NEW YORK, March 25, 2011 - Unlike many other Indian historians, Ramachandra Guha rejects the belief that India is rooted in the ancient Sanskritic culture of thousands of years ago. Instead, Guha feels that India is a modern country, the foundations of which were laid in the 19th century, and then built upon in the 20th century by a handful of geniuses who shaped the nation's destiny.
This is the basis for his new book, The Makers of Modern India, which outlines 19 such figures. "There are a series of precursors and pioneers to Gandhi and Nehru, which this book tries to showcase."
In his talk at Asia Society, Guha did indeed bypass the usual suspects of modern Indian history to shed light on lesser-known figures like Rammohan Roy and B.R. Ambedkar. He was joined in conversation by Christopher Lydon, host of Radio Open Source.
Ambedkar, Guha explained, was born in an untouchable home, but went on to earn two doctorate degrees, at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, as well as a law degree. He is best known for drafting the Indian constitution.
"When Americans elected their first African American president in 2008, it was an extraordinary event; an epoch making event. But in some ways India had been there 60 years before, because to think that someone born in an untouchable home would write the constitution of free India, was as transgressive an act as an African American becoming president of this country."
Guha then focused on Rammohan Roy. "I call him the first liberal." According to Guha, Roy was "one of the first Indians whose thought and practice were not circumscribed by the constraints of kin, caste, and religion."
The Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore, winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, famously declared that India's windows are "open to the world." Guha noted that this is what allowed India to produce such great thinkers. "The reason India produced the Ambedkars and the Kamaladevis, is because we were open to the world."
Reported by Rachel Rosado