Sixty years ago, in the summer of 1948, our nation, then newly born, was struggling for its very survival. In January, Mahatma Gandhi had been murdered by a Hindu fanatic. The act had shocked many Indians, but apparently it had the approval of some. According to one news report, the jailed assassin, Nathuram Godse, received an average of 50 letters a day expressing admiration for his action. This was part of a much wider right-wing, religious, reaction against Partition. Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan were calling for retribution against the Muslims who had stayed behind in India. The relations between the two communities were poisoned further by the tribal invasion of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. With the raiders aided and equipped by the Pakistani army, the religious conflict had, inevitably, become a national one. A bloody battle was on in the high mountains of the Himalaya, as the Indian Army sought to rid Kashmir of the intruders.
Six weeks after Godse fired those three shots from a Beretta pistol in New Delhi, the then undivided Communist Party of India (CPI met in a secret conclave in Calcutta. At this meeting, the leadership of the CPI was taken away from a gentle and very cultured Kumaoni named P.C. Joshi. Joshi wanted the Communists to collaborate with Jawaharlal Nehru's government in building the new nation. His replacement, an austere Maharashtrian named B.T. Ranadive, believed on the other hand that the transfer of power from British to Indian hands was a sham, and that Nehru and his men were puppets of the Western imperialist powers. He took the Communists towards a new 'people's war' line, which mandated the overthrow of the Indian State through armed struggle, and its replacement by a single-party dictatorship.
In June 1948, the infant Indian State looked very fragile indeed. It was pierced from the left by the Communists, and pinched from the right by the Hindu extremists. And there were other problems aplenty. Eight million refugees had to be resettled; provided with land, homes, employment, and a sense of citizenship. Five hundred princely states had to be integrated, one by one, a process that involved much massaging of egos (for the Maharajas tended to think very highly of themselves), and just a little coercion.
The task of princely integration was in the hands of Vallabhbhai Patel and his outstanding secretary, V.P. Menon. Some rulers were willing to immediately join up with the new Dominion. Others waited in the hope of better terms. And some princes were actively hostile. In this very hot summer of 1948, the ruler giving the most trouble was the Nizam of Hyderabad, who was probably the wealthiest man in the world, and without question the most miserly. He insisted that the independence of his (very large and very badly administered realm) had been guaranteed by the British monarch; and that he would now negotiate a separate treaty with His Majesty's Government, which would assure the State of Hyderabad its political sovereignty.
British politicians, Winston Churchill among them, were egging on the Nizam to declare independence. That was a truly dangerous possibility. For, as Sardar Patel observed, an independent Hyderabad would be "a cancer in the belly of India", cutting off communications between the north and the south of the country. Despite the ruler's ambitions, it was clear that the majority of the people of Hyderabad State wished to be citizens of a free India. After waiting a year for the Nizam to come to terms, Patel sent in the Army and compelled him to join the Union.
Few Indians now alive know how uncertain our future looked in the summer of 1948. The question then being asked everywhere was 'Will India Survive?' Now, 60 years down the road, that fearful query has been replaced by a far more hopeful one, namely, 'Will India Become a Superpower?'
This new, anticipatory, expectant question has been prompted by the extraordinary resilience, in the long term, of...
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