Tuesday, November 25, 2008

India after Gandhi

A bit late, but better than never!!

Three months, many long hours and I am finally done with Ramachandra Guha's opus - India after Gandhi. The history of sixty years of independent India, fourteen general elections, through droughts, floods and green harvests, numerous riots, four wars, from a flirtation with authoritarianism to its glorious repudiation in the subsequent election, from poverty and destitution to its slow rise as a major economy for the world to contend with, and, not least, Hindi music through the ages, Ram Guha chronicles it all, through prose and style that is at once precise as well as evocative, the tumultuous more than half century that this country has existed as an independent nation-state as opposed to a civilisation.

Through the first seventeen years, Nehru (as well as other giants of that time like Patel and Ambedkar) towers over the country and its people as well as in the pages of the book, steering India away from petty regionalism, linguistic chauvinism and religious fundamentalism. However, even after 1964, even though Nehru is no longer present in person, whether intended or otherwise, he is ever present in the pages of the book, as indeed he does even today in the very idea of India. Our development of heavy industry, a solid science and technological base, (though one wishes he had done more for primary education), a commitment to the secular and humanist ideals of the founding fathers, as Guha makes clear, has kept the country together for 60 years. Numerous Cassandras, mostly Western, some Indians, have predicted the dismemberment or Balkanisation of the country every time there have been wars, or riots or the unending series of secessionist movements whether in Kashmir or in the North East. And India has disproved them all. As Guha repeatedly stresses, it was precisely Nehru's insistence that every culture, every language, every religion, every creed, every caste would have its own place in the Indian polity that, illogically enough, has kept the country together. There has never been an overarching dominant culture to which all others have had to defer. India might be predominantly Hindu, but by no means is it a Hindu Pakistan, though the Sangh Parivar would dearly like it to be so. In that sense, India is very different from the melting pot that is America, where people of various cultures, ethnicity, religions and languages have come and found succour, but been absorbed into a predominantly Christian, (largely white) English speaking civilisation, the same being true of Australia. The disastrous effect of having a dominant culture in Asia and particularly South Asia, that Nehru foresaw 60 years ago, is now becoming evident in our immediate neighbourhood. Jinnah's insistence on a dominant Urdu culture that Pakistan put into practice and forced on the natives of East Pakistan (which had its own dominant Bengali, though still Islamic, culture) resulted in the dismemberment of the country in 1971. The dominant Sinhalese in Sri Lanka are finally realising the price of imposing a single dominant language and culture on their country is a civil war that has ravaged the country for something like a quarter century.

Today, we have jettisoned many of our Nehruvian ideals. It has become fashionable to deride and denigrate Nehru and Nehruvian socialism and secularism. But it is the Nehruvian ideal, the cliche of 'unity in diversity' that has precisely seen the country through the shocks of more than half a century. Nehru bashing, another term for revisionist history is now a popular pasttime by poster boys of the saffron chaddiwalas -- even the discredited self-styled Nehruphile K. Natwar Singh takes pot shots at him. But while Nehru's economic policies may have been less than sound (though as Guha clarifies, his views on a command economy were shared by a large majority in the Congress party), it is precisely because of Nehru and his firm hand that we today live in a country where Nehru bashing can continue unabated without fear of repercussion. Were such a thing possible in China or in Singapore with Mao ZeDong or Lee Yuan Kew.

Ram Guha's admiration for Nehru (that I share) does not blind him to Nehru's faults. His inability to gauge the perfidy of the Chinese in events prior to the Chinese war of 1962 (though an interesting highlight of the book is the account of the exchange of angry letters between Chou En-Lai and Nehru in the years just preceding 1962) and his blindness towards his friends like Krishna Menon are all dutifully documented. So are the roles played by the firm and unyielding Sardar Patel and the bureaucrat V. P. Menon with his carrot and stick diplomacy, in bringing the squabbling princely states into the Indian Union. None of this would have been possible for the far softer Nehru to achieve without the help of these two people.

The book is short on cultural developments in India, the various art and theatre movements as well as the flowering of Indian writing in English. Some of it is covered in a chapter on 'People's Entertainment' a large part of which is an entertaining description of the Hindi Film Industry. However, this is as it should be. After 800 odd pages of a political history, a detailed history of art and culture would have made the book far too unwieldy and it's best left to a separate study.

I would like to end by quoting from the last lines of Ram Guha's book, which summarises his idea of India:

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 a language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army and -- lest I forget -- so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive. Amen

9 comments:

AMOK said...

Doc Sa'ab -- thank you for the executive summary of the tome. The last sentence foretells a very pessimistic future. India will merely survive, not flourish? Can the bar be set so low so that the most inefficient government bureaucrat can leap it in a single bound? Can India afford to NOT flourish?

Mastah Sa'ab, your sage views on this matter will continue to enlighten us all. Pray tell.

Rahul Basu said...

AMOK Sa'ab

You will have to take this matter up with Ram Guha Sa'ab. I am merely the messenger, do not shoot me.

However, I believe the spirit of that statement is perhaps that India has confounded all critics and sages who predicted its ever imminent break-up. And if it indeed survives, then surely it will prosper, would you not agree? The signs seem to be there....or so we hope....

Anant said...
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Anant said...

O Learned Mastah!

I don't know if I will ever read the book, but I read your post. It seems to me that what you have for us is not a review of the book: instead, the post is what India after Gandhi is, according to the LM? Correct me if I am wrong?!

Y h s

Rahul Basu said...

Anant : I am not sure what you mean, but you would do well to read the book, not just the post! Or is it that you can, like most American TV viewers, absorb information only in 10 second bites (bytes?)...

Anant said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anant said...

O Learned Mastah!

[Sorry for writing a comment and deleting it for the 2nd time. I occasionally have trouble with these browsers.]

It is exactly what I wrote: I found the link to the post on Nanopolitan where it was suggested that it is a review of the tome. But I felt that the post was a collection of your thoughts, recollections, feelings on reading the book. Hence I feel that it is not a review. But to ascertain this, I would have to read n-hundred pages of the tome, which obviously someone with my limited attention span cannot! So tell us: is it a review or is it a collection of your thoughts, recollections, feelings, ...

Of course I need only 10 second b(y)ites, at most!

Y h s

Rahul Basu said...

Indeed Anant, after your note, I myself am no longer sure whether it is or is not a review :( . But perhaps you are right. It is a general summary of various thoughts that occurred to me as I read the book. Belonging as I do to the Nehruvian generation and one who is about a decade younger than independent India, almost all the events recounted in the book have a resonance with my thoughts and memories.

But then, what's in a definition? It is what it is -- to paraphrase Naipaul's recent biography :)

AMOK said...

Ji Sa'ab Ji. Many thanks for your further succinct explanations of the mother of tomes. With so many sound bites I am beginning to gain a deep understanding and can speak freely about the book as if I have, indeed, read every word.

It is certainly true that India has survived as a unit with many diverse sectors. There are forces at work, however, that given enough time, will create a permanent fracture. These forces must be curbed. The Golden Temple events ( Blue Star ) and the subsequent healing of the rifts speaks greatly to the strength of the Indian people. The world hopes that India will continue to inspire us all. Yes, and flourish, not just survive.

Finally, I agree your posting does not qualify as a book review. Synopsis maybe, with a hint of nostalgia, but not a review in the antiseptic sense of the word. India does need modern day Nehrus to flourish and does Mr. Guha tell us about that? I may have missed it as I read the tome.