Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ramchandra Guha on Liberalism in an Age of Extremes

Today noted social scientist and historian of modern India Ramchandra Guha gave Sir Syed Memorial Lecture in the Engineering College Auditorium. The topic was Liberalism in Times of Extremes.

This post is a collection of my thoughts in relation to that.

Here is my punchline. Yours truly may not agree with all that Dr Guha says but he is amongst those people who make it a pleasure to be an Indian in these times when pollution on ideas and ideologies abound.

When yours truly arrived at the venue there was milling crowd outside the lecture hall. Another lecture, by General Ata Hasnain, on Internal Security and Human Rights Challenges was in progress and had overshot its time.

Dr Guha himself was outside, taking tea. Dr Arshi Khan managed to get him in and arranged a seat for him. Dr Khan is a dynamic youngish faculty member in the social sciences.

The lecture was supposed to begin at 11:30 AM but it would be nearly 2.00 PM before we would be through it.

Outside the lecture Professor Ahtisham Ahmed Nizami was standing with Professor Abul Hasan Siddiqui. Former retired a few years ago from Mechanical Engineering department while later retired many years ago from Mathematics Department. "Sometimes do remember this Faqir too," said Professor Nizami to yours truly. This was a magnificent way of showing affection. Another of those subtle gestures of God that make it a pleasure to be at AMU. Yours truly made an intention to visit him and said so.

While inside the hall one heard Lt. General Zamiruddin Shah making his presidential remarks on the last lecture assuring the public, and hence the country, that in the internal security matters objective of Army is only to restore a semblance of law and order and then to withdraw. Yours truly did not realize that it would be strangely relevant for the nest lecture too.

The lecture was organized by Professor Tariq Ahmed, Chairman of the Department of History and Director of Sir Syed Academy at AMU. Professor Pervez Talib of Department of Business Administration did the spade work to bring Dr Guha to Aligarh and introduced the speaker and invited him for the lecture with a emotional Urdu couplet.

Dr Guha began with a diversion on how he ended up being a historian of modern India though he has no formal historical training. He is originally a sociologist.
Being an untrained historian has both advantages as well as disadvantages.

The advantage is that you come with no prejudices while the disadvantage is that you need a background.

Coming to the topic he began with the Oxford dictionary definition of liberalism that focuses on three points like willingness to discard outdated notions, willingness to accept ideas different from one's own and free trade.

He identified Raja Ram Mohan Roy as the first amongst the maker of modern India and Sir Syed as number two and admitted that he has come to realize importance of Sir Syed only for last six or seven years. Iqbal, Gandhi, Tagore and Nehru are the other names in the same vein.

He asserted that both Roy and Sir Syed faced opposition from their own co-religionists more than any one else.

In the context of India he enumerated past threats to liberal ethos in India from left, the Maoist Movement, from the right, the Hindutva brigade ( and he was quick to add extremism in Kashmir) and the center itself. The challenge from the center was emergency in 1975 by Indira Gandhi.

He said we were students when Sanjay Gandhi was the second most powerful person in India after Indira and she consulted him on every matter. Holding of general election in January 1977 was perhaps the only matter in which she did not consult his younger son. He certainly would have advised against it. He surmised that it is possible that her conscience, based on her father's letters to her made her guilty in her own mind.

But she did set an unhealthy trend in India politics - turning Congress into a family party. Many parties have followed suit. This is one of the dangers to liberalism in India and it is neither left oriented nor right oriented but from the center.

In spite of doom sayers predictions of breakup India has survived intact because of its liberalism but it has been a tremendous effort to maintain that. He has been criticized by left, right and center but the fact that he functions is a tribute to the same liberalism.

The picture is not gloomy at all, he said.

The lecture was awesome and several people attested to the fact later on.
The Vice Chancellor abandoned his prepared text and took up impromptu the points raised by Dr Guha. He was quite in a form today. Pro Vice Chancellor, Brigadier Syed Ahmed Ali made very perceptive remarks on the lecture - these Army people surely have a presence of mind.

At least once Dr Guha delivered something on Mullahs looking directly into yours truly's eyes. Wow! ( Yours truly looks like a Mullah!) Courageous. (Later on Brigadier Ali would hurriedly redirect his glances away from this Mullah!)
Yours truly does not like to make waves.