The Challenge of Contemporary History – Day of 1 Spring Fever 2016 with Ramachandra Guha

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It’s that time of the year when book lovers from all over the country have thronged to the India Habitat Centre in Delhi for the annual Penguin Random House Spring Fever.

The fans appear giddy with excitement as they browse through the books from among 5,000 titles published by Penguin and Random House.

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As in its previous editions, this year’s Spring Fever festival of literature and culture features panel discussions, sessions where authors discuss their work and an open-air book library.

Historian and writer Ramachandra Guha opened the festival this year with an exclusive preview of his forthcoming book, a collection of essays entitled ‘Democrats and Dissenters’ that critically assesses the work of economist Amartya Sen and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, and explores major political and cultural debates across India and the world.

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Ramachandra Guha began the session by talking about the paradox that while India is the “most interesting country in the world,” we know so little about its contemporary history.  He said that there have been three great democratic revolutions – the French, the American and the Indian revolutions.

He added that while the Indian revolution maybe the most important, it is the least written about. The St. Stephen’s College alumna said that this might be because it is the most recent and that it occurred in a continent which is not known for being a “beacon of liberty and freedom.”

Guha further said that the books written about the history of independent India were written by sociologists, political scientists and anthropologists.

“Indian history is a thriving, rich productive field, but much of it, in my view, too much of it focuses on the colonial period. That is from the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to Partition in 1947.”

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He went on to say that there has been an almost unhealthy obsession with colonialism. This means that our historians have neglected the period before and after colonialism.

The Hindustan Times columnist then proceeded to talk about the four major challenges that a contemporary history writer faces.

The first challenge was that the reader of a contemporary history writer’s book was not a “passive recipient of the text.” He explained that he was writing about Ashoka, a reader wouldn’t have opinions about what Ashoka stood for. On the other hand, the reader will have strong prejudices and opinions about the recent past, especially about political leaders.

“The reader is a critical citizen. His or her own ideological and social preferences, even before you offer your history, they know all about it. You may write a 500-page book based on careful research, but they’ll approach that book already knowing what this book about Nehru or Ambedkar is all about.”

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The second challenge is that the contemporary historian, like the reader, is also not free from prejudice and opinions. Talking from experience, he said that he found it difficult not to use his perceptions and opinions while writing his books.

The third challenge was the density of sources. He claimed that because the British kept most of their files, there is so much material for colonial historians to use.

“Our governments either don’t keep files or they shred them when they leave office. Even if they keep them, they do not transfer them to the national archives.”

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Guha then added that historians need primary sources to work with. Unlike the colonial sources, the recent past sources were “scanty and imperfectly kept and sometimes not available at all.” Unlike most democratic countries, where the papers of leaders are properly archived and open to scholars, in India, the families of the leaders get the papers which they do not share.

The fourth challenge, Guha said, was a “peculiarly Indian challenge.” It was to do with the disciplinary boundary in the Indian universities.

“When the clock struck midnight on 14th August, 1947, history ended and political science began.”

He said that historians don’t deal with post-independence period because that is the province of political science. Political scientists and historians are not allowed to research on certain topics because they fall in different disciplines. This, he said, was a ridiculous problem. The difference between two disciplines could be determined by a single date.

Another major problem, that Rama Guha believes, hampers a contemporary historian’s work is a lack of scholarly biographies. Taking the examples of Sheikh Abdullah, Master Tara Singh and other prominent figures, he said that their stories were not given importance because they were considered “provincial leaders.” Guha added that these “provinces” were as large as European countries.

“Not to have a biography of Y. B. Chavan is like not having a biography of Charles de Gaulle, and you’re French. To be a Maharashtrian and not have a solid scholarly assessment of what Chavan meant to the history of Maharashtra is really a massive deficiency of historical knowledge. Whether its arts, business, politics or sports we have no biographies!”

Talking about his book “Makers of Modern India” Guha said that India is undergoing five revolutions simultaneously. A political revolution, where a society based on a feudal elite moved to system where every citizen has a vote.

A national revolution, where a nation ruled by foreigners we now have swaraj.

An industrial revolution where an economy based largely on agriculture is becoming industrial.

An urban revolution where settlement patterns based on villages are becoming city based.

And a social revolution where tradition hierarchy, particularly, on caste and gender are being challenged.

Unlike other countries where these revolutions have staggered, India is undergoing these revolutions now.

“We are extremely large and extremely diverse and we are undergoing these revolutions.  That’s why as a historian, I am privileged to be born in India.  I could spend five lifetimes writing about these five revolutions.”

The author also took the time to talk about extremism; Ramachandra Guha said that extremists talk the loudest and that they see the world in black and white. He added that this certitude prevented us from “understanding the complexity of our country.” Hindu extremism, he believes, is not new and that Hindus are “a majority with a minority complex.” While globally, Islamic terror was dangerous, Guha feels that Hindu fundamentalism is dangerous in India.

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When asked by an audience member when is history reliable, the author replied that history is reliable when you have distance. You need a generation’s distance to understand the significance of an event. He believes that the closer you come to an event, the analyst in you takes over, so while distance is important, 20 years are enough.

As the invigorating session came to a close, the author was surrounded by audience members to get their questions in. It was a great beginning to this year’s Spring Fever and we look forward to seeing you on the 16th as Sunil Khilnani talks about his new book Incarnations.

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