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PAST & PRESENT

The wisest man in India

By Ramachandra Guha

Who might it now be?


"... R.G. Casey, who, back in the 1940s, spent a term as Governor of Bengal. From his time in this country, Casey drew the conclusion that C. Rajagopalachari was the `wisest man in India'."



INTELLECTUAL: Andre Beteille.

I HAVE recently been reading the memoirs of the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker, who served for eight years as his country's High Commissioner in New Delhi. Here, Crocker talks of how, amidst all the poverty and corruption, "India throws up some remarkable men who not only belie certain national traits, and especially those common among certain castes, but are a credit to the human race. Gandhi, Rajagopalachari, Jaya Prakash Narain, Nehru and many others make a resplendent roll call". Then Crocker adds: "Rajagopalachari, an unusual mixture of scholar, creative writer, mystic, man of action and ruler, is the most striking human being I have had the privilege to know".

Crocker's words would have been endorsed by his boss, the Foreign Minister of Australia. This was R.G. Casey, who, back in the 1940s, spent a term as Governor of Bengal. From his time in this country, Casey drew the conclusion that C. Rajagopalachari was the "wisest man in India".

The judgment was political rather than intellectual. "Rajaji" was a learned man, a scholar and a writer, but in praising him so, Casey was really focusing on his contributions to political debate. In the early years of the War that had just ended, it was Rajaji who had (vainly) urged the Congress to seek a compromise with the Muslim League; and it was he who had told Gandhi that collaboration with the British would augur better for an eventual transfer of power than the oppositional "Quit India" movement. Rajaji's advice on both counts was rejected by the Congress leadership, but its wisdom was resoundingly confirmed by later events — this too late, however, for Partition to be avoided. (A decade later, Rajaji once more proved to be wise before the event — when he urged the dismantling of what he memorably termed "the license-permit-quota-raj".

The choice

Who, 60 years later, might one now hail as the "wisest man in India?" My own candidate for the honour is the sociologist and writer Andre Beteille. In some ways Beteille is indeed the Rajaji of our times. There are some intriguing parallels in their characters and their careers.

Like Rajaji, Beteille studied in and has always lived in India; like him, he yet has a profound knowledge of English literature and Western political thought. Late in his political life, Rajaji served an incident-filled term as the first Indian Governor of Beteille's home state, Bengal. Early in his life as an intellectual, Beteille spent a formative year doing fieldwork in Rajaji's native Tamil Nadu. Like Beteille, Rajaji too was deeply committed to cultural pluralism (he did more to promote Hindu-Muslim harmony and attack caste prejudice than almost any other disciple of Gandhi), and to the procedures and norms of liberal democracy. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, like Rajaji, Beteille's words of caution are seldom heard by his peers, yet often vindicated by events.

Four qualifications

In calling Andre Beteille the "wisest man in India", I must append four caveats. First, this is my verdict, and mine alone. The second and third caveats are contained in the title itself. There may still be wiser Indians living outside India, and wiser women living in India. Finally, I have little doubt that Andre Beteille himself will reject my judgment. He will protest that I am dishonouring the memory of a great patriot and freedom-fighter, a great builder of modern India, by placing the name of a mere university professor alongside his. To lessen his embarrassment, let me point out that we live now in altogether less worthy times. For, when praising Rajaji as he did, R.G. Casey was sensible of the competition — this provided by Nehru, Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar, Radhakrishnan, Azad, and many, many others.

The competition now is much diminished. That said, Andre Beteille remains a very wise man indeed. Beteille has written insightfully about all the major questions of the day: India's encounters with the West, the contest between religion and secularism, the relationship between caste and class, the links between poverty and inequality, the nurturing of public institutions, the role and responsibilities of the intellectual. Readers interested in pursuing his work further — and in assessing this columnist's powers of judgment — may begin with his books Society and Politics in India and Chronicles of Our Times. Meanwhile, let me leave you with four Beteille apercus, each containing the wisdom distilled from decades of research and reflection:

"A civilisation that cannot accommodate a variety of traditions, seeking to maintain a jealous hold on only one single tradition, can hardly be called a civilisation."

"The vitality of a religion depends on a continuous critique of it by its own reflective members."

"The Indian intelligentsia has somewhat mixed attitudes towards the Indian village. While educated Indians are inclined to think or at least speak well of the village, they do not show much inclination for the company of villagers."

"In the past, Indian society was unique in the extremes of which it carried the principle and practice of inequality; today Indian intellectuals appear unique in their zeal for promoting the adoption of equality in every sphere of society."

Visit the author: ramguha@vsnl.com

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