Social media is a world of conspiracy theories, innuendo, gossip, paranoia, sheer craziness: Ram Guha

Shrabonti Bagchi May 17, 2016 17 min

Last month, FactorDaily’s Culture Editor Shrabonti Bagchi met Ramachandra Guha, one of India’s most eminent historians and the author of acclaimed and bestselling books on modern Indian history such as Makers of Modern IndiaIndia after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, and Gandhi Before India. Over 45 minutes, they spoke about how technology – specifically, social media – has aided the distortion of history and the vilification of certain Indian historical figures, and has created a binary narrative of “good” and “bad”, “for us” and “against us”, which completely ignores the fact that history is nuanced, complex and layered.       

Excerpts from the interview below (very lightly edited for clarity):

What are your thoughts on how social media is contributing to the distortion and selective revisioning of Indian history… the role social media has played in twisting certain narratives, and looking at things through a selective lens?

How young Indians who use social media look at history has become a function of party politics… it’s become Congress vs BJP. In all fairness, you should say that the original sinner was the Congress, because the Congress of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi portrayed a vision of modern Indian history in which, apart from Mahatma Gandhi, all the great figures were from one family. So there was Nehru, there were Indira and Rajiv, and then there’s Sonia. They were in power for 10 long years — from 2004 to 2014 — and I think if you look at it historically, social media becomes active around 2011, when the Congress is getting discredited. And what happens is they are looking for alternate heroes.

The original sinner was the Congress of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi, which portrayed a vision of modern Indian history in which, apart from Mahatma Gandhi, all the great figures were from one family

Now, one unfortunate consequence of the Congress’s misrepresentation of history is that Jawaharlal Nehru, who was a great figure and should not be conflated with Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi (who never knew Nehru and what he stood for), also becomes demonised. Under Sonia Gandhi, the Congress never talked about people who were great Congressmen and their contributions. Sardar Patel was a great Congressman, Rajaji was a great Congressman, Kamaraj was a great Congressman, Subhash Bose was a great Congressman… So as Gopal Gandhi puts it, Congress disowned Patel, and that allowed the BJP to misappropriate Patel. Patel was not part of the BJP or the Sangh Parivar or the RSS — he was a lifelong Congressman. It started with that — the original sinner was the Congress but then went in a different direction; it became ‘anyone but Nehru’. ‘Patel is a great figure and Nehru unfairly sidelined him, Gandhi should have made Patel Prime Minister’ — even though the truth is Patel did not want to become Prime Minister! Nehru and Patel worked very well as a partnership when Nehru was PM and Patel was deputy PM. However, social media got fixated on the idea that if Patel had been PM, we would have been a great country; and then maybe Nehru killed Bose — all kinds of things, all so far removed from fact ! Slowly you entered a world of conspiracy theories, innuendo, gossip, paranoia, sheer craziness. And things got more and more distorted.


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Smear campaigns against Nehru are common today, and videos such as this one have huge viewerships. As a Times of India article published on Sunday, May 15 put it, “On YouTube, a search for Nehru throws up smear after smear. The first, declaring him ‘Hindustan ka sabse ayyash aadmi’, was watched 40,16,640 times at last count. These stories lay bare the campaign against him — Nehru must be cast as Muslim, westernised and dissolute, to discredit him. To establish him as a philanderer, there is a patchwork of images of Nehru at innocuous moments, with Jacqueline Kennedy and Mrinalini Sarabhai, embracing his sister at the airport, lighting a woman’s cigarette.”

Do you think this comes from our lack of knowledge of history as a nation — because we don’t study history seriously when we are supposed to study it? Or, say, because in engineering colleges, humanities are not taught seriously… is that why we are easily misled by misinformation?

That is one reason. A second reason is that the Congress may have presented a particular version of history. A third  reason is, there is a strange psychological characteristic of young Indians (especially men, I would say, my sense is mostly men) who are educated, who are in the tech world, want India to be a great nation — a superpower — and are resentful that India has not got the acclaim and respect that it should. This discontent – that India is not getting its due — takes one of two forms. Either you say that we were great in the past — that we had invented the zero, we had invented plastic surgery — or you say that we would have been great if it had not been for that rascal Nehru. The problems of today you blame on a long dead man. What happened 70 years ago is responsible for India not being great today.

Which begs the question, what have you been doing all these years? (chuckles). So it’s a very strange kind of psychological situation that young Indians have — that they desperately desire their country to be great. You see, they are often in international jobs, they are in a much more globalised world than when I grew up. I grew up in Dehradoon, studied in Delhi, I first went abroad when I was 30 — now these young Indians are moving around with people, and they say why should a Frenchman be greater than me, why is a Chinese guy getting respect – it must be because of that Nehru. So you’re right — partly it’s that we don’t have good humanities education, partly the Congress party itself has presented a distorted form of history, and partly it’s a kind of frustration among young Indians; a tendency to blame others for your current misfortune. Social media is a way in which you vent your frustrations and disown your own responsibility — you don’t take responsibility for your own future, for your community’s future, your city’ future,  your country’s future; you blame somebody else for the problem. It’s a strange phenomenon — and it’s not very pleasant.

Do you agree that figures like Nehru and Gandhi have been portrayed in an extremely negative light on social media? Some of their so-called mistakes have been enhanced and mocked, without seeing their roles as part of the evolution of a Republic, and certain actions have been seen in isolation. Why have Nehru and Gandhi become such divisive figures?

Very much so. Nehru — that’s because of the (Gandhi) family, but Gandhi is difficult to understand. There are still many people who admire Gandhi; it’s more complicated. Many people admire him, many revile him. Part of it is this youthful desire to change everything at once, and Gandhi believed in non-violence, compromise, one step at a time. You think that an armed struggle would have got us a great, glorious country, whereas the truth is wherever countries have got independence through armed struggle, it has led to more trouble, more violence, more retributive violence — a spiral of violence. Gandhi’s vision was to take everyone along — take Muslims along, take women along, emancipate Dalits. I think we have also forgotten that actually, the roles of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel, Nehru, Bose were all complimentary. They may have disagreed… you see, in any situation, friends disagree — take any successful company, say Infosys, I’m sure Narayana Murthy, Nilekani, Gopalakrishnan had disagreements, but they were able to work together. And that was the greatness of the Congress party then.

Bose, after he left the Congress, continued to admire Gandhi. He disagreed on the question of violence vs non violence. So he left, he went to Japan, he ran* the Indian National Army with Japanese support. And what did he name the Brigades of the Indian National Army? He named them Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad Brigades, and the fourth brigade was named after himself. He didn’t name it after Savarkar or Golvalkar — he named it after Gandhi, Nehru and Azad, and in his broadcasts from the Azad Hind Fauj, he for the first time ever called Gandhi ‘Father of the Nation’. He would start his broadcast from Singapore, Malaya or Bangkok by addressing the ‘Father of the Nation’. Now Gandhi was in jail in Poona, he couldn’t hear it, but that’s the first person he’s saluting. Likewise, Nehru and Patel worked together. The other strange thing is, to bring down Nehru they will use anything, so first they used Patel, and then they used Bose — though the fact is, Bose and Patel hated each other! It was Patel who got Bose dismissed as president of the Congress.

Bose, after he left the Congress, continued to admire Gandhi. He went to Japan, he ran the Indian National Army with Japanese support, and what did he name the Brigades of the INA? He named them Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad Brigades… In his broadcasts from the Azad Hind Fauj, he, for the first time ever, called Gandhi ‘Father of the Nation’  

So these positions are contradictory, inconsistent — they don’t understand the complexity of that time. And above all they don’t recognize what a difficult job it was for people like Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Patel to create a united country, to bring different people together, to give a democratic template to a society which had never known democracy, never known freedom of choice, to give women equal rights in a society that was deeply patriarchal, to at least fight against caste oppression, to allow affirmative action for Dalits and Adivasis… it’s an extraordinary achievement. I mean, you look at the countries around us, how Pakistan, Bangladesh or Nepal are doing and then you’ll appreciate the role of Nehru and Patel in building this country.

Where does this binary way of thinking — that if you are pro Gandhi you must be anti Bose — come from? Is this an ‘Indian’ way of thinking?

I think that’s true only recently, and I think social media has brought this about. Social media has brought this black and white perspective. Nuance has gone out. As I said, in terms of distorting Indian history, the Congress was the original villain, and then it was taken much further. In the binary perspective you are talking about, the trolls of the BJP are the original villains. The kind of Twitter and social media army that was unleashed when Narendra Modi decided he wanted to become prime minister (in 2013)… it was a very bitter campaign. The cyber hooligans or cyber gundas, as I call them, their perspective was, if you don’t support Narendra Modi you are an apologist chamcha of the Gandhi family. It became absolutely black and white. The truth is, you can NOT support Narendra Modi, but you can also be critical of the Congress party; you can have some qualified praise for Modi. But all that nuance was lost. The kind of cyber army that Modi unleashed in June 2013, when he decided ‘I want to become Prime Minister’ — it was a concerted campaign. Even now, it’s directed from the PMO; even now they say the PMO is keeping a close watch. And it was successful.

Young Indians have an interest in history; they want to read serious reflective stuff, but social media is not a good vehicle for understanding the complexity of our country. In 140 characters, you cannot get to the truth of anything

You see, a lot of people voted for Narendra Modi not because they believe in Hindutva but because they were disgusted with the Congress party. They thought he had outgrown his divisiveness, that the Gujarat riots were behind him, that he had become a man of development, that he would bring jobs, opportunity, growth… and alongside all of this was this portrayal that Narendra Modi is a great emancipator, and anyone who has the smallest reservation about him — forget critic or opponent — is by definition an apologist or a chamcha of the Congress. And this has really vulgarised, debased and demeaned the debate. And it all started there (in 2013). Why does Narendra Modi find it so difficult to get legislation passed? Because he called the opposition all kinds of names in the campaign, and the Twitter army enabled it, furthered it, in a way that was deeply distressing. All nuance and complexity was lost.

Every individual is a mixture of good and bad, every social process — like the introduction of the smartphone — brings some good and some bad. History, society are about complexity and nuance; only rarely are things black and white. Hitler was unambiguously black and evil, but that’s very rare. Most historical figures are not — they are a combination of all kinds of things. They can be courageous at one stage, pusillanimous at another; they can be far-sighted in one of their policies, opportunistic in another. But all that nuance is lost in social media.

But at the same time I’ll say that young Indians have an interest in history; they want to read serious reflective stuff, but social media is not a good vehicle for understanding the complexity of our country. In 140 characters, you cannot get to the truth of anything. Hopefully this will pass and some kind of balance will be restored, but this polarising of discourse is very, very unhelpful.

How would you account for, say, the glorification and even worship of a person like Nathuram Godse? On social media, doctored images purporting to be those of Godse shooting Gandhi are shared in a very celebratory way, which is disturbing to say the least. What’s the origin of this Godse worship? Can you tell us what Godse was really like, as a man?

Is that true, that he is worshipped? I wasn’t aware of that… You see, Godse was a very complex and angry young man. He joined the RSS then left, he joined the Hindu Mahasabha, he was dissatisfied. He was a Hindu supremacist. most of his writings in the 40s — he edited a magazine in the 40s — he vilified Muslims and glorified Hindus. And after Partition, his main criticism against Gandhi was he wanted Muslims to live with peace and dignity in India. So it was a fundamental, ideological battle. On one side you had Gandhi and Nehru saying ‘whatever Pakistan does to its minorities, in India everyone is equal — Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or Christian, and also man and woman and Dalit and Brahmin’. That’s a really far-sighted position to take. Whereas the Hindutva line was vengeance: ‘If Hindus are treated badly in Pakistan we won’t allow a single Muslim to live in India’.

And this battle continues… it’s a choice Indians have to make. Do you want a plural, tolerant, accommodating society, or do you want a Hindu Pakistan? The way Pakistan has persecuted its minorities, has thrown them out, the way Christians are treated in Pakistan, the way Shias have been given second-class status (the irony is Jinnah was Shia) — do you want to go that way?

But I am surprised he is glorified.

What about the appropriation of Bose as a right-wing hero?

Bose was an interesting, charismatic figure; there is a mystery about his death, there’s a kind of romance about the way he evaded British Intelligence forces. And he was a great patriot. Initially he was a great hero for Bengalis but he has now exceeded Bengal. There are people all over who admire him. Still, he had some unpleasant characteristics, for example he was a dictator; he believed India needed 20 years of dictatorship. But he was a great patriot, and he believed totally in Hindu Muslim harmony and the emancipation of women. These are two of his greatest achievements, which are totally against the RSS credo. RSS does not believe in proper equality for women; they believe women have their place in society — at home, raising the family. And the RSS credo is to treat Muslims and Christians as second-class citizens. The RSS supremo MS Golwalkar, whose book is still a Bible for them, argued that India had three threats —  muslims, christians and communists. So he had a very sectarian view of India .

A few months ago, there was a petition signed by several Indian historians and academicians to the effect that India’s telling of history has been taken over by Leftist historians, who have suppressed other narratives. What is your reaction to that?

I partly agree with that. It is true that you had a kind of Marxist cabal who controlled the universities. It dates back to the time when the Communist Party of India (CPI) aligned with Indira Gandhi in Parliament to save her majority and in return she gave CPI historians control of ICHR, NCERT etc. Partly, it is true and it needs to be challenged. It needs to be opened up. I wrote a long essay in Caravan about why there are no conservative intellectuals in India and why we need conservative intellectuals. For a healthy democratic debate and discourse, you need Left, Liberal and Conservative . You need a variety of intellectual approaches. The problem in India is we do not have conservative intellectuals, and so long as the RSS controls the right wing space you won’t — because the RSS is profoundly anti-intellectual.

The problem in India is we do not have conservative intellectuals, and so long as the RSS controls the right wing space you won’t — because the RSS is profoundly anti-intellectual.

In any other democratic country — in England, in America, in Germany — there are right wing intellectuals who are sophisticated, who are thoughtful, who do deep research, who talk about the importance of traditional values, family, community, civility, aesthetics, why classical art and classical music need to be appreciated… But if Smriti Irani is your education minister, or if Anupam Kher is your greatest spokesman, you’re not going to get intellectuals. You’re going to get social media maniacs.

That accusation is partly true, that the Left did have a stranglehold over intellectual discourse, where they suppressed not only the Right but also the Liberals. Now it’s opening up and that’s good. But intellectual work is hard work. It’s not 140 characters on social media, it’s not appearing on television, it’s not even writing a column. If you want to make a mark as an intellectual, you have to write serious essays and books, and no right wing intellectual, no right wing journalist or BJP supporter, is prepared to do that. But right wing intellectuals in india are either lazy, or they are plain bigots. Intellectual work is hard work — it requires thought, analysis, research, reflection, the ability to correct your own mistakes, to expand your perspectives, to listen to other voices… every one of my books takes five or six years to do.

That accusation is partly true, that the Left did have a stranglehold over intellectual discourse, where they suppressed not only the Right but also the Liberals. Now it’s opening up. But intellectual work is hard work. It’s not 140 characters on social media, it’s not appearing on television, it’s not even writing a column. If you want to make a mark as an intellectual, you have to write serious essays and books.

Someone who could become an icon for right wing intellectuals in India is Rajagopalachari, who started the Swatantrata Party, who believed in minimising the role of the State, who believed in the importance of family, community, traditions but was a profound thinker. Rajaji could provide you inspiration, but Godse and Golvalkar can’t. So essentially that’s the tragedy. As a liberal myself, I would welcome right-wing intellectuals, because they would enhance the discourse, they would make it much more diverse, more creative. But if the RSS is in control of the universities, the education departments, the cultural institutions, the museums, the akademis, you’re only going to get some third-rate stuff.

So you’re saying you can’t have a Romila Thapar challenged by a Dinanath Batra…?

Exactly, exactly. We had good right-wing historians, like Jadunath Sarkar, who really did hard work, who believed in the continuity of tradition, but was a first-rate scholar.  But if you think Dinanath Batra can challenge Romila Thapar then you won’t get intellectuals, you’ll only get more and more debased discourse.


Watch clips from the video interview below:

Lead image and video: Rajesh Subramanian, Anand Murali

*Correction: “…he started the Indian National Army with Japanese support” has been changed to “…he ran the Indian National Army with Japanese support.”


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