There is nothing in the lonely profession of a historian that can save you from your advisory impulses. Ramachandra Guha, a widely known historian of contemporary India, has often found it hard to resist and has been quite generous with advice in unsolicited ways. That’s perhaps one of the occupational hazards of extending your role of a public intellectual to the unexpected of spheres.
Five years ago, in a piece for The Telegraph, Guha himself admitted how he was snubbed for stretching the scope of his parallel profession of a cricket historian to suggest something to one of the leading Indian cricketers of those times, Rahul Dravid. In a mail to the legendary batsman, Guha had suggested that he should be standing in the slips. In his reply, Dravid just talked about Guha’s latest book on contemporary Indian history, nothing else. Guha got the message though one couldn’t say so for the impulse itself.
It surfaced again this midweek on the opinion page of The Indian Express wherein a piece Guha advised Army chief General Bipin Rawat to stay away from public utterances while complaining that the ‘General speaks too much’. Guha cites General Rawat’s public recommendation of Field Marshal K M Cariappa, the first Indian commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, for Bharat Ratna as the latest instance of the Army chief not following what the historian assumes as conventional niceties of defence communication in a representative democracy. In saying so, much of Guha’s arguments are a plain recycling of what he had written in the epilogue to his most noted work India After Gandhi (2007, revised edition 2017). Predictably, Guha’s sensibilities on the military-civilian administration/leadership dichotomy, in the book as well as in his latest piece, are rooted in Nehruvian precedents as the hallowed benchmark.
In the epilogue to the book, Guha credits Jawaharlal Nehru with drawing the line two days before India’s first independence day. On August 13, 1947, in a letter to the British chief of the Indian Army Rob Lockhart, Nehru wrote, “In any policy that is to be pursued, in the army or otherwise, the views of the government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy, he has no place in the Indian army, or in the Indian structure of government. I think this should be made perfectly clear at this stage.”
What Nehru wrote was stating the obvious to the military leadership of a republic-in-making and its connotations got amplified in the following decade as fledgling democracies grappled with the anxieties caused by military authoritarianism halting the democratic journey of many newly independent Asian and African countries which had emerged as part of decolonisation. The problem, however, was that this anxiety morphed into distrust that Nehru ended up nurturing against the role of the military establishment in his statecraft. Such distrust was, seemingly, aided by his aspirations for a rather quixotically cultivated pacifist statesmanship. Whether India paid for it dearly in the 1962 debacle may still be a matter of retrospective arguments, what’s not that hazy is the fact that such distrust spilt over to the worldview of a section of social science discourse in India. Guha embodies that in more ways than one.
First, Guha offers non-military reasoning to question the credentials of Field Marshal Cariappa for the Bharat Ratna. In the process, Guha erects a parallel iconography, a default mode exercised by historians, of General K.S. Thimayya to counter the eligibility of Cariappa for the top honour. Guha resorts to the accounts of a few military historians to support his case, while his own case against C-in-C Cariappa is that Nehru had advised him against holding “too many press conferences and speeches” across the country. Guha goes on to talk about how on a visit to Pakistan, after his retirement from military service, Cariappa praised coup-engineering Pakistani Army officers for saving their homeland from ruin brought by internal chaos.
In censuring Field Marshal Cariappa for exercising his right to speak his mind, as a democratic entitlement as of anybody else, what Guha shows is the ingrained anxiety of a Third World democrat against any whiff of praise for military leadership – an insecurity which isn’t always rooted in the actual conduct of top army brass. It’s the same psyche which has sometimes tempted Indian media to have the assumed subtext of the unspoken C-word in ‘suspect’ or lesser-known military movements – as evident in the front page The Indian Express story on ‘Raisina spooked’ five years back. An apolitical army, obviously, is an achievement and pre-requisite of procedural democracy but anxieties about assessments made by our military brass is a sign of our ingrained insecurities as a democratic society.
In his non-military assessment of Field Marshal Cariappa, Guha also conveniently forgets about his military credentials. Besides many laurels that his highly decorated military career brought him, Cariappa is still remembered for his exemplary leadership of Indian forces on the western front during the 1947 India-Pakistan War, securing for India a large part of the territory. His leadership in the integration of Hyderabad into the Indian Union in 1948 is also cited as remarkable for its precision. A different set of military narrative, quite different from those of Guha’s preferred ‘military historians’, argue that after taking over the leadership of the Indian Army in 1949 from Sir Roy Bucher, C-in-C Cariappa contributed to changing the self-perception and orientation of Indian Army – a landmark departure from an imperial legacy to a nationalist direction.
What, unsurprisingly, Guha also ignores is the fact that incumbent Army chief had words of high praise for Guha’s preferred icon, General K.S. Thimayya too in the same function where he spoke about Field Marshal Cariappa. The function witnessed the unveiling of statues of both military legends from the Kodagu district in Karnataka. It’s, however, Guha’s strange sense of political imagination that he has questioned General Rawat’s sense of timing – that, he says, has come only “a few months before a crucial state election in Karnataka”. Even the most cynical of political analysts would be wary of such overstretched political conjectures and imaginary plots.
Second, Guha’s axiomatic reliance on the Nehruvian sense of distance from the defence establishment reveals a limited understanding of what even Nehru said himself. Nehru sought a precedence of elected representatives in the government, on matters of decision-making, over army top brass. That’s what electoral democracy entails, but what if the elected government of the day is willing to give more space to the Army establishment in the communication of its positions? That’s as much a right of the elected government to disagree with precedents which were anyway rooted in a deep distrust of defence forces.
In fact, such distrust ensured that civil bureaucracy, say defence secretary, went on to command more attention of political leadership than the Army chief. A new government’s willingness to let defence brass have some voice in official meetings as well as a public forum is challenging that tradition, it’s knee-jerk to see it as something essentially undemocratic. So, for instance, when an army chief says that forces are prepared for a ‘two- and-a-half-front war’, far from being a statement of war-mongering, it’s a confidence-inspiring statement that people would like to have about the defence preparedness of their military against obvious dangers to country’s external and internal security. If the democratically-elected government of the day doesn’t see it as a breach of Army chief’s brief, it’s undemocratic (even in the Nehruvian sense of decision-making) to tell the country’s top army officer what to avoid saying. One may also be aware of the fact that General Rawat has qualified his remarks about recommending Bharat Ratna for Field Marshal Cariappa by saying that ultimately the decision has to come from the Union government.
Third, Guha’s piece plays to the script of entrenched biases of a section of the intelligentsia in the country while contradicting itself in the process. In his piece, for instance, Guha talks about the contribution of bureaucrats like T N Seshan in keeping the integrity of institutions like Election Commission intact. Does Guha remember that besides being seen as a dedicated officer, Seshan was also known in the 1990s as a rent-a-quote figure, even a gadfly? At the height of his popularity, and a year before he retired, he took his role in the wider public space to the book-shelf with the publication of Degeneration of India (1995).
Guha’s different yardstick for judging the public utterances of top army brass spring from an imbibed tendency to see the representatives of coercive wings of the state – defence forces, and to an extent, the police – with a misplaced sense of what could be seen as democratic scepticism. A tendency which has random empirical slices from post-colonial Third World history as a thin basis to base its anxieties on. What Guha, however, doesn’t realise is that by denying the military articulation of the narratives of events and issues, even his profession of history (and earlier vocation of social anthropology) loses the accounts of vital witnesses of history.
With his trademark leisurely grace, Dravid had denied Guha the joy of a reply to an unprompted advice. That was ‘well left Dravid’ for you, someone who knew where his off-stump was. General Rawat, hopefully, also knows how to skip compulsive advisers.