Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A Chapter a Week: Ram Guha's "India After Gandhi"

I've had Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi on my shelf for a couple of months, waiting to be seriously cracked. Why not read it together? It's not a book club that I'm suggesting, or at least, not exactly -- since anyone who proposed an 850 page historical tome as a book club selection would have to be out of his mind.

What I propose is this: we'll look at a chapter or so a week, and go in sequence. In each case, I'll try and present some of the main ideas in each chapter in a blog post, so readers can participate in the discussion even if they haven't read that chapter of the book. The idea is to do a survey of post-independence Indian history with emphasis on the conflicts that have occurred in various states. Guha tends to be much more pro-Nehru than is fashionable these days (since liberalization, many people blame Nehru for keeping India behind; I think this is mistaken). He is also scrupulous in looking at "marginal" communities such as the tribals, who are often left out of major histories. From the chapters I've read, Guha seems to be quite fair in his approach, and his style of writing is accessible without being 'dumbed down' in the least.

Next week's topic will be chapter 3, "Apples in the Basket," where Guha looks at how the Princely States were incorporated into the union -- sort of a neglected topic. For now, however, I wanted to look at a controversy that has come up around one of the earlier chapters (Chapter 2), where Guha talks about the events leading up to Partition.

* * *

Reihan Salam has given his opinion, on the "Partition" chapters, and on the book as a whole, which he disliked. The following is from a blog post Salam did at the blog The American Scene shortly after Tyler Cowen announced he would be discussing the book at his own blog:

Because I hold Tyler Cowen in the highest esteem, so much so that I will buy almost anything he recommends, I purchased Ramachandra Guha's India After Gandhi.

And it's bad. Really, really bad.

Basically, this is a work of hagiography (of Nehru, specifically, who deserves better by dint of having been an actual human being, and a quite shrewd one at that) that reflects an intensely partisan outlook: Guha is a partisan of the India's bien-pensant upper-middle left. You'd be far better served by reading anything by Ayesha Jalal or the Marxist intellectual Aijaz Ahmad. Amazingly, given that Guha is a serious scholar and (supposed) left intellectual who has considerable spent time outside India, he offers a Attenborough-esque portrait of a dastardly Jinnah and he demonizes Pakistan. (link)

I couldn't disagree with Reihan more. First of all, I'm not sure how Ramachandra Guha is "intensely partisan," and I'm not sure exactly what is mean by "India's bien-pensant upper-middle left." If he is referring to Indian leftists who come from privileged backgrounds, I think all leftists who are academics would probably be described that way, including, without question, Aijaz Ahmad. Having been a reader of Ram Guha's essays in magazines like Outlook for the past few years, I'm not even really sure it's accurate to say that Guha is a "leftist" at all -- if anything, his recent opinions have seemed to me to be more centrist than anything else. (We could discuss this.)

I also think Salam is wrong on substance. I don't think Guha demonizes Jinnah or Pakistan, certainly not in the early chapters. In chapter 2, Guha allocates blame for the disaster of the Partition three ways: 1) the Congress Party, especially Nehru, who early on disregarded the demands of Jinnah and the Muslim League, 2) Jinnah and the Muslim League, and 3) the British, who to some extent fanned the flames of communal hatred to protect their own interests.

Here are two paragraphs where Guha gives a brief account of the political break-down between Congress and the Muslim League that led the Muslim League to seek Partition:

It is true that Nehru and Gandhi made major errors of judgment in their dealings with the Muslim League. In the 1920s, Gandhi ignored Jinnah and tried to make common cause with the mullahs. In the 1930s, Nehru arrogantly and, as it turned out, falsely, claimed the Muslim masses would rather follow his socialist credo than a party based on faith. Meanwhile, the Muslims steadily moved over from teh Congress to the League. In the 1930s, when Jinnah was willing to make a deal, he was ignored; in the 1940s, with the Muslims solidly behind him, he had no reason to make a deal at all.

It is also true that some of Jinnah's political turns defy any explanation other than personal ambition. He was once known as an 'ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity' and a practitioner of constitutional politics. Even as he remade himself as a defender of Islam and Muslims, in his personal life he ignored the claims of faith. . . . However, from the late 1930s on he began to stoke religious passions. The process was to culminate in his calling for Direct Action Day, the day that set off the bloody violence and counter-violence that finally made partition inevitable. (41-42)

Jinnah is certainly being criticized here for stoking the fires of communalism to his own advantage. But I think Guha is being fair when he refers to Nehru as "arrogant" earlier on in the process.

Guha argues that partition was inevitable by 1946, and nearly inevitable as early as the 1940s. The Muslim League, which in 1927 was quite small, had expanded rapidly in the 1930s, running largely on a platform of "Muslim Unity," and by 1940 started calling for a separate state. The communal platform worked: Guha points out that by 1944 the party had 500,000 members in Bengal and 200,000 members in Punjab. It was not just Jinnah's ambition -- the Muslim League was a genuine mass-movement.

Guha also looks at the Provincial Assembly elections of 1946, which pretty much sealed the deal for Partition. Again, the Muslim League ran on a Muslim Unity/Pakistan platform, and was highly successful. Of the 492 "reserved" seats for Muslims in 1946, the League won 429 seats. The Congress still had an overall majority (927 seats), but the anti-Pakistan Muslim representatives were effectively swept out of power, leaving the Congress with no negotiating power whatsoever.

As for whether Jinnah was right or wrong, it's now hardly worth arguing over. All but the most extreme religious partisans now accept the division of India as a fact, not likely to ever be reversed.

However, it is interesting to compare Jinnah's account of why he desired Partition with that of a pro-Congress Muslim intellectual, Maulana Azad. Both of these quotes are epigraphs to Guha's Chapter 2, and I find them quite telling:

M.A. Jinnah: the problem in India is not of an intercommunal but manifestly of an international character, and must be treated as such. . . . It is a dream that Hindus and Muslims can evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has gone far beyond the limits, and is the cause of most of our troubles, and will lead India to destruction, if we fail to revise our actions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature. They neither intermarry, nor interdine together, and indeed they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspects on and of life are different. (from Jinnah's Presidential Address, 1940)

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad: It was India's historic destiny that many human races and cultures should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, and that many a caravan should find rest here. . . . Eleven hundred years of common history [of Islam and Hinduism] have enriched India with our common achievements. Our languages, our poetry, our literature, our culture, our art, our dress, our manners and customs, the innumerable happenings of our daily life, everything bears the stamp of our joint endeavour. . . . These thousand years of our joint life [have] moulded us into a common nationality. . . .Whether we like it or not, we have now become an Indian nation, united and indivisible. No fantasy or artificial scheming to separate and divide can break this unity. (from Azad's Congress Presidential Address, 1940)

Again, it probably isn't fair to ask Jinnah to play by today's standards, but I find myself much more in agreement with Maulana Azad's view of history and of the shared, hybrid Indian culture he espouses.


Mihir said...

Wonderful idea, to discuss the book a chapter at a time. I have already read the entire book and been very impressed with the balance in the book - Guha certainly does not come across as partisan. On another note, Guha does a great job of bringing out the back stories of many conflicts that India faces today - and shows their origins, in essence connecting the present with the recent past. Looking forward to the discussions here.

Desiknitter said...

Hi Amardeep,
I have the book on order, so I don't know when I'll be able to join but it would be great to read it together - a chapter a week will likely make it easier to get through the tome. So count me in - intermittently, if that's okay?

Amardeep said...

Desiknitter, sure, jump in anytime. At present I'm going to be cross-posting these at Sepia Mutiny, but if the discussion over there becomes too rancorous I may just start posting exclusively here.

Mary said...

I'd be interested in joining as well. I'll have to get an order in for the book.

Falstaff said...

I'm afraid I have to disagree. I read the book a few months back, and my recollection of what happens in which chapter is a little sketchy, but I do think Guha is biased - in that his stance throughout is clearly pro-Nehru. Throughout the book, he's quick to rise to Nehru's defense, and slow to condemn Nehru for his faults. To his credit, he more or less acknowledges this bias, and I'd agree that, given how fashionable it's become to blame Nehru for most of India's current ills it's useful and refreshing to see someone making so clear and forceful a case for Nehru, but it's hard to claim that he's entirely objective (not that I'm sure any historian, writing about events that occurred so recently, could be).

This is not to say that I agree with Reihan - I certainly don't think Guha is "intensely partisan" or that India after Gandhi is a bad book. I'd say the truth probably lies somewhere between the two extremes - Guha's is a reasonably fair and balanced account that's a little tilted towards Nehru in order to counterbalance the excessive criticism of him that already exists. And I do think that much of the book is insightful.

I think part of the 'partisan' nature of the book comes from Guha's adoption of what is practically a knee-jerk response that most of us share to anything that smacks of communalism. I find communalism as abhorrent as anyone else, but from the standpoint of history, I think it's valid to ask why representation based on differences on faith is unacceptable. Take the two speeches you quote in your post. Yes, we'd all like to believe that Azad's version was closer to the truth, but doesn't the fact that the League swept the reserved Muslim seats in 1946 suggest the opposite? If people really agreed with Azad why were they voting for the league? And if it's true that the majority of the Muslim population at the time felt insecure about being part of India and wanted a separate state (as the League's victory certainly suggests) then why does Jinnah's political turn "defy any explanation other than personal ambition"? Isn't it just possible that he genuinely believed that Pakistan was necessary, and / or that he recognized, much before Nehru, that that was what the people wanted and took it upon himself to represent their interests? Are we really to believe that the verdict of millions of Muslim voters in the 1946 election was a consequence of Jinnah's personal ambition? And why is it that Guha seems to blame all of Nehru's actions on arrogance / misguidedness, but Jinnah's faults on calculating mala fide ambition?

Amardeep said...

Falstaff, all good objections.

On the question of Jinnah vs. Azad, I think you're right that the fact that Jinnah's position prevailed with the masses of voting Indian Muslims at the time clearly shows that it wasn't merely a contrived position. But it doesn't necessarily mean that his claims in the above passage are (or were) the "truth" -- he was just much better than Azad as a politician, and better able to convince voters that this was the truth.

Secondly, on Jinnah's motives. On the Sepia Mutiny version of this post, commenter Ikram jogged me to take Ayesha Jalal's thesis about Jinnah more seriously. See here and here (Jalal's book "The Sole Spokesman" is on, apparently).

I guess what Jalal's version of Jinnah offers us is a rational Jinnah (not, as Guha suggests, a self-involved/self-aggrandizing one) who took a risk on an approach that ended up not working out the way he expected or hoped. Perhaps she's right, perhaps not -- but it is certainly a more nuanced argument than what Guha gives us in Chapter 2.

kris said...

Maulana Azad's stance is more complicated than the simple secular narrative outlined in official congress writings or even in the part quoted above. Ironically for this narrative, Maulana Azad's stance shared a great deal of similarity with the majority of the ulema at Dar-ul-uloom Deoband (Deoband effectively split over this issue with Maulana Maudoodi being expelled). He believed that muslim rights and interests would be far better served in an undivided India, since a lack of division would enable them to protect their interests better. I think he says this fairly explicitly in his book. He also predicted that a consequence of partition would be increased communal polarization, which has been borne out in all three countries. He was very prescient about the consequences of partition.

I am not convinced by the argument regarding the overwhelming majorities received by the Muslim League in 1946. The muslim league had a strongly feudal support base, and there were strong economic reasons for the feudal landlords in muslim majority areas to demand partition. Further, the electorates constituted by the Govt of India Act 1935 allowed only property holders to vote, which is consistent with this theory. So it is not obvious that there was overwhelming muslim support for partition at least on religious grounds, especially given that the ulema themselves were split over the issue.

I have not read Mr Guha's book, but I do share his opinions about Pakistan, and to some extent about Jinnah as an individual as well. Jinnah's self aggrandizing/self-involved tendencies are by no means incompatible with any political goals he may have had regarding partition.

Ram said...

I do not agree with Kris's observations as it defies basic logic. If the argument is that Muslim Feudal voted for Muslim League than I guess Hindu feudal voted for Congress as I am sure that government of India act of 1935 provisions of property ownership requirements were same for Hindu's or Muslims.

Secondly, it is quite obvious that even as late as 1946 Jinnah agreed to be part of a confederation of 3 autonomous regions of a united India. Nehru agreed to this with Jinnah but once the negotiations concluded he started changing his mind and openly said that provisions of this agreement can be changed when British will leave. Azad in his book India wins freedom also shows his displeasure on Nehru's attitude. This made Jinnah believe that the rights of minorities will not be protected in India and went back to leagues declared position of division of India.

I wish Nehru had shut his mouth; India would have been a united country.

COLOURS said...

Can someone explain me what was the author saying about Gandhi ignoring Jinnah and tried to make a common cause with the Mullahs. What was exactly the common cause?