Book Review | An Abridged History of Independent India
India’s history seems frozen in time. At the stroke of midnight in 1947, to be precise. Everything that has been written about the post-independence period is more a matter of political science or sociology, as the historian Ramachandra Guha rightly points out in his masterful work on the country’s post-independence history, India After Gandhi. Much ink has been used on the colonial period, but with the exception of a few young scholars outside the Indian university system, few seem to examine historical themes in the post-independence period. In this context, Rajmohan Gandhi’s India After 1947: Reflections & Recollections, published just on the eve of the nation’s 75th Independence Day, held great promise, especially since Gandhi was the Mahatma’s grandson and a great scholar who writes with lucidity.
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The back cover of the book says, “Seventy-five years after independence, India faces serious questions. Some of the most pressing relate to jobs and the cost of living. But questions about the state of our democracy are just as critical, if not more so. A timely survey of the state of the nation by one of our greatest thinkers, India after 1947, is essential reading that reminds us of who we are as a nation and what we should aim to be. Such a rich description surely tempts readers, but apart from his deep disappointment at the misuse of Lord Ram and Ayodhya’s name, the rise of Hindu communalism and Hindu politics, the author does not offer much else. Anyone who has followed Gandhi’s works would know that he dislikes Modi or the BJP, but surely talking about 75 years of post-independence India requires detail beyond the 14 years of BJP rule alone? His personal interactions with congressional leaders and a play on the maxim “forget your enemies, finish your allies” to sum up non-congressional governments leave readers feeling a bit cheated.
If the idea was to study how democracy progressed or regressed over the years, a larger canvas encompassing the records of all prime ministers and political parties was needed – to explain the roots of well-sown dynastic politics. , caste politics and its machinations, and the origins of communalism, for example. And, answers to questions like why the BJP or the RSS, on the fringes for so long, are now so entrenched that no countervailing force seems viable?
As a historian, Gandhi should know well that events have a causal relationship; nothing happens in a vacuum. The extreme minority satisfied by Congress, the reversal of the Supreme Court order in the Shah Bano case by Rajiv Gandhi, the emergence of the Muslim-Yadav electoral alliance and the Mandal policy of Vice President Singh angered middle-class Hindus, paving the way for the BJP to come into its own and establish its electoral base.
On the question of the Mandir, while Gandhi rightly argues that Hindutva forces used it for political purposes, he ignores how much the issue has been muddied by leftist scholars and historians ridiculing Ram, which only stirred up community spirits. A staunch defender of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, the author dismisses the fact that Vice President Singh used the long-forgotten report to score a crude political point in the name of social justice. Similarly, communitarianism does not only have a Hindu face, as the author suggests.
It is true that non-Congress governments in the past have fallen because of the personal ambitions of individual leaders, but it is also true that these formations lacked a cohesive ideology except for an aversion to Indira Gandhi . The similarity cannot be more striking today when a group of opposition parties come together on occasion solely to oppose Modi rather than with a cohesive ideological plank.
In fact, the author seems to endorse an alliance of Dalits, Adivasis, other backward castes and minorities against the high caste ideology of Hindu nationalism, forgetting how the caste politics perfected by people like Lalu Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh has brought about criminalization in these two backward states. And, hilariously, he laments that Hindu nationalism has managed to win Dalit and OBC support for its anti-minority agenda.
In India’s slim 113-page account of 75 years after independence, the most interesting parts relate to the author’s personal interactions, but sadly there are very few of them too. A greater focus on his personal story might have made for a better read than a rant on Hindutva forces, which can be found in abundance on social media platforms anyway.
India after 1947: Reflections & Memories
Aleph Book Company
136 pages, 399 rupees