Although this book was published in 2007 by ECCO, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, I must confess rather sheepishly that I just read, “India After Gandhi” by Ramachandra Guha-in October 2016. The by line is an apt description of the book, “The History Of The World’s Largest Democracy.”
The hard bound edition ( which my friend Divakar Kaza said would improve my biceps before I was done with this tome) runs into 759 pages, followed by nearly 100 pages of well-researched notes. The cover flap says, “massively researched and elegantly written, India After Gandhi is at once a magisterial account of India’s rebirth and the work of a scholar at the height of his powers.” I would agree. It certainly is extensively researched and most elegantly written though I would have said, “height of his prowess” speaking of the author’s talents rather than his “powers.” The task before Guha was immensely challenging. To cover the history of a complex country with its immense diversity ( spanning six decades at the time of writing the book) is no mean task. I would imagine the historian needs to prioritize events, people, and happenings largely determined by their impact on the larger society. Overall, he has achieved his objective. History which can be a dull subject if not handled well comes to life in Guha’s book. This is primarily because of his focus being not only on issues but also on the people around them. Guha has dwelt extensively on the causes of conflict in India namely caste, class, language, and religion, which sadly continue to be the bugbears of our society.
There has been enough praise for the book. I too felt it was absorbing but here are a few points which surprised me. Considering that it is produced by such a reputed publishing house, I was shocked to notice what I consider (and I may be wrong) editorial lapses. The Cast of Characters at the start of the book was a nice touch. However, I was astonished that under Mohandas K Gandhi, the Mahatma, the Father of the Nation, it said, “no relation to Indira, Rajiv, or Sanjay Gandhi.”!! I would have liked to see this comment after Indira, Rajiv, or Sanjay emphasising that they were no relations of the Mahatma. This is in the context of many illiterates in India wrongly assuming (and being encouraged to do so) that the Nehru-Gandhi family were descendants of the Father of the Nation. Also, it surprised me that many words like Governor General, Governor , Commander-in-Chief, Viceroy, Prime Minister, Indian Civil Service, Nawab, Duke, King etc were written un-capitalized, contrary to the prevailing practice then, and I would imagine even now.
I was disappointed that not much was written about Lord and Lady Mountbatten and their influence on Nehru. Likewise, Indira Gandhi’s husband Feroz is mentioned only once in the whole book and there is no attempt to describe why she became the character that she did. It also surprised me that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose finds no mention at all, though I grant that he was supposed to have died in an air crash in 1945 before Gandhi’s assassination and the start of the book. Still not finding one word about Bose who influenced historical events in India was strange to say the least. More so when the Nehru Government was known to have spied on his family for decades after Independence to find out whether they were in touch with him, assuming of course that he was alive somewhere!
There are some invaluable lessons for those who seek to write history. Guha has stood by Maitland’s excellent maxim of, “what is now in the past was once in the future” He has tried to be objective rather than judgemental as any historian should. As Guha himself writes, ” the closer one gets to the present , the more judgemental one tends to become.” How true!! There is no mention that the Italy-born Sonia Gandhi (nee Antonia Maino) who became the most powerful person in India after 2004, came to India as the young bride of Rajiv Gandhi in 1968 but became an Indian citizen only in 1983.
Another observation: Guha writes, ” It is a striking fact that no army commander has ever run in an election.” While it is true that Chiefs of Army Staff ( until General V K Singh quite recently in 2014) did not actively take part in politics but were often granted positions of importance post retirement such as Governors, High Commissioners etc, there were senior officers like Major General B C Khanduri who joined politics on leaving the Armed Forces. He was in fact a Minister in the Vajpayee Cabinet in the years after 2002.
Also I guess the last word on the ill-fated Sabarmati Express in Godhra in 2002 has not yet been heard though of course Guha, quite naturally, has written on the event based on information then available.
In conclusion: This book is eminently readable and strongly recommended for anyone who wishes to know how India grew over the first six decades after independence. I can only subscribe to and second what David Gilmour, author of “Curzon: Imperial Statesman,” wrote about the book: “Ramachandra Guha is a remarkable historian whose combination of acute judgement, lucid writing and unparalleled research has resulted in a superb account of the progress and vicissitudes of modern India.”