BOOK REVIEW: The Shortest History of India by John Zubrzycki

MELBOURNE, 21 March 2023: Writing an estimated 5,000 years of history in 278 pages is no mean feat. But this is what Australian journalist and now academic, John Zubrzycki (JZ) has done. A prominent journalist and trade union leader in India M. Chalapathi Rao once defined journalists as historians in a hurry. This seems to fit well for JZ, whose ‘The Shortest History of India’ published by Black Inc., an imprint of Schwarz Books Pty Ltd., Collingwood, Victoria, Australia, in ten chapters cruises centuries step by step across the subcontinent. The past is constructed with facts and passion.

If you have earlier never read history (or, India’s history) then this could be your viable bet. But then writing history has always been controversial. E. H. Carr says the facts of history are simply those historians have chosen to focus on. All historical facts come to us as a result of interpretive choices by historians influenced by the standards of their age. No doubt, Indian history has its controversies with different ways methodologies of writing or interpreting historical facts. James Mill never went to India and wrote the History of India (three volumes) in early 1818, through the colonial prism.

Anyway, let’s come to the book. It’s 10 chapters that fit well in the Ancient, Medieval and Modern mode. The first three chapters (Ancient) are Lost Civilisations, Religious Revolutionaries, The Classical Age, the next four (Medieval) are The Coming of Islam, The Magnificent Mughals, Merchants and Mercenaries and The Lightening of the Fuse. The last three chapters (Modern) are The Long Road to Freedom, Creating the Nation State and A New India.

You get a bit of everything in this short history of India. For, example ” Despite discrimination on the basis of caste being illegal under the constitution, it remains a defining feature of Indian society.” No doubt, news outlets and social media often report discrimination and atrocities against the Dalits. Discussing Buddha, an  interesting observation – “The debate over whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy is still ongoing.”

About the Muslim rulers, the author says, they were pragmatists ruling over a Hindu population spread across the subcontinent. And, “From ruler to ruler, dynasty to dynasty, Islam swung between being inclusive and iconoclastic, but at no time was there any attempt at mass conversion.” And, ” Conquest was more about commerce that conversion.”

” The characterisation of Muslim rulers as destructive and despotic was popularised by the British in the nineteenth century onwards in order to justify their rule as just and benevolent. The communal friction that erupted between Hindu and Muslims around the time of Indian independence, and has simmered ever since, was largely absent during the period when Muslim dynasties were the most powerful force in India, ” the writer says. These words, I am sure, will not go down well with many including those in power now.

The British takeover is well documented with the East India Company (EIC) and the Crown taking over on 1 November, 1858, with the British Parliament passing the Government of India Act transferring power from the EIC to the Crown. ” The company closed for trade in 1874 ‘unhonoured and unsung”.

The Chapter Long Road to Freedom details the country’s freedom movement, its towering leaders Gandhi and Nehru leading up to the ‘tryst with destiny’ in 1947, the tragedy of partition amid the ensuing communal  violence, killing and the formation of Pakistan. In fact, credit goes to John Zubrzycki for summarising this period in 33 pages. People have written hefty volumes on the subject as new interpretations and revelations keep emerging.

The last two chapters on the post-independence period politics and the current period (2014 and 2019 onwards), when the Hindu nationalist BJP came to power are deeply analysed. ” The 2014 elections were a watershed moment for India,” the author says.

The author calls the BJP’s 2019 victory an aberration. And says, “But the size of the Modi’s victory also raised fears of ‘democratic dictatorship’ or a version of ‘bureaucratic authoritarianism’ taking hold of the political landscape, particularly as it rested on a highly personalised leadership.”  In today’s ideological and politically polarised India, this view, will be seen from the prism of which side of the fence one is. The 2024 elections are not far away.

I have skipped, in this review, a lot of history, despite it being a short one. The reason being, I want people to read this publication and if possible have a look at the ‘Suggested Reading’ on pages 263 and 264.

So, what about A ‘New India’? John Zubrzycki’s concludes, ” The Indian experiment is at once inspirational and flawed, tackling challenges such as growing inequality and authoritarianism and providing a model to the world. ”

“Ultimately, India’s present and its future lie not in the hands of its politicians or its priests, but those of its people: the rural poor who are prepared to save every rupee they can to invest in their children’s education, the restless youth who aspire to better quality life; the vibrant middle class and its increasingly demanding accountability from elected officials; the dynamic diaspora that is showcasing India’s talent to the world.”

Follow South Asia Times (SAT) on Twitter.

By Neeraj Nanda

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