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Thursday, October 11, 2007

India After Gandhi

It appeared that the Indians loved pomp and ceremony as much as their departing rulers did. Across Delhi, and in other parts of India, both state and citizens joyously celebrated the coming of independence. Three hundred flag raising functions were reported from the capital alone. In the country’s commercial hub, Bombay, the mayor hosted a banquet at the posh Taj Mahal Hotel. At a temple in the Hindu holy town of Banaras, the national flag was unfurled by, significantly , a Muslim. In the north-eastern hill town of Shillong, the governor presided over a function at which the flag was raised by four persons – a Hindu boy and girl and a Muslim boy and girl, for “symbolically it is appropriate for young India to hoist the flag of the new India that is being born.”
– from India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha.
“India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy,” is a engrossing narrative, all about the creation of a new democracy, it’s evolution, it’s struggles and triumphs as it lived through the first 60 years of it’s subsistence. Guha’s expertise in history, sociology and politics are manifest in this, his latest book.
Ramachandra Guha writes compellingly of the myriad protests and conflicts that have peppered the history of free India. But he writes also of the factors and processes that have kept the country together (and kept it democratic), defying numerous prophets of doom who believed that its poverty and heterogeneity would force India to break up or come under autocratic rule. Once the Western world looked upon India with a mixture of pity and contempt; now it looks upon India with fear and admiration, despite her struggles with cultural differences and religious disturbances.
“As Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Indian leader of the Muslim League, said ruefully in a 1940 speech, seven years before he founded Pakistan: “The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations.” To say that India is riven by myriad factions and castes and, more fundamentally, divided between two religions is to describe a particularly vicious curse,” says Isaac Chotiner in his review in the New York Times.
Chotiner then adds, “One of the achievements of Ramachandra Guha’s deeply felt new history is that the author remains acutely aware of both the truths and falsehoods contained in Jinnah’s remark. A visitor to the world’s second most populous country can, without much effort, witness nasty and sectarian politicking in New Delhi or Mumbai. And the consequences — vicious religious rioting, scars on both India’s landscape and her people — are all too visible. Yet Hindus and Muslims do dine in one another’s homes, and they play on the same cricket teams. Guha’s central aim is to register these discordant notes, and for the most part he succeeds admirably.”
Moving between history and biography, this story of modern India is peopled with extraordinary characters. Guha gives fresh insights on the lives and public careers of those long-serving prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. There are vivid sketches of the major "provincial" leaders whose province was as large as a European country: the Kashmiri rebel turned ruler Sheikh Abdullah; the Tamil film actor turned politician M. G. Ramachandran; the Naga secessionist leader Angami Zapu Phizo; the socialist activist Jayaprakash Narayan. But the book also writes with feeling and sensitivity about lesser known (though not necessarily less important) Indians—peasants, tribals, women, workers and musicians.
In a review in “The Guardian” Amit Chaudhuri says, “Guha tells us what happened elegantly, sometimes doggedly: but it's by constantly implying what might have, while disavowing it with the professional historian's gesture, that he brings his copious material to life.”
Massively researched and elegantly written, India After Gandhi is at once a magisterial account of India's rebirth and the work of a major scholar at the height of his powers. K.K. Panikkar, in a review in “The Hindu” agrees, yet questions Guha’s optimism, “Guha has admirably captured the spirit of the struggling nation. However, at the end a doubt lingers in the mind: whether the author has overstated his case about the strength of Indian democracy, underplaying in the process some of its glaring weaknesses. A fairly large section of the population is deprived of the benefits of democracy, particularly their right to a share of the wealth of the nation. That they remain in the margins of the democratic process can hardly be wished away.”
Chotiner prognosticates, “Guha terms modern-day India a “populist” democracy, which is probably as good a term as any. The question he leaves unanswered is how the country will be able to overcome crushing poverty and overpopulation without exacerbating religious tensions and imperiling its already strained environment. Guha would probably say that India’s hope lies in the strength of its democratic institutions, which have shown impressive and surprising resilience. We can only hope he is right.”
“Guha, as a citizen, has been "exasperated" by India, but, in the light of historical evidence, has been won over by it. This mixture of distance and surrender is fairly emblematic of why many middle-class Indians continue to invest themselves, emotionally, in the country; it's quite distinct from patriotism,” says Chaudhuri who then goes on to surmise, “To suggest the ambiguity of his own relationship with the country of his birth, and also his utter investment in it, Guha has often in the past used some oddball Englishman of distinction who's lived in India or thought about it as a metaphor: Verrier Elwin, EP Thompson. In his epilogue, Guha invokes the biologist JBS Haldane, who, moved by the "wonderful experiment" India had embarked on, decided to become an "Indian citizen". Guha's book reminds us that the citizenly pride that permeates it is not incompatible with judgment, hindsight, intelligence and distance; that citizenship is not a natural thing, but that it is, in some cases, inevitable.”
Guha best sums up his views in a passage in his epilogue, “Is India a democracy then? The answer is, well, phipty-phipty (as in the immortal quote form Hindi film actor Johnny walker). It mostly is a democracy as regards holding elections and permitting freedom of movement and expression. It mostly is not as regards the functioning of politicians and political institutions. However, that India is even 50% a democracy flies in the face of tradition, history, and conventional wisdom.”

Reviewed by Visi Tilak

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