NEWS
23/09/2016 5:20 PM IST | Updated 03/10/2016 10:14 AM IST

On The Whole, We Are A Much Freer Society Today: Ramachandra Guha

The author and historian opens up about Gandhi, cricket and RSS at his favourite Bangalore restaurant.

Guha's involvement with cricket goes much deeper than a connoisseur's interest in the sport. A favourite uncle of his ran one of the best cricket clubs in Bangalore for over 60 years. "Afflicted with a childhood injury, he could not play the game at a very high level," Guha says of his mama, "so I became the object of his ambition."

From the age of 11 to 21, through school and college, Guha played cricket. "I was an off-break bowler, not bad but not very gifted either," he says. "Arun Lal and Kirti Azad, who were in my college team, went on to play Test cricket." Accidentally, it was cricket that pushed Guha towards becoming a scholar and public intellectual.

Coming from a family of scientists and being reasonably good at the sciences, Guha was expected to take up sciences in college. But his uncle found a glitch in the plan. The practical classes, all held in the afternoons, would come in the way of his cricket practice.

"Left to myself, I'd have chosen English Literature," Guha says, "I was always a big reader, I edited the school magazine, but was too scared of offending my grandfather." So he chose Economics ("a pseudo-science") as a compromise, though he realised, in the very first week of attending classes, that "the student and the subject were spectacularly ill-suited to each other". During his MA, he read Verrier Elwin, and instantly felt drawn to sociology and anthropology, which lead to a PhD in environmentalism from Indian Institute of Management, Kolkata.

Since then, for over two decades, Guha has been writing books, essays and columns on politics and history, pulling off 1,000-word articles and 1,000-page tomes with what seems like equal ease. The philosopher Isaiah Berlin invoked a metaphor to describe these contrasting modes of being. The kind of mind that immerses itself in the immediate present and retains many different things is like the mind of the wily fox, he said. The other kind of intellect, which takes a long perspective, is like that of a hedgehog's. In his roles as an opinion-maker and a historian, Guha, too, has to negotiate between two ways of thinking and writing.

"I have to balance the two impulses, keep chunks of time to work uninterruptedly on a bigger project, while I write my weekly commentaries," he says. "Sometimes I keep a pool of columns ready so that I can free up some weeks to immerse myself in my book work. Of course, there are times, when I still have to quickly respond to an incident that's urgent and topical."

India After Gandhi, Guha's magnum opus, was the only book he did not come up with the idea for but was commissioned to write by literary agent Peter Straus, who was at the time working with Macmillan in London. Given the book's vast scope, it took Guha eight years to finish it, of which several were spent poring over archives at the Nehru Memorial Library, the Lok Sabha debates and thousands of pages of reports in magazines and newspapers. "I could only do it in my 40s," Guha says, "At 58, I'm too tired to take on such a daunting task."

Guha has his way of rationing his time on Twitter, too, the only social media platform he has a presence on. "It's a useful medium to send out your work to a larger audience. You can also promote the work of others you admire on it," he says. "Mukul Kesavan, for instance, is not on Twitter, but I think he's a wonderful columnist. So I post his work when he writes something new." Guha is not much bothered by trolls. "I use Twitter sporadically anyway, so I can live with the nastiness," he says, "though women get the brunt of it--like Sagarika Ghose or Barkha Dutt-–and minority women, like Rana Ayyub, face the very worst abuse."

Freedom of expression, one of the themes Guha takes up in his new book, is undoubtedly imperilled in India, though Guha doesn't like to take an absolutist view on the matter. "Freedom operates at different levels--personal, economic, cultural, intellectual. If you compare our time with the 50s and 60s, you may say the stranglehold of the family has lessened over young people now. In the cities, LGBT people are freer, in spite of the Supreme Court judgment upholding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code," he says. Elections, in our time, are also fairer. "In the 50s, women voted as their husbands or fathers did. In the villages, Dalits voted as the Brahmins told them to," he adds. "This is not to say, of course, that we enjoy universal or total freedom in the spheres of gender, caste and sexual choice."

Kavi Bhansali/HuffPost India

When it comes to artistic freedoms, our liberty to write as we wish or make the kind of movies we want to are hindered by regressive colonial laws. "Writers in the Indian languages-–Perumal Murugan, Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar--had to pay a steeper price than those writing in English," Guha says. "In the recent case of sedition against [Kannada actress] Ramya, for instance, the judge had no business admitting the petition filed in Coorg," he adds. "The same holds for the police who registered the complaint against Amnesty India." Even in cases where courts pass a progressive judgment against an appeal to ban a book, publishers may not be able to get protection from the vandals on the street.

In the tenth anniversary edition of India After Gandhi, scheduled to come out next year, which Guha recently finished revising, he has added two new chapters and a new preface, a major part of which deals with Kashmir. "I've mentioned a letter there, written in 1949, by Sardar Patel to his friend G.D. Birla, who was in America then," he says. "While telling Birla of the political situation in India, Patel says Kashmir is giving them all a severe headache. More than seventy years later, it still is causing us a severe headache and it will not go away soon."

The spectres of history are coming back to haunt us in unforeseen ways, these days, from text books being rewritten to Rahul Gandhi making statements about Gandhi's 'killers'. "People feel free to pass opinions on an extraordinary range of matters," Guha says, "Rahul Gandhi, for instance, could have looked at what the RSS is doing on the ground, how it is influencing the educational curricula in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan-–that would have been a much more useful exercise."

According to Guha, of all our political predecessors, the only one who can be criticised without fear of retribution is M.K. Gandhi. His observation, he clarifies, is based on an empirical fact.

When Narendra Modi, not yet the prime minister of India, was trying to rebrand himself as a national leader in 2011, Pulitzer-winner Joseph Lelyveld wrote a book, in which he suggested Gandhi may have been in a homosexual relationship with a German architect. Like many at the time, Modi took umbrage and got the book banned in Gujarat, the state where he was the chief minister. However, after Guha and Gandhi's grandson, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, wrote against the move, the Central government didn't impose an embargo. The offence was not strong enough to merit a nationwide ban.

Born a Bania, Gandhi transcended his caste, he is disliked by many Hindus for being too soft on Muslims, not claimed by Gujaratis as one of their own, in the way Bengalis do for Subhas Chandra Bose. "Gandhi is the only Indian who belongs to no particular sect. He belongs to everyone and no one" says Guha, as our waiter presents the bill.

This is part of HuffPost India's exclusive interview series, Breakfast With HuffPost, presented by Lufthansa. The other interviews in the series are here.