Midnight's adults

Over 60 years, democracy in India has been challenged by poverty, violence and religious extremism.

This is the year Midnight's Children become senior citizens, as India celebrates its 60th anniversary of independence on 15 August. There is a swagger in the air: India has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, a powerful film industry and even its first female president. This proud India contrasts with the earlier image of a submissive India, the poster-child of Oxfam. The ease with which foreigners colonised India, and its differences in languages, religions, castes, customs and cultures, convinced many that it was an artificial entity. Winston Churchill called it a "geographic expression"; Rudyard Kipling banished the thought of the natives being able to rule themselves and John Kenneth Galbraith was being ironical when he called it a "functioning anarchy".

That India has held together as a functioning democracy committed to its secular, liberal ideals (unlike its separated siblings, Pakistan and Bangladesh), is a major achievement of the last century. Serious challenges remain: Maoists reportedly control over 100 districts in India's mineral-rich tribal belt. Thousands of farmers mired in debt are taking their lives. Rural communities are fighting industrial expansion on their lands, seeing in the planned China-style special economic zones a contemporary incarnation of the East India Company.

Caste wars are proliferating, as more communities want to be called "backward", to qualify for federal entitlements. No party can win elections alone, and thinkers worry about the consequences of fragmentation and political atomisation. And the threat of Hindu fundamentalism, whose ugliest manifestation was the 2002 riot in Gujarat (which killed 900 people, including 600 Muslims), remains ever-present.

There was a time when someone who wanted to make sense of India could legitimately despair. Accounts were largely written in inaccessible, academic prose. Fortunately, that has changed. With the increased significance of India as a global player, in recent years, more writers are turning their attention to the country.

Last year, Edward Luce's In Spite of the Gods pointed out the tension between the growing ascendancy of the middle class, which wants to punch its weight on the international scene, and the pulls from the hinterland, where chronic inequities remain. Observing more closely the burgeoning India-US partnership - in July the US made an exception of India from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, effectively acknowledging its status as a nuclear power - Mira Kamdar fills Planet India with fascinating anecdotes (Indians will buy more cell phones than any other nationality this year; at the same time, one out of three malnourished children in the world are in India) and explores the business-to-business links that are connecting India with the world. In Holy Warriors, Edna Fernandes travels through the country, meeting fanatics from all faiths who would like to pull it apart. These three long-form narratives portray a nation in turmoil.

I believe, however, that the answer India offers is one of hope, and not despair. To make sense of that, turn to two scholars, who have stepped out of their ivory towers to explore the reality of modern India. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in Chicago, and the historian Rama chandra Guha, in Bangalore, argue there is much to learn from India. They arrive at similar conclusions, approaching the country from different ends of the spectrum. Nussbaum is an informed outsider looking in; Guha is a multidisciplinary insider looking out. Nussbaum takes one incident - the 2002 Gujarat riots that followed the burning of a train carrying Hindu activists in Godhra - and builds a grand narrative of Hindu nationalism's fierce challenge to India's secular ethos. Guha takes the history of India ignored by many academics - its life after Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 - and follows the reorganisation of its states, wars with Pakistan and China, its internal rebellions, and the rise of popular culture, to emphasise one point: its democratic resilience.

Nussbaum starts her story boldly, challenging the prevailing orthodoxy that a group of Muslims torched a train carrying Hindu activists, burning 58 of them alive. These activists were returning from Ayodhya, where they hoped to build a temple in place of a mosque, which their co-religionists had destroyed a decade earlier. In the riots that followed many Muslims died. But what really happened? There are serious doubts over the official narrative, and Nussbaum suggests that the fire could have started accidentally, and the pogrom was planned.

Nussbaum is right to focus on Hindu nationalism, if only to counter the assumption that all religious fundamentalism today emerges from mosques. Even if Muslims did burn that train, what followed in Gujarat was appalling and outrageous. Hindu activists targeted Muslim homes, brutally torturing, raping, murdering and burning many women, and the state stood by. What made this mass murder possible?

Nussbaum shows Gujarat had not made much progress in education and health care, and how it became home to Hindu nationalists. Gujaratis form a sizeable portion of the Indian diaspora, and many wealthy emigrants supported Hindu nationalists, not always realising their sinister agenda. The Hindu nationalists, on the wrong side of history since the time their leaders admired Hitler and one of their activists assassinated Gandhi, naturally turned to the source of their problem: history. They attacked prominent historians in India and in the US; once in power, they rewrote textbooks showing Muslim rulers poorly and praising the rule of the Nazis.

Many Hindus believed their interests were overlooked because India allowed the inspired ideas of Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru to lapse. Lacking the liberal education Tagore espoused, of a benign nationalism built on integrative humanism and shared public poetry, Indians focused on their narrower identities. Hindu nationalists increased their following by pointing out the government's appeasement of minorities, and by riding on the popularity of television serials of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, ancient epics. By 1998, the Hindu nationalist Bha ratiya Janata Party led a coalition at the centre.

As the inclusive, unifying impulse of India's founding fathers declined, an unusual, almost monotheistic, militarist view of Hinduism gained ascendance. But India abhors extremes and in 2004 the BJP-led alliance lost. For Nussbaum and for many others, it reinforced the idea of India as the land of synthesis, seeking balance.

Guha arrives at a similar conclusion, but builds his story by making us witnesses of events as they occur, drawing on contemporary accounts. His voluminous account may seem daunting, but it is crucial for the understanding of modern India. Writing Postwar, Tony Judt could claim, rightly, that his book could stand on the shoulders of other works, and assume that his readers knew certain things. Guha is correct in pointing out that such a luxury is not available to him: too little is written about contemporary India, and those who do write view India from a particular lens, as does V S Naipaul, or focus on particular phenomena.

Guha is patient in his approach, gentle in his criticism, exasperated by what he does not like, and eclectic in drawing on evidence that supports his argument. He is annoyed by the pessimists who grudgingly credit Indian democracy through statistical means, saying India is an "outlier", or the exception that has remained a democracy although all predictors suggest it should be a dictatorship (or broken up) instead.

But it is precisely its little-understood democratic character - which permits those who disagree to protest and gives the right to every citizen an equal vote to change governments - that has shamed critics who predicted India's future would be like Pakistan's.

In the end, both Nussbaum and Guha celebrate that enduring appeal of India: that it is a multi-everything country, held together by the power of ideas: its rambunctious, loquacious, argumentative culture will, as R K Narayan told Naipaul, "go on". Guha ends by saying India will survive. That may sound a modest statement, but unlike other soothsayers at the time of its independence, his prediction has the virtue of being accurate. The story of its independence was fascinating; the drama of its post-independence achievements, more so.

Nussbaum sees lessons in India's democratic achievements for the rest of the world, particularly America. Her thesis supports Gandhi's claim that "the real struggle that democracy must wage is the struggle within the individual self, between the urge to dominate and defile the other, and a willingness to live respectfully on terms of compassion and equality".

It is a tall claim, and few individuals can live up to it, and fewer collective entities like nations can. But India has tried, and as Guha and Nussbaum show, often succeeded. At 60, it is time for India to take a bow.

In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India, Edward Luce, Little Brown, 388pp, £20

Planet India: How the Fastest-Growing Democracy is Transforming India and the World, Mira Kamdar, Scribner, 336pp, £8.40

Holy Warriors: A Journey Into the Heart of Indian Fundamentalism, Edna Fernandes,Portobello Books, 336pp, £15.99

The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence and India’s Future, Martha Nussbaum, Harvard University Press, 403pp, £19.95

India After Gandhi: the History of the World’s Largest Democracy, Ramachandra Guha, Macmillan, 871pp, £25