Forty-sixth book reviewed as part of the 130 Challenge.
The history of India in the last 50 years is something that we don’t get to read about. Indians love to live in their past; reminiscing about the glory days of the ancient civilizations that thrived on the sub-continent. We love to boast about how three of the world’s major religions started in here and that at least one, found a major foothold. We are a civilization that accepted foreigners with open arms and our hospitality was so good, that they refused to leave! However, when it became far too much for us to handle, we asked them politely to leave. And then, through a non-violent struggle, we got our independence.
That much is clear, but what after that? In most books about Indian history, the narrative stops there and we hardly get to hear about what transpired in the highest offices or about the interpersonal relationships between the leaders. Indeed, even the history of the last 2 decades is only known in bits and pieces and it is difficult to put together a complete history of this young nation, complete with its failures and triumphs.
So, in the absence of any contemporary works from different eras or even autobiographies of the prominent leaders of post-colonial India, a historian finds himself in the dark, forced to clutch at straws and form their own narrative, and a pioneering one at that!
In that respect, I feel that Ramachandra Guha has done a fantastic job! In just about 1000 pages, he has summed up 50 years of uncertainty, disaster, turmoil and triumph that is India. He starts off from where the British left and deftly covers how India was formed from innumerable, scattered princely states and administrative divisions. In this, he sheds light on the role played by Vallabhai Patel and V. P. Menon. He also outlines how the idea of partition was begrudgingly accepted by most Indian leaders. This period is described in much detail because the sources are readily available. The liberation of Kashmir is covered in more detail than the rest of the states, followed by Hyderabad and Kerala. But in a book on contemporary history, I think that there shouldn’t be too much on the earliest period and even this much was far too much!
After the integration of the states, Guha briefly outlines Nehru’s vision for India. This is the part where he gets into fanboy mode and praises Nehru quite a bit. However, he is also critical when the need arises and does mention Nehru’s less that satisfactory management of India’s relation with its neighbors.
After India’s tryst with China, he moves on to Bangladesh and does a quick recap of how India helped her neighbor to throw off the shackles of Pakistan and become an independent nation. Alongside, he also points out how the Hindu fundamentalist parties were gaining ground and laying the groundwork for the Sangh parivar.
Next comes the emergency, and the 1984 Sikh pogrom. Guha strongly supports the view that the sins of his family have been visited upon Nehru, who was otherwise a visionary leader who made only a few mistakes. He takes great pains to explain how Indira consolidated power and made blunder after blunder that put the future of the entire nation in jeopardy.
The coverage of this period is followed by India’s economic turnaround brought about by changes in policy and the attitude of people. This is the most interesting bit as it covers a great deal of what has never made it to books on this subject. It covers business families, politics and the general sentiment among the people of that period. It also has details about the building up of nationalistic pride in Hindus and the birth of Hindutva politics in India, culminating in the riots of 1992.
This is followed by an account of a resurgent India and the BPO-IT boom that has placed India in a great position at the cusp of the 21st Century. Using his background in economics, he analyzes the economic policy of that time and gives brilliant commentary on the effect of liberalization of the economy. He also briefly outlines the path that India must take in the future to make the most of its position in global politics and economy.
The history of the world’s largest democracy is indeed quite large, but understandably so. But more than that, it is a faithful account of India’s story in the past 5 decades.