The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- For India, history did not end in the Nineties

'Age of extremes' is how Eric Hobsbawm described the 20th century. His own book of that title was less than even-handed in its analysis of the extremist ideologies of the age. As a refugee from Hitler's Germany, and a lifelong Marxist, Hobsbawm was inclined to be hard on fascism but somewhat soft on communism. Hobsbawm's book may be usefully contrasted with the great conservative historian Robert Conquest's Reflections on a Ravaged Century, a work published at the same time, and which is hard on fascism and harder still on communism.

The decade of the Nineties saw the publication of a profusion of books reflecting upon the ideological battles of the century that was then ending. Apart from the books by Hobsbawm and Conquest, there were also important and widely discussed works by Francis Fukuyama, John Lukacs, and Tzvetan Todorov. These varied in inflection and emphasis, but were united nonetheless by their belief that the struggle between fascism and communism, with liberal democracy trapped in between, was the defining contest of the 20th century.

Written under different names, and reaching different and sometimes incompatible conclusions, these books all divided the century into four broad periods. The first period ran roughly from 1914 to 1939, when liberal democracy was being squeezed out by forces of left and right. Matters came to a head with World War II, when at first communism allied with fascism, via the Hitler-Stalin pact. The Nazi invasion of Soviet Russia led to a breakdown of that alliance and the forging of a new one, that between communism and democracy. This lasted until the end of the war. Then came Yalta and the division of Europe, and the construction of an 'Iron Curtain' running across the heart of the continent.

Now commenced the Cold War between those erstwhile allies, Western liberalism and Soviet communism. Their armies faced each other along the Iron Curtain. And they played out their animosities in spheres far distant, as in Asia and Africa, where newly independent nations lined up behind one superpower or the other. This phase ran for more than four decades. Some date its end to the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989; others to the break-up of the Soviet Union, in 1991. Now one superpower, the United States of America, and one political philosophy, liberal democracy, stood supreme. In the triumphalist rendering of one chronicler, Francis Fukuyama, it was the End of History.

The preceding paragraphs simplify, but not very much, the vast outpouring of historical literature reflecting on the 20th century. Not all writers were as celebratory as Fukuyama; Eric Hobsbawm, for example, was not sure that the victory within the West of capitalist democracy was altogether a good thing. But their political differences notwithstanding, what united Fukuyama and Hobsbawm, and the others who wrote books on these themes, is how obsessively Eurocentric they all were. One non-European country in particular was mostly ignored by these accounts 'the country in which these words are being written, printed, and read.

That was, and is, a pity. For the history of independent India can best be understood as a playing out, in different theatres and regions, of the battle between the three great political tendencies of the modern age. Holding the centre, uncertainly, is liberal democracy, the philosophy upheld by the makers of modern India and embodied in its Constitution. Challenging it, from the right, are the forces of Hindu reaction, which, like European fascism, stokes memories of ancient defeats, real and imagined, to consolidate a community based on faith and identity. And challenging it, from the left, are the forces of extra-parliamentary communism, which uses the rhetoric of class hatred to catalyse armed struggle in the regions they can find a hold in, hoping that in time these local conflicts will be transformed into a countrywide revolution.

In the now nearly six decades that India has been independent, these ideological battles have been particularly intense in two periods. The first ran from August 15, 1947 to January 26, 1950, from the day on which India became independent, to the day on which it adopted a republican, democratic Constitution based on adult franchise, the rule of law, and the equality of all individuals and faiths. However, the ideas underlying the Constitution were sharply challenged from left and right. The Partition of India and the migration of millions of refugees gave an enormous fillip to Hindu chauvinism, and to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in particular. They called for retribution against the minorities, for the armed invasion and 'reconquest' of Pakistan, and for the formation of a state based on Hindu theocratic ideals. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India also sought to take advantage of the unsettled conditions of the time. In February 1948, after a secret conclave in Calcutta, the CPI launched an armed struggle against the fledgling nation-state, seeking to replace it with a regime based on communist ideals.

The Centre, fortunately, held. The RSS and the communists were forced to acknowledge that the people of India had little taste for extremist methods. Both came overground and fought the general elections of 1952, the communists under their own banner, the RSS under the aegis of the newly formed Bharatiya Jana Sangh. For a full 15 years, liberal democracy was, so to say, hegemonic. In the latter part of the Sixties, a wing of the communists, the so-called 'Naxalites', broke away to resume extra-parliamentary struggle. At about the same time there was an escalation in communal tension, in which independent observers saw the hand, and growing influence, of the RSS.

However, it is only in the last decade-and-a-half that the Naxalites and the RSS have really expanded their reach. Whatever may be the case in Europe, in India history did not end in the Nineties; perhaps it had only just begun. There, perhaps liberal democracy was indeed triumphant in philosophy and practice, but here it was corroded and besieged, attacked from the right and just as viciously from the left. In the states of north and west India, the divisive Ayodhya campaign led to a wave of religious violence and to the political ascendancy of the Hindu right. In many districts of central and eastern India, the Naxalites dug deep roots among tribal and low caste communities, establishing liberated zones and taking thousands of square miles of Indian territory out of effective control of the Indian state.

Many liberals greeted the defeat of the National Democratic Alliance government in the elections of May 2004 with relief. But they should still be vigilant; the Hindu bigots may yet rise again, and the extremists on the other side have risen already. On November 14, the prime minister went to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi to unveil a statue of the man after whom the university was named. He was met by a black flag demonstration, by left-wing students opposing his government's economic and foreign policies. The previous day, his government had faced a far greater challenge from a far more focussed group of leftists. This was the attack on Jehanabad jail by an army of Naxalites, a shocking lapse of security which was testimony to how fragile the forces of law and order are in the very heart of India.

As I said, no Western historian has paid serious attention to the battle of political ideologies in modern India. And only one Indian historian has. His name was Jawaharlal Nehru. My next column will deal with Nehru's reflections on communalism and communism, on the dangers he faced and overcame in the years 1947-49, the very dangers we must face and overcome now.

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