Ramachandra Guha is a historian, author, and columnist. He was in the news recently after the Hindustan Times spiked his column. He speaks with Abhinandan Sekhri about why he decided to end the column, his detention for protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act last year, and Mahatma Gandhi.
Guha says he first started a column with the Hindustan Times in 2008 but stopped it three years later in protest against what he saw as undue interference in what he wanted to write. In 2013, however, the newspaper approached him to restart the column, with the promise that they won’t change his writing without his permission.
“In the last few months, I have had occasional problems,” he says, pointing out by way of an example that he mentioned “Godi media” in one of his pieces in reference to specific TV channels which was changed to “some channels”. The names of the channels were put back in only after he threatened to stop the column on Twitter.
It’s “deeply distressing”, he adds, that “a prestigious newspaper like the Hindustan Times, once associated with Mahatma Gandhi and the freedom movement, would be so scared.”
This media climate bodes ill for younger columnists, who may be driven to self censor. In fact, Guha says, it was because of this concern that he felt he had to make a public statement about the censorship.
On Gandhi’s connection with the Hindustan Times, the historian notes that he had “a personal affiliation” with the newspaper’s owners. “Gandhi’s youngest son, Devdas, edited the Hindustan Times from 1930s to 1950s,” he adds.
He realises that the government might have stopped ads to the daily or hurt the proprietor's other business interests if they ran his column criticising Narendra Modi’s pet Central Vista project, Guha says, but he feels that spiking his article was “a betrayal of a solemn assurance given to me by the paper”.
On his detention last year, Guha recalls that the police were civil. He met a police officer who recognised him because she had read his book, India After Gandhi, while preparing for her civil services exam. “India varies enormously in how its states are run and in the severity or otherwise of its police,” Guha says.
On the need to look critically at historical figures such as Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, he notes that while he was venerated excessively in his lifetime, “in the last 10-15 years Nehru has been denigrated excessively”. Gandhi, he argues, is “the only person in India you can criticise freely in any way and not have your show or your film or your book banned”. Gandhi can be criticised for being excessively prudish, harsh to his wife and obnoxious to his older son, as also for his political mistakes, Guha says, but he was a colossal figure on matters that are relevant to this day.
Switching from Gandhi to VD Savarkar, Guha mentions how he was idealistic early in his life, but became anti-Muslim and a collaborator with the British after being jailed. He was a scholar and writer, Guha says of the Hindutva icon, but also a very bitter man “consumed with hatred and rivalry for Gandhi”.
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