India After Gandhi

India After Gandhi -The History of the Worlds Biggest Democracy.
Author: Ramachandra Guha


After putting down this nearly 800 page book tracing the history of modern post Independent India, I was thankful.That a book like this exists, that it is very readable and that I did read it.For those of us who did not study history beyond 10th grade, India’s history stops on 15th August 1947, and begins from the time we start reading newspapers, not the sports page but the front page.This can be a substantial gap, roughly 40 years in my case.To put things in perspective, this book surely contains more words than perhaps all my history books in school did and there is no compulsion to learn by rote the dates of Akbar’s birth and death and everything in between.This is the kind of education that we need, not a diet of history which is an outcome of ulterior motives of politicians to brainwash entire generations.

At the heart of the book is that elusive “Idea of India” and what binds this huge nation filled with a vast multitude of languages, religions, castes and tribes. Mr. Guha starts off in 1946 just before independence with the partition a done deal.He expertly traces the events of the partition and its fallout in the affected areas giving us a sense of the fact that it was more of a partition of Punjab and Bengal than India.He takes us behind the scenes in the negotiations with various princely states and provides a ringside view of the process of bringing the nation to its present shape.The stories of the creation of various states is fascinating as is the debate over the demarkation on linguistic lines.He quotes scholar after western scholar who predicted in unison, almost in every decade, that India will break up or that it will plunge into a dictatorship or worse fall prey to fascism as it briefly threatened to do during the emergency in 1975.By all accounts India as envisioned by our founding fathers as a secular democratic multicultural multiethnic free society was an experiment doomed to failure.The moot question throughout remains the question mark over India’s survival and Mr. Ramachandra Guha searches for the elusive glue that binds us disparate souls together.

He interestingly uses the USA as a reference point and points out that it started off as a melting pot of immigrant cultures and produced a homogeneous Americanized soup which everybody drank.Today America resembles more of a salad bowl with a very distinct Latino culture as proven in the last elections there.He says that India too is a salad bowl of distinct cultures, languages, ideologies and religions yet it works as a dish.So what is the binding agent here? He proposes a strong process of holding elections, the original constitution framed by men of high integrity, our relatively independent judiciary, a strong non political military and surprisingly Hindi films as the glue.

It is becoming a bit of a sport to bash Nehru, while Mayawati has done great disservice to the monumental legacy of Ambedkar by fossilizing him as monolithic statue. Sardar Patel remains the only solid figure with an undisputed legacy. To read about their work, placed fluidly in the context of history provides much needed perspective to the average reader. While no thinking man can condone the behavior of the current Nehru Gandhi family its good to be reminded that the origins of this dynasty were not so bad and Nehru was indeed the architect of modern India as a nation. Has Nehru married a woman his match and if she had lived longer, there may have been no Indira Gandhi, whose political ambition was stoked by being Nehru’s companion and hostess at official dinners.

While the book constantly remains in touch with Nehruvian legacy it attaches far lesser importance to Gandhi and his legacy which should have loomed large.The fact that after his death Nehru redefined Gandhian values in more practical and pragmatic terms and his actions, although deeply moral and idealist, where his own reading of the ground realities and challenges in building up a nation from scratch.While Gandhi may have liked to turn India into a gigantic Tolstoy farm as the grandest social experiment ever, perhaps his assassination provided Nehru with the space to chart a more moderate and practical path for India.A film came out recently by the master director Girish Kasaravalli called Kurmawatara which points to this same deliberate distancing of India from Gandhianism and subtly challenges their relevance in modern India.

The book traces the change in India from being a constitutional democracy to a populist democracy but what about a capitalistic democracy which is the current sinister reality of India.The biggest scandal in the country which has still not been exposed is the murky source of political funding and perhaps never will be. Mr. Guha eulogizes the role of Hindi cinema as one of the more important glues that bind India together, quoting Javed Akthar, the lyricist, who said that Hindi cinema is a state in itself.Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between Bollywood and Hindi cinema.But what of the state of cricked which has eclipsed Hindi cinema is being the true opiate of the masses.

The strands of history illuminated by this book which I found the most useful was the history of Kashmir, the JP movement ( esp. in the context of the Anna Hazare movement),the emergency, the history of the Naga conflict and the Punjab Insurgency.In the course of the book we become familiar with the Punjab leader Master Tara Singh, the Andhra leader Potti Srimalu,MS Golwalker as the most influential leader of the RSS and by extension the extreme right,Sheikh Abdullah as the most prominent Kashmiri ever, and the Naga separatist leader A.Z. Phizo, who have been but forgotten. Jayprakash Narayan represented the kind of moral authority that we have searched and found lacking in our leaders. The presence of steadfastly honest and patriotic people like JB Kriplani, CS Rajagopalachari, Morarji Desai and Vinoba Bhave in the formative years of India remind us that politics was not always so dirty.

In turning towards chronicling recent events from the last 25 years, Mr.Guha adopts a considerable change of tone, correctly stating that it is impossible to place recent events in a historical context because of our ongoing interaction with them.This could have been a better book if it had a narrower focus, but a middle of the road book like this is needed.Serious history buffs can read as many focussed books as they like, the common man needs something to hang on to.This monumental book is that life jacket.

In its unquestioning love for democracy as the only moral political system it does not examine the possible economic benefits of a totalitarian regime as China, which has lifted far more people out of poverty than India.How much does the common Indian, barely living on 2 dollars a day, value democracy over the bare basic necessities of life, is a question which we English speaking petit bourgeoisie choose not to ask for our own intellectual convenience.

Other areas in which I found the book wanting was its documenting of the prime ministership of both Narasimha Rao and A.B. Vajpayee, the most significant non-Nehru- Gandhi premiers, its glossing over India’s lack of a coherent foreign policy and the process by which Sonia Gandhi came to dominate Indian politics.Its tracing of regional politics and the rise of caste based vote banks also could have been better along with a finer understanding of the mechanics of the Sangh Parivar. Another shortcoming of this book written in 2007 is that it does not foresee the anti-corruption peoples movement happening three years later.I am being picky here, but then I have no other way of cautioning myself to take the rest of the book with a minor grain of salt.

In the course of its action packed 800 pages there are more hits than misses and this makes it an indispensable work for every Indian wishing to add much context in looking at current events.I know of no other book like this, but then I am neither an expert nor a student of history or political science.And how I wish I had read this book 15 years back.I would have gone running to my History teacher and held up the book triumphantly,”Look ma’am I read history, and as it turns out, it is quite interesting!” Mr. Guha writes this book for the educated elite and condemns the common man to watch Bollywood films as a necessary condition to hold India together. This is the slightly condescending note on which the book ends.Thats where “” as a most humble soldier in the fight against dumbing-down of our entertainment comes in!

Categories: Diary

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2 replies

  1. Great review! I am definitely going to have to read this. I mostly know of Guha as a member of the Subaltern Studies group – which challenged historians to think about the experiences of those who enter into our sources as flitting shadows. But I’m especially interested to see how Guha takes on Indian history as compared to the textbook I read, the (much smaller) “A Concise History of Modern India” by Barbara and Thomas Metclaf – which starts in the Mughal period and ends in the 80s. Anyhow, thanks again for the recommendation!

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