Six years ago, I was on a sabbatical with 24 other international journalists. As a gesture, we decided to gift the university library a book that represented each of our countries. My choice was Shashi Tharoor’s India: From Midnight to the Millennium . If I were to revisit that moment, my pick would be Ramachandra Guha’s new book, India after Gandhi.
Released in the 60th year of the country’s independence, this dream history book (which almost reads like a novel) comes at a time when there is unprecedented global interest in us. It offers a detailed, insightful review of a nation that continues to defy logic—18 official languages and 350 dialects, and yet a unified democracy of one billion plus people. Structured schematically, Guha’s book not only takes us through the last six decades, but also helps us comprehend what makes the country tick.
The book begins with the horrific events leading up to the partition of India, detailing the struggles and contradictions within the Congress party. The decision of the departing British to delay the actual partition—which only made a difficult situation irretrievable—till after India and Pakistan were declared independent, is still inexplicable.
The Partition scars even caused paranoia among the highest echelons of government, prompting Vallabhbhai Patel, independent India’s first home minister, to order various government departments to review their Muslim staff, and to weed out the not-so-loyal among them.
Clearly, the doughty Sardar, as he was known, had not forgotten that the overwhelming proportion of Muslims in the country (even from areas that would not form Pakistan) had voted for the Muslim League in the plebiscite of 1946. Reading about the origins of the K-word also makes one realize that a solution to this problem is as distant today as it was more than half a century ago.
Unless both countries are willing to make substantive political sacrifices, Kashmir will continue to be a flashpoint. While the contradictions are the same, the stakes are much higher today. Kashmir is strategically far more important to India today—China was never a benign neighbour—than it was perceived to be, immediately after the country gained independence.
The book also superbly recalls the framing of the Indian Constitution—probably the one document that has stood the test of time and exacting circumstances. As Guha explains, it is all the more important, because the Indian initiative was undertaken by its citizens through public debate and conforming to democratic traditions, even while the Japanese were being hustled into accepting a constitution drafted by the victorious allies led by the US.
The author takes us through the linguistic division of the country, which, in hindsight, has probably worked well to preserve the cultural heterogeneity of India. In fact, Jawaharlal Nehru, the then prime minister, as Guha reveals, did not favour the move, especially after the religious partitioning of India.
He was eventually forced to accede to a popular movement that had its origins in what is today’s Andhra Pradesh and the machinations of a now forgotten Potti Sriramulu, who died on the 58th day of his hunger strike, demanding a separate state for Telugu-speaking Indians.
The poignant chapter on India’s first military defeat at the hands of China shows how a nascent republic blundered in its foreign policy manoeuvres. Worse, it sullied the reputation of Nehru, who died a few years later. It was a turning point in Indian history as the romance of the first 15 years of independence began to fade.
It was also the beginning of the end of the “monolithic exercise of power” by the Congress party. An internal dispute over a perceived imposition of Hindi as the national language was followed by the first full-scale war with Pakistan—as the country sought once again to assert its will over Kashmir—serving only to accelerate the process of decline.
The upside is that the post- Nehru era proved to the country— and to the world—that the unity of India was not because of a single charismatic leader.
Despite daunting economic conditions—a famine in 1966 and American reluctance to supply food aid, the devaluation of the rupee and internal unrest—the country managed to stay together. However, it was this antipathy from the West that propelled the very populist Indira Gandhi to swing the country’s economic policy sharply to the left.
The book takes us through this transformation and the subsequent Emergency that the Indian democracy survived. It got another fillip with the social reform unleashed after the implementation of the Mandal Commission report. The accompanying change in polity, as smaller political parties started finding greater representation in the era of coalition politics, led to a radical shift in governance.
It is at this point that the book marginally loses its steam. Understandable, since the best writing of history, as Guha himself admits in his introduction, is done when the writer is removed from his or her subject by a generation—giving one the ability to step back. But, come to think of it, most of us (nearly 80% of the country is less than 45 years of age) have lived out the last decade and, as a result, have our own opinions about what transpired to shape India the way it has today.
Let the next generation judge us. As Guha puts it, right at the beginning: “…there are forces that have kept India together…. These moderating influences are far less visible; it is one aim of this book to make them more so. I think it premature now to identify them; they will become clearer as the narrative proceeds. Suffice it to say that they have included individuals as well as institutions.”