Title: Makers of Modern Asia
Author: Edited by Ramachandra Guha
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biographies & Autobiographies, History and Politics, Geography
Published: August 2014
The economic progress that Asia has witnessed in the last few decades has made the Western world sit up and take notice. The 21st century belongs to Asia and especially to India and China, which are seeing an increased prominence in world affairs. In fact, this century has been dubbed the Asian century just like the 19th century belonged to Europe. However, according to historian and eminent thinker Ramchandra Guha, it is limiting to see this development in solely economic terms and assess it in terms of the gross national product, per capita income and global trade alone. His idea is to broaden this understanding of development by focusing on the political game changers who have charted the path to growth and progress. His latest work is a testament to this fact.
Makers of Modern Asia (Harvard University Press) edited by Ramchandra Guha is a collection of 11 essays that aims to provide a socio-historical context to Asia’s economic advancement. “The essential thesis of the book is that in this fascination, obsession and enchantment with the economic growth of specific Asian countries, we have forgotten the political preconditions of that economic growth,” says Guha.
Through each of its essays, the volume draws a portrait of nationalists who helped craft their respective political systems, which in turn provided a fillip to their economic struggle. Listed in the book are outstanding exemplars of 19th and 20th century political change in Asia.
The book includes Chinese stalwarts like Mao Zedong, leader of the Communist Revolution, Zhou Enlai, his close ally and confidant, Deng Xiaoping, who was purged by Mao and went on to reshape Chinese economic history with his revisionist policies and Chiang Kai-shek, whose Kuomintang party formed the basis of modern Taiwan. Other portraits come from India and cover Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Indira Gandhi, all of whom played crucial roles in guiding India toward independence. Then there are essays about Vietnam nationalist Ho Chi Minh, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Pakistan’s Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
The book opens with an excerpt from the work, The Problem of China, which was written by philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1922 after spending about six months teaching philosophy in China. Russell had declared, “All the world will be vitally affected by the development of Chinese affairs, which may well prove a decisive factor, for good or evil, during the next two centuries.” At a time when China was desperately fragmented and fraught with conflict-ridden relations with European powers and Japan, this seemed quite far-fetched. He ended the book by outlining three reforms — the establishment of an orderly government, industrial development under Chinese control and the spread of education. And true to the precocious prediction, a few years later, China was on the way to dominance after the nationalist movement started by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek and continued by Mao Zedong’s communists culminated with the unifying of China.
And this is equally relevant for other countries as well. Guha adds, “Younger Indians think that the Indian story began in 1991 with Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh. But what these visionaries did was open up the economy. The benefits of opening up the economy would never have been possible if India was not a unified nation and did not have a democratic political system.”
The territorial unification of India in a democratic template with religious and cultural pluralism was the work of the leaders, without whom none of the economic growth of the last 20 years would have happened. The same is the case with Vietnam, Indonesia and other erstwhile colonies who had to recover their sovereignty before they could even think of meeting the social and economical challenges of the modern world. Of crucial importance is the inter-Asian understanding espoused by many of the leaders that is brought to the fore in the book. This idea has significant urgency in the current times. “There was a constant exchange of ideas by leaders visiting different nations. Nowadays, we hesitate to look to our Asian counterparts. Instead, we rely on the west. I hope that this book leads to some reflection on inter-Asian understanding in each of the countries. As we move forward, I believe that it is very important that there is increased intellectual and cultural exchange between different Asian countries and I hope this edited volume makes a small contribution on this front.”
Unlike Guha’s earlier work, Makers of Modern India which was an anthology of original writing, the current book is a compilation of biographies put together by Pakistani, Australian, British and Norwegian historians who are experts in their fields. He adds, “I also chose to go with biographies because it a massively under-appreciated genre in the country.”
When he edited Makers of Modern India, Guha had faced a barrage of questions regarding the selection. He recalls, “The leftists were very angry that I hadn’t included any Marxists. A friend told me that when I visited Bengal next, I would have to wear a helmet because there was no mention of Subhash Chandra Bose as one of the architects of modern India. And although there were as many as six Maharashtrians in the book, they were not satisfied. Because Agarkar and Savarkar had been excluded from the treatise. This, I think, is an occupational hazard while creating an anthology.”
Armed with this experience, Guha knows that questions will be raised this time around too. And he is prepared for the inevitable. “For instance, I know people will ask me why I haven’t included Tagore. Well, it is because he did not run a state despite having a great intellectual impact and shaping the ideas of Gandhi and Tagore. People will also wonder why there is no mention of Jinnah. It was essentially because he died very soon after independence. The Pakistan of today is very far from the Pakistan Jinnah envisaged.” In the same breath Guha also mentions that although the India of today has directly diverged from what Gandhi hoped, in some recognizable features, Gandhi would perhaps have been glad to be a part of India today — he would have given his stamp of approval to the rise of the Dalit movement and freedom of the press among other things. “But in the case of Pakistan it is different. It is much better shaped by people like Bhutto,” he adds.
Then Indira Gandhi is the only woman profiled although he had considered including an essay on Aung San Suu Kyi. “However, the last chapter of her career is not yet written. Again, the only person profiled in this book who is alive is Lee Kuan Yew,” Guha opines.
Another controversial point, he notes, is that there is no Japanese leader, though Japan is colossally important to the continent. “There is no Japanese leader because the politics of Japan post World War II is massively dominated by America. Their political system, their constitution was written by the Americans and there has been no Japanese politician who has stamped his authority on the nation in the way Nehru, Sukarno or Bhutto did and including a pre-war fascist did not seem appealing.”
The book in its entirety helps the reader understand the rise of Asia by offering an insight into its history and political lives — the anti-colonial revolutions, the process of consolidation, the sustainable political systems envisaged, their economic strategies and the attitude of the post-colonial state and its leaders to traditional beliefs which provided a backdrop to the economic growth we have seen over the last 30 or 40 years.
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First published in The New Indian Express on September 2, 2014