Sunday, August 3, 2008

An evening with Ramachandra Guha

Life in Bangalore continues to offer new experiences that more often than not turn out to be surprisingly rewarding to the spirit. So, when I got a mail from Ram about a project that he is involved in that aims at creating intellectual capital of experts in arts, culture and history of India, I read it with interest. The mail went on to say that, as part of this project, a group of twenty five attendees will be getting an opportunity to interact with Dr. Ramachandra Guha in a discussion, the theme of which would be the esteemed historian’s recent essay ‘Will India become a superpower?' This discussion would be later available as part of course material so that the masses would be benefiting directly from an acclaimed expert with the help of media and technology. This leverages Group collaborative learning technique so that the physical presence of the expert isn’t always necessary.

We went to the venue and came across a mixed group in the audience – some entrepreneurs to youngsters curious to know Mr. Guha’s perspective on a wide range of issues. “Biographer. Cricket-writer. Essayist. Historian. Guha likes working in several genres” – writes Anita Nair in her profile of Ramachandra Guha. As he started talking about his essay that was the theme for the evening, we listened in rapt attention. One by one, he listed out the reasons that would make India’s superpower dream a tall order and elaborated on them. When he was done, the discussion was open for Q and A.

I list here some of the questions from the group of attendees and his responses to them, not produced verbatim.

He made a very pointed observation that when bomb blasts like the recent ones happen, some people in the fringes of fundamentalism view it as justification of their ideology and violence. For example, when Bangalore and Ahmedabad happened, some extreme right Hindu elements view it as justification of their ideology and violence and similarly, the Islamic jehadists think the same way when Iraq is bombed.

On the origin of the essay: I got a chance to be part of a meet in March 2008 in Bangalore where there were a lot of Indian entrepreneurs and a foreign diplomat. There was so much hope and expectation then that we’d one day become a superpower. Being a historian, I went back to March 1948 when Gandhi had just been assassinated and made myself a part of imaginary conversation in such a group as had assembled in 2008. Then, the mood would have been somber, our existence was in question…but thinking hard, I felt that the situation now is not any different. We are facing the same threats from the extreme left wing naxalites and the right wing fundamentalists. That is how the essay formed itself…

Q: Have you come across a similar debate in the US?

Guha: Yes, people in the US are pretty much sure that they belong there.

Q: What do you think of Barack Obama?

Guha: I don’t think he’ll win. But if he does, it will give a boost to the world’s opinion of America as a land of dreams.

Q: There are some parts in India that by virtue of being geographically close form part of India. For example, the Nicobar…

Guha: Yes. In fact, TN and Punjab shared very little with the rest of the territories when they became a part of India. We are diverse and we should be celebrating that. A large number of princely states were integrated during independence. No nation was born in such extraordinary circumstances as ours.

Q: Do you see any relation between the Dalit movement and the Mandal movement? Your thoughts on how TN is cited as an example for how rich the benefits of affirmative action are?

Guha: Affirmative actions benefiting dalits was because they have been oppressed in the past and deserve it to climb the social ladder but the reservation for OBCs is because of balance of power. As we became independent, there was a need for a unifying force to hold the diverse sections of people together. But as we entered the 70s and 80s, regional, caste based parties began to assert themselves. In some cases, their evolution was desirable and necessary too. I am not an opponent of affirmative action but it is overdone. 30 – 35% is acceptable but 50% is certainly not.

Q: What will the young minds think when they get to learn this from you. Shouldn’t we let them have their fantasy that we can become a superpower?

Guha: Let them have! I am saying that “Let us celebrate what we have done. Let us not celebrate the wrong things”.

Q: Why do you expect that the rich man be philanthropic? He is paying his taxes. Doesn’t he have the right to spend his money as he sees fit. Why shouldn’t he build a super large house and gift a jet to his wife?

Guha: To you, it may be “ok”. My view is that such display of wealth is vulgar.

Q: On the AFSPA, the opposition to it in the north east?

Guha: I feel that the AFSPA should not be used. When the PM traveled there, he didn’t make that announcement. I feel that when one loves someone, one should love them whole heartedly.

Q: When India is doing so well on the economic front, when we are extremely competent in many areas, when the youth see the potential for us to become a superpower, why can’t…

Guha: The youth of today are characterized by a quick impatience. Unless we are vigilant, we’d not be able to feel the hope…

Q: What do you think we should take away when we leave this room? This meeting has given a lot of food for thought. We can’t affect corruption in the centre, but surely, we can do some change to impact these issues?

Guha: You can affect your immediate vicinity – personally, professionally, the people and society in which you are in…

Q: Can’t the market address the disparity between the rich and the poor, the inequality?

Guha: The market can only do so much. It can’t address this…

Q: You say that the middle class is to some extent responsible for the trivialization of the media. When did this happen?

Guha: The media is giving too much attention to entertainment and glamour. It always pits the extremes against the extremes and thereby the middle ground doesn’t merit much thought especially when a lot of Indians would fall in that space.

By way of conclusion, Mr. Guha said, we should be setting our own terms and be proud of what we have done. Then it was time for the organizers to thank Mr. Guha for giving so much of his time.

This being our first exposure to such a personality and such a coming together of diverse people and thoughts, we came away excited, with a lot of food for thought thinking that the evening would shape and mold our perceptions of this vast nation and the various issues it faces.

Also read my post on the essay...

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