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.

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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.