Trinamool Congress (TMC) MP and Gardiner Professor of History at Harvard University Sugata Bose tells Kavita Chowdhury that there is a sense of fear and insecurity among our minorities. He believes there is also scope for more discussion within the TMC on questions such as foreign direct investment. Edited excerpts
As Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s grandnephew you were recently in the news denouncing any attempts to give the Bharat Ratna to Netaji.
I firmly believe that Mahatma Gandhi and Netaji, should be kept above the Bharat Ratna. Netaji sacrificed everything for the country and his stature lies with the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He should not be a part of either the government’s kite flying or media speculation about a state award, however lofty that might be.
But do you ascribe to the view of some people who oppose the award because there is still uncertainty about his death?
No, I don’t. As a historian, I do believe in the opening up of historical files after a certain period of time. But there is sufficient evidence to deal with the question about his mortal end and I have done so in the final chapter of my book, “His Majesty’s Opponent.” I really think that we need to focus on the life and work of Netaji and not fritter away our energy in a fruitless controversy over his death. I think it shifts the attention from what is really important. The younger generation needs to learn from Netaji’s life. I think it’s time we called an end to this controversy.
In your writings on modern Indian history and South Asia, you talk about the “dichotomy between secular nationalism and religious communalism”. Now, the communal violence debate has resurfaced again. The Congress is accusing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s coming to power for the increase in incidents of such violence.
I’d like to tell my friends in the Congress that they need to rise above the facile discourse of secular nationalism versus religious communalism. Unfortunately, secularism has been reduced to an empty slogan. We should not be opposed to religion because most people in our country have deep religious faith; we should concentrate our attack on religious prejudice, religious bigotry and religious majoritarianism. I would also like to tell the BJP government of the day that religion as a culture is not divisive but only when it is displayed as some sort of majoritarian triumphalism. More than the incidents, there is a general sense of fear and insecurity among our minorities. It is incumbent on the ruling government to discipline their more extreme and errant followers. The leaders of the government should not be silent.
We used to say that the British would “divide and rule”; they would define majority and minority through religious distinction. We need to redefine those terms. After the scale of violence we witnessed in 1947 – 1984, 1993 and 2002 have been years of shame for us. I was quite anguished to hear the tone and tenor of the debate on communal violence in the Lok Sabha. The Hinduism that is being talked about isn’t the religion of Swami Vivekananda. “Religious majoritarianism” is rampant in the India of 2014. Let us combat this phenomenon.
But the Trinamool Congress (TMC) has been accused of appeasing the minority in a big way for electoral gains?
The Muslims in Bengal were deprived during the 34 years of the Communist rule. There needs to be a level playing field and they need to be given equal opportunities in education and employment. The Sachar Commission report showed us how deprived they were, and that needs to be addressed.
As someone who has discussed at length on agrarian Bengal as well as on its political economy, how do you perceive the TMC’s opposition towards foreign direct investment (FDI)?
For the moment, I’m focusing on issues where the party and I have a common vision – increased outlays for health, education and infrastructure. I think there is scope for more discussion within the party on questions such as FDI and I think we will take a nuanced position on FDI depending on which sectors we are talking about. We may actually need FDI in certain sectors because we need to mobilise global funds. We can’t even meet our infrastructure needs based on what public-private partnership can domestically provide. We also have to see whether FDI will enable us to broaden access to insurance – only five per cent of our people have access to insurance. However, I’m not dogmatic about FDI in insurance, rather it is more important to have discussions within the party to see whether we can nuance our policy positions on key economic matters. I generally take pro-poor positions, but I also have a sense of the global economy and how India needs to compete in it. I will use that perspective, if necessary, to convince my party colleagues to alter their stance.
You have argued in your speeches in Parliament about the need for a debt waiver for Bengal. Despite Bengal being a debt-ridden state, the TMC – going by its past record of ousting the Tata Nano car factory – still appears to be against big industries.
We, the TMC, want big industries but there might be greater scope for small- and medium-scale industries. In my opinion, we have to create a transparent, competitive and welcoming environment for new industry in Bengal, to create employment opportunities for our youth. The TMC was focussed on rural Bengal till the Panchayat elections last year because the Left parties were still entrenched there. But after that, Mamata Banerjee visited Mumbai and met industry captains. You cannot wish away 34 years of Left Front rule, during which Bengal was turned into an industrial graveyard. But I agree that the pace of industrialisation has to be quicker. The Changi airport of Singapore is building a small airport near Durgapur and it is almost complete. The chief minister is visiting Singapore to meet their top political and business leaders to attract investment to the state, but there are cultural dimensions of the trip as well. She will lay flowers at the memorial to the martyrs of our freedom struggle. Netaji raised the Indian National Army in Singapore in 1943. He also laid the foundation of that memorial. Rabindranath Tagore visited Singapore in 1927. We will look to both the east and west for investment.
As an academic, how do you reconcile yourself to the unsavoury side of party politics, the ‘goonda’ elements within your party TMC – the Tapas Pal episode for instance?
No party is perfect. But if you want to play a role in public life in India and raise the level of politics, then you have to choose the party with which you share commanalities of ideologies. My primary identity is that of a historian and scholar, and I’m here to help out in the political sphere at the personal invitation of Mamata Banerjee. She has known my family for three decades. I have been given freedom to raise and contribute to important national issues. Naturally, if my parliamentary colleagues, whether from other parties or my own, don’t live up to the standards of decorum, then I feel embarrassed. I am trying to live up to the ideals of a good parliamentarian. It’s still early days. I’ll see if I am able to make a positive difference to the quality of public life rather than throwing in the towel before trying.