Is Ramachandra Guha competent to advise Hindus ?

published on July 28, 2013

In a rambling, poorly argued article  ‘What Hindus can and should be proud of ‘ (The Hindu, July 23,2013) Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi (2007) and Makers of Modern India (2011) has set out on what seems to be a career as a moralist and advisor to Hindus. The article tells Hindus also what they cannot be proud of. More of that shortly. But the basic message is spelled out at the outset :

” Those who care for the future of the religion should valorise the works of reformers who rid an ancient ossified faith of its divisions, prejudices, and close-mindedness.”

On the basis of the article and Guha’s limitations of writing only about Independence and post Independence India Mr. Guha is clearly not equipped to advise Hindus who are heirs to an ancient and great civilisation of which they are legitimately proud and about which Mr. Guha seems to know precious little.

Like Indian Marxist historians for whom Indian history begins with the Islamic period (and after) and who when venturing out into the several millenia that preceded the barbarian invasions ignore the great achievements of the Hindu past, Ramachandra Guha is blissfully ignorant of the Hindu past. Hence his advice is based on little more than the cow-caste-curry information that is circulated in the West, notably the United States, about India. In addition his limited educational scene in India is an inheritance from the colonial past which intertwined Macaulayism and Christian propaganda about the natives. In that narrative it is hard to sift the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and the Indian educational scene was swamped with disinformation which was passed on during the Nehruvian era to schools, colleges and universities, and was recycled by some of the academics of the era without any questioning or challenge.

Fortunately, Indic scholars  began the sifting out two or three decades ago and the work continues. That important wave seems to have passed over Ramachandra Guha.

Since he does not know the greatness of the Hindu civilisation (other than paying lip service to it) he cannot analyse accurately as to what are the ossifications and limitations of this civilisation that he alleges. Let us try to extract some sense and orderliness out of his arguments.

In an extraordinary feat of intellectual jugglery he attributes all ills to Hindu India, at least in this article : Poverty, poor health facilities, education etc. These, as every Indian knows, and Guha knows, are directly the fault of misgovernance , in this case the specific government in power. Neverthless he uses the present dire situation to cast aspersions on Hindu India, even while claiming to advise Hindus, and in a curious way managing to lay the blame on Hindu India !

He inveigles against caste in India. Here too he is skating on thin ice because after quoting Mahatma Gandhi against Untouchability, he goes on to say that even while he fought against Untouchability Gandhiji upheld Varnashrama dharma.

Why is this so ? Mr. Guha does not raise the question which he should have raised and answered. He did not. The reply is as follows : Untouchability cannot be justified under any circumstance, but it is not integral to Hinduism, while Varnashrama Dharma is integral to Hinduism. Gandhiji was keenly aware of this. It was a carefully calibrated system that allowed the individual to pass through life’s stages in harmony with his environment, and it called for a meaningful division of labour in society. Each division was integrally related to the other. In Hind Swaraj (1908-1909) Gandhiji had castigated modern society for its haste and hurry and the absence of any moral values and the individual’s alienation and anomie in modern society.

Caste and Untouchability are two distinct phenomena. Scholars are not certain when Untouchability originated. They speculate that it originated around 300 B.C. Dr. Ambedkar (himself a former Untouchable) had speculated that the Untouchables were originally shudras who fell out of the four fold caste system of scholars, warriors, commercial agents and agriculturalists who tilled the land (the last being the shudras). Random quotes from the tradition do not establish a link between Hinduism and Untouchability, as many hostile critics have done. Untouchability as a social practice continues in various parts of India, especially in rural areas. This pervasive aspect of Untouchability is not even mentioned or seriously considered by Guha. He only mentions attacks on Dalits and women.

There is no evidence of Untouchability in the Vedic period and scholars and even the much maligned and misrepresentd Manusmriti makes no mention of Untouchability. It is doubtful whether Mr. Guha has actually read the Manusmriti to back his blithe remark that it legitimises inequality, unless he is also intending to make the more general point that Varnashrama Dharma legitimises inequality. And so obviously on this interpretation Mahatma Gandhi who endorsed Varnashrama Dharma also legitimises inequality.

The attacks on Dalits and women are at present not the result of Hinduism. Much of the violent attacks as in the recent cases of the deaths of young people who chose to marry out of their caste, have occurred between Dalit subcastes themselves or between the OBCs (Other Backward Castes) and not vertically as between upper castes and the Dalits. Accounts of these are easily available in the media and as well as in more detailed accounts on the internet from human rights organisations. It is a pity that our author has not bothered to keep up with the latest literature on the subject either, but simply shoots around at targets.

There is nothing in Hinduism which condones attacks on women and the events of the last few years speak to the breakdown of law and order. For example, the horrific attack and death of the young woman on a bus in New Delhi in December of 2012, was committed by a few agents whose caste affinity had nothing to do with Hinduism. This was clearly the outcome of the debauched and drunken state these men were in. They had been drinking and watching pornography, if reports are to be believed. The much maligned Manusmriti specifically called for the protection of women and the rigorous punishment of those who attacked women !

Now on the question of Jati. The better word for caste is Jati a socio economic category. Mr. Guha does not seem to be aware that Gandhiji advocated a Jati based economy for his ideal village republic. He believed that lifelong specialisation in a particular occupation would provide better skills and pride in one’s workmanship. The collection of his essays on the subject is to be found in the volume Sarvodaya.

In today’s India, scholars have written about the importance of the jati based economy. Dr. R. Vaidyanathan of the Indian Institute of Management argues that caste in politics divides the Indian electorate but caste in economics unites (‘India Growth: The Untold Story- Caste as Social Capital’ ,Chapter 12, Handbook of Hindu Economics and Business, January 2013). The economic benefits of caste affinity are risk sharing and entrepreneurship.. They are major builders of emerging businesses across sectors by newly empowered castes.

The role of Jati in building the srenis (guilds) of ancient India and its prosperity are well known. There are large numbers of studies on the subject. The most recent description of Rashtrakutas, the federation of guilds in a state can be found in Dr. S. Kalyanraman’s book Rashtram (2011, pp.194-243). His still more recent account is in the above mentioned book (‘Hindu Social Corporate Form and Sreni Dharma : the cure for greed ‘, ch. 6 of Handbook of Hindu Economics and Business, January, 2013).

Modern economics depends on Corporations, including multinationals. The Hindu guild-type entity ‘sreni’ had detailed laws, together with a complete structure for executive officers. It operated within the framework of a rational, materialistic economic ethos, and yet suggested equality, trusteeship and development of social capital. A remarkable example is that of the committee of elders of civil society in the Uttarameru district of South India.

Well known writers with management and economic training such as S. Gurumurthy have also written about the important role of Jati in the contemporary Indian economy.

And finally Ramachandra Guha reprimands Hindus for the demolition of the Babri Masjid and his argument is somewhat lopsided :

” Ayodhya was unquestionably Hindu in intent and content. No Muslims or Sikhs or Parsis or Jews or Christians participated in it. But should Hindus be proud of it ? I rather think not . In a society where so many are without access to adequqte education, health care and housing, where malnutrition is rife and where safety and environmental standards are violated every minute, to invest so much political energy and human capital in the demolition of a mosque and its replacement with a brand-new temple seemed wildly foolish, if not downright Machiavellian. As it turned out the Rama Janmabhoomi campaign led to two decades of strife acroos northern and western India, with thousands of people losing their lives and hundreds of thousands their homes and livelihood.”

Apart from the exaggerated numbers, this passage is dangerously close to the type of sentiment expressed recently by Shakeel Ahmed, namely, that it was the Gujarat riots that led to the formation of the Indian Mujahudeen ! Surely Mr. Guha knows that communal violence has been endemic in Indian history since the last 500 years ! And as someone who has written about the pre Independence era he must know that the violence was extreme in the 20s of the last century !

There is a singular lack of historical sense here. Hindus have traditionally fought for the Ramajanma bhoomi since the early years of the common era. This is not something new. Only the names of the invaders have changed and Babur and 1526 are the new relevant names.

And the worst faux pas of all is the attempt to connect poverty and misery once again to the Hindu ethos.

Guha’s recommendation to Hindus to follow Hindu reformers might be acceptable if it was inclusive. He mentions the usual names, Gandhi, Vivekananda, Ram Mohun Roy et al, and in our times Jawaharlal Nehru. But he omits mention of important figures such as Aurobindo, Savarkar and Sardar Patel. This is seen also in his latest book Makers of Modern India. While some may argue that Aurobindo became a religious savant, the same cannot be said of either Savarkar and Patel.

Savarkar was foremost among the Hindu nationalists in promoting intercaste dining, the breaking down of caste barriers etc. He had also clearly spelled out in his works that Muslims and minorities would be full citizens of Hindusthan once the country became independent. Sardar Patel was not only an important figure in the freedom struggle, he was also responsible for saving the country from some of Nehru’s follies, notably Nehru’s vacillation on the question of the integration of Hyderabad into the Indian Union. Had it not been for Patel’s decisive action as the Home Minister, the country would have had a similar situation as occurred in Kashmir.

All in all, this article with its advice to Hindus is disappointing as it comes from an individual who should have known better and from whom it was reasonable to expect a better output.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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