When I arrived in the U.S. in 1966, I met a woman in a laundromat whose only curiosity about India was regarding the red dot on my forehead and whether there were cows roaming India’s streets. Attitudes have changed since the beginning of the 21st century. We have seen a spate of books that pay tribute to “India Shining,” including Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. U.S. cable and network news channels make regular references to the successes of the Indian economy. And just within the past decade, a new genre of books has emerged that highlights another aspect of India: her survival as the largest functioning democracy in the world.
The most recent addition to this genre is Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, a publication that coincides with the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. It is a tour de force, highly researched. Born in Dehradun, educated in Delhi and Calcutta, Guha has distinguished himself as an academic as well as a prolific writer on subjects as varied as the environment, a history of Himalayan peasants, and the social history of Indian cricket. His latest history of India as a united democracy is a monumental work on the complexities of the Indian experiment, a task for which, according to him, he has been preparing his entire career.
The violent circumstances under which India became a sovereign country in 1947—amid divisive factors like caste, class, religion, language, poverty, and illiteracy—were by no means conducive to her emergence as a united democracy. History has a way of presenting ironies: the subcontinent had to pay the heavy price of partition as a political solution to a religious problem, the Hindu-Muslim conflict. Guha quotes a Punjab official’s quip to a social worker from Oxford, which sums up the staggering problems facing India after partition: “You British believe in fair play. You have left India in the same condition of chaos as you found it.” This may be a little unfair to the Raj, but the fact remains that partition created problems. First, there was the problem of refugees: 10 million people had to abandon the way of life that they had known for centuries. Yet this unprecedented human tragedy found a solution in the fairly orderly resettlement of refugees in East Punjab and West Bengal. The problem of the princely states was another legacy of the Raj that stood in the way of unification. These more than 500 feudal entities had to be accommodated in the newly democratic India. Vallabhai Patel and his able secretary V.P. Menon, with a little help from Lord Mountbatten, solved the problem through a stroke of political genius: the Instrument of Accession, which brought the princely states into the Indian Union.
The bloodbath following partition and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 did not deter the nation from carrying out its democratic agenda. Guha recounts that the Constituent Assembly drew up the Constitution of India after three years of deliberation. It was framed by some of the most brilliant minds, including the lawyer B.R. Ambedkar, law minister in the Union Cabinet. From 1952 to 2004, India has had 14 democratic elections. Even the Communist party has found a place in a parliamentary democracy, a testament to India’s political—in addition to social, religious, and linguistic—diversity. The Constitution was patterned after the British model, with the legislature consisting of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, the executive branch of the prime minister and cabinet, and the President elected by a college of national and provincial legislatures. The Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles guaranteed freedom and equality before the law for all citizens, subject to certain limitations needed for social reform, national security, and public order.
India has much to celebrate on the occasion of her 60th anniversary as the world’s largest democracy, one that is still intact in spite of the pessimistic forecasts of naysayers like John Strachey, Rudyard Kipling, and Winston Churchill. Indian democracy has survived three assassinations, the abrogation of the Constitution during Indira Gandhi’s emergency, and Indira Gandhi’s attempt at dynastic succession. On the question of whether India is a proper or a sham democracy, Guha considers India a populist democracy, a version that does not necessarily conform to the western ideal.
Guha quotes Sunil Khilnani: “Clearly, the idea of democracy, brought into being on an Athenian hillside some 2500 years ago, has traveled far—and today describes a disparate array of political projects and experiences.” On the economic front, the fruits of a free democracy have not percolated to all ranks of society. Nehru’s legacy of Five Year plans has resulted in an emphasis on massive industrialization at the expense of agriculture. In 1955, Milton Friedman criticized the Indian economic model as obsessed with capital-output ratios rather than with the development of human capital. In a July interview in India Abroad, M.S. Swaminathan, one of the architects of the green revolution in India, admits that Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh are facing both economic and ecological distress. Swaminathan also states that the Indian government is only now trying to achieve 4-percent growth in agricultural production, less than half of the national GDP.
India After Gandhi is a comprehensive study of the history of the largest democracy in the world. Guha has woven a coherent, well-researched tapestry of India’s history after 1947, when India became “India,” an independent, democratic nation. He lets the reader “eavesdrop,” to borrow Amit Chaudhuri’s remark, on conversations among a variety of people, which makes the narrative vivid. Some of the digressions, like a section on Indian movies, prevent the reader from seeing the forest beyond the trees. The book’s most unique and significant feature, however, is that it portrays not only the major shapers of Indian independence, but also several everyday people who count in a true democracy.
|Lakshmi Mani taught at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 20 years. She writes on American and Indian-American literature, and is a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow.|