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.