Book Review: Patriots and Partisans | Ramachandra Guha

By John Cheeran

Historian Ramachandra Guha’s new book Patriots and Partisans suffers on one count. There is hardly any new material in this collection, except for his essay on Hindutva hate (e)mails. And that one was published in a weekly news magazine as extracts, prior to the launch of the book.

If you have been reading Guha in various journals during the last few years, there is little to be excited about this collection of 15 essays, nine of them that debate democracy and the rest discuss people and institutions that are close to his world and word.

That said, Guha’s concerns and arguments remain largely valid and should help India continue its intellectual debate. But where is the fresh ground for debate to go forward? Yes, Guha lays great store on the need for liberals like him to vigorously fight their corner. In this respect, he has followed his teacher Dharma Kumar’s advice “most faithfully.”

In the lead essay, Redeeming the Republic, (again this is based on two essays published earlier in a weekly news magazine) Guha says India’s English language media are excessively market-friendly. He makes the pitch for the debate on the environment to move beyond pretty trees and tigers. “They wish their readers to have their cake and eat it too—to live resource-intensive lifestyles and yet be able to glory in the beauties of the wild. They cannot, or will not, see that the one imperils the other. Nor will they acknowledge the persistence and significance of more local, less glamorous, environmental issues – such as the state of the air and water, the conservation of energy, the provision of safe and affordable housing. These issues affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians. However, by succumbing so readily to the cult of wealth and celebrity, the media can find no space for them.”

True, newspapers are not edited by environmentalists but to be fair, English language newspapers still report environmental issues. May be the scale and the depth of such reporting need to be improved, but do readers take newspapers seriously? Do you look at Page 3 and change your wardrobe?

In the essay A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri, Guha raises an interesting counterfactual question – What if Lal Bahadur Shastri had lived for another five years?  There would have been no Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Sonia Gandhi would still be a devoted and loving housewife and Rahul Gandhi perhaps a middle-level manager in a private sector company. Guha says had fate given Shastri a longer innings as prime minister, then, the Indian economy may have been more robust and resilient.

Is this scholarship or mere kite-flying? Of course, readers would love playing to the gallery, but as Guha takes media to the task, can one ask for a more meaningful account of Shastri’s role in post-independent India?

One must-read essay from Patriots and Partisans is The Beauty of Compromise. Guha points out how negotiation – compromise- would have resolved intractable conflicts such as the Kashmir dispute, the Naga insurgency and the rebellion of Tamils in Sri Lanka. It is Guha’s argument that a middle path of accommodation and reconciliation, adopted by either party to a conflict or both, would have helped in mitigating the suffering and the violence.

He cites the example of the successful reorganization of states on linguistic basis in 1956. He also mentions the example of the controversy over Sardar Sarovar dam in central India. Both the Gujarat government and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) rejected the compromise solution suggested by two engineers based in Pune. The Joy-Paranjpe solution was a smaller dam (the originally sanctioned height is 456 feet) but with overflow canals to take water directly to the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra. A similar lack of negotiation skill has resulted in both Tamil Nadu and Kerala taking intractable positions over the future of Mullaperiyar dam.

Koi Nahin Hatega posturings are not going to take us far.

Drawing on the LTTE experience in Sri Lanka, Guha cautions Naga separatists that their best chance for a better bargain is now when their leader T Muivah is still alive. The author notes that with the death of V Prabhakaran at the end of the civil war, there has been an upsurge in Sinhala triumphalism.

Guha then returns to Gandhi and reminds us that the Mahatma was the arch reconciler, the builder of bridges. He also says for there to have been honourable peace in Sri Lanka, Prabhakran did not have to become Gandhi. They could have taken cues from Nelson Mandela’s ANC and Maoist leader Prachanda and C N Annadurai, who at one stage had demanded an independent Tamil homeland.

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