MEGHNAD Desai, Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics and author of over twenty scholarly works modestly insists that he “cannot claim to be a professional historian, and what he has written is his own “somewhat opinionated account of how India became a nation and a nation state”, for which, thank God! A professional historian would probably have been unreadable. Desai is anything but. This is a scholarly, reader-friendly and in some ways provocative study of what India has gone through, informative, blissfully opinionated (and why not?) and in the end notably educative, which is its strength.
Meghnad Desai provides so much fresh and seldom known information that one gasps with delight. But the narration is not sequential. He begins with the arrival of the Portuguese in India in 1498, discusses the economic benefits of Enropean trade and the export surplus India gained in the process, and how, before foreign domination was established, it had been for 250 years, a powerful global economic player. From there he moves on to the changing context in the 18th century when, for the first time, Europeans made war amongst themselves on Indian territory and how, after the British established their sovereignty, they cut India trade off from the rest of the European economy and harnessed it to their own.
Desai reminds us that the British were oppressive even when they thought they were reforming or ‘civilising’ India. We get excellent analyses of the Battle of Plassey (Palashi) and Buxar (“Perhaps the most important battle the British ever fought in South Asia”) and how Warren Hastings ruled only to be later impeached, the description reaching heights of emotional turbulence. It is Desai at his best. Like the professional economist that he is, Desai’s interpretation of history is in economic terms and he is conscious that some people may not appreciate it. As he put it: “Major historical events in any nation’s life are always subject to debate which revise and re-interpret the way in which each generation thinks about them”. No matter. Desai’s interpretation is near perfect. Nehru, for example, saw the events of 1857 as premature and a feudal reaction.
KM Pannikar believed it was “the last effort of the old order to regain national independence”. The truth was that in 1857 India emerged from feudalism to the era of modernism. Government of India passed on from the East India Company to the British Crown. A new Chapter in India’s history had begun. All this is covered in the first 122 pages of the book. Thereafter we come to modern times, the establishment of the three Universities (Bombay, Madras and Calcutta), the arrival on the political scene of luminaries such as Pherozeshah Mehta, Dadabhai Naoroji, Badruddin Tyabji, WC Bonnerjee, KT Telang, G Subramaniam Iyer, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Bal Gangadhar Tilak.
At the turn of the century a new India was on its way, Lord Curzon was making waves and some 5,000 British officials were running a nascent all-India administration. Those must have been very trying times both for the rulers and the ruled because for both the experience was entirely new. As Curzon saw it, “one fifth of the entire human race” was being ruled not “by the law of the sword, but by the rule of justice”. To read Desai in the chapters that follow is to re-live history, the magic of his words capturing the ethos of those times in lived splendour. India was on the move. George V, King Emperor had come and gone. The First World War was fought with India dragged into it. Now came a fresh wave of rebellious thought: Enter, Gandhi. And another chapter of history was to begin, unknowingly. The pages that follow make memorable reading. Desai makes us re-live every moment of those times. He quotes Rushbrook Williams who had written: “(In India) strange enthusiasms were kindled; unfamiliar ideals furnished fuel for flames. A furnace glowed and into its fires the polity of India passed”. It did indeed.
Desai faithfully reports the new politics which India was witnessing with the coming of Gandhi. Name follows name. Events follow events. What adds to the fascination of recounted history are the nuggets of incidents recalled that brighten the pages. Think of them all: The Round Table Conferences, the Civil Disobedience Movements, the 1937 general elections, the coming into power of the Congress for the first time, the advent of the Second World War, the rise of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Cripps Mission, the Quit India Movement, the Road to Pakistan, one following the other in quick succession. The story is recounted with such verve and vigour that it becomes impossible to put down the book, so engrossing is the narration. The chapter on Jawaharlal Nehru and another on his heirs and successors are admirably objective. Desai makes it clear that Nehru seriously misjudged the Chinese and let his faith in their good intentions be the father to his diplomatic strategy, his naivete proving costly for India. “Nehru”, writes Desai “might have conceded the Chinese demands for border adjustments” but doesn’t proceed to show how. The role of VK Krishna Menon in this context could have been probed in greater detail. Desai is sympathetic to the Congress and like all ‘liberal secularists’ wary of the BJP, showing little or no understanding of the events that led to the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya which he described as “the watershed for Indian nationhood”, showing little understanding of the history of Hindu-Muslim relations down the centuries beginning with Ghazni Mohammad’s first attack in 1000 AD. That said, one regrets that he could have given more space to Indira Gandhi who had ruled for sixteen years and who, writes Desai, was “also the last leader who could articulate an All India vision”.
That said, Desai’s conclusion is that India needs to fashion a new narrative of nationhood considering that it is a nation “living under a Constitution in vibrant, thriving democracy”. He is astounded by the unity shown by the people, saying: “It is nothing short of a miracle. India is, and continues to re-invent itself as a nation day after day, democratically and in full view of the world”. To which, all that one can say is: Amen! The journey that Desai undertook certainly has been worth while and for all that one knows, Nehru were he to read the book would pat him on the back for rediscoverying India.
(Penguin Book 11, community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 067)