FT Book Review : One Sixth Of Mankind

Saturday, April 14, 2007

In reviewing “India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy”
by Ramachandra Guha, in the article entitled “One-sixth of human life is here” (today’s FT), Edward Luce recollects some truly fascinating facts about India contained in this newest entry to my “must read” list.  Dear Singaporeans, I humbly submit for your consideration that the value of freedom above all should not be compromised.  Even the freedom to err and learn.  Even at the cost of spectacular material growth.  My faith in India and it’s bungling ways now stands stronger and reaffirmed.  Read on people.  Read on.

During India’s 19-month Emergency in the mid-1970s – its sole period of autocratic rule – newspapers laboured under suffocating restrictions.  Even freedom-loving passages written by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, were prohibited – even though Nehru was the father of Indira Gandhi, the prime-ministerial architect of the country’s brief suspension of democracy.  A few outraged souls still managed to outwit the censors.  Focusing on agriculture, one economist wrote: “There are at present 580 million sheep in this country [India’s population at the time].”  A wittier but less brave dissenter placed an anonymous advert in The Times of India, which announced “the death of D.E.M. O’Cracy, mourned by his wife T. Ruth, his son, L.I. Bertie, and daughters Faith, Hope, and Justice.”  Happily for today’s 1.1 billion Indians, that brief spell of authoritarianism seems almost as distant as the era of British colonialism that drew to a close nearly 60 years ago.  That India possesses a robust and authentic democracy and will almost certainly continue to do so, is no longer seriously doubted – even by foreigners.  It was not expected to turn out like this…..Writing of the 1969 election, Neville Maxwell of The Times concluded that “the great experiment of developing India within a democratic framework has failed”. Maxwell described the 1969 election as India’s “fourth – and surely last – general election”.  India has held 10 since; by definition each successive election is the largest democratic exercise in human history.  Nor were great novelists immune from pessimistic views on the country: “There seems to be no solutions to its problems in any way that any of us [in the west] regard as acceptable,” wrote Aldous Huxley in 1961. “When Nehru goes, the government will become a military dictatorship.”

…..Accounting for the tenacity both of Indian democracy and of India itself is a different matter.  Given the supposed unlikelihood of its survival and the lack of entrenched democratic comparisons elsewhere in the developing world, Guha concludes that “as a modern nation, India is simply sui generis (unique in its characteristics).”  Guha rightly gives a large share of the credit to the extraordinary influence of Nehru, whose 17-year tenure accounts for almost half of the book.  Braving – among other elements – the scepticism of India’s former colonisers, the hostility of large sections of upper-caste Hindu society, the Islamaphobic fears of the millions of victims of Partition and a potentially threatening communist insurgency, Nehru managed to enshrine one person one vote into a constitution that proclaimed equality of caste, religion, gender and language…..Exhorting Indians to vote not only for his own party but simply to vote, Nehru “travelled more than he slept and talked more than he travelled”.  It is estimated that Nehru addressed 20 million people directly and another 20 million caught a glimpse of him at some point in the 25,000 miles that he journeyed by boat, train, plane and car.  More than 2 million steel ballot boxes and 389,916 phials of indelible ink were manufactured to ensure things went smoothly.  Sceptics, such as Chester Bowles, the American ambassador, remained “appalled at the prospect of a poll of 200 million eligible voters, most of whom were illiterate”.  By the end of it, however, he had changed his mind.  The knowledge that octogenarian peasants had tramped miles so they could exercise their choice could not fail to move: “In Asia, as in America, I know no grander vision than this: government by the consent of the governed.”  It surely ranks as one of the most momentous feats in modern history.  And yet, as Guha points out, the implanting and flourishing of Indian democracy remains astonishingly understudied: “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books on the French and American revolutions: biographies of their leaders famous and obscure… By contrast, the works by historians on any aspect of Indian democracy can be counted on the fingers of one hand.”

…..This is too short a review to do justice to what is a sweeping and compendious book by one of India’s foremost writers.  Airport browsers might be deterred by its length.  But considering the breadth of subject matter and the deft touch of its author, they should linger over this one.  It is, after all, a “modern history of one-sixth of humankind“.

Reference : http://www.ft.com/cms/s/887afd66-e896-11db-b2c3-000b5df10621.html

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