India as a success

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

Guha's research had to stop well before the gates of the National Archives whereas Hennessy had access to the archives of his country.

Yunan, Misro, Ruma sab mit gaey jahan se/Ab tak magar hai baqi nam-o-nishan hamara/Kuch baat hai ke hasti mit-ti nahi hamari/sadion raha hai dushman daur-e-zaman hamara

(The civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Rome were wiped out from the world/But to this day survives our name and fame/Isn't there some reason why our existence is not wiped out/ Though time has been our foe for centuries.)

WHAT the great poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal wrote of India in his immortal Tarana-e-Hindi (The Anthem of India) a century ago sums up the secret of India's greatness. In his study of Iqbal, The Ardent Pilgrim (1951), Iqbal Singh remarked that it "remains to this day the best patriotic poem written by any Indian poet in modern times". Unravelling that secret is the theme of the distinguished historian Ramachandra Guha's pioneering work. It is a history of India since it became independent, based on primary source material and written in a lively style.

For Indian children, history came to an end with Independence "because India's adults have mandated it that way. In the academy, the discipline of history deals with the past while the disciplines of political science and sociology deal with the present". The past is frozen at August 15, 1947. But we are what we are today because of what happened since that day. One cannot understand the present without an understanding of the recent past. The great historian F.W. Maitland was wont to remind students "what is now in the past was once in the future". Quoting him, Guha writes "there could be no better maxim for the historian and especially for the historian of the recent past".

Two precautions must be borne in mind, however. One, as the author mentions, is that the reader is also "a critical citizen" with views of his own on recent history. The second is that the historian must also have a feel for the political process. If he has strong political views he must be careful not to let them influence his historical judgment or indeed override the claims of scholarship. In South Asia, particularly on sensitive issues, many a scholar has reduced himself to a court historian.

Ramachandra Guha is not an Establishment man. He questions freely and brings to bear on his study an independent outlook. "In writing this book I have tried to keep Maitland's maxim always in front of me. I have been driven by curiosity rather than certainty, by the wish to understand rather than the desire to pass judgment. I have sought to privilege primary sources over retrospective readings; thus, to interpret an event of, say, 1957 in terms of what was known in 1957 rather than in 2007. This book is, in the first instance, simply an attempt to tell the modern history of one-sixth of humankind. It is an account, as well as analysis, of the major characters, controversies, themes and processes in independent India. However, the manner of the story's telling has been driven by two fundamental ambitions: to pay proper respect to the social and political diversity of India, and to unravel the puzzle that has for so long confronted scholar and citizen, foreigner as well as native - namely, why is there an India at all?"

Nothing like it has appeared before. The text educates the reader. Even to one addicted to footnotes/endnotes, scanning the 90 pages of the endnotes is a humbling experience. On every issue or episode, no relevant source is overlooked.

As he moves to the 1990s, the author delivers a sound caveat. "With the end of the present chapter, this book moves from `history' to what might instead be called `historically informed journalism'. Part Five, which follows, deals with the events of the last two decades, that is, with process still unfolding. Given our closeness to what is being written about, it adopts a thematic rather than chronological approach. To ground the narrative, however, each chapter starts with a prediction from the past that in some way anticipated the future."

What he proceeds to add should prompt our historians to bestir themselves and mount an organised, sustained challenge to the government's archival policy. "Most official archives around the world follow a `thirty-year' rule, keeping closed documents written during the past three decades. That seems just about right, for once thirty years have passed any new `disclosures' are unlikely materially to affect the lives of those still living. In my experience, to write about events as a historian one also needs a generation's distance. That much time must elapse before one can place those events in a pattern, to see them away and apart from the din and clamour of the present. Once roughly three decades have gone by, much more material is at hand - not just archives that are now open, but also memoirs, biographies and analytical works that have since been published. When writing about the very recent past one lacks the primary sources available for earlier periods."

Peter Hennessy has been called a "political historian and journalist who has himself become something of a national institution". He is Professor of Contemporary British History at the University of London. Both Guha and Hennessy cast their nets wide. Guha has a whole chapter on "A People's Entertainments". Hennessy takes the reader into front rooms as well as new coffee bars. But he had access to the archives. The chapters "The Shadow of the Bomb" and "The H-Bomb and the Search for Peace" record the impact of The Bomb on Anglo-American relations, expose the process of decision-making in Whitehall and describe the effect of the debate on British politics, especially on the Labour Party. Endnotes to both chapters reveal the extent of freedom of information in the country.

In contrast, Guha's enormous research had to stop well before the gates of the National Archives, at Janpath in New Delhi. He had to content himself with private papers. Given the limitations, the result is impressive.

Let it be added that the directors as well as the entire staff of the National Archives of India - and indeed of the Nehru Memorial Museum Library - right down to the reprographers, are most courteous and helpful. It is the government's refusal to abide by the 30-year rule and to release the documents to the Archives that needs to be combated. Indian scholars could write books on the McMahon Line only by spending money and time in London. The papers of the Shimla Conference of 1914 are barred though almost everything of consequence on it is in the public domain, thanks to the labours of our scholars, Parshotam Mehra being foremost among them.

Hennessy's book is a warning to leaders not to blow their trumpets too loudly. Remember "India Shining" in 2004? The title of the book is a take-off from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's famous speech on July 20, 1957: "Let's be frank about it, most of our people have never had it so good." Nemesis did not take much long to follow. The book is more than a chronicle of British politics and culture in the 1950s. It provides important information on international events like the failed Big Four summit of 1955 in Paris.

When, in April 1956, Khruschev and Bulganin arrived on a cruiser in Portsmouth Harbour, Prime Minister Anthony Eden asked the Admiralty to leave it alone. But the intelligence service sent an ageing frogman "to take a look at its hull". His headless body was washed ashore the following summer. The Russians complained of espionage. A furious Eden shook up the services. There is little reason to believe that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the Intelligence Bureau (IB) are more disciplined.

Not the least of Jawaharlal Nehru's services to India was his assertion of civilian supremacy over the armed forces. The Commander-in-Chief General Bruce Lockhart had ordered that the public be kept away from the flag-hoisting ceremony on Independence Day. Nehru was not content to countermand the order. He seized the occasion to warn Lockhart, on August 13: "While I am desirous of paying attention to the views and susceptibilities of our senior officers, British and Indian, it seems to me that there is a grave misunderstanding about the matter. In any policy that is to be pursued, in the Army or otherwise, the views of the Government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail. If any person is unable to lay down that policy, he has no place in the Indian Army, or in the Indian structure of government. I think this should be made perfectly clear at this stage" - on August 13, 1947.

However, on May 5, 2007, we find Defence Minister A.K. Antony proclaiming, after a visit to the Siachen, that "as far as we are concerned we will go for [sic] professional advice" - he meant "by" the advice, clearly. Professional advice is relevant. But withdrawal of troops is a political matter. A correspondent present there reported: "Antony also made it clear that there would be no withdrawal of troops from J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] or the Siachen glacier without the consent of the armed forces."

Over the last year and more, the Chief of Army Staff J.J. Singh has consistently made negative statements on this point on the eve of talks with Pakistan, besides other political statements. It is a reckless damage to Nehru's legacy.

"The pages of this book are peppered with forecasts of India's imminent dissolution, or of its descent into anarchy or authoritarian rule," Guha warns in India After Gandhi; from John Strachey in 1888 to Neville Maxwell in 1967, 20 years after Independence. Maxwell wrote a series of articles in The Times (London) entitled "India's disintegrating democracy" on January 26 and 27 and February 10, 1967. He was then The Times' correspondent in New Delhi. He detected an "emotional readiness for the rejection of parliamentary democracy". India would vote in the 1967 Lok Sabha elections, he confidently predicted, in "the fourth - and surely last - general election" and "the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed".

British rule in India was doomed when the rulers introduced their language in India. You cannot talk a people into slavery in the English language. "An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery," Burke reminded the House of Commons on March 22, 1775. The effect is the same if "the natives" are taught English. It brings in its train British history - the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Parliament versus the Crown, habeas corpus and the rest, as also concepts like the rule of law. Those who framed our Constitution were familiar with all this. The Mayawatis, Chautalas and the rest are not. Hence the warped working of the Constitution today.

Macaulay's ignorant and arrogant Minute of February 2, 1835 ("a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia") should not blind us to the fact that he was perhaps the first to think of India's self-governance, in a speech to the House of Commons on July 10, 1833. His peroration ranks as a masterpiece of parliamentary eloquence: "It may be that the public mind of India may expand under our system till it has outgrown that system; that by good government we may educate our subjects into a capacity for better government; that, having become instructed in European knowledge, they may, in some future age, demand European institutions. Whether such a day will ever come I know not. But never will I attempt to avert or to retard it. Whenever it comes, it will be the proudest day in English history. To have found a great people sunk in the lowest depths of slavery and superstition, to have so ruled them as to have made them desirous and capable of all the privileges of citizens, would indeed be a title to glory all our own. The sceptre may pass away from us. Unforeseen accidents may derange our most profound schemes of policy. Victory may be inconstant to our arms. But there are triumphs which are followed by no reverses. There is an empire exempt from all natural causes of decay. Those triumphs are the pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism; that empire is the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws."

Throughout the speech he regarded Indians as a single entity. He it was who gave us a classic piece of legislation - the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The English language not only fuelled demands for self-rule but also cemented the country's unity. It still remains our sole link language. Which is why Prof. Morris-Jones tartly reminded the likes of Michael Foot and Margaret Thatcher, who supported the Emergency, that the Westminster model "had become a specifically Indian achievement" (The Times, London, July 14, 1976).

Guha is right to laud with pride the Indian achievement. In little Belgium the Flemish and Walloons fought over Brussels. What are the differences in Ireland or Canada as compared with ours - religion, language, caste and tribe in a country of continental dimensions?

The book's survey of the last nearly six decades is both inspiring and daunting. We have overcome. But, a lot more remains yet to overcome. In describing the growth and the contours of a flourishing wood, a couple of trees can be overlooked or misdescribed, even by a careful surveyor. Every reader, while admiring the sweep, will have his own list of overlooked or `misdescribed' trees in this book.

This reviewer's criticism centres on three major episodes. One is the Cabinet Mission's Plan of May 16, 1946. It envisaged an Indian federation based on three groups of provinces. A province could secede from a group: not from the Centre. "Thank God, we have successfully avoided a catastrophy which threatened our country... for the first time an authoritative pronouncement has been made against the possibility of Pakistan in any shape or form," Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to K.M. Munshi the very next day (Pilgrimage to Freedom; K.M. Munshi; page 103).

Maulana Azad triumphantly declaimed: "All schemes of partition of India have been rejected once for all." P.R. Lele, a Congress lawyer more sensible than most, asked in a priceless pamphlet priced at a rupee (Constituent Assembly; Phoenix Publications, Bombay; page 62): "Could a triumph like this come without a price, without some sacrifice?" The Mission "would appear to have specified the price and offered the same". It was grouping of provinces as a sop to the Muslim League. However, Nehru told the Mission on June 10, a month before his famous public "outburst", that the Congress would "break the group system".

It is generally overlooked, and Guha does likewise, that in this Gandhi gave the lead. On the very next day after the Plan was announced, he asserted that "the provinces were free to reject the very idea of grouping". A detailed analysis, dated May 20, followed in Harijan on May 26. He asserted a right to interpret the compromise Plan (so as to break the Group). He maintained this stand until December 1946 and beyond.

Sir Chimanlal Setalvad's censure is incontestable: "The cherished boon of a united India had fallen into their [the Congress'] lap, but they by their own want of political wisdom threw it out and made it beyond their reach." He accurately predicted that Jinnah's triumph would prove a pyrrhic one. The harm to Muslims themselves was incalculable. ("India Divided: Who is to Blame for Partition?" The Times of India; June 15, 1947). Independent India has never honoured Sir Chimanlal. Even his son, M.C. Setalvad, proved too small a man to acknowledge, in his memoirs, his father's greatness. Partition is one of the 10 greatest tragedies in history. We must get the facts right. The Congress rejected sharing of power in 1946, as it did in 1937. The Plan was based on that very principle.

We now have documentary evidence that Nehru gave the order to arrest Sheikh Abdullah. Also, our maps showed the boundary in the western sector to be "undefined" even at the time of the Panchsheel Agreement. Nehru ordered their unilateral alteration a couple of months later on July 1, 1954 - and refused to negotiate. Nehru failed on many counts as a steward of the nation's affairs, domestic and foreign.

We owe him a great debt for the ideals and outlook he espoused relentlessly against all odds. As a builder of the Indian state, he ranks only with Ashoka and Akbar.

The volume deserves appreciation for its many disclosures and the author's reflections as he takes the reader through his survey from 1947 up to 2004. Consider one chilling disclosure. On July 17, 1948, H.V.R. Iengar, Secretary of Patel's Home Ministry, wrote to the Secretaries of all other departments, drawing their attention to "one aspect of security which has assumed urgency and importance in the present context of relations with Pakistan. There is growing evidence that a section of Muslims in India is out of sympathy with the Government of India, particularly because of its policy regarding Kashmir and Hyderabad, and is actively sympathetic to Pakistan. Such government servants are likely to be useful channels of information and would be particularly susceptible to the influence of their relatives.

"It is probable that among Muslim employees of government there are some who belong to these categories. It is obvious that they constitute a dangerous element in the fabric of administration; and it is essential that they should not be entrusted with any confidential or secret work or allowed to hold key posts. For this purpose I would request you to prepare lists of Muslim employees in your Ministry and in the offices under your control, whose loyalty to the Dominion of India is suspected or who are likely to constitute a threat to security. These lists should be carefully prepared and scrutinised by the Heads of Departments or other higher authority, and should be used for the specific purposes of excluding persons from holding key posts or handling confidential or secret work."

This was what Nehru was up against. This is not the only evidence of Patel's mentality. It is dishonest to suggest that while his heart was Hindu his hand was just.

Coalitions have come to stay. They have been of three types - the Samyukta Vidhayak Dals of 1967 and the National Front and the United Front of 1989 and 1996 respectively; the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) National Democratic Alliance; and now the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance. What conclusions can be drawn from this experience?

Guha's comments on the mounting corruption and unchecked debasement of values in our public life are backed by citation of facts. He holds that "the real success story of modern India lies not in the domain of economics but in that of politics". But India has signally failed to evolve a viable party system. The coalitions were formed ad hoc to prevent an adversary from assuming power - in 1977, 1989, 1996 and 2004. India's political parties do not abide by democratic norms in their own organisations. Uniquely in a democracy, party tickets are awarded to candidates by unelected party bosses. Uniquely, too, we have an anti-defection law and licence to `tainted' politicians to hold public office. The election law is a mess.

Guha ends on a note of optimism that is infectious. "So long as the Constitution is not amended beyond recognition, so long as elections are held regularly and fairly and the ethos of secularism broadly prevails, so long as citizens can speak and write in the language of their choosing, so long as there is an integrated market and a moderately efficient civil service and army, and - lest I forget - so long as Hindi films are watched and their songs sung, India will survive." So it will, indeed, as a united polity.

But can we be as sanguine of the quality of India's democracy? Of its civil service? Its judiciary? Its academia? Other public institutions? And, above all, of a climate of tolerance which is indispensable for democratic governance?

This book is certain to run into several editions. It is, one hopes, not presumptuous to suggest addition of a study, however, briefly of the course of the Communist movement since 1947, the rise of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh and its birth to the Jan Sangh in 1951 and the BJP in 1980, and the press as a player in the political process.

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