Researcher and biographer of eminent political figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, C Rajagopalachari and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajmohan Gandhi’s latest book Modern South India: A History from the 17th Century to our Times, is a deep dive into the ‘relatively unknown’ history of South India. Grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, Rajmohan is a professor at the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois. The 83-year-old has contested Lok Sabha elections twice — in 1989 against Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi, and in 2014 from East Delhi on an Aam Aadmi party ticket.
KAUSHIK DAS GUPTA: Your new book begins from the 17th century. Not many histories of modern India have begun from that period.
There is no accepted date for the start of the modern period of Indian history. Also, nothing of South India has featured prominently in history books. So there was an obvious need to do it. The practical trigger was my publisher asking me to write this book. I felt it was something necessary, and in a very partial way, since I had done Rajaji’s (C Rajagopalachari, former Tamil Nadu CM) biography, I already knew something about a few periods of South India.
LIZ MATHEW: In view of the recent political developments, the South of India seems to be somewhat cut off from the North. The ruling party has not been successful in making inroads into the South. Is there a historical perspective as to why that is the case?
In my book, I have looked at it briefly towards the end, because I bring the book upto 2018. I ask why the BJP has not had much success in the South. I recognised and acknowledged the reasonable success the BJP has had in Karnataka, nonetheless the broad assessment that the BJP has had very limited success in the South is true. In the last 150 years, there have been some great movements in South India. There was a movement for social justice, a movement for democratic rights of princely states, a great movement for untouchability… In none of these movements the BJP or its predecessors have had any significant role. That is one large reason why the BJP did not have a good start in the South. Secondly, the preponderance of Brahmins and Hindi speakers in the RSS was also a block for them in the South.
LIZ MATHEW: The political divide between the North and the South is getting wider. Certain sections have begun to refer to the South as a separate entity. Is this dangerous for the country as a whole?
The ideology of intolerance, of compulsion or coercion, that ideology is offensive to all parts of India and not only to the South. But, undoubtedly, it is spreading all across South that much of the BJP’s policies are North India-centered and neglect the South. Who are the influential southern political figures in Delhi? Venkaiah Naidu is from the South but does he represent a powerful, political force in Andhra Pradesh or Telangana? Not to my understanding. Nirmala Sitharaman is the country’s first woman defence minister, which is impressive, but she is not in Parliament or government due to her political strength. She has come from the Rajya Sabha. Even among bureaucrats, there was a time when South Indian bureaucrats formed a large share in very influential positions. Now, the impression is that they do not have the same share. The impression has gained ground that South has lost the voice that it had in Delhi.
SEEMA CHISHTI: The present dispensation, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often talks about ‘barah sau saal (1,200 years)’ as a kind of marker as far as history is concerned. However, it is not clear what they are referring to…
The strategy here is to never speak directly and lead people to make guesses, and they know that a great many people will draw the conclusion they want them to draw. In my understanding, the conclusion that they want people to draw is ever since Islam came to India, India became a slave country. People speak of Hindutva, hard Hindutva, soft Hindutva, the Congress is Hinduising itself etc. etc. But this discussion misses a very simple clear point. What is the difference between the ideology of this lot and the rest of us? What is the difference in the ideology of this lot and the ideology of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Rajaji and so many others? The difference between hard Hindutva and soft Hindutva is only this… The Hindutva that contains nafrat (hatred) of Muslims, Christians is one thing. The difference is not found in the degree of devotion to Hinduism or the number of Hindu temples you visit. The stark difference is that in one case you are promoting dislike of Muslims and Christians. The other Hindus, the broad people of India, who have loved their Muslim saints also, they don’t want this dislike of Muslims. So this division of India, it is not just unfortunate, but a destructive divide which will really hurt our country.
SUSHANT SINGH: How has the history of South India shaped the world view of its people?
The South has had Muslims much before the North. The Southern peninsula is governed by the oceans while North India is governed by the Himalayas. There is a stark geographical difference between the two regions which has implications on trade, contact with the outside world.
On the Dravida ideology and the culture of the South… On everybody being from a single community, the Kural (classic Tamil text) is absolutely incredible. The kind of wisdom that it has about human relations, family relations, political relations, it’s incredible. A thought (in the Kural) is very much part of the legacy of the South: “All towns are one to us, all people are our kin.” This was said almost 1,800 years ago. This notion, that your neighbour is your kin, whatever his or her faith may be, is a tremendous thought which is still nurtured in many hearts. It holds true in the North, East and West of the country as well, but in the South it is a very real thing. It’s a factor that gives hope for the future of India.
UNNI RAJEN SHANKER: You spoke about Nehru, and you have authored Sardar Patel’s biography as well. What do you make of the way the two leaders are being projected in politics today?
To suggest that Nehru and Patel were kind of enemies, that they proposed contrary paths for India, that their visions for India clashed, that Gandhi forced Nehru on India when all of India was asking for Patel, is untrue. Let these people produce from 1945, 1946, 1947, one news item from any part of India expressing unhappiness that Patel was not made prime minister. Let them produce one document suggesting that anyone in India said Nehru should not be prime minister. Yes, in later years many things happened. But this suggestion that there was Patel and all the people of India wanted him to be the leader and then Mahatma Gandhi came and foisted Jawaharlal Nehru on an unwilling India… When an American journalist went to Bombay in 1949 and met Patel at the end of a public meeting, the journalist talked about the big crowd which had come and Patel said they had come for Nehru, not for him. In October 1950, two months before he died, Patel made this absolutely categorical public statement that the decision to make Nehru prime minister was absolutely right.
RAVISH TIWARI: Not many historians predicted the rise of the Right in the way we are seeing it now. Do you think it would have been possible if there were more in-depth studies say about Madan Mohan Malaviya or Syama Prasad Mookerjee?
I think it’s very important for all of us to not put all these people in the same category or paint them with the same brush. Madan Mohan Malaviya may have been a Hindu revivalist, but he was never anti-Muslim. He was a great believer in the Ramayana but he never said that Babri Masjid should go. He had Ramayana kathas organised in hundreds of places. He was an orthodox Hindu, even about untouchability he had reservations. But orthodox and traditional mindedness is one thing. Creating dislike of others… he never did that.
In addition to identifying the negative ideas flowing from a certain set of people, we should also see where the rest of us could have done better — the others who were not traditional, not orthodox, not very Hindu, those who were Leftists, or Socialists or Communists, could they have done better? Don’t communists need a good analysis on why they failed to see the caste factor? Why they failed to see the Hindu-Muslim question? This is happening all over the world by the way. Why is this kind of majoritarianism gaining ground? To find answers, we need not target only a set of people.
LIZ MATHEW: What is the future of the Indian Muslim in the country?
Muslims must ask themselves about their future… It is a great sadness that so many Muslims in India feel that they have to remain quiet. For us, who belong to the majority community, it is a painful truth. We are powerful and and we are present in so many institutions and yet Muslims are obliged to remain quiet. It is pretty sad. Also, Muslims must say all of India is my responsibility — ‘Yes, I am a Muslim, I may be proud of many things in this country, I may object to some things in my people’s history, but it’s not just Muslims alone who are my responsibility. Every Indian is my responsibility. Whether it is Indians, whether it is Muslims, whether it is Hindus… How we can broaden our commitment, our concern, so that it is not limited to my lot of people.’
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: What role has religion played in South India?
The response to religion has changed over time in different ways in different parts of the South. Certainly, Periyar and some of his immediate colleagues were very emphatic and clear and sweeping in their rationalism, in their denunciation of superstition, which sometimes included all forms of religion. But Periyar should not be judged by his occasional utterances such as ‘Dravidistan’ or his occasional strong and, you might say, successive extreme remarks against Brahmins or Hindu gods and goddesses. He made those remarks and, in fact, he lost a lot of popularity as a result of those remarks, not just among the Brahmins but among the bulk of the population. For the bulk of the population, as everywhere in the world, when there is danger, there is illness in the family, they want to pray to somebody for relief. So, temples have always existed, will always exist, and so will mosques and churches.
A very important part of the Dravidian movement was also the idea of compassion — like that of Thiruvalluvar’s (Tamil poet, philosopher) — articulated in the South not just by Brahmin scholars or in traditional Hindu texts but also in Shaivite, Buddhist and Jain texts. Many of these non-sectarian ideas of goodwill, compassion and tolerance have had a life of their own in the South for a very long time, and they have been a part of the Dravidian ethos. Thiruvalluvar is absolutely fantastic. So, in terms of morality, goodwill, compassion… the lack of traditional Hindu forms of worship has not destroyed religion or the religious values in the South.
KAUSHIK DAS GUPTA: The Dravidian movement and the Congress were considered polar opposites in the freedom struggle and even later. However, in your book you talk of Rajaji’s friendship with Periyar.
There is a perception of a complete clash between the Congress and the Dravidians. But, that is not the case. Apart from the personal relationship that Periyar and Rajaji maintained till the end, there is this incredible story of Periyar’s marriage and how he wanted to involve Rajaji in it… I won’t reveal all the details, but it’s there.
Also, (Kumaraswami) Kamaraj (Congress leader) was a great bridge between the Congress and the Dravidian movement. Rajaji also translated Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural into English, one of the early translations… Karunanidhi, Periyar, they are all devotees of Thiruvalluvar. So there are great common grounds. Yes, there were bitter clashes and, of course, when the DK (Dravidar Kazhagam, Periyar’s party) did not actively support the freedom movement, that became a major issue. DK also had conversations with Muhammad Ali Jinnah… Those were decisive issues, but there was a lot of contact between these different groups, and it isn’t as if there was a permanent, irrevocable clash.
MONOJIT MAJUMDAR: Would you like to reflect on the change in society since 2014 — someone is lynched and people sympathise with the killers…
Dalits have been lynched, and are being lynched every week in all parts of India. They have been lynched for decades. Whatever has happened in recent years is very tragic and shameful, but is not unknown in India. Indian society has had its own quota of such deeds for a long, long time. It has also had an amazing quota of heroic deeds. In Jawaharlal Nehru’s time, if such incidents (of lynchings) would have happened, he would have rebuked the whole nation publicly, spoken about it, shamed the people concerned. If that were done today, instead of complete silence… But even without that, isn’t it amazing that so many police officers, judges still do their duty? Like the policeman (Subodh Singh) in Bulandshahr who was killed the other day… About the casual conversation where prejudice, hatred, venom is there… It is happening in many parts of the world, let’s realise that. There is an overlapping coincidence between the curve of Donald Trump in the US and Modi here — White America must take the country back, Hindu India must take the country back.
However, in just the last two-three days (after the Assembly election results), some of the media too has changed its tune. We want to be on the successful side. So don’t judge anyone who makes a horrible remark. Even who makes the horrible remark, has another side. We have to be far more charitable with others. Also, citizens must educate and correct each other when false remarks can create problems. And, the greater responsibility lies on the historians. A historian should be able to provide alternatives — not necessarily counter, but provide history which can prevent poison from spreading.
Also, the unemployment amongst our young is the biggest problem. All people in villages want to settle in Mumbai and Delhi. It is not possible. What is our answer to that? Should only historians talk about it? Thinking citizens should talk about providing employment to young people. Where is the thinking, planning and passion for that dialogue? Why should it be the job of few elected leaders to remove unemployment? Every citizen should contribute to make villages more habitable. These issues should be discussed.