Introduction to “Makers of Modern India”, an anthology by Ramchandra Guha

I call this post, an introduction and not just a book review because I deem it necessary for everyone who shares with me the vision of progressive change in society, to read this book and any such books.

A review leaves you an option to read it or to not read it but with an introduction you are already into it 🙂

This introduction or review (I leave it to you) echoes my sentiments and reflections, sometimes in my own words and sometimes in the words of writer himself.

“I have long believed India to be the most interesting country in the world. This is impartial judgement of a historian, not the partisan claim of a citizen. India may also be the most exasperating and the most hierarchical as well as the most degrading country in the world.”

These are Ramchandra Guha’s words from the prologue of his book Makers of Modern India and these had been the exact sentiments I always had and still have, only difference is in my case these might be the partisan claim of a citizen and not an impartial judgement of a historian.

“But whatever qualifier or adjective one uses or prefers, it remains the most interesting, too. For one thing India is very large and contains one-sixth of human kind. For another, its territory is astonishingly diverse, with its peoples differentiated by religion, language, caste and ethnicity, as well as by ecology, technology, dress and cuisine.”

This is how Ramchandra Guha explains India being most interesting country and I couldn’t agree more.

I firmly believe that all this diversity comes from the very ancient culture and beliefs of this land which makes people here most accommodating to the differences. Sharing, understanding , being optimistic and joyful, celebrating each and every aspect of life, all of these are inherently present in common life without a need for explicit teaching. Though everything is seen differently now and practiced differently now, somewhere all these elements are present because of the inherent nature.

And that made me always wondered, why people here tend to be degrading when they carry such a beautiful cultural legacy, when they can share with the world the teachings of a balanced life and behavior, why the people here do not recognize their own strengths and how have India reached to this socially confused state, a state where progression and regression both take place at the same time, a state where people are modern at the same time backward.

India is the only country in the world which constitutionally recognizes linguistic diversity at this range (22 official languages) and it does so successfully, contrary to the European belief and practice of one national language for the unity and integrity of any nation. We tend to not recognize our own achievements but this is something India can teach the world, so rightly pointed out in the epilogue of this book.

Indian democratic system has been adopted from nations which were already practicing it, still it offers its own uniqueness when the range of territories, diversities and complexities are compared. All the nations have been through various transformations and so did India. All the nations emerged stronger from the transformations and so did India, whether we take notice of it or not.

Then what is it which stops India from degrading, what is it which stops India to over come the hurdles of caste, religion, social inequality and individual freedom and how can we promote national unity against religious discord?

History can answer questions of present as that is what has led to it and I decided to peek a little back in times.

History has been taught to us for many years in school. From the ancient civilizations to the political freedom of India, we had been presented with carefully drafted lessons. When I tried to recollect those lessons, i found that they were either from far past glorifying that time or revolved around the vision of few political thinkers.

They didn’t provide me answers because those lessons couldn’t connect me socially with the present modern India.

It has been 20 years now I am out of school, hopefully lessons have changed or are in process of change but if they haven’t then there is an urgent need for parallel education on history. It might also be my ignorance, along with the selected history portion I received as my fundamental right to education, that I never knew, all the answers are well documented by the thinkers of modern times, thinkers of 20th century.

What India and the Indian education system need to do is to read and teach the reflections of these individuals who lived through various transformations of modern times, worked relentlessly for reshaping the future of India and while doing this they documented their ideas to unite the country and to make it truly democratic. They also looked for India get engaged productively with other nations “foreseeing the increasingly inter connected world of future”.

Mind that acknowledging the glorious past along with the dark history of all sorts of sins the nation witnessed at the hands of own people or foreign, gives you a full rounded mindset to understand the modern problems. However the problems need to be addressed with respect to present times and hence learning the recent past is more important.

In this respect the book does an excellent job while presenting the reflections of the nineteen thinkers the writer chose. The epilogue rightly says that legacies of these individuals who undoubtedly made India the nation it now is, are still relevant and would definitely help to fully live the so far imperfectly realized ideals.

In the words of the writer himself “for those of us who might wish to close the gap between the ideal and the reality, the materials in this book may not be the worst place to start”.

In fact this book is the place where one should start.

The book was a slow read in the beginning and some time I had to push myself to continue but later it took on and was so engrossing that I had difficulties keeping it down. it took me almost 2 months to finish, I also had to take a break of 10 days to get myself to pick it up again when I reached to the writings of Dr. Ambedkar. I wanted to read it unbiased, unprejudiced and I am glad I did it.

The prologue introduces India with respect to the various transformations the nation went through (and still going through), the timing of occurrence compared to other nations and to the thinkers and leaders whose work the writer chose to combine in this anthology. It explains the reasons for inclusion of these and exclusion of others and I agree with that.

In subsequent chapters the book introduces each of the thinker and provide their writings and speeches either as is or translated in English. Writer neither attempt a biographical aspect about the thinkers, in terms of impact of their views on their own lives nor it provide an analysis of those reflections. It is not necessary to do so for the theme of the book, biographies can be found otherwise, also are not required for addressing the state of modern India. These thinkers presented their thoughts while maintaining references to leaders who came before them and contesting the views of their contemporaries which makes them complete and they must be read and understood as is.

The nineteen individuals whose work is to be found in this anthology are Rammohan Roy, Syed Ahmad Khan, Jotirrao Phule, G.K. Gokhale, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Tarabai Shinde, M.K. Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, B.R. Ambedkar, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, E.V. Ramaswamy, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Jawaharlal Nehru, M.S. Golwalkar, Rammanohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, C. Rajagopalachari, Verrier Elwin and Hamid Dalwai.

Out of these Gandhi and Nehru had been taught and practiced extensively where as other sides of the debates never received the due attention.

It is an irony that Tagore is known largely for being an excellent (Bengali) poet rather than a patriot who could envision a greater role for India in future world.

It is demeaning to debate Ambedkar only in negative context of caste based reservations, it is important to understand Syed Ahmad Khan to understand the more than necessary focus on particular communities and also to understand the need to reduce the focus now.

It is a misfortune that excellent work of Gokhale, Kamaladevi, Rajaji, Lohia and JP are unknown to majority of India. I feel sad that before this book i never knew of Tarabai Shinde, Verrier Elwin and most importantly Hamid Dalwai.

I salute to Hamid Dalwai for so rationally presenting the religious situation of India. His views on creation of muslim liberalism, separation of faith from state and the need for a united front of liberals must be taught in schools.

It is equally important to understand Tilak and Golwalkar to understand what it means by a “Hindu Rashtra” and here i disagree with the author when he writes in the epilogue that it is just a merging of faith and state. It by no means tend to do that, it offers the rights of religious freedom to everyone and hence suggest everyone to “equally” acknowledge the ancient ways of living this land had been used to, which in the modern times has been considered non secular and leading to reverse discontent. It is equally in line with what Hamid Dalwai said “The idea of common Indian nationality requires that Muslim society be integrated in the fabric of a secular Indian society”.

Though all these people impresses with their thoughts and all of them are equally relevant in context of present India, for me the most fascinating and stunning thinking comes from Kamaladevi, Rajagopalachari and Hamid Dalwai. Whether the issues are of women equality, caste or religion these three influences me most along with Tagore in reference to modern india. I am definitely reading them more.

The epilogue provides an analysis of present situation, delve on the role of India in the world and why the learning from this recent past is a pressing need of present India. The epilogue also highlights that these thinkers never sought to endorse themselves and hence the present imperfect realization. In the writers words –

“The makers of modern India did not think that their life’s work was all show ans rhetoric. Nor were they necessarily self-deluding in believing that they could contribute, in some measure, to the diminution of human suffering, the promotion of religious pluralism, a respect for the rights of the individual citizen. To be sure, India remains a less than united nation, a less than perfect democracy, a less than equal economy ans a less than peaceful society.”

This is a high time we endorse them, read them and teach them for it would take us closer to realizing the ideals.


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