At independence, the ministers of the government of India - Nehru, Patel, and so on - faced challenges aplenty. Refugees had to be resettled, princely states to be integrated, viable economic and foreign policies to be forged. To these social and institutional challenges were added challenges emanating from political trends opposed to the government, from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

The challenge from the right was led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This sought to exploit the discontent of the refugees to advance its own agenda. Addressing a gathering of volunteers in New Delhi on December 8, 1947, the RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar, said that "the Sangh will not rest content until it had finished Pakistan." "If anyone stood in our way", insisted Golwalkar, "we will have to finish them too, whether it was Nehru Government or any other Government." As the police report of his speech went on: "Referring to Muslims he [Golwalkar] said that no power on earth could keep them in Hindustan. They should have to quit this country ... If they were made to stay here the responsibility would be the Government's and the Hindu community would not be responsible. Mahatma Gandhi could not mis- lead them any longer. We [i.e. the RSS] have the means whereby [our] opponents could be immediately silenced."

Six weeks later, Gandhi was assassinated. The RSS was banned, and its leaders and many of its cadre put behind bars. But just as one extremist challenge was being contained, another was priming itself for action. When India became independent in August 1947, the general secretary of the CPI was P.C. Joshi, a cultured, sensitive man who understood that freedom had come through the struggle and sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians. A statement issued by the CPI thus acknowledged that the Congress was "the main national democratic organization", and said the party would "fully co-operate with the national leadership in the proud task of building the Indian Republic on democratic foundations ..."

Indian intellectuals in general, and Indian historians in particular, are notoriously one-sided in recounting these events.

 •  Part II: Holding the centre
 •  Good practice, bad theory

However, by the end of 1947, P.C. Joshi found his line challenged by the radical faction of the CPI. This claimed that the freedom that India had obtained was false - "Ye Azaadi Jhoota Hai", the slogan went - and asked that the party declare an all-out war against the government of India. The radicals were led by B.T. Ranadive, who saw in the imminent victory of the Chinese communists a model for himself and his comrades. A peasant struggle was already on in Hyderabad, against the feudal regime of the Nizam - why not use that as a springboard for the Indian revolution?

On February 28, 1948 - four weeks after Gandhi's murder - the CPI leadership met in Calcutta, and confirmed that the revolutionary line would prevail. Joshi was replaced as general secretary by Ranadive, who declared that the Indian government was a lackey of imperialism, and would be overthrown by armed struggle. Party members were ordered to foment strikes and protests to further the cause of the revolution-in-the-making. Bulletins and posters were issued urging the people to rise up and "set fire to the whole of Bengal", to "destroy the Congress Government", and move "forward to unprecedented mass struggles. Forward to storm the Congress Bastilles".

The government, naturally, came down hard. Some fifty thousand party members and sympathizers were arrested. These arrests forestalled Ranadive's plans to crystallize strikes in the major industrial cities of Bombay and Calcutta. It took some more time to restore order in Hyderabad, where a recalcitrant Nizam was refusing to join the Indian Union, egged on by militant Islamists (known as 'Razakars'), who were making common cause with their local communists. But in September 1948, the Indian army moved into Hyderabad; slowly, over a period of two years, the areas where the communists had been active were brought back under the control of the state.

In recounting these events, Indian intellectuals in general, and Indian historians in particular, are notoriously one-sided. When speaking of the RSS threat, they mince no words - as indeed they should not. But when speaking of the failed communist insurrection, they choose to focus instead on the "massive state repression". But what was the Indian state supposed to do when faced with this armed challenge to its authority? Sit back and allow Ranadive and his men to move into power in New Delhi? The state reacted the only way it could. And its actions were legitimate; behind them was the support of the broad masses of the people. As it happened, the legitimacy of the state was tested and confirmed in the general elections of 1952, won resoundingly by Nehru's Congress, and in which the now-reconciled Communist Party of India was also a contestant.

That the government of India came through these challenges was on account of the quality of its leadership. Jawaharlal Nehru, in particular, understood that India needed what he called a "higher idealism" to combat the twin threats of communalism and revolutionary communism. While the RSS movement exhibited "an amazing narrowness in outlook", he wrote in June 1949, "communism certainly attracts idealists as well as opportunists". However, the way communism functioned was "devoid completely of any moral standard or even any thought for India's good".

The communist refusal to take part in the Quit India movement is sometimes represented as a betrayal. In my view, the aborted revolution of 1948-49 was far more malign, in intent as well as in execution. There was a good case against Quit India - it was made by many Congressmen, such as C. Rajagopalachari. The case was that in the midst of World War II, the battle against Nazism and fascism was of overwhelming importance. Also, by 1942, even the most die-hard imperialist knew that it was just a matter of time before the British quit India. So why not stand by them now in their hour of need, and ask for freedom once fascism had been defeated?

This argument was made most cogently by Rajaji, but even Nehru had some sympathy with it. He understood the horrors of fascism better and earlier than most people; if he finally went along with Quit India, it was only because he could not bring himself to oppose Gandhi. Admittedly, the communist opposition emanated from less lofty reasons - they could not go to jail because their Soviet masters had told them not to. Still, to sit out the Quit India movement, as they did, must count as a far less treasonous act than fomenting a revolution against a democratic government that had come into being after decades of non-violent struggle.

The purpose of recounting these events from our first years of freedom is not simply to set the record straight. In fact, they have a strong contemporary resonance, which shall be the subject of my next column.