India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha- A book review
Well, this book really deserves a review, I will try to highlight what I really liked about this book and also try to address some of the criticisms
The book traces India’s chequered history post Independence after Mahatama Gandhi’s assassination in Jan 1948 as the title suggests. Through its narration, the book reveals to the reader a history that is not taught in our school textbooks. I remember in school learning Indian history, It started with the Indus Valley civilization followed by the numerous empires that ruled Ancient India like the Kushan Empire, Mauryan Empire, and the Empire of Harsha. Then we had the Delhi Sultanate followed by the Mughals ruling almost the whole of India for more than 3 centuries. This period was followed by the revolt of 1857 after which the country came under direct British rule for the next 90 years until 1947.
I distinctly remember Indian history textbooks ending with Pandit Nehru’s speech at midnight on the eve of Indian Independence and that was it. We never learned what happened after that. For someone like me who was born in the ’90s in post-economic liberalization, I have been raised with a certain idea of India. However, a question we must ask ourselves is “how did we get here”? A wise person once said that to understand your present, one must know your past. That is essentially what this book captures as it talks about India from 1947 to 2014. It covers its politics, economics, wars, insurgencies, and the social movements which have shaped India.
The book starts with the events leading up to the partition. It essentially talks about the leaders of the day and the vision they had for India. Also, the mammoth task of uniting India with all the 500+ princely states which existed then. But uniting India and getting Independence was just the start, we had to frame a constitution, deal with the massive refugee crisis in which millions of people came pouring into India from present-day Pakistan, and not to mention the complications of the first Kashmir war in 1947–48.
The book devotes a lot of time to the first decade of Indian Independence, our economic and foreign policies, and the subsequent wars which would follow. This was followed by the coming of Mrs. Indira Gandhi who would dominate the political scene till her assassination. The book also looks at the emergency which is something we don’t know much about. I have longed for someone from India to make a meaningful documentary on the same, however, this book does cover the events leading up to it and also what led to the defeat of Mrs. Gandhi in 77' elections.
Finally, the book moves into the prime ministership of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi and the economic reforms of 1991. The last few chapters are then devoted to the modern-day politics of the UPA and the rise of Mr. Narendra Modi, the book then ends with commentary on the nature of Indian democracy which Mr. Guha describes as a 50:50 democracy.
But, what I find very fascinating are the hidden gems in the book, about major milestones in India, which have unfortunately become mere footnotes in our history books. These include the story of Potti Sreeramulu and his movement for Andhra statehood which would eventually translate into the reorganization of states on linguistic grounds formalized in 1956, another amazing story was of Mr. Madhu Dandavate, who as the Railways Minister in 1977 initiated the process of adding foam padding to these berths in our second class trains. Thus elevating the travel experience for a vast majority of us Indians, until then the berths in the first class in Indian trains had padding which was comfortable for commuters, however, the second class berths were akin to wooden planks without any cushioning, certainly not a comfortable ride.
Now, let's address the criticisms the book has received over the years, though I feel they are more directed towards Mr. Ramachandra Guha than the book itself. The main being his admiration for Pandit Nehru. Well, it is true that the book does devote a lot of time to our late Prime minister and portrays him in a very positive light, though a lot of the praise is certainly warranted. For eg, ensuring democracy and secularism take root in this country in its formative years while obituaries were written about India by the writers out in the west.
With regards to the economy, the book probably isn’t as critical of Mr. Nehru as it should be. But again, Hindsight is always 20/20, so retrospectively we now know that we should have progressively opened up the economy and done away with the command economy started under Pandit Nehru. But it would be unfair to lay the blame completely on Pandit Nehru as it was really under Mrs. Indira Gandhi that India started the mass nationalization which we today know. In Kashmir, the book traces the timeline of events that took place and gives the context in which things unfolded. Though, the book certainly omits to mention Gilgit Baltistan and how it came under Pakistani control which we have claimed as Indian territory since Independence, and is also not as critical as it should be on India’s decision to go to the UN on the Kashmir issue.
Finally, Pandit Nehru’s China Policy, Here again, the book basically does a narration of the events and probably keeps away from giving an opinionated commentary on our failures to gauge the Chinese threat and the war which followed in 1962. Could the book have been more critical of Pandit Nehru about his miscalculations on China? Certainly, it could have been. But, to be fair to the author, the book is a pretty objective account of things that unfolded.
So, Would I recommend this book to people?
Absolutely! There is so much in the book which people would find interesting and ideally should be read by all as it gives a certain context to explain the India of today.