Ramachandra Guha is a historian of modern India and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi.
Were I a biographer of the Buddha or a historian of the Mughals, there would be little overlap between my politics and my profession. However, as a historian of modern India, I find there is a continual and often agonizing tension between how I think as a scholar and how I feel as a citizen. The past few days — following the government’s decision to scrap the special status of Kashmir — have been, even by Indian standards, extraordinarily tumultuous for my country and its people.
Meanwhile, I was asked to write this essay to coincide with the anniversary of my country’s independence from British colonial rule. How can the events of the past two weeks affect a broader (and deeper) understanding of what Indians have done with 72 years of freedom? Can I set aside what I feel about my government’s persecution of my Kashmiri fellow citizens when considering, dispassionately and objectively, how India has fared since 1947?
I must, or must at least try.
Kashmir sits on one of India’s foundational fault lines, that of religion. With the rise and consolidation of an aggressive Hindu majoritarianism, many rightfully worry about India’s future as a multicultural democracy. But no assessment of our recent history can be complete without first acknowledging what I, as both historian and citizen, see as India’s three most striking achievements.
A nation out of many nations
Had the country been a start-up in 1947, not even the most venturesome of venture capitalists would have invested in it. Shortly after India became free, the last British commander in chief of the Indian Army, Gen. Claude Auchinleck, wrote: “The Sikhs may try to set up a separate regime. I think they probably will and that will be only a start of a general decentralization and break-up of the idea that India is a country, whereas it is a subcontinent as varied as Europe. The Punjabi is as different from a Madrassi as a Scot is from an Italian. The British tried to consolidate it but achieved nothing permanent. No one can make a nation out of a continent of many nations.”
Such predictions were ubiquitous in the early years of independence. India could not survive as a single nation, said the smartest of Western observers, and it could never become a democracy either. But it did. Another former British official who was in India during the first general elections of 1952 wrote home that “a future and more enlightened age will view with astonishment the absurd farce of recording the votes of millions of illiterate people.”
But India defied its skeptics to remain united, and stay somewhat democratic. To be sure, there was violence at its birth, and rebellion afterward, in Kashmir, Nagaland and elsewhere, put down by force. But when one considers how much blood was shed in the forging of the British or American or French or Chinese nation, I think Indians have gotten off relatively lightly. That a poor, divided and still not fully literate country is a democracy is an even greater feat. Each general election is the greatest exercise of free will in human history — and with many states being larger than some European countries, holding hundreds of provincial elections is rather impressive as well.
There is a third thing Indians should be proud of: our record in sustaining linguistic pluralism. Americans are paranoid about people who do not speak English; yet the rupee note in my pocket has not just 17 languages, but 17 scripts printed on it. Wisely, the founders of India rejected the conventional wisdom that a single language would enhance national unity and refused to impose Hindi across the republic. On the other hand, in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, linguistic differences helped provoke bloody conflicts and even secession.
Indeed, as a large, diverse multilingual political unit with a single market and free movement of people, India anticipated the European Union by many decades.
Failures and fault lines
But set against these achievements are three major failures.
India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, vowed not to let India become a Hindu Pakistan. As he wrote to state chief ministers in 1947: “We have a Muslim minority who are so large in numbers that they cannot, even if they want to, go anywhere else. They have got to live in India. That is a basic fact about which there can be no argument. Whatever the provocation from Pakistan and whatever the indignities and horrors inflicted on non-Muslims there, we have got to deal with this minority in a civilized manner. We must give them security and the rights of citizens in a democratic State.”
With independence, India assured Muslims and Christians and Sikhs and Parsis equal rights. So long as Nehru was alive there was little religious conflict, but after his death in 1964 riots between Hindus and Muslims began breaking out episodically.
These conflicts have only accelerated since the 1980s, with the rise of the Hindu-first Bharatiya Janata Party. With the BJP now in power in Parliament and in most major states, and with many of its leaders and virtually all of its cadres being absolutely majoritarian in their outlook, India is closer to being a Hindu Pakistan than at any time since 1947.
One of the reasons that the Indian state has, in recent years, shown such a harsh hand in Kashmir is that the majority of Kashmiris are Muslims. Yet, because of Pakistan’s long-standing role in fomenting Islamist terrorism in the valley, and the cult of personality around India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, these repressive methods have attracted applause rather than criticism from Indians outside Kashmir.
A second failure consists of the steady dismantling of impartial, rule-bound public institutions. India is in danger of becoming what I have called an “election-only democracy.” Once a party has won an election, it is unaccountable for its acts. Parliament barely functions. Large sections of the media are scared or co-opted. The judiciary is overburdened and dysfunctional. The civil service and the police are in the pocket of the BJP. President Trump cannot set the tax authorities and intelligence agencies on his critics, but Modi can, and might. Independent news websites and television channels — the Wire, Quint and NDTV, among others — have faced intimidation through libel cases, tax raids, etc.
The use and abuse of nature
A third major failure relates to how Indians use, and abuse, nature. Mahatma Gandhi had warned in 1928 that if India took to industrialization after the manner of the West, “it would strip the world bare like locusts." We disregarded him, and adopted antiquated, energy-and-resource-guzzling technologies rather than seeking more sustainable alternatives. The results are there for all to see. Even if climate change did not exist, India would still be an environmental basket case. Our cities have the highest rates of air pollution in the world. Many of our rivers are biologically dead. The chemical contamination of the soil is immense, and possibly irreversible. Meanwhile, with the corruption and corrosion of public institutions, the possibilities of remedial action do not exist. If the GDP numbers took proper account of all these environmental factors, and of their long-term consequences, no sensible person would think of India as a potential “economic superpower.”
Nehru — who, before he became prime minister tried his hand at writing works of history himself — once said that India is home to all that is truly noble as well as truly disgusting in the human condition. In a book published in 2007, on the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, I sought to document, at perhaps rather excessive length, all that was noble as well as disgusting in my country’s history. I ended with a verdict — that India was a “50-50 democracy.” By this I meant that whereas in some respects — free and fair elections, free movement of people — India matched the standards of the older democracies of the West, in other respects — political corruption, violence based on caste, gender and religion — it fell far short.
Twelve years later, I would downgrade my country’s democratic credentials. Given the lack of any sort of credible opposition to the BJP, the atmosphere of fear among religious minorities and the attacks on a free press, we are now a 40-60 democracy, and — if the recent abuse of state power in Kashmir is any indication — well on the way to becoming 30-70.