‘India after Gandhi’ by Ramchandra Guha is an account of Indian history after Independence from colonial rule. It starts with topics like the integration of the princely states, and the mass migration of Hindus into India from Pakistan post-partition and concludes with the rise of the BJP as the pre-eminent party in Indian politics, displacing the Congress. It is a huge book of over 750 pages and touches on most of the significant events in independent India, although it is still not vast enough to cover all of them in detail. It felt as though it would be a huge book that would take a long time to read, but in the end, it felt as though this was the minimum length a book needed to be to do justice to Modern Indian history.
Right after Independence, India faced monumental challenges in maintaining the country’s unity. The Indian state needed to integrate all the Princely States into the country. It needed to create a constitution to reinforce this unity while giving its citizens individual democratic rights. It was largely successful in this endeavour, but it faced two major secessionist insurgencies, which caused long term armed conflict. These two regions were Kashmir and Nagaland. Part of this book is dedicated to unravelling the nuances of the two situations. The chapters provide a lot of insight into the various viewpoints and ideologies and their effect on each other. The history of these problems provided me with context to understand where the multiple viewpoints today arise from.
The issue of linguistic states was another problem faced by the Indian government early on. Quite often, decisions were not made based on the leaders’ preferences but based on public demand. The creation of linguistic states was one such issue. The protests of the citizens overwrote the leaders’ preferences, which resulted in linguistic states. This is an overarching theme of Indian polity, where the public can impose its will on certain issues through popular movements.
The book explores the writing of the Indian constitution and the debate over contentious Hindu code bills. The Congress was only able to pass these bills after gaining popular legitimacy after the First General elections. The Hindu code bills can be seen as an instance where the Indian government was able to fight popular opposition and pass these bills that codified Hindu traditions and law while simultaneously outlawing regressive Hindu practices.
An essential part of Indian history is its foreign relations. The most challenging part is its relations vis-à-vis Pakistan and China. Pakistan has been a security threat ever since Independence, and China became a security threat from the late 1950s. The loss in the 1962 Indo-China war forced India to rethink its idealistic foreign policy to a more pragmatic stance. There were many warning signs before 1962 that demonstrated that the Chinese were better armed than their Indian counterparts, but the Indian ruling dispensation held the wrong assumption that the Chinese would not exercise their stronger force.
The rapid modernisation of the Indian army became a priority after 1962, and India’s ties with the Soviet Union became closer, which resulted in large arms trade from the Soviet Union to India. This modernisation was a major factor in the stalemate in the 1965 India-Pakistan war. The decisiveness of Indian political leadership and strategic acumen resulted in the decisive Indian victory over Pakistan in 1971. The 1971 war brought about the birth of the country Bangladesh, which significantly eased India’s external security concerns. Since 1962 India has built a much more powerful military which has provided it with a decisive conventional edge over Pakistan and the ability to hold the line against the Chinese.
In the 1980s, India faced a grave security threat from the Khalistani movement. Indian security forces carried out extensive anti-terror operations in Punjab. These operations eventually led to the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the subsequent anti – Sikh riots. There was large scale violence for over a decade. India also embroiled itself in the Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka. India lost many troops there and eventually had to pull out. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber.
The book explores the role of the Indian minorities, Dalits and tribes in the Indian state. The lower castes were backward due to centuries of exploitation, and affirmative action for the Dalits was supposed to rectify this. This slowly resulted in educated Dalits who climbed the ladder of Indian government jobs. In time, political parties came to be formed on caste lines, which advocated for policies beneficial to their respective communities.
Most of the middle-class Muslim population had migrated to Pakistan during the partition. Hence the remaining Muslim population was mainly from the lower economic classes. They were underrepresented in Government jobs and primarily engaged in menial jobs. The book also argues that the victims of communal riots were disproportionately Muslim.
India also had a large tribal population. In order to slowly bring them into the mainstream, there was a Scheduled tribe quota created. Many of these tribals existed in the North East of India and Central India, and many of them demanded their own state. This demand resulted in the formation of many of the North-Eastern states as well as the state of Jharkhand. A large amount of Mineral wealth was discovered in Central India, which resulted in illegal mining. This displaced tribal populations and exploited tribal labour. This was part of the reason for the spread of Maoism and Naxalism in Centraal India
After Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, the Congress party became increasingly autocratic. The Congress had fair internal elections to choose their part chief until his death. Dissent was common, and Congress members themselves voiced much dissent. As Indira Gandhi took over, she dismantled the democratic foundations of the Congress party. She was a strong and decisive leader. She filled her inner circle with personal loyalists, and the internal party elections either stopped happening or became a sham. As a result, the Congress split during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, but they were unable to electorally challenge the Congress led by Indira Gandhi. In 1975, Indira Gandhi faced multiple challenges simultaneously; a popular movement, as well as the High Court deemed her election as MP invalid. These challenges pushed her to declare an emergency. A year and a half later, this Emergency was lifted, just as unexpectedly as it had been imposed. The Congress, was now, however, run by the Gandhi family and Rajiv Gandhi, Indira Gandhi’s son, became PM after her death in 1984. After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, Congress was run briefly by Congressmen outside the family but later came back into Sonia Gandhi’s (Rajiv Gandhi’s wife) hands.
The consolidation of the Hindu identity in the 1980s and 1990s made the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) a more prominent political force. The BJP rose as the Congress weakened. The BJPs politics was against minority appeasement and was boosted by Congress’s missteps in the Shah Bano Case. The Ram temple issue in Ayodhya garnered them widespread support. For the first time, by the late 1990s, Indian democracy had a potent national opposition party capable of challenging the Congress. From 1990 until 2014, coalition governments ruled India, which meant that multiple parties comprised the parliament majority. Usually, the leading player in such a government was either the Congress or the BJP. The regional parties were smaller, but they played a decisive role in deciding the ruling government and its policies. 2014 marked the end of such coalition governments. The BJP won a decisive victory, and Congress came a distant second, unable to gain even ten percent of the parliament’s seats. The 2014 election hence established BJP as the pre-eminent pan Indian party displacing the duopoly of the previous 25 years and Congress hegemony post-independence.
India after Gandhi gives a largely unbiased account of all these events. They are explained in more detail, and the complexities are laid out. The book details many events I have not mentioned. These include the government’s economic decisions and the evolution of Indian Foreign Policy. Democratic institutions are discussed. Ramchandra Guha gives context to communal tensions and discusses the events during the anti-Sikh riots, the Kashmiri Pandit exodus in 1990, and the Gujarat riots of 2002. The book provides a comprehensive account of post-Independence India, and after reading the book, one can understand the historical context behind current Indian affairs. It is a fascinating read and is quite engaging, especially for someone who knows India.