Print Edition - 2014-11-02  |  Free the Words

Making modern Asia

  • Ramachandra Guha’s stellar new book has missed out on one influential Asian individual—BP Koirala
- Atul K Thakur
Making modern Asia

Nov 1, 2014-

This century is being called the ‘Asian Century’ by many formidable scholars. Though domiciled in the West, these scholars have juxtaposed their pronouncement with their own track of social mobility, which drove them into alien lands to be part of deep-rooted cultural discourses.

Among them, Pankaj Mishra makes frequent news. His last two books—The Great Clamour and From the Ruins of Empire—had aimed to highlight the apathy of Asians towards their own history, and investigate why it is that the western model—ridden with crises of idea and direction—is still being religiously adhered to in Asia.

Indeed, this is because the world has now a more or less undivided economic vision—beyond symbolism—as even a country like China is afflicted with the consumerist agenda. The weakening of radical political ideologies and the failure of existing leftists to find an alternate route regarding ‘intelligent economics’ has turned the scene viciously saturated. The Asian Century therefore, counters odd convictions and further asserts Asia as standing against western colonial legacies.

Usual suspects

However, most books that have surfaced in the post-colonial framework have selectively missed making that ‘imagined construct’ of Asia broader, beyond the predictable stakeholders from India, China, Iran, and Japan. They have failed to include a country like Nepal, which has a restless history that is not to be overlooked, given its rich cultural and strategic importance.  

This haunted me more when going through eminent Indian historian Ramachandra Guha’s latest, yet to be formally launched anthology—Makers of Modern Asia (Belknap, Harvard Publishing). This volume, edited by Guha, focuses on a few Asian personalities, who stood with their own independent thinking against colonial will in the heyday of the empire and after.

Significant details on the works of Mahatma Gandhi, Chiang Kai-shek, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, Jawaharlal Nehru, Zhou Enlai, Sukarno, Deng Xiaoping, Indira Gandhi, Lee Kuan Yew, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto provide reasons to relook at the history of Asian intellectual resistance. The book does justice to its editorial mandate, by co-relating each icon’s works to the central command, which is not to anticipate a new ‘rising Asia’, but to rethink how existing Asian countries have come into their present shape over the decades.

Besides Guha, writings by Jay Taylor, Sophie Quinn-Judge, Rana Mitter, Chen Jian, James R Rush, Odd Arne West, Srinath Raghavan, Michael D. Barr, and Farzana Shaikh give the collection remarkable stature and credible seriousness. A reader will find that those covered in the book deserved to be included in Guha’s venture to look back on the making of modern Asia.

A regional influence

But it surprises me that Guha, who has been a keen chronicler of Nepal’s BP Koirala, missed including his profile in the collection. This, more so, since Guha is an avid researcher on Gandhi’s politics and philosophy, and in the past, has written diligently on Koirala and his remarkable contribution to sub-continental politics. Koirala was a nationalist, a democratic socialist and a Gandhian, who not only influenced a major political transition in Nepal, but also in India when it was coping against the tyrannical British rule.

Guha, in a memorable piece on BP Koirala in The Hindu (July 29, 2001), wrote with admiration: “Reading B.P. Koirala’s memoirs, I was struck by the parallels between his life and Nehru’s. Both were democratic socialists who learnt much from Gandhi and a little from Marx. Both had fathers who were strong-minded and authoritative, self-made men who made a great deal of money and had a political orientation besides. The sons both became traitors to their class. Their own political choices exposed them to poverty and oppression. Nonetheless, both enjoyed the ceremony of power: the bowing and scraping at state visits and the meetings at the U.N. Both were truly charismatic figures who towered over their colleagues.”

Even though this anthology is shaped in recognition of China and India’s increasing importance on the global scale, the book falters with its key theme and touches many issues for better reasons. So, there was definitely scope for a leader like Koirala, who should not have been forgotten for having the rare credentials to revive a sense of ‘nationhood’ beyond national boundaries. Given a close look at Koirala’s works, it becomes obvious that no other politician of his generation or even later has as diverse a credential as him.

Koirala was a nationalist and yet, an internationalist without any predicament. So readers would have taken delight in reading about Koirala in this otherwise excellent collection of essays, curated by one of the world’s leading social historians. Asia’s spectacular rise to global prominence rests on an intellectual and ideological foundation that is well covered through the essays of this book.

Nepal’s place in Asia

The book nevertheless brings to the fore a mostly forgotten fact that the leaders who made modern Asia were multifaceted individuals with qualities of thinkers, activists, and writers, who conversed with the past and present of their nation and region. As the making of modern Asia couldn’t happen homogenously, laying greater focus on thinker-politicians with an impress of different ideological blocks is certainly required in mainstream discourse. Sadly, not much has been done on this front in earlier exercises of post-colonial discourse—Guha’s book makes a positive stride in this regard.

Now, when reckoning about the broken western model is commonplace, it no doubt faces stiff challenges as a dominating political and economic force. The prominence of Asia is imminent, as it has vast untapped potential. However, diverse governing patterns in different Asian countries will not spread its ‘rise’ evenly all around. But among those countries, Nepal is well placed with its relatively positive fundamentals and its firm embrace of modernism and democracy. Only, this nation needs to admire its icons in more engaged manner and must create the ground for leaders like BP Koirala, besides eliminating the conditions that allow regressive ‘partisans’ to thrive disproportionately.

Thakur is a New Delhi-based journalist and writer

Published: 02-11-2014 09:27

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