Given the extraordinary proliferation of historians and historiographies in contemporary India, it seems astonishing that Ramachandra Guha’s is the first attempt at a national history of the country since Independence.footnote1 As he points out, ‘modern’ Indian history conventionally stops in 1947. There has, of course, been a vast amount of analysis of the country’s development since then. But this has generally focused on specific themes or institutions—communalism, political parties (above all, the Congress), caste, peasant studies, regionalism, urbanization, and so forth. For their part, historians have paid a great deal of attention to the ruptures and continuities of the colonial era and to the nationalist movement in the formative 1857–1947 period, while the Subaltern Studies tradition has tended to concentrate on micro-research, often at village level. India after Gandhi is thus a breakthrough in Indian historiography: an overview of the country’s post-colonial course spanning some 900 pages. Guha promises to review political, social and economic developments, cultural innovations and popular entertainment, at regional as well as national levels. The final product is more limited than that, but nevertheless both useful and highly readable. A prolific writer, Guha’s first book was The Unquiet Woods in 1989, the fruits of his doctoral research on the environmental social history of the Himalayan forests. He has since produced half a dozen more works in this field, including a global history of environmentalism, and at least as many about cricket. In India after Gandhi, Guha provides a thoughtful survey of the period in fluent, lucid prose.
One reason why contemporary Indian historiography has remained so underdeveloped is the structural constraints under which it has operated. Archival sources are very rarely made available to scholars; there are few private paper collections, and access to those that exist is often restricted; there are even fewer collections of the documents of parties, trade unions and political organizations of other kinds. Guha has consulted whatever resources he could, in libraries and archives all over India and across the world: British archives for the early part of the book, official surveys and reports, published volumes of the speeches and writings of various politicians, and some important private papers, including those of C. Rajagopalachari, General Thimayya and P. N. Haksar. But the virtual non-availability of standard archival sources still remains a very important gap.
Nor can the national historian rely on a solid underpinning of secondary sources. As Guha writes:
The Republic of India is a union of twenty-eight states, some larger than France. Yet not even the biggest or more important of these states have had their histories written . . . India has produced entrepreneurs of great vision and dynamism, but the stories of the institutions they built and the wealth they created are mostly unwritten. Again, there are no proper biographies of some of the key figures in our modern history, such as Sheikh Abdullah, Master Tara Singh or M. G. Ramachandran, ‘provincial’ leaders each of whose province is the size of a large European country.
To compensate, Guha has made extensive use of Indian, American and British newspapers and journals, especially for the post-1989 period. In fact, his narrative is frequently interspersed with comments and observations from foreign ‘India hands’ or experts, many of which are neither very penetrating nor very interesting. In his over-dependence on newspaper accounts, Guha is also constrained by the fact that he had to rely on those written in English. For a linguistically diverse country such as India, regional-language press accounts, biographies or memoirs might have brought fresh insights to the story he has to tell.