JAMIA AUR GANDHI(Jamia and Gandhi) by Afroz Alam Sahil. Insaan International Foundation, Delhi, 2019.
JAMIA Millia Islamia came into existence in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s call for non-cooperation with the British government. The book, written by Afroz Alam ‘Sahil’, an alumnus of the Department of Hindi and MCRC, Jamia, shows that Gandhi’s relationship with the institution was not a momentary one but, like other founders and makers of Jamia, his engagement was lifelong. Based on archival material such as correspondence, articles of Mahatma Gandhi, excerpts from CID and press reports of that period, it ably explains how till the end of his life, Gandhi helped the university in its survival and growth.
The author writes in the preface that it would not be an exaggeration to say that Gandhi had a special affection towards Jamia. ‘As much as Gandhi understood Jamia, the institute also gave him an equal amount of love and respect’, he writes. The book informs us about the many lesser-known aspects of Gandhi’s relationship with Jamia. For example, Gandhi’s wife Kasturba spent some of the crucial days of her life in Jamia, and their son Devdas was a teacher in the institution. Moreover, Gandhi’s grandson Rasiklal (son of Hiralal) not only studied in Jamia but also breathed his last in Jamia.
One of the oft quoted and instructive incidents, which clearly illustrate Gandhi’s commitment to the idea of Jamia, is the one that occurred in January 1925. It was a time when Jamia was going through an acute financial crisis and there was talk of closing it down. According to Sahil, when Gandhi got to know, he insisted that the institute continue. Gandhi is reported to have said to the then Chancellor, Hakim Ajmal Khan, ‘Aapko rupaya ki diqqat hai to mein bheekh maang lunga (‘If you are facing a financial crunch, then I am ready to beg’). Sahil further documents that Gandhi’s words encouraged Khan (first chancellor of the university) and his friends to keep Jamia going. It is also documented that Gandhi made a trip to Bhopal and also appealed to the masses in Patna. In addition to raising funds for Jamia,Gandhi also wrote articles in his journals, Navjivan and Young India. What is worth noting is that, as Sahil documents, it was Gandhi who had written to poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, requesting him to take the responsibility of becoming principal of Jamia.
‘The Muslim National University calls you. If you could but take charge of it, I am sure that it will prosper under your cultured leadership. Hakimji Ajmal Khan and Dr Ansari and of course Ali Brothers desire it’, wrote Gandhi to Iqbal in 1920. Jamia was also known by the name of the Muslim National University back then. Expressing his inability to take up the offer, Iqbal replied, ‘I regret very much my inability to respond to the call of those for whom I have the highest respect, for reasons which need not and perhaps cannot be mentioned at present. While I am a strong supporter of National Education, I do not think I possess all the necessary qualifications for the guidance of a university that requires a man who would steer the infant institution through all the struggles and rivalries to arise in the earlier stages of its life.’
The author has included Gandhi’s answers published on 20 December 1928 in Young India, to a few questions raised by a Muslim reader regarding among others, the principles governing Jamia, its prospective beneficiaries, its management and funds. Gandhi categorically replied that Jamia was founded upon the most liberal tenets and it had been specifically erected for the Muslims, but also welcomed people from every religion and caste with an open heart. Gandhi also informed the reader that Jamia had Seth Jamnalal Bajaj as one its trustees who was non-Muslim and that it had non-Muslims among its students, teachers and staff as well.
Apart from being a harbinger of communal and social amity, Gandhi regarded Jamia as an instrument for winning freedom by adhering to a non-violent path, unlike those that were followed by schools established by Hitler and Mussolini. To illustrate this, the author cites Gandhi’s speech at Hindustani Talimi Sangh (1938). Moreover, the book also informs us that Gandhi was always concerned about the well-being of Jamia. Sahil has reproduced letters and correspondence which Gandhi wrote to prominent members and trustees of Jamia to enquire about its condition. Gandhi’s concerns are visible from the fact that on his return to Delhi from Noakhali on 9 September 1947, the first thing that he had reportedly asked was, ‘Is Zakir Husain fine? Is Jamia Millia safe?’ The next morning he visited Jamia and Okhla, where refugees of the Partition were staying. This was his last visit to Jamia, as within six months of this visit, Nathuram Godse killed him on 30 January 1948.
The book also documents the opposition faced by Mahatma Gandhi from Hindu nationalists for his support to Jamia. On 18 January 1928, Hindu Mahasabha leader Dr B.S. Moonje raised serious apprehensions about Jamia evolving as a memorial of Hakeem Ajmal Khan. In his letter to Gandhi, Moonje termed Jamia a ‘communal institution’ which would further sever the ties between the two communities. To which Gandhi replied (to Moonje) that if any institution had a ‘nationalist outlook’ and if it contributed immensely to the nationalist cause, then such a communal institution could be called a nationalist institution. Gandhi also informed Moonje that being a Muslim institution, Jamia welcomed people from all religions and castes. Notably, when in a meeting Gandhi sought to impart religious education to Jamia’s Hindu students, Hakim Ajmal Khan came two-steps forward and called for a learning of Hindu culture and the basic tenets of Hinduism, even for Muslim students. It is worth mentioning that 100 years after its foundation, Jamia still offers a similar course and many non-Hindu students study Hindu Religious Studies (HRS) instead of Islamiaat or Islamic Studies at school and graduation level.
In addition to extensively quoting and citing from archival sources and Sampuran Gandhi Vangmay (Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi), the author has, in the annexe, reproduced important correspondence and speeches in full, which enrich the book further and make it an important secondary source on Jamia, Gandhi and Muslims of India. In short, the book is an essential read for anyone interested in the university, its relationship with Gandhi and the Muslim educational movement in India.
Assistant Professor (Public Administration), Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad
NUQOOSH-E-JAMIA (Imprints of Jamia) by Ghulam Haider. Maktaba Jamia Limited, New Delhi, 2012.
IN February 2003, Ghulam Haider, an early alumnus of Jamia, was tasked by the then Vice-Chancellor Syed Shahid Mahdi (2000-2004) to undertake a survey titled ‘A Pilot Project on Historical Survey of the Growth of Jamia Millia Islamia.’ According to Haider, the objective of the project was to record the experiences, impressions and observations of the old students, teachers and workers of the university and to convert them into a written form. The book under review is a result of that process. Published in 2012, it can be described as a sequel to Jamia Ki Kahani, which is the most authentic and detailed history of Jamia (1920-47) till date. However, the crucial difference between Jamia Ki Kahani and Nuqoosh-e-Jamia is that while the former was written and based on the first hand observations of its author and former principal of Jamia school, Abdul Ghaffar Mudholi, the latter is largely based on interviews with the Jamia biradari, apart from other resources, on the evolution and development of Jamia over the years.
Based on interviews and conversations with 35 people belonging to different periods and departments of the university, it provides a comprehensive view of the 83 years of its existence, right from its inception in 1920 till 2003-2004. Divided into 10 chapters, which includes the preface, introduction and appendages, the book ably documents the journey of an institution through its humble beginnings while detailing its ups and downs over the past eight decades. The chapter ‘Maujooda Jamia’ or the present-day Jamia (2003-4) details the different faculties and departments of the university. Towards the end of the chapter, the author rightly observes that far from remaining at a standstill, the university has evolved over the years to become a modern institution. In other words, the author sees it as a progressive, modern and forward-looking institution while being grounded and connected with its rich history.
The next chapter ‘Uboori Daur’ or the interim period, captures the uncertainties that the university went through following India’s Independence and its elevation as a recognized institution. It can be noted that in the pre-independence period, Jamia’s degrees were not recognized as the university stood against British rule. This chapter also details the journey of Jamia from an independent to deemed to central university and how, in this process, many old values were lost and new ones were gained. Chapter Six, which is poignantly titled ‘Aazmaish’ (roughly translated as deep crises), documents the period from 1944-45 to 1947-48. Those were the days when the entire country was in the midst of major turmoil. Victory came in the form of Independence from the long oppressive rule of the British, while leaving behind the bitter episode of partition and its aftermath of riots, bloodshed, murder, mayhem and large-scale migration. This was also the period when the author was a student of Jamia. In this chapter, while reproducing the answers of several respondents interviewed for the project, the author also extensively quotes from the freedom fighter, Begum Anis Kidwai’s memoir, Azadi Ki Chhaon Mein, which was originally written in Urdu in 1949, and later translated to Hindi and English. It was titled In Freedom’s Shade in English (Penguin India, 2011).
The following chapter is on its old departments, their origins, objectives, activities, achievements and relevance in the schema of the university. The author informs us that the names of some departments were changed over the years because of their expansion or merger with other departments, while some, having fulfilled the need of their times, become part of its history. For example, the Faculty of Education began as Ustadon Ka Madrasa and, until a few decades ago, was better known as the TTI (Teacher Training Institute) which still later got developed into Teachers’ College. Similarly, the Faculty of Fine Arts was founded in 1951 as the Arts Institute. In 1967, it was renamed as the Department of Art and Craft Education and became a part of the Teachers’ College. There used to be departments such as Jamia Dairy, Jamia Foundry, Jamia Lorry and Jamia Chemical Industries – all of them are now a part of its history.
The second last chapter focuses on those associated with the university. They are further divided into four sub-chapters namely the Buzurgan-e-Jamia or Elders of Jamia, Hayati Arakeen or Life Members, Digar Shakhsiyaat or the other personalities and Jawaab Dehandagaan, the respondents. The classification of people in different categories gives an idea about their association and involvement in the evolution of Jamia over the years. While most of the names under the category of Buzurgan-e-Jamia and Hayati Arakeen are relatively well documented for their association with Jamia, some of the names under the category of other personalities might come as a surprise to many. These include noted educationist Agha Ashraf Ali (father of Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali), theatre director, poet and actor Habib Tanvir, Mahtama Gandhi’s son Devdas Gandhi and Gandhi‘s grandson Rasik Lal Gandhi, among others.
Given the range of topics from the founders’ lives to what Mohammad Talib has referred to as their ‘quest for self-directed education’, to events that marked the freedom struggle during the momentous third, fourth and fifth decades of the 20th century, as well as the subsequent events of freedom and partition and the parallel history of the evolution and shift of the university from Aligarh to Karol Bagh to its present location, the book provides a detailed and much needed history of Jamia as an institution which was founded on the ideals of freedom, pluralism, composite nationalism and self-directed education, all of which are at question under the prevailing circumstances. A detailed preface by Sadiq-ur-Rahman Kidwai, an alumnus of Jamia and retired professor of JNU, further enriches the book. One hopes that in the coming days, a book similar to this gets published, detailing the ups and downs of Jamia, not just in Urdu but also in English, Hindi and other Indian languages, so that the journey, contribution and message of Jamia reach a wider and larger readership.
PhD scholar at MMAJ Academy of International Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi
ALIGARH AND JAMIA: Fight for National Education System by S.M. Tonki. People’s Publishing House, Delhi, 1983.
THE book under review is written by S.M Tonki an alumnus of both Aligarh and Jamia. Tonki was a part of the Non-Cooperation movement in Aligarh and later joined Jamia and came back again to Aligarh as a teacher. The intent of the book was to bring to light the lesser-known aspects of Aligarh and Jamia, which in the 1980s were considered primarily Muslim institutions. Tonki being a part of both institutions felt the need to dispel this predominant notion and demonstrate the ‘nationalist’ character of Aligarh. The first draft of the book was earlier conceptualized and published in Urdu (1972) as Baniye Jamia (Founders of Jamia) and later translated into English for a wider readership.
Tonki supports his arguments, observations and opinions with records of meetings, minutes of discussions, autobiographies and newspapers. The main focus of the book is to highlight the participation of Aligarh students and faculty in the Indian national movement during the 20th century. The book describes events surrounding the non-cooperation and Khilafat movement. It argues that since Aligarh was founded on the principles of free and critical thinking, it was natural for students to be supportive of movements which demanded autonomy of educational institutions and freedom from control of the British government. He further blames the European staff for controlling and restricting students from taking part in political activities. The first few chapters demonstrate how the independent and autonomous character of the institution came under attack by European professors who gradually started controlling the college by sidelining the Indian staff. The authoritarian measures of the European staff not only led to political unrest within the college in the forms of strikes but also brought students closer to the national movement.
The second part of the book elaborates the events that took place in the college during the non-cooperation and Khilafat movement. It tells this part of the story by tracing opinions, thoughts and actions of rebellious figures of the college. It specifically focuses upon Maulana Mohammad Ali, the leader known for leading the Khilafat movement in the subcontinent. The rise of such figures along with the attitude of the British government towards the demand of an autonomous and affiliating Muslim university, further swayed other students, faculty and founders away from the British government. The book also discusses various plans of establishing other educational institutions which would be more inclusive than MAO. One such institution was Jamia, which was established by students who actively took part in the Non-Cooperation and Khilafat movements and aspired to set up a nationalist institution which was free from the control of the British government. In other words, while focusing on the internal politics of MAO it traces the formation of Jamia Millia Islamia.
Tonki’s account is valuable because of a wealth of sources that are used to discuss the idea behind the formation of the college. As an insider he is able to bring the reader closer to the internal politics of these institutions. Tonki’s book falls broadly into scholarship which focuses on the involvement of students in the nationalist and later ‘separatist’ movement. Along with Tonki other works on Aligarh also have primarily emphasized the nationalist credentials of the institutions.1
Although this kind of scholarship is critiqued for a variety of reasons like focusing only on known figures, an undue emphasis on ‘big’ events and, most significantly, for a teleological approach to writing history, Tonki’s account nevertheless should be assessed by reading the text in the context in which it was written. Scholarship of this genre was in response to works that traced the genesis for the demand of Pakistan, to the politics of the Aligarh Muslim University.2 Along with questioning this dominant strand of scholarship, Tonki’s book was one of the first on Aligarh which presented the college in fresh light.
While the book questions such assumptions and highlights the neglected and ignored aspects like popularity and support lent to the non-cooperation movement, it does not explain the shift or turn towards the Muslim League by 1930. This part of the story of the involvement of the Aligarh community consisting of students and teachers, has been dealt with by Mushirul Hasan in his article,‘Nationalist and Separatist Trends in Aligarh: 1915-1947’.3 While Tonki and Hasan have focused on the politics within the university, other works such David Lelyveld’s Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India is a history of the role of institutions in the creation of an elite Muslim or ashraf identity.4 More recent works on Aligarh and Jamia focus on the post-independence trajectory of these institutions and argue that despite Jamia’s role in the creation of a composite and united national identity, Aligarh was given more support by state authorities.5
Tonki’s book represents early works on Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia, where the prime concern was to investigate and analyse the involvement of the university community in the process of nation building. While the nationalist-secularist framework is now considered an outmoded one, this book is still relevant to understand the need for reiterating the ‘secular’ and ‘national’ characteristics of an institution that has witnessed political mobilization of various hues.
Teaching Fellow, Ashoka University, Sonipat
1. Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, History of the Aligarh Muslim University. Idarah-i Adabiyat-i Delli, Delhi, 1995; and S.K. Bhatnagar¸ History of the M.A.O. College, Aligarh. Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1969.
2. Paul R. Brass, Language, Religion and Politics in North India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.
3. Mushirul Hasan and Mohd. Afzal Husain Qadri, ‘Nationalist and Separatist Trends in Aligarh, 1915-47’, The Indian Economic & Social History Review 22(1), March 1985, pp. 1-33. https://doi.org/10.1177/001946468502200101.
4. David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India. Oxford University Press, USA, 2003.
5. Laurence Gautier, ‘A Laboratory for a Composite India? Jamia Millia Islamia Around the Time of Partition’, Modern Asian Studies 54(1), 2020, pp. 199-249. doi: 10.1017/S0026749X18000161.
THE LOST HOMESTEAD: My Mother, Partition and the Punjabby Marina Wheeler. Hodder & Stroughton, UK/Hachette India, 2020.
MARINA Wheeler has written a very unusual book in which she fuses memory with history. The history part is based on research in various archives and visits to locations that are relevant to construct her narrative. The memory part grows out of her conversations with her mother through which Wheeler becomes familiar with her mother’s and her own roots in the Indian sub-continent. The real strength and attraction of the book is the way in which Wheeler places her mother’s remembrance of things past within a historical context in which her mother’s family and millions of others were uprooted from their homes. This book is about Wheeler’s mother, Dip (short for Kuldip, born 1932) and about the Partition of India. In Wheeler’s words, her book tells ‘Two stories of freedom. One was India’s, its fight for political freedom, for self-determination and its people’s right to govern themselves. The second was my mother’s, her quest for personal freedom, for autonomy and the ability to decide her own future.’ One could add that there is a third subterranean story – Marina Wheeler’s inquiry into her own identity: a successful London based QC’s exploration of her Indian past.
Dip was born into privilege. Her father, Harbans Singh, was a doctor in the township of Sargodha, north-west of Lahore across the river Chenab. He was committed to public health and his work in this sphere, especially during the plague of 1915, was acknowledged by the colonial authorities through a sanad that was granted in his name. Dip remembered her mother, Ranjit, as a ‘saint’. Dip was the youngest of five siblings. When Dip was five years old, the family moved to the Civil Lines into a house that Harbans designed to his taste. Expanding on what she heard about the house from Dip, Wheeler writes, ‘Opulent, magnificent, it seems to defy classification… it was larger than a bungalow or a haveli, but not quite a palace. If you include its extensive grounds, I decide, it’s a homestead.’
This idyllic life ended abruptly in the summer of 1947 when it became unsafe for the family to live in Sargodha. Very reluctantly, Harbans left what he considered his home with his family. He took nothing valuable with him because he was convinced that he and his family would return once it was safe. According to Dip, it was her father’s firm conviction that ‘Muslims are our brothers. We will not be separated from them.’ A line on the map and the spilling of innocent blood separated Muslims from their Sikh and Hindu brethren in the Punjab.
The Partition of India in 1947 is irrevocably linked to violence and loss. Hindus and Sikhs began to leave western Punjab leaving behind homes, careers and property. Many did not make it across. It is difficult to estimate how many lost their lives in the holocaust – one million is a reasonable figure. Those who survived and made the trek to India had to be housed in refugee camps. Dip’s parents were fortunate, because of their connections, to escape that experience. But this is not to underestimate the trauma that the family suffered; and for individuals like Harbans one of the fundamental pillars of their existence – living with Muslims as brothers – had been rudely shattered. There is no measure to estimate this emotional loss.
Dip was married off at the age of seventeen into the family of Sobha Singh. The marriage was never consummated and her husband neglected her. Dip walked out on him and decided to live her own life which involved, apart from a series of minor jobs, a life of fun and socializing. She met Charles Wheeler in 1960. Charles was the BBC’s Delhi-based South Asia correspondent. They married and thus began a new and happy chapter of Dip’s life. From being part of a family that, because of the Partition, had been labelled, ‘Displaced’, Dip found in Charles Wheeler an anchor. She had to leave India because from Delhi Charles got posted to Berlin and then to other cities across the world. She was sad to leave India; and this was the second time that she was losing a home. But she set up home with Charles wherever they were posted and then in England in a cottage in Sussex.
Marina Wheeler describes the travails, travels and troubles of her mum against the backdrop of what was happening in India and to India. Her mother’s attempts to find a sense of belonging runs alongside the narrative of the struggle to build a free and a new India. In many ways Dip was pulled in two directions – her life with Charles, most of it away from India and her yearning to be part of India. This situation caused her some anguish especially after her children grew up and more poignantly when Charles died. Marina Wheeler conveys this aspect of her mother’s life.
This brings me to what I found most moving in this book. As a student of history, I am reasonably familiar with the trauma of Partition and the tortuous journey of independent India. But there is another more human level to Marina Wheeler’s book. This is the description of her attempts to come closer to her ageing mother – the conversations she had with her in the cottage in Sussex. She cajoled her mother to remember and talk about her past. Her mother responded at first with some reluctance and then with a greater sense of participation. Through that recollection Marina Wheeler gets to know her mother and herself better.
At the very core of the book is the story of loss and separation – loss of an idyllic life and home, the loss of a brother, separation from a husband and physical separation from her parents, sisters and so on. On the margins, understated but more moving because of that, is the story of a bonding, of coming together of mother and daughter – a story of caring for the past and the family. Marina Wheeler’s book is a gentle reminder that history is not just about momentous events; history is also about the lives of individuals and families and about how they remember the past.
Chancellor and Professor of History, Ashoka University, Sonipat
DESPITE THE STATE: Why India Lets its People Down and How They Cope by M. Rajshekhar. Context, Chennai, 2020.
Despite the State is refreshingly new writing on the play between India’s dysfunctional democracy and its development challenges in the first two decades of the 21st century.
One reason why this book has an unique place is the method, which merges good investigative journalism with sharp academic analysis. As part of a reporting project called ‘Ear to the Ground’, carried out when Rajshekhar was reporting for Scroll, he spent long months immersed in fieldwork in each of six select states of India: Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Bihar and Gujarat. Travelling widely within each state, he filed over 120 news reports, some of which were on local issues and others on state level developments. Using this as his database, he zooms in on a shortlist of four or five case studies that are illustrative of different aspects of development policies and how they played out in the lives of ordinary people. Each of these case studies is an amazing read, often laden with grim humour as the write-ups capture the ironical and idiosyncratic manner in which development policies play out in peoples’ lives at the local level.
Another feature is that the focus is on the states and the way the development story of each state is told. In each state there are case studies that give us a worm’s eye view of how current development policies played out in manufacture and in agriculture; why competitive markets fail to deliver development; and how state intervention too make such little use of the existing opportunities. The boom and bust stories of Korean media markets in Mizoram, the iron ore markets of Koira village in Odisha, and the white fly menace in Punjab are great stories that even those working in this domain may not have heard of.
Then there are engaging narratives of state intervention in natural resource management, and again we see the failure of both market based solutions and state interventions. There are also case studies from each state of how government failed to acquit itself in its social functions – education and health particularly – which is characterized by neglect and under-resourcing in resource-constrained states and by dysfunctional policies and political capture in the others.
Then again from each state there is also a story of ongoing social regression, with the return, in new and accelerated forms, of old scourges – communalism, caste inequity, ethnic divides – which are in part coping mechanisms of people, or push-back by hitherto dominant sections who are afraid of losing their privileges, or denote cynical forms of electoral and political manipulation. These multiple case studies are then woven together, along with a brief but relevant historical background of the states’ politics, to present the development policies of the entire state as one integrated case study. The author uses this portrayal to reflect on governance with specific reference to one question: why did democracy and democratic institutions fail the people, and benefit just a few? And how did they get away with it?
The author progressively builds up the answers as we accompany him on his journey across the states. To him the answer lies in the failure of democratic institutions, especially political parties. ‘Political parties are the most dominant institutions in India, right now. They control directly or indirectly, almost all the other institutions discussed earlier.’ Rajshekhar theorizes that political parties are self-interested institutions that, across states, share four traits: extracting wealth to benefit themselves, domination by oligarchies, high degree of centralization in decision making, and using top-down flow of patronage of different forms to hold on to electoral power and government control.
Further, constructing his own theoretical framework, he shows quite brilliantly that what explains diverse experiences and outcomes of different states are the strategies by which self-serving political parties reinforce their legitimacy. These he explains as being a denial of the extent of the crisis by fudging of numbers, diversion of attention by blaming vulnerable sections, building personality cults, managing election outcomes and winning endorsements from media, judiciary and sections of civil society.
Even when he comes to the concluding chapter, Rajshekhar is not done with his case studies. They continue to flow into his conclusions and even into the annexures and afterword, leaving relatively little space to develop his framework further. The large number of academic texts, which are briefly referred to, would perhaps give readers some glimpse into a larger understanding that he was struggling to evolve. But to me his conclusion reads a lot like despair – whether intentionally or not. Which, given the authors graphic portrayal of the failures of state, markets, civil society and even of democratic protest and resistance in every state visited, would not be an unreasonable state of mind to be in.
However, to many, the narrative in the book that so vividly describes the myriad ways in which ordinary people continue to struggle, carving out a niche for themselves and their loved ones, finding ways of coping with crisis despite the machinations of the state, is in itself grounds for optimism. The book cautions that though at one level these struggles could be inspiring, without an alternative political narrative that can draw these together and give it meaning, peoples everyday struggles would remain a coping and survival mechanism with limited potential for change. The book concludes with a question, wondering whether, given the odds, we can hope to reclaim the republic. In light of the build up to the story, this is a rhetorical question to be answered in the negative.
It would perhaps have been more interesting if the author in his concluding chapter, had built upon the grounded theory approach of his state narratives and explored further the deeper links between political parties at the state level, and their interface with the structures of power and ideologies at work at the national and global level. That agenda remains incomplete. But there are grounds for optimism, which may be gleaned by the discerning reader. For, after all, the case studies are also a documentation of so many missed opportunities and so many possibilities for change. This raises the hope that if only there is a way out of what the author calls the nation’s ‘democratic palsy’, we can do much better. There is nothing inherent or inevitable in our dystopia.
Written by a journalist for a general audience, this hugely accessible book for the lay reader is a must-read for anyone interested in making sense of India’s development trajectory over the past couple of decades.
Health Activist, Pondicherry; Former Head, National Health Systems Resource Centre, New Delhi
A MATTER OF TRUST: India-US Relations from Truman to Trump by Meenakshi Ahamed. HarperCollins Publishers India, 2021.
IN 1999, year of the Kargil conflict between India and Pakistan, the support that the United States provided in isolating Pakistan, and manifest US goodwill towards India, began a new and positive phase in relations between the world’s largest democracies. Jaswant Singh, then the Foreign Minister of India, expressed it well when he said to Strobe Talbott, the US Deputy Secretary of State, ‘something quite good and new has happened between our own countries, yours and mine – something related to the matter of trust.’
Meenakshi Ahamed’s study of India-US relations is about that ‘matter of trust’, which is the fundamental building block for mutually sustaining and beneficial relations between any two countries. Ahamed’s thesis is also that in the development of a ‘real momentum’ in India-US relations there is need for their leaders, at least one of them, to make that ‘leap of faith’, so crucial to the geopolitics of our times.
Frank Wisner, a former US Ambassador to India calls Ahamed’s work, ‘timely, lively and captivating’ and one cannot disagree with that evaluation because a vast swathe of both Middle America and India need to know more of the history and evolution of this relationship. A Matter of Trust fills that gap.
Traditionally, America and the West have found it difficult to ‘relate’ to India: Escott Reid, once the Canadian ambassador to India, noted that with the Arab/Islamic, Russian and even the Chinese worlds, many western politicians see commonalities that they ‘understand’ but India ‘has almost no intellectual or religious roots with the West.’ For many decades, until they learnt to see through the glass more darkly on Pakistan, Americans viewed our western neighbour through the lens ‘of Kipling, that the martial races of India were in the north, and much of that was now Pakistan.’
One extreme example of this, cited by American diplomat Dennis Kux, was how John Foster Dulles, then the Secretary of State, had to be disabused by the legendary Walter Lippmann during a conversation in 1955 that Gurkha troops were not Pakistani. Dulles apparently claimed that ‘the only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the Alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.’ Lippmann replied, ‘But Foster, the Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis…’ ‘Well,’ responded Dulles, ‘they may not be Pakistanis but they’re Moslems.’ ‘No, I’m afraid they’re not Moslems either, they’re Hindus’, Lippmann pointed out.
Furthermore, in the post-independence era, both the Indian and American political and bureaucratic class found each other arrogant and condescending. And, key American influencers like Dulles thought India’s non-alignment was a moral betrayal. They ignored the forces of nationalism and the desire to exert independence of decision-making and exercise the choice of sovereign action, within a young democracy throwing off the shackles of colonial and western domination. For Indians, America tended to preach. They were in no mood to listen. Even Winston Churchill, no friend of India, said sarcastically of Dulles that he ‘makes a speech every day, holds a press conference every other day and preaches on Sundays.’
Fortunately, for both India and the United States, the alienation of the Dulles’ era, for one, is a thing of the past. One can scarcely visualize a U.S. Ambassador to India in the third decade of the 21st century saying, when questioned by the press about American military presence in Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in 1974, ‘Why call it the Indian Ocean? One may call it the Madagascar Sea.’
The compass of Ahamed’s work measures the contemporary history of India-US relations in an impressive sweep. The result is a study that appeals like any good history in equal proportion to both reason and the imagination, the last because history should teach one to think/imagine what was not achieved in addition to what was achieved. Personalities of the American Presidents in the post-1947 era particularly, are vividly and masterfully portrayed, some coldly indifferent to India, some consumed by obsessiveness like Lyndon Johnson or with prejudice and vindictiveness like Richard Nixon (made doubly toxic by Henry Kissinger), others like Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy demonstrating an openness of mind and desirous of developing ties with democratic India, and those like George W. Bush possessed by an epiphanic vision about elevating ties.
Ahamed’s is a gripping account of the engagement with each other of two nations who have moved from being ‘estranged democracies’ to forging an ‘indispensable partnership’. And, true well-wishers of the relationship like Ambassador ‘Ken’ Galbraith and Secretary of State ‘Condi’ Rice are the heroes of this saga – both rooting with great conviction for India in Washington, one during the 1962 conflict with China and the other in the cliff-hanger negotiations leading to the historic civilian nuclear deal. In fact, the chapter on the nuclear deal offers a fascinating ‘inside’ view of the negotiations and the main players, in a vivid recounting of contemporary history.
Some enduring takeaways from this engaging book – this ‘people’s history’ – are a pair of issues raised by two prominent Indian-Americans who played substantive roles in dealing with India during the Obama years. The first by Nisha Biswal who served as Assistant Secretary for South Asia in the State Department refers to the importance of looking at the relationship with India as a ‘long game’ which requires a creative approach if its potential is to be realized. The second by Richard Verma who was Ambassador in India is that the relationship is unique, not slotted into easy definitions – that it is about inclusiveness and democracy, freedom and fairness, and ‘about people and principals, not just selling stuff to one another.’ These are lessons that the new Biden administration would do well to absorb if the bilateral engagement between India and the United States is to scale greater heights in the coming years.
Nirupama Menon Rao
Former Foreign Secretary of India and Ambassador to the US