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. 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.
What is that story? Guha offers no overall theses as to how the India of 1947 became that of today. Instead he embarks on a narration of political events, deftly interwoven with socio-cultural and economic developments. Along the way he provides a set of individual political profiles, often interesting and amusingly drawn. One occasionally feels that he overuses this strategy, especially since, barring a few individuals—Nehru, Patel, Sheikh Abdullah, Indira Gandhi or Jayprakash Narayan—many were not as significant as the character-driven plot structure, weighted towards party leaders, makes them out to be. Other social forces and structures are inevitably downplayed. This limits the type of answers Guha can give to his two framing questions: first, how is it that post-Partition India, with its plurality of languages, cultures, religions and ethnic identities, has been able to survive as a united nation-state? And second, how could such a vast, poor and populous land remain a functioning democracy—indeed, as Guha puts it, quoting Sunil Khilnani, a ‘bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent’? This double survival—national unity and democracy—is, Guha contends, the most arresting feature of the history of independent India, and he cites numerous (mainly English or American) observers who assumed that, without them, the ‘unnatural nation’ would descend into Balkanization or dictatorship. These are, of course, important historical questions. Guha does not really answer them; nor does he ask what type of democracy—organized by what rules, installing which leaders? Or, what sort of state was forged by the Congress leadership, on the basis of decolonization and partition? Nevertheless, he does provide a clear and comprehensive account of the course of events.
The book begins with a précis of the broad features of colonial rule, the nationalist movements, and the political dynamics of religious differentiation that led to the establishment of two modern states on the subcontinent, India and Pakistan. A signal strength of India after Gandhi is its full acknowledgement of the terrible trauma of Partition, the scars of which continue to mark both countries to this day. Two excellent chapters discuss the flight of India’s Muslims, the enormous problems of the settlement and rehabilitation of refugees from East and West Pakistan, and the subsequent experiences of the displaced people themselves. Guha also describes the processes by which over 500 princely states, occupying perhaps a third of the country and long propped up by British rule, were absorbed into the Congress-led Republic, whether by persuasion, bribery or—for the most recalcitrant—outright coercion. There is a long chapter on Kashmir, incorporated into the new Indian state on the say-so of its corrupt and reviled maharaja, against the wishes of the largely Muslim Kashmiri people. (The determined resistance to Delhi’s rule by the North-Eastern states is less well covered.)