Retrieving a History

Why the idea of India cannot be trivially dismissed

By ANANYA VAJPEYI | 1 September 2012

A RECENT BBC PROGRAM showed Boris Johnson, the mayor of London and author of Johnson’s Life of London: The People who Made the City That Made the World (HarperCollins, 2011), inspecting the gigantic sculpture titled ‘Orbit’ in the company of Lakshmi Mittal, the steel magnate, and Anish Kapoor, the designer of this enormous steel tower built for the London Olympics of 2012. The mayor, with his hefty frame and mop of flaxen hair, and the two Indians who made Orbit as a permanent public artwork for the Olympic Park, all seemed to claim ownership of this work, in one way or another, and thereby to stake a claim in the renewal and refashioning of London as a city as important in the 21st century as it had been in the 19th and 20th centuries. Surely this controversial and ambitious British politician and journalist, belonging to the Conservative Party, could not do what he’s doing without the money and the talent of the two Indian men inspecting the humongous structure alongside him.

The scene of seemingly post-imperial, post-racial and post-modern collaboration and camaraderie reminded me with a jolt of three recent essays on the political history of modern India by the British Marxist and intellectual historian Perry Anderson, in the pages of the London Review of Books. Anderson, a long-time editor of the New Left Review, a professor of history at UCLA and a prolific essayist for the past half-century, has not previously written about India, so these three very long pieces—which together total nearly 50,000 words—may come as something of a surprise to Indian scholars. But even more surprising, for his admirers and readers in India, is his weirdly anachronistic reading of modern Indian history. In pursuit of his effort to render a scathing verdict on the Indian present, he has constructed a malign caricature of the Indian past, beginning with two relentless attacks on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the first two of his three essays, devoted respectively to Gandhi and Nehru, Anderson’s zeal to demolish these idols and, by extension, to discredit the Independence movement, leads him unwittingly to a bombastic rhetorical tone that sounds more like Winston Churchill or the latter-day Tory defenders of the Raj than a preeminent British Marxist.

After declaring that “All countries have fond images of themselves, and big countries, inevitably, have bigger heads than others,” Anderson proceeds through a litany of tendentious claims: that the “idea of India” was a “European and not a local invention”; that the Independence movement did nothing to hasten British withdrawal—and indeed even prolonged the Raj; that the advances of the Japanese Army at the end of World War II in Southeast Asia, rather than any Indian efforts, provided the final blow to British rule in India. Anderson’s Gandhi is an almost unrecognisable figure: a charismatic leader and a “first-class organiser and fundraiser” to be sure, but also a religious zealot, a “stranger” to “real intellectual exchange” whose “homemade” faith was indelibly tinted with an ethos of Hindu supremacy. Anderson’s Nehru is an equally communal figure, a mediocre thinker and purple writer whose Congress bears the blame for Britain’s partition of India.

Since it’s hardly conceivable that Perry Anderson of all people would change sides so late in his scholarly life, we have to decipher what on earth he means by this alarming attempt to absolve the British of all responsibility for the slaughter of Partition, deny any efficacy whatsoever to Gandhi’s political techniques, and look for reasons why the Raj dissolved to give rise to two new independent nation-states anywhere but in the will, agency, efforts and design of the peoples of the subcontinent and their hugely popular leaders. What seems to be going on is that Anderson cannot figure out how some of the world’s largest anti-colonial mobilisations produced what can be characterised, from a properly left perspective, as one neocolonial state (India) and one theocratic state (Pakistan). Anderson finds both the revolutionary anti-imperialist rhetoric of the Indian national movement, and the liberal, secular, egalitarian and democratic pretensions of the postcolonial Indian state to be at odds with the realities of caste fracture, class inequality, communal animosities, and incomplete social transformation that have persisted in India both during and beyond British rule. In wanting to attack what he sees as the liberal pieties of even the most astute Indian intellectuals, he ends up throwing the baby out with the bathwater and sounding, absurdly, more loyal than the king.

Despite its sense of belated discovery, Anderson’s critique recapitulates a number of problems in the historiography of modern India that have more or less stabilised as perennial themes over the past three decades, ever since the groundbreaking works of Ranajit Guha. The possibly derivative character of Indian modernity, the belatedness of the arrival of capitalism in India, the continuities between the colonial and the postcolonial state in India, the conundrum of caste society before, during and after colonialism, the eccentricity of Gandhi as a man and a leader, the dissonance between the effort to build a non-violent Independence movement and the reality of a terribly violent Partition, the dissatisfactory nature of India’s revolutionary transition from feudal colony to democratic nation-state, the gap between the historical experiences of subaltern and elite classes: historians of India and particularly those on the left have engaged with these contradictions with exemplary thoroughness. Oddly, Anderson makes no reference to Ranajit Guha, Partha Chatterjee, Shahid Amin, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gyan Prakash, or others of the Subaltern Studies school, whose books might have helped strengthen his argument on a number of fronts.

In truth, Indian historians on the left have criticised Gandhi and Nehru right from the 1940s, when most of the nationalist leadership was still alive. For this reason, many of Anderson’s points fall flat: they have been made much more thoroughly and consistently by Indians themselves, especially those who share his ideological orientation. We know quite well the clay feet of our heroes, the tarnish on their statues, the chinks in their armour. But he makes no mention of this very active tradition of criticism in the historical scholarship on Indian nationalism. Instead, he attacks liberals like Ramachandra Guha, Sunil Khilnani, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Amartya Sen for what he claims is their unwarranted excitement about the postcolonial nation in India and especially India’s democratic energies. Again, he simply ignores critical and dissenting aspects of their scholarship, and characterises them as though they were mere mouthpieces for the Indian state, when in fact they might be advocates for liberal democracy of a kind that various governments in independent India have routinely failed to build or practice.

AS IS REVEALED in his third and last essay, Anderson’s real problem is with the postcolonial Indian state. He is convinced that its three pillars—what he savagely calls the “Trimurti” or Holy Trinity—namely, Democracy, Unity and Secularism, are all hollow. He claims that Indian democracy, though mechanically sound in terms of the regular conduct of periodic elections that are also free and fair, is undermined by the seemingly ineradicable caste system; that India’s supposedly unified character owes more to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act than to the genuine integration of distant, diverse, disparate and disgruntled parts into a political whole; and that Indian secularism is merely the opiate that the country’s Hindu upper-caste elites, beginning with Gandhi and Nehru, have fed to themselves and to the majority Hindu masses to generate a permanent stupor of self-congratulation, coupled with an incessant persecution of non-Hindu and lower-caste minorities.

If this is the truth about free India, then how can any thinking person credit India with a laudable nationalist movement (led by Gandhi), or a believable effort at nation-building (led by Nehru in the early years of Independence)? What has come to pass surely must have begun inauspiciously, and proceeded to go from bad to worse. Anderson’s virulence about Indian nationalism only really begins to make sense (of a kind) when the nationalist and anti-colonial movements of the period between 1857 and 1950 are seen retrospectively as the progenitors of the Indian nation-state as it stands today.

Much can be said for and against Indian democracy. Most of Indian political science concerns itself with this subject. Similarly, the role of caste in both fracturing and binding political life and civil society has been the central preoccupation of Indian social science from its very inception. The importance of caste as a question and a problem has only grown since it moved into mainstream electoral politics from about 1990 onwards, with Mandal and Mandir. The shortfalls—evident to all—in India’s constitutional ideals of liberty, equality, fraternity and justice for all, and the high costs of maintaining India’s vaunted unity, have hardly been ignored by India’s gigantic, vocal and mostly highly critical, if not often completely radical, community of scholars, activists, journalists, jurists and political workers.

Anderson’s long but tendentious essays cannot resolve controversies that have dogged modern Indian history for decades. Nor do they offer new insights that serious scholars of India would necessarily have to take on board in order to make their arguments from here on. But they do have the virtue of forcing us to table once again the meaning, the import, and the burden of the idea of India—a phrase originally used by Rabindranath Tagore in 1921 and put back into wide circulation by Sunil Khilnani in his 1997 book with the same title. The charge that India never existed before India existed is all well and good, but neither did any other modern nation as a nation. The pre-national life of all nations is equally a matter of selective memory and constructed traditions, as it is of historical fact and collective agency.

It is the fact that India’s identity does not depend on a political form, racial characteristics, ethnicity, religion or language—all of which form the bases of modern nations, as Anderson’s brother Benedict has memorably shown—that makes skeptics of the idea of India so dreadfully uncomfortable. India constitutes itself in the present as an entity with what Nehru called “a rich and immemorial past” by relying on a complex repertoire of symbolic resources, where literary genres, practices of aesthetics, and cultures of knowledge count as much if not more than histories of power as the ground of the modern nation-state.

Bureaucracies, militaries and technologies, whether pre-colonial or colonial, have never, in India’s self-imagination, been the sturdy sinews of the body politic. What are the “realities”, Anderson asks polemically, corresponding to the “overlapping consensus” of India’s historically misguided if verbally gifted intellectuals? Yes, the British, for their selfish reasons, gave to India what is now the world’s third-largest army, a modern legal-juridical system, a huge infrastructure of railways and English-language education, but who ever said that the idea of India is the sum of these banal parts?

The Indian nation was birthed by men like Gandhi, who was averse to bureaucratic and militaristic forms of state power; Rabindranath Tagore, who was opposed to nations and nationalism; Nehru, who was a committed secularist who yet valued tradition as the anchor of modernity; and BR Ambedkar, who rejected Hinduism and caste society outright. The India they so painstakingly imagined into existence was not reducible to a liberal constitutional state, nor do contemporary votaries of this political form hesitate to recognise and criticise the numerous shortfalls in Indian democracy, even as they understandably celebrate the achievement of a democratic order in one of the world’s most diverse and hierarchical cultures.

ANDERSON’S CRITICISMS of the Indian state’s conduct in Kashmir and the Northeast; his rage against caste; his objections to dynastic politics; his fulminations against corruption; his calling out of routine torture in police custody, of rampant human rights abuses by the law and order machinery, and of the over-extension of states of exception in zones of political, economic or social conflict—there is hardly a dearth of Indian citizens or intellectuals who would agree with him wholeheartedly on some or all of these issues. But when he relentlessly attacks India’s democratic system, its secular values, and its very existence as a single nation—what he labels the “triune” of “Indian Ideology”—it’s as if he is saying that India’s nearly billion-and-a-half people believe in an entity that is only make-believe.

Nor should hasty appellations like “Hindu democracy”, “caste-iron democracy”, and “Hobbesian free-for-all”, as well as the misuse of the old moniker “Hindustan” to mean “country of Hindus” be allowed to go unquestioned and uncontradicted by readers of the LRB. The Congress party’s record of secularism is tainted, no doubt; the Bharatiya Janata Party’s unapologetic Hindutva is indeed an easier enemy to contend with than insincere or worse, mendacious Congress-style secularism; and it’s true that the caste system is both historically and ideologically intertwined with Hindu ideas about social order and political power. But the sheer incomprehension and visceral dislike that Anderson directs at whatever it is that he construes “Hinduism” to be or “Hindus” to do—that kind of tone is hard to ignore and harder yet to swallow, even for his fellow leftists in India (or indeed elsewhere).

Here is how Anderson describes 15 August 1947:

To hallow the solemn occasion, Nehru and his colleagues sat cross-legged around a sacred fire in Delhi while Hindu priests—arrived posthaste from Tanjore for the ritual—chanted hymns and sprinkled holy water over them, and women imprinted their foreheads with vermilion. Three hours later, on the stroke of midnight, 14 August 1947, a date and time stipulated by Hindu astrologers, Nehru—in defiance of any earthly notion of time, announcing that the rest of the world was asleep: London and New York were wide awake—assured his broadcast listeners that their ‘tryst with destiny’ was consummated, and had given birth to the Indian Republic.

Here is his characterisation of the Indian Army:

The Indian armed forces are a Hindu preserve, garnished with Sikhs, and bolstered still—a unique arrangement in the postcolonial world—by Gurkhas from Nepal, as under the Raj. Mercenaries they may be, but their battle-cry could not be more impeccably Hindu: yells of ‘O Goddess Kali’ as they unsheath their kukri.

It is pointless to try to describe “Hinduism” in a short article—Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus is a more fitting source to seek out. But it does seem important to draw attention to the fact that there are approximately 850 million Hindus in India; that the constitutionally mandated official name of this country is “India” or “Bharat”, not “Hindustan”; that “Hindustan” is a usage attested for centuries, and precedes the name “Pakistan” by several hundred years, long before “Hinduism” constituted itself as a modern religious identity; that 350 million people living in India are not Hindus—they are Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Jews, Parsis, tribals, atheists and others—and this does not make them in the slightest way disadvantaged before the law when it comes to their fundamental rights as citizens; and that a discussion of religion, politics and society in contemporary India which does not proceed from a basic comprehension of the difference between “Hinduism” and “Hindutva” cannot really be taken seriously.

It bears emphasising that I have no interest in defending the violence, coercion, militarism, communalism, discrimination, corruption and inequality that flourish under the auspices of the Indian state, and oppress large sections of the Indian citizenry, especially in the Northeast, in Jammu and Kashmir, in Dalit or Muslim communities across the country, and in tribal areas in central India.

But where I suspect Anderson will lose the agreement and support of practically every last Indian intellectual, of whatever ideological camp, of whatever caste or religion, is in his flagrant—nay, malign—misreading of the nature, meaning and role of “Hinduism” in India’s political life, whether pre-colonial, colonial or postcolonial. One can have many valid criticisms of the way in which the Indian Constitution, courts and polity define and implement “secularism”. One can even say—and this is hardly an original point—that the very same Congress party that opposed the idea of Pakistan later went on to become the perpetrator of some of the worst forms of communal politics. Many Indians pay lip-service to secularism, while in fact being biased towards this or that religion in the privacy of their minds, families, homes and communities. One can object to the personal law regime in India’s legal system. Arguably, secularism in the realm of the relations between state and society cannot but sit uneasily with caste, when caste is an equal and opposite force shaping those very same relations between state and society.

Much of Indian social scientific and political discourse, whether left or liberal or even right-wing, for that matter, will simply concede these points up front—these are indeed real problems and the consequences of not solving them can be seen written in blood from time to time, whether in Delhi in 1984 or in Gujarat in 2002. But to claim that Indian secularism is a gigantic fraud and an exercise in bad faith because most Indians are Hindus is a conversation-stopper.

Prominent theorists and analysts of Indian secularism, like Ashis Nandy, TN Madan, Rajeev Bhargava and the late DR Nagaraj, have focused for years on legal innovations, constitutional provisions and state-society relations, as well as on everyday practices of coexistence, tolerance and civility that actually allow Indians to live together despite enormous differences along every axis—of religion, caste, culture and political persuasion. Most of these techniques of living with others are historically deep, too—providing ways in which Indians (and not just Hindus) understand their collective selfhood as having a reality, a coherence and a viability before and beyond the biopolitical colonial state or its successor, the postcolonial nation-state. Amartya Sen doesn’t just go on about Akbar and Ashoka because he is blindly toeing the Nehruvian line: Akbar and Ashoka, for Sen as for Nehru before him, become convenient shorthand designations for modalities of toleration that have been explored and theorised in this part of the world over the past two-and-a-half millennia. If we can usefully look at toleration from the vantage of rulers like Akbar and Ashoka, then we can also productively examine its meaning for influential figures like the medieval poet Kabir and the modern leader Gandhi. Hindus and non-Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Muslims, Christians or whoever, did not begin either living together or failing to live together only after the arrival in India of Karl Marx or Queen Victoria (to say nothing of Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill!).

Anderson’s critique of the exceptionalism surrounding discourses about Indian secularism simply ignores the truly exceptional diversity of Indian society—a diversity which is not an epiphenomenal product of modernity or capitalism, but precedes both in a considerable temporal perspective that cannot be dismissed away in retrospect, as historians of the Cambridge school have attempted to do. Nandy and others—mere “anti-secularists”, in Anderson’s utterly mistaken understanding—have been looking at patterns of both peaceful coexistence and violent conflict between different groups in South Asia, and particularly in India, over thousands of years. In the long view, both Indian secularism and Indian communalism, while expressing and manifesting themselves most clearly to us in the arena of modern nationhood, modern statehood and modern legality, turn out, unsurprisingly, to make sense within a horizon that can only be called “civilisational”.

If it’s time to put away the “effigies” of nation-state ideology, as Anderson concludes, it’s time also to lay to rest the ghosts of the Raj. Perhaps both Perry Anderson and India Inc. need to go off in their different directions and ponder afresh the meaning of the idea of India.

Correction: The print version of this article, as well as the earlier version online, incorrectly referred to the ArcelorMittal CEO Lakshmi Mittal as "Sunil Mittal". Th error is regretted.

Ananya Vajpeyi's book, Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India is published by Harvard University Press in the US, UK and India. It won the Thomas J. Wilson Memorial Prize 2011-12 for the best first manuscript by an HUP author. Vajpeyi is with the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. In 2012-13, she is a senior fellow with the American Institute of Indian Studies.


48 thoughts on “Retrieving a History”

As a Hindu I will say we are not one nor a “religion” Religons divide people into believer and non belivers, have a founder , Buddha , Mohamed , Jesus are set dot in one book at some fixed time. Hindus have none of these. Also Anserson is correct Nerhu Gandhi did nothing to end Empire, the British let father being bankrupted after WW2. What they did was to unite the country against British rule, since 1920’s till end of WW2.

Considering this the third forum (after Mainstream and the LRB Letters) where Vajpeyi has stated that Anderson ignores the Subaltern school, I am constrained to quote this paragraph from After Nehru in the LRB Vol. 34 No. 15 · 2 August 2012: ‘Indian secularism of the post-independence period had never sharply separated state and religion, let alone developed any systematic critique of Hinduism. But by the 1980s, it had come under fire from neo-nativist thinkers as an alienated elitism, insufficiently attuned to popular sensibilities and practices of devotion that Gandhi had intuitively understood, and Subaltern Studies would later defend and illustrate. Still, the vocal anti-secularism of Ashis Nandy, T.N. Madan and others remained a minority trend within intellectual opinion, if one that enjoyed high visibility and real influence.’ Literary essays are meant to be exercises in rhetorical flourish. Anderson’s primary point about the culture of India’s founding remains unaddressed by the overeagerness to dismiss him through factual inaccuracies in his account.

Ananya Vajpeyi completely misreads and misrepresents what Perry Anderson has written, and then goes on to demolish what she thinks he is saying. In the process she reveals a great deal about her own views, which need not be the issue here. Anderson has underlined those ideological moorings and actions of Gandhi and Nehru that have been vital in shaping the direction of our polity and our contemporary nightmares. She accuses him of being soft on British imperialism: from the tone and tenor of his essays it is clear that he is critical of Gandhi and Nehru for not fighting it enough; for negotiating with British imperialism poorly and for compromising the interests of the Indian people. How can one fail to see this? His writing is in the radical left tradition; it is a different matter that many in the Indian left now do not remember their own heritage. Ananya also calls his essays ‘tendentious’, and finds him guilty of ‘malice’ on many counts: she should think about her own campaign, which is turning quite personal (Caravan, Seminar, LRB).

This story’s lead talks about Boris Johnson inspecting Orbit accompanied by “Sunil Mittal, the steel magnate” and Anish Kapoor. Shouldn’t it be ‘Lakshmi Mittal’, not ‘Sunil’? After all Lakshmi Niwas Mittal of Arcelor Steel did fork out about 16 million pounds to build Orbit… Ananya and Caravan need to tighten the editing and proofing.

In my reading on Ananya, I did not find her accusing Anderson of being soft on the British but rather demolishing the myth that the British made the Indian nation and then handed it on a plate to the congress.

‘…it’s hardly conceivable that Perry Anderson of all people would change sides so late in his scholarly life,..’ Anderson is making the same mistake in relation to India, of which he knows nothing, as he made in relation to British History- as Hobsbawm and other pointed out, Anderson systematically overestimates the importance of supposedly Upper Class agents. He tells us that Nehru was much higher class than Gandhi- this isn’t true- and implies that Nehru always knew he’d dominate Indian politics (presumably because his blood was bluer) and that all his decisions were aimed at maximizing the power he- and his descendants- would wield. This is backward causation with a vengeance!
Anderson isn’t Indian, but Vajpeyi is. What’s more she teaches History. Why does she say Gandhi and Tagore and Ambedkar and their ilk ‘birthed’ the idea of India? This is nonsense. All their ideas were borrowed from their precursors. Even Ambedkar’s ‘Dalits were Buddhists’ notion is borrowed from Ayothi Dasan. Anderson may be forgiven for thinking Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore etc were the first ‘intellectuals’ in their respective sub-castes or cultures. This is sheer nonsense. They were intellectually second rate- even Ambedkar’s vaunted thesis on Monetary Economics does not bear scrutiny, not to mention his ludicrous misapplication of Tarde’s theory of imitation to his own Just So story re. the origin of the Dalits. Vajpeyi must know this even if Anderson does not. She also speaks of India as possessing a lot of diversity. It doesn’t really. A Brahmin from Kanyakumari isn’t really hugely different from one from Kashmir. A Chettiar has no difficulty doing business with a Seth or a Khoja or a Sindhi or whatever. This supposed diversity doesn’t really exist. Languages and kinship groups shade into one another. Hindus do have a sacred geography which knits them together. Indian Muslims have a ‘Hindustani’ identity to differentiate themselves. Christian diocese also support notions of an Indian identity- despite some little tiffs between the Northerners and Southerners or High and Low Castes.
Vajpayei insists on repeating nonsense about Ashoka and Akbar- the former slaughtered Jains and the latter blasphemed against God by introducing sajda prostration to the throne. Telling lies is not good history. True it is what, historically, Historians have done which is why only utter nut-jobs take it seriously. Otherwise it is simply a preference falsification availability cascade. To pretend that Subaltern Studies wasn’t simply gesture politicking at its most arid is not the way forward. Indeed, there is no way forward for Academic Historiography. Gifted amateurs like John Keay might still write readable books and genuine scholars (not tenure track careerists) will blog interesting facts. But Indian History is dead in the water. It teaches nothing and cashes out as ineffectual pi-jaw.

Any debate on nationalism would perhaps benefit from a re- reading of Tom Nairn’s essay – The Modern Janus (NLR 94 Nov – Dec 1975 ) . A striking passage is reproduced below :
” But nationalism in this sense can be pictured as like the old Roman God ,Janus, who stood above the gateways with one face looking forward and one back – wards . Thus does nationalism stand over the passage to modernity ……. As human kind is forced through its strait doorway, it must look desperately into the past , to gather strength wherever it can be found for the ordeal of ‘development ‘…………………………… Because , so far from being a ‘ natural growth – phase , this is a rite de passage so terrible , so enforced by outside power , so fiercely destructive of all custom and tradition , that there could never be in the nature oft things be any guarantee it would succeed . Let me put this in terms of a personalized metaphor . In mobilizing its past in order to leap forward across the threshold , a society is like a man who has to call on all his inherited and ( up to this point ) largely unconscious powers to confront some inescapable challenge ……..”

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