Thursday, August 09, 2007

Review: Ramachandra Guha's India after Gandhi

Throughout his massive, extensively researched historical work, India after Gandhi, Ramachandra Guha quotes Western doomsayers, who, before as well as after India’s independence, felt strongly that democracy in India could not survive, and that the country would collapse under the sheer weight of its diversity and social problems. In the epigraph of the very first chapter of his book, Guha quotes the former bishop of Calcutta who said in 1915 that “as soon as the last British soldier sailed from Bombay and Karachi, India would become the battlefield of antagonistic racial and religious forces”.

The bishop’s prediction did come true in the months following independence when the subcontinent was partitioned. And in the decades that followed class, caste, religious and secessionist conflicts have constantly rocked India. But despite all this, the country has managed to hold together; its democratic institutions have survived – though BR Ambedkar’s caveat that “democracy is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic” continues to be true in many parts of the country. Still, the success and relative stability of the Indian Union is remarkable given the upheavals and authoritarian regimes that have plagued other countries in Asia and Africa similarly emerging from colonialism.

This contrast – the contrast between the bleakness of all predictions about India and the country’s unlikely dodging of the pitfalls strewn along its path – is something Ramachandra Guha repeatedly heightens throughout the book; it is this contrast that gives his narrative its strength and tension.

Unlike Amartya Sen, who, in The Argumentative Indian, attributes the success of Indian democracy to historical precedents such as those set by the emperors Asoka and Akbar, Guha looks for answers in the political story of the country after independence (“...the real success story of modern India lies ... in [the domain] of politics”). He reserves his greatest praise for India’s founding fathers: Jawaharlal Nehru, to whom this book is a paean, and who succeeded during his 17-year long tenure in imparting his secular and liberal values to the country’s institutions; Vallabhbhai Patel, whose pivotal role in the integration of princely states ensured that territorially India would be what it is today; and BR Ambedkar, who, in his drafting of the Constitution made sure that the social iniquities of the past would – officially at least – begin to be reversed. Indeed, one of Guha’s main points is that though political leadership in India has steadily deteriorated, the decline cannot derail what was begun in the years after independence:
“In India, the sapling was planted by the nation’s founders, who lived long enough (and worked hard enough) to nurture it to adulthood. Those who came afterwards could disturb and degrade the tree of democracy but, try as they might, could not uproot and destroy it.”

Guha states early in the book that his approach to writing the history of modern India –an unimaginably vast and unwieldy subject matter – is that of an explorer “making a rapid survey of the horizon before plunging into thickets from which the wider view is no longer possible.” And so, while the political story of India after independence forms the main narrative thread, we also learn of a number of important and often ignored people and stories. To list just a few, we learn how Sardar Tarlok Singh, an Indian Civil Service officer, guided the effort to settle and allot cultivable land to tens of thousands of refugees from West Punjab in Pakistan; the sheer scale of the logistical and administrative effort that Sukumar Sen, India’s first election commissioner, faced in holding elections; how the reorganization of states along linguistic lines came to be, and the role the activist Potti Sriramulu, who fasted for 58 days and died, played in it; how movements for greater autonomy and separatism unfolded, guided by Sheik Abdullah and Phizo, in Kashmir and Nagaland. As Aditya Adhikari writes in his review at Mecocosm, “encountering the host of characters in the [book’s] pages is one of the volume’s principal pleasures”.

The other success of the book is the perspective it is able to provide on some of the important developments in the Indian political scene in the last two decades. The rise of Hindu nationalist parties; the tendency towards decentralization evidenced in the growing strength of regional parties; the increasing importance of caste: all these trends, because of the scope and timeline considered, do not come across as isolated but as part of a larger story of ebbs and surges. By describing, for instance, the RSS and the views of its leader Golwalkar in the 1950s and the political role of the Jana Sangh in the 1960s and 70s, Guha is able to provide us a better understanding of the roots and aspirations of the Bhartiya Janata Party and the parties of the Sangh Parivar.

In telling his stories Guha liberally quotes and excerpts from reports, newspapers, essays of traveling journalists, and recently released archives and letters: his narrative is a deftly crafted collage. But there are also portions, particularly towards the end, where his prose turns into a monotonous recitation of events – Amit Chaudhuri, in his review of the book, calls the chapter devoted to entertainment the weakest one in the book, a “Wikipedia-like accounts of cultural achievements”. Also, Guha often only peripherally touches on many of the issues facing contemporary India, leaving the reader desperately wanting a deeper engagement. But these are minor quibbles; they should not detract from grand scale of Guha’s undertaking and the lucidity with which he has rendered it.

Finally, some links: for some informal analyses of Guha’s background, his writing interests, and influences check this and this and this. An archive of Guha’s articles on Outlook India can be found here; the most recent of them, an analysis of why southern India currently fares much better that the north, is here (login needed). An excellent recent article by Guha on the conflict in the tribal Bastar region of central India – hardly discussed in the mainstream media – can be found here.

Also, on The Middle Stage, Chandrahas has an informal 4-part series that marks the 60th anniversary of India's independence: 1, 2, 3 and 4.


Pallavi said...

wow hari, great synopsis! i agree with his appreciation for founder leaders and probably the movement of derailing the negative politics is on its way!

Hari said...

Thanks, Pallavi! It'll be interesting to see how the next 50 years go, and the sort of changes, political and social, that might affect the country.

Pallavi said...

I am very positive about the changes that are coming up..and optimistic about all the spheres and strong undercurrents, sort of a movement which cannot be overlooked.

Dipu Shaw said...

Reviewed succintly. Congratulations. Guha's book indeed makes informative reading and is a great incite into the situations of India in the recent few decades.

Dipu Shaw said...

Reviewed succintly. Congratulations. Guha's book indeed makes informative reading and is a great incite into the situations of India in the recent few decades.

atlee said...

Hi, just stumbled upon ur post.

Very well summarized. After reading this book, I have developed tremendous respect for Pandit Nehru. Liked his detailing on Kashmir and North East.

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Dhiren sharma said...

I read the entire book India after Gandhi. Although historically the book is almost perfect but in context of contemporary India, I feel that like all so called secularists, Guha has a prejudice against Hindus. The book gives an impression that the muslim fundamentalism is a reaction to hindu fanatics whereas the facts are actually reverse. Also, Guha on his own has concluded that the Godhra train episode was actually an accidental burning of the train and that kar sevaks were responsible for what happened whereas later court judgements are to the contrary.
On page 657, he mentions two pogroms- 1984 anti- sikh riots, 2002 Gujrat riots but forgets about ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri pandits from Kashmir.
I think he should have been a little more balanced in his approach towards these issues.

peterparker said...

@All: India had lost 'HINDU RASHTRA' in 1670's when SHIVAJI, in his PUTRA MOHA did not punish his own SON SAMBHAJI. We are seeing the result of that action. When kings andd law makers had started to have affection,compassion, attachments, which KIRSHN had called as a GREAT SIN. The same mistake was repeated by MADHAVA RAO PESHWA 'THORALE' even though he had won many battles, but did not punish his own uncle and aunt. When it comes to RAJ DHARMA, one has to uphold the SAMHITRA/SMRITIS. This is important and what all VEDIC SAGES, ARTHASHASTRA tells us. Now see, india has become a SOFT STATE. And on modern india, the person whose FORTE was not LAW MAKING was given a chance to draft constitution. This is also ADHARMA and SWAMI KARPATRI was opposing NEHRU for this. Nehru had all contempt for SANATAN DHARMA, BRAHMANS, BRAHMANISM, HINDUISM because he had received his education from britain. We have such confused people right now who are ruling, not RIGHT CENTRIC PEOPLE.

Hemalatha Bhat said...

Ramchandra Guhan (Who renamed himself as Ramchandra Guha (for politically correctness)is a well-known congress planted academician and a hindu baiter.. This book claims to be historically correct which I don't agree. Guhan has always covered the misrule of congress and its ilk under the garb of Nehru-Gandhian dynastic glory and its imaginary past... Guhan does not talk about Rajiv's justification of the Anti-Sikh riots by saying " When a Big tree falls the earth shakes"... Guha jumps from 1984 to 2002 and does not mention about the plethora of communal riots under congress rule... It is because of these Du/JNU-Bred Historians, that the Indian history is always twisted and manipulated.. The identity politics of the post modern variety has crippled every discipline in social sciences....Being a Research scholar in Sociology, I do not agree completely with Guha..I appreciate his work in the field of ecological history with Gadgil...