All Gandhi's Children

All Gandhi's Children

Mini Teaser: With the most diverse society in the world, India can serve as a model to the West in its struggles to reconcile liberal democracy with Islam.

by Author(s): Ramachandra Guha

I know there is a certain amount of feeling in the country . . . that the Central Government has somehow or other been weak and following a policy of appeasement towards Muslims. This, of course, is complete nonsense. There is no question of weakness or appeasement. We have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State. If we fail to do so, we shall have a festering sore which will eventually poison the whole body politic and probably destroy it. Moreover, we are now on a severe trial in the international forum. . . . We are dependent for many things on international goodwill—increasingly so since partition. And pure self-interest, apart from moral considerations, demands that world opinion should be on our side in this matter of treatment of minorities.

However, like Gandhi, Nehru’s ideas were not uncontroversial. And like Gandhi, he faced a political and ideological challenge from an array of greatly gifted thinker-activists. These included the socialist Rammanohar Lohia, who attacked Nehru for his love of the West and his underplaying of caste oppression; the social worker Jayaprakash Narayan, who attacked Nehru for his neglect of the villages and for his lack of faith in decentralized political institutions; and the liberal C. Rajagopalachari, who attacked Nehru for his suspicion of entrepreneurship and innovation, for his promotion of sycophancy and careerism in the Congress Party, and for being too soft on Communist totalitarianism.

These debates continued as some two hundred Indians convened in a Constituent Assembly between 1946 and 1949 to discuss the elements of a new constitution. The process was overseen by B. R. Ambedkar, who, in a remarkable act of political reconciliation, had been invited by Gandhi and Nehru to serve as law minister in the first government of the now-free India; this despite his longtime opposition to their Congress Party and to them personally. In his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly, delivered on November 25, 1949, Ambedkar warned his compatriots that democratic values were as important as democratic institutions. He thus urged them to:

observe the caution which John Stuart Mill has given to all who are interested in the maintenance of democracy, namely, not “to lay their liberties at the feet of even a great man, or to trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions.” There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. As has been well said by the Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell, no man can be grateful at the cost of his honour, no woman can be grateful at the cost of her chastity and no nation can be grateful at the cost of its liberty. This caution is far more necessary in the case of India than in the case of any other country. For in India, Bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero-worship, plays a part in its politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world. Bhakti in religion may be a road to the salvation of the soul. But in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.

These words were disregarded by Indians, who in the 1970s laid their liberties at the feet of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, encouraging her to institute a personal dictatorship. Democracy was finally restored, but in India today, the cult of bhakti, or a craven worship of one’s leaders, is all too visible in the political landscape.

These three phases of political argument may be called “Confronting Modernity,” “Constructing a Nation” and “Debating Democracy,” respectively. Taken together, they constitute a rich, continuous, diverse and still-relevant tradition of argument and debate, which is surprisingly little known inside India (where historians do not pay much attention to ideas, being focused far more on social forces and social aggregates), and wholly unknown outside India’s borders.


THE HISTORIAN Gertrude Himmelfarb has provocatively and (to my mind) persuasively argued that there was a British “Enlightenment” that is as worthy of study and celebration as its better-known American and French counterparts. Each tradition had different orientations and emphases. Whereas the French Enlightenment concentrated on skepticism and reason, and the American version exalted liberty and freedom, the British put the spotlight on “social virtues” such as benevolence, compassion and tolerance. Thus, “At a critical moment in history, these three Enlightenments represented alternative approaches to modernity, alternative habits of mind and heart, of consciousness and sensibility.”

Himmelfarb was writing of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but now, at our own critical moment in history, it may be apposite to add a fourth national experience to the list. I am myself uncomfortable with the word “Enlightenment.” Let us simply say that the Indian political tradition is as relevant to the dilemmas of the early twenty-first century as any other. This is in part a product of the distinctiveness of the individual thinkers it produced, but in greater part a product of the distinctiveness of the trajectories of Indian nationhood. For India was the first country to win its freedom by nonviolent means, the first democracy to be successful and sustainable in Asia, the only nation to have as many as seventeen different languages and scripts on its currency notes.

In this age of globalization, these multiple histories of modern India must surely have a resonance in other parts of the world—in Africa and in Europe, in North America and in Latin America, where people of different faiths have likewise to learn to live with one another, where the desire to uplift and emancipate the poor by state action likewise conflicts with the freedom and dignity of the individual, where nation-states have likewise to choose between privileging a single “national” culture or permitting a hundred flowers to bloom.

In the past, it was not just Frenchmen who read Voltaire, or merely Englishmen who admired John Stuart Mill, or only Americans who were inspired by Tom Paine or Thomas Jefferson. As democracy seeks to establish itself (with so many false starts!) in the countries of the developing world, it may turn out that the ideas of Gandhi and Nehru and Ambedkar are as important to these strivings as the ideas of the great Western thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And as the countries of Europe and America become more diverse, owing to the immigration of followers of faiths and speakers of languages earlier considered alien or foreign, these older nations may yet benefit from a sideways look at the historical experience of the most heterogeneous society in the world.

Consider the case of Indian thinker Hamid Dalwai, a brilliant, courageous writer-activist of the 1960s, who was deeply worried about the insularity and ghettoization of his fellow Muslims. Before dying in his early forties, Dalwai wrote a series of timeless essays in his native Marathi, translated for a wider readership by the poet and editor Dilip Chitre. This excerpt gives a flavor of his thinking:

It is an old habit of Indian Muslims to blame Hindus for their woes. However, the Indian Muslim intelligentsia has never really been critically introspective. It has not sought to relate its problems to its own attitudes. It has not developed a self-searching, self-critical attitude. . . .

It is a tragic fact that there does not yet exist a class of critically introspective young Muslims in India. A society which puts the blame on the Hindus for its own communalism can hardly be called introspective. If Hindu communalism is responsible for Muslim communalism, by the same logic it would follow that Muslim communalism is equally responsible for Hindu communalism. The truth of the matter is that the Muslim intelligentsia has not yet given up its postulate of parallel society. It has still not learnt to separate religion from politics. . . .

Indian Muslims today need an avant garde liberal elite to lead them. This elite must identify itself with other modern liberals in India and must collaborate with it against Muslim as well as Hindu communalism. Unless a Muslim liberal intellectual class emerges, Indian Muslims will continue to cling to obscurantist medievalism, communalism, and will eventually perish both socially and culturally. A worse possibility is that of Hindu revivalism destroying even Hindu liberalism, for the latter can succeed only with the support of Muslim liberals who would modernize Muslims and try to impress upon them secular democratic ideals.

These words were prophetic about India, where, in the 1980s and beyond, Hindu revivalism acquired great strength and influence, and provoked a series of religious riots that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Meanwhile, there is no sign yet of an avant-garde Muslim elite. Though the religious passions of the 1990s have cooled somewhat, Hindu irredentism and Muslim insularity continue to be important, potent trends that make India’s compact with democracy and modernity less smooth than it otherwise could be.

Image: Pullquote: As once-homogeneous Western nations grapple with mass immigration of peoples speaking different tongues and practicing different faiths, it may be time to look eastward for an answer.Essay Types: Essay