India After Gandhi – Introspeck

Reading Time: 6 minutes

An oft repeated advice of Charlie Munger to become a better investor has been to “Read history, read history, read history!”, and it is with this motivation that I picked up India After Gandhi – The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, written by the historian Ramachandra Guha. A magnum opus is an individual’s best produced work, and  India After Gandhi might very well be the one for Mr. Guha. The book is incredibly written, not only for its depth of research, with reference notes that run for more than 100 pages, but also the flow that ties the narrative together, keeping the book fast paced and lessons lucid.

Right at the start, the author makes 2 valuable points – for Indians in general, and their history students in particular, India’s history ended on 15 August 1947, after which everything that happened gained prominence in the realm of civics, making a lot of later history unknown to a large populace. The author also mentions that since he is writing a history which is quite recent, a lot of his readers, along with the author may have lived through these episodes and have their own opinions. This makes his job harder to write objectively and also makes it open to a much deeper scrutiny.

This post would never end even if the tiniest summaries were made, since what the book contains is incredibly vast. What further makes this task difficult is that although the author moves chronologically, the text is filled with multiple detours bringing in topics like start of environmentalism and feminism simultaneously with war time emergencies and elections. The book progresses non linearly like Quentin Tarantino’s cinema, answering a 200 year old question of Mirza Ghalib on what makes India function, keeping it away from throes of destruction.

Since the book is full to its brim with anecdotes, I can only relate some major learnings. The biggest lesson has been that despite some events having a colossal impact on India’s history, the reasons are of why they transpired are still not known, some of which were –

  1. Lifting of Emergency in 1977 and call for re-elections (Chapter Name – Autumn of the Matriarch) – no one knows how India got out of its darkest hour of democracy and what events led to call for fresh elections by Mrs. Gandhi.
  2. Withdrawal by Chinese of their troops in the 1962 war (Chapter Name – the Experience of Defeat) – Despite making significant advances in Indian territory and handing Indian armed forces their first ever defeat, the Chinese troops withdrew even before any official surrender was made, for reasons that are not yet known.
  3. The eerily long life of India’s political families (Chapter Name – A Valley Bloody and Beautiful) – A large number of politicians that head the major regional parties (NC, JMM, DMK) today have all had illustrious forefathers whose role in independent India has been very important. Although the literature does not mention them prominently, after reading this book, I do get a feeling that the people living in the region collectively remember the legacy associated with the individual, and not the ideology.
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Another learning, which also fills me with a lot of gratitude was the importance and effects of India choosing to remain a secular country in order to accommodate the diversity of populace and inclusiveness. Our country is incredibly lucky to have an initial leadership that had the foresight to  remain tolerant where the path of least resistance would have been to favour the largest religious group and the vote bank that came with it. Although I have never had a religious identity, in today’s polarising times of conflict, I realize how important or personal one’s religion can get. And to ignore this at the time of Partition, when trains full of corpses travelled between India and Pakistan, I find has led to an invaluable stability.

However, what has also been equally impressive is the identity, consistency and the functioning of India’s right wing, with RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) being the umbrella organisation and the ideological guide for organisations like BJP and ABVP (BJP’s student wing). Built on a nationalist plank, RSS’s overarching aim has been to unite the present India with its cultural roots of Hinduism. Since its inception in 1925, some things largely have been consistent – meritocracy in its cadres, propagation of Hindu values and customs like ban on cow slaughter (suggested in 1952, implemented in 2014), focus on the Hindi language, a penchant for extremism and working from the grassroots level. With the transformation of the Center wing Congress as a family dynasty complete and the left wing alive only in universities and a couple of states, the right wing juggernaut finally sees its mark being made.

I was also quite shocked on reading about the long civil war in Nagaland, which has been going on since India’s independence with its citizens having gone through hardships unheard of. This book reaffirms the continued ignorance of Indian mainland of the issues faced by the geographically distant north east. Reading this book is also opening yourself upto the series of violent episodes that arose on account of geographic divisions – immolation for creation of linguistic states, clashes for separating Gujarat and Maharashtra, rise of Naxalism, communal riots through the years and Operation Bluestar. However, the author finds that on the onset of these clashes, there would always be detractors claiming an end of India as we know it and disintegration into pieces, only to be proved wrong time and again.

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Along with the serious writing, the author also weaves its magic in handling the lighter elements of the Indian society, most notably the sports and entertainment. Was quite amazed by the section that discussed India’s travelling theatre troupes and India’s incredible fascination with ‘Ramayan’ telecasted on DD on Sunday mornings.

As per me, this book is more like a start for someone who wants to be a student of India’s history, since its focus is on sheer width, with less depth due to paucity of pages. This book further introduces us to some incredible individuals who have had a major role in nation building, like –

  1. BR Ambedkar, Chairman, Constitution Drafting Committee – “surprised that those who condemn Provincialism and communalism should come forward as champions of the village. What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?”
  2. Jaipal Singh, tribal leader.
  3. General Thimaiyya, India’s first Chief of Staff.
  4. Madhu Dandavate, politician
  5. Sheikh Abdullah, founder – National Conference
  6. Master Tara Singh – Founder – Akali Dal
  7. V. P. Menon – Civil Servant, responsible for integration of states.

I hope to read more about each of their lives.

Its difficult to find faults with a work so profound, but one cant help noticing an unwavering fascination of the author with Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, which appears out of context and multiple times  throughout the book (I stopped counting after 10 instances in Part 1 itself). Time and again, Nehru is portrayed in such a way that the adulation in the author’s heart bursts forth almost skipping the objectivity beat. While initially irritating, I find myself subtly influenced by the author’s character sketches lines as the book came to a close. Talk about biases!

Although portraying history till early 2000s, I found the narrative, which was crisp and precise, starting to turn erratic after the 1980s, with less bandwidth given to the section covering 1990s, which was also the one I happened to look forward to the most before starting the book. Probably the length of the book might have finally caught up, but it would have been a treat to read more about the liberalized economy.

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How does this book help me as an investor? Reading Warren Buffett’s letters has brought me one realization – what has worked for Buffett has been a long runway in terms of a time horizon and possibly the longest running call option on United States and its pillars of innovation and productivity. More than the US based corporations, Buffett has bet on the environment that helps businesses on their pursuit of happiness. Striving to be an investor in the Indian markets, I am trying to understand what part of our progress was well thought out, co ordinated and policy driven and what came from unrequited acts or randomness.

If you have read this book, feel free to write back with thoughts. Also, in case any of you had started reading and then stopped, hope reading this helps you get back on your quest.

Some other books I read to understand modern Indian history –

  1. Between the Lines – Kuldip Nayar
  2. We, the people – Nani Palkhiwala
  3. Courage and Conviction – Retd. Gen. VK Singh

Happy reading!

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Umang Shah

Umang Shah

Through his writing, Umang shares his perspectives on how he thinks of investing, decision making, books and life in general.
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