Historian Ramachandra Guha on his landmark book ‘India after Gandhi’ and why he thinks ordinary, tolerant, peace-loving Indians will resist their country becoming ‘Hindu Pakistan’


Ten years ago Ramachandra Guha’s landmark text, India after Gandhi, proved that a complete and detailed exploration of India’s post-Independence history could be written in a single volume.

Championing Guha’s achievement, The London Review of Books claimed that, prior to India after Gandhi, the best book on the period was ‘a stodgy piece of nationalist-Marxist writing from the rank and file of plodders at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University’.

Guha drew critical praise for avoiding such ‘plodding’ and capturing the essence of the against-all-odds building of India as a nation-state from a hugely fragmented social landscape.

Ten years after publication, Guha’s tome is still considered to be without an equal and the latest anniversary edition (published by Pan Macmillan) adds two new chapters to what he describes as a country and democratic experiment that has (so far) been little more than a ’50/50 success’.

After having resigned from the Supreme Court appointed BCCI committee overseeing a structural change in Indian cricket, Guha now devotes his time to writing and has just finished a book on Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian freedom struggle.

According to Guha, India after Gandhi continues to do (and sell) very well. It has recently been published in eight Indian languages, with three other translations in the works. Literacy is on the up in India and history it would seem is now being read well beyond the English-speaking elite.

Guha told MailOnline: ‘Indian history-writing had focused massively on the colonial period, and the fascinating and tumultuous journey of independent India has been ignored by scholars. My book still fills that gap, I hope somewhat adequately!’

However in the years since Guha’s landmark text was published India has very much entered the second chapter of its life as a democracy.

Seventy years of Independence have now seen a philosophical shift from the ideas of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj to Savarkar’s Hindutva; and a political shift from the secular party politics of Nehru’s Congress to Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s BJP and current PM Narendra Modi, a leader of staggering popularity in 2017 India.

But why is the India of first Nehru and now Modi only a ’50/50′ success?

‘The Republic of India is very much a work in progress’, Guha argues, ‘This is an ancient civilization, but a young nation. To expect a country as large and as diverse as India to become united and democratic without any conflict whatsoever is utopian.

‘The process of nation-building is always conflict-ridden. England, France, the United States, Russia, Spain, China all experienced bloody civil wars.’

Alongside many of his peers, the author recognises that the BJP has now comprehensively replaced the Congress as the dominant player in Indian politics.

And with this political shift so follows, ‘a rather narrow and dogmatic view of what India is or must be.’
There will be attempts, Guha adds, ‘to recast India as a Hindu state, to further put the minorities in their place.
‘But this will be resisted, not by the moribund Congress but by intellectuals and activists, and by ordinary, decent, tolerant, peace-loving Indians who do not wish to have their country turned into a Hindu Pakistan.’

Re-writing History

Today’s India has a certain unease with its history both ancient and modern.

There have been many attempts to rewrite history and extend backward the influence of Hinduism in India. This was most evident in 2002 when the national curriculum setting authority in India, the National Council of Educational Research and Training, decided to unpick from the fabric of history everything we know about the first set of people to settle in South Asia.

Under Vajpayee’s BJP-led government, textbook revisions were made to rename the Indus Valley civilisation (a Bronze Age culture straddling what is now Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India) as the ‘Indus Saraswati’ civilisation.

This new name forges a direct link between the earliest known people to inhabit the region, and the ‘foremost mother river’, the Saraswati, mentioned in sacred Hindu mythology.

The value of this for the right-wing BJP government in 2002 was to make a direct link between this ‘Indus Saraswati’ civilisation and the Vedic civilisation, the fathers of Hinduism, that came much later.

Despite archaeologists immediately rejecting this theory, the reason for rewriting history, in this case, is simple: historians, schoolteachers, and politicians can all point at a book and claim with absolute impunity that India has always been a Hindu nation.

As such, this need to tinker with history has now moved forward but the intent remains the same.
Earlier this month a quiz book was prepared by the ruling BJP to be used as the basic text for testing 1.5 million schoolchildren in Uttar Pradesh.

The book in question removes Mahatma Gandhi from the list of India’s great personalities and fails to mention the role of both Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi in India’s freedom struggle.

And that’s just the surface of it all. Right-wing figures from India’s history such as Pandit Deendayal and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee are championed, 331 years of Mughal civilisation is re-branded as ‘foreign invaders’ who ‘corrupted’ Indian culture, the life history of Ambedkar (who wrote India’s constitution) neglects his role as Dalit hero and his fight against Brahmanism, while the chapter on India’s economy starts in 2014.

The schoolbook also makes the somewhat far-fetched claim that India has sent men to the moon… in an actual space ship.

Needless to say, as one of India’s foremost historians, Guha believes that this ‘rewriting of Indian history on Hindutva lines’ is crude.

‘Unlike the British or American conservative tradition, the right-wing in India has no credible intellectuals.

‘All the respected and admired historians in India are, without exception, liberals or leftists. Their works may have their own biases, but at least they draw upon extensive research in the archives.

‘Historians allied to the BJP have little or no professional rigour, so their works – at least thus far – read like propaganda, not scholarship.’

Guha adds, ‘for the period before the British rule, Muslim monarchs are vilified, Hindu rulers glorified. For the colonial period, the leading role of Gandhi and the Congress in the freedom struggle is underplayed.

‘For the post-1947 period, the role played by Nehru in nurturing democracy and scientific research is suppressed, while his failures in economics and defence strategy stressed (or over-stressed).’

Guha is however optimistic that those intent on shaping India’s history will ultimately be beaten and that a new generation of historians are already knocking on the door.

‘Contemporary history is a field in which many excellent books will appear in the next few decades,’ he adds, ‘(history) written and researched by scholars younger than myself, and with more flair and energy!’

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