Ramachandra Guha on Rebels Against the Raj

Shruti Rajagopalan and Ramachandra Guha discuss Gandhi’s legacy and Indian nationalism

In this episode, Shruti speaks with Ramachandra Guha about his latest book, “Rebels Against the Raj.” They discuss the influence of foreigners who renounced their native nationalities to become Indian, Gandhi’s legacy, economic protectionism, constraints on free speech, cricket and much more. Guha is an Indian historian, environmentalist, writer and public intellectual whose research interests include social, political, contemporary, environmental and cricket history. For the academic year 2011–12, he held a visiting position at the London School of Economics He has also been a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan. Today my guest is historian and biographer Ramachandra Guha. He is the author of a number of books, including a two-volume biography of Gandhi and the award-winning book “India After Gandhi.”

We talked about his latest book, “Rebels Against the Raj,” the ideas of Gandhian sacrifice as applied to foreigners, curbing free speech in India, protectionism, the missing Adivasi voices, the Indian conservative movement, how to do history and much more.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts.

Hello, Ram. Welcome to the show.


Gandhian Sacrifice and Foreigners

RAJAGOPALAN: I really enjoyed “Rebels Against the Raj.” You write in the prologue, “The world is governed by paranoia and nationalist xenophobia.” Then you name the latest political class of xenophobes and nationalists across the world. You end with, “No foreigner, they believe, can teach them anything, and this book tells us, they can.”

You move on to tell us the story of seven extraordinary people who effectively divorced their nationality assigned at birth, their religion, their race—in effect decolonizing themselves and becoming Indian. While these lives are extraordinary, when I finished reading the book, I was left with a very uncomfortable feeling.

If this book sets our expectation for welcoming foreigners at this level of personal sacrifice and “becoming Indian,” isn’t that also worrisome? We are willing to welcome foreigners as long as they become Indian; otherwise, they are still the other. Why is our ideal of a foreigner so mired in the Gandhian value of sacrifice?

GUHA: Yes, so that’s the theme that unites this book, is sacrifice, transgression, disloyalty, adopting a new nationality. But it’s not mandatory. Even in my prologue, I talk of two categories of foreigners, those I call rebels or renegades and those who I call bridge-builders. Of course, there are many bridge-builders who came here to serve as teachers, as doctors, as scholars, as community workers. And of course, they’re all welcome. Many of those retain their religion, retain their nationality.

I think conversations across cultures is what this book hopes to promote. I happen to get a focus to my book. I happen to orient it around seven people who actually went to prison or were deported, but that is merely because otherwise, the book would become too diffused. If I was to write a general history of India’s encounters with the modern West, peopled by 80, 100, 200 such characters whom one could have found, I think it would have just been a Wikipedia kind of yeh hua, woh hua [“this happened, that happened”], “this person came, that person came” kind of thing.

You raised a very important and subtle point, that one can be interested in appreciating another culture, contribute to it without completely identifying with it. I accept that. I completely accept that, but for my purposes, I felt that this story had to be told through seven people who actually radically abandoned their original national allegiance and chose another one.

RAJAGOPALAN: Okay, so let me offer you a different kind of a foreign image. I don’t think you will disagree much with it. I can easily imagine, especially as an economist, a Korean businessman—if they were welcome to set up shop in India—employing tens of thousands of Indians, making Indians richer, while also making themselves richer.

This is an important distinction, compared to everyone else you just mentioned—the bridge-builders and the rebels—but this receives such a harsh reaction. We can’t possibly allow an outsider or a foreigner to profit, even if we are profiting in the process. Do you think Gandhian values bring with them a kind of zero-sum-game thinking, and it’s just very difficult to move away from it?

GUHA: Not really. I think, first of all, there’s nothing Gandhian about the protectionism of the current regime, or in fact anything else about the current regime. I think it’s important to set it in context, Shruti. In 1920—my book is set largely in the first half of the 20th century, when we were still colonized. At that stage, people like this who are playing a very important role in alerting the West about the oppression and indignity that colonization caused in India.

Today, we’ve been free for 75 years. We should be open to the world, economically, culturally, politically. I’m not an economist, but I oppose the protectionism of the current regime. I think it’s only a pretext for promoting a jingoistic xenophobia. Actually, the end result is benefiting a few Indian capitalists close to the current regime.

There’s a wonderful book coming out soon. I don’t know if there’s an American edition, but the wonderful book by the Indian entrepreneur Naushad Forbes, which is called “The Struggle and the Promise.” I hope you talk to him on your show because actually, he is the critic of protectionism and a very clear-sighted, and in my view persuasive, critic of the inward economic turn that this current regime has taken.

So a Korean businessman would be absolutely welcome. While he’s starting this company, or she is starting this company, employing 20,000 workers, and goes out, and as a precondition for starting the company and generating wealth across a wide swath of Indian society, the Korean businessman says, “I must have beef at night,” he must still be welcome. So I think that. [laughs]

RAJAGOPALAN: I know what your personal view is. I had no doubts about that, but I want to tap into what the Gandhian view is. This Gandhian value of sacrifice, does it necessarily preclude this kind of positive-sum thinking that we follow so much in the market as a virtue.

GUHA: I think Gandhi demanded sacrifice, austerity and abstemiousness only of his closest disciples, of his ashramites. He did not even demand it of his political followers. It was fine for Nehru to have a cigarette and occasional glass of whiskey. It was not fine for someone living in the Sabarmati Ashram, who had taken the vows of the ashramite.

Obviously, Gandhi deplored excess. He was an early critic of consumerism, but he would only demand of full-time activists this kind of austere and very simple lifestyle. Gandhi was not a dogmatist in any way. I don’t think he would have loved the malls that dot Indian cities, for example, or the urge for larger and larger cars that people across the world have. You see, he was actually an incrementalist. He did not have a totalizing philosophy. He was willing to take from people what they could actually give.

Gandhi as a Bridge-Builder

RAJAGOPALAN: This is an interesting point you make about Gandhi because whatever his personal views were, as it pops up again and again in the book, he’s always willing to cross over to the other side, whether it is Annie Besant and their rivalry, which was very political in nature. But he’s willing to go and build bridges. He is also very thoughtful when she passes away in Madras.

The same with someone like Philip Spratt, who’s amazed that he’s come to prison to meet young Communists. So Gandhi actually goes out of his way to meet young Communist students who are very critical of him. You were very right in pointing out that there’s this tendency in Gandhi, which is now forgotten, that you don’t have to necessarily agree with everyone on everything to treat them with humanity and to have civil exchange.

GUHA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s a Gandhian value we could do with a little bit more of in current times. [laughs]

GUHA: Yes, I think it’s a value that some of the leaders of the American civil rights movement absorbed and practiced. I was thinking of Representative John Lewis, who died, I think, last year. I was hearing some of the tributes to him. One of his statements, which is really an immortal statement, which came back to me again and again, is when he said, “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Now, in the world of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, that may be harder and harder, but even before—that was the greatness of Gandhi. There’s a quote, not in this book but in my biography of Gandhi, there is a long quote from the American writer Louis Fischer. Now, if you wish, I can get the book and read it out to you. Should I do that?

RAJAGOPALAN: Please do. Is this the first volume or the second?

GUHA: The second volume, and this is June 19, 1942. The American journalist Louis Fischer comes to India and goes to Gandhi’s ashram in Sevagram. Now, America has entered the war. Pearl Harbor has occurred. The Indian National Congress wants to support the war effort, but only on condition that the British would grant them independence afterward, which the Viceroy Linlithgow and the Prime Minister Churchill are not willing to do.

Fischer comes at this time and meets a wide spectrum of Indian opinion. He meets the great Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar. He meets the proponent of Hindu class V.D. Savarkar, he meets Jinnah and he spends a week with Gandhi. He writes a little book called “A Week with Gandhi,” which is not as well-known as Fischer’s later biography published after Gandhi’s death, which was called “Gandhi: His Life and Message for the World.”

In this book, “A Week with Gandhi,” he talks about the difference between Gandhi and Jinnah, both of whom he had extended conversations with in this summer of 1942. He says, “Jinnah talked at me. He was trying to convince me. When I put a question to him, I felt as though I had turned on a phonograph record. I had heard it all before or could have read it in the literature he gave me, but when I asked Gandhi something, I felt that I had started a creative process. I could see and hear his mind work.

With Jinnah, I could only hear the needle scratch the phonograph record, but I could follow Gandhi as he moved to a conclusion. He is therefore much more exciting for an interviewer than Jinnah. If you strike right with Gandhi, you open a new pocket of thought. An interview with him is a voyage of discovery and he seemed himself sometimes surprised at the things he was saying.”

This is a wonderful description of the open-minded, dialogic attitude Gandhi had about even the most important things. He didn’t have a prepared speech; he was not trying to persuade, convince, cajole. He was having a conversation, a debate, possibly an argument from which he hoped he would learn something. I think that’s really in my view the most extraordinary thing about Gandhi as a political leader of his time, let alone of course what we have today, where across the world leaders believe in monologues, one-way communication and so on.

They don’t have feedback loops. We’re having this conversation on the day that Russia has invaded Ukraine, and of course Putin is a prime example of the person who doesn’t believe in conversation and dialogue and exchanges and learning and listening. I think that is in many ways one of Gandhi’s greatest and underappreciated qualities.

From Communism to Free Markets

RAJAGOPALAN: The Soviet connection to India has always been fraught. On the one hand it is the model for development. This was the revolution that never took place in India. A lot of people have romanticized it. But on the other hand, it’s also the sign of this totalitarian regime. The economics of control leads to the politics of control . . .

GUHA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: Enough scholars have written about this. I wanted to dig in a little bit into one of these seven great rebels. My favorite in this context is Philip Spratt, for many reasons. One is, to me as an economist and a classical liberal, he is the most fascinating person on the list. He starts out as a Communist, very radical M.N. Roy-style communist thinking. He reads Gandhi, meets Gandhi and then slowly becomes a Socialist Democrat.

Then comes to the other side and eventually just shuns socialism and moves completely toward markets, and eventually is helping Rajaji and edits this Swarajya magazine, and helps the efforts of the Swatantra Party against license permit Raj. Now, to my mind, the only other person who has made this shift is Minoo Masani. Right?

GUHA: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: He also starts out as someone who’s very inspired by Soviet socialism and then reads Gandhi. By 1944, he’s written his critique of totalitarian Soviet-style thinking. Why did the Gandhian critique of this Soviet socialism inspire so few to go toward free market, embrace free trade and so on? Most people went the Fabian way, the incrementalist way. That’s what they borrowed from Gandhi. To my mind, only these two people fit in that category.

GUHA: I got to this question about economic thought and Gandhi’s influence on it, but let me stay with Spratt—


GUHA: —for a moment. Now, actually, the seven characters in this book—and obviously I’ve enjoyed working on all and I’ve discovered new things about all. But I have a special corner for Spratt, partly because he lived much of his life in Bangalore. Two of his children still live in the city; several of his grandchildren live in the city. Partially because he fell in love with this Tamil girl, and the correspondence—we only have his side of the correspondence—is incredibly moving and tender. For me, as a biographer, to have access to these letters and then to quote them as I could wish was a real privilege. I am also fond of Spratt.

The third reason is—I’m speaking to you, Shruti; I don’t know whether you know Bangalore at all. From a road called Brunton Road, which is just off M.G. road, this is my wife’s family house. The plot adjoining this was where MysIndia was printed, the weekly where he worked. His favorite bookshop was a place called Select Bookshop, which I’ve also patronized all my life. Spratt, he’s special to me for many reasons in this book.

RAJAGOPALAN: Can I add one more?

GUHA: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: His love for the veena because you know my mother is a classical veena player. He’s mentioned his love for the veena. When I was reading those parts of the book, my heart just soared in that moment.

GUHA: Part of his love for his wife was that she played the veena, of course, yes. Again, with the important and necessary caveat that I’m not an economic historian, I’m not an economist, I have limited interested in the history of economic thought. Clearly Nehru, who embodied Fabian socialism and was prime minister and of course played an absolutely critical role in directing economic policy in the ’50s and ’60s, rejected Gandhi’s economic ideas.

Although he totally avowed it—upheld Gandhi’s ideas of religious or linguistic pluralism, for which he does not get enough credit. That aspect of Gandhi that he avowed and upheld is urgently relevant today in Modi’s India.

Now, you had some people who took Gandhi’s economic ideas in the direction of decentralized village-based economic development with a focus on environmental sustainability. One of Gandhi’s followers was a Columbia-trained economist called J.C. Kumarappa, who has been the subject of a very good recent biography by Venu Govindu and Deepak Malghan, an excellent intellectual biography of this man.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’ve written about him also, a shorter piece.

GUHA: Oh, yes. I’ve written short pieces about him, absolutely. These two younger scholars have done a much more detailed and richer in-depth intellectual biography of him.

Now, Gandhi was always skeptical of bestowing excessive powers to the state. Now, this is one root of his famous disagreement with Ambedkar. Gandhi felt that the caste system must be abolished through the voluntary action and conscious awakening of ordinary people. Ambedkar did not discount that; he felt that was important. But he felt it had to be complemented by sustained state intervention.

Now, Gandhi was, for many reasons, skeptical of according excessive power to the state. Some people call him an anarchist, which may be an exaggeration. He certainly thought that according party bureaucrats and politicians is problematic. Now, he didn’t really take the side on the free market and the state when it came to the economy. But Masani whom you mentioned, Spratt whom you mentioned, and above all somebody you don’t mention, though you mentioned him earlier, Rajagopalachari

RAJAGOPALAN: Of course, yes.

GUHA: —took that aspect of Gandhi and formalized it as a critique of the license permit quota. Again, it’s a sign of what we may call the polyphonous effect of Gandhi that you have Nehru in the 1950s, speaking in the name of Gandhi. You have Rajaji opposing his policies, speaking in the name of Gandhi. You have Kripalani, who—somewhere in politics, but distinct from Nehru and Rajaji—speaking in the name of Gandhi. You have Vinoba Bhave and J.C. Kumarappa in civil societies and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, speaking in the name of Gandhi.

Again, if there’s a younger scholar listening in, I think the history of Gandhians post-Gandhi has not been written. What did those who are closely associated with Gandhi and knew him, worked with him, learned from him, and then after he died, interpreted him in very different and diverse ways? Now, that’s a kind of aspect of our post-independence history that has not been written. We focus too much on the state and not really on what these Gandhians did in different spheres of life. But yes, Spratt was a very interesting—I myself think he went too far in the other direction.

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t [laughs].

GUHA: I’ll tell you, let me explain it to you. Not in terms of economics, not in terms of economics, but in terms of politics. For example, he was inspired by Soviet communism. He turned against Soviet communism. And in turning away from Soviet communism, he entirely embraced the American point of view and the American position in the Cold War and even supported the intervention in Vietnam, which was utterly stupid.

I’ve actually written a column that will appear tracing the lineage from the American invasion of Vietnam to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that happened. Sure, I mean, you can be critical of state economics, but you can’t be naive about American interests. I’ve never been, because I grew up in the 1970s and at a time when America supported Pakistan in the genocidal war in Bangladesh. I had no illusions about—I had written this in the past after 9/11.

I was asked to contribute to a special issue of Granta Magazine where foreigners wrote about America. It was called “What We Think of America.” And in that I said—and I stand by that. I stand by what I said: America is at once the most democratic and the most imperialistic country in the world. Its model is totally democratic. There are no hierarchies of caste and feudalism, and there’s transparent institutions. But in its interventions abroad, though they claim the moral high ground, it’s actually utterly hypocritical. I think Spratt probably went too far in his identification of American foreign policy, which was not necessary for an aggregate of liberal economics in India.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I do agree it wasn’t necessary. But the Cold War time, it was a strange time where people were forced to pick sides. And I think academics showed a little bit more nuance, but people who were writing weekly essays or editorials had to have a certain amount of flair. This is of course not in the defense of Spratt’s position.

GUHA: I see that, yes.

Is Protectionism Gandhian?

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to come back a little bit to Gandhian ideas on economics. I don’t have to tell you this. I have learned most of this from you. The Gandhian ideals and the RSS-style Hindu nationalism ideal is about as far apart as one can get, except on protectionism. You know this idea of swadeshi, make in India, protecting the Indian producer against competition in one sense.

Of course, the Gandhian point of view comes from a slightly different place. It’s against material accumulation and against consumerism and things like that, and the RSS ideal comes from a slightly different place. But I feel like these two things have really merged in our modern time. The modern-day increase in tariffs, which is a U-turn after liberalization, the increasing protectionism under the Modi administration—but it’s also Gandhian at the same time. I see a lot of people who support it, even though they are not pro-Modi.

GUHA: [crosstalk] It’s not Gandhian. Gandhi was writing in 1922; we are in 2022. Gandhi was writing at a time when we were colonized by the British and policies favored foreign companies and the Crown was a successor to the East India Company. I think one should not use hindsight here. We were actually colonized by a multinational company, and enduring debate on the extent of deindustrialization—I don’t want to get into that debate. But Gandhi was writing in 1922, not in 2022.

We don’t really know what his views would have been here. He would still be against consumerism. But I don’t think he would have wanted, after 75 years of independence—to have very high tariffs to protect a few chosen Indian industries is not—the kind of cronyism and political bias is not something I think Gandhi would have supported. Again, I’m not really an economist. Do have these conversations with Naushad Forbes and others. They’ll be much more enlightening than anything I can tell you.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, but for me, the question is not just an economic one. It’s also a question of how modern-day Gandhians interpret Gandhi. I haven’t seen too many people take your interpretation of, “You need to read him in his time, and today Gandhi would have been different because the enemy today is different,” is fundamentally your point. But I don’t see too many Gandhian socialists especially take that point of view. My question is more about, how are these bizarre coalitions for protectionism coming about in India?

GUHA: I don’t think Gandhians are at all influential in economic thought. There is a congruence between old-style Marxism and the RSS on economic protectionism. They would have never acknowledged it because they disagree on politics, but the idea that you have to keep out the world, you have to support the Indian industries—I think it’s actually old-style Marxists of the JNU [Jawaharlal Nehru University] variety who opposed market liberalization, entrepreneurship and so on.

Actually, Gandhi didn’t really devote much to economics, and it’s hard to say there’s Gandhian economics. There’s Gandhian politics. There’s Gandhian ethic of social reform. There is a Gandhian philosophy of interreligious understanding and dialogue of personal moral conduct, perhaps. But I would not see Gandhi really as an economic thinker, essentially. Though some people set his ideas in that direction, I think that would be problematic.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think this goes back to your previous point that the Gandhian thought is such a big umbrella that all different people have expropriated certain parts of his thought and mingled it with their own ideas. Right?

GUHA: Absolutely, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: There is a whole motley crew of Gandhian socialists. We know they exist; they have pronounced themselves so. But you’re right. It need not be a coherent part of any Gandhian thought or economic thought.

Annie Besant

RAJAGOPALAN: The other super-interesting character in your book—and a lot has been written about Annie Besant, but she continues to fascinate me for many reasons. The most important, the aspect I love about her but which also makes other people very cynical, is that she’s such a good politician. She makes it okay for women to be politically strategic, right?

Of course, we know that she was the first woman who was elected as president of the Indian National Congress and so on, but that is more a question of hierarchy. But just her political mind, I think, also made it so much more acceptable for women to actually engage politically, not just as a foot-soldier kind of movement, but be strategic thinkers.

GUHA: Yes, yes, absolutely. And of course, she was bringing to what she did in India several decades of experience in British politics, in the socialist movement, in the suffragette movement. And then of course she took a break embracing theology. But she returned to politics in India with all the accumulated experience of an Irish woman working in London in the 1870s and 1880s. But yes, she was strategic. I think that’s interesting what you say because in that sense, she’s the forerunner of Sonia Gandhi, Mamta Banerjee, Mayawati and some other people today who are women leaders.

RAJAGOPALAN: J. Jayalalitha, to take an example from Madras.

GUHA: Absolutely. J. Jayalalitha. Absolutely, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: I know that at some point she mentored so many of the later Indian nationalists, most famously Krishna Menon, who was already in trouble as a radical student and got into all kinds of trouble. She’s the one who really sets him up as part of the Home League movement in London and writes various letters of introduction. And we know that that was a very important institution and bridge-builder on the other side.

After Naoroji, the person in London who is really sort of like the locus of the nationalist movement is Krishna Menon. What is it about Annie Besant that she was able to recognize talent? She was a very good scout for talent, I feel. She spotted people, she spotted J. Krishnamurti, she supported Krishna Menon. What is it about her personality?

GUHA: Yes, she did, though she supported mostly men. There were not many women she mentored. One exception whom she partially mentored—though this person was already largely formed politically before she came to India—but Margaret Cousins, who appears in the epilogue to my book and who founded the All India Women’s Conference.

Several of the characters in my book, I think these are full-length biographies. Probably not Spratt because he’s a fascinating but ultimately minor figure. But Annie Besant’s Indian life, I think, deserves a fresh and extended look. Mirabehn, Gandhi’s adopted daughter, deserves a biography. B.G. Horniman—particularly, through him, the story of the Bombay Chronicle, which was a great newspaper that ran from 1913 till 1956—and not just in its politics, but in his coverage of culture and film and working-class lives, much more interesting than the Times of India.

I hope that, again, every work of history is a conversation. It takes our understanding of history one step further, but it opens up questions for even deeper exploration into things that that book has not really adequately answered or even begun to understand. I think Annie Besant deserves a fresh look. Mirabehn deserves a full-fledged biography. Through Horniman you can tell the story of the history of the nationalist press and also what it may have been like to be a gay in colonial India. Annie Besant—there is more about her I could myself have said, but I did not want any one of these seven stories to dominate the book.

RAJAGOPALAN: Fair enough.

GUHA: They are equal in length. I think Mira and Spratt are slightly longer than the other five. But all get substantial and extended treatment; not book-length treatment, but at least two chapters amounting to 40-50 pages. Yes, I think what will happen, Shruti, is—it’s already occurring from the early readers of the book.

Different people find different characters more fascinating, depending on where they’re coming from, what their interests are. You have, given your intellectual interests and orientations, found Spratt very intriguing. And given the fact that you’re from Tamil Nadu, warm to Annie Besant. Others from the Himalaya may look at Sarla Behn and be inspired by her.


GUHA: Or, Stokes.

RAJAGOPALAN: I love apples. I had no idea Stokes is the person I thank for Himachali apples.

GUHA: Yes, or Stokes. Absolutely. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Just to go back to Annie Besant for a moment, I know that there are criticisms that she was mostly scouting talented men. She was only moving around in Brahminical circles, almost exclusively. She could be quite casteist herself. Many people have declared her to be, in fact, quite casteist—even more so than the Indians. But is it easier for her as an outsider to spot what it takes to be a rebel against the British imperialist power? What is it about her that made her that kind of talent scout and institutional builder?

GUHA: I think of the seven, she had the least self-doubt. She was strong, confident, authoritative, with several decades of acclaimed public service behind her. That was ultimately her undoing. Also, it was the reason she cultivated so much talent in India and, of course, built organizations in Benares and Madras elsewhere. Of course, she was fearless, independent-minded, incredibly courageous in what she had done, risk-taking, but she had no self-doubt.

That’s one of the interesting things about reflecting on her life compared to the others. The others had all kinds of anxieties and problems, but she was supremely confident. If you have that kind of charisma around you, people flock to you, people come. They are attracted to what you say. They come and attend your lectures; they read your editorials.

I think that’s partly, perhaps, why she was so successful. She was casteist even in her interpretation of Indian history as I talk about it. It’s a very Brahmanical understanding of how Indians—well, she’s a fascinating figure and, clearly, deserves a new biography.

For example, I focus really on her educational work and her politics. I don’t really teach her philosophy at any great length, or her complicated and ultimately tragic relationship with Krishnamurti, who walked out on her. I think surely she’ll be someone who, hopefully, would get a full-length book soon.

RAJAGOPALAN: Hopefully, someone’s listening and writes about this.

GUHA: The papers are all there. There’s a very rich collection of Annie Besant papers in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, in the Theosophical Society, in archives spread out across England. I think a contemporary 21st-century biography of Annie Besant—the last good proper biography was written in 1963, which is called “The Nine Lives of Annie Besant.” It’s like 60 years ago, and responding to very different kind of intellectual and social concerns. Absolutely. I hope somebody writes at length on Annie Besant.

RAJAGOPALAN: The lovely thing about the book is the detail, without it becoming dense and boring. I love Beethoven, have forever, and that Mirabehn’s first love is actually not Gandhi but Beethoven—these are the things that just, one of course—and her last love.

GUHA: And her last love as well. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. She actually leaves the country and then, toward the end of her life, goes back to Beethoven. You’ve written it in a way that each one of these lives have charmed me at the very least.

A Century of Curbs on Free Speech

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to go back to a broader theme in the book and a broader theme in your work more recently, and this comes from B.G. Horniman. You’ve written that chapter very cleverly because there are parts of the chapter, if I were to quote it to the listener, they would sound like a criticism of all the restrictions against press today, of how journalists are being treated today. Then you look at the date and it’s 1918, 1922, the press is being deported, they’re not being allowed back in India. [Aatish] Taseer can be the new B.G. Horniman.

GUHA: For sure. Of course.

RAJAGOPALAN: Have we had more continuity in oppression and coercion than we realized? In the sense that there has been an enormous amount of continuity in free speech restrictions and press restrictions from the British government. Then it became war controls, and then Nehru’s government comes about, and the constitution guarantees freedom of expression. But the very first amendment severely restricts it.

Of course, we have some episodic horrors like the Emergency, but in my mind, we’ve never particularly been a country to uphold the values of freedom of press. It might be particularly dire today, but there seems to be a 100-year-long continuity in this, than the current times being particularly an outlier.

GUHA: Yes. I’d say the aberration over the decades of the ’80s and the ’90s. Apart from the very first amendment, or maybe even if the first amendment had not taken place, the press in Nehru’s time was very deferential. There was no B.G. Horniman; there was no Bombay Chronicle. There was, of course, D.F. Karaka and his weekly Current, which I’ve quoted quite a lot of in “India After Gandhi.” On the left, there was the Economic Weekly perhaps, but the mainstream media was deferential. It was also very state-dependent on government handouts and did no real field reporting.

Then the Emergency happened where, of course, the press was totally crushed. Afterward there was an efflorescence of the free press, including the language press. Again, since I’d like to mention the work of fine scholars for younger people, Robin Jeffrey’s book, “India’s Newspaper Revolution,” is a brilliant history of the efflorescence of the Indian press from 1977 after the Emergency ended till about 2005.

Then of course curbs start, then government in advertisements and so on. Of course, now it’s reached an extreme. It really squeezes on the press. You also have essentially the term Godi media, which is a large section of the television media and print media is essentially a lapdog media. Yes, except for those two decades, which actually—’80s, ’90s, which fortunately for me coincided when I started writing for the press. Then, of course, I’ve had my own problems, which I won’t necessarily talk about here. But I think that’s one aspect.

The other aspect and link to this is the continuation of the colonial legal system. The RSS calls me a Macaulay Putra. A Macaulay Putra, which means I’m a follower of Thomas Babington Macaulay, who promoted English in India. Macaulay’s Indian Penal Code, the RSS is happy to use to harass his critics—Section 153, 295, Sedition 124, whatever it may be. The CrPC and the IPC have never been properly amended.

It took a hell of a long time for us to amend Section 377 criminalizing homosexuality. There are all kinds of aspects of the British colonial legal system that have been adroitly used by successive postcolonial regimes to suppress and stifle dissent. Not just to curb the press but otherwise. It is much worse today than it has ever been.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it’s being weaponized in a very particular way right now than before. Is India doomed when it comes to freedom of press? This is a very long history of curbs on free press.

GUHA: I think lots of things in India change, but you don’t have a majority government in Delhi. The press becomes freer. The judiciary becomes braver. The bureaucrats become less sycophantic toward their political leaders. More experts are consulted in economic policy. I think a lot of things changed. The voter should not give anyone 300 or 400 seats for the health of the democracy. I don’t think this is here forever, but we are living through a particularly bad time when it comes to freedoms in general, and the freedom of the press in particular.

RAJAGOPALAN: I would add to the majority government part. I would say, actually free press also thrives when economic growth is very vibrant, at high rates of economic growth. Because when the economy slumps, you’re not going to have new products launched. Where is your ad revenue going to come from for newspapers?

When the economy is doing terribly, you rely more and more on government advertisement and government spending. Even if the government’s not going out there to weaponize it, that is the unspoken threat, the withdrawal of government spending and revenue which . . .

GUHA: Again, I think I have a slightly more nuanced—though broadly I agree with you. I think economic liberalization has also exacted this cost from the free press, particularly with regard to environmental reporting—because chemical companies, gas companies, energy companies. When I was young, every good Indian newspaper had an environmental correspondent. They’ve all been laid off or they’ve been designated stock market correspondent.

I think there is a cost. Broadly, I would agree that dependence on government advertisement is worse for a free press than dependence on commercial advertisement. Dependence on commercial advertisements also has a problem. Particularly in a situation in India, where you have the agglomeration of capital in a few select companies, which controls so many industries across the board.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s the bigger problem. I think you’ve nailed it. I think the problem is this very particular kind of crony club. We used to have a socialist form of cronyism. This was all the Bombay Group. And now you have a capitalist form of cronyism.

GUHA: We can give it a name. I’ll give it a name. I’ve been quoting the former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, who has called it stigmatized capitalism, the 2A variant, the Ambani-Adani variant.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think those are the most visible ones, but I think there are many business houses which have cornered a particular power. All our chambers of commerce are not very good guardians of markets and contestability. I think there’s a failure there also. It’s very fashionable, I think, to blame Ambani and Adani. I’m sure a lot of it is deserved, but the list is longer in my mind.

GUHA: It’s broader and deeper than that. I agree.

On Nationalism

RAJAGOPALAN: The other really important thread in your work is nationalism. This comes up in many different aspects of your work. Aside from just the biographies, of course, most importantly covered in “India After Gandhi,” where you are literally walking us through the nation-building exercise—the India as a nationalist project.

Now, your idea of that is a very moderate, plural, syncretic form of nationalism. My sense is, this comes from almost a Gandhi-Nehruvian value because at their time, nationalism meant the war against the imperial power, a different kind of coercion, a different kind of illiberalism.

Now, I worry that when we divorce nationalism from the colonial baggage, is it ever going to be compatible with the values of pluralism and this kind of syncretic value that you’re looking for global cosmopolitanism? Every version of nationalism divorced from colonialism I find extremely problematic, whether it’s under Nehru or Indira Gandhi or Modi.

GUHA: I think, first of all, someone who has inspired me, at least in my ideas of nationalism, as much as Gandhi would be Tagore. His lectures on nationalism—to which I wrote a long introduction, but they were issued some years ago—I would, again, urge people to read if they haven’t already. I make a distinction: Nationalism had two children who went in different ways, whom I call patriotism and jingoism. Both are offspring of nationalism.

Gandhi, Tagore, Nehru, the constitution, Ambedkar—a lecture I gave in memory of Justice Sunanda Bhandari—I called it patriotism. I also said patriotism of the Indian Constitution, which is about values. It’s not about unity. It’s not about identification with a single religion or single language, a common enemy. Today, we’re moving much more toward jingoism. I don’t think it’s to do with colonialism per se.

The kind of approach to nationalism which people like Tagore and Gandhi nurtured, and which actually Nehru took forward—again, since both of us—I live in south India and you’re from south India. It was Nehru who really resisted Hindi imposition on the south. He understood that following Gandhi to the south, where he saw linguistic traditions were in many ways much richer than Hindi, and retained English as the window to interstate communication.

That kind of vision was, I think, sui generis. It was a distinctively Indian contribution to the debate on nationalism, moved away from European models of nationalism based on one language, one religion, common enemy. Why is it dissipated? It’s not really to do with colonialism. It’s to do with, obviously, the victory of the RSS and so on, political victory of the RSS. But also to do with changes in the neighborhood. India is surrounded by states defined by religious majoritarianism.

Pakistan and Bangladesh are explicitly Islamic. Neither were at their birth. The Bangladeshi Constitution had secularism in it when it was first formulated by the constitutional lawyer Kamal Hossain in the early 1970s. But it is technically now an Islamic state. Myanmar and Sri Lanka are Buddhist majoritarian states. Sri Lanka—also Buddhism was put in the state constitution only in the early 1970s. Of course, along with defining Buddhism as a state religion meant defining Sinhala as the preeminent national language.

I think we are approximating that. We are approximating a South Asian norm. We are losing our distinctiveness. We are becoming a Hindu version of Buddhist Burma or Islamic Pakistan. I think that’s what this government wants. Of course, it’ll exact a terrible cost on our minorities, which it is already doing, possibly even on our linguistic pluralism. There’s a serious attempt by the present government to promote Hindi everywhere. It’s insidious, it’s underhand, it’s clever. It’s never open, but it’s there.

I think, yes, I would say today, patriotism has lost out to jingoism. Probably, it will be hard to recover that original ideal that was formulated by the makers of the Indian Constitution and the builders of the Indian republic.

RAJAGOPALAN: I also think we need to romanticize that old-style nationalism a little bit less. I’ll tell you why I have increasingly gone in that direction. A very large portion of the nationalist fervor was tapped into, to increase the powers of the state, because at the birth of the republic you need to engage in a very large nation-building exercise.

You need to make sure the borders are contained. You need to make sure the union doesn’t splinter and each state doesn’t go off and do its own thing. In trying to implement socialist planning, you need to give an enormous amount of centralized control in New Delhi, so that the economic center can be kept together. All this was repeatedly done in the national interest.

I find a very disturbing trend of individual liberties constantly being compromised, whether it is emergency powers of the state, whether it’s the economic power of the state, whether it’s these restrictions against free press and so on. It always comes under the shadow of “in the national interest.” I wonder if the moderate nationalist, patriotic ideal that I grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s, that you are very much associated with, if it’s just time to walk away from the whole thing.

GUHA:  I believe one can still recover it. I accept what you’re saying. Among the dangers of the current regime is the attack on states’ rights, the undermining of Indian federalism in multiple ways. In fact, I wrote a column recently, which I called “Five Ways to Kill Federalism,” which is about different ways in which state rights have been undermined.

It’s a noble ideal that a nation is not defined by a single language or a single religion, or indeed a common enemy. It’s an ideal I adhere to. I refuse to abandon it because there is no better ideal. Certainly, I don’t buy into the idea of being a world citizen because there’s no world state. That ideal of Indian nationalism or Indian patriotism, however much it may be under threat today and even if it is a losing battle, I’m happy to fight it.

The Adivasi Voice

RAJAGOPALAN: Fair enough. I want to go to a slightly earlier part of your writing. You were writing a lot on environmentalism. That’s your doctoral work for at least the first decade after, and I’ve learned a lot from it. I’m working on a project on property rights. We talk about bank nationalization and all these later formulations, but to me, the Forest Act is the greatest assault on property rights that has ever taken place in human history. This overnight disenfranchisement of Adivasis.

Now, you’ve written about specific Adivasi groups. You’ve also written about champions of Adivasi groups, those who are either coming from within the group or outside like Elwin or Kumarappa, and so on. Why is it that even after 75 years, the Adivasi voice is so missing in our mainstream? To me, it seems like even the Dalit voice has recovered. There are more Dalit magazines, outlets, associations. They’re more part of the political movement and voice, in some sense, but the Adivasi voice seems to be very, very much in the background, if at all.

GUHA: My original training was in sociology, not in history, so I still think sociologically. If you would think as broadly, there are four underprivileged groups in India, which would be Dalits, Muslims, women and Adivasis. Now, the first three have eloquent—not always successful, but eloquent—visible advocacy groups and activists speaking on their behalf: Dalits, Muslims and women.

Adivasis don’t, really. They’re largely missing in the public discourse. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that they are not a viable vote bank. Adivasis are about 7% of the population, but they’re scattered across. Whereas Dalits—400 out of 540 constituencies are a vote bank of 10 to 15%. Likewise with Muslims. Adivasis, only in a few districts in a few states count, where they are in a majority, or near a majority. They don’t have their political salience.

They have not had an inspirational leader like Ambedkar who could motivate them and move them so long after his death. Their skills are not transferable in the same way to the modern economy. Some of the Dalit skills are, which is why you have Dalit entrepreneurs in fields such as leather and metal work and so on. They were the victims of the state, massively overrepresented in those displaced by state development projects and so on. It is a terrible, terrible tragedy with many, many dimensions.

Of course, the Naxalites exacerbate it. You’re on the pretext of solving—they exacerbate it, because they intensify the violence. They provoke counter-violence by the state, and then of course, the Adivasis that are squeezed in between. Again, the best book on the Adivasi predicament is by the anthropologist Nandini Sundar, her book, “The Burning Forest.” She’s actually someone I’ve learned a lot from because she spent her whole professional life working on Adivasis, whereas for me, it’s only been a small aside interest.

One thing—again, this is one of the “what could have been” of history. Jaipal Singh, who was an Adivasi leader from Jharkhand and was an MP for several terms, was a member of the Constituent Assembly. His original state called Jharkhand would’ve incorporated all the Adivasi-dominated districts of what are now Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Andhra, Maharashtra, Bihar and so on.

Whereas as a small slice of Bihar was made into Jharkhand. Perhaps if in Indian heartland, you’d have Adivasi-dominated state in the hill and forest areas where they could have had control over their destiny, their natural resources, their lives, their customs, things could have been different. Shruti, Adivasis—I have said this before—they have gained least and lost most from 75 years of independence.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely.

GUHA: They suffered during state-sponsored industrialization, and they’ve suffered during liberalization too. The mining boom, post-1990s, has exerted a terrible cost on Adivasi lives and livelihoods. Yes, I wish there was more attention paid to it and more writing about it, though now some of it is coming. There are some Adivasi voices now, particularly in fiction. There are some wonderful Adivasi novelists and poets, who are clearly speaking up and whose works capture very movingly and poignantly their struggles.

RAJAGOPALAN: All of their stories are told by outsiders. People who go and visit Adivasis are typically the tellers of the story. Even the Constituent Assembly, you have one Munda. Even the other groups you mentioned, there are 15 women in the Constituent Assembly. There are Dalit voices, there’s one female Dalit voice.

GUHA: There’s, for example, apart from Jaipal Singh, there’s J.J. Nichols Roy of what is now Meghalaya. There are few. They are underrepresented.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, but they are very, very few. I think hill people are overall underrepresented in our discourse, right?

GUHA: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: We think of it as just places you visit for natural beauty. We just completely forget the people involved there. Even in your current book, you brought that about so beautifully, how Stokes really fights for the hill people and against their forced labor and those kinds of practices.

GUHA: Yes. On the hill people, my first book, “The Unquiet Woods,” which was published in 1989—since I was a sociologist, this is a sociology Ph.D. thesis. It started as a sociology of the Chipko movement based on fieldwork. I very quickly found I preferred archival work to fieldwork. It became a long social history of peasants and forests in the Himalaya, from the 1860s till the Chipko movement, and only the last chapter was the Chipko movement.

In that book, in the preface, I said that the definitive history of the Chipko movement is being written by a man called Shekhar Pathak, who’s a great historian of Uttarakhand, and 30 years later has produced the definitive history of the Chipko movement. He wrote it in Hindi, and I got a friend, Manisha Chaudhry, to translate it, and I edited the translation. And it’s now available in English, published by Permanent Black.

It’s called “The Chipko Movement: A People’s History” and is the definitive work on the most influential environmental movement to have emerged actually from anywhere in the Global South. I encourage people to read Shekhar Pathak’s book called "The Chipko Movement” because I think that it will talk a lot about hill people, about environmentalism and about hill people as well. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s a fantastic recommendation.

I think the other is also a misunderstanding of community property rights thanks to the colonial heritage. You’ve talked about Section 377, this idea of Victorian morality, a lot of the Macaulay influence in terms of the IPC and CrPC. The other influence is this Anglo-Saxon idea of property, which was just wholesale imposed on Adivasi groups, which never thought of property as an individual right but always as community right. Each generation was a custodian of property for the next generation, and nowhere in our legal scheme have we made an accommodation for this.

GUHA: Just a correction. When it comes to history of forest legislation, it’s, in fact, the Forest Act which you rightly described as the greatest act of state-sponsored expropriation certainly in modern Indian history, which has affected many peasant communities as much as it affected Adivasis. Essentially, you often had individual plots which Adivasi and peasant families own, but you had community forests. Community water is sources like tanks and small springs, and so on.

The British did not understand the concept of community forests and community water regimes. You could still endow private plots to individual households, but the forest was managed communally. That was what was taken away. It was resisted by a visionary German forester called Dietrich Brandis, who came from Germany, where there was a very established tradition of community forests. He wanted that also encouraged in India, but he was overruled by the ICS men there.

Jyotiba Phule fully writes about this, criticizing colonial forest laws. So do other people from the late 19th century. Of course, there’s a whole wave of peasant and Adivasi rebellions against state forest laws, which I’ve written about in my early work. The forest department is still the largest landlord in India. It controls 20% of India’s—it’s an abomination.

RAJAGOPALAN: Is there a way out of that problem in the future? How do we rethink Adivasi rights, not just lip service and put them in scheduled areas, not that limited kind of thinking? Is there a radical way of conceptualizing Adivasi rights in a way that actually works for them and not just works on paper?

GUHA: I’m not very good at policy or prescription, so I’ll pass on that.

Indian Conservatives

RAJAGOPALAN: I want to also go back to an older essay of yours. This is in “Democrats and Dissenters.”

GUHA: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Toward the end you ponder over Indian conservative scholars, or rather the lack thereof. Is this because India is so Fabian in the sense of, not socialism, but this gradual incrementalism has been adopted by every group? It’s very Gandhian. It’s very Nehruvian. Even on liberalization, it has happened over 30 years very gradually.

That makes almost all Indian thought very conservative in the sense that it’s not radical. There are too many people who are always using gradualism and incrementalism to preserve the status quo. To this extent, what we normally think of in India as conservative, like the RSS, they are the radical. They are a radical departure from the status quo or the syncretic culture of India. Have we killed conservative thought because we’ve adopted Fabianism?

GUHA: That’s a very good point to make. Maybe what I really meant was right-wing thought more than conservative thought. I mean, in the West, it’s easy to conflate conservatives to right wing. In India, because as you point out, the RSS actually, particularly in last decade, has been quite radical. I was really talking about intellectual ideas and intellectual work that draws on indigenous literary, philosophical, cultural traditions of the kind—some of which may have existed in the colonial period.

In that essay, I talk about people like the sociologist G.S. Ghurye, who, of course, had a deep understanding of traditional Indian cultures. I think RSS is, among other things, deeply anti-intellectual. They claim to valorize tradition. They claim they will set up Sanskrit universities, but they would not know where to get faculty to teach Sanskrit.

They have no understanding. They have a very limited understanding of what is Indian culture, not just the diversity but the depth and the subtlety and so on. They really have a very simplistic ideology, which is, Muslims are bad, Hindus are great. There’s not much more to what they think.

If you look at Sanskrit, for example, it’s a tragedy that the best—when I was young, Western scholars would come to Pune to learn the Sanskrit from teachers in Pune or occasionally in Banaras, but Pune was really more of a center of Sanskrit teaching. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore.

Talking about culture, Indian traditional culture, you come from a musical family. What could be richer, a greater and richer illustration of our cultural depth and sophistication than our musical traditions? Had this government done anything to sustain it? Nothing. To encourage it? Nothing. It’s actually a profoundly philistine and anti-intellectual government, apart from anything else. Again, that has its costs in terms of intellectual work.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, I don’t disagree with that part, about the anti-intellectualism of the current regime, necessarily. I think I’m more curious about why that’s the case. Is it because the gains from studying English and integrating into the national and then the international economy were just so big that people stop learning the regional languages? And therefore the investment in that is very limited, right?

GUHA: Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: Even growing up, we all learn multiple languages. I didn’t learn to read and write Tamil because I grew up in Delhi, though I can speak Tamil fluently. In the generation previous to me, it’s unheard of not to be able to read Sanskrit and Tamil and English, all of them fluently with equal level of fluency. But the rewards diminished.

It’s not like my parents or grandparents even pushed me to learn Tamil and Sanskrit. They were like, “Yes, you study English, you study math, you study science.” One reason I can think of is that this intellectual tradition has suffered because we are, in fact, Macaulay Putras because English has this dominating— [crosstalk]

GUHA: Yes. I agree. In fact, you’re right. Even languages—I myself, like you, I don’t read and write Tamil. I actually barely speak Tamil. Hindi is my second language. I wish I knew a third language to read and write and use in my research. I think every language is a window into a world. I think that’s something which our generation particularly lost.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Again, this is something I think about. Maybe we just don’t know the really rich Indian conservative intellectual thought, because we are all English speakers. We’ve just missed out on that.

On History

RAJAGOPALAN: Now, you’ve alluded many, many times to the fact that you’re a sociologist. You were trained as a sociologist, and you’re sort of an accidental historian, except that you’re probably the most famous historian who’s an accidental historian.

I think, more than anyone else, you have moved us beyond this binary of academic versus popular historical writing. You always shunned this academic credentialism—democratize history by making it more accessible to read. Also getting it out of the stuffy academic departments and university presses, and you know all those problems.

Now, in one sense, this kind of doing history as we’re doing in modern-day India, it’s democratized it. More people can tell their stories. You’ve published some of them through the New India Foundation, and you get a lot more voices. On the other hand, you also get a lot more misinformation because now there are no gatekeepers. Analytically, without some kind of analytical or methodological lens, history can be interpreted differently. People are now just throwing facts at each other on Twitter with no context, and it’s devolved into a mess.

How do we think about arbiters of history? Do we just leave it to the marketplace of ideas, or should it be courts? Is it clubs, which is an academic kind of situation where you’re a club and you’re the gatekeepers? What’s a good way to think about this?

GUHA: I won’t really answer that, but I’ll say a little bit about why I write the way I do and why I, as you put it, transgress the academic/popular boundary. Shruti, that question you pose—and no disrespect, other people also pose that question—that question comes from an immersion in the American academy, where this distinction is incredibly sharp between tenured professors who write for other tenured professors and their graduate students, and popular writers who write biographies of presidents, Like David McCullough, I think there’s a guy called Joseph Ellis and Jon Meacham—they are the trade historians. And Ron Chernow, who wrote “Alexander Hamilton.” Okay. They’re the trade historians that you have.

Now, this distinction is not there in Europe, and particularly not in England. The greatest British historians, including British historians who are still active teaching in America: Linda Colley, Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson, who are broadly of my generation. The people who inspired me were, of course, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, who are of a much older generation, who did rigorous historical research, who knew the archives, who had the analytical framework, were not just telling anecdotes. They had an understanding of Marx and Weber and Durkheim, and culture and anthropology, and so on and so forth. Were occasionally tenured professors too, and yet wrote for as large an audience as possible because history is both social science and literature.

History which is only literature would be anecdotal stuff which would have no analytical depth at all. History that is only social science would be written for a jargonized audience, written for your peers. I think those were my models. My models were European. Apart from the British historians, you had the French historians. Of course, starting with Bloch and Febvre who founded the Annales School, but moving on to people like Le Roy Ladurie and others. I think those were my models.

Americans have this very sharp distinction between academic history and popular history. It’s not there in France and Britain, and I’m glad that I looked there when I was looking for the kinds of people whose work I admired and who I’d like to emulate in an Indian context. Then look to America. That’s where I’m coming from. Now, again, the “what should be done” question is not something I’m comfortable with answering. I do what I can.

Apart from my own work, first of all, I try and take my work as widely as possible. Apart from my books, I write a newspaper column which is translated in 10 languages, as you mentioned. Nandan Nilekani and I started the New India Foundation, which has now published more than 30 books. Beyond the foundation, there are younger historians I interact with all the time, and whose works I read and I’m inspired by, and nudge in directions which I feel would be more productive for them. But I’ve never been an institution man. I’m not a society man. I don’t join clubs. I don’t join societies. I have relationships and friendships. I try and make them as non-hierarchical as possible.

I was very lucky. An early intellectual collaboration I had with the ecologist professor Madhav Gadgil, who actually turns 80 this year—he’s 16 years older than me—we first met 40 years ago when I was in my early 20s. We wrote these two books together, which were the product of conversation exchanges. But I fiercely criticized his ideas, and he took it on board. I contrasted him with a very feudal intellectual culture in Calcutta when I was doing my Ph.D., where the Marxists were actually as feudal as the non-Marxist economists and historians. You have to call them Da, you have to take their permission before naming your child and so on and so forth.

I think my early collaboration with someone much older and much more distinguished than myself, but who was yet remarkably egalitarian in his intellectual outlook—having said that I got some of my intellectual inspiration from England. I should say, I’ve got a lot of my professional inspiration from America, which, at least, much of the intellectual culture is not hierarchical.

It’s not accidental that Madhav actually did his Ph.D. at Harvard with some of the great biologists of their time, including E.O. Wilson, who was on his dissertation committee, with whom he had the relationship as a young man much as I was to have with him much later. I think that’s very important. For me, their peers, I learn from them, they learn from me. They may be 20 years younger than me, 20 years older than me; it doesn’t really matter.

There must be a diversity of views. I don’t believe in clubs. I don’t believe in back scratching. Certainly, I also refuse to engage with WhatsApp history. I just refuse to engage with it. I know WhatsApp history influences many more people than the books I write. I’m aware of that, but I would like to do my job truthfully and honestly, and not care about the muck and the shit that other people are throwing on.

History and Ideological Conformity

RAJAGOPALAN: The reason is, so much of the current politics of who we are and where we are going is being hooked onto some idea of historical truth. In a way, even if historians like yourself personally choose to not get dragged in that political battle—and I fully appreciate that—I wonder if in some sense it’s almost difficult to ignore or walk away from, because so much of the work is going to get expropriated.

GUHA: I’ve said this before in other places too. I’d say ideological conformity is bad for historical scholarship. I grew up in a climate dominated by Marxist historians. When I first wrote on the environment, my Marxist teachers told me, “Environmentalism is the bourgeois deviation from the class struggle.” That was actually what I was told, and I defied them and wrote my early books. Today we are told you have to write nationalist history, and I don’t understand what it is.

Obviously, ideological conformism is bad for historical scholarship. Party membership is bad for historians. Associating with politicians is not something young historians should do. Unfortunately, too many young historians like to be photographed with prominent politicians, which sometimes comes back to haunt them. Just stay away from all of this.

Do your work rigorously, carefully, honestly, and don’t want instant fame. Don’t spend too much time on social media. Make sure that you spend much more time in the archives than on social media. This is some of the advice I give. At least, what we’ve tried to do in the New India Foundation is that it’s an extraordinary diversity of themes, approaches, topics and actually intellectual orientations.

I hope that can be something which other people can take forward. Now I’m no longer associated with the three new trustees. Nandan and I have moved out. They actually now started some very interesting experiments in works in translation, which will start out of that. Of course, it’s a very modest effort, and we need much more such kind of work. The other worries I have—of course, I think the larger worry I have is about the future of social science and historical research in India.

Shruti, I am someone who is entirely educated in India, has lived all his life in India. I’ve spent periods abroad, but the Delhi School of Economics, which includes the Delhi School of Sociology, shaped me intellectually in profound ways. The research center in Calcutta where I had my first job—the Center for Studies in Social Sciences; the Institute of Science, where I did some of my early environmental research; essentially the EPW, which is now tragically not what it used to be.

The Oxford University Press, which is also not what it used to be, published my first books. I was shaped by universities, research institutes, journals and publishing houses that were basically Indian, right? We don’t have that ecosystem anymore, or it’s declining. It’s attenuated. There’s still some outstanding editors, outstanding scholars, but I’m not alone.

Sanjay Subrahmanyam was entirely shaped by his Indian education. Totally. Generation before me, the sociologist Veena Das, Ashis Nandy. That is what I worry about, that for multiple reasons, which include the flight of talent abroad, the anti-intellectual culture of this government, the general philistinism of the broader culture which values instant celebrity and sound bites over deep scholarship that takes years to produce.

The Indian Economic and Social History Review, of which I was once an editor as edited by Dr. Dharma Kumar, was the top journal for Indian history in the whole world. All its editors who were based in India, today all five editors live abroad. That is something that the environment I had—I’m very glad I went abroad later, after my Ph.D., and I met the American scholars and British scholars and learned from them. But you could do really high-quality work in the social sciences, humanities, in India. You can still do it, but it’s much harder because it has attenuated.

RAJAGOPALAN: No. I very much agree. Also, there are multiple things. One is, of course, the divergence of opportunity is quite—just in terms of a number of universities and the departments, there’s much more diversity abroad. Now suddenly the world is your oyster. Also in terms of the pay differential, the ability, the funding for research, so many things, that that divergence is getting bigger and bigger and bigger in the last 30 years. Each of the trends that you’re talking about, some of it is because of attack from within India, but some of it is also because of the wooing away abroad.

GUHA: Yes.

On Cricket

RAJAGOPALAN: I will be thrown out of my house if I don’t talk about cricket. [laughs] The most interesting figure to me that you’ve written about—and this won’t surprise you—is Palwankar Baloo. He’s an extraordinary character. He stands out in many different ways.

One, of course, the discrimination he goes through as a Dalit cricketer, despite his talent. Second is that he’s a political cricketer. He’s a political figure while being an athlete, which also you see less and less of in modern-day India and in later times. He actually stands for election against Ambedkar, which is another really interesting thing. Why hasn’t India produced more Baloos?

GUHA: He was a central figure and, again, someone who deserved a full-length biography. In my book, Palwankar probably is in about three chapters, and it’s probably much more material, and there is probably a great film to be made about him. I think he was exceptional, even before Jackie Robinson, but he anticipated Jackie Robinson in using sport as a vehicle for social mobility, sport as an instrument of challenging discrimination, caste discrimination rather than racial discrimination and so on.

It’s not just sport that there’s no Palwankar Baloo in the sport today. One of the striking and somewhat depressing comparisons between India and America is the pusillanimity of our celebrities in sports, film and business. They completely lack a spine to stand up for anything. It’s true of our business entrepreneurs, it’s true of our film stars and that’s where I think America is a refreshing difference.

People call out governments for horrible things they do, call out corporations for horrible things they do, which is true of some of America’s leading sportspeople, entrepreneurs, as well as actors. It requires a deeper discussion. Why and how have we become spineless? Is it something to do with our culture? Is it that Gandhi and the national movement for a brief while gave us the will to fight and to resist and to stand up for something? And now we’ve just succumbed, and we go for whatever inducement is given to us?

It’s a complicated business. This is why you were right to say cronyism goes beyond Ambani and Adani. Yesterday, somebody forwarded me a WhatsApp by a very big Indian industrialist, cravenly sycophantic devotion towards Narendra Modi—completely unnecessary. A few months ago, another Indian industrialist went and paid his obsequience at the RSS headquarter in Nagpur—totally unnecessary.

I was telling my wife this morning, I said that L.K. Advani famously said of the press in the Emergency, “They were asked to bend; they crawled.” That’s true of our industries today. Sorry, by and large; there are a few exceptions, Naushad Forbes and the late Rahul Bajaj being two of them. But by and large, it’s true of our sportspeople; it’s true of our actors. It was shameful that no one stood up for Shah Rukh Khan when he was being persecuted. There was silence on the Amitabh Bachchans of this world. Luckily, Virat Kohli, to his credit, spoke up for Shami when no one else did.

There’s a deeper failure of Indians here, that they have become an increasingly transactional people. One would never think to go back where you began with the Gandhian ideal of sacrifice. One could never imagine that this is a country which had tens of thousands of people voluntarily courted arrests for long years, for a cause. It’s inconceivable. It’s like when you see particularly—I think the more successful you are, the more sycophantic and spineless you become. That’s really one of the things I’ve learned about the country I now live in.

RAJAGOPALAN: To go back to the question, you said that he was a precursor to Jackie Robinson. Now, when I look at American sport, there is fantastic African American representation. This has happened in a century, effectively. When I look at Indian sport, I don’t see fantastic Dalit representation. I don’t even see minimal, token Dalit representation. Now, where does the failure lie? Is it the lack of infrastructure? Is it discrimination? Is it poverty? Is it a combination? We should have produced a lot of Baloos by now.

GUHA: It’s all of that. And there may be another reason, that Ambedkar inspired Dalits, talented and ambitious Dalits, to seek other avenues to fulfill themselves, like the law, like medicine, like the civil service, like activism, like academics. That became, following Ambedkar, the preferred route. That’s one possibility, but I think discrimination, poverty, lack of access to good sporting fields, all of that.

Interestingly, Adivasis have made a mark in hockey. That’s one area in which Adivasis have actually—you have got Dalits in many fields, professional fields, not Adivasis. Again, this is something where Baloo remains an aberration. He didn’t really inspire. He and his brothers, they were four brothers, all outstanding cricketers. They’re not trailblazers in the way Jackie Robinson was to become.

RAJAGOPALAN: Your point about Ambedkar is very well taken because Dalits were denied access to the letter for so many centuries, that that became the way of fighting back or rebelling and forming a new Dalit identity. And walking away from things that require brute strength, which is what they were always, in a way, almost put in a corner or accused of, that “These people are only good for brute strength. They can’t be intellectual.”

GUHA: Absolutely. Yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: You accepted a place on the Lodha Committee. You did your stint, and you were critical of it, and you resigned. Is there anything from that experience that you value and learned, whether it’s in the form of interaction with the government or the courts or cricket association or public service?

GUHA: What I said about spinelessness, some of that comes from my dealings with cricket administrators and politicians and bureaucrats while serving on that supreme court committee. I suppose that’s a rather despairing lesson, but that’s some of what I learned, including the difference between journalists and superstar cricketers, which don’t—again, in America, you would not have journalists who flatter great basketball players and so on. They would engage with them critically as equals.

On Writing

RAJAGOPALAN: I have read almost all of your books and, I should say, all your essays. I don’t know if I’ve read all your columns because they run into the hundreds, if not the thousands. What is your writing process?

GUHA: Sure. I write almost every day. Essentially, while I’m out doing archival research, and I’m in the archives morning to evening, then I’m not writing. When I’m in Bangalore, I write almost every day. I write between breakfast and lunch. Three and a half or four hours of sustained writing. This happened because my son was going to school, and then my daughter, who’s younger, started going to play school half day, and that became a habit. For last 25, 27 years, that’s been my routine.

When I write, I don’t have my phone with me, I don’t check my email and I just focus. I don’t listen to music. I can’t work with music. Music is in the evenings. When I have nothing else to do in the dark, I listen to music. I then take a printout at lunch, when I knock off. Even if I’ve not completed, I take a printout. I always take a printout of whatever it is, three, four pages. And after lunch, I’ll just go over it with a pen. I might do a little more work in the evenings, and so on. That’s really my writing schedule.

Of course, it’s very important for every writer to—it’s like riyaaz in music, several hours of practice a day. You have to put those in, and ideally, it should be the same stretch. For someone else who’s a night person, it could even be 9:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., that’s fine. That depends on your temperament and what you like or what the rest of your day is like.

When I’m in Bangalore, I more or less write every single day, unless it’s the fifth day of a test match and there are 200 runs to get on a wearing wicket. Then I’ll abandon. I’ll go and watch the matches then. I go for a long walk every morning, from about 6:30 to 7:30, and often that gives me ideas for what I want to write. In the evenings I listen to music and do nothing else.

RAJAGOPALAN: You’ve also worked in more archives in more continents in more countries than I think anyone else I know. Can you tell us a little bit about, especially for the students who are listening in: How do you think about archives? How do you know where to look for what? Is it a question of, you just show up with a clean slate and you just start looking through things? Do you go with a plan? Do you go with a book in mind, or does the book emerge later? How does one think about archival work?

GUHA: Again, like music, history is a craft. And the longer you’re at it, the more you learn about it. I did sociology, so I never knew about an archive. It was a historian who with the same surname as me, Guha, but unrelated to me—Sumit Guha, who’s now professor of history at the University of Texas—who took me for the first time to the national archives.

He said, “Here are the indexes. That’s the index of the forest department by year. Go through it. The subject files will be mentioned with the number opposite it. You can order 30 files a day. Some will say ‘not transferred,’ which means they’re not there. Doesn’t matter. Then, you don’t know when the file comes, whether it will be five pages or 500 pages.”

That’s how I started, with that trip. Then it becomes an addiction. Again, you learn, obviously, what collections are where. You learn very quickly how to sift the wheat from the chaff. If it’s a 500-page file, going through it, you know which 25 pages are actually useful to you.

You also, I’d say—and this goes back to a point you made earlier about research budgets—research budgets can be a blessing and a curse. I would go whenever I could to the British Library in London, which has a great collection of archival material relating to 19th- and 20th-century India. I would go after paying for my air ticket, staying with a friend, with no research budget, but which meant every day I would Xerox nothing. I would sit, open the file and take notes.

My American colleagues would come, Xerox 10,000 pages and take it back to Virginia or Seattle. And God knows what happened after that, whether they assimilated it, I have no clue in what way. I very rarely Xerox anything. If I think, “This letter, I have to read it or maybe even reproduce it extensively in my next book,” I would Xerox it. I read the file, I take notes—first by hand and then, of course, on my laptop.

I do not Xerox. I do not take photographs. I think that method works much better, at least for me, in assimilating what is really important in a particular file. Occasionally, I go back later to that file. I may need to reread some letters, for example, personal letters; I may think I missed something. I think you have to spend time with those primary materials, engaging with them. I think seeing a file, photocopying it, taking it back—sometimes, actually, research budgets, particularly for historians, can be a problem. They come in the way of an intimate, ongoing engagement with your primary materials.

RAJAGOPALAN: What kind of music do you listen to?

GUHA: Shruti, when I was younger, I actually listened to different kinds of music. I essentially listen only to Hindustani classical music. I have a very large collection on iPod, but now it’s YouTube. I just surf and listen. I do all kinds of things. You find the new things you discover every day. This evening, I found—

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, yes. YouTube is fantastic.

GUHA:  —a Kedar by Vasundhara Komkali, who’s Kumar Gandharva’s wife, but solo. Normally she sang as accompanist to her husband. A gorgeous Kedar by her, which I listened to. Things like that. It’s essentially Hindustani music, vocal and instrumental, which keeps me going.

RAJAGOPALAN: I recently acquired a collection of vinyl, and a lot of it is old Hindustani classical and Western classical. In that, there was this very plain-looking cover, and it was Ram Narayan sarangi, and I had never heard him before. I immediately started listening to that, and then I said, “Oh, my God, this is incredible, but I’m now trapped with just one vinyl record,” so then comes YouTube.

GUHA: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: I look through everything on YouTube.

GUHA: I’m fortunate enough to have heard Ram Narayan live in Kamani auditorium in the mid 1970s. [crosstalk]

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, how lovely. Do you remember what he played?

GUHA: I can’t remember. It is often on the concert circuit, either played solo or accompanying a vocalist.

RAJAGOPALAN: What have you been binge-watching? I don’t even know if you watch TV given how productive you are. What have you been binge-watching if anything?

GUHA: I don’t watch much TV or films, but I used the pandemic to read “Anna Karenina,” “War and Peace” and “Middlemarch.”


GUHA: Three of the greatest novels ever written, which had it not been for the pandemic, I may have died without having read. I would read them 30, 40 pages a day, because they’re all very long. But they’re truly magnificent, all three of them. I read some other fiction, too. I caught up with a lot of fiction because I had stopped reading fiction, and then I resumed with these three novels. Tolstoy partly because Gandhi was inspired by Tolstoy, but Gandhi was inspired by Tolstoy’s philosophical writings, and there is no evidence that he actually read “War and Peace.” I thought I must outdo Gandhi and read Tolstoy’s novels. I also read his short stories.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’ve only read “Anna Karenina,” and I don’t know if I have built up the stamina for “War and Peace” yet.

GUHA: I read “War and Peace,” Shruti, in a very early translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude, who were Tolstoy’s friends and his first translators—a very authentic translation. There have been later translations, but I had an older edition. Aylmer Maude was a British entrepreneur who lived in Russia for 30 years, knew Tolstoy, retired in England in 1909, when Gandhi met him, actually. I was happy to read his translation and not one of the more recent ones.

RAJAGOPALAN: How long did it take you?

GUHA: I would read 20, 30 pages a day, which meant it took me about several months, because some days I would not be free to read in the evening. It’s a fabulous, fabulous book.

RAJAGOPALAN: What is the next project that you’re working on?

GUHA: I always have several things going on. I would rather not talk about it, but I have books to write, one of which—which may not be the next project—one of which might actually be a return to my environmental interests. I have an unfinished project on environmentalism, which I might return to, but it’s just fiddling around at the moment.

RAJAGOPALAN: I actually really like a lot of your environmental writing. Ram, I cannot thank you enough for doing this. This was such a pleasure.

GUHA: Thank you. Thank you, Shruti. Very nice. Thanks.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan.

In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with economic historians Tirthankar Roy and Anand Swamy about their latest book, “Law and the Economy in a Young Democracy: India 1947 and Beyond.”

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app