The creation of the Indian state in 1947 is arguably the greatest event of the 20th century. Never in all history had nearly a fifth of humankind come together so willingly to form a country. However, few then had expected it to survive.

At Independence India was almost totally illiterate and poor. Despite being largely agricultural, it was unable to feed itself. A huge refugee problem following Independence and partition threatened to overwhelm it. Famine was ever a possibility. India’s leadership was untested with little experience in administering a country of such size or complexity. The fledgling Indian state surprised all by not only surviving but becoming the country we know as today - more literate than ever in its history with a growing industrial and agricultural base capable of feeding itself with enough to spare for exports.

This incredible achievement was possible because of what an extraordinary set of leaders, especially Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Sardar Patel, achieved in the first decade of India’s freedom between 1947 and 1957. They sorted out the humongous refugee problem relatively quickly and with much less communal violence than anticipated.

In a task Nehru largely left to him to see through, Patel with the help of his experienced and astonishingly efficient deputy, VP Menon, ensured the smooth absorption of nearly 600 princely states into the newly independent Indian state, adding 40 per cent to free India’s territory and 90 million to its population.

Strongman Sardar Patel

In under three years India had put together a constitution that saw it emerge as a secular democracy on 26th January 1950. By all accounts the principal architect of India and one who lived through its first decade was Nehru. However, the first three years of freedom were in equal measure Sardar Patel’s too. He saw through the integration process and kept a strong control over the Congress Party enabling Nehru to focus on nation building and restoring the confidence of India’s Muslim citizens shattered by partition.

As Deputy Prime Minister in charge of home affairs, Patel also helped India overcome the trauma of Gandhi’s assassination though few today credit him for that. He had serious differences with Nehru but played those down. As his deputy, Patel unwaveringly supported Nehru and never attempted to upstage him. By the time of Patel’s death in December 1950, India had already emerged as a republic and a lot of the problems that threatened to overwhelm it no longer did.

To quickly make sense of it all 66 years after India’s first decade as a free country we can do no better than to turn to a well-researched introductory book, Chandrachur Ghose’s 1947- 1957 India - The Birth of a Republic. The book gives us a good idea of the important issues in the lead up to India’s independence and the role played by the last two Viceroys of India, Wavell, and Lord Mountbatten, in India’s emergence as a free country. The latter not only oversaw, but, in fact, controlled India’s transition to freedom and stayed on as the country’s first Governor-General - a fortuitous move that helped India cope with Partition and its terrible aftermath.

An interesting aspect of Ghose’s book is its fair coverage of the relations between Nehru and Patel. Drawing on primary sources Patel’s forbearance comes through in Ghose’s book especially the dignified way he reacted to Nehru’s often uncalled for barbs and deliberate interference in his work. Nehru’s pettiness in dealing with Patel is also well brought out by Ghose.

First amendment

Ghose’s book is well arranged and an easy read. It covers the framing of India’s Constitution, the integration of Indian states as well as the way the country coped with the refugee problem in separate comprehensive chapters. However, his account of the recasting of the civil services and the armed forces is sketchy and unconvincing, leaving the reader wondering “what really changed on the ground?” when to this day they have a recognisably colonial air about them.

All through the first decade Nehru was India’s Prime Minister, Ghose’s book covers almost all the major developments during his tenure including the controversial first amendment to the Indian Constitution which, among other things, restricted freedom of speech and holding of the first General Elections in 1951-52, which the Congress led by Nehru won handsomely.

Nehru had for long believed in planned development and Ghose gives a good account of the setting up of the Planning Commission as well as a body to oversee its working, the National Developmental Council. The early success of planning is well captured by Ghose.

There was an element of nepotism in Nehru’s character, which Ghose hints at in his book. Making his sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, India’s first ambassador to the USSR was an ill-thought move of Nehru’s. The Soviet Union remained hostile to India throughout her tenure and she could not even get to meet Stalin - a grave failing for an ambassador of a country as important as India. Nehru also was overly dependent on an unstable Krishna Menon, his emotionally draining best friend.

Developments in the North East - including the Naga insurgency under Phizo - and in Kashmir prior to and after its accession to India are well covered by Ghose. A full chapter is devoted to India’s foreign policy which, in the first decade, was an unusually active one. As Ghose observed ‘India appeared as a peacemaker with formidable clout.’ But this was to change in the next decade much to India’s disadvantage.

Ghose’s book is a fine and comprehensive work and an excellent read, very different from other similar works. Sadly, the book lacks an index. In such works this is essential and its omission unpardonable, even more so when the publisher happens to be Penguin.

(The reviewer teaches public policy and contemporary history at IISc Bengaluru)

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About the book

Title: 1947- 1957 INDIA - The Birth of a Republic

Author: Chandrachur Ghose

Publisher: Vintage - Penguin India 2023

Pages: 320

Price: ₹534