The Past is a Foreign Country

August 8, 2017 § 2 Comments


India afterIndia After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (Guha, Ramachandra)

When it comes to history, Indians have a lot to say, being naturally garrulous and obsessed with the past, and having 5,000 years of it to talk about. Every Indian I know – I know thousands, and not just on Facebook either – is a self-certified expert in Indian history, from the Indus Valley civilization all the way to yesterday’s newspaper. In India, history merges seamlessly into politics. Much of what passes for relevant political debate in the country today concerns whether a people known as the “Aryans” invaded the land 2000 years ago, which mathematical and medical discoveries were made here before the birth of Christ, where certain gods were born, and how horrible exactly the Mughals were.

Where ancient history is difficult to extricate from politics, can contemporary history be less combustible? Ramachandra Guha (whom we met years ago in these pages as the author of a masterful history of Indian cricket) wades cheerfully into this minefield with India After Gandhi, an ambitious tome of a book that lovingly details the first 60 years or so of India’s existence as an independent nation.

No historian can lay claim to complete dispassionate objectivity, to the extent that he/she deliberately chooses facts and narratives from a set of options. The best historians are conscious of this, and admit to taking sides. Further, they are honest and scrupulous about documenting reputable sources for their facts and figures, clearly calling out their own opinions and conjectures, and about following the train of logical reasoning, even if it leads them away from a conveniently simple narrative. Ramachandra Guha checks these boxes, and so I believe he does as good a job as is possible with his subject matter, given the impossibility of achieving universal agreement.

Whose side is he on? Emphatically, on the side of pluralism, secularism, free speech, democracy, progress and peace. And yet he is not partisan: he calls out corruption, pettiness, missed opportunities, errors of judgment, crimes and character flaws wherever he sees them. In a nation famous for its sacred cows, it is refreshing that Ramachandra Guha has none. Guha clearly respects Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation’s first Prime Minister, and yet the sensitive portrait he draws of Nehru does not airbrush his warts and wrinkles away. Guha’s opponents may dub him naïve and idealist, but he is a scholar, not a politician; he is charged, not with running the country, but with keeping score.

So, what does Guha’s scorecard look like?

There are several significant and unique accomplishments of which every Indian should feel justifiably proud, says Guha. The biggest, and where his story begins, is the Constitution.

The process by which the Indian Constitution was deliberated in painstaking detail over three years by a large and diverse group of representatives, and the quality of the final document that was adopted, are both spectacular triumphs of the human will: very few countries can boast of anything similar. To fit in the requirements of so many meant compromise and dialogue, and that set the tone for the nation: the first generation of Indian leaders hedged and accommodated everyone at every step, leaving everyone only slightly unhappy, and nobody too thrilled.

The Indian approach to foreign policy (the non-aligned movement), for instance, didn’t win India friends in the west, or indeed in the third world. Nevertheless, with the exception of a Chinese hiccup in 1962, India largely kept out of trouble through the tense Cold War period.

Likewise the Nehruvian economic policy (the Fabian socialist approach, with Five Year Plans and government control over heavy industry) has been relentlessly panned in recent times, and a lot of the criticism is justified (especially the low spend on primary education and healthcare), yet the accomplishments on the front of food self-sufficiency and land reform are not to be scoffed at, if we consider the abject state of decrepitude that the British left behind. Free markets have no time for the starving poor. The hesitant steps that Rajiv Gandhi took towards economic liberalization could have been taken ten years before they actually were – India lost a decade of growth between 1975-85 according to many calculations.  There are furious critics on the left as well, who point to the continued misery of the poorest sections of society despite 70 years of independence. Indian governments have tended to tread a careful middle path between these critics, not satisfying either.

It is in the political sphere that India made its boldest and most decisive experiment, with a proudly free media and a strongly democratic tradition, with multi-party democracy and universal adult franchise, that its foreign critics refused to believe could ever take hold. Guha documents several dire foreign predictions of the demise of Indian democracy, and yet India is possibly the only nation that shrugged off its colonial yoke in the mid-20th century and has remained steadfastly democratic ever since (even the dreadful Emergency period lasted only 2 years, and no general elections were skipped). There is no question that a single modern nation has been successfully forged in the process, out of 500+ principalities, and one billion people speaking 800 different dialects.

Yet if history is the story of how things change over time, reading Guha in 2017 merely brought sharply into relief the number of things that have come full circle, perhaps reinforcing the stereotype of how Indians see time not as an unswerving arrow of progress, but as a cycle rotating in the same place.

Here are a few highlights:

In December 1947, Nehru wrote to the Maharaja of Kashmir, speaking of how the Indian union could not retain Kashmir “except through the goodwill of the mass of the population…if the average Muslim feels that he has no safe or secure place in the Union, then obviously he will look elsewhere. Our basic policy must keep this in view or else we fail.”

In 1950, an American psychologist [Murphy, In the Minds of Men] conducted a survey on the state of the Indian Muslim. His respondents – who were from towns in north and west India – were beset by fear and suspicion. “We are regarded as Pakistani spies,” said one. ”Is it any great wonder,” asked Khushwant Singh after riots in the 1960s, “that an Indian Muslim no longer feels secure in secular India? He feels discriminated against. He feels a second-class citizen.”

In June 1959, Nehru visited Kerala in the wake of violence (weeks before he dismissed the Communist government). He wrote that he was alarmed by the “thick walls of group hatred” – the two sides were like hostile countries at war (Mannath Padmanabhan’s Nair Service Society, and Namboodiripad’s Communists)

In July 1962, a conflict arose over the Dhola-Thag La ridge in the valley of the Namka Chu river where the borders of India, Tibet and Bhutan all meet. The Indians claimed that the ridge fell south of the MacMahon Line, the Chinese argued that it was on their side. There are only two points where India, Tibet and Bhutan meet: once in the eastern tip of Bhutan, at Dhola – Thag La, and once in the western tip, at Doklam)

In 1965, the Anglo-Saxon member, Frank Anthony, deplored the ‘increasing intolerance, increasing obscurantism increasing chauvinism of those who purport to speak on behalf of Hindi’

In 1966, Hindu holy men agitated, calling for an end to the killing of the sacred cow.

In the 1960s and 70s, Maoist guerrilla bands seized power in large swathes of rural impoverished states. They fought the police and the army, they melted into the jungles when convenient, and they enjoyed the support of local village communities, against the state.

In May 1973, in a thoughtful essay constitutional expert AG Noorani deplored the politicization of judges – many of whom had begun speaking on matters well outside their purview

Without the dates, each of these issues could serve as the headlines in tomorrow’s newspaper. These conflicts of identity, perhaps natural in the first decades of the independent nation, are rearing up again, 70 years after independence, because the core questions of national identity have not yet been resolved conclusively.

Guha believes, as the fathers of India’s constitution did (and as I do) that the optimal model for assimilation for a nation as diverse as India, is not the American melting pot, where individual groups pour in their flavours into a common pot and assume a single uniform identity that encapsulates all. Guha says the optimal model is the salad bowl, where each group stands out, ‘different and distinctive in how it looks and behaves’. I would quibble, and recommend rather a burrito bowl, where the habanero salsa adds spice to the guacamole, and the pinto beans go well with the rice, but you can taste each of them separately as well. But the important thing is, you cannot define the burrito as one dominant ingredient or the other.

We must remember that Ramachandra Guha’s story ends in November 2006. India in 2017 is at a crossroads. It is all about various ingredients that are asserting their superiority over other ingredients, and demanding to be accepted as the single definitive flavor that all others need to rally around: they are religious, linguistic, cultural, caste-based. But to use a different stereotype, India is like the great rope trick illusion. It stands tall and firm only when we look at it out of the corner of our eye, only when we do not subject it to close scrutiny, only when we do not seek to define it too clearly; for when we do, we see the fuzzy boundaries and the contradictions, and the magnificent edifice may collapse before our eyes. The much-decried spirit of compromise and accommodation of the nation’s first leaders may not have achieved much, but it did ensure that the fragile democracy did not fail, in the way that almost every other young nation born in the 20th century did.

But perhaps ignoring these questions merely drives them underground. Perhaps the nation needs a second constituent assembly now, to reexamine these questions of identity. Is the nation strong enough now to withstand such a tumultuous debate? Will a strong state emerge from this debate, that subsumes into itself all individual sub-identities? Would it be a desirable thing? That’s what the present administration perhaps believes, and only time (and a different history book written in the future) can tell if it will be successful.

In that sense India After Gandhi might well have been titled India Before Modi. Today, to many, this book may already sound like ancient history.

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§ 2 Responses to The Past is a Foreign Country

  • Beautiful as always. By the way a new edition of the book came out one or two months back. It brings the narrative up to speed till 2016 I think.

    • psriblog says:

      Thanks – both for the compliment and the information about the latest edition (I hadn’t heard). My reading list is so backed up, I am still reading books I bought several years ago. Usually, with history books, it doesn’t matter too much, but not this time!

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