A historian can use the past to understand the present, but a historian cannot predict the future. But that the Republic is passing through a very troubled phase in its history is evident. That it lacks the sort of enlightened leadership that can take us out of our difficulties is even more evident.
As I have written before, if India had been a start-up in August 1947, not even the most venturesome of venture capitalists would have invested in it. No new nation was born in more inhospitable circumstances. The Partition of the country had been awful enough, in the scale of its violence and the mass displacement of people from their homes. Two months after Independence, Pakistan sent raiders into Kashmir, sparking a full-fledged war. Then, in January 1948, the Father of the Nation was murdered by a Hindu fundamentalist. This attack from the religious right was compounded by an attack from the political left, when, a mere six weeks after the Mahatma died, the Communist Party of India, acting on the orders of their Russian masters, started an armed insurrection against the Indian State. All this occurred against the backdrop of food scarcities, shortages of foreign exchange, and the refusal of the large and strategically vital princely state of Hyderabad to join the Indian Union.
How did the infant that was India cope with all this? Why did it not break apart into many pieces, as many Western observers were confident it would? The answer lies in the extraordinary quality of the country's leadership — with the likes of BR Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Vallabhbhai Patel in government; the likes of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Mridula Sarabhai and Anis Kidwai in civil society; and a set of brilliantly qualified and superbly focused public officials at hand as well. This remarkable generation of Indians united the country politically, emotionally, and socially, legitimising this unity through the document we call the Constitution of India.
This column is being published in print on January 26, 2020 — the 70th anniversary, to the day, of the adoption of the Constitution and the formation of the Republic. In the seven decades since, while India has not known times quite as dark as those when the nation was born, it has not been entirely free of problems or difficulties. In its career as a Republic, the country has faced three major crises, which I describe below.
The first crisis of the Republic occurred in the early 1960s, which saw bloody wars with China and Pakistan, the deaths of two greatly beloved prime ministers in quick succession, and agrarian distress, leading to a famine-like situation in many parts of the country. The second crisis of the Republic took place in the mid-1970s, when Indira Gandhi and her son, Sanjay, sent Indian democracy to the cleaners, and imposed a reign of terror across Northern India in particular. The third crisis of the Republic occurred between 1989 and 1992, years marked by savage Hindu-Muslim conflict and a great deal of caste conflict as well, compounded by scarcities of foreign exchange and a quick turnover of governments at the Centre.
I remember each of these three crises vividly. In the 1960s, I was a little boy in Dehradun, growing up in a home darkened by blinds as jets of the Indian Air Force flew overhead. We were middle-class, but the shortages of grain, pulses, and cooking oil had hit us hard nonetheless. My parents felt the deaths of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri personally, as if they had been members of our family. In the 1970s, I was a college student in Delhi, reading a censored press, wary of a goateed Intelligence Bureau man sitting alone in the University Coffee House overhearing our conversations, hearing stories of the harassment of Muslims in Turkman Gate. In the late 1980s/early 1990s, I was an academic travelling across North India, observing at first-hand the devastation caused by the social and religious polarisation of those years.
So, the first thing I would say, as an Indian citizen now in his 60s, is — we have been here before. Indeed, what I consider to be the worst year in the history of the Republic occurred in none of the three dark phases I have identified above. This year was, of course, 1984, which saw (among other things) the Indian Army's storming of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the pogrom against the Sikhs, and the Bhopal tragedy.
The second thing I would say is that we may now be passing through the fourth serious crisis in the history of the Republic. A set of unnecessary State policies has derailed our economic recovery, set citizens against one another, and damaged India's standing in the world. When the Narendra Modi Government was re-elected in May last year, there were some major structural problems facing the country. These included: one, growing joblessness and agrarian distress; two, the declining capacity of public institutions; and, three, growing environmental degradation. The actions of the government since May 2019 have done nothing to address these three problems. On the other hand, the government's actions have created further problems, by deepening divisions between the country's religious communities, and between the Centre and the states.
How is the Republic of India faring on the 70th anniversary of its founding? The answer to this question depends on where one lives. Had I been living in Bareilly, Guwahati, or Srinagar, I might have considered the situation truly grave, even life-and-nation-threatening. Living in (moderately) peaceful Bengaluru, besides being a historian of a sceptical temperament, I wouldn't think of us as going into an apocalypse just yet. Nonetheless, because of the structural problems identified in the previous paragraph — and which the present policies must only worsen— I do believe this is the fourth serious crisis that the Republic of India has faced since it was founded 70 years ago.
A historian can use the past to understand the present, but a historian cannot predict the future. I cannot tell how the rest of the year or the rest of the decade will unfold for India and Indians. But that the Republic is passing through a very troubled phase in its history is evident. That it lacks the sort of enlightened leadership that can take us out of our difficulties is even more evident.
Ramachandra Guha is the author of Gandhi: The Years That Changed The World. The views expressed are personal.