Although published in 2011, before the rise of Hindu nationalism under President Modi and resultant surge in the persecution of Muslims which Patrick French could not foresee, this book remains worth reading as a clear, informative and wide-ranging introduction to a fascinating and complex country.
With many anecdotes, he creates a strong, authentic sense of place, starting with the old man in his apricot orchard, recalling how when Nehru visited the newly independent northern border region of Ladakh, there were no roads, so he had to land by plane, something the locals had never seen before, so they simply put their hands together and prayed to it. At the other end of the scale are the computer whizz kid Indian graduates who have made such a contribution to Silicon Valley in the US, some claiming that their early grounding in abstract Hindu philosophy has helped them to make “mental leaps in the virtual world”.
Commencing with a useful potted history of the creation in 1947 of what was initially meant to be a secular democracy, and an explanation of the complex politics, with MPs now increasingly determined by family links, French moves on to the early problems caused by a well-intentioned but over-bureaucratic socialist system of central planning, with enterprise often stifled by the need to obtain permits to import or manufacture products.
The benefits of the subsequent liberalisation have “lifted large numbers out of extreme poverty” but the rise in population has left about the same number of poor people. There seems to be a widening gap: “By 2008 four of the eight richest people alive were Indian”, there is a “dynamic middle class, but “people….still die, finding that eating rats or ground mango kernels does not save them from starvation”.
The issue of caste in all its complex degrees of exclusion runs through the text: the Chuhras who have had to do “hereditary work sweeping, cleaning, dealing with dead animals…” then scraping up the leftover food after weddings, the “joothan” to boil and store for late. In the unconscious insensitivity of his much vaunted personal sacrifice, Gandhi wished to be reborn an untouchable “to share their sorrow, sufferings and the affronts levelled at them”. With the perhaps questionable observation that “compassion is not a Hindu concept” French describes the plight of a “Dalit” (low caste) worker who, for seeking to leave his job with an unpaid debt, was fitted with heavy metal fetters, forcing him to spend years breaking stones in a quarry, until he was saved by some activists during a political campaign.
French covers relations with Pakistan and the position of Indian Muslims, who are surprisingly almost as numerous as Pakistanis. They are described by one of their own leaders as the most backward community in India “economically, educationally and socially”, largely because the most disadvantaged were left behind in the 1947 Partition. Yet, this self-same leader defended the persistence of archaic Muslim codes in India which supported his personal power, even at the cost of feeding resentment among conservative Hindus that they could not enjoy similar “separatist privilege”.
Occasionally the book gets bogged down too long in one issue, and the final chapter seems a somewhat rushed catch-all for all the outstanding points the author wanted to include, but overall this is highly recommended.