Who gains by holding back Ram Guha?

You may have read the news about historian Ramachandra Guha a few days ago. His teaching stint next year in Ahmedabad has been called off after threats from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). Before setting off I should declare an interest here on both sides. Mr Guha is a friend and a couple of years ago the ABVP filed a case against my organisation for sedition (which the police investigated and dropped, having found no evidence).

Anyway, the BBC reported the story under the headline “Ramachandra Guha: How the right wing hounded out a Gandhi biographer”.

To me, there are two interesting aspects of the story. The first concerns the term “right wing” in the BBC headline. What does the BBC mean by saying that the ABVP is right wing? Does it mean that it is conservative in the sense that the West understands the word “right”? And what is the opposite of that word “right” in the Indian context? Mr Guha, as those who have read him and know him will know, has a deep and frequently expressed dislike of the left, particularly the communists and the Maoists. Indeed, it is usual for him to include them, perhaps for balance, when he speaks against extremism and extremists. And so Mr Guha isn’t “left” by any stretch of the imagination, but let us return to the “right”.

As I have written before in this space, if we examine the issues on which ideology is defined, it is not easy in India to define right wing. On the economy, on welfare, on defence and pretty much on any other matter which separates a Democrat from a Republican or a liberal from a conservative, India’s main political parties speak the same language. What is the difference between a Chidambaram budget and a Jaitley one? It is unlikely that 99 per cent of Indians who can read can go through them and tell what represents “right” and what doesn’t. On economics, there is no left and right, it is all the same.

Similarly, the National Register of Citizens in Assam, through which we are in the process of making millions stateless, is the gift to this nation of Rajiv Gandhi, as was the reopening of the Babri issue. This is the definition of what the right wing does. What else can we think of that can separate the left from the right in India?

There may be some minute difference when it comes to specific issues of religion, but even here, for an outsider, it will not be easy to separate the left from the right or the centre.

For example, look at the most recent expression of misogyny. It has come with respect to the rights of women and temple entry. The Congress president offered this waffle: “My opinion is that women are equal and should be allowed into the temple. But my party unit in Kerala has a different view. It is an emotional issue with men and women in Kerala. There’s a difference of opinion with my party unit on this but I’m going with the party.” He means he’s not going with the women.

On the other side, the prime minister fashions himself as a champion of the rights of Muslim women against Muslim men. But if you cannot recall what he has said about the issue of Sabarimala, it is for a reason. Strategic silence, we might call it.

There is nothing that is “right” about the mischief that Hindutva is up to, whether through the ABVP or the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or indeed, the political formation at the Centre. It is an instance of bigotry parading as ideology. It needs to be “called out”, in the coinage of our times, for what it is.

This brings me to the second thing I found interesting about the Guha story. It is the question: Which is the constituency that is being appeased when the ruling party is silent about such things (as it was — there was not a squeak though it was reported internationally and brought great disrepute to India)?

Illustration by Binay Saha
I confess I have not been able to crack this one. Are there actually Indians who are delighted that Mr Guha is not going to teach in Ahmedabad? Who can they possibly be? Are these people who have read Mr Guha and think he’s a danger to the republic? I find this hard to digest. Readers of tomes of the sort Mr Guha writes are not given to the reduction which comes so easily to the ABVP and its ilk.

I am not for a moment dismissing the idea that liberal-bashing is not productive. Of course, it is, and that is why the two most viewed channels peddling English “news” do it so well. But this is not about Kashmir or terrorism or one of those things that liberals can be easily hammered on. 

This is about a historian of Gandhi. Who delights in seeing him hounded out? And what do the ABVP and the ruling party get from this, and whom do they enthuse and mobilise on such an issue? As you have seen, it is the BBC that has reported it in the most embarrassing terms. Surely there must be some benefit accruing that sets off this damage? If there isn’t, and, as I said, I do not see it, then why does this happen?

I’ve given it some thought and have arrived at two conclusions. One is that the ruling party and the prime minister do not care. It’s unimportant if the ABVP gets up to unauthorised mischief.

The other conclusion is that it has gone out of hand. The forces of Hindutva can no longer control what they have unleashed. The authority to bully, harass, violate and manhandle Indians in the name of ideology has devolved to whoever wants it.

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