In The Armchair

India After Gandhi and Other Histories of India

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on July 11, 2009

Ramachandra Guha

I’m close to being done with Ram Guha’s India After Gandhi.  Again, this isn’t a review of the book (I think the book’s subject matter is actually too complex for a short review to mean much).  I have mixed feelings.  Guha structures his book into two parts: the first 2/3 or so is a chronological history of India from the beginning of Nehru’s tenure up to and including Rajiv Gandhi’s term as prime minister.  This part of the book is a broad canvas, trying to describe all significant events in India in chronological order.  In the second part, the last 1/3, the book discards chronology and describes various specific aspects of India’s history.  Each subsection here deals with a specific topic, and includes various incidents at all times of Indian history relevant to the topic.

The first half of the book is great, consistent and helps understand the Indian story.  The second part is a disappointment so far: it seems haphazard, opinionated, unresearched and internally inconsistent.

For instance, Guha says in the second part that Kargil helped heal the wounds of the 1962 defeat; yet there was the far more significant Indian victory in 1971 against Pak.  On Godhra 2002, he takes some speculative theories and presents them as absolute fact.  His writing displays an admiration for the Congress party and a slightly disdainful approach towards others.  As well, he uses loose language, such as describing C. Rajagopalachari and “sulking in retirement” in Chennai.  Occasionally I got the feeling he was worried about what people would think of him, Guha, if he wrote something.  (Probably a common issue for history writers.)

Guha explains the reason he structured the book this way: events that are very recent are hard to see as part of the whole; some distance in time is required before patterns become visible.  This, I think, is a very valid point, but Guha shouldn’t have rushed to insert his opinions into the second part of the book.  While reading, I zoomed through the first half of the book but the second half is less interesting, less convincing, occasionally jarring, and opinionated withal; I’m finding it a bit of a drag.  It could have been polished a lot more.

There’s another, earlier, book that deals with (roughly) the same period in Indian history: India after Independence, by Bipan Chandra (and co-authors Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee), which came out 2000.  The patterns they see are very similar to those presented by Ram Guha, but Ram Guha’s language is more interesting and has a certain flair compared to the textbook-y Bipan Chandra.

The most striking common opinion between the two books is their approval of Nehru’s terms as prime minister.  On blogs nowadays, and even in books, it is common to see heavy doses of Nehru-bashing on the basis of economic and foreign policy.  Both these books claim that it was Nehru, far more than any one else, who kept India from disintegrating and held off communal and other conflagrations in the early years.  The continued existence of Indian democracy is largely thanks to Nehru.  Ram Guha also makes it quite explicit that, although Nehru was wedded to socialist ideals, by no means did he need to put any pressure on anyone to follow them: the mood of the entire country at that time was largely socialist in terms of economic policy. There is also a feeling that it was Nehru who turned Congress into a family-owned business; both the books clarify that Nehru found any form of nepotism abhorrhent, and that it was Indira Gandhi who was responsible for the about turn.  Science and higher education is owed almost entirely to Nehru, who supported practically every successful Indian institution of tertiary education existing today.  On the topic of the linguistic reorganization of the states, there appears to be some difference of opinion in the two books.  If memory serves correctly, Bipan Chandra gives the impression that it was Nehru who held off the North-Indian Hindi chauvinists, and, by association, allowed the formation of Andhra Pradesh (which later led to demands for other states).  Ram Guha writes that Nehru was heavily opposed to statehood for A.P. and held out until Potti Sriramulu actually fasted to death.  But by and large, either book clarifies why Nehru was so important, and why his influence was overwhelmingly benign.

So, while I didn’t like the second half, I thought the first half was fantastic.  I find myself wishing something like this was available when I was in high school.  There were, I think, some books on the topic written by foreigners.  But most of those authors are anglophiles and fail to understand the nature of Indians and India.  They also often suffer from preconceptions peculiar to the Western mind: for example, that British rule was good for Indians, that the Indian state is constantly on the verge of some kind of massive collapse, and that Pakistan is “preferable” to India because of its religion (which I think is a rationalization of the inability to imagine a country as disorganized as India having a pan-Indian identity).  It is perhaps hard for a Western author to understand the collective Indian consciousness.

I wish more Indian historians would write about India.  Even very specific topics, such as say the doings of the British in the Rayalseema region of A.P., or the confrontations between the Rajput kings and the Mughals, could make very detailed and interesting stories.  I’m sure there are many who would like to understand better how common people and kings lived in those days, set against the backdrop of bigger events.  It’s not clear why there isn’t any “popular scholarship” on any such historical happenings.


4 Responses

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  1. Vikram said, on July 11, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    I would also recommend ‘The Idea of India’ by Sunil Khilnani.

  2. Vikram said, on July 11, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    Even he approves of Nehru by the way.

  3. Armchair Guy said, on July 12, 2009 at 2:01 pm


    Thanks, I checked out The Idea of India on Amazon and it looks very promising. I’ll check it out.

    Based on reading these books, I think the recent tendency to blame Nehru for everything is ill-informed. His achievements are many and diverse. I think it’s easier for older authors to see this, which is why a wide variety of older authors have such admiration for him.

  4. Bekaar BokBok said, on August 7, 2009 at 7:14 am

    I found myself nodding very hard reading the part about western authors’ peculiar preconceptions about India.

    I’m fairly sure they were all British.
    I have a nagging suspicion that Britain never got over the fact that we kicked them out and didn’t obligingly collapse into chaos or beg them to return because we couldn’t ‘manage on our own’.
    If you ever notice British reporting on India today, you’ll notice that even if they are discussing Indian research in string theory say, they’ll obligatorily throw in a line like, “India, where, 20% of the population live on less than $1 a day…” or some such.

    I wonder how they feel about America having kicked them out and then replaced them as the world superpower. We have some family friends who are wonderful people, but uber patriotic Britons, and they never have a good word about anything American.
    True, everybody loves to bash the US, but unlike the rest, they aren’t even secretly trying to head there. 🙂

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