A historian on India’s darkest years as an independent nation

How do you rank tragedy?
How do you rank tragedy?
Image: Reuters/Arko Datta
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Like 2008, the years 1984, 1966, and 1948 were all peppered with violence and murder as well as riots and rebellions. And there have been some other bad years too—those when a single event may have been momentous enough to undermine one’s faith in the republic.

I think of 1962, an otherwise placid year marred by the humiliating defeat in the border war with China; of 1975, a year when India, for the first and hopefully the last time, was brought under the authoritarian rule of a single party run by a single family; of 1992, when the destruction of a medieval mosque and the riots that followed called into question the secular and plural ideals of the Indian Constitution; and of 2002, when a pogrom against Muslims was conducted by the Gujarat administration with the complicity of the central government—the event and its aftermath shaming India in the eyes of the world.

Here, then, is a listing of the bad and the very bad years experienced by India in the 70 years since independence: 1948, 1962, 1966, 1975, 1984, 1992, 2002, and 2008.

Which of these was the worst? It is hard to give an unambiguous answer, for three reasons. The first is the imperfect state of our knowledge—the flawed powers of recall of the historian as much as of the citizen.

A second reason why I prefer not to pick one year above (or below) the rest is that, in such a choice, bias and prejudice must always play some part. The Indian for whom secularism is the most important binding value of the republic will tend to think of 1992 and 2002 as being the worst of all years. The Indian motivated by a dislike of the Nehru-Gandhis might instead choose 1962 or 1975. The admirer of Mahatma Gandhi might cast his vote for the year in which the greatest of all Indians was murdered. Indian citizens of the Sikh faith may have the darkest memories of 1984. And the company which owns the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel will certainly think 2008 was the worst year of all.

The third reason why any singular choice must be contentious lies in the method being followed here. Because the media—and the electronic media even more so—tends to privilege spectacular, dramatic events, the citizen chooses to do so too. However, behind and beyond the killings and the bomb blasts lie many less visible sufferings and tragedies.

To speak only of the year with which I began, 2008, even if the fidayeen had not targeted Mumbai, the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) not targeted Biharis, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) not targeted Christians, there would still have been millions of Indians without access to safe drinking water, decent schools and hospitals, and a fair living wage. Had the Mumbai drama not been played out on television screens in homes and localities across the land, there would still have been women abused and violated, Dalits and tribals harassed and victimized, slum dwellers evicted, and beggars turned away. Had no gunmen entered the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on the night of Nov. 26, 2008, farmers plagued by debt and crop failure would still be killing themselves in the villages of Maharashtra.

This, indeed, may be the most significant reason why one must refuse to single out one particular year as more dreadful than the rest. For, in constructing an index of “Gross National Unhappiness,” the trials of daily life must necessarily count as much as the dislocations and deaths caused by extraordinary happenings such as terrorist attacks. However, given the variability of these different events and processes, and the impossibility of measuring them in quantitative terms, our index must remain hypothetical. I suspect that even the combined talents of Albert Einstein and Srinivasa Ramanujan would have found it impossible to accurately compute a Gross National Unhappiness index for a single year, let alone so many.

Who is to judge which of the 69 years since India became independent has been the worst of all?

Not this historian, at any rate. You may call this cowardice; I prefer to think of it as prudence. Suffice it to say that in our short career as a nation, we have had some bad years and a few disastrous ones too. By my reckoning, we have had at least eight years that live on in public memory for the wrong reasons, for having been witness to crimes against individuals and communities of a scale that deserve that telling epithet, “inhuman.”

Reflecting on that very troubled decade, the 1980s, a decade marked by caste wars and communal conflicts and many other nasty things besides, the sociologist Ashis Nandy remarked that: “In India the choice could never be between chaos and stability, but between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.”

I disagree with Nandy about many things, but think he has it exactly right here. For, as I have argued elsewhere, India is both an unnatural nation as well as an unlikely democracy. Never before has a single political unit been constructed from such disparate and diverse parts. Never before was a largely illiterate population given the right to choose its own rulers.

For India to be both united and untroubled would be a miracle.

For it to be both democratic and free of conflict would be doubly so. Thus, in the 1940s, we overcame the crisis of Partition by forging a democratic and federal constitution. No sooner had the nation observed its first Republic Day than it was confronted by oppositional movements based on language. When we contained and tamed these—by creating linguistic states—our unity was freshly imperiled by the Naga insurgency.

Then, in the 1960s, anti-Hindi protests in Tamil Nadu and the rise of Naxalism in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh posed fresh questions to Indian democracy and national unity. In the 1970s, we were subjected to the Emergency; and when we came out of that, to separatist movements in Assam and the Punjab. The 1990s saw the sharpening of caste and religious identities, a process that unleashed conflicts and animosities that, when I last looked, had scarcely abated.

The noughties saw the Gujarat riots and a mass epidemic of farmers’ suicides. And through these seven decades, there has remained the problem of the Kashmir Valley—was it, could it, must it, be properly part of the Republic of India?

The history of independent India is one of fires being lit, doused, and then lit again. It could not be otherwise. As an unnatural nation and an unlikely democracy, India was never destined for a smooth ride. It is not, and can never be, Sweden or Norway—that is to say, a small, mostly homogeneous country with little crime, less violence, and very few poor people. We should perhaps count ourselves fortunate that in all but eight of our 69 years as a free nation, the Indian chaos has been manageable, the Indian anarchy humane, and the Indian disorder tolerable.

Excerpted with permission from Democrats and Dissenters, Ramachandra Guha, Penguin Allen Lane.

This piece originally appeared on Scroll.in.