This is a success story. In the 60 years since Nehru proclaimed India’s tryst with destiny all has not gone as he would have wished. Only just over 60 per cent of adult Indians are literate, far less than the comparable figure for China. Life expectancy has nearly doubled since independence, but here again China has done much better. Many millions of Indians still live in degrading poverty. Child mortality remains high, leprosy is rife, 15 million Indians suffer from tuberculosis, Aids is a new and yet more fearful threat. The barriers of caste and class have not been exorcised. The open sore of Kashmir remains unhealed. But, against all the odds, India has remained unified. Economically it is flourishing as never before. Above all, in a series of more-or-less fair and well-conducted elections, the Indian people have continued to choose governments which reflect their wishes. This is, as Ramachandra Guha proudly proclaims in his subtitle, ‘The History of the World’s Largest Democracy’.
It is a formidable undertaking to write in a single volume a history of this vast country; rent as it has been by caste, class, religion, language; led by a galaxy of remarkable and sometimes indecently colourful men and women; absorbed by its internal problems yet determined to play a part on the world stage. Such a task demands the ability to marshal a formidable array of facts, to keep them in proportion and to assemble them in a lucid and readable narrative. Above all, it calls for a clear and open mind, a capacity to understand if never to condone the forces that breed fear, prejudice and hatred; to see through the clap-trap of politicians to the stark reality that underlies their posturing. Guha rises nobly to these challenges: his history is not, could not be, definitive, but it is as comprehensive, balanced and elegantly crafted as any reasonable reader could expect.
A temptation to which the patriotic Indian historian is apt to succumb is to blame all India’s woes on the legacy left by the British Raj. Guha is commendably free from this propensity. The evils that beset India, he makes clear, were all apparent before the arrival of the British — some may have been exacerbated during the years of Empire, others palliated, but none was imported by the conqueror. Nor do the British play a conspicuous part in Guha’s post-imperial India. They left behind, he accepts, ‘a set of functioning institutions: the civil service and police, the judiciary and the railways, among others’, but almost all those who had worked in the Indian Civil Service immediately quit the country ‘along with their colleagues in the other services’. This, perhaps, slightly understates the contribution made by devoted servants of India like Penderel Moon, or of men like Archibald Nye, who was asked to stay on as Governor of Madras after Independence and was then persuaded by Nehru to serve as British High Commissioner in Delhi. Essentially, however, Guha is right: India came to terms with its own destiny, accepting help from time to time but dependent on no other power. Yet, particularly under Nehru and Indira Gandhi, an astonishingly close rapport continued to exist between the establishments in London and Delhi. When Mrs Gandhi abruptly and unexpectedly returned to constitutional government, Guha suggests that the opinions of certain liberal friends of India — Fenner Brockway, John Grigg, Bernard Levin — may have been an important factor. He might also have mentioned the intervention of Mountbatten, who relentlessly bombarded Mrs Gandhi with messages reminding her how her father would have deplored her authoritarian excesses. His objurgations no doubt aroused intense irritation in their recipient, but they were not altogether without effect.
Keeping in proportion the separate elements of so huge and sprawling a history calls for the finest judgment. Kashmir, for instance, is allotted some 50 pages — about 16 per cent of the entire text. In terms of its population and its economic importance this is obviously extravagant; in the damage the Kashmir problem has done to Indo-Pakistan relations and the appalling expense in which it has involved both countries, it is no more than adequate. With the possible exception of the Cuban missile crisis, Kashmir has come closer than any other international dispute to causing a nuclear war. It is one of the bleakest features of this book that the potential for disaster there remains as fearful now as at the moment of Partition.
But there are plenty more long-running plagues which still beset India. Caste has lost some of its more distasteful connotations but it is still a dangerously divisive factor. The fissiparous forces of language and religion continue to threaten the unity of the nation. The government, particularly when Nehru or his progeny were in power, stress that all Indians are free to worship in their own way, without prejudice to their economic or political rights. Fanatics on all sides continue to challenge what they see as misguided or even evil liberalism. After the repression of the Sikh separatist movement in Amritsar, Mrs Gandhi was advised to change the Sikh members of her personal bodyguard. ‘Aren’t we secular?’ she responded frostily. Her reward was to be gunned down by two of her Sikh guards who had recently returned from the Punjab and had been outraged by the woes inflicted on their people. The Sikhs seem now to be reconciled to their place in India, but who can be sure that some fresh act of fanaticism will not rekindle the flames of sectarian violence?
Jawaharlal Nehru would have been still more distressed by the renewed hostility between Hindu and Muslim. The destruction of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya may have been instigated by a few fanatics, but in India ‘a few’ can mean thousands or even tens of thousands, and the groundswell of popular enthusiasm which the incident provoked showed how fragile the veneer of tolerance still is. In many parts of India pressure is being brought on Muslims to prove their loyalty or retreat to Pakistan. When India played Pakistan at cricket ‘it was demanded of Muslims that they display the national flag outside their homes, and that they loudly and publicly cheer for the national side’. It is not only Norman Tebbit who demands that patriotism should be expressed in sport as well as politics.
The problems, therefore, are still terrifying, but the structure holds and the dangers seem no worse than at any time in the past. Mrs Gandhi’s lurch towards dictatorship followed by her equally dramatic recantation illustrates more vividly than anything else the intrinsic strength of Indian democracy. The economic explosion is at the moment confined to a few major cities but it is generating wealth on an astonishing scale. The growth of call-centres, whereby Westerners wanting information about train times or credit cards, will find themselves talking to affable Indians in Bangalore, grows apace; it is predicted that by 2008 the industry will employ 2 million people and generate $25 billion annually for the Indian economy. A country cannot thrive indefinitely by taking in other people’s washing, but the existence of a huge skilled workforce, ready to perform for what by Western standards is a pittance, promises, if it does not guarantee, future prosperity.
The publisher describes this book as ‘a must-read for anyone interested in India’. Such hyperbole usually needs to be taken with a barrow-load of salt. Add the word ‘contemporary’ before ‘India’ and in this case it is well justified.