Archive for January, 2011

‘Ramchandra Guha’s Sholay’ : A Nation Comforted by The State.

25 January 2011

Ramachandra Guha wrote a monograph – A Nation Consumed by the State – in the latest issue of Outlook India. He sees a vision of India that is inclusive but unbounded. Following blog post is inspired by the reading of his monograph.
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“Ramachandra Guha’s Sholay” – A Nation consumed by the State – has all the potboiler drama of the original magnum opus. The grandeur of its canvass is awe-inspiring, much the way the original left people breathless. It begins with a tantalising tale of two brothers separated at birth, a Bikaneri achar (pickle) maker is discovered at a distant book fair in Kochi-Kerala, whereas the Rajaji salai (Tamilnadu) bank is found taking care of the money of rustic farmers of Khanna (Punjab). Idli-Sambar is married to the paratha-sarson-da-saag and is enlivened by the achar – a medley of tastes and smells of India that reaffirms her integration and nationhood right at the start. It has a Super Villain (Hindu fundamentalism, Communist Dictatorship, & Ethnic Separatism rolled into one) that troubles the Nation since infancy, much like Kansa tormenting the Krishna; and an archetypical Politician (inequality, corruption, & environmental degradation) who has come into his own only recently if we are to believe Guha. India was mired in inequality (and this comes in many flavours as he himself points out) at birth, but that then could be blamed on the colonial powers. Even if one were to assume that British administration was free of graft, i.e. petty extraction by officials was absent, it was not so in the sizable Princely States (Maharaja of Kashmir’s administration, by way of an example, was highly corrupt, and rapacious on the peasantry). The last of the sub-continental Cheetah was reputedly hunted by the Maharaja of Sarguja state, and the British had ruthlessly plundered the forests for timber by encroaching upon and by ‘enclosing the forest-commons’ to keep out the indigenous forest dwellers who had kept eco-systems alive for millennia. So all these political problems were present at India’s birth too, though they may have come to head now and grabbed attention for many reasons, but principally it has happened because of the grassroots movements to challenge them and the concerns over climate change. Unlike the ‘reel’ world, in Guha’s ‘real’ world, the villain and the politician do not meet, creating a surreal separateness that one sees but can’t touch or feel or experience. But this twist in the script is an expedient artifice to serve the purpose of overall narrative.  
Can the story be complete if there is no hero? Guha’s hero is a nebulous entity called “The idea of India”, a ghost figure which is everywhere and yet nowhere. It draws its spirit from the quote of Tagore, who decried founding of any nationalism on the “Intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others”. But overlooks that such feelings were accommodated and assuaged in the constitution in the form of 5th and 6th schedules, and by recognising that scheduled castes and scheduled tribes required special consideration for their discriminatory & repressive treatment through times immemorial as untouchables – borne of an intense consciousness of their separateness. Indian Constitution is undoubtedly a progressive document, but most of its makers came from a privileged class, though it had some like Ambedkar representing the underprivileged.  Had the constituent assembly been more representative of the Indian macrocosm, maybe we would have had a more radial document. Turning to our poor hero, he is left to search his soul in the currency notes, and draw succour from the picture of Gandhi and Parliament. Hero visits the lands of Hindu Bigotry, Red Menace, and Separatist insurgencies. In Dantewada, the story of Muria tribal brings out the Maoist cowardice (Let them come in without their arms to speak), and Maoists dealings that are swift & severe and justice, dastardly; but it fails to mention State cowardice and depredations too. Guha has probably forgotten that during the same visit he could have been martyred at the Bhairamgarh Police station to the swift injustice of SPOs but for the intervention by Himanshu Kumar. While his unqualified call for the repeal of Armed Forces Special Powers Act has to be commended, there is no mention anywhere in the article on the ever growing malicious attacks on the activists by the Indian State by implicating them in serious cases of ‘Sedition’ & ‘Waging war on the State’ through falsified evidence, though at the same time he doesn’t forget to mention that civil society in 2011 is ‘apparently’ performing better than the State or Private enterprise.
It strikes a blow for the Idea of India, Guha thinks, when stones throwers in Kashmir are matched by (Kashmiri) shawl sellers doing brisk business in Kerala; or while there was blockade in Manipur, the students from these states were studying peacefully in Bangalore. Surely it does, but only when one superficially reads them as mere juxtaposed contrasts. When the Tsunami struck Southern India on 26 December 2004 or the Earthquake hit Gujarat (Bhuj) on 26 January 2001, Rest of India went about its business and pleasures unmindfully; in fact in the first case, Bombay Stock Exchange bellwether Sensex went into euphoria to climb Himalayan heights. Such incongruities are in part because of sheer mass of India, but also because disasters, both manmade and natural, do not affect uniformly across the Class, Caste, or regions. One example should bring this point home. When TB, Malaria, Dengue, Diarrhoea, malnutrition, hunger take uncountable lives, there are some outbreaks of great indignation, but mostly these get reported as dreary statistics buried in some back pages. Rarely one would find human angle stories that cause reverberating outrage that would force governments to act. But when swine flu came to India, there was such a wave of panic created by real life stories of persons dying every day that government was forced to show it was acting with great dispatch. Why? Swine flu first affected the well-heeled travelling to USA and Europe, and that made it prominent. There were also pharmaceutical companies waiting in the wings to profit from panic. Whereas the first bunch of diseases mentioned are very class conscious, and strike mostly the poor, weak, dalits, adivasis, who have very little visibility and influence on government policy.
It makes a good reading that our hero (i.e. The Idea of India) is not parochial, he rejects the rejection of Antonia Maino Gandhi on grounds of Italian birth; he is not a religious bigot, he has confined Hindutva to Gujarat; He encourages good governance, he stood by the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar; He is not vindictive, he appreciates parliamentary communists (Does it include those in the Assemblies of West Bengal & Kerala?) for their being less odious than politicians of other parties; He is apologetic of the followers, like Yediyurappa & Mayawati following in the footsteps of splendid Congress precedents, or mention of Man Mohan Singh presiding over an empire stinking corruption has to be paraphrased by man of (unimpeachable) personal integrity (Doesn’t it show India is a democracy whose PM is a puppet with no shame); he is mindful of the poor, the effects of the public policy that aspires primarily to promote 8 or 9 or 10% growth or harbours super power ambitions has on the underprivileged and the environment; in short, nothing escapes our hero’s attention. He touches the humanity in everyone through a ‘cute’ story of a post card written by a small girl from Jaitapur in Maharashtra, where huge Nuclear Power plant – some 10000 MW eventually – is going to be built in teeth of the opposition of locals by Areva of France, requesting a renowned Ecologist to keep the marauders away and save the social and natural integrity of her district. Such a magnificent and monumental vision cannot surely be confined by any -logy, -ism, or belittled by sceptics. Hero finds his salvation, after crisscrossing the country from Kashmir to Kanyakumari & from Nagaland to Gujarat, from venal politicians to plundering industrialists to committed bureaucracy to vibrant civil society, from divisive forces to unifying glues, finally on one Independence day on a road to Mysore from the conurbation of Greater Bangalore. It is so eloquently captured by Guha that it is best to let him talk, “Somewhere between Mandya and Melkote, we passed a bullock cart. Three young boys were sitting in it; one wore a suit with spectacles, a second a bandgala with a Mysore peta atop his little head, the third a mere loin cloth.  The boys had evidently just come back from a function in their school, where, to mark August 15, they had chosen to play the roles of B.R. Ambedkar, M. Visvesvaraya and M.K. Gandhi respectively. Remarkably, none of their heroes was a native Kannada speaker. Yet all spoke directly to their present and future. The boys knew and revered Ambedkar as the person who gave dignity and hope for the oppressed; knew and revered Visvesvaraya for using modern technology for the social good, as in the canals from the Kaveri that irrigated their own fathers’ fields; and knew and revered Gandhi for promoting religious harmony and leading, non-violently, the country’s fight for freedom. The vision of those young boys was capaciously inclusive”.
When the article ended it left a lump in my throat. One went through the rollercoaster ride of what ails India, but in the end reached safely, more or less unscathed. I was comforted that with all the warts and all, everything is well in the country. I could now comfortably sit & relax in a sofa, and pick up a glass of whisky or wine to keep me company. May be fall into a pleasant reverie exorcised of all the demons that torment one’s dreams. It may lead to some exuberant and spirited chatter among most of those who can & do read Guha’s books and article; but in the end everyone of this class will have an easy conscience to wear. ‘A feel good factor’ it is called, isn’t it? That exactly is the trouble with his narrative. It is willing to nick but afraid to wound. It dares to explore, but retreats to the safety of familiar stasis. It touches upon everything, but is touched by nothing. The title of his monograph should more aptly have been “A Nation Comforted by the State”.
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