How to Write It

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

  • India after Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy by Ramachandra Guha
    Macmillan, 900 pp, £25.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 230 01654 5
  • The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future by Martha Nussbaum
    Belknap, 403 pp, £19.95, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 674 02482 3

It may seem perverse to begin an essay on India by invoking a historian of France: Eugen Weber, who died this year, a colleague of mine and a formidable presence at UCLA. He wrote a book in 1976 on how France became a proper nation by transforming ‘peasants into Frenchmen’. But the Weber I knew, and bantered with during the last years of his life, also had an Indian past of which he felt periodically obliged to speak, though he spoke of it to me with discomfort. Born in Bucharest, Weber was sent to school in England, served in the Second World War as a captain in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and in the course of his service spent the mid-1940s in India, after earlier stints in Belgium and Germany. Demobilised in 1947, he went to Cambridge, and devoted the rest of his life to history, mostly French history. He maintained his affection for India and visited it a few times in later years. It was an affection that was tempered by chilling memories of the religious violence he had witnessed at close quarters in 1946-47; hence the discomfort he felt in talking about it.

Weber is best known for his account of the building of the modern French nation in the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is an account that involves roads and railways, schoolrooms and stern instituteurs, and the production of homogeneous ‘Frenchness’ (as both reality and myth) from the diverse terroirs that still existed in 1870. It is either a version of modernisation theory, as some of its critics have claimed, or a sly account of the modernising pretensions and projects of the Parisian elite, or both of these – as Weber sometimes hinted. Devoid of pretentious jargon, or any overt nod in the direction of the social sciences, Weber’s work has been a model of how to write modern national histories since its publication thirty years ago. Its long shadow falls even on Benedict Anderson’s account of the way print capitalism helped create the ‘imagined communities’ that are today’s nation-states.

No such master account has yet been written of the modern Indian nation-state, partly because historians of the subcontinent have usually shied away from the period after 1947, leaving that task to political scientists, sociologists and omniscient travellers. The curious practices of Indian archives and their keepers have not helped either: documents are declassified and allowed into the public domain on a very erratic basis. When my wife, a historian of modern France, asked me some time ago to recommend an accessible work on the history of modern India, I couldn’t think of one. Sumit Sarkar’s sweeping but dense account, Modern India, stopped at 1947; the collective volume entitled India after Independence by Bipan Chandra, Aditya Mukherjee and Mridula Mukherjee was a stodgy piece of nationalist-Marxist writing from the rank and file of plodders at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Though an admirer of many of V.S. Naipaul’s novels, I could not subject my wife to a diet of such bile-infused travelogues as An Area of Darkness, or to Naipaul’s later apologia for right-wing Hindu nationalism in India: A Million Mutinies Now. Eventually, I settled for Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India, an urbane, readable and sometimes personal account by a historically-minded political scientist who, again, had worked on France – his first book was Arguing Revolution: The Intellectual Left in Postwar France. Khilnani’s work on India has the virtue of assuming little prior knowledge of that part of the world. It also has one significant vice: its author’s weakness for the personality and ideas of independent India’s first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), whose biography he is now writing.

It was only a matter of time before this massive historiographical gap would be filled. The task that Ramachandra Guha sets himself in his massive India after Gandhi is not quite that of describing the Indian fin des terroirs (the first French title of the translated Peasants into Frenchmen). But it is the story of the building of a rather improbable nation-state from a fragmented political landscape, and as such it is first of all a political account. Like Weber’s work, it is also primarily a narrative account, expertly and fluently written; it has apparently found its way to the top of the non-fiction bestseller list in India (a list that is itself a form of fiction). It also avoids jargon and too much use of the social sciences and their apparatus.

Guha has had an unorthodox career. Initially trained as an economist, he then moved into historical sociology (tempered with anthropology): his first book-length work was on the history of an environmental movement in the Himalayas. Over the past two decades, he has continued off and on to work on the environment, in the form of general histories, comparative reflections and tracts with a more contemporary message. A second interest has been the history of anthropology, largely through his engagement with the life of the missionary-turned-anthropologist Verrier Elwin. He has also written on the history of sport in colonial and post-colonial India, and above all cricket, about which he also writes in a more popular style. He has refused a secure position in the academy, and makes a living from writing and lectures, including regular columns in two Indian newspapers, the Telegraph and the Hindu. He is probably the best-known public historian in India today, and the one whose books and collections of essays – as against those of Partha Chatterjee or Romila Thapar – the visitor is most likely to find in a middle-class drawing-room. If he has a rival in the public domain, it is the Delhi-based Scotsman William Dalrymple, with whom he does not quite see eye to eye for reasons having to do with their respective positions on British imperialism and Indian nationalism.

The reader of India after Gandhi will come quickly to the conclusion that Guha is indeed an Indian nationalist, though a moderate and self-critical one. He is also a self-defined ‘liberal’, a word that has no real resonance in Indian politics today, but which is meant to suggest a distance from both Marxist historiography and the ideology of the right-wing Hindu nationalists who until recently were in power in New Delhi. He has set out to produce an account of India since 1947 focusing on why India has remained a democracy against the odds, using the ‘techniques of the narrative historian’ rather than those of the social scientist. The basic argument is straightforward enough: there are forces that divide India, and others that keep it together. Among the first set of forces, there are four in particular, all large and impersonal: caste, language, religion and class. These operate at times singly and at times together. The forces that keep India together, and which are still somehow winning out, are vaguer and less evident. Near the end of his prologue, which he calls ‘Unnatural Nation’, Guha assures us these forces ‘have included individuals as well as institutions’. But in what proportion, one is entitled to ask, and in what combinations?

Guha tells his story in five sections. The first, ‘Picking up the Pieces’, addresses the immediate aftermath of Partition and independence, beginning with the assassination of Gandhi in January 1948, and in 120 dense pages sets the stage for what follows; the second, longer section is ‘Nehru’s India’, and carries the story forward to 1957, when it seemed that Nehru’s plans for a modern, industrialised, secular India might actually be implemented; the third, ‘Shaking the Centre’, chronicles Nehru’s declining years, including the disastrous war in 1962 with China; the fourth, ‘The Rise of Populism’, takes us through the complex cycle of the rise to power, temporary eclipse, second rise and ultimate murder of Nehru’s only child, Indira Gandhi, and then of her own elder son, Rajiv; the fifth, final section, in which the author, in his own words, ‘moves from “history” to what might instead be called “historically informed journalism”’, takes us from the late 1980s to the present. The balance, however, is clear enough: the Nehru years are at the heart of the book.

The good philosopher-king, succeeded by the scheming, corrupt and spoilt princess-in-waiting, and then by the well-intentioned but weak, pouting and feckless young prince. This sounds rather like the dynastic history that early modern historians, myself included, used to practise (Nehru as Charles V, Mrs Gandhi as Philip II and so on). That isn’t entirely Guha’s fault. The raw material of modern high politics in India is, after all, largely dynastic, as it is to some extent in Pakistan and Bangladesh. But Guha makes choices which exaggerate this aspect. The most significant is his decision to ‘humanise’ his history by consistently highlighting the place and role of individuals, Nehru and Indira Gandhi most prominently. This is not to say that there aren’t a number of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns around: the book abounds in deft portrayals of political figures, from Communists such as Namboodiripad in Kerala, to separatists in the north-east and Kashmir. There is even the Polonius-like Iyengar Brahmin from Tamil Nadu, C. Rajagopalachari, who wags his finger and advises all and sundry to neither a borrower nor a lender be. But for all his skill with portraiture, it is a relief when the social scientist periodically re-emerges to tell us of the planning process and its pitfalls, or of the abiding problems of poverty and caste in a ‘globalised’ India, or even when he invokes Durkheim to discuss the issue of farmers’ suicides.

This is, in many ways, a dazzling book. Its prose is always attractive, and it has a sure chronological organisation. The different regions get a fair and balanced treatment, which is not always the case in such histories. Besides memoirs, monographs, essays and contemporary newspapers, Guha has also examined important archival collections, such as the papers of Indira Gandhi’s right-hand man in the early 1970s, P.N. Haksar. But those inclined to a more inclusive social history will find the biographically-oriented political narrative overwhelming. And little space is given to culture, even to sport – a surprise, given Guha’s enthusiasm for it. But the central problem remains: how to organise a narrative history in the absence of a governing thesis such as that proposed and defended by Eugen Weber? And what might such a central thesis have been, had Guha chosen to pursue one?

He might possibly have focused on social mobility and its limits over the past sixty years. This would have meant dealing jointly with two of the issues that he sees as crucial challenges to Indian democracy: caste and class. He is in truth well aware of how fruitful this line of inquiry can be: ‘as a laboratory of social conflict,’ he writes, ‘the India of the 20th century is – for the historian – at least as interesting as the Europe of the 19th,’ adding that ‘in India the scope for contention has been even greater, given the diversity of competing groups across religion, caste, class and language.’ If Guha had gone further, the real question would have been how it is that India, despite the fact that it has effectively provided so little opportunity for economic and social mobility, has nevertheless experienced comparatively little social violence. This is not to understate the violence that takes place in both towns and countryside, whether the bloody eruptions or the quiet violence of everyday oppression. But it is remarkable how different the situation in India is from that in Latin America or much of Africa. The violence of a city such as Mumbai, dramatised in recent years by, for example, Suketu Mehta in Maximum City, does not really compare with São Paulo, Mexico City or Lagos.

To explain this, some would stress the complementary relationship between India’s political system and its social and economic dynamics. To writers such as the Paris-based political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot – he is only one among many to make the point – the political system in India effectively diverts energies that might in other societies have exploded violently. In India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes in North India (2003), Jaffrelot plots the rise to political office of a large number of lower-caste men and even some women. A particularly dramatic instance was the ‘bandit queen’, Phoolan Devi (1963-2001), who belonged to the mallah caste of boat people in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. After serving 11 years in prison, she was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1996 on behalf of the Samajwadi Party, and was eventually shot outside her home in New Delhi. Revenge was given as the motive behind her killers’ actions: most belonged to far higher castes than she did. It is also possible to plot the entrepreneurial use of the political system by those who could certainly never have been recruited into the Indian Administrative Service. The pool of industrial entrepreneurs in India still remains limited, with very few exceptions to a small group of castes; politics, on the other hand, has opened up in a way that it has not in neighbouring Pakistan or Bangladesh.

In other words, the Indian world is not much like Weber’s France, in which a relatively limited and coherent elite set out to ‘modernise’ the rest of the nation in both discursive and institutional terms. In India, from the time of Nehru to the present day, it is the political elite itself that has been transformed, in ways that are deeply disturbing to upper-caste voices and points of view. This has gone hand in hand with what has been called the ‘criminalisation of politics’: large numbers of legislators in India today are either convicted felons, or face criminal charges of one sort or another. But this cannot be separated from the larger problem of how the limits placed on mobility by class and caste can be addressed in a democratic framework. The question was close to the heart of one of Guha’s mentors, the liberal sociologist André Béteille, and has been addressed more recently by political theorists further to the left, such as Partha Chatterjee, who have posited a lasting distinction between the tea and biscuits of ‘civil society’ and the rough and tumble of ‘political society’. Whether or not one wishes to accept such a rigid distinction, it could certainly provide the guiding theme for a discussion of the past sixty years.

An alternative focus might have been the issue of regions, and the various centrifugal and centripetal forces that inhere in a space that is more populous and perhaps more complex than the European Union. Guha discusses the problem largely in relation to two sets of issues: first, the way region is read through the prism of language and linguistic divisions; and second, the problem of the northern and north-eastern border states, which have long challenged Indian political unity. However, we are now aware that sixty years of independence have, if anything, sharpened regional disparities in India, not so much in cultural terms – where some homogenisation can be seen – but in relation to such basic factors as demography. It is possible to draw a diagonal line sloping from right to left across the centre of India – a sort of ‘St Malo-Geneva line’ in reverse – and to discern sharp differences above and below the line in terms of rates of population growth, infant mortality, economic status for women and relative numbers of men and women. This can be recast as a more complex problem still, once the role of megacities is taken into consideration. Such phenomena as the alleged transformation of peasants into programmers are what Guha has in mind when he cites Amartya Sen, who worries that one half of India will come to look and live like California, the other half like sub-Saharan Africa. This could just as easily be said of growth in China in the age of globalisation. Just as significant is the fact that such economic and social differences could well manifest themselves regionally. In other words, even as a number of the older cultural conflicts based on such considerations as language or ‘ethnicity’ (in particular, the somewhat bogus divide between Aryans and Dravidians) have been resolved, other longer-term regional differences have persisted and even become aggravated, with every prospect of further aggravation as both politics and political economy become more rather than less decentralised. Guha hints at some of these issues, but eventually sets them aside. In so doing, he may gain a large audience but he misses the opportunity – if that is the right word – to have a real argument with others in the field.

The problem of narrative exposition finds a quite different solution in Martha Nussbaum’s The Clash Within, a book less than half the size of Guha’s doorstop. After training in Hellenistic philosophy and the interpretation of Aristotle, Nussbaum has begun in recent years to write far more widely on issues of development, feminism and public affairs. Her interest in India stems from personal dealings over two decades with a number of prominent Indians (especially the family of Kshiti Mohan Sen and Amartya Sen); in her preface, she relates this to her conversion from an ‘elite Wasp heritage’ to Judaism and ‘the cause of the underdog in my own country’, and adds that she is ‘sure that my passion for India (and particularly for Bengali culture) reflects a similar enthusiasm for the colonial underdog’. Nussbaum says she celebrates Indian Independence Day on 15 August ‘enthusiastically’ in Chicago (even Indian ambassadors abroad have been known merely to go through the motions on 15 August). This is arguably a more curious form of – vicarious – Indian nationalism than that of Ramachandra Guha, who still lives in Bangalore.

Nussbaum’s book deals with religious violence in India, and more particularly with Hindu majoritarian violence organised around groups often called by their three-letter acronyms (the RSS, VHP, BJP and so on). It is primarily a sort of travelogue, reviving the narrative form of philosopher as traveller most famously associated with the French doctor (and disciple of Gassendi) François Bernier, in 17th-century Mughal India. Nussbaum is manifestly a liberal, in the American sense of a left-leaning Democrat. Her intention is to be Socratic, open and engaging with her Indian interlocutors, who include a number of rather unpleasant defenders (and perhaps even some perpetrators) of mass violence.

Nussbaum’s book is, she claims, intended ‘for an American and European audience’ and is meant as a ‘loudspeaker’ for views already expressed in India by other, presumably less famous scholars. I suppose I am not its ideal reader. If the book were to raise awareness in the West of the acuteness of certain forms of politico-religious tension in India and the role played by a number of clearly identifiable groups in organising and justifying mass violence, that would be laudable. But if it is intended as a work of genuine scholarship on India, questions can and should be raised. A work like this can easily cause embarrassment among those devoted to the same political causes as Nussbaum, and, to judge by responses on the internet, it may already have done so. It will be easy enough for those who want to mock the book and its political message to point to its errors of historical fact, its eccentric views regarding Indian scripts and the difference between Hindi and Urdu, and debatable statements on a variety of other questions, where Nussbaum is simply paraphrasing or repeating what she has been told, without being able to apply her own considerable critical faculties to the questions at hand.

Perhaps with a view to getting around this problem, Nussbaum resorts for a good portion of the book to first-person accounts of her own experiences, including interviews with a number of the dramatis personae. But the interviews are rather stylised and follow predictable patterns. There is usually a physical description of the interviewee: Arun Shourie has ‘a long straight moustache, restless burning eyes, a bald head fringed with thick grey hair’; Romila Thapar has ‘a stately bearing, a deep, mellifluous voice and elite, British-accented English’, and so on. When Nussbaum is sympathetic to their views, they are presented with a minimum of fuss; when she is not, they are presented condescendingly, as psychologically inadequate or disturbed persons, as much to be pitied as they are to be censured; only occasionally does she find someone really beyond the pale. There is also an occasional (perhaps involuntary) genuflection to reflexive anthropology, as when we find Nussbaum on a January morning in Delhi ‘wrapping my shawl vainly around my cotton salwaar kameez’, since she cannot persuade her taxi driver to drive with his windows closed (normally a simple task for non-philosopher travellers). The significance of her clothing on this occasion escapes me.

At the end of these interviews, which are interspersed with reflections on Gandhi and Tagore (whom Nussbaum greatly admires) and Nehru (for whom her admiration is more mixed), one knows no more than one would have found out by reading the Indian newspapers from time to time. Nussbaum is preaching to the converted, and no one who does not share her views at the beginning is likely to change their mind by the end. The constant references to Tagore, and to his relevance in India today, are misplaced since even the Bengali bhadralok bourgeoisie has now shown signs of moving beyond his deist philosophising and monotonous romantic message. Yet Nussbaum continues to insist that ‘India needs Tagore today even more than it needs Nehru and Gandhi,’ as if theirs were the only significant points of view available. One can see the traces here of her excessive dependence on expatriate Bengali informants, as if Chicago were no more than an intellectual suburb of Kolkata.

Nevertheless, the publication of Nussbaum’s book by a major US university press and the reviews of it that have appeared in many non-academic journals and magazines, might suggest that even the bad times are good. Interest in the Indian subcontinent is at a high in the Atlantic world, after years in which Japan, Korea and China were at the centre of attention. The trade press is now open to those who work on India, not just to novelists and travellers. More will be heard.