Three years ago, Ramachandra Guha, a historian and one of India’s most respected public intellectuals, told an interviewer that India was “becoming a more intolerant country” than before.
A 50-year-old Muslim man had been killed in a mob lynching allegedly over rumours that his family had been storing and consuming beef at home. A beef ban had been enforced by Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government. Two leading and outspoken rationalists had recently been murdered elsewhere in the country.
“It is important to recognise that there was never a golden age in our history as an independent nation of complete tolerance or freedom of speech,” Guha said. “There have always been curbs and pusillanimity by politicians and governments. But we are certainly becoming more intolerant, there is more violence.”
Now Guha himself has become a target of the intolerance he spoke about.
Barely a fortnight ago, he announced that he was joining an ambitious private non-profit university in the western city of Ahmedabad as a professor of humanities. (Ahmedabad University’s top leadership includes historian Patrick French, the biographer of Nobel Prize-winning writer VS Naipaul.)
On Thursday, Guha tweeted that he would not join the new position due to “circumstances beyond his control”.
He has not spoken about why he decided to change his mind. College authorities have not yet responded to queries by journalists. Not surprisingly, this outraged many. A senior journalist bemoaned the state of affairs when a celebrated intellectual could not teach in an institution of his choice.
Guha responded cryptically, highlighting the irony of his situation.
Now it appears that Guha was hounded out by the Hindu right wing in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and widely regarded as BJP’s bailiwick.
A leader of the the student wing of the local BJP told the Indian Express newspaper that they had met an Ahmedabad University official and told him they didn’t want Guha to teach in the city.
“We said we want intellectuals in our educational institutes and and not anti-nationals,” he said, adding that they had quoted “anti-national content” from his books to the official.
The complaint said that Guha’s writings “have encouraged divisive tendencies, alienation in the name of independence of the individual, freeing terrorists in the name of independence of the individual, and separating Jammu and Kashmir from the Indian union”.
They also referred to him as a Communist.
The complaints make it very clear that the students hadn’t read Guha’s work.
Guha is an eclectic personality. An economist by training, he has written acclaimed books on ecology, cricket, post-independence India and, most recently, an extraordinary two-volume biography of Mahatma Gandhi. He has taught at Stanford and the London School of Economics. Though an Indian classical music aficionado, he also counts The Beatles’ Hey Jude as one of his favourite songs. Prospect magazine listed him as one of the world’s most influential thinkers.
Guha has been, at once, an outspoken critic of Hindu nationalist politics (Narendra Modi’s BJP and the right wing) and dynastic politics (the main opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi). A sought after commentator on TV news, he has kept away from India’s rabble-rousing channels.
In the past Hindu right wing groups have demanded an essay on Ramayana by the late poet and scholar AK Ramanujan be dropped from the history syllabus of Delhi University, sent a legal notice to a newspaper for publishing a story on Hindu terrorism and forced a top publisher to recall and destroy copies of a book on Hinduism by a prominent American scholar, Wendy Doniger.
No single party in India has a stellar record in defending liberal values. But many believe that under Mr Modi’s government India’s reputation as a bastion of liberal values is diminishing by the day.
They say it is a new form of intolerance driven by majoritarian vales, where dissent and criticism is labelled as “anti-national”, encouraging a climate of hate and distrust. This is what is profoundly disturbing about hounding out a scholar from doing his job.