The New India Foundation has released its longlist of 12 books for the Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize for the best non-fiction book on modern or contemporary India published in 2020. The books have been chosen by a jury comprising political scientist Niraja Gopal Jayal, entrepreneur Nandan Nilekani, historian Nayanjot Lahiri, entrepreneur Manish Sabharwal, and historian Srinath Raghavan.
With no limitations on genre or writer’s nationality, the longlist spans politics, music, history, anthropology, and biography. The shortlist will be announced in the last week of October, and the winner of the Rs 15-lakh prize, in December.
Last year, the prize was jointly awarded to Amit Ahuja for his debut Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements (Oxford University Press) and Jairam Ramesh for his biography A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon (Penguin Random House). In 2019 it was awarded to Ornit Shani for her scholarly work How India Became Democratic: Citizenship and the Making of the Universal Franchise (Penguin Random House) and in 2018 to Milan Vaishnav for his debut When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (HarperCollins India).
Here is the longlist, in alphabetical order of the writer’s name, along with the jury’s comments and excerpts from the publisher’s blurb in each case.
Muscular India: Masculinity, Mobility and the New Middle Class, Michael Baas, Context, Westland
The gyms of urban “new India” are intriguing spaces. While they cater largely to well-off clients, these shiny, modern institutions are also vehicles of upward mobility for the trainers and specialists who work there. As they learn English, “upgrade” their dressing style and try to develop a deeper understanding of the lives of their upmarket customers., they break with an older kind of masculinity represented by the pehlwans in their akharas. Equally, the gym aspires to be a safe space for women – a break from the toxic masculinity they must deal with outside its walls.
Yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. Class barriers are less permeable than they appear. The use of bodily capital to breach them is more fraught with danger than one might anticipate. And the profession is riddled with pitfalls and contradictions.
Michiel Baas has spent a decade studying gyms, trainers and bodybuilders, and finds in them a new way to investigate India. He walks us through the homes and workspaces of these men – yes, they are almost all men – to bodybuilding competitions and also into their most intimate worlds of ambitions, desires and struggles.
“A fascinating account of how the Bollywood ideal of a lean and muscular physique has inspired lower middle class men to seek social mobility, by working as fitness trainers in gyms, or as competitors in the world of bodybuilding and modelling. Baas follows the trajectories of several fitness trainers, exploring their aspirations, their anxieties, and the resilience of class barriers.”— What the jury said
The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country, Ashutosh Bharadwaj, Fourth Estate, HarperCollins
From 2011 to 2015, Ashutosh Bhardwaj lived in India’s “red corridor”, and made several trips thereafter, reporting on the Maoists, on the state’s atrocities, and on lives caught in the crossfire. In The Death Script, he writes of his time there, of the various men and women he meets from both sides of the conflict, bringing home with astonishing power the human cost of such a battle.
Narrated in multiple voices, the book is a creative biography of Dandakaranya that combines the rigour of journalism, the intimacy of a diary, the musings of a travelogue, and the craft of a novel. Through the prism of the Maoist insurgency, Bhardwaj meditates on larger questions of violence and betrayal, sin and redemption, and what it means to live through and write about such experiences – making The Death Script one of the most significant works of non-fiction to be published in recent times.
“A searing and stunningly crafted narrative based on the author’s reportage from India’s so-called ‘red corridor’. All sides in the conflict find voice in Bharadwaj’s sensitive treatment, offering poignant reflections on the human predicament in a danger zone: fear and love, betrayal and violence, and above all the yearning for justice.”— What the jury said
India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency 1975-77, Christophe Jaffrelot & Pratinav Anil, HarperCollins
In June 1975 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of emergency, resulting in a 21-month suspension of democracy across India. Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil explore this black page in India’s history, a constitutional dictatorship of unequal impact, with South India largely spared thanks to the resilience of Indian federalism.
India’s First Dictatorship focuses on Mrs Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, who was largely responsible for the mass sterilisation programmes and deportation of urban slum-dwellers. However, it equally exposes the facilitation of authoritarian rule by Congressmen, Communists, trade unions, businessmen and the urban middle class, as well as the complacency of the judiciary and media. Those who resisted the Emergency, in the media or on the streets, were few in number.
This episode was an acid test for India’s political culture. While a tiny minority of citizens fought for democracy during the Emergency, in large numbers the people bowed to the strong leader in power, even worshipped her. Equally importantly, Hindu nationalists were endowed with a new legitimacy. Yet, the Emergency was neither a parenthesis, nor so much a turning point: but a concentrate of a style of rule that is very much alive today.
“A masterful study of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, and her son Sanjay’s role in it. This is a comprehensive and deeply researched book on a dark period of our history, in which democracy was suspended and a constitutional dictatorship was instituted, with little popular resistance.”— What the jury said
Brand New Nation: Capitalist Dreams and Nationalist Designs in Twenty-First-Century India, Ravinder Kaur, Stanford University Press
The early twenty-first century was an optimistic moment of global futures-making. The old “third-world” nations were rapidly embracing the script of unbridled capitalism in the hope of arriving on the world stage.
Brand New Nation reveals the on-the-ground experience of the relentless transformation of the nation-state into an attractive investment destination for global capital. The infusion of capital not only rejuvenates the nation, it also produces investment-fuelled nationalism, a populist energy that can be turned into a powerful instrument of coercion.
Grounded in the history of modern India, the book reveals how the forces of identity economy, identity politics, publicity, populism, violence and economic growth are rapidly rearranging the liberal political order the world over.
“A compelling and provocative book about how the shiny new Brand India of the 21st century was created and advertised overseas to attract investment by global capital; and how it was deployed to fuel nationalism within the country, as the very idea of the nation was shaped anew.”— What the jury said
India’s Founding Moment: The Constitution of a Most Surprising Democracy, Madhav Khosla, Harvard University Press
Britain’s justification for colonial rule in India stressed the impossibility of Indian self-government. And the empire did its best to ensure this was the case, impoverishing Indian subjects and doing little to improve their socioeconomic reality. So when independence came, the cultivation of democratic citizenship was a foremost challenge.
More than half of the world’s constitutions have been written in the past three decades. Unlike the constitutional revolutions of the late eighteenth century, these contemporary revolutions have occurred in countries characterised by low levels of economic growth and education, where voting populations are deeply divided by race, religion, and ethnicity. And these countries have democratised at once, not gradually. The events and ideas of India’s Founding Moment offer a natural reference point for these nations where democracy and constitutionalism have arrived simultaneously, and they remind us of the promise and challenge of self-rule today.
“An elegantly written book about the political thought of India’s constitutional founding and how the founders of the republic crafted a constitution designed to produce democratic citizens.”— What the jury said
Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mridangam Makers, TM Krishna, Context, Westland
The mrdangam is an integral part of the Karnatik stage, its primary percussion instrument. Yet – startling as this is – the instrument as we know it is only a century old. TM Krishna investigates the history of the mrdangam and meets the invisible keepers of a tradition: the mrdangam makers.
The making process is an intellectually, aesthetically and physically taxing one. From acquiring the skins for the circular membranes and straps to the wood for the drum, from curing the material to the final construction, and at the end of it all, making sure that it has the tone that the mrdangam player wants, mrdangam-making is also a highly nuanced operation at every stage.
There are legendary mrdangam players, yes; there are also distinguished mrdangam makers, many of them from Dalit Christian communities, who remain on the fringes of the Karnatik community. Sebastian and Sons explores the world of these artists, their history, lore and lived experience to arrive at a more organic and holistic understanding of the music that the mrdangam makes.
“A celebrated musician explores how the main percussion instrument in Carnatic music, the Mridangam, is actually made. The book offers a multi-layered account of the process, and of the lived experiences of the people, especially Dalits, involved in it.”— What the jury said
The Greater India Experiment: Hindutva and the Northeast, Arkotong Longkumer, Stanford University Press
The assertion that even institutions often viewed as abhorrent should be dispassionately understood motivates Arkotong Longkumer’s pathbreaking ethnography of the Sangh Parivar, a family of organisations comprising the Hindu right. The Greater India Experiment counters the urge to explain away their ideas and actions as inconsequential by demonstrating their efforts to influence local politics and culture in Northeast India.
Longkumer constructs a comprehensive understanding of Hindutva, an idea central to the establishment of a Hindu nation-state, by focusing on the Sangh Parivar’s engagement with indigenous peoples in a region that has long resisted the “idea of India.” Contextualising their activities as a Hindutva “experiment” within the broader Indian political and cultural landscape, he ultimately paints a unique picture of the country today.
“A path-breaking study of the rise of Hindu nationalist politics in north-east India, this book explores the tensions between the vision of Akhand Bharat and the local political arithmetic and indigenous nationalisms.”— What the jury said
I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS, Bhanwar Meghwanshi, translated by Nivedita Menon, Navayana
In 1987, as the Ramjanmabhoomi movement gathers momentum, a thirteen-year-old from a village in Rajasthan joins the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Despite his untouchable status, he quickly rises to the post of karyavah. Ahead of the demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992, he becomes the district office chief of Bhilwara. He hates Muslims with a passion without having met one. He joins thousands of karsevaks to Ayodhya. He mocks Mulla-Yam Singh. He participates in riots. He goes to jail. He finds Hindutva intoxicating. He is ready to die for the Hindu Rashtra.
And yet he remains a lesser Hindu. He turns into a critic of the Sangh, becomes an Ambedkarite and makes it his life’s mission to expose the hypocrisies of Hindutva.
In this explosive memoir, translated by Nivedita Menon from the Hindi, Bhanwar Meghwanshi tells us what it meant to be an untouchable in the RSS. And what it means to become Dalit.
“A powerful memoir of a Dalit activist and journalist, once a deeply committed RSS worker in Rajasthan, whose painful experience with untouchability leads to disillusionment and disavowal.”— What the jury said
Naoroji: Pioneer of Indian Nationalism, Dinyar Patel, Harvard University Press
Mahatma Gandhi called Dadabhai Naoroji the “father of the nation,” a title that today is reserved for Gandhi himself. Dinyar Patel examines the extraordinary life of this foundational figure in India’s modern political history, a devastating critic of British colonialism who served in Parliament as the first-ever Indian MP, forged ties with anti-imperialists around the world, and established Self-Rule or Swaraj as India’s objective.
Naoroji’s political career evolved in three distinct phases. He began as the activist who formulated the “drain of wealth” theory, which held the British Raj responsible for India’s crippling poverty and devastating famines. His ideas upended conventional wisdom holding that colonialism was beneficial for Indian subjects and put a generation of imperial officials on the defensive.
Next, he attempted to influence the British Parliament to Institute political reforms. He immersed himself in British politics, forging links with socialists, Irish home rulers, suffragists, and critics of empire. With these allies, Naoroji clinch his landmark election to the house of Commons in 1892, An event noticed by colonial subjects around the world.
Finally, in his twilight years he grew disillusioned with parliamentary politics and became more radical. He strengthened his ties with British and European socialists, reached out to American anti-imperialists and progressives, and fully enunciated his demand for Swaraj. Only Self-Rule, he declared, could remedy the economic ills brought about by British control in India. Naoroji is the first comprehensive study of the most significant Indian nationalist leader before Gandhi.
“An outstanding biography of Dadabhai Naoroji that illuminates his life and work – from his pioneering critique of imperialism to his engagement in British parliamentary politics, from his building of political alliances in Europe and America to his eventual declaration of self-rule as the only way forward for India.”— What the jury said
Gandhi in the Gallery: The Art of Disobedience, Sumathi Ramaswamy, Roli Books
Mohandas K Gandhi has been described as “an artist of non-violence”, crafting as he did a set of practices of the self and politics that earned him the mantle of Mahatma, “the great soul”. his philosophy and praxis of satyagraha, non-violent civil disobedience, has been analysed extensively. But is satyagraha also an aesthetic regime, with practices akin to a work of art? Is Gandhi, then, an artist of disobedience?
Sumathi Ramaswamy explores these questions with the help of India’s modern and contemporary artists who have over the past century sought out the Mahatma as their muse and invested in him across a wide range of media from painting and sculpture to video installation and digital production. At a time when Gandhi is a hallowed but hollow presence, why have they lavish so much attention on him?
A hundred and fifty years after his birth, Gandhi is hyper visible across the Indian landscape from tea stalls and government offices to museums and galleries. This is ironic, given that the Mahatma appeared to have had little time for the visual arts or for artists for that matter. Yet fascinatingly, the visual artist has emerged as Gandhian conscience-keeper, reminding others of the meaning of the Mahatma in his own time and today.
“A handsome, beautifully illustrated volume that explores how and why Mahatma Gandhi came to be the muse of several modern Indian artists who, by making him visually familiar through their art, have become Gandhi’s conscience-keepers in the present.”— What the jury said
The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict 1914-1921, Radhika Singha, HarperCollins
Though largely invisible in histories of the First World War, over 5,50,000 men in the ranks of the Indian army were non-combatants. From the porters, stevedores and construction workers in the Coolie Corps to those who maintained supply lines and removed the wounded from the battlefield, Radhika Singha recovers the story of this unacknowledged service.
The labour regimes built on the backs of these “coolies” sustained the military infrastructure of empire; their deployment in interregional arenas bent to the demands of global war. Viewed as racially subordinate and subject to “non-martial” caste designations, they fought back against their status, using the warring powers’ need for manpower as leverage to challenge traditional service hierarchies and wage differentials.
The Coolie’s Great War views that global conflict through the lens of Indian labour, constructing a distinct geography of the war-from tribal settlements and colonial jails, beyond India’s frontiers, to the battlefronts of France and Mesopotamia.
“A pioneering history of the 550,000 non-combatants in the Indian Army who participated in the First World War as menial labour – porters, construction workers, cooks and water carriers – and on whose largely invisible labour the war effort of the British Empire depended so greatly.”— What the jury said
Jugalbandi: The BJP Before Modi, Vinay Sitapati, Penguin Random House
Narendra Modi has been a hundred years in the making. Vinay Sitapati’s Jugalbandi provides this backstory to his current dominance in Indian politics. It begins with the creation of Hindu nationalism as a response to British-induced elections in the 1920s, moves on to the formation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980, and ends with its first national government, from 1998 to 2004. And it follows this journey through the entangled lives of its founding jugalbandi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani.
Over their six-decade-long relationship, Vajpayee and Advani worked as a team despite differences in personality and beliefs. What kept them together was fraternal love and professional synergy, of course, but also, above all, an ideology that stressed on unity. Their partnership explains what the BJP before Modi was, and why it won.
In supporting roles are a cast of characters-from the warden’s wife who made room for Vajpayee in her family to the billionaire grandson of Pakistan’s founder who happened to be a major early funder of the BJP. Based on private papers, party documents, newspapers and over two hundred interviews, this is a must-read for those interested in the ideology that now rules India.
“An engaging account of the six decades long friendship between Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, and how their partnership and ideological unity forged the original success of the Bharatiya Janata Party.”— What the jury said