Twelve books feature on the longlist of the New India Foundations’s Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize for the best non-fiction book on modern or contemporary India in 2019. Since the mandate of the prize does not set limitations on genre or writer’s nationality, the net is cast far and wide when it comes to inviting entries.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the longlist spans politics, nature, history, investigative reporting, anthropology, and biography. The shortlist will be announced in November and the winner of the Rs 15-lakh prize, in December. The winners of the last two editions of the prize were Milan Vaishnav in 2018 for When Crime Pays, and Ornit Shani in 2019 for How India Became Democratic.
Here is the longlist, in no particular order, along with excerpts from the publishers’ blurbs.
Mobilizing the Marginalized: Ethnic Parties without Ethnic Movements, Amit Ahuja, Oxford University Press
Publisher’s blurb: “India’s over 200 million Dalits, once called “untouchables,” have been mobilized by social movements and political parties, but the outcomes of this mobilisation are puzzling. Dalits’ ethnic parties have performed poorly in elections in states where movements demanding social equality have been strong while they have succeeded in states where such movements have been entirely absent or weak.
In Mobilizing the Marginalized, Amit Ahuja demonstrates that the collective action of marginalised groups – those that are historically stigmatised and disproportionately poor – is distinct. Drawing on extensive original research conducted across four of India’s largest states, he shows, for the marginalised, social mobilisation undermines the bloc voting their ethnic parties’ rely on for electoral triumph and increases multi-ethnic political parties’ competition for marginalised votes. He presents evidence showing that a marginalised group gains more from participating in a social movement and dividing support among parties than from voting as a bloc for an ethnic party.”
The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World, Neeladri Bhattacharya, Permanent Black / State University of New York Press
Publisher’s blurb: “This book examines how, over colonial times, the diverse practices and customs of an existing rural universe – with its many forms of livelihood – were reshaped to create a new agrarian world of settled farming. While focusing on Punjab, India, this pathbreaking analysis offers a broad argument about the workings of colonial power: the fantasy of imperialism, it says, is to make the universe afresh.
Such radical change, Neeladri Bhattacharya shows, is as much conceptual as material. Agrarian colonisation was a process of creating spaces that conformed to the demands of colonial rule. It entailed establishing a regime of categories – tenancies, tenures, properties, habitations – and a framework of laws that made the change possible. Agrarian colonisation was in this sense a deep conquest.
Colonialism, the book suggests, has the power to revisualise and reorder social relations and bonds of community. It alters the world radically, even when it seeks to preserve elements of the old. The changes it brings about are simultaneously cultural, discursive, legal, linguistic, spatial, social, and economic. Moving from intent to action, concepts to practices, legal enactments to court battles, official discourses to folklore, this book explores the conflicted and dialogic nature of a transformative process.
By analysing this great conquest, and the often silent ways in which it unfolds, the book asks every historian to rethink the practice of writing agrarian history and reflect on the larger issues of doing history.”
Wild Himalaya: A Natural History of the Greatest Mountain Range on Earth, Stephen Alter, Aleph Book Company
Publisher’s blurb: “The Himalayas span a distance of roughly 2,500 kilometres in length and between 350 and 150 kilometres in breadth, rising to a maximum height of almost 9 kilometres above sea level. In Wild Himalaya, award-winning author Stephen Alter brings alive the greatest mountain range on earth in all its terrifying beauty, grandeur and complexity. Travelling to all the five countries that the Himalayan range traverses – India, Pakistan, Bhutan, Nepal and China – Alter braids together on-the-ground reports with a deep understanding and study of the history, science, geology, environment, flora, fauna, myth, folklore, spirituality, climate and human settlements of the region to provide a nuanced and rich portrait of these legendary mountains.
Adding colour to the narrative are riveting tales unearthed by the author of some of the range’s most storied peaks – Everest or Chomolungma, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna, Dhaulagiri, Nanga Parbat and others. The book is divided into eight sections which delve deep into particular aspects of the Himalaya.”
A Chequered Brilliance: The Many Lives of VK Krishna Menon, Jairam Ramesh, Penguin
Publisher’s blurb: “This is a compelling biography of one of India’s most controversial and consequential public figures. VK Krishna Menon continues to command our attention not just because he was Jawaharlal Nehru’s confidant and soulmate but also for many of his own political and literary accomplishments. A relentless crusader for Indian independence in the UK in the 1930s and 1940s, he was a global star at the United Nations in the 1950s before he was forced to resign as defence minister in the wake of the India-China war of 1962.
Meticulously researched and based entirely on new archival material, this book reveals Krishna Menon in all his capabilities and contradictions. It is also a rich history of the tumultuous times in which he lived and which he did so much to shape.”
Bottle of Lies: Ranbaxy and the Dark Side of Indian Pharma, Katherine Eban, Juggernaut
Publisher’s blurb: “In 2004, Dinesh Thakur, a senior employee of Ranbaxy, then India’s largest pharma company, discovered a terrible secret.Ranbaxy had been fabricating the test results of their drugs, endangering millions of patients. Thakur resigned and became a whistleblower to the US Food and Drug Administration, one of the regulators Ranbaxy had been lying to, and ultimately brought the multibillion-dollar behemoth to its knees.
This is the sensational account of the high-stakes chase to bring Ranbaxy to book and the fall from grace of one of corporate India’s biggest success stories. But the rot in Indian pharma isn’t confined to Ranbaxy alone. In this book, investigative journalist Katherine Eban relies on over 20,000 FDA documents and interviews with over 240 people to show how fraud and trickery are deeply entrenched in much of the industry in India, and raises troubling questions about some of its biggest names – Wockhardt, Dr Reddy’s, Glenmark and RPG Life Sciences.”
Animal Intimacies: Beastly Love in the Himalayas, Radhika Govindrajan, Penguin
Publisher’s blurb: “What does it mean to live and die in relation to other animals? Animal Intimacies posits this central question alongside the intimate – and intense – moments of care, kinship, violence, politics, indifference, and desire that occur between human and non-human animals.
Built on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the mountain villages of India’s Central Himalayas, Radhika Govindrajan’s book explores the number of ways that human and animal interact to cultivate relationships as interconnected, related beings. Whether it is through the study of the affect and ethics of ritual animal sacrifice, analysis of the right-wing political project of cow-protection, or examination of villagers’ talk about bears who abduct women and have sex with them, Govindrajan illustrates that multispecies relatedness relies on both difference and ineffable affinity between animals.”
Kuknalim: Testimonies of Leaders, Pastors, Healers and Soldiers, Nandita Haksar and Sebastian Hongray, Speaking Tiger
Publisher’s blurb: “This first-of-its-kind book tells the story of the Naga national movement from the inside. Based on extensive interviews of the Naga nationalists, conducted in the late 1990s in Bangkok, Kathmandu, Dimapur and Delhi, it explains why the Indo-Naga conflict has lasted more than seven decades, and why successive prime ministers of India, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, have personally met the Naga leaders and tried to resolve the conflict.
In Kuknalim, leaders and members of ten Naga tribes spread across India and Myanmar speak directly to the reader about their childhood experiences, reasons for joining the armed struggle, and their personal triumphs and tragedies. They recount their journeys from small impoverished mountain villages through the jungles of Myanmar to China – from where they carried back arms to fight for an independent Nagaland – and finally the journey to the negotiating table. These stories relate to the period of the Naga movement from World War II to 1997, when Naga nationalists under the NSCN (IM) entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian state and began peace talks.”
The Unquiet River: A Biography of the Brahmaputra, Arupjyoti Saikia, Oxford University Press
Publisher’s blurb: “The unruly Brahmaputra has always been an agent in shaping both the landscape of its valley and the livelihoods of its inhabitants. But how much do we know of this river’s rich past? Historian Arupjyoti Saikia’s biography of the Brahmaputra reimagines the layered history of Assam with the unquiet river at the centre. The book combines a range of disciplinary scholarship to unravel the geological forces as well as human endeavour which have shaped the river into what it is today.”
Panjab: Journey through Faultlines, Amandeep Sandhu, Westland
Publisher’s blurb: “In 2015, Amandeep Sandhu began an investigation that was meant to resolve the ‘hole in his heart’, his ‘emptiness about matters Panjab’. For three years, he crisscrossed the state and discovered a land that was nothing like the one he had imagined and not like the stories he had heard.
Present-day Panjab prides itself on legends of its military and valorous past even as it struggles with daily horrors. The Green Revolution has wreaked ecological havoc in the state, and a decade and a half of militancy has destabilised its economy and governance. Sikhism – the state’s eclectic and syncretic religion – is in crisis, its gatekeepers brooking no dissent and giving little spiritual guidance. And Panjab has yet to recover from the loss of its other half, now in Pakistan.
Underneath it all, though, the old spirit of the land beats away – an undercurrent of resistance to power and hegemony that holds the hope that Panjab’s unyielding knots can be untied.”
2019: How Modi Won India, Rajdeep Sardesai, HarperCollins
Publisher’s blurb: “On 23 May 2019, when the results of the general elections were announced, Narendra Modi and the BJP-led NDA coalition were voted back to power with an overwhelming majority. To some, the numbers of Modi’s victory came as something of a surprise; for others, the BJP’s triumph was a vindication of their belief in the government and its policies. Irrespective of one’s political standpoint, one thing was beyond dispute: this was a landmark verdict, one that deserved to be reported and analysed with intelligence – and without bias. Rajdeep Sardesai’s new book, 2019: How Modi Won India, does just that.
What was it that gave Modi an edge over the opposition for the second time in five years? How was the BJP able to trounce its rivals in states that were once Congress bastions? What was the core issue in the election: a development agenda or national pride? As he relives the excitement of the many twists and turns that took place over the last five years, culminating in the 2019 election results, Rajdeep helps the reader make sense of the contours and characteristics of a rapidly changing India, its politics and its newsmakers. If the 2014 elections changed India, 2019 may well have defined what ‘new India’ is likely to be all about.”
Midnight’s Machines: A Political History of Technology in India, Arun Mohan Sukumar, Penguin
Publisher’s blurb: “A lesser-known political project began on 15 August 1947: the Indian state’s undertaking to influence what the citizens thought about technology and its place in society. Beneath its soaring rhetoric on the virtues or vices of technology, the state buried a grim reality: India’s inability to develop it at home.
The political class sent contradictory signals to the general public. On the one hand, they were asked to develop a scientific temper, on the other, to be wary of becoming enslaved to technology; to be thrilled by the spectacle of a space launch while embracing jugaad, frugal innovation, and the art of ‘thinking small’. To mask its failure at building computers, the Indian state decried them in the seventies as expensive, job-guzzling machines.
When it urged citizens to welcome them the next decade, the government was, unsurprisingly, met with fierce resistance. From Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, India’s political leadership has tried its best to modernise the nation through technology, but on its own terms and with little success.”
Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924, Vikram Sampath, Penguin
Publisher’s blurb: “As the intellectual fountainhead of the ideology of Hindutva, which is in political ascendancy in India today, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar is undoubtedly one of the most contentious political thinkers and leaders of the twentieth century. Accounts of his eventful and stormy life have oscillated from eulogising hagiographies to disparaging demonisation. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between and has unfortunately never been brought to light. Savarkar and his ideology stood as one of the strongest and most virulent opponents of Gandhi, his pacifist philosophy and the Indian National Congress.
An alleged atheist and a staunch rationalist who opposed orthodox Hindu beliefs, encouraged inter-caste marriage and dining, and dismissed cow worship as mere superstition, Savarkar was, arguably, the most vocal political voice for the Hindu community through the entire course of India’s freedom struggle. From the heady days of revolution and generating international support for the cause of India’s freedom as a law student in London, Savarkar found himself arrested, unfairly tried for sedition, transported and incarcerated at the Cellular Jail, in the Andamans, for over a decade, where he underwent unimaginable torture.
From being an optimistic advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity in his treatise on the 1857 War of Independence, what was it that transformed him in the Cellular Jail to a proponent of “Hindutva”, which viewed Muslims with suspicion?