Natural history of an unnatural nation
India After Gandhi
Author: Ramachandra Guha
Publisher: Picador India
Price: Rs 695,
Ramachandra Guha has done it again. With scores of books already listed in his curriculum vitae, the Bangalore-based social anthropologist-cum-historian has produced a big book on ‘contemporary’ India. It is true that its broad themes have been covered by, to name just a few, Rajni Kothari, the Rudolphs [Susan and Lloyd], Francine Frankel and Paul Brass.
But the author of India After Gandhi sets out the parameters of the existing debates by focusing on what ails Indian democracy as well as Indian society. In the process, he unravels the forces that divide India as well as the forces that keep the country together.
The book is structured nicely, making it accessible to both the specialist and the lay reader. The first six chapters do not raise any issue of substance, though they do give you a sense, if you don’t already have it, of India’s tryst with destiny. They recapitulate the story of “a nation [that] was being built out of its fragments”.
Two of Guha’s claims must be contested; first, that socialist scientists have paid less attention to the consequences of Partition. The fact is that they have been obsessed with this subject.
On Kashmir, the most recent book is Demystifying Kashmir by Navnita Chaddha Behra. Another writer, Ravinder Kaur, offers fresh insights into the narratives of displacement, on the social background of the migration, and on government policies on resettlement. Step by step, she questions existing theories and assumptions. Step by step, she opens up her inquiry to uncharted territory. Step by step, she opens up new vistas of research.
An equally untenable claim made by Guha is that Mahatma Gandhi reconciled, through his death, Jawaharlal Nehru with Vallabhbhai Patel. The first Prime Minister, a quintessential Liberal, could hardly come to terms with Patel’s conservatism and blatantly communal attitudes.
What is more, his Right-wing followers in Uttar Pradesh, notably G B Pant, Purshotamdas Tandon and Sampurnanand,
continued to pursue their anti-Muslim and anti-Urdu policies.
These men did not approve of Nehru’s sledgehammer efforts to change the fabric of Hindu society, his lenient policy towards Pakistan and his undue tenderness for the Muslims. UP, in fact, became a ‘foreign land’ to the Prime Minister.
Guha concludes the sixth chapter — ‘Ideas of India’ — citing Granville Austin, who gave full marks to the ‘Indians’ for the framing of the Constitution. The point is well taken.
At the same time, we need to know a great deal more about these ‘Indians’. Moreover, is it the case that all the Constituent Assembly members agreed, from day one, on the future blueprint of India? The fact is that they did not. If so, we require a nuanced understanding of the debates on, for example, secularism, minority rights and the empowerment of the Scheduled Castes.
We must also reflect on two more points: first, how were the diverse points of view resolved? Second, what was the part played by B R Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajendra Prasad in laying the foundations of a democratic and secular India?
Whether or not the Constitution yields to the radical concept of the extreme left is not the issue. The real issue — one that needs constant reminding — is that the idea behind a democratic and secular State was based on the contention that it afforded the optimum freedom for the citizens to develop into fully integrated human beings.
From the rough terrain, starting with Partition, the journey continues into ‘Nehru’s India’. Welcome aboard! You will doubtless enjoy the tour de force, the glimpses into India’s tentative but resolute march towards democracy, its overtures to the international community, torn by the impact of World War II, civil wars and its attempts to resolve linguistic differences that led to the creation of linguistic states.
Thanks to the calibre and idealism of the leaders, a modern, enlightened and secular India was in the making. Guha tells this story lucidly. There is no touch of polemicism, no strong rebuttals of existing theories and interpretations. Balanced in appraising men and events, he unfolds the intricacies of contemporary politics as well as the complexities involved in nation-building. Without reading between the lines, you can see that his icon is Nehru, the man who steered a weary nation to safety and security. He shares his values and celebrates his legacy. He is indignant whenever he notices that
legacy being repudiated.
Reforming personal laws was one of Nehru’s notable achievements, though not reforming the Muslim Personal Law was a needless concession to the sensibilities of the Muslim leaders. Likewise, I suggest we should compliment Nehru for ‘Securing Kashmir’ without ignoring the fatal effects of some of his decisions, including the incarceration of Sheikh Abdullah.
One can perhaps draw parallels between the Congress’ haughty attitude towards M A Jinnah during the years 1937-39 and Nehru’s insensitivity to Abdullah’s contribution to the building of a Naya (new) Kashmir.
The chapters on post-Nehruvian era make excellent reading: you are unlikely to miss out any major event. I leave you to reflect on the concluding lines in India After Gandhi. “So long as the Constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and fairly and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can speak and write in the language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army, and... so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive.”
Mushirul Hasan is Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi