Jaideep A Prabhu
Echoes of Gokhale
This article originally appeared in centreright.in. CRI content has now been subsumed in swarajyamag.com. The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of swarajyamag.com
We have talked about the Partition. Now let us talk about Independence. Gopal Krishna Gokhale is not a name you hear too often in the Indian public sphere. And why should you? After all, he was not as exciting as the fiery Bal Gangadhar Tilak or Bhagat Singh. Nor was he the implacable force MK Gandhi became after the Round Table Conference in 1930-1931. He did not even ask for purna swaraj, settling instead for dominion status within the British Empire. How can this man be a hero for the new, resurgent India, brimming with confidence after their rise from the economic doldrums experienced under a socialist Congress? All too often, it happens that the quietest voices impart the greatest wisdom.
I don’t know too much about Gokhale – there was never time in class after the hagiography of Gandhi that we
were fed. A quick search on Google will also confirm that there exist very few books indeed on Gokhale written with academic rigour as compared to Jawaharlal Nehru, Gandhi, Tilak, or Bhagat Singh. However, recent happenings have made me go back to what little I know of Gokhale’s message and reappraise his work. The banning of books, the latest being Jaswant Singh’s Jinnah – India, Partition, Independence, in Gujarat is not a new phenomenon in India. There are a multitude of reasons for this, none of which I find convincing. There was Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses that caused a furore, and there was MF Hussain’s nude Saraswati. Understanding Islam through Hadis by Ram Swarup, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India; The Epic of Shivaji by James Laine, Islam – A Concept of Political World Invasion by RV Bhasin, Lajja by Taslima Nasreen, Nine Hours to Rama by Stanley Wolpert, and The Polyester Pince by Hamish McDonald are but a few of the books banned by some states in India or nationally. Admittedly, some of these works may make us cringe at their arguments or implications, but that is not reason enough to ban them. Some deal with sensitive issues like religion while others like Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama merely point out the lapses in Gandhi’s security on that fateful day in 1948.
In a truly free society, ideas should not be suppressed regardless of their content. Indian politicians have argued that Western standards of liberal discourse to not apply to highly emotive issues such as religion. That is quite disingenuous, particularly in India. With official literacy figures at barely 62%, it is unlikely that the average Indian would have cultivated a habit of reading some fairly sophisticated literature or history. The issue can be highly emotive only if educated people choose to make it so. Thus, the onus for riots and disturbances is shifted upon the intelligentsia of a group, be they Muslims, Rajputs, Marxists, brahmins, women, or homosexuals. If that is the case, why is it that the aggrieved leadership respond to the challenge with a another book arguing just the opposite, or easier, a scathing review? After all, if books like Jaswant’s and Rushdie’s are read by people of a certain economic and social class, they would be best addressed in their own medium?
The fact of the matter is that the supposedly afflicted intelligentsia is playing a different game. Since it is easy to rile the unlettered
masses into action (Jim Hacker has a wonderful quote in Yes Prime Minister: Ordinary people are stupid), politicians publicise an interpretation of a book that is extremely skewed and champion against it, thereby ensuring the continued support of the particular vote bank that is now aggravated. In the case of Jaswant Singh vs. the BJP (at least the Advani-led faction, if the media is to be believed), that is exactly what happened. Jaswant Singh’s (JS) book portrayed Sardar Patel in a less than flattering light just before the Assembly elections in Gujarat. Narendra Modi, whether he cared about JS’ argument or not, knew that the opposition would use the ‘slanderous’ accusations levelled at Patel against him in their election campaign if he did not act on it. The people of Gujarat would see this as Modi failing to protect their honour. Their icon had been attacked, that too by an outsider (JS is a Rajput from Rajasthan). Indians seem to be high-strung divas when it comes to their icons, be they religious, political, or from the world of entertainment and sports. They cannot seem to realise that their heroes most definitely made mistakes as all humans are prone to do once in a while. The average Indian, it seems, cannot bear to see his demi-gods with warts and all. Perhaps a tad politically incorrect, but maybe the British were right when they called their Indian subjects effeminate.
The last sentence of the previous paragraph is, I confess, highly unfair. The cause for this sort of reaction is largely due to the high illiteracy in India. When the British left, literacy hovered around 12%. Today, it has risen 50 percentage points after 62 years of independence. To put things into perspective, Sri Lanka has attained 92% literacy despite a civil war and China is at 91% despite the Big Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Without being equipped by the proper intellectuals tools for life in a democracy, such ignorance of civil liberties and due process is bound to persist. Even educated people seem to harbour illogical reactions. Consider the following case: in a TV reality show presently running, the participant is strapped to a polygraph machine and asked various questions. In a recent episode, a woman was asked if she would ever consider being unfaithful to her husband. As polygraph machines measure stress and not veracity, the needle jumped and the crowd howled and clapped. The reaction, judging by letters to newspapers nationwide, was a plea to ban the show as it was obscene and violated the honour of the woman. Now please note that the participant had willingly signed up (it is difficult to get on the show) knowing full well that the questions would hardly be about her favourite colour. Further, given the viewer ratings, there was a significantly large group of people who enjoyed the show and did not think it to be a problem. This sort of black-and-white thinking (by those who wished to ban the show) is the result of a deficient education. So
not only is literacy important, the ability to think critically is equally important. Again, this is not to say that ome things may be in poor taste and the great dumbing down of life (by pandering to the lowest common denominator) throws up such incidents. But this is no reason to ban things – subjectong taste to censorship is an express route
to Orwellian Hell!
There is, of course, the diminishing marginal utility of good education. Of what use is a good education if there is no outlet for it? Corruption and nepotism counters the positive effects of a good education. A quick look at the people in power and the contenders for power leave one thoroughly disillusioned – in what dark and twisted world can Mohammad Shahabuddin and Shibu Soren (to name just two) be Members of Parliament? Convicted murderers running the county…can we truly claim to not be a failed state? We are just a little bit ahead of civil war-ravaged Africa. In this situation many people turn inwards, looking at values and concepts rather than practicality – it is their way of dulling the evereyday reality. Others leave the country for greener pastures – why should they waste their lives being unappreciated and working for a near-hopeless cause? The few who remain withdraw from civic life. They are usually urban, upper-middle class voters with good jobs who stop voting and are resigned to bribing their way through everything. One can blame the genetically apatehtic but I personally find it difficult to blame a learned apathy that took 60 years in the making. How else does one react to a murder case dragging on for 21 years (Sayed Modi, eight-time national badminton champion, was gunned down in 1988. The Courts finally declared a verdict last week)? What options do we have when the judiciary is 124 years and over THIRTY MILLION cases backlogged?
And so we come back to Gokhale. More than a freedom activist, he was a social reformer. He warned Gandhi that Indians were not ready for independence because democracy (Gokhale did not even consider other forms of government) required an educated and civic-minded public. Democracy has an inherent danger of being corrupted and devolving to populism or majoritarianism. This is the flaw in the system, and the only thing that can rectify it is a liberal education. Unless children are exposed unreservedly to Aristotle, al Farabi, Maimonides, Spinoza, Hobbes, Mill, Voltaire, and Burke right alongside Bhaskaracharya, Adishankaracharya, and Vivekananada, unless they read from the Torah as well as the Gita, unless they can talk about Valmiki, Virgil, Dante, Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Rushdie in the same breath, they are not ready for life in a democracy. Obviously this is an ideal but it nonetheless points in the right direction. The politicisation of education in India has been a great disservice to the nation. Romila Thapar, Mushirul Hasan, Irfan Habib, Asghar Ali Engineer, Gyanendra Pandey, and others with their own brand of ‘secular’ axes to grind have crippled the Humanities in India. They have included sub-alterns, peasants, Muslims, women, communists, and Dalits in their national narratives – they have included everything except any sense of reality or even partial truth. Gokhale was right in 1915 – India was not ready for independence. By 1947, India may have been ready for independence but certainly not for democracy.