Book Reviews

India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

No other book comes as close to Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi in telling us the story of modern India. Meticulously researched and fascinating, this should be one of our mandatory reads!

Published: 2007 | Paperback: 912 pages | Genre: History

As an Indian who was born, brought up and has lived her entire life in India, I can tell you that India is not easy to define. As a landmass, it extends from the Himalayas in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south; the Arabian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east. These are the first things we are taught about India as children – we learn to place India in its geographical context in the world. But try to define India beyond that – in terms of culture or history or social constructs, and you will find yourself looking at a vast landmass with such diversity and disparities, that reconciling your mind to its proportions is too difficult. This is why we stay limited in our understanding of the country. We understand it on our own regional levels – where we come from, where we live. We also understand it in terms of popular narrative – what our history books tell us about ancient and medieval empires, the colonial era and our struggle for independence or what popular media like cinema and television tell us. But the moment you look to understand the country in its contemporary context, and you find a glaring gap. Few books have dared to treat the subject of India after its independence, in its historical, political and economic context. Ramachandra Guha is one of the few writers who has done it, and done it so marvellously!

When he was approached by Peter Straus from Picador in 1997 to write a book on the subject of modern India’s history, Guha was surprised. He was an academic historian and this subject was too vast for him. But he took on the challenge and a decade later, brought into print, what to my mind, is the most definitive history of India after independence that you can hope to find.

India is the world’s largest democracy. It is also supposed to be the least likely democracy. After partition, we were a collection of different ideas, far too many princely states and widely conflicting aspirations. What followed in the following decades were struggles and successes, conflicts and celebrations – all of which make the India we know today. Guha talks of five axes of conflict that have been running through the country since its independence – caste, language, religion, class and gender. Our caste system – inherited from the Vedic times, has seen the exploitation of the lower castes (Dalits) at the hands of the upper castes. On the language front, we have been so divided that we went ahead and formed states largely based on linguistic uniformity. Yet, one language – Hindi, spoken by the majority of the population, has taken a stronghold in the mainstream and it pushes other languages in the background. Religious issues find the Hindu majority in conflict with other religious minorities and the tribal population. The gap between the wealthy and the poor widens, and the government has to constantly find ways to balance capitalist interests with socialism. And then, there are gender conflicts which run through the other four axes. Women, in particular, are most susceptible. Guha’s book examines all these axes in detail and shows us, how India has been shaped by these factors and is both divided and united because of them.

“In the early years of independence, many obituaries of the new nation were written, confident anticipations that the Indian Republic would descend into civil war, balkanise into many parts, experience mass famine, or become a military dictatorship.”

As a new nation, forces both within and without posed a challenge to the country and deep fissures formed. On one side of the Himalayas, India struggled to bring Kashmir into its fold – an issue that continues to have repercussions to the present day. On the other side of the mountain range was Nagaland, which refused to recognise Indian sovereignty. But these were not the only states struggling to identify themselves in the new India. Hyderabad and Junagadh were princely states that posed a significant challenge during political integration, dithering and sometimes wanting to join Pakistan. It took stalwart leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and V. P. Menon to convince these states to join India. There was the problem of the resettlement of the refugees who had come to India after the partition. There was the issue of growing Communist insurgency both in the southern and the eastern parts of the country. Wars with Pakistan and China exposed us to diplomacy and international relations, making friends out of the superpowers – US and USSR. Then there was Hindu fundamentalism, terrorism and unbridled power of politicians. All of these tested India’s mettle over and over again.

India After Gandhi packs up a massive amount of information – of the events and their consequences spread over 70 years in its 900-pages; this is nothing short of staggering. It is clearly the work of a major historian and scholar. Yet, Guha’s storytelling is so simple and so rich in detail that you will end up binge-reading the entire book and see India, from 1947 up to the present day, unfolding before your very eyes. You will see in action all the leaders who have left an indelible mark on modern India – Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Vallabhai Patel, B R Ambedkar, and many more larger than life characters – both the popular and lesser-known heroes.

The scale and scope of this book are just like the country it treats as its subject – extensive. Because contemporary history as a branch of Indian history is still nascent, Guha had to assemble the primary research material on his own – from state records to newspapers and journals on microfilm, he has drawn on a vast reserve of sources to conduct his scholarly analysis. No wonder, it makes for such a satisfying and enlightening read. The book won the Sahitya Akademi Award for English in 2011. It was also chosen as the Book of the Year by publications like The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and Outlook.

India After Gandhi is that dose of oxygen that is vital and that every person, Indian or otherwise, who has an interest in understanding this country, must-read. Definitely one of the books that should be listed down as mandatory reading!

By Sanskriti Nagar

I'm a storyteller on a journey - to connect people with places, the past with the present, the contemporary with the traditional. I'm just stepping into the shoes of an explorer, aspiring to be a globetrotter, and someday, a novelist. Follow me through my journeys, and if something does resonate with you, or you'd like me to cover a story for you, I'd love to catch up. (PS: I love coffee!)

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