Most of this book was written between July 2007 and December 2008. Yet, the ideas in it began to germinate in my mind fifty and more years previously. I was seven when India became independent and for the first ten years after that I, along with most others, accepted a well-known view of the nature of India as a nation. I read Nehru’s The Discovery of India when in my teens. It gave us the basic story, beautifully recounted by a masterful writer.
The story was a simple and seamless one. India had struggled hard against British imperialism but thanks to the leadership of Gandhi, along with his heir and trusted lieutenant Nehru, India had thrown off the foreign yoke. The British had always practised divide and rule and the sad result was the Partition, thanks to Jinnah’s fanatic insistence on the ‘Two Nation theory’, utterly rejected by the Congress party. Post-Partition, and now independent, India was united and hopeful. Its unity was based on a syncretic culture of Hindus and Muslims. The Partition of India had served as a warning to the leaders against any further divisions; the spectre of Balkanization haunted India.
This seamless story was shattered during the 1950s itself. The agitation for linguistic states took a popular anti-Congress form in Bombay where I was growing up, and we could see that despite Nehru’s reluctance to grant the demands, linguistic states were popular. What followed in 1959 was much more serious. The publication of Maulana Azad’s India Wins Freedom shattered the accepted story of India’s independence. We learnt that there had been differences and disagreements among Congress leaders as well, and not just between them and Jinnah. Azad’s assertion that Nehru might have single-handedly thrown the chance of a united India under the Cabinet Mission plan was shocking and controversial. Newspapers and journals were full of arguments for and against him. India had suddenly become aware that its own history was not a single unit but had rival strands. This is true of most countries; we had just witnessed India growing up.
Bombay state was divided into Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1960, and Bombay city began its new career as the capital of a Marathi-speaking state rather than the commercial capital of cosmopolitan India. I left India for studies abroad, but even as I pursued my career in economics, I kept up my reading and thinking about India and how it became a nation, about the subdivisions within, as much as the big division which caused the Partition.
During the next forty-odd years, I wrote a number of essays, some short and others quite long, on the broad question of the nature of Indian nationhood. These are collected in Development and Nationhood, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2005. But I did feel that some day I should sit down and write out what I consider the nature of India as a nation and how it came to be what it is. I have been lucky in having colleagues and friends who have been very indulgent of my forays into their special fields. (Their names are in the preface to Development and Nationhood.) I have also been fortunate in having access to some of the best libraries at the universities of Bombay, Pennsylvania, California (Berkeley) and the London School of Economics plus, last but not the least, the House of Lords.
Neither friends nor an ample supply of books can be a guarantee against error, and it is with some trepidation that I now put this book forward. It is an ambitious book but it is written by someone who cannot claim to be a professional historian. It is my own, somewhat opinionated, account of how India became a nation and a nation state. I begin with the arrival of Vasco da Gama in 1498 and carry the story down to the present day. I take the creation of the Indian nation to be as much a result of global forces as local ones. I emphasize, more than has been done previously, the 250 years of peaceful relations of trade between Europe and India between 1500 and 1750. The story since 1750 has been much covered, but I do see a continuous—and not totally negative—contribution of the British Parliament and politics to the development of India’s constitutional position. It is this, as much as the mass mobilization by the Congress, which has shaped India as it is today. Hence the continuity rather than rupture with the British raj. The Congress also cannot be given the sole credit for the outcome of Independence. The more I read about the period between 1905 and 1947, the more impressed I was about how much a certain hegemonic view of the independence struggle has been put forward since Independence.
India’s story, as it fought for Independence, was more than just Gandhi 1921, Gandhi 1930 and Gandhi 1942. There were other parties and leaders, especially the Muslim League and Jinnah, but also the movement of the Dalits and lower castes led by Ambedkar and Naicker, which had their own view of what India should be like after Independence. There were also the Native Princes and the many others who collaborated in the constitutional path charted by the British. There were patriots who rejected the non-violent strategy of the Congress, and dissidents both on the Right and the Left who also fought for the common cause. These aspects have to be given their due weight in the story. The larger perspective, in which the Congress and the British (in India and back home) interacted with non-Congress forces to shape the final outcome, is covered in some detail here. It is important, in my view, to ask whether the Partition was the only possible outcome and, if not, what the alternatives were, and how the one that finally gelled did so.
Along the way, I also pose a number of counterfactual questions: Could India have escaped Western rule as China did? Yes in 1700, but perhaps no by 1750, and definitely not by 1800. What would India have been like had the 1857 rebellion succeeded? Could Gandhiji have delivered swaraj within one year as he promised in 1921? Could India have been a single entity on the lines of the 1935 Government of India Act, or as per the Cabinet Mission plan? The point of asking these questions is to remember that what did actually occur was only one of the many possibilities before it happened. History could have taken a different turn.
The story of India as a nation does not stop at 1947. In fact, it begins then. India has not been so large and so united under a single power any time previously in its history as it has been since 1947, Partition notwithstanding. The sixty-two years since have displayed even greater diversity than the freedom fighters were aware of, and it is the assertion and inclusion of these diversities which is the real success story of post-1947 India. It has not been easy nor peaceable. But it is nothing short of a miracle. India is and continues to reinvent itself as a nation, day after day, democratically and in full view of the world.
I enjoyed writing this book immensely and I can only hope that the readers will also do so. But I must warn them that enjoyment, in my definition, includes getting angry at the author, disagreeing with him, challenging his views and, yet, having the fun which takes you right through to the end.
15 August 2009