Saturday, 26 December 2009



The history of India that the British had told was “too old and concocted”, and is “irrelevant now”. So Lord Meghnad Desai wanted to re-look at India's history that included not just the north of the country, but also the south and the north-east. The result has been the fascinating work The Rediscovery of India.

“I am very satisfied with the work and I hope people see it as an effort to affirm my faith in the newer generations that will come and lead this large multi-religious, multi-linguistic country,” the author tells me about this recently-published 498-page book.

The 16 chapters in the book are divided into two parts. “Much of the book was written between July 2007 and December 2008,” informs the author. “However, the idea of writing the book was germinated with the demands of linguistic States in the 1950s and I kept thinking about how India became a nation,” he adds. I ask him about his views on smaller States. “What is India today, once comprised of regional sub-economies. So, there's nothing wrong if there are smaller States,” says Lord Desai. “Let people have their space. However, I think there should be a statutory commission to look into such demands rather than someone fasting, some other people counter-fasting,” he adds. “But do not lose the idea of India. Every Indian can live and work in any part of the entire nation,” he adds”.

We get back to his book and I mention that while reading, I felt that the author somewhat praises both Lord Bentinck and Lord Dalhousie. Which of the two was better, I ask Lord Desai. “Of course it was Bentinck. His reforms, especially the abolition of Sutee and stress on English education for the Indians are commendable,” he replies. “Dalhousie was good in unifying the territories, as we all know. I think, had the later British administrators followed Dalhousie's way and had there been no Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, the concept of 'nation state' in India would have been much stronger. Who knows, India might not have had to face the Kashmir problem at all,” the professor emeritus of the prestigious London School of Economics says.

According to the author, “the Sepoy Mutiny was the last throw of the Old Order”. Was it an end to the Muslim India? “To some extent yes, though I think in the Muslim mind, 'India' was part of the the larger concept of the Khilfat. In any case, the Mutiny made sure that the Muslims were severely defeated,” he contends. In his book Lord Deai reiterates his view, as he cites examples of how the Muslim elite tried to win back the trust of the British, following the Mutiny that saw participation of both the Hindus and Muslims.

Among the numerous references in the book, the one that caught my attention was what King Emperor Geroge V had said about the out-of-touch British bureaucrats and the need to share power with the Indians. I ask Lord Desai to elaborate. “You see, the British was overwhelmed by the increase of Indian population. So they were not performing their duties properly,” he says. Is t here a reflection of that in the present times? “Well, I must say they were better than the bureaucracy India has today. At the same time it's true that the political process in India today is much stronger and there are other agencies to supplement the bureaucrats,” he replies.

In the chapter titled The Settlement, the author mentions how some historians look a rather dim view of the British 'plot' of reserving seats in the legislative bodies for the Muslims. I refer to that and ask for Lord Desai's views in the context of the recent recommendations of the Justice Ranganath Mishra Commission. Lord Desai takes no time in replying. “I would always prefer to look at the 'backwardness' as the criteria for offering reservation, rather than 'caste' and 'religion',” he says. “And education is where it's all needed, not for government jobs,” he adds.

In the book, the author has provided several interesting Counterfactual Boxes to analyse what could have happened had certain events in India's history taken a different course. So there are his analyses about the possibilites if prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had not died and continued in office, or had prime minister Indira Gandhi given up her office to someone else. I draw his attention to what he's written in those analyses about the Partition in which he seem to suggest that Partition has done India good, and how Lord Mounbatten impressed upon the leaders that Partition was inevitable. “It was very tragic that India came close to not being partitioned,” the author says. “However, since that's what the leaders wanted, it's a fact now. I think it would have been better if there were threee nations and we were under a loose confederation,” Lord Desai says almost echoing similar views expressed by a section of Indian intelligentsia. He then mentions the European Union where the countries want unification but not any dominating central government.

We turn to his views about what would have happened if the late prime minister Lal Bahadur Shahstri would have lived longer. “Sadly that didn't happen, and India saw and is seeing dynastic politics,” Lord Desai says, adding” the brand name of the Gandhis --- Indira to Rahul --- has an overbearing presence in our minds, especially in the minds of a section of the illiterate population, so time and again India has voted them to power. But having said that, I must say that if could have been difficult for a non-Gandhi Congress party member to become the Prime Minister,” the Labour peer says. “There's a divisive mind at work and caste, community, regional considerations could have made things uneasy”.

But, in spite of the “dynastic politics”, Lord Desai sounds hopeful about India. “The robustness of Indian democracy makes sure that even the dynasties need approval of the people. The citizens can throw the dynasties out of power, if necessary”.

In the book the author has mentioned how the 'All India' tag became a way to express geographical unity for the political parties in this country during the British rule. I ask him about the feasibility of 'All India' political parties now in the face of regional fiefdoms within the national parties. Desai says: “I was quite surprised by the election results in 2004. I wondered how Sonia Gandhi could make the Congress party win when regional parties are popping up. I feel there can be a time when the 'All India' tag will become meaningless and the South will control India's politics, not just the North”.

I was curious to know how the author perceives the Left in India. Can they reinvent themselves following the recent debacle in General Elections, especially in West Bengal, I ask. “I don't think so. They are dependent on anti-Americanism. Other than that, whatever they say about economy and social welfare is nothing different from the policy of the Congress party,” Lord Desai sounds dismissive. “I think the Left will be in trouble unless they realise that without the help from the Congress party, they cannot survive. We all know there are several CPI(M) sympathisers within the Congress party. So they might come to the Left's rescue,” he adds before we veer towards further discussion on West Bengal.