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India: Still Phipty-Phipty at Sixty

September 2007
India: Still Phipty-Phipty at Sixty


by Ramachandra Guha. Ecco, 2007

Hardcover, 893 pages

"My own view—I am speaking as a historian rather than a citizen—is that as long as Pakistan exists there will be Hindu fundamentalists in India," writes Guha in the final chapter. Earlier on, he notes, "The lawmakers of India are, more often than not, its more regular lawbreakers." Here's another one: "Women dictators are rare—in the twentieth century [Indira] Gandhi may have been the only one." Tantalizing quotes like these, which grab one's attention, are scattered throughout India After Gandhi, providing food for thought, but they merely hint at the richness and scope of Guha's hefty new book.

A work of history can sometimes come across as a narrative set in stone—meaning, events are being described as if they couldn't have happened some other way. It all seems so inevitable. And if the period under review is overly familiar or from the recent past, there is a sense of dj vu in the reader's mind. Fortunately, Guha's exhaustively researched book, despite its length, is brisk and absorbing even to the general reader, in good part because the focus is on how it happened rather than what happened. The drama and debates surrounding the fast-moving events are vividly captured, and like a well-written novel, this saga of independent India has memorable characters, mounting tension, twists and surprises, and an amazing plot.

Given the horrors of partition, Indian leaders were reluctant to redraw the map along linguistic lines, fearing balkanization, but uprisings in the provinces forced the issue. As Guha points out, "The creation of linguistic states was, among other things, a victory of popular will." Nehruvian economics, with its emphasis on rapid industrialization and state control, brought some benefits, but it also retarded the economy and gave rise to the notorious license-permit-quota-raj. What's less well known now is that this socialist model was widely praised in India and throughout the world.

It took a decade of contentious negotiations to pass the Hindu Code Bill, which improved the rights of women. Nehru supposedly favored a uniform civil code, but the continuing aftershocks of partition prevented him from trying harder, since he and other leaders were afraid to alienate Muslims and make them vulnerable. Some observers were more cynical about the Congress Party's motives. The issue returned in a big way with the Shah Bano case in the ‘80s, but despite having a record majority in parliament, the Congress failed to pass a gender-sensitive common civil code, even though the constitution asked for it.

Nehru's biggest failure was India's traumatic defeat in the Indo-China war of ‘62. As a bitter joke put it, ‘Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai' had become ‘Hindi Chini Bye Bye.' Indira Gandhi, his daughter, was more successful as a military leader, and arguably, her greatest triumph occurred a decade later, when India overcame intense American opposition to help create Bangladesh. Kashmir, on the other hand, has remained an intractable issue for all leaders since independence.

Minorities and Hindus who were then called untouchables accounted for over a quarter of India's population in the ‘50s. Secularism (to assure the former) and social policy (to benefit the latter) had a mixed record even back in Nehru's time. "Yet," writes Guha, "more progress had probably been made in the first 17 years of Indian independence than in the previous 1700 put together." Even one of Nehru's most unrelenting Indian critics at the time admitted that the prime minister's greatest achievements were in these two areas.

Indira Gandhi, who was the prime minister for almost as long as her father, was quite different, although she was also committed to a united and secular India. Charismatic yet ruthless and autocratic, she subverted democratic institutions, declared the infamous emergency rule in the mid-‘70s, reduced the once mighty Congress Party to an Indira Party and promoted dynastic politics. Sanjay, her thuggish younger son, died in a plane crash, while Rajiv, who became the prime minister after her assassination, was also murdered, some years after an ill-fated military adventure in Sri Lanka.

The early ‘80s to the early ‘90s were turbulent years in India. Apart from terrorism, political assassinations and riots (including a pogrom in ‘84), there was growing economic malaise, which finally led to the introduction of liberalization. The Mandir-Masjid dispute in Ayodhya affected Hindu-Muslim relations, the Mandal Commission crisis on reservations caused turmoil in caste relations, and the Muslim personal law controversy was seen as a setback for women's rights. The political landscape changed dramatically, ushering in an era of coalition governments and a more level playing field for smaller and less powerful parties. This era also saw the rise of potent, competing ideologies. Or, as Guha puts it, "as Hindu fundamentalism gathered strength in the rest of India, Islamic fundamentalism was on the ascendant in Kashmir." It resulted in two major crises, involving the Babri Masjid and the Kashmiri Pandits, and there were other consequences like riots and bombings.

Vajpayee's BJP-led coalition government came to power, and though they did bring some positive changes, there was another pogrom ‘02. "In both cases, the pogroms were made possible by a willful breakdown of the rule of law," notes Guha, adding, "And serving ministers in their government (Congress in ‘84 and BJP in ‘02) went so far as to aid and direct the rioters."

The book's concluding section, dealing with the last two decades, feels less cohesive because, as Guha points out, we don't have the necessary distance and detachment from contemporary events. Eschewing a chronological narrative, he focuses on what he calls rights, riots, rulers and riches. In the penultimate chapter, Guha takes a quick—many would say cursory—look at the unifying glue of popular culture (mainly cinema) and sports (mainly cricket). As he stated in an interview with Khabar, an entire book would be needed to show how these forces shaped independent India and helped forge a distinct national identity.

So how well does this ‘unnatural nation', which some foreign observers in the past called ‘functioning anarchy' or ‘managed chaos', work as the world's largest democracy?

Interestingly, it's an actor in the Indian film industry—also the world's largest—who provides a fitting response. "In a film in which he plays the hero's sidekick, [Johnny] Walker answers every query with the remark, ‘Boss, phipty-phipty'," writes Guha. The same could be said about the whole of India today, not just its democratic institutions. What's needed then is to go beyond the current celebratory mood of seeing the glass as half-full and see it instead as half-empty, because India still has a lot of catching up to do in the 21st century.

By Murali Kamma

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