3 June 2019
The Indian history taught in schools has been biased, irrelevant and incomplete. For the children, the history ends with partition and independence. After this period, the history seems to be devoid of contents. The events after that may appear in popular cinema and television but Indian history book never formally covers it, at school. In order to glorify India’s past; there have been mixed myths and half-truths. For e.g., it can be United Nations declaring India’s national anthem as world’s best or India’s victory over China in 1962 war. There have been many such instances, including bizarre achievements of ancient Indians. There are many reasons why Indian students finds history so boring. I am always on the lookout for an authentic account of Indian history. This book attempts to narrate and analyze major characters, controversies, themes and processes of independent India. The West had lovingly devalued India’s attempt for democracy. The doomsayers had predicted a disastrous India with death of every prime minister. Many went to the extent of calling India as a dystopia, which anytime could be replaced by a military rule. Whatever be the earlier debate on forlorn democracy, the fact remains that after seven decades of independence, India still is a single nation driven by democracy. Let us pick up few subjects randomly from the book and discuss.
After the newfound independence, partition, communal riots and refugee issues already crippled India. To add to the woes, the integration of five hundred princely states posed a major challenge to the new government. The shape and powers of the princely states were due to the British. The British considered these princely states as strategic allies. However, in real sense the British were the lord. As per the Indian Independence Act of 1947, each of the princely state rulers had the option to either accede to the newly born nation of India or Pakistan, or continue as independent sovereign states. After decades of exploitation, the departure of the British provided them with an excellent opportunity to declare autonomy. One of the first prince, who voluntarily choose to align with India, was Maharaja of Bikaner. He then appealed to dozen of more states to join and many Rajput princes listened to him. In fact, they realized that forces of nationalism were irresistible and compromising is the sensible thing to do. However, there were stiff resistance from some of the princely states. On this regard, we are well aware of the much-documented issue of Kashmir, Hyderabad and Junagarh. Apart from this, Travancore was the first state which questioned Congress right to succeed the British as paramount power. They wanted to remain independent. Bhopal had a Muslim ruler and a large Hindu population. The ruler was more close to Muslim League than the Congress. Jodhpur was a curious case which had a both Hindu ruler and a large Hindu population. Still the ruler thought that if he joins Pakistan, he is going to get better deals. The nation owes its gratitude to Sardar Vallabhai Patel for his vision, tactfulness and pragmatic approach. V.P.Menon, who was constitutional advisor to Lord Mountbatten, ably assisted him. They had used both force and friendly advice to achieve their objective. It was a tireless effort on their part to cajole princes.
Two of the biggest stalwarts of the Indian politics were Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel. They had unquestionable integrity and were fiercely patriotic. They had their own vision of setting things right in independent India and leading her to a bright future. The similarity ends here. There was stark differences in their character, personality, ideology and outlook. While Nehru was an upper caste Brahmin, Patel hailed from farming caste. Nehru loved good foods and wine, appreciated fine art and literature and had travelled widely abroad. Patel on the other hand was a teetotaler and a vegetarian, who was a hard taskmaster with little time to engage in anything else. There was a deep-rooted differences and it is only after Gandhi’s death that they reconciled and kept aside their difference for the nation. Still the differences surfaced after that though, in a mute tone. Nehru believed in state control of the economy while Patel was friendly to the capitalist. The chasm between them became more public during their support for different candidates as Congress President. Still Patel would advise his supporters to listen to Nehru because he felt destruction of their party meant destruction of India. Nehru on the other hand felt that Patel was an unmatched warrior in the cause of freedom and a great servant of the people.
After the death of Patel, the days of two power centers within the party cease to exist. Nehru had a free hand and there was not much resistance to him in the party. After becoming the first Indian Prime Minister, he was re-elected in 1952, 1957 and 1962. Back in 1952, outside the party, he faced huge ideological challenges primarily from two parties- Jana Sangh and Socialists. Later the party were in disarray because their charismatic leader S.P. Mookherjee had died and J.P. Narayan abandoned politics for social services. In the next elections thereafter, the Congress was unchallenged. He tried to create a classless society with equal opportunity for all. He also implemented plans to build roads, dams and power plants. He was more appealed to the Soviet economic system. He thought that state ownership and state planning were more efficient as compared to private property and market economy. In his book- “Glimpses of World History”, he had admired Soviet five-year plan. His foreign policies were based on non-alignment to the power blocks. However, there was big question mark on India’s foreign policies after Soviet invasion of Hungary. The west alleged that he can condemn them but preferred to remain silent during this invasion. His attempt to improve relationship with China failed miserably. The Indo-Chinese war exposed India’s weakness and unpreparedness in defending its northern border. India’s self-esteem and prestige suffered and it was a severe loss of face for Nehru in the international arena and undermined his superior position at home.
Indira Gandhi is considered as one of the strongest Prime Minister India ever had. She was known for cold assessment and shrewd timing. She not only faced stiff resistance from opposition but from her own party as well. After becoming the Prime Minister, her political career coincided with breakdown of parent Congress party, Indo-Pak war, Emergency, first non-Congress government at the Centre and finally Operation Blue Star and its painful consequence; a very eventful and controversial period. Despite being the Prime Minister, she was not strong enough to defy the organization and yet sensible enough not to quit. She proposed nationalization of banks and relieved known opponent of nationalization- Moraji Desai of the Finance Ministry. She issued an ordinance announcing that State had taken over fourteen privately owned banks. A bank was not only supposed to disburse loans to big business houses but to farmers and artisans as well. Next she turned her attention towards abolition of privileges given to the princes. After their state merger with the Union, the princes were given a constitutional guarantee that they could retain their titles, palaces and assets and get and annual privy purse. The constitutional guarantee stands null and void. She was gaining confidence and was becoming increasingly assertive. The schism in the Congress party became evident during election of new President of India. She asked her party men to vote for Independent candidate- V.V Giri instead of Congress official candidate- Sanjiva Reddy, which most of them did. The Congress President Nijalingappa accused Indira Gandhi of promoting a cult of personality over her party and the nation. She was expelled for indiscipline. There were now two factions of the Congress- Congress(O) and Congress( R); the latter was later renamed as Congress(I). After her landslide victory in 1971 elections, Indira’s Congress was confirmed as the real Congress, requiring no qualifying suffix. In 1971 only, India tasted its first military victory over any nation. This victory over Pakistan allowed Indians to savour smell of military success after a humiliating defeat at the hands of China. Indira Gandhi stake and standing increased both in India as well as in international arena. She moved away from Nehru and Shastri incremental and continuous approach. She has the knack of fighting to finish, even bringing eighty-four-year party to rupture.
In 1974, there was a student led movement in Gujarat that demanded fall of Congress led State government, which was notorious for corruption. These inspired students in Bihar to lead a similar movement in their own State where corruption was rife and there was deep discontent and feeling of chagrined in the countryside. The different bellicose student wings created a united front called as Chatra Sangarsh Samiti(CSS). Campus life came to a halt. The students burnt down government offices, buildings and warehouses. There were frequent clashes with police. CSS approached revered Jaya Prakash Narayan better known as JP. He realized that he could no longer remain a silent spectator to misgovernment, corruption, black marketing and hoarding. He decided to join but on two conditions. Firstly, it should be non-violent and secondly it should not be restricted to Bihar. Since JP was a man of high moral authority and hero of freedom struggle, his entry gave the movement a big boost. The movement name changed from “Bihar movement” to “JP movement”. JP called for a total revolution to redeem unfulfilled promises of the freedom movement. The support for struggle was widespread and people came in hoards to support the movement. The grand success unnerved Indira Gandhi government to such an extent that she pushed Emergency on the unsuspecting nation. Now who was responsible for such a chaos. Still there is a debate and there are two school of thoughts. Both had shown little faith in representative institutions and ignored role of state in a modern democracy. Some believe that JP ideas were untested and unconvincing. He led a movement without a cadre of disciplined and non-violent volunteers. Moreover, its credibility was questioned due to the presence of extremists from both left and right. Indira Gandhi overreacted by imposing emergency thereby creating fear in the minds of the people. Her decisions made state functionaries dependent on the whim and fancies of a single person.
The first elections post emergency resulted in humiliating defeat of the Congress. Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi lost too. The first non-Congress party government was at the Centre. However, the Janata Party had not fought the elections under a single leader and after the election victory there were three contenders for the top post. There was hectic campaigning on the behalf of three candidates. First there was Moraji Desai who almost twice became Prime Minister after the death of Nehru and Shastri. The supporters of Charan Singh felt that their sweep in the North made him the right choice. Jagjivan Ram supporter argued that his defection from the Congress has been a decisive factor. Finally, JP and J.B Kriplani settled on Moraji Desai. The differences were an insinuation that there are trouble times ahead. After few years, Charan Singh was not contended being the number two in the cabinet. His differences with Moraji Desai started emerging. Charan Singh was sacked from the Cabinet. After few months he organized a massive farmer rally which around two lacs people attended. The show of strength compelled Moraji Desai to induct him back into the cabinet. Finally, the inevitable split in Janata Party happened and Moraji Desai lost majority and resigned. Charan Singh strike an alliance with his old nemesis Indira Gandhi to became the new Prime Minister. However, the Congress withdraw its support after few months. Indira Gandhi had the last laugh. She was in inertia and had to do nothing to engineer a split in Janata Party. The regime learnt a hard lesson that promises are like lollipops and performance like a dose of bitter medicine. The party came to power after a movement directed towards second freedom from authoritarian rule and restoration of democracy. However, from the beginning itself, party was determined to let go this goodwill. The opportunity was squandered. The party leaders were more interested in positions and perquisites. Once a political analyst commented on the three-year rule as chronicle of confused and complex party squabbles, intra-party rivalries, shifting alliances defections, charges and counter-charges of incompetence.
The account on scams, Anna Hazare movement, fall of Congress and rise and rise of BJP makes an interesting reading. You name any itsy-bitsy events in modern Indian history, it finds a mention in the book. This is a scholarly work from a master author. It is 800 pages book and you need a series of marathon reading session to complete it. It’s engaging too. It does causes a reading fatigue once you complete but every second spend on the book is worth reading. The subjects touched upon in review is only a fraction. It’s just like taking a mug of water out from a sea. It’s a wealth of information. If you think you know it all about modern Indian history then read this book to do a reality check. Otherwise simply read it to brush up your knowledge to see how much you know about your nation.