Thursday, September 08, 2011

Liberalism, the India Concept, and Ramchandra Guha

My fascination with maps, especially ones printed before computers became part and parcel of everyday society, began, I believe, from the day I received a Bengali-language atlas. It has been been a quarter of a century since that day Ma bought me that atlas from College Street on her way back from Presidency College. My fondness for maps was strengthened when I received a somewhat old copy of the 23rd edition of the Oxford School Atlas. A quick perusal of the background to this blog proves my point, I believe. Which is why I was struck by the beauty of the following map while snooping around in Wikipedia looking for material to write this blog about.

The map is of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir, dated 1909. Thirty eight years later, in 1947, this state was being ruled by Maharaja Hari Singh at the time of India's independence from British rule. It had a predominantly muslim population, was geographically contiguous with Pakistan, and everyone expected Hari Singh to join Pakistan. But he hesitated, and after a rather messy affair, Kashmir joined the State of India.

That is of course a matter of history, a subject that Ramchandra Guha is intimately familiar with, given that he is a historian by profession. I have often read his articles, been fascinated by his email id (something like ramguha@so-and-so) and have wondered if he is Bengali (a doubt which could have been cleared up from the article about him on wikipedia). Anyway, today was the first time I saw him in the flesh. He was here, at Matscience, to give a general colloquium on "Libralism in India". This was in memory of Rahul Basu, who, apart from being a high-energy theoretical physicist, also had varied interests, possessed razor-sharp wit and sense of humour.

Ramchandra Guha began by distinguishing between a patriot and a nationalist. Following Tagore, he defined a patriot as one who loves her own country, and a nationalist as one who hates countries other than her own. He then outlined the basic definition of liberalism (freedom of thought and expression, free trade etc) and stressed on its role in being the thread that binds India together. He pointed out that India is probably the only country in the world where people from over 20 different major language groups and nearly eight hundred and fifty different dialects coexist peacefully. Well, almost. A bit like modern-day Europe, which, demographically or, to be more accurate, linguistically, greatly resembles India. But Europe is an amalgamation, tenuous at best, of fifty or so nation states, whereas India is one country. Which is where RK steps in.

In the question session following the talk, RK asked Ram Guha about the lack of civil liberties (compared tot he rest of the country) in J&K and the NorthEast, and how that fits in with Guha's claim of the liberal outlook that is, supposedly, the bedrock of the modern State of India. The discussion spilled over into the coffee session, and initially comprised of RK and YT (and not Guha, who had taken off), and was later joined by RA, PR and RR. One of the primary things discussed was the definition of the Nation-State of India, and what made us Indians. Historically, the first concept of India as a nation was espoused, I believe, in the nineteenth century by the new breed of rational "Indian" thinkers. In 1947, at the time of independence, India was a fractured tapestry of princely states, formerly British-controlled areas and a few French and Portuguese areas. The process of the Political Integration of India makes for fascinating read and perhaps a future blog post, and essentially underlines the virtual lack of cohesive cultural or societal integrative forces behind this integration. Yet, we find, in year 2011, that most of us feel Indian in some way or another. Personally, I have not yet been able to fully grasp the underlying mechanics that preserves India's unity in so much diversity, but today's discussion did clear a few things up. What cannot be ignored, of course, is that this wonderful country still has problem areas, and most of these problems stem from the chronic disregard by the State for the vox populi. What should also not be ignored is that, some of these problems, have, on some occasions and partially at least, from the machinations of forces beyond the borders. As I finish this rather poorly planned and executed blog post, I tend to both agree and disagree with RK's views, and hope to have another such session with RK and RA. Thanks to Ramchandra Guha for a wonderful lecture, and to RK and RA for a wonderful debate.

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