Patriotism as Partisanship

Posted by sanyasi on March 12, 2013 · 11 mins read

Rohit Chopra reviews Ramachandra Guha's Patriots & Partisans (New Delhi: Allen Lane, 2012).

A shorter, slightly different version of this review appeared earlier in The Sunday Guardian.

In a footnote to an article written for the Economic and Political Weekly, Ramachandra Guha recalls a saying of the renowned Indian sociologist M.N. Srinivas: “Media attention is the enemy of scholarship.” One can think of any number of scholars, from Niall Ferguson to Camille Paglia, for whom that holds true. Luckily for readers everywhere, Ramachandra Guha—India's most visible public intellectual and an academic rock star—has bucked that trend (thus far at least). Guha, who has been experiencing something of a purple patch since the publication of his bestselling India After Gandhi, has now given us Patriots & Partisans, a collection of previously published essays revised for a broad audience.

A chronicle of a life lived between and across journalism and academia, Patriots & Partisans reflects Guha's many concerns as historian, commentator on Indian state and society, citizen committed to the protection of civil liberties, and member of that rare species, the Indian liberal. The essays collected in the book are organized into two categories, though themes are shared across the divide. The first part of the book gathers nine essays on the promises and challenges of Indian democracy. The second part, consisting of six essays, is an intimate ethnography and geography of the worlds of the Indian intellect.

In essays in the first section that are vintage Guha, he offers a nuanced assessment of the Indian political left, a moving meditation on the nature of Gandhi's faith and its centrality in his vision of politics, and a robust, combative, defense of Nehru in which Guha seeks to restore the battered reputation of the once universally adored Indian leader. The reparative project continues in Guha's essay that takes a fresh look the Sino-Indian conflict. Guha is a fine prose stylist, up there with Ranajit Guha and Tony Judt. Reading him is the literary equivalent of watching Brian Lara on song. But, as is also the case with Ranajit Guha and Tony Judt, his eloquence is one that brooks no dissent. This will-to-conclusiveness bedevils some of the essays, especially “Redeeming the Republic,” which discusses the inclusive pluralism represented by the idea of India and the serious challenges to that idea, and “The Beauty of Compromise,” which advocates the virtues of political moderation as a strategy of resolving the intractable political conflicts that plague South Asia.

In both essays, as across the work at large, Guha proposes that a moderate, democratic, secular, and liberal worldview committed to gradual reform and incremental progress is essential for viable South Asian states and societies. Guha also writes consciously as a nationalist, seeking to wrest back the term from adherents of Hindutva and to rehabilitate it as a positive word in the current-day political and cultural conversation. But the details of his analysis do not always square with his overarching claims, highlighting tensions in his thought and the limits of the liberal nationalist framework that he advocates. In “Redeeming the Republic,” Guha treats Hindu nationalism (or Hindu chauvinism as he insists it should be called), Maoism, and ethnic separatism as three major threats to the Indian nation. However, the compelling explanation that he provides for the rise of Maoism, from the abject condition of tribal communities to the abhorrent human rights abuses promoted by the state-backed Salwa Judum movement—militates against the possibility that the “plural and inclusive” idea of India might provide the basis for a solution. Likewise, one could argue that the ideology of political moderation might work to further disenfranchise groups locked in profoundly unequal conflicts with powerful states. Guha's valorization of compromise in the name of a reasonable pragmatism sounds suspiciously like a paean to that utopian space of the middle ground which usually claims to be beyond ideology (think Clintonian centrism). It brings to mind the following observation by the great Marxist critic Raymond Williams: “One of the more entertaining delusions of English public life is the belief that the man in the middle is always right.”

The second part of the book is much more personal in nature. Guha writes with deep respect, affection, and gratitude about people, institutions, and organizations that have sustained him as a scholar. The delightful tribute to Premier's Bookshop and its owner Mr. T. S. Shanbag will resonate with anyone who has found sanctuary in a bookstore. One way to understand the past, present, and future of a city is to plot a map of its bookstores, defunct and extant, as a statement of the life and times of the place. Through its rendition of the story of Premier's, Guha's essay manages to convey a sense of the passing of a particular world and time in Bangalore. Reading it, I found myself thinking of the New and Secondhand Bookshop in Bombay and how the closing of the bookstore symbolized the death of a certain idea of the metropolis--the city as a space for dreamers, wanderers, and romantics, not just the city of Bollywood, globalization, and commerce that so aroused London Mayor Boris Johnson on his recent jaunt there.

Guha's essay on the Economic and Political Weekly is, likewise, a treasure, capturing the unique, singular character of the journal and relating its history to the tangled weave of intellectual debates in independent India. Guha's cherished memories of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library and Oxford University Press are laced with a powerfully expressed sadness at their decline. The essay on pluralism in the Indian university similarly charts the downfall of many formerly prestigious Indian universities, while also presenting a series of somewhat idealistic principles for reviving them to their former glory. The loss of the bilingual intellectual, to which a essay is devoted, is another regrettable trend in the India of the late twentieth century. Key themes from the first set of essays echoed in this lot include the culture of sycophancy common to all political parties (but taken to an art form by the Congress) and the value of an inclusive, moderate approach as a general principle of intellectual life.

As reflected in his numerous references to great leaders, thinkers, editors, academics, writers, and bureaucrats, Guha is mildly intoxicated by the idea of greatness as a mover of history. Guha's canon of greats who have kept the wheels of modern, independent India going consists for the most part of men, of a bygone era or well-established in their fields. A handful of lucky young 'uns are also approvingly granted admission by Guha into its rarified realms. The nostalgia for a lost golden era of Indian political and intellectual life begins at times to sound like a lament, suggesting a lack of openness to new developments. Guha, here, has the distinct air of an Indian community elder fondly recalling an Edenic time, untouched by the ravages of inflation, when a loaf of bread could reliably be counted on to cost 25 paise year after year. Unsurprisingly the lost, late lamented, world of publishing, scholarship, and politics is the era of Nehruvian India, the crucible in which Guha's intellectual self was forged.

These traits may be explained by Guha's conservatism as a scholar, which are articulated more categorically in some of his other writings. In the EPW essay in which he quotes M. N. Srinivas, for instance, Guha describes poststructuralism and cultural studies as trends of “dubious intellectual worth.” Numerous Indian scholars, based in India and abroad, have undertaken excellent work in these fields, which Guha is unable or unwilling to recognize. Some of that work, interestingly, presents an insightful critique of the liberal, secular, democratic ideology championed by Guha. In a discussion in the EPW about the Hindu Code, Nivedita Menon has critiqued Guha's cheery, uncritical endorsement of the legislation as indicative of a refusal to acknowledge fundamental questions about the relationship between gender, law, and liberalism. Menon also points to Guha's dismissive attitude toward feminist scholars. Finally, for someone who seeks to restore some sheen to the category of the nation in political and intellectual discourse, Guha has not really undertaken any sustained theoretical engagement with the enormously rich and sophisticated body of work on nations and nationalism. He takes the concept and object of the nation as axiomatic—as inevitable as it is desirable. These assumptions and assertions, biases and preferences, inflect the essays in Patriots & Partisans as much as they do Guha's other work.

Nonetheless, in an era in which descriptive work is the fashion, Guha is willing to be prescriptive, and that surely counts for something. He is willing to admit that patriotism, even of his preferred liberal variety, can be a form of partisanship. He writes with a joy that contrasts the dour objectivism seen in much academic work. India, Guha tells us, can be exasperating but is always interesting. Patriots & Partisans shows that something similar might be said of Guha. Even when guilty of an exasperating moderation and a quite categorically unreasonable reasonableness, his remains a provocative, brilliant, and uniquely Indian voice.