Dr Ramachandra Guha delivered the Hopper lecture at the University of Guelph last month to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

Dr Ramachandra Guha delivered the Hopper lecture at the University of Guelph last month to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.


Dr Ramachandra Guha’s formidable reputation as one of India’s  foremost intellectuals precedes him.

Described variously as a sage voice of progressive India and a rockstar among scholars, he has been ranked among the top 100 public intellectuals of the world.

And yet the man who walked in to Peter Clark Hall at the University of Guelph last month to deliver the Hopper lecture was rumpled, professorial, easily accessible. Unassuming, agreeing to requests for photographs with attendees, chatting with them before and after his talk. Deeply interested in their questions and comments.

Invited by the university to commemorate Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr Guha spoke on Gandhi, environmentalism and the world today.

He’d been on a “road show” he said, delivering lectures at several Canadian universities, but this one was about Gandhi the proto environmentalist. An entirely new talk, linking Gandhi and David Hopper after whom the lecture series is named.

Most of us know of Gandhi’s Satyagraha movement which had resonance as far as the civil rights movements in the US and Myanmar, said Guha. Social reform, caste, interfaith harmony... those are aspects many are familiar with. The environment formed the “fourth pillar” of his work, but remained a lesser-known aspect that he would speak on, based on information “excavated from his writings”.

That Gandhi still lives is obvious from his influence on the Chipko movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan led by Gandhians, Guha pointed out. That he was anti-industrialization is well documented.

Guha quoted from Gandhi’s letters and writings dated decades apart.

In April 1913, Gandhi was talking about city dwellers vs farmers.

In December 1928, he wrote that industrialisation would strip the world bare and that we should find different ways to uplift the marginalized.

In January 1937, Gandhi described an ideal village in his response to a letter he received. It would have homes built with materials found within five miles of the village, the homes would be well-ventilated, there would be a common well that was accessible to all, and houses of worship and schools accessible to all...

Two days later, Dr Guha shared his views on many issues at an informal get-together at a private residence.

Two days later, Dr Guha shared his views on many issues at an informal get-together at a private residence.

“He had an intuitive understanding of the result of unbridled industrialization,” said Guha. But while the West had reached far and wide to procure resources for its industrialisation, India was exploiting its own natural resources to feed the needs of its urban populace. He compared the Bangalore his father knew with its 70 lakes and tanks to the city facing the effects of environmental degradation today.

But Gandhians also tend to “fetishisize Gandhi”, he said. “They believe Gandhi provides all the answers. My admiration is qualified, nuanced. Does Gandhi limit the efforts? I’ll alert you to two crucial ways in which he does so.”

Gandhi’s work was heavily focused on the countryside, and thus the work of Gandhians today retains a similar focus, though India has one of the largest urban populations in the world.

And the wilderness had no attraction for Gandhi “who had an underdeveloped aesthetic side”, said Guha tongue-in-cheek. He shared an unpublished anecdote to underscore the difference in the approaches of Gandhi and his heir, Nehru.

When British engineer Edward Thomson approached Gandhi about his fears of animal extinction on the subcontinent, Gandhi is said to have replied, “Well, we shall always have the British lion,” before asking him to speak to Nehru.

A year later, Nehru was writing to Thomson with pride about one of Chakravarthy Rajagopalachari’s last acts as the chief minister of Madras Presidency – the creation of the Periyar reserve.

The environmental movement in India, concluded Guha, should return to Mahatma Gandhi and yet seek to go beyond.

In the extensive question-and-answer session that followed, he addressed one about Gandhi and goat milk, telling the rapt audience that when Gandhi’s health deteriorated and his physician prescribed milk for nutrition, the Mahatma said he had vowed not to touch milk. “It was his wife Kasturba who reminded him that the vow was about cow’s milk and that therefore goat’s milk should be allowed”.

On India’s response or lack thereof to climate change, Dr Guha pointed the finger at Al Gore, the “biggest climate change criminal”. “It sounds heretical today, but if the US had signed the climate change accord in 1997, India and China would have signed. But they didn’t. Gore became an environmentalist after he lost the presidential elections.”

He was equally forthright in his views on India and the environment calling it “an environmental basket case regardless of climate change” with the high air pollution and water crisis endangering its future.

To a question about the relationship between Gandhi and science, he quoted Gandhi who once said, “It’s a common superstition that I am against science”. Commenting on the clever interplay of superstition and science, Guha also pointed to the fact that Gandhi chose to call his autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth. He gave examples of Gandhi-inspired scientists like AKL Reddy and Madhav Gadgil who returned to India from Harvard to do immeasurable good work.

“I don’t preach, I don’t give advice – I have conspicuously failed with my own children,” he said in response to a young student’s question on what their generation could do to save the world, eliciting laughter from his audience. On a serious note, he suggested doing what Gandhi would do. Fix things one step at a time. “Start with change in your home, your street...”

And he talked of the beauty of compromise. Holding fast to the belief that one solution and only that one solution would solve a particular problem was wrong.

A lady in the audience asked a question many of us have asked while watching news of India’s space exploration: Could not the resources have been put to better use? In providing clean water for instance? Guha said that science was about search and creation and that India had the resources to do both. He was not against space exploration, but against the rise of a personality cult which was undermining institutions of scientific research that had been built over 60 years.

Was Gandhi a feminist, another young girl wanted to know. From the perspective of 2019, no, he was a hopeless male patriarch, said Guha. But he also did more to bring women to the forefront of public life and politics than most of his contemporaries.

When revisionist history is critical of Gandhi as a racist or casteist, what is one to make of it, asked a lady.

Gandhi was racist as a young man – most Indians are racist – but he outgrew it, said Guha. Gandhi condemned caste but had said the system could remain. The same Gandhi then moved towards interdining and intermarriage. So one should see the evolution, not isolated incidents.

At an informal get-together at a friend’s place two days later, Guha suggested I read his books on Kindle when I mentioned that the weighty tomes were not exactly conducive to reading in bed.

How would he autograph on Kindle, asked someone. “I haven’t thought of that!” replied Guha.

The best-selling author of India After Gandhi (2007), Gandhi Before India (2013) and Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948 (2018) knows his subject like few others, pulling out anecdotes and referencing quotes on any topic related to Gandhi.

He speaks fast, but gives the impression that his thoughts run faster, as he engages in animated discussion on a whole slew of topics, covering the politics and social issues of India and Canada.

India is burdened by its history, by its greatness, he commented. Canada has the advantage of being a new country that had handled racism better, and gone from being very racist to slightly racist.

It was a unique, memorable experience, one that those privileged to be in the room will treasure for years to come – or until the next gupshup with Guha.

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