Papers of Vajpayee and Indira Gandhi are not available to the public, while Nehru’s papers are controlled by the family, said Ramachandra Guha, speaking on the challenges of contemporary history at the Penguin Spring Fever festival in New Delhi.
Ramachandra Guha addressed the challenges of contemporary history at the opening session of Spring Fever 2016, organized by Penguin Random House India at the India Habitat Centre. Guha is a leading historian, well-known biographer, author of many books like India After Gandhi, Makers of Modern India, Patriots and Partisans, Gandhi Before India.
Stating he was terrified at the thought of Hindu majoritarianism, Guha remarked, “Globally, Islamic terrorism is a very, very dangerous phenomenon and is a danger to the survival of human civilisation. But within India, Hindus are 85 percent. Hindu fundamentalism is much more dangerous than Islamic fundamentalism.” The historian also said there was a dearth of right-wing intellectuals in the country, terming BJP “anti-intellectual” and RSS a bunch of low-level ideologues. He termed the events at JNU “worrisome”, agencies reported.
Previewing his new book, Democrats and Dissenters, to be published by Penguin Random House in October, Guha talked about the paradox that India faces today. He mentions that India is indeed the most interesting country in the world but there is very little written about the contemporary history of this country where five revolutions—political, national, industrial, urban and social—are at work simultaneously. He mentions that Indian historians have been obsessed with colonial history because primary resources are more available for the time period.
There are four complicated challenges that a historian faces while writing about contemporary history. Firstly, the reader is not passive anymore, but is an active, opinionated citizen of the country. We have our own assumptions about our recent leaders as we live in the consequences of their decisions. Nehru is an important figure in the making of modern India. He is not to be blamed for the sins of his descendants, even though sins of his ‘seven generations’ have been placed on him, Guha said. Secondly, a historian is also a citizen and has his own perceptions or misperceptions about the many socio-political vectors that are in place.
Thirdly, there is a scarcity of reliable sources. The most sources available are of the colonial period. Our government has not had a proper system in place to maintain records. Nehru wrote a great deal, Guha adds, but his papers are in control of his family and are shared only with five or so historians, Guha not being one of them. Papers of Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi and so on are not available to the public. This causes hindrance to one’s studies. But, there are places where you can find good sources. Nehru Memorial Library, which is Guha’s ‘home away from home’, has papers from other individuals and newspapers from that era, a very important primary source for any historian.
Fourthly, there is a peculiar Indian challenge which is that when the clock struck 12, history ended and political science began. We say that post-1947 is not an area of history but of political science.
We don’t have individual biographies of great men, whether Sheikh Abdullah, Fizo or Chavan or on post-colonial Bengal or Karnataka. These histories can be written. Twenty years of a gap is enough to classify it as history.
We need conservative intellectuals, Guha stressed, saying it is true that universities were colonized by Leftists but that needs to change. Conservative intellectuals in India are lacking at the minute and to be a conservative intellectual is hard and rigorous work. We also need to be moderate, we need to look and understand the problem with a sober head, not say it is Hitler and the Emergency again.
“As a historian, I’m privileged to be born here,” Guha concluded, “and India is the most daring political experience. It’s our own country; we need to know more about it.”