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India After Gandhi

The History of the World’s Largest Democracy

By Ramachandra Guha
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India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha

India after Gandhi (2007) chronicles the story of post-independence India. For centuries, the country was ruled by colonial overlords, but that changed in 1947. After a long struggle for independence, Indians gained self-rule. Since then, the journey hasn’t been easy, but India remains a persevering and determined democracy – and the largest the world has ever seen.

Key idea 1 of 17

India became independent from the British Empire on August 15, 1947.

Any history of modern India must begin with British rule. From the seventeenth century onwards, the British had been slowly increasing their presence in the region. By 1857, India was formally placed under the rule of the British government, under a system known as the British Raj.

The British ruled over nearly 300 million Indians who spoke hundreds of languages and practiced many different religions.

The prevailing opinion among the British elite was that India as a whole would never be fit for self-rule. How could a country with more ethnicities, languages and religions than all of Europe survive as a united, self-ruled republic?

This view was best-reflected in remarks made by British Indian civil servant John Strachey in 1888, who noted that Spain is more similar to Scotland than Bengal, in the east of India, is to the Punjab in the west.

But, the Indian National Congress, or INC, a political movement formed in 1885, disagreed. Their goal was to move people across India, regardless of language, race or religion, toward a single Indian sense of nationality. They believed that India could be a viable, independent state.

By the 1930s, with the local Indian independence movement accelerating, British opinions remained the same. Winston Churchill predicted that an independent India would quickly descend into endless civil war and ethnic violence.

It was only after the Second World War that the British position on India changed. The war crippled Britain economically. The fighting drained the British economy to such an extent that it was unable to maintain an expensive colonial empire. And so, finally, the INC’s demands for an independent India came to fruition.

On August 15, 1947, India was born in the form of a democratic republic consisting of 28 states, some of which were larger than France.

This achievement was remarkable in many respects. The INC’s mission to unite all of India involved the assent of over 500 autonomous, ancient regions known as the “princely states” to join together in a new democratic experiment. Only three abstained from joining the new India. Two of them, Junagadh and Hyderabad, were simply annexed by the new Indian government. However, the third, Jammu and Kashmir, became a more complicated issue, as we’ll explore later.

The unity of India was an exceptional success in political history. Indian political theorist Sunil Khilnani even proclaimed that the creation of the Republic of India was the third great experiment in democracy of the modern age – after the French and American revolutions.

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