Story of free India
M. Rajivlochan

India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy
by Ramachandra Guha. Picador, New Delhi.
Pages 900. Rs 695.

this latest history of contemporary India is a welcome read. Narrating the history of India since Independence, it traces the transformation of India from a colonial nation to the one that was socialist in name, capitalist in cupidity and plain simple Gandhian in its desire to help the downtrodden and involve everyone in governance. The net result was a weird country such as no one had ever seen in history. It had the longest written Constitution in the world when more than three-fourths of its population were illiterate. It talked of non-violence as its basic creed at a time when thousands had sacrificed their lives for the sake of independence, almost a million had been killed in communal riots and over 6 million people had suffered one of the most traumatic displacements during Partition. It had pretensions to democracy based on universal franchise while its citizens continued to believe, both in ideas and in practice, in a caste system which legitimised social, cultural and ritual inequalities.

In short, there was no reason for anyone in this wide world, other than Indians themselves, to believe that either the Indian nation or its Constitution or democracy would survive. As it turned out, India did. Guha manages to trace this history with considerable ease and provides the reader with some good reading.

The book is divided into five parts. The first part deals with the setting up of the country after Partition. Here Guha discusses the emergence of the Kashmir problem and the rehabilitation of the displaced people after Partition among other things. The second part concerns Jawaharlal Nehru at the helm of public affairs. Guha focuses on the creation of a Nehruvian state that tried to be fair to all, provided opportunities to everyone and tried not to be oppressive. Inevitably the discussion involves the redrawing of provincial boundaries, the introduction of wide spread land reforms, the creation of a new civil code in the face of grim opposition from those who claimed that their traditions would be lost if they were to do away their culture specific inequalities. Nehru’s romanticism, seemed to debar him from looking at the pragmatic side of things, ignore such protests and he continued to push forward his reforms. On hindsight we need to be grateful that Nehru was not much of a pragmatist and succeeded in laying the foundations of an egalitarian society.

This is brought forth clearly in the next two parts of the book where Guha narrates the story of the democratisation of Indian polity, first with the southern states asserting their autonomy vis-`E0-vis the nation and then the bringing in of caste identities and other primordial loyalties to play in the political arena. In the process, an increasing number of people came to participate in the governance of India, creating a much stronger democracy and a nation that was far more powerful than it had been in 1947.

The final part of the book eschews narrative history. Here Guha gives us the recent history of "rights," "riots," "rulers," "riches" and "people’s entertainment" to mention the chapter headings that Guha uses. At the end of all this history telling is a coda dealing with the question of India’s survival. "Why does India survive?" Guha asks. He goes on to say that this is because over the decades the country has made space for adjusting people into its fold. Whether it is the demand for a separate language, state or land, the nation has almost always succumbed even if that may have happened after much pressure and counter pressures. Giving way has ensured that everyone feels that they have a stake in the country. That ensures its continued existence.

In a book as big as this, dealing with as many issues as it does, readers will easily find lacunae. Nehru has been praised far too much, Indira Gandhi has not been criticised enough even though Sanjay Gandhi has been excoriated. Narsimha Rao has been given due credit for taking India out of the Nehruvian fold but not enough for having initiated intolerance towards corruption. Terrorists and Naxalites have not been condemned adequately etc. Taking issues with the author would add to the pleasure of reading this informative book.