Born and raised in Madhubani, one of India’s hinterlands, Atul K Thakur studied at the Banaras Hindu University, India. A New Delhi based journalist, columnist and financial expert, with specialization in the interface of politics and economics, has been a literary critic too. With an informal record of reviewing more than a hundred books for leading publications in India and abroad, Thakur, has expertise in going through the pages of the books and feel its essence. He has been published in several publications and recently edited a collection, India since 1947:Looking Back at a Modern Nation, covering a varied range of issues of the country. It is his first book as an editor and writer. Earlier, he has contributed to three other anthologies – on Kashmir, on Nepal and Literary History of Mithila. In this interview, Thakur talks to Mahtab Alam about his book and contemporary issues of India. Currently, he is working on a non-fiction book.
Of late, much has been written about India and its progress, both in academic as well as journalistic circles, what made you to compile this volume?
This is true, there is no dearth of books on India—but not many of them are written with free spirit and touch the core of issues. The fact worthwhile to know that India as a subject is far too wide to be covered in a single work. So, it becomes imperative to focus on a particular phase, with making balance of facts and perspectives.
It is daunting task to find a clear separation between academic and journalistic writing on India. Even as of late—the understanding should be that bulk of writings on India in past had emerged from particular ideological blocks. Not surprising, if you see some of the most remarkable works on Indian history were done by the writers from leftist or rightist background. But amidst those partitioning epistemological exercises, the actual and unbiased views were mostly compromised. So, lot of pressing aspects misses to come clearly in the mainstream discourses. And to most of visiting scholars—India intrigued them more for its ancient and medieval attributes than the modern changes took place since 1947.
Here I found a place for a book to look back on India’s recent past. The idea was to assess different areas by the veteran and young scholars, with flexible set of opinions. But in all cases, those opinions had to match with the editorial mandate. This volume was compiled to broaden the debate on India’s ‘tryst with destiny’ since its becoming a modern nation. The good thing is—it is getting attention from readers and benign feedbacks from the critics are also unrelenting so far.
You have described this work of yours as looking at modern India from “social history perspective”, what do you mean by that?
See, by definition—the social history is a broad branch of history that studies the experiences of ordinary people in past. It reaches to the central theme through sailing on diverse canvasses. This book has thirty essays, written by thirty-four writers. Quite noticeably, none of these essays appear as in representation of state or any other authority. The views expressed are general, and not influenced with any rigid academic pedigree. Thus the book comes-up majorly shaped through “social history perspectives”.
In India—the trend of social historiography has yet to come to the full action. Earlier, Ramachandra Guha’s initial works on social forestry and later his India after Gandhi—made this particular style of history writing, much more acceptable among the masses and intellectuals. This was clearly a breakthrough against the monotonous handling with history. This book has a defining essay from Guha—it gives strength to the theme. Other essays too have characteristics of social narratives—making the book close to people’s history. Non-mechanized, and more spontaneous—this anthology has variance of opinions but under a visible conformity with the central theme. In simple terms, social perspectives make writing inclusive—so it’s a noble approach. This is a serious way of looking on issues, without embracing the boredom of official approaches.
You have said, “It was felt that alien perception, not being rooted in the complexities” of a country like India and “could not present a true picture of things and events to readers—both from the east and the west”. May we know was there any specific writer or a set of writers while saying this?
For the reference, pointing to a specific writer or few would not be a decent choice. Of course, I meant to say it for a set of writers—it is about the ‘disconnect’, which grip majority of writers, writing on India. Some of them make it funny, with foolishly relying on monkey, Sadhus, elephant, Taj Mahal, snake charmers to show the picture of India in 21st century. Shouldn’t it be called the height of moral and intellectual bankruptcy?
But the other side—there are lot of good exceptions. I read with interest Ian Jacks’ Mofussil Junction and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers—both the books are intensely engaged with the subject and give an insider’s account on India. This is possible through meticulous research—and not by being driving force of cohorts’ circle. The way, Delhi based western historians have addicted doing this in recent years—that is amount to falsifying the truth. A generation of writers evolving under this school too has no identity of their own—they can be submerged in sponsored literary festivals and in writing, they are equivocal. Their culture of reading, co-inside with the noisy and useless celebrations of literary festivals or in cult-worship—this established phenomenon is pathetic.
India is a complex system—all its qualities or downsides need to be reckoned through fair observation. I don’t subscribe V. S. Naipual’s views quite often on other things except on him—but I admire his brutal honesty in writing, on his forgettable experiences in personal life and his pet subjects, especially on India. He denounces the things with certain degree of substance in mind-frame—loosing this quality, things would appear rubbish. Among the Indian writers—Pankaj Mishra and Amitav Ghosh has greater degree of interface with subcontinental history. Their writings make it evident—Amitav Ghosh’s The Sahow Lines and Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West/From the Ruins of Empire are examples to be sighted. We need informed works—as ‘history’ is a sensitive area to be dealt with.
Contributors in this volume belong and adhere to often just opposite point of views, how difficult, if it was, for you to get them on board?
More than convincing them—it was tougher to get their essays suitable for this volume. The length of essay and level of polemic were the other concern—but lately, the scheme shaped-up as desired. Few writers came late and followed the deadline that was helpful. Some other prominent writers, who shown willingness to write but couldn’t do for personal reasons.
I respect personal opinions, but it is true they not always give you comfort. The better way of dealing with them is to draw a line of trust—beyond that, certainly rejection should be followed. It was somehow nice to deal with other twenty-nice pieces of this volume (excluding my own on radical dissent/ India: Underlined in Red!). I didn’t realise any big breakaway, they were just, even with having subtle differences from my personal stand.
You are young and have been writing on socio-political issues over the years, can you tell us what do you make and feel of today’s India?
India is passing through a tough time—although, it will be more proper to say, as a nation it has always availed toughness. Not less, because the message of independent struggle couldn’t be transcended with the leaders who took the power in hand right after 1947. India’s bloodied partition is a mark to show, how leadership failed at that stage and its strain further caused the fissures in its nieghbourhood as well as on own land.
Today, India offers better economic prospects to atleast its one-fifth of population than twenty-one years back, when the opening of economy had started offing. This new economic model has also made record numbers of billionaires—some of them have met this fortune through their connection in central Delhi’s power circle. Only few years back—Raghuram Rajan (presently the RBI Governor) had made a scintillating observation on these affluent cronies in his book- Fault Lines. Sadly, now he has to deal with the same kind of people. In rising India, there is no logic to earn money or for bankruptcy—inequality of income and opportunity is on all time peak.
Most of the jobs in market offer no stability and dignified living condition for most of the workers. Management is a cruel force today—and with having blind eyes or the force behind the mess, the government is making disaster imminent. The nitty-gritty of politics is much maligned now—it lost its sole hold from the authority. The interest of business controls the government, which is a dangerous situation.
India’s incompetent business houses are solely relying on the political big wigs to sustain the easily found momentum of minting money and plundering of natural resources. The tribals are continuing their precarious status—worst, they face the violence from state, corporate houses as well as of false radicals.
The flagships programmes are on run, they are mishandled and still they survive. Only because, the government is running like a thriving corporate house, which has mood to offer a small pie of gain to the downtrodden. This works like CSR and Prime Minister, who otherwise speaks government language, shows hearty willingness to work under Rahul Gandhi—the many shy away from the overt responsibility.
Under this culture of sycophancy—it is very hard, India will have say on world affairs or controlling the situation at home, which is boiling within with the fire of uncountable wretcheds. The culture of opposition has faded long back in Indian politics—what one can notice in parliament or Tv is ‘war of interest’ among the political players and on dinner tables, amicable ‘private treaties’!
This is not perfect time to be incorrigible optimist on India story.
General election is nearing, what do you think going to happen and how it will be affecting lives of ordinary citizens of India?
The parliamentary election of this time is going to be decided by the immense polarisation on non-issues. Political parties at large have stopped delving with the issues of significance. Consequently, the language of politics too changing in fast pace—the principle political parties are not talking about income inequality, unemployment, price-rise, violence, wrong justice delivery system etc.
This is thoroughly havocking for common men, who needs the support of the government and governance. The myopia of political leadership is itself an issue that needs urgent check. This time, election would be technically processed and political parties would spend much of their energy in breaking the alienation of voters. This would happen through caste and communal polarisation—rather with the developmental agendas. Initial signs are already visible now—the reckless political maneuvering would make it worst. The crisis of leadership at top and directionless at bottom is sharply in contrast with India’s parliamentary establishment.
The low lying of fundamentals are causing weak morale among the Indian citizens. They are not hopeful with the electoral processes—their participation is mechanized and shows the continuing belief in state, but not in politics anymore. They are insecure people, bound to lose their wisdom under the shine of India’s metro cities, where Indian businessmen live in multi-billion dollar houses and their sidestricks make suburbs looking like false Dubai or Singapore.
The condition will not change with the elections, people have understood it. A badly fragmented polity and endless compromises will complete the final script for 2014 election. As always, the democratic leftists will watch the whole show from their headquarters in Delhi—or in better case, from Kolkata, Agartalla and Thiruvananthapuram.
To you, what are the pressing issues and challenges before India?
I see, the fragmentation of democratic values and rising economic inequality as the grave challenges. Today, average Indian citizens are not entitled with county’s rising fortune, as they should have. The same was not the case few decades back, when India was a poor nation of poor people. The miracles of reforms have benefited certain sections, who are pampered lot now. They are controlling the resources and fate of marginalised.
The economy closely linked with polity shows the response based on later’s performance. Nevertheless, the division should not be blurred between them. But the situation is exactly opposite in India, where the ‘division of power’ has ceased to exists and the bucks normally stops at certain table only. The files are being missed at PMO and the scam tainted political animals can be seen like free bird on the corridors of power.
Notionally a good democracy, India fails its own self in practice. This is most desperating, as its constitution has egalitarian mandates and ensures equally rights to all. Leaders are wary of their responsibilities and people are left to shun their ineligible command. Even lately, the reckoning should be to make growth inclusive and distributive—otherwise, the ongoing experiment will not be sustained.
Even some leaders from ruling parties have same say—many others too think on same line, but they speak their mind off record. After close to seven decades of its independence—Indian establishment should show better resilience in dealing with those corrupts, making the whole system in jittery.
The culture of cabinet sacking and cleaning of judicial system and electoral funding are some of the wishful changes to take place in India. The time ahead will decide the inner temptation of Indian democracy.
Former Governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Jagmohan, in his essay has said it was Nehru’s mistake to say that Kashmiris will be given right of plebiscite. Do you agree with that? What is your personal view on Kashmir dispute?
Nehru was himself a Kashmiri—he tried to handle it diligently, but couldn’t succeed. He was a practicing democrat, but had weakness to be surrounded with the English officials during critical time of partition and independence. Mountbatten was on mission to leave a broken India-he became able to do it.
Kashmir was on his prime agenda, knowing its geographical and demographic situation. The initial disturbances from outside of the border was not local adventurism, those acts were supported by the frailled colonial officials, with the help of strong tribes. Nehru was sure that with Plebiscite—Kashmir will remain the part of India. He had not referred it for any other reasons—taking the matter of Kashmir in UN was also driven by the sentiment. Unfortunately that made irreparable harm to the Kashmir—internatiolization of Kashmir issue was irrational at that time and today. UN was made for different reasons, but it failed to live those—ultimately making itself a cover to hide NATO/US atrocities over the weaker nations.
Then and now, the Kashmir issue can be resolved through the softer approaches of stakeholders. There is need to break some myths, like a part of Kashmir is independent (PoK) —the fact is, it is the hub of terror that has made the rest of Kashmir turbulent. It became a safe haven of terrorists during the high time of cold war—free weapons from Afghnistan and cheap currencies made it a dangerous locality. Condition has still not improved there, the plights of local Kashmiris in that side reveals it.
Secondly, Pakistan must be dropped from Kashmir debate—it was born for personal ego of some Muslim League leaders— and long ago, that purpose was served. Its stepping in Kashmir and other regions of India is the case of encroachment—that caused three wars, all fruitless for both the countries. India has no temperament of aggressor—otherwise in 1971, the boundary of Kashmir could have redrawn. Then, Pakistan was on the backfoot and India had mercilessly defied the big-brotherhood of US. But it respected the sovereignty.
It is true India couldn’t show its soft face to mass Kashmiris, which is a failure in its part. The people of Jammu& Kashmir are considered Indians by law—even when there was a challenge to that status, the citizenship rights should not have withheld in practice. The long security checks and humiliation could be replaced with demilitarization and dialogues.
I think, Kashmir would be a peaceful zone in future—if people will make participation in politics and would create a natural leadership in place of historically wrong beholder of powers in Srinagar. The kind of rule they wish could be negotiated much efficiently in that case. Introspection and constructive action would do well to the Kashmiris and of course those sitting in the helm of affairs in Delhi.