50 books that tell the story of 75 years of Indian independence


In a previous article, I provided a brief analytical history of India’s democratic institutions since independence. In this column, I offer you a list of non-fiction books that I myself have found useful in understanding the complicated career of our Republic. I would have liked to choose 75 books, both for the sake of symmetry and because the reader would have had a wider choice. However, listing 75 titles and providing even the briefest explanations for each was not possible within the word limit of this column.

So I chose 50. I limited myself to the period after 1947; this is an ‘Independent India’ playlist rather than ‘Indian History’. The date of first publication of each book is indicated in parentheses.

I start with Granville Austin’s The Indian constitution: cornerstone of a republic (1966), a landmark work on the debates that led to the making of the Constitution. To read in parallel is that of Niraja Gopal Jayal Citizenship and its Discontents: An Indian Story (2013), which has a longer duration and a more sociological approach.

The most important development of our first decade as a free nation included the integration of princely states and the creation of linguistic states. The best book on the first theme remains that of VP Menon The History of the Integration of Indian States (1956) (The author worked closely with Sardar Patel and was himself a key player in the process he describes). On the question of language, see Robert D King, Nehru and India’s language policy (1997).

I now come to the biographies of great historical figures. Important works in this genre include Walter Crocker, Nehru: the estimation of a contemporary (1966), Rajmohan Gandhi, Patel: A Life (1990), Catherine Frank, Indira: The Life of Indira Nehru Gandhi (2001), CP Srivastava, Lal Bahadur Shastri (1995), Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar (1954; revised edition, 1990), Allan and Wendy Scarfe, JP: his biography (1975; revised edition, 1998), and Ellen Carol DuBois and Vinay Lal, editors, A Passionate Life: Writings by and about Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay (2017).

Since Mahatma Gandhi died so soon after Independence, I do not recommend a biography of him. However, those interested in his lasting influence should read Rajni Bakshi, Bapu Kuti: Journeys to the Rediscovery of Gandhi (1998).

Among the leading politicians of independent India, Ambedkar and Nehru were also important as thinkers. I therefore recommend The Essential Writings of BR Ambedkar (2002), edited by Valerian Rodrigues, as well as Who is Bharat Mata? History, culture and idea of ​​India: writings by and about Jawaharlal Nehru (2019), edited by Purushottam Agrawal. In recent times the influence of the ideologue Rashtriya Swayamsevak, MS Golwalkar, has perhaps equaled or even exceeded the influence of Ambedkar and Nehru, hence my inclusion in the standard anthology of his writings, A Bunch of Thoughts (1966).

An excellent overview of the political process in independent India is The Oxford Companion to Indian Politics, edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta (2010). On how and why India embraced the adult franchise, see Ornit Shani, How India Became Democratic (2017). On the more devious side of electoral politics, see Milan Vaishnav, When Crime Pays: Money and Muscle in Indian Politics (2017). Finally, the best book on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh remains that of Des Raj Goyal Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (1979).

The history of economic policy since independence is carefully traced in Francine Frankel, The political economy of India, 1947-2004 (2005). On India’s current economic challenges, see Naushad Forbes, The Struggle and the Promise: Restoring India’s Potential (2022). Excellent insights into Indian defense policy and foreign policy are, respectively, Srinath Raghavan, War and Peace in Modern India (2009) and Shiv Shankar Menon, Choice: in shaping India’s foreign policy (2016). On our complicated relationship with our big Asian neighbour, I suggest Kanti Bajpai, India vs. China: Why They’re Not Friends (2021).

The foundations of a modern state are institutions such as Parliament, the Supreme Court and the civil service. A useful introduction to the subject is Devesh Kapur, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Milan Vaishnav, editors, Rethinking public institutions by India (2019). The Indian Army is the focus of Steven Wilkinson Army and Nation: The Army and Indian Democracy (2015). Another important institution is that of the media, whose evolution in the pre-Modi (or pre-Godi) era is analyzed by Robin Jeffrey, The Newspaper Revolution in India: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language (2000).

Next, let me consider some works on social structure and social change in modern India. On caste operations in the countryside, I recommend two classic ethnographies; one by an Indian, MN Srinivas The remembrance village (1977), the other, Patronage and Operation (1974), by a Dutch scholar, Jan Breman. On the status and plight of Muslims in independent India, see Mushirul Hasan, legacy of A Nation Divided: India’s Muslims Since Independence (1997); on the status and predicament of the tribals, see Nandini Sundar, editor, Scheduled Tribes and Their India (2016).

The states of the Indian Union vary enormously in social, cultural, political and ecological terms. Unfortunately, few of them have yet had scholarly and well-documented histories written about them. Among the few exceptions are those of Robin Jeffrey Politics, women and well-being: how Kerala became “a model” (1992) and Narendra Subramanian Ethnicity and populist mobilization (1999), which concerns Tamil Nadu.

Moving on to social movements, on the Dalit movement see DR Nagaraj, The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: The Dalit Movement in India (2010); on the women’s movement, Radha Kumar, A History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism (1993); on retrograde caste struggles, Christophe Jaffrelot, India’s silent revolution (2003); on the environmental movement, Shekhar Pathak, The Chipko movement: a popular history (2020).

Then, some works set in the main conflict zones of India. There are many books on the origins and trajectory of the Kashmir conflict; among the first and best is that of Sisir Gupta Kashmir: A Study of Indo-Pakistani Relations (1965), which explains why possession of the valley is so crucial to the national myths of India and Pakistan. On that other troubled and turbulent region, the Northeast, see Sanjib Baruah, In the name of the nation: India and its northeast(2020). On the Maoist insurgency in central India and its wider implications, read Nandini Sundar, The Burning Forest (2016).

The books listed so far are all works of scholarship, based on extensive research and containing footnotes and references. Let me now recommend a few books written in a more popular vein. Two are academics: they are Jean Drèze, Meaning and solidarity: the jholawala economy for all (2017) and André Béteille, Chronicles of our time (2000), each of which presents a lifetime’s research and scholarship to a wider audience. I consider Drèze India as the eminent development economist; Béteille our best sociologist.

I now come to four good books by journalists. They are Katherine Boo, behind the beautiful For all time (2012), a brilliantly written account of life in a Mumbai slum; P. Sainath, Everybody loves a good dryness (1996), which focuses on survival and struggle in rural India; Rajdeep Sardesai, 2019: How Modi won India (2020), a journalist’s account of our last general election; and Mark Tully, No full stops in India (1991), a series of related essays by perhaps the most admired foreign journalist to have worked in our country.

A biography, an account of a life in its time, is a window on social and political history; as well as an autobiography. Finally, I would like to list a few memoirs that I particularly enjoyed. Two are from Dalits, one written in English, Sujatha Gidla, Ants among elephants (2017), the other originally written in Hindi, Om Prakash Valmiki’s Joothan, translated into English by Arun Mukherjee (2004); and two by women, one written in English and located in the middle class, Padma Desai, To burst (2012), the other originally written in Marathi and set in the working class, Malika Amar Shaikh, I want to destroy myselftranslated by Jerry Pinto (2019).

Although this list includes books published from the 1950s, it is oriented towards social and political history rather than economic or cultural. However, I have excluded books published under the auspices of the New India Foundation since I have been associated with this organization for many years.

I hope some readers will be encouraged to follow some of the 50 books recommended here. Almost all are in print (the few that are not are available on the website, archive.org). Many have also appeared in translation, Hindi and other languages.

Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Rebels against the Raj, is now in store. His email address is ramachandraguha@yahoo.in.

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.


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