Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Factual Accuracy and Logic of Argument

Mainstream, VOL LI No 25, June 8, 2013

Factual Accuracy and Logic of Argument

Sunday 9 June 2013


by Achin Vanaik

The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson; Three Essays Collective, New Delhi; 2012; Hardback; pp. 191; Rs 550.

The response by a great many Indian progressives to Anderson’s book of three essays on the Indian Ideology has been negative on a variety of counts. It is said to be an inadequate historical study of the National Movement leaving so much out of what went to shape this Movement inside and outside the Congress party; it is not even any kind of a Marxist approach which would have been expected to highlight the political-economic context and to refer to class relations and to the role of the Left. It is an unbalanced account of the character and role of Gandhi and Nehru and of Ambedkar and Bose as well. It is not original in so many of its central critical arguments since many others, Indian and non-Indian, have made similar criticisms. It does not have an adequate grasp of the nature of Hinduism and therefore of the distinctiveness of Indian secularism. It does not take into account other currents concerning the issue of nationalism (for example, Tagore) and therefore its very characterisation of what constitutes the Indian Ideology is one-sided and ignores the richness and complexity of the discourse on nationalism that has been taking place during the National Movement days and after independence to the very present. Its tone is unnecessarily polemical, even at times abusive. These would seem to encompass or at least partially cover most of, if not all, the main lines of criticism.

In defence of Anderson it can be confidently stated that most of what has come by way of criticism on these grounds has been because of an insufficient recognition of what Anderson has sought to do in contrast to what has been expected of him given his reputation as a Marxist historian and analyst, although the book’s limited word length and the form it has taken of three essays should itself have helped readers to grasp its very specific focus and that it was not meant to be a deeply researched or detailed account of the whole modern history of India, or of all the key figures who in one way or the other were opposed to the British Raj. Fortunately, Anderson—both in his Foreword in the book and in an important separate online interview with Praful Bidwai (www.praful—has himself provided a summary of what the thrust of this text is, what its main contentions are, and of the purpose behind it. In effect, the great bulk of the criticisms (not all) generally fail to properly address, let alone counter, what he is saying and claiming, while another set of criticisms concerning his supposed lack of balance and his glaring omissions are essentially irrelevant. In short, the preconditions for what could still be a fruitful engagement with a serious scholar who has made a serious political-intellectual intervention have yet to be established. Instead dismissal and anger have been among the widespread responses not from the Right, which has no interest in such engagement, but from many of those who would see themselves as progressives strongly opposed to the Indian Right.

What then is Anderson saying? What is at the heart of this text? The Indian Ideology refers to a nationalist discourse of the Indian state, that is, to the components of an ‘official nationalism’. That the Indian scene has had other versions of nationalism, for example, Tagore’s, or that this official nationalism is contested by versions held by other currents in civil society yesterday and today need not be disputed. But that is essentially beside the point. Anderson’s focus is on what today is indisputably both the dominant nationalist discourse as well as how the state perceives itself.

Three tropes are central to this collective imaginary. First, the ‘miracle’ or at least the ‘remarkable’ fact of democratic durability in the second most populated country in the world and that too in one of the most poverty stricken of electorates. Second, for all its failings, biases and weaknesses the state has on balance successfully maintained an impartial secularity. Third, despite the exceptional depth and range of diversities of all kinds (unmatched by any other country) there has been (in that hallowed phrase) an extraordinary ‘unity in diversity’. A fourth trope—that of the ‘antiquity-continuity’ through millennia of that cultural-territorial entity nowadays referred to as India—is widely seen as a major factor in the preservation of this unity in diversity.

In a sense Anderson has worked backwards. Having identified this dominant contemporary form of ‘official nationalism’ and its key components, which is dominant because it is upheld by so many through various institutions and writings, he has sought to trace its development through the “conditions and events” and political personalities that have been key in creating this collective political imaginary. This is why his final chapter, where the assemblage is most systematically established, could not but follow the earlier two essays. Insofar as the post-independence Indian state has been so strongly shaped by the Congress in and out of power and of course by the very nature of the Congress-led National Movement, it is the leaders of the Congress that have been held to account. In this respect more could certainly have been said about the contributions of others, besides Gandhi and Nehru, in the shaping of this political imaginary but who would deny that these two, more than the others, have been the key figures —Gandhi as the person most responsible for shaping and giving direction to the National Movement; and Nehru more than anyone else (including Gandhi) as the central figure in its propagation and sustenance as a ‘statespeak’ that has lasted to this day. Insofar as the post-independence Indian state is the product of a modern history in which the fact of Partition is decisive for shaping its emergence, this out-come in turn must be explained.

These two figures then are those to which Anderson devotes most serious attention in contrast to the deliberately sketchier portraits of Ambedkar, Bose and others like Periyar. But even here the attention is very specifically focused and a larger biography of the two is not intended. It is related to the Gandhian leadership of the Congress and its three key mass mobilisation campaigns of the Non-cooperation Movement/Khilafat (1919-21), the Salt March/Civil Disobedience (1930-31), Quit India Movement (1942-43) and to Gandhi’s purpose and role in injecting a Hindu imaginary into the independence struggle making Partition a real possibility though not a certainty. When it comes to the all-important fact of Partition and how and why it came about, Anderson’s focus in his second chapter turns to Nehru, not Gandhi, since the former must assume the greater responsibility for this outcome. The third essay takes up the Nehru era as the foundational period for the establishment and consolidation of a state ideology that remains dominant long afterwards, while Anderson interrogates the veracity of the claims made by that ideology.

For some time now, the principal carriers of this Indian Ideology have been Indian liberals even as they have not hesitated to critique the faults and limitations of Indian democracy and secularity. Revealingly, they have been far less critical of how Indian territorial unity has been created or sustained over the decades since 1947. But then to accuse the Indian state of duplicity and terrorism in maintaining such a unity would by its very nature, if accepted as true, greatly undermine the moral integrity and virtues that are claimed for this nationalist discourse. To point out that other nation-states in their historical emergence have been similarly duplicitous and cruel, or even more so, while correct and a form of consolation through pointing out a much wider association of the guilty, nevertheless does not sit well with claims that given the exceptional, almost unparalleled, diversity of India on all counts, its ‘unity in diversity’ is an object lesson for multicultural living worldwide. The Indian Right has challenged this liberal version but have not rejected the ideology as such. Rather they have sought to re-conceptualise the sources and origins of this secularity, democracy and unity in diversity, making a loose and accommodating Brahmanical Hinduism, for example, the principal fount for the emergence of this triune of virtues. The mainstream—and therefore dominant—currents within the Indian Left in contemporary times, shaken perhaps by the rise of the Right, have proved to be increasingly less resistant to the lure of this ideology now seeing previously ignored or undiscovered virtues in Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian Constitution. This is not to say that they ever distinguished themselves after independence by advocating the Leninist principle of respecting the right of self-determination ‘up to and including secession’ with regard to the North-East or Kashmir.

By way of sustained argument then, Ander-son seeks to back up his five major claims.
(i) The idea that there is a sub-continental unity stretching back thousands of years is a myth. (ii) Gandhi injected Hindu piety and religion into the National Movement with extremely negative consequences. (iii) For all the negativities of the colonial power and of the Muslim League, Partition was avoidable even in the very last years of the Raj. In the final analysis the primary fault for it lay with the Congress’ intransigence. (iv) Nehru’s legacy was ambiguous. He both helped to preserve and diminish Indian democracy. (v) Caste was a condition of Indian democracy, not a contradiction of it. The last of these judgements, even in its generality, can lay claim to being distinctive and is certainly thought-provoking. In respect of the first four claims, even though others have arrived at similar judgements in one or the other case, how many have synthesised all five claims or linked them so powerfully to the Indian Ideology? But this is not the only source of Anderson’s distinctiveness. Each of the first four concluding judgements have come through a process of serious investigation that have thrown up original insights themselves based on a marshalling of facts as either ignored or skimmed over or never before put together in the same persuasive way. There was for a long time a ‘Nehruvian Consensus’ on the basic themes of democracy, secularism, socialism and nonalignment. Since the last two after the end of the Cold War are no longer seen as relevant, it is the first two that remain as part of current statespeak with the addition of course of that longstanding formula of ‘unity in diversity’. Anderson has resolutely attacked this collective imaginary thereby also sharpening the criticism of its separate components. Who else has done this?

The Gandhi Era

Anderson’s understanding of Gandhi is (as he himself acknowledges) decisively influenced by Kathryn Tidrick’s iconoclastic study of Gandhi and the inseparability, as she sees it, of Gandhi’s spiritual and political life with the former guiding the latter. That her book has not been seriously engaged with by Gandhi scholars and admirers in India and abroad is a disgrace because it is, in my own view, an extraordinary text. Tidrick has gone through all 97 volumes of Gandhi’s Collected Works twice over, has been thoroughly dispassionate in her appraisals and tone, and, above all, has insisted that to understand why Gandhi says what he says and does what he does one must pay the strictest attention to what he himself argues, claims and justifies and not, as so many others do, to try and rationalise away his ‘absurdities’, ‘contra-dictions’ and ‘inconsistencies’ which are of course plentiful. The end result is a picture of Gandhi of compelling accuracy and persuasiveness. It is a landmark work of such scholarly scrupu-lousness and judicious assessment that it can lay claim to forcing a major re-evaluation of the hitherto seminal texts concerning Gandhi. That no one is fully consistent cannot serve as an excuse. For Gandhi’s thinking and behaviour was central to shaping the course of the National Movement and of its strengths and deficiencies.

If after Tidrick the overall balance-sheet of his politics and practice is now to be seen as altogether more negative, then this must affect the evaluation of the Congress and the National Movement and of much that followed. Precisely because Tidrick’s work, for all its merits, cannot and should not be seen as the last word on Gandhi, it deserves at the very least the deepest and most rigorous intellectual engagement particularly from those who might wish to refute her. It should not be casually dismissed as yet another study by a ‘foreigner’ who has not spent enough time in India as those who have made it their permanent home. Incidentally, Gandhi’s key text Hind Swaraj, whose basic under-standing of India and prescriptions he would never seriously repudiate, was written in 1909 when Gandhi was returning to South Africa from the UK and when he had as yet little knowledge or understanding of an India he had departed from in his youth.

Let us take up his master concept and its relevance for the National Movement—Swaraj. Here it was the moral-personal dimension of striving for self-mastery that was most important rather than any politically unflinching commitment to pursue nothing less than full and complete independence. So the key was not how to struggle to overthrow British rule but for Indians to, above all, struggle with them-selves and, if successful in this, then the British would see reason and leave. This pursuit of self-mastery was not to be left to individual consciences to decide what it meant but was of course carefully prescribed by Gandhi as the path that he had chosen for himself and one to be emulated by his acolytes (Satyagrahis) thereby serving as a more general model of behaviour to be followed by all others as much as they could. This was the path of non-violent Satyagraha and Brahmacharya so as to achieve Ramrajya. The specifically political implications of such a belief were profound. Swaraj’s political goal was secondary and flexible—self-government, dominion status within Empire, part of a future British-led Commonwealth, and finally later on, the goal of independence. But the political logic of Gandhi’s notion of Swaraj had to be of pursuing a transfer of power by the British.

Given this fundamental reality, mass mobilisation would always have to so organised as (i) not to get out of the control of Gandhi and the Congress, or (ii) develop so powerful and independent a dynamic that it would threaten the forced ejection of the British. The key element with regard to the possibility of ‘forced’ ejection was not so much the issue of whether violence would or would not break out but of the scale and depth of mass support and mobilisation that would be required. The deeper and wider such mobilisation, the less capable would the Raj have been of forcibly suppressing it. This is of course a debatable counterfactual though Anderson gives it a comparative context by citing the Irish Republican struggle. Many would say such a course would have led to bloody upheavals as the price of eventual success in deposing the British. But that the actual course of the National Movement resulted in an incredibly bloody Partition does raise the question of whether such an alternative direction, denied and prevented by the very self-limiting nature of a Gandhi-inspired Movement, might not have been far more preferable. That too is a reasonable speculation.

What is clear though is that of the three great peasant mobilisations for prolonged struggle in Asia against foreign rule—India, China and Vietnam—India’s was the least impressive in terms of scale and depth. It had to be because neither Gandhi nor the Congress would ever aim to seriously challenge what Anderson points out as two key pillars of British rule— landlordism and Princely rule where the Princes were themselves a ruthlessly exploitative pre-capitalist landowning aristocracy! It is no wonder then that the socially transformative dimension affecting the overwhelming bulk of Vietnamese and Chinese populations (which, like in India, were the rural masses) in the course of their national liberation struggles was, and would prove after independence, to be far greater. Anderson does not make this comparison but it is an obvious one. Funda-mental land reform took place so that China and North Vietnam, both considerably more economically backward and less endowed capital investment-wise than India at the times of their independence, would prove far more successful in rapidly removing extreme poverty. In the absence of such land reform for an India, in fact better endowed than China and Vietnam in terms of land-person ratios, there persists, more than six decades after independence a scale and level of poverty incomparably worse than in the other two Asian countries. This is one huge and negative black mark that must be assigned to the nature of the Indian National Movement precisely because it took the path of pursuing a transfer of power. There are other negativities, rarely if at all illuminated, that will be taken up later to put on the other side of the ledger to balance out what is repeatedly highlighted—how peaceful transfer assured the continuity of the institutional structures, laws and practices conducive, though not decisive, to the establishment of democracy in India (though not in Pakistan) after 1947. Decisive apparently was the post-1947 role of the Congress led by Nehru which again will be looked at later.

But returning to Gandhi and his conflict with Ambedkar over the Poona Pact, what this conflict over the issue of separate electorates for Untouchables revealed about his attitude to Untouchables and their presumed place within the Hindu fold has been the subject of innumerable writings and discussions. Many admirers of Gandhi would agree that the whole episode does not cast, to put it euphemistically, a favourable light on him and Anderson does not add anything new here except to reassert that the cause of Untouchables was secondary to Gandhi’s concern for maintaining a unity of Hindu society. There have been claims that Gandhi changed his views about jati being a degeneration of a purer varna and began to question the validity of varna itself. But since this is said to have emerged towards the very end of his life, it had no political consequences though it reinforces the image of his being the most seriously self-questioning of all the thinkers who could be bracketed as purveyors of a neo-Hinduism. Tidrick’s book, however, suggests that far from being self-questioning he was the most self-assured and self-obsessed of Indian thinkers. He did not so much question or reject his earlier beliefs as see himself as growing from ‘truth to truth’, of himself being uniquely equipped to arrive through ‘his experiments’ in the ‘labo-ratory’ of his personal behaviour, at ever more purified truths. Be that as it may, Gandhi, for all his claimed religious ecumenism and what has been called the ‘home-grown’ nature of his religious beliefs, did inject a religious discourse into the National Movement or what Anderson in a neat phrase calls his ‘mythology, symbology, theology’ that owed more to Hinduism than to any other religious tradition. This had to have caused problems for the Movement’s appeal to Muslims.

One way of assessing Gandhi as a thinker is to recognise that whereas Marxism has proved to be far more important than Marx, Gandhi has proved to be far more important than Gandhism. Marx provided a foundation for a research programme that has gone well beyond his insights, building on and expanding through distinguished contributions from a constantly lengthening list of others to conceptually address more and more dimensions of contemporary life as well as to better investigate the past while retaining its emancipatory promise for creating a better future. Marxism has a universal appeal. Gandhi may have had wide—but far from universal—appeal, Gandhism certainly doesn’t. Some scholars and thinkers, particularly those concerned with issues of moral-political philosophy, do turn to Gandhi’s thoughts and mine them for fresh insights relating them to present concerns. But that his thoughts and writings can lay the foundation for an ever expanding system of propositions and arguments—a Gandhism anyway comparable to what Marxism, for example, can offer—just isn’t on. If this reality is testimony to the value of some of his thinking it is also evidence of the profound limits of his thinking and of the politics that can be derived from it. Much more than for most others, for Gandhi the personal was the political!

The Nehru Era

That Indian independence was achieved through transfer meant a very major price would be paid on four counts besides the fact that funda-mental land reform would be left out of any post-independence agenda. First, the fact of Partition was itself a huge black mark. This was not guaranteed but its potential outcome was inscribed in the nature of the National Move-ment. Mass peasant mobilisation of both the Muslim and Hindu rural and urban poor against common class oppressors would have had an altogether different dynamic. Instead the only serious effort at creating such inter-religious unity was the misbegotten Khilafat movement which at the least showed that despite being hailed as a great anti-colonialist, Gandhi was utterly unconcerned about how offensive this campaign would be to either Turkish secularists or to Arab nationalists opposing historical Otto-man impositions. That the prospects of inter-religious unity in Bengal were greater than elsewhere extending even at the end to the possible emergence of a united but independent republic of Bengal (if Nehru’s Congress was not so opposed to such a denouement) is also a reminder of what similar unity was possible elsewhere if there had been a differently inspired leadership of the National Movement. Had the Congress been willing to compromise with Jinnah and the Muslim League, Partition could have been avoided. However much support of Muslims the Congress could count on earlier, by the end of World War II it was insignificant even as the Congress claimed in the name of a secularism that did not attract Muslims (except in the North West Frontier Province—another story of later betrayal) to speak for the whole nation. This self-belief prevented such a compromise. In the event a communal holocaust which, as Anderson rightly points out, cannot be simply laid at the door of the RSS and Mahasabha, broke out in Punjab and Bengal. Gandhi was no communalist, far from it. Indeed, his display of personal courage in stemming such communal violence in Bengal in a way that no other single individual could have done is testimony to his unique stature. But it should not absolve him of his ‘original sin’ of resorting to a Hindu imaginary in the first place.

The second major price to be paid had to do with the fact that having failed to seriously challenge princely rule during the independence struggle let alone striving to overthrow them, after independence the Congress Government had no option but to give a choice to these kingdoms to decide under certain laid down conditions whether to join India or Pakistan. This created problems in the three kingdoms of Hyderabad, Junagadh and Kashmir with the latter problem lasting to this day. The resolution of the first resulted in the bloodiest ever communal massacre of Muslims (by state forces) in the history of post-independence India and a shameful cover-up under Nehru and his successors that neither the state nor society has yet come to terms with, let alone apologised for. As for Kashmir, both Pakistan and India come out as in one way or the other duplicitous. Incidentally, Gandhi, the apostle of non-violence willing to propose that Hitler be confronted only peacefully, nevertheless supported the sending of Indian troops to militarily confront armed intruders from the Pakistan side so as to hold Kashmir. Both India and Pakistan from the very beginning have continued to treat the Kashmir issue as a bilateral matter effectively ruling out the possibility of allowing a self-determining process that would have led to a separate J&K if the choice had been allowed earlier, or to some of the parts that they continue to hold at present. If the Indian occupied part has periodically had some degree of democratic provincial self-governance (despite illegitimate restrictions of autonomous powers already granted) in contrast to the puppet regimes set up in the Pakistan occupied part, it is also the case that the Valley has seen a more sustained and far bloodier and ruthless military occupation.

The third aspect that followed from the logic of this transfer of power was that India inherited and accepted as integral to its foreign policy both the ‘Forward Defence Thesis’ of the British and its legacy of imperial hubris. Anderson does point out how this affected Nehru’s attitude to the border question with China and is correct to maintain that China had much the stronger case. The issue could and should have been settled on the basis of reasonable give-and-take keeping each other’s strategic considerations in mind. Regarding the North-East there was never any justification for denying freedom to Naga-land, again through ruthless military repression, to the point where a war-weary Naga people and their leaders 60 years later are now prepared to accept autonomy of some sort. It is true that an authoritarian China was similarly unjustified in denying such self-determination to Tibet and that there too a similar political trajectory limiting ambitions to autonomy has been set in train. But it is India that has claimed uniqueness as the world’s largest democracy and has made so much about the virtues of its non-violent path to freedom. At least Gandhi was prepared to acknowledge that an India that wanted self-determination could hardly deny it to the Nagas if that was what they wished. But missing surprisingly from Anderson’s account is the paternalistic treatment dished out to the Himalayan crest kingdoms of Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim in Nehru’s time with the last named protectorate completely swallowed up in 1975 with barely a murmur from either Indian liberals or the mainstream Left.

In fact, the latter have always been far too generous in their evaluation of Indian non-alignment and the Nonaligned Movement (NAM). It always made sense for the national bourgeoisies of the larger and more highly populated postcolonial countries to try and maximise their autonomy so as to pursue a state-led development process that could bargain for goodies from both blocs as well as to push, through collective diplomacy, for an end to racist and colonial rule elsewhere—more through NAM resolutions and moral-political support than through material largesse which came largely from the Soviet bloc. But beyond this the members of the NAM had little in common and the rules for membership were so lax that within the NAM were very many countries that closely aligned with one side or the other. That Indian foreign policy behaviour has always from its inception been proto-imperialist (Anderson hints at this but doesn’t go quite so far) would be a conclusion too unpalatable for most. In current times, given the shift towards a strategic relationship with the US, it is understandable that many a liberal and Leftist would now find undiscovered virtues in past nonalignment. The attractions of more recent postcolonial theory have also exercised their own pressures on Indian academics to unearth a distinctively Indian conceptual foundation for its international relations behaviour, of concepts that can claim a genealogy from the histories and philosophies that have emerged in this part of the world and that would have contemporary relevance. Indian nonalignment, it seems, must now be theorised to better understand India’s post-independence past, to guide its future, and to contribute to a more global understanding of how better to rearrange the world order itself!

The fourth consequence of this path of transfer was that Indian democracy would be both real and significantly misshapen. Four features stand out. A first-past-the-post system of elections would be incorporated which guaranteed overwhelming parliamentary majorities for a Congress that only always secured a minority of votes and could both pretend to have a more popular mandate than it actually had and to not have to worry about any too powerful an Opposition force at the Central level and for a long time in the States as well. Where the Congress did not have such support, as in Kashmir, the North-East and Kerala, Nehru would act with ruthlessness. For, as is pointed out in the text, Nehru did have a significant democratic temperament and a desire to institutionalise its workings, but he was, above all, a nationalist and would subordinate and override liberal democratic principles if he saw them clashing with what he deemed were more crucial nationalist needs, in which the matter of Congress dominance in the interests of wider ‘stability’ would certainly feature. Secondly, the administrative and coercive apparatuses and personnel left behind by the Raj, far from being dismantled and replaced, would be institutionalised despite their history as, operationally speaking, faithful lackeys of the British. This would prove more damaging over time with regard to the coercive apparatuses where the military and police personnel would remain overwhelmingly caste Hindus and Sikhs while the secular and inter-religious Indian National Army would be dismantled rather than absorbed.

Third, a whole range of repressive colonially based laws concerning police and governmental powers would be adopted and used or remain in place to this day or made the model for later constructions such as the AFSPA. Indeed, the kind of federalism that emerged would allow the Centre, during Nehru’s reign and after, to coerce the constituent State units in ways which would be impossible in the federalisms of Canada, Australia and the US. New States would be created top-down and never through referen-dums. The fourth continuity with British rule was that the Indian Constituent Assembly was a carry-over from that established on a very limited franchise in 1946 under the Raj and whose composition after Partition would be overwhelmingly Congress. Its members moreover were overwhelmingly of upper-caste Hindu origin. No matter how liberal and secular many of them might have thought of themselves, this undoubtedly had an impact on the content of the Constitution that emerged.

Hinduism, Caste, Secularism

One of Anderson’s most striking observations is that caste is the condition, not the contradiction, of Indian democracy, its “secret”. The motivation for this claim is two-fold. As a Marxist he is certainly not going to forget that all democracies, including India’s, sustain and legitimise the rule of dominant classes. But in all other long running democracies the key condition of universal adult suffrage emerged only after substantial industrialisation had taken place and therefore a collectively shared minimum level of prosperity had been secured. In India the absence of such a minimum combined with universal suffrage should have led to the kind of turbulence that would have exposed the deep instability of a system where the contrast between the presence of political liberties howsoever unevenly dispersed, and the depth and scale of socio-economic inequalities and deprivation (Ambedkar’s point) has remained so sharp. The great majority of analysts have sought to explain this ‘riddle of Indian democracy’ by attributing greatest weight to the positive virtues of this or that entity, or set of entities—the Congress, able political leadership, the all-India civil services, the flexibility of Indian federalism, and so on.

Anderson’s explanation for this ‘riddle’ falls strongly on the negative side, in the exceptional segmentation of Indian society crisscrossed by various lines of demarcation—social, economic, linguistic, religious, ethnic, regional—but caused, above all, by the extreme fragmentation (without global parallel) of the caste system. This is not just vertical but horizontal since caste is variegated regionally as well. Castes are not to be equated or approximated to classes although the temptation to see them as the first form of classes or as their nuclei has not always been resisted. Castes differentiate within the same occupational roles and are also symbolically constructed as evidenced by its variant taboos and rituals. This is why progressive forms of caste struggle lean more strongly towards a politics of recognition than to redistribution and once a good measure of this is achieved along with real material progress for a significant elite within the lower castes, it finds its limits. Caste struggle a la the Mayawatis tends to copy the trajectory of the politics of ‘black nationalism’. Ruling classes are further stabilised by becoming more ethnically diverse.

But in calling caste the condition of democracy Anderson also sees it as the preserver from disintegration of “Hindu democracy”, an altogether more problematic term suggesting a less sure grasp of Hinduism and its relation to the Indian state which he has described as a “Hindu confessional state” by default though not by prescription. It is more accurate to see it as officially and formally indeed a secular state (which does count for something) but in its substantive content structurally biased gender and class-wise as well as towards upper castes but not towards all Hindus, since these upper castes are a minority even among caste Hindus, leave aside the additional numbers of Untouchables. The origins of caste are unknown but it is not unreasonable to believe that it pre-dates the emergence of a Brahmanical Hinduism that became its strongest anchor providing a philosophical creed even if one open to more variant interpretations than monotheistic creeds. But it was not contained by Brahmanical Hinduism since it extended well beyond the latter’s domain of influence. Caste is pervasive among Sikhs, Muslims, Christians in India, and also among those who have no subjective sense of being Hindus. Unlike the case with Islam, Christianity or even Buddhism—where one can only be so counted if one consciously sees oneself as one to be part of the Hindu fold—has not required that all must see themselves as being Hindus. It is enough that others see them as such.

This distinction indicates some of the diffi-culties in understanding what Hinduism is when taken as a whole. It is not a confessional religion as are Islam and Christianity. It is not enough to see it as having a combination of the Great and Little Tradition or even when the latter is pluralised, that is, Little Traditions. This is why it is also seen as simply a compendium label covering congeries of sects, beliefs and practices and not even as a patchwork quilt made nonetheless out of a single and therefore unifying fabric, howsoever thin. This may well be the most accurate description. If caste cutting across religious boundaries has been the strongest sense of self-identity, how valid does it become to talk of a Hindu community and consciousness through the ages or even of a Muslim community and collective consciousness? There is in Anderson a definite inclination to treat Hindus and Muslims even before the Raj as two distinct more or less unified blocs subscribing to two “incompatible religious systems” that were each imbricated with “unequal political power”. This simply is not an accurate description of the much more diverse character of lived Islam in India—the Muslim majority areas of Bengal, Kashmir and Moplah region lay outside the domain of the Mughal sword. In fact, it could be said of a great deal of the pre-colonial past that the sense of Muslim or Hindu self-identity was at best a weaker overlay on other local, linguistic, religiously sectarian and caste-based identities.

It is this unease with Anderson that has made many Indian progressives unhappy with his formulations concerning “Hindu society”, “Hindu democracy” and “Hindu confessionalism” and in postulating a much sharper divide between Hindus and Muslims. Anti-caste movements, which took the form of religious conversions, retain caste. ‘Why’ is another matter. But if caste is central to lived Hinduism and conjoins with lived Islam in India, does this strengthen or weaken or make no difference to the claim of ‘incompatibility’? We need to avoid the Scylla of secularist histories which gloss over the tensions due to religious differences and the Charybdis of communal histories which go to the other extreme of making hostilities inevitable and inescapable due to the existence of such differences. Keeping the balance has not been easy in the studies of pre-colonial and colonial India. Anderson in his justified unease with the results of the first approach in Indian history-writing, leans too much in the other direction.

But the crucial question here is: how damaging are these characterisations to his political analysis of the nature of the National Movement and of the Indian state? Probably very little, at best moderating somewhat the forcefulness of his conclusions but not invalidating them. From the Hindu Renaissance onwards the process of what has been called the ‘syndicalisation of Hinduism’ has been taking place; of making a loose and accommodating Brahmanical Hinduism more and more influential and encompassing, and ever more widely accepted as providing some of the common and defining features of the ‘Hindu community’ across its variant rituals, beliefs and practices. By the time of the National Movement this had become sufficiently wide-spread as a background cultural-religious construction, allowing Gandhi to develop and inject a Hindu imaginary shaped by his eclectic borrowings from the Hindu philosophical tradition and carried forward by Congress activists themselves mainly drawn from the catchment area of caste Hindus.

The carriers of a ‘syndicalised Hinduism’ have continued to make so steady an advance that to see Hinduism today as basically a congeries of sects, beliefs and practices, while perhaps still formally correct, would risk gravely underestimating the ongoing dynamic that is most important, namely, the change in collective consciousness unleashed by this syndicalising process. It cannot be a coincidence that the single greatest movement of prolonged mass mobilisation after 1947 that bears strongest comparison with that of the National Movement era was not the JP Movement of 1974-75 or any other secular mass campaign but the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign whose popular appeal was also connected to explicitly Hindu religious motifs.

Where does this leave the widely held view that India has had a ‘composite culture’ shaped by different religious systems? This formulation serves as a corrective of sorts to the temptation to draw too sharp an identity boundary between Muslims and Hindus or too close an ideological alignment respectively between upper class/caste and lower class/caste Muslims and the same among Hindus. Nor was there much sense of loyalty by such lower classes/castes towards ‘their’ rulers deemed ‘Muslim’ and ‘Hindu’ by later historians as if this religious affiliation was of greater significance than other social divisions. (Here Anderson can be said to accept the nomenclatures of ‘Muslim rule’ and ‘Hindu rule’ far too easily.) Nevertheless, the ‘composite India’ formula provides too composed and pacific a picture suggesting a much greater degree of social mixing and cultural amalga-mation than is warranted. Caste-divisions alone would serve to compartmentalise life patterns and create what has in a felicitous phrase been called ‘adjacent communities’ more functionally related to each other. Over time through a process of modernisation, older caste barriers have weakened and newer more agglomerated lower caste blocs and identities have been created. But religious identification across castes and classes has sharpened and become a more significant filter for understanding and shaping life experiences and behaviour.

What then of Indian secularism? While the general quality of debate and thought about it has undoubtedly risen over the last two decades and more, even providing insights on how to more sensitively and sensibly handle tensions in Western societies becoming religiously more plural and whose states in the name of their secular traditions fail to perceive their inherited Christian biases. But this literature has essentially focused on the secularity of the Indian state in its legal and constitutional dress and on what might be the philosophical under-pinnings for this. Basically missing are serious historical studies of the processes of secularisation in society and how its contested implantation has affected the practices of the Indian state. If we are to take substantive standards of judgement, then the single criterion of how the most important religious minority of Muslims has fared six-and-a-half decades after independence must be placed upfront and must weigh heavily in any overall reckoning. In which case how can there be any doubt that Indian secularism has been a considerable failure; a failure large enough to shame the prevailing and dominant discourse of self-admiration (howsoever qualified) on this score, which in turn is a key component of the Indian Ideology?

My own preferred formulation for describing the Indian state given its legal/official secularity (which, as I have said earlier, is important) would be ‘Hindu upper-caste’ state or ‘caste- Hindu’ state by default. In independent India, oppression of lower castes is more pervasive and deeper than that of Muslims (including the routinisation of violence), even allowing for SC/OBC affirmative action which has benefited the ‘creamy layers’. There are many Most Backward Castes (lower rungs of OBCs) who in many areas are as badly or worse off than SCs. Since everywhere all capitalist states are class and gender-biased, we don’t have to add the qualifier of class or patriarchy to the ‘state’. We can take it for granted. We should not in the case of the Indian state. The temptation otherwise might be to perceive lower castes as somehow outside the Hindu fold when OBCs/MBCs as well as many (most?) SCs nowadays certainly see themselves as part of that fold.


If Anderson’s brief but illuminating comparative survey of Israel, Ireland and India as the three countries which before independence fused religion and nationalism and also ended up as stable parliamentary democracies is among the more original aspects of his study, what should one make of his final call for nothing less than the collapse of the Congress? True, his ire against dynastic rule is merited. While many countries including democracies have had family political dynasties nowhere has this—in respect of power at the Centre—extended to three generations (a fourth leader being the spouse of the third generation leader) or seen members of the same family spanning four generations preside over the country’s premier party. But is not such a call an act of dangerous political irresponsibility? The Sangh Parivar, given its ideologically trained cadre base, is a more pernicious force, and the gap between it and the Congress is wider than that between Christian Democracy or Rightwing conservatism and their main rivals for govern-mental power in Europe.

Having said that, it is also the case that the Congress is not, cannot and will not be any kind of obstacle to the politics of Hindutva advancing. It is striking that Indian liberals, desiring the future consolidation of a more humanised and social democratic capitalist order, continue to pin their hopes on a Congress that might be internally transformed for the better from what it is currently, rather than on the political vehicle whose programme and practice is much closer to their ideal—the mainstream Left parties, which are social democratic in reality but Communist in name. But would not the collapse of the Congress provide electorally and in other domains a political space in which the Sangh could more easily than otherwise encroach? This is of course an open-ended issue but there are legitimate reasons to feel uneasy, even unhappy with such a call at this juncture. Any progressive transformation of Indian politics must want the death of both the Congress and the Sangh. If the former evil, although lesser than the significantly greater evil of the Sangh, were to collapse first, why worry at all? In the longer term perspective of forging a new and healthier politics such deaths are necessary and how worried should one be by the order in which they fall?

This is where the Latin American experience comes in and why Anderson’s call is not to be completely dismissed or discounted. In what was once called the ‘Third World’, the closest approximation to the Congress was to be found in the populist parties and formations in Latin America themselves having had a long historical existence. Such populist forces held what was considered the broad Centre ground typically accommodating more Rightwing and Leftwing currents within. In recent times many of these have collapsed or transformed themselves into conventional Rightwing and conservative forces. If in some cases this allowed the political Right to become stronger than before, it also created the space for an emerging new Left to grow and expand. This was never the decisive factor behind the emergence and growth of the contemporary Latin American Left. But it was a facilitator.

Could this be the case in India? Witnessing the growing regionalisation of the Indian polity, the Dalit upsurge, Muslim ferment and the repeated surfacing of various social movements and struggles from below, it is not a given that in the event of such a Congress collapse the Sangh would grow to more dangerous propor-tions. Nevertheless, in the short term a Congress collapse could well shift the very considerable shaping power of capital (Indian and foreign) and the media towards a much more solid support and endorsement of the BJP/Sangh as the other national level force having moreover (unlike regional parties barring the Left) a pro-grammatic national and international perspec-tive and programme. The Sangh could be greatly benefited. Even if one is prepared for a short-term retreat in the name of that necessary pursuit of transformative politics, how short would short be? And how much benefit would the Sangh derive, if such benefit cannot be ruled out in the event of such a collapse? So yes, the Congress needs to disappear but the unease/uncertainty remains. For the moment one can leave matters here—the Congress is not going to collapse so quickly and the Sangh has its own serious problems.

Finally, what of the polemical character of Anderson’s text that has certainly annoyed many. A dictionary definition of a polemic is that it is aggressively controversial. This The Indian Ideologycertainly is. As a form of discourse it has a long and appreciated history featuring both in ancient Greek and Sanskrit texts. But if by a polemic one means a text that is one-sided and unscholarly because of being inattentive to facts, then this is not one. What makes it a highly political text is that it is a discourse of ‘exposure’ of what is deemed not just misleading but because of this, politically debilitating; something that must be brushed away so as to make possible a newer and better course of thought and action. The more debilitating and misleading it is thought to be, the sharper likely will be the tone of the discourse. Anderson thinks his tone is appropriate, others may not. But anger or irritation at this cannot be the basis for judging the work to be good or bad, worthy or unworthy, powerful or weak. For that the normal protocols of factual accuracy, logic of argument and explanatory power continue to hold.

The reviewer, a distinguished academic and journalist, has retired from the University of Delhi where he taught International Relations as a Professor. He is also the founder member of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace (CNDP).

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