abandoned its socialism. I do not know in what sense Mani said it.
Amrita Dutta: What is your new novel about?
My novels have reflected on political scenes, hopes and fears of the times. This one will be about Hindutva and the great leaps of Hindutva. One was when Nathuram Godse killed Gandhi, second was when LK Advani did a Rath Yatra which led to the demolition of the Babri masjid and the third was Gujarat. I had all these in mind. I am sure when Godse killed Gandhi, he did not realise the glory he was bringing to Hindutva in 2014. I think there is a great sequential connection there.
This Idea Exchange, held in December 2014, was updated with Sahgal, after her decision to return the Sahitya Akademi Award