Book Reviews

Review Published in HINDUSTAN TIMES

A Bird’s Eye View


By B.R.Nanda.
Harper Collins

It is inevitable and entirely appropriate that fifty years into independence, amidst the self congratulations and self-castigation, the mind should also turn to the struggle that achieved that freedom. The recalling of that struggle, even for those who are familiar with its history and its personalities, is not merely an act of homage. It is an education that highlights the continuity between then and now, the crucial link which is all too easily forgotten. In the process, the present becomes clearer and a truer assessment of our achievement and shortfalls becomes possible.

B.R. Nanda's work is thus timely. It is also well-researched, comprehensive and, most importantly, readable. He shows a thorough familiarity with his subject which is only to be expected, given his earlier works on Gandhi, Nehru and Gokhale. As a result, the reader has in one relatively compact volume (in a disappointingly weak binding), a bird’s eye view of the freedom struggle which was not a one-act revolt which heaved off the British yoke; it was a long and varied movement stretching for the better part of a century. It changed in its methods and in its intensity to meet the needs of different times and in response to the impress of the larger than life personalities who became its integral parts.

Nanda quotes Sir John Strachey, a retired member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council in 1884 as saying: “This is the first and foremost things to learn about India, that there is not and never was an India.” In sharp contrast was Sarojini Naidu’s response to Halide Edib, the Turkish writer as to what the British would leave behind when they left – “A nation.” Between these two comments lies the entire history and process of nation building.

We have the rise and spread of nationalism from the corners of Bengal to Punjab, the beginnings of constitutional polity, the huge Gandhian experiment with non-cooperation and satyagraha, the rise of Muslim separatism and finally the birth of independent India, vivisected even as it was being born. As Nanda traces this process, the reader gets a detailed and interesting treatment of the early years, the 1857 revolt after which saw the decay of the old feudal order, a social and religious resurgence under such personalities as Vivekananda and emergence of the elite such as Telang and Ranade from the educational system introduced by the British. This is followed by the birth of the Indian National Congress and the rise of such giants as Dadabhai Naoroji, Pherozeshah Mehta and G.K.Gokhale. The book also includes some welcome detail on that elusive personality inevitably connected with the birth of the Congress – A.O. Hume. There is a charming description of function organised to bid farewell to Hume in Poona in 1892. The function ended with the singing of “God save the Queen” and later an Indian band played’ Auld Lang Syne.’!

The next phase in the freedom struggle – the tussle between the Moderates and the Extremists in the Congress threw up its own legion of personalities…… Tilak, Aurobindo Ghose and Lala Lajpat Rai. Fortunately Nanda gives a balanced and fairly elaborate treatment to these personalities, each a romantic figure in his own right. Regrettably there is not much space devoted to one of the most interesting, romantic though somewhat fruitless chapter of the revolutionary era – the Ghadar party and the Komagata Maru tragedy.

The major part of the book is devoted to events which took place after the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi from South Africa. Thereafter the movement was dominated by Gandhi, even when he was being regarded as a “spent bullet”, and other stalwarts like Nehru, Patel, Azad and Bose. Following an increasingly separate path was, of course, Jinnah. This is a more familiar era yet yes it makes compulsive reading, partly because the narrative weaves in the events with the personalities, both of the Indian leaders as well as of the British Viceroys of the time. One can read about the ambivalent attitude Lord Irwin (or Halifax) who directed a severe repression against the Congress and yet signed a truce with Gandhi and succeeding in inviting him to attend the Round table conference. In 1947, Halifax defended in the House of Lords the Labour policy of fixing a date for the withdrawal of the British from India. And of Willingdon’s short sighted sighted treatment of the freedom movement as a ‘law and order problem’.

Mahatma Gandhi strides through the age like the giant that he was. Admired, followed misconstrued at times even by his own followers, derided by confused guardians of the Empire, tormented by the partition of India and finally assassinated by his own country man. Nanda’s work contains a good treatment of Gandhi’s methods, in particular Satyagraha. The Salt Satyagraha of 1930-31 show the “lineaments of the classic non-violent battle: the careful preparation, the articulation of moral issue, the intuitive choice of symbols and instruments, the cautions beginning, the slow acceleration and finally ,the successful mobilization of the people without hatred and violence, simultaneously with the willingness to build bridges with the enemy for an ultimate meeting of minds.”

Then there are the unavoidable questions which attended the tryst with destiny which was achieved but “not in full measure.” Could partition have been avoided? Was haste unduly employed? Could the massacres that accompanied partition been staved off? Questions which must remain part of any story of the freedom movement.