New Delhi: Author Manu Bhagavan's latest book 'The Peacemakers' is a story of India's quest for human rights in the years leading up to its independence from Great Britain, and more than a decade after. Gandhi, Nehru, his visionary sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit and Hansa Mehta all strove to bridge the ideological differences between the East and the West, between capitalist and communist, to forge a common destiny for mankind that would be free of empire, poverty, exploitation and war. They called their solution 'One World' where state power would be checked and the freedom of individuals and groups expanded.
He is an associate professor in the Department of History at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, the City University of New York. He is the author or co-editor of four other titles, including Heterotopias: Nationalism and the Possibility of History in South Asia and Claiming Power from Below: Dalits and the Subaltern Question in India.
The author spoke with IBNLive about his latest book, here are a few excerpts:
\'The Peacemakers\' is a story of India\'s quest for human rights in the years leading up to its independence.
Q: You have called Nehru a utopian in your book, would you like to talk a little about that viewpoint.
Manu Bhagavan: Nehru was someone who fundamentally believed that a better world was possible-a world free of war and exploitation, and based instead on a human rights-based universalism that simultaneously recognized and respected difference. He worked assiduously to make this utopian dream a reality, and so was an idealist in this sense. His dream was shared by many of his contemporaries, from Tagore to Kripalani, from Radhakrishnan to Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, so Nehru was no lone wolf. Being an idealist is no bad thing either. Where would any of us be if it were not for idealists-if it were not for those quirky and persistent individuals who failed to accept the status quo and who demanded a better way of life, sometimes for themselves, and sometimes for other people. Where would we be, and where would politics be, if Gandhi felt constrained by the realism of British colonialism, or Ambedkar by caste, if King and X accepted the bounds of Jim Crow and white supremacy, or Cesar Chavez had felt that labour must always bend to the whip of capital?
We all need to dare to dream.
Q: India's foreign policy was formed much with Nehru's ideology, your assessment of its existence?
Manu Bhagavan: I think Nehru was a visionary. This does not at all mean that he did not have his shortcomings or that he did not make mistakes. But he charted out a plan for the world, in concert with Gandhi and his sister Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, that was meant to address the problems of his day. Indian foreign policy was guided by the grand strategic aim of creating a world of independent yet interdependent states, brought together under a federal, global government. Nehru was cognizant of the ways peoples and problems were interconnected, and mindful of the fact that borders were artificial and, though at times useful and necessary, often an impediment to solutions. What is striking is that his prescription for the world's ills seems an appropriate tonic for the maladies that afflict us today as well, in the form of catastrophic climate change, transnational terrorism and aggressive states, pandemic public health threats, and global financial crises.
The magnitude of these challenges is too great for any one country to meet, and poor choices by one country can affect another thousands of miles away. Only concerted, coordinated action-all of us working together-can help us to overcome the perils we face.
Q: What made you choose this subject for your book?
Manu Bhagavan: I set out to write a history of the ideas and ideologies that went into the making of India's constitution. As I began to read through relevant material, I was struck by a pervasive strand of internationalism I found running through discussions and debates. The term "One World" kept popping up, but I had no idea what it meant. The deeper I searched, the more I realized that I had stumbled upon a key, defining feature of both the anti-colonial movement and the postcolonial state's official policy. The idea of India and the creation of a new international community were linked, ideals embedded in the Indian constitution tied to international norms approved in the UN. Set against the backdrop of both World War II and the Cold War, and looming disaster, I also found the story thrilling.
Q: How relevant are Nehruvian ideologies in today's India?
Manu Bhagavan: I think the dream of a better world is always relevant. India has achieved much since independence, but it has also fallen short in several areas, and we have a long way to go. "Nehruvian ideologies" encompasses quite a bit, and it would take extensive discussion to deal with all the nuances involved. Broadly speaking, I think efforts to improve global governance, and the institutional infrastructure of the UN, are crucial today. India needs to think long and hard about the kind of world it wants, and in turn needs to create a coherent strategy to achieve it.
Q: Do you think foreign policy expertise lacks in political class in India, except of course barring a few?
Manu Bhagavan: I think India has for quite a long time been focused inward, on local concerns and regional issues. Its engagement with the world has been changing dramatically over the last several years. While I think we have many outstanding people in the foreign service, as you rightly suggest, we are yet to realise that the domestic cannot be separated from the international.
Q: How important a role did Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit play in the idea of 'One World'?
Manu Bhagavan: She was central. She helped champion the cause from 1944 through her brother's death and beyond. When he gave in to despair in 1963, she continued to carry the torch. It is little remembered today, but she was beloved the world over, considered one of the world's most beautiful and intelligent women. She defeated both the former Parliamentary Secretary to Winston Churchill (Robert Boothby) and South African Prime Minister Jan Smuts in high-stakes, live debate.
Her ability to charm and bring people together was manifested most clearly in her election as the first woman President of the UN General Assembly, which she won on secret ballot in the middle of the Cold War with support from the United States, the Commonwealth, and the Soviet delegations.
Q: Your book makes a smooth read about a subject which usually needs a lot of understanding, with your knowledge, what would be your suggestions to make education on such subjects simpler?
Manu Bhagavan: Thank you. I'm glad you found the book easy to read. I think the burden is on educators, writers, and intellectuals. With every sentence I wrote in this book, I asked myself if an interested, general reader would understand what I was talking about, and, if not, then I had to explain it better. Of course, I was helped by the fact that the story I had to tell here was an exciting one. I think the key is to be passionate about the subject. If we who tell the story have fire in our belly, if our eyes light up when we talk about our work, if we speak with conviction, then this will come across in our writing as well. I have tried to do that here, though how successful I have been must ultimately be judged by the readers.
Q: Your view on India's position in the global map currently
Manu Bhagavan: I think India is poised to play a central role in the world. But it is yet to define for itself what kind of role it wants to play, and what kind of world it wants. I think there is little doubt that India will be one of the top economies in the world, and that it will be militarily powerful compared to most. But if millions of its own people are starving or suffering as a result, what good is that? Or if millions elsewhere are suffering as result? If India stands atop a world devastated by weirding weather caused by unchecked global warming, if it fails to adopt and advocate viable sustainable development models, of what use its newfound power? The future is no doubt in India's hands. But it is yet to decide if that future is bleak or bright.
Q: Your future plans?
Manu Bhagavan: I am currently in the middle of writing a book on K.M. Munshi and am planning to put together a collection of essays on internationalism.
Book: The Peacemakers: India and the Quest for One World; Author: Manu Bhagavan; Price: Rs. 499; 256 pages; Genre: Non-fiction