A history of modern India: Review of ‘The Queen of All Nations’ by Abhijit Sengupta

The history of India retold for the young generation who, the author feels, are the most vulnerable in a “knowledge game”.

Published : Nov 02, 2023 11:00 IST - 9 MINS READ

At a protest meet against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on January 26, 2020.

At a protest meet against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, at Shaheen Bagh in New Delhi on January 26, 2020. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

Abhjit Sengupta is well placed to write this book, being born in 1948 and having had a ringside view of events from his career in the IAS (1972-2008, Karnataka cadre) covering some stirring times in the country’s history. The book is meant to be accessible to the young : “It is the young people of India, the millennials, the Gen Z, who are the most vulnerable in a ‘knowledge game’. They would tend to accept what is told to them as the ‘truth’, but what is that truth? …It must be their democratic world of equity and equality, they must be aware of what brought us to the times we are living in,” he says, on why he wrote this book for them.

The Queen of All Nations: A Brief View of Modern India for Young Indians (1857-2020)
By Abhijit Sengupta
AuthorsUpFront, 2023
Pages: 496
Price: Rs. 799

The book works well as a capsule history of the around 163 years it covers, starting at 1857, when the first widespread revolt against the British took place, and discussing events until early 2023. It uses many online resources, including news reports, because it was written during the lockdown when there was little access to libraries and archives. But it is also extensively referenced, footnoted, and indexed, so anyone wanting to do a deeper study will find in it a really useful resource, especially students of history and political science, even journalism. It is also adds to the discussion on the idea of India.

It reflects the zeitgeist, being dedicated to the Muslim women who held a peaceful protest at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and inspired dozens of similar protests all over the country against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. The protests only came to an end due to the onslaught of COVID, giving the government the perfect excuse to (selectively) ban gatherings and announce lockdowns.

Contemporary issues addressed

The book is presented in seven broadly chronological parts and discusses in fair detail and balance the main issues that faced the country between 1857 and the present. In the first half, it devotes space to Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and others in the freedom struggle and in newly independent India. It gives a lot of attention to Gandhi and his role in the Congress and the freedom struggle. It covers the drafting of the Constitution, the unification of India, including late adaptors Hyderabad and Goa, and events surrounding the accession of Kashmir, and the making of the free but partitioned India and Pakistan.

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Part 4 is an interesting section on the various Prime Ministers up to Manmohan Singh, the issues they faced, and their specific accomplishments during their rule. Nehru gets a good share of the space: his vision and contributions to the rag-tag country, newly emerged from a bloody Partition, with abysmal socio-economic indicators and empty coffers, to science and technology and institution-building, to a planned but mixed economy which went in for self-reliance in core sectors; and to a unique and visionary international statesmanship, though somewhat naive in hindsight about China. The usually marginalised north-eastern region gets a separate chapter covering the history of how the eight states—including Sikkim—became part of India. He cautions that the continued presence of the armed forces in the region over seven decades “cannot show us the way to resolve differences. It cannot be another aspect of ‘them’ versus ‘us’.” Sadly, we now see ethnic conflict which was allowed to flare up and persist for months in Manipur.

Chapter 29, titled “Standing Back”, examines the present. Sengupta asks: “How is it that, while we pride ourselves on being the largest democracy in the world, we also have the longest-standing Fascist” organisation in the world, one that was banned four times? The book assesses the role of the RSS and the BJP, its political wing, after the BJP came to power in 2014. Sengupta points out that Sardar Patel was lenient in his response to the RSS, though at first he suggested banning it. While the Congress fought for the country’s independence, the RSS “remained subservient to the foreign power”. He traces how the RSS worked slowly and steadily to spread its influence and ideas, turning our state into one where empathy for the poor is met with the pejorative “urban Naxal”. “In an inherently right-wing state, anti-Communism becomes an established position. This does not mean that poverty alleviation is not a goal per se, it means that it is not the central focus of governance, it is subordinated to a political stance.” Now in 2023, we have more evidence that the acche din promised in 2014 are not for all but only for a very few privileged people close to power. The lack of empathetic governance during the COVID crisis, the manipulation of narratives through subordinating the media, and the strategic use of social media to spread disinformation and rumour are discussed.

India now

In Part 6, titled “India after 2014: The Disciplinarian State”, the author skilfully summarises the rule of the Prime Minister in “Narendra Modi and the New Order”. He marshals facts and references to establish that the government sends out signals that belittle democracy. Procedures and rules are conveniently undermined; ordinances, which were only to be used in emergencies, are being used to subvert the power of Parliament to argue laws and policies. They disrespect the will of the people by usurping powers given to elected State governments, undermining the federal structure.

  • The book offers a ringside view of events, covering some stirring times in the country’s history and is meant to be accessible to the young.
  • It works well as a capsule history of the around 163 years it covers, starting at 1857 and discussing events until early 2023.
  • It is also extensively referenced, footnoted, and indexed, so anyone wanting to do a deeper study will find in it a really useful resource, especially students of history and political science, even journalism.

The chapter discusses lapses in managing relations with China; the disastrous economic impact of demonetisation; crony capitalism, which enjoys new-found sources of business and investment in foreign countries often following the Prime Minister’s frequent travels abroad; the Rafale deal, which ultimately resulted in the Supreme Court dismissing petitions against the deal; and other related subsequent shockers.

He also covers important topics relating to the judiciary and the executive. Kashmir is touched upon, and the government stance on Fundamental Rights (Article 32 protects Fundamental Rights) was revealed in the context of 6,000 habeas corpus petitions pending in the Jammu and Kashmir courts: the state said it was “discouraging” the use of Article 32, rather than “suspending” it.

Significantly, Article 32 can only be suspended in an emergency: in effect, the country is in a state of undeclared emergency. The outcome of the Ayodhya land dispute case in the Supreme Court undermines the rule of law: “The court does acknowledge in its judgment this wanton debasement of the law, yet rewards the party responsible for this, for the multiple assaults on the law, the Constitution and the Supreme Court.” Subsequent developments only strengthen this general impression in other cases.

The most contentious decision was on citizenship: the government rushed the CAA through Parliament and got presidential assent in four days, sparking countrywide protests by a cross section of citizens because the Act excluded Muslims while covering immigrants from other minority communities in the immediate vicinity. In effect, it made religion a criteria for citizenship, which is violative of the secular Constitution as well as Article 14, the Right to Equality. “The anti-CAA demonstrations will remain etched in history as the renewal of Gandhian non-violence as the strategy of protest.” The use of force by the government in retaliation included firing in Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi, leaving two people with gunshot injuries, and riots in Delhi in which 53 people were killed, mostly in the eight constituencies that returned BJP MLAs (the Delhi Assembly has 70 seats, where the ruling Aam Aadmi Party has a majority of 62). Many students, eminent people, and common citizens were incarcerated under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The protests only died down following the declaration by the Prime Minister, on the evening of March 21, of a 21-day lockdown, again causing immense countrywide distress, especially to migrant workers and their families in cities. Complete misgovernance prevailed. Lakhs died because the government held the kumbh mela and several State elections despite the pandemic. Rising infections put pressure on hospitals, healthcare professionals, pharma companies, and even the crematoriums as the death toll rose. The summary of the pandemic in the book constitutes an important public record.

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The subsequent chapter, “Sedition, UAPA and Personal Freedoms” discusses the implication of these factors on citizens. “Recalling Fascism” is valuable given that fascism is rarely discussed, except in political science textbooks: it is shown as not something that happened in the past but is right now in our midst. In the short afterword, he calls upon all citizens of India to work together to eschew divisiveness and find a sense of belonging. “These treasures were hard-earned. It is for you, the young people of India, to keep them safe.”

Ignored issues

That being said, long-standing national and constitutional issues concerning large sections of society hardly figure in the book: violence against women; multilayered and persistent discrimination and violence against Dalits; and the dispossession by state and corporates of Adivasis’ protected traditional homelands. Ambedkar is mainly discussed as an anti-caste proponent and thus does not get his due as a still-powerful social and political change agent, whereas Gandhi, Nehru, and anti-Muslim communalism (but not against Christians) get a lot of space. Considering that a majority of the young people engaging in political questions are from marginalised groups, a discussion about their concerns would have been apt.

The role of women in the freedom struggle, the economy, and now increasingly as a game-changing voting constituency needs to figure more in the popular discourse, but women hardly figure in the entire narration except for Indira Gandhi, who is discussed as a Prime Minister and politician. Other missing themes are climate change and disaster, India’s dense population, the country’s role as a food producer, and its emergence as an industrial and IT hub. The book also needs to foreground these issues in policy, governance, and funding. Any fresh iteration of this valuable book should address these gaps.

Cynthia Stephen is an independent journalist and social policy researcher who works in the areas of Dalit studies, affirmative action, and educational policy.

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