In 2007, Ramachandra Guha recounted the nation’s 60-year tryst with destiny in his magisterial India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. This year, as India marks the 75th anniversary of the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi, Guha has updated his book for a second time. Sharp readers may notice that the book has a slightly different sub-title. The new edition is simply called India After Gandhi: A History.
In a wide-ranging interview at the launch of this new edition in Delhi last month, Guha discussed this change and other matters. Here is a lightly edited version of the discussion.
When you published the first edition of this book in 2007, did you ever imagine that history would become such an intensely contested ground? What has transpired in India over the past 15 years to make history-writing such a battlefield?
I think the writing of history has always been a battlefield. The question is with what tools the historian fighting his or her battles enters into warfare, with what kind of skills, agenda – or no agenda. But most of these battles are fought over a relatively distant past.
India after Gandhi ventured into a terrain that was terra nullius – over which there were no battles, no serious reckoning with what happened over the first five decades of India’s post-Independence history. When India after Gandhi was commissioned in 1997-’98, I remember Peter Strauss (the publisher who commissioned the book) telling me that 50 years is long enough to look back.
I wish I didn’t have to prepare a third edition [after the second one in 2017]. In my introduction, I quote the great French historian Mark Bloch, who said, “I liken myself to an explorer making a rapid survey of the horizon before plunging into thickets from which the wider view is no longer possible. The gaps in my account are naturally enormous. I have done my best not to conceal any deficiencies, whether the state of our knowledge or in my own documentation. When the time comes for my own work to be superseded by studies of deeper penetration, I shall feel well rewarded if confrontation with my false conjunct conjectures had made history learn the truth about itself.”
When I wrote this book 15 years ago, I knew that every work of history is interim, that it would be superseded. I didn’t want to keep adding to it. I wish some of these revisionist historians – instead of talking about the Mughals and their alleged perfidies or the greatness of our ancient civilisation such as it was – had turned their critical gaze to this unfolding political experiment and provided an account different from mine, superior to mine or at least in argument with mine.
Of course, there has been a lot of high-quality work on different aspects of our contemporary history since this book came out and there are many fine young scholars working on this period.
There have been some debates about Nehru and Patel, for example. But were Nehru and Patel really rivals as has been made out? The ’50s, ’60s and ’70s are also very fruitful terrain.
There are clear deficiencies in my account, one of which was pointed out by the economist and columnist Ashok Desai. He said that this book has hardly any tables, which means that it does not pay enough attention to economics. And he was absolutely right.
If you look at debates about economic history, it’s all about whether colonialism was exploitative or if the British actually give us modern technical infrastructure like the railways and an integrated market that enabled the economy to grow. But where are the histories of economic change in post-Independent India?
While writing this book, one lesson I learned was you need a generation’s distance to write history. We can’t really understand the long-term significance of Narendra Modi or of demonetisation, but we can certainly historically assess what the Emergency was all about.
It’s easy for ideologues particularly to engage in debates about the distant past. I wish they would engage with post-Independence history, too.
Sometime ago you gave a lecture titled “History Beyond Chauvinism”. How do you think history can be written beyond the chauvinisms of ideology and national identity?
One must try to at least be conscious of these elements, both in history-writing and political writing. I believe that no writer should identify with a particular political party or politician.
I think it’s the archives that throw up surprises that can confound any ideology you may come with. I’m proudest of one aspect of this book, and that is that when I wrote about the conflicts with China and with Pakistan, I wrote those chapter as a historian, not as an Indian.
When the first edition came out, there was an interview by Sankarshan Thakur, a very wide-ranging interview, but the magazine in which it appeared gave it a sensationalist headline: “Guha says India’s case on Kashmir is not constitutionally foolproof.”
I did say that – but I said many other things too. A Pakistani newspaper misrepresented the headline to a long and diverse interview and claimed, “Indian historian says India has no case on Kashmir.” What I actually said was that Pakistan’s case on Kashmir is also not Constitutionally foolproof.
Likewise with our China dispute. If you look at the whole history of the border conflict, China has a strong case when it comes to the eastern border. But we have a stronger case when it comes to our western border. That’s part of the complication.
For historians, the chauvinisms of nation, of ideology, of caste, of gender, of religion, of identity, are always hard to overcome. But at least you must be aware of them in work of this kind. Maybe in newspaper columns or in tweets, you’re wearing your beliefs on your sleeve. But when you’re studying the past, you have to give this past the respect it deserves.
What are the challenges of writing history as you’re doing in real time? Your book goes up to Narendra Modi praying at the Kashi Vishwanath temple in 2021.
The closer I come to the present – say the last 10 or 15 years – what I’m doing is historically informed journalism. So in that sense, it’s slightly more tentative. You don’t have the depth of first-hand primary research, the archives don’t exist, the critical distance doesn’t exist.
But yet the changes in the last five or six years, from demonetisation until today, have been as profound and transformative – for good and for bad – as in the first five years of Independence, between 1947 when India was freed and partitioned, till the first election of 1952.
Dealing with the last two decades in the book is where I’m not completely sure of my ground, but I still try and look at the different aspects of what’s going on and try to avoid being judgmental and be somewhat cautious and restrained. But I think that for most readers, it’s the sections about the fifties, sixties and seventies that will be more interesting than the more recent past.
Even as you make the distinction between being a historian and being a citizen, you do participate actively in contemporary debates. Those images of you being detained during protests for the Citizenship Amendment Act in Bangalore in 2019 are pretty dramatic. In 2017, you joined a group of concerned citizens including Nandini Sundar to file a Public Interest Litigation case against the Salva Judum. How do you compartmentalise your roles as an engaged citizen and as a historian?
It’s difficult. But just as important are the causes I do not join.
For example, in 2019, the reason I went for that protest is that I’m a biographer of Gandhi, who stood for Hindu-Muslim harmony and presciently warned us against the tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes today.
But shortly afterwards there were the farmers’ protests and I got calls from some friends asking me to join. I said I understood nothing about the agricultural laws and so couldn’t attend.
There are some things I understand. Among them is the importance of interfaith harmony. The other matter I also have some background about, since I began my life as an environmental historian, is the predicament of the adivasis.
I think it’s important not just to pick public battles wisely but also to go by what you have some understanding of. There is a tendency perhaps for some people to be always engaged in all kinds of battles. For me, it’s adivasis, Hindu-Muslim harmony and Uttarakhand because that’s my home state where I did my first work. And freedom of intellectual life, but nothing else.
Moving away from the craft of being a historian to your very engaging book. You describe India as an unnatural nation. How did you reach that conclusion?
The original title of this book was actually “Unnatural Nation”. I’m glad I eventually chose something more bland and more descriptive because that phrase comes from reflecting on the history of European nationalism. The Greeks were not nationalists, nor was the Mauryan empire.
Nationalism is a modern phenomenon dealing with a modern nation state which constructs boundaries – boundaries that are rigorously policed. In that territory, which is now circumscribed and defined and claimed by a particular nation, there are certain markers of national identity.
In 19th century Europe, these markers were a common religion, a common language and a common enemy. So in England, Catholics were considered second-class citizens, while in France, Protestants had that status.
India was very different in its constitutional conception. The idea of constitutional patriotism based on values, not identity, is what defined us.
As I say in this new edition, the object of the current regime is to make us more of a natural nation, with one religion, one language and one enemy.
Pakistan was a natural nation. Everyone must speak Urdu. It is a Muslim country and India is the enemy. It is a perfect European nation in South Asia – and we are becoming a mirror image of that, a sort of Hindu Pakistan. Or at least the attempt is to make us that.
As you chronicle India’s triumphs and tumults over the past 75 years, you note four main axes of conflict. What are they and what is preeminent at this point?
There are probably more than four but there’s religion, language, caste, class, gender. And now, there’s a sixth – region – North vs South. I think religion is emerging as the pivotal point not just of conflict but also of discrimination because there’s a systematic attempt to make Indian Muslims second-class citizens. It’s an attempt that is political, ideological, legislative, social and economic.
But the other conflicts are also playing out. That’s part of the reason I describe India as a reckless political experiment: so large, so diverse, so divided and yet trying to hang together by a thread and also trying to run its politics democratically. The historian Eric Hobsbawm, who was a notorious sceptic about the Indian democratic experiment, said that multinational, multi-linguistic states don’t work except in the Soviet Union and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
India was trying to defy that. That is the greatness of our national experiment and I still hope we don’t lose sight of this.
I’d say religion is the most visible fault line today particularly because it is a tacit aspect of the ideology of the ruling party, not an obvious, explicit aspect. If you look at Hindutva, it’s a peculiar mixture of paranoia and triumphalism – we will certainly win, we will rule the world, but everyone is against us. Hindus feel besieged in their own country.
This is something that is uppermost in my mind, but other conflicts also simmer. In my book, I talk about the North-South conflict and what that might mean – particularly in 2026 if we lift the freeze on delimitation of Parliamentary seats and the more backward, reactionary patriarchal parts of India have an even greater role in our national politics.
So there are different faultlines in the Republic and at different points of time one or the other is more dominant.
Even as you note the axis of conflict you say that there are forces that bind us together. What are these forces that have kept India together?
Historically, there’s the Constitution, there’s the federal system, there was the Congress but it isn’t really a pan-Indian party anymore so it doesn’t play that role. There’s the market, freedom of movement.
There’s always a battle between forces that unite and forces that divide. It’s an open question where this will go.
One of the slightly depressing things about reading the book is you realise that some conflicts have never gone away – Kashmir being the prime among them. You’ve thought a lot about Kashmir. How do you see a just resolution in Kashmir?
Of course, now it is so much more difficult. But in the very recent past, we could have got somewhere near a just resolution of the Kashmir conflict, both during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s term as prime minister and under Manmohan Singh. There are many reasons why we didn’t, but I’ll just focus on one – the mala fide and malicious role of the Opposition.
After Vajpayee went by bus to Labore in 1999 and there was talk about a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, he made a famous speech in Srinagar where he said the solution was in the realm of humanity, not just the Constitution.
At the time, the state government of Kashmir was a coalition of the People’s Democratic Party and the Congress. He was the first Indian prime minister to go to Srinagar in almost two decades and make a speech of peace and reconciliation, and the Congress boycotted it. I would hold Sonia Gandhi as Congress president responsible here.
Fast forward to 2007 when Manmohan Singh as prime minister was in conversation with the Pakistanis. A lot of able diplomats on both sides were trying to work out how to convert the Line of Control into an official border. What happens? The BJP starts an agitation, blocking the road to the Valley from Jammu so that even medical supplies can’t go in.
Now it’s bleak, particularly because of the awful abrogation of Article 370. It’s been three-and-a-half years. They’re still a Union Territory. There’s no sign of elections. God knows what kind of redistricting is going on.
But if you look at those two extraordinary missed opportunities, you would have to blame first the Congress and then the BJP for putting their petty party interests over not just national interest but also the possibility of peace in South Asia.
Staying with the bleak, just past the halfway mark, we get to the Emergency – the period of darkness that’s frequently invoked by the BJP and the RSS as a time in which their ideological predecessors mounted a glorious resistance to Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship. What role did the RSS and the Jan Sangh really play during that period?
They played some role. The major Jan Sangh leaders were in jail along with the major socialists and the old Congress and Swatantra Party leaders. Some student leaders of the RSS were in jail.
Others played a less glorious role. The sarsanghchalak Balasaheb Deoras was in correspondence with Indira Gandhi. But they were a part of the democratic opposition – that cannot be denied.
And now, the Emergency is frequently invoked today by critics of the Modi government when they point to suppression of dissent and free expression. How appropriate is that comparison?
There are very interesting parallels and similarities. I was a college student in Delhi at the time, so I remember it quite vividly, apart from having studied the records and written about it. And, of course, we are living through this time.
The parallels are clearly the attack on institutions by the Union government and the creation of a personality cult around the prime minister. In this new edition, I quote some remarks by JP Nadda, the president of the BJP, on Narendra Modi’s 71st birthday, which are very similar to the kind of things that Dev Kant Barooah as president of the Congress used say about Indira Gandhi.
There are also differences, some which are cheering. For example, the fact that during the Emergency, the Congress was in control of every major state except for Tamil Nadu. Today, the BJP does not rule over large parts of Southern and Eastern India, nor does it rule over the important state of Punjab.
But there are some differences that are depressing, particularly the majoritarian cast of the ruling party and the prime minister, which was absent in the Congress of the 1970s.
Towards the end of the book, you refer to a work written by Rajni Kothari in 1970 in which he spoke of the Congress system of Indian politics. Kothari noted that for many years after Independence the Congress had “presented itself as the authoritative spokesman of the nation as well as its affirmed agent of criticism and change”. That Congress system has since been replaced by the BJP system. What characterises this BJP system?
The BJP, like the Congress, is a pan-Indian party. It has national ambitions. It wants to be here forever. It has a charismatic prime minister. It wants to impose its ideology on not just political and public life but on the legislative system as well. It’s a different ideology from that of the Congress of the freedom struggle for sure – but it is a one-party dominant system, comparable to that of the 1950s and 1960s when the Congress was in the position the BJP is in now.
I quote C Rajagopalachari, who had left the Congress in the late ’50s to start the Swatantra Party. This is what he wrote in 1958 about the Congress, which was then hegemonic.
“If subservience and slavish adulation take the place of independent thinking and criticism is never resorted to but with fear and trepidation, the atmosphere quickly breeds the political diseases peculiar to democracy. Without the free and critical atmosphere of a well-balanced democracy, India is witnessing the growth of the weeds of careerism. intrigue and various types of degrees of dishonesty. And opposition is the natural preventative for such poisonous weeds and opposition is therefore indicated by the symptoms.”
He also says, “When one party always remains in power and dissent is dissipated among unorganised individuals and relatively insignificant groups, when these groups do not and cannot coalesce, government will inevitably become totalitarian.”
This is Rajagopalachari writing in 1958 about Nehru’s Congress and it’s so strikingly resonant when you think of Modi’s BJP today.
In a volume she edited three years ago, Niraja Gopal Jayal noted that the BJP doesn’t just want to reform India, it wants to re-form India. What are the disjuncts you see with the past that the BJP has effected so far?
We’ve already talked about religion and how it wants to remake India as a Hindu majoritarian state in theory and in practice. Some elements in the BJP – not the prime minister, but the home minister – want to impose Hindi on the South and the East, for sure. They are undermining our institutions. So in that sense, it’s a reshaping, a re-forming of the Indian Republic. Some people have talked about the making of a Second Republic. I think that’s premature but the intentions are clear.
Going back to the Emergency in the post-Emergency period, what were the forces that allowed us to reinvigorate our institutions? What can we learn from that for the period when perhaps the BJP system has passed?
To begin with, undoing the amendments to the Constitution. I’m reminded of a remark made by JB Kripalani during the Emergency. The great freedom fighter who had left the Congress after Independence to go into Opposition was by the time of the Emergency very old and sick. He was in hospital with all kinds of tubes passing through him.
A young follower went to see him. As you would do when an elderly relative is ill, he put his hand on Kripalani’s forehead. The old man woke up and told his young friend, “I have no constitution left – all that remains are amendments.”
The lawyer Shanti Bhushan, who was law minister under Morarji Desai and who recently passed away, was one of the architects of the restoration of the Constitution.
Some people argue that the revival of the Supreme Court really took place in the ’90s when we did not have majority governments at the Centre. Some economists believe that coalition governments have been much better for economic growth as well. They are certainly better for federalism.
The thing to hope for if you are an Indian democrat who wants a reinvigorated Supreme Court, a free press, more robust federalism and better and more balanced economic growth in India is – no single party should get a majority in 2024. Then there may be a way of reviving these institutions.
Long before the BBC aired “The Modi Question”, you wrote a column saying that Modi should apologise for the Gujarat riots. His followers, of course, say that the Supreme Court has given him a clean chit. Why do you think he should apologise?
It’s not a question of the Supreme Court. There was a clear dereliction of duty. If you look at books written or edited about that period by Siddharth Varadarajan, by Revati Laul, by RB Sreekumar and also the Editors’ Guild report from that time and all the contemporary journalism – it’s clear that the administration should have done much more but let the riots happen. Even if Modi wasn’t personally guilty, he was the chief minister of Gujarat.
If you look at 1984, the anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi could have been stopped by the prime minister or home minister if they had wanted. At that time, I was a student in Calcutta, where there were probably 50,000-60,000 Sikhs – many of whom were taxi drivers. They were marked out by their turbans. But West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu told the police to ensure that not even one of them was harmed.
Jyoti Basu was not a great chief minister in other respects but he had been a young man when Mahatma Gandhi went on fast in 1947 in Beliaghata. He knew how dangerous and poisonous communal conflict was.
There were many parallels between 1984 and 2002. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi, to their credit, apologised. This is something that will always hang over Narendra Modi. It’s irrefutable that as Chief Minister Modi could have done more to stop the violence but did not.
You’ve written frequently – all too frequently, some people would say – about how the Gandhi family is facilitating Hindutva by staying in power in the Congress. After those heroic images of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, have you changed your opinion about him – just a wee bit, perhaps?
I’ve always said he’s a decent man. But as someone who is a historian of Indian democracy, as someone who has grown up in the 1960s, I cannot abide a fifth-generation dynast leading the party of the freedom struggle. I think it’s morally wrong.
We don’t recognise the damage that the family control of the Congress party has done to Indian democracy. Indira Gandhi started it by bringing Sanjay Gandhi in 1975. Only recently, in Tamil Nadu, Stalin made his son a minister. The DMK was a great party of regional pride. It has stood for caste and gender equality, for good administration. Now, it’s a family party.
Look at the Akalis. The Akali Dal is the second-oldest political party in India. It has a noble and admirable lineage. But the Badals made it a family party because they saw what Indira Gandhi was doing. The Thackerays do the same thing, the Yadavs do the same thing, the Raos do the same thing. It’s absolutely dismaying for Indian democracy to have family control over one set of parties and personality cults over another set, with people such as Kejriwal, Mamata Banerjee and Modi at the helm. As an Indian democrat, I find both repugnant.
The subtitle of this book is different. The first edition was India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy. Now it’s India After Gandhi: A History.
It may change again. I have to ask the publishers and whether it’s permitted to change it for the paperback or for the next reprint, which may come out in six months. Perhaps it could then be called India after Gandhi: A History of the World’s Most Populous Nation.
What are you working on now?
I’m doing something very different. India after Gandhi is 940 pages long. I’ve been set a challenge by a young writer I admire (but whom I shall not name) to write a book under 200 pages.
It’s a book about my relationship with my first editor Rukun Advani, who actually made me a published writer. He taught me how to write social history, helped me when I wrote biography, who encouraged me to write on cricket, and who still is kind of a sounding board. So it’s a writer’s tribute to this self-effacing and faceless editor.
This book is based on our correspondence over 40 years. Rukun doesn’t like speaking, but he likes writing – he’s got an acerbic wit and a marvellous sense of style. So it’s a book about the making of books based on a literary and personal friendship of four decades.