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A flawed project

yun bhai Nihala, Azaadi tu hai dekhi.
Na bhai Prava, ne kha de ne vekhi.
Main Jaggu ti sunni assi
Ambala ti aaye si.

Listen Brother Nihal, have you seen Freedom?
No Brother Prava, I haven’t seen it nor eaten it.
I heard from Jaggu
It has come up to Ambala.

—Gurramdas ‘Alam’, A zaadi, 1946.

I READ Perry Anderson’s new book, The Indian Ideology, on one quiet day in November in Kolkata, as the news fed me with one more political crisis, one more embarrassment from Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, and one more reason to wonder about the vitality of the Congress-led government at the Centre. In the old days, before liberalisation, the political landscape was at least reasonably easy to collate: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gathered together the sources of the Far Right, the communists took charge of the Left, the Congress oscillated between social democracy and Caesarism, with the regional parties all over the map. Liberalisation spoiled the symmetry. The Congress, in particular, committed itself to the neoliberal policies that it brought forth (freedom for markets and austerity for the vast masses). It loosened its social democratic moorings, being dragged by them for symbolic reasons or to rein in one or more voting blocs. The Congress’ lack of principles has allowed it to survive in power since 2004 with little self-doubt. Gathered around the Congress are its intellectuals, who hyperventilate at the thought of the BJP in power and who scoff at what they see as the outdated agenda of the Left. It is these intellectuals who seize on to political liberalism as their core ideological framework. It is to these intellectuals that Perry Anderson points his book.

Anderson, former editor of New Left Review and a leading Marxist intellectual, has been doing a series of essays in London Review of Books on some of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) states—with Brazil and India in the lead. These three essays appeared in LRB, where they provoked a great deal of reaction. The essays suggest that there is a serious flaw within Indian nationalism that dooms India’s prospects for its ambitions to become a great power. His is a very strong denunciation of the capitulations of the Congress to the hierarchies of the past, and of the new republic to the vested interests of money and religion. There is much in the book that will be familiar to readers of Indian history and to those who keep up with the news, which is what characterised some of the discomfort in the letters page of LRB. But that is not the heart of the problem. To my mind, this book both stimulates discussion and obfuscates it—it leads us to a serious consideration of some of the shibboleths of Indian nationalism but simultaneously it reduces nationalism to Gandhi, leaves out the major contests within that horizon and fails to recognise its vitality that has only now seemed to run its course. Indian nationalism was not stillborn. It had a very good run, but now finds itself on life support.

Who are these intellectuals to whom Anderson addresses his book? Anderson names the titles of their main books early in his text and submits their names to a footnote: Meghnad Desai, Ramachandra Guha, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Amartya Sen and Sunil Khilnani. They are, for Anderson, the voices of Indian ideology, the liberalism that is the self-representation of the mainstream of India’s ruling class. Anderson does not do a close reading of these texts, leaving us to take on faith that his characterisation of these writers fits the bill. Their nationalism, he writes, is hampered by the changed context. Where there was a national liberation struggle against colonialism, nationalism allowed all shades of opinion to gather in unity. Even those indifferent to socialism or secularism held fast to the national staff. When colonialism ended, nationalism ceased to allow these elements a progressive posture; their nationalism now simply allowed them to ignore or to dismiss internal problems of religious, caste and patriarchal chauvinism.

A nationalism that does not see its internal limitations, Anderson notes, “becomes a discourse that fatally generates a culture of euphemism and embellishment, precluding any clear-eyed stock-taking of past or present”. The worst of the lot are the hardened conservatives, although they use the nationalism of the liberals as their shield against criticism. This dominant Indian Ideology is governed by a vacuous celebration of democracy. It hopes against hope that the process of democracy within the current configuration of Indian state institutions will somehow overturn the hierarchies of faith and fortune. That is Anderson’s main claim.

It would have been useful to have produced a close reading of one or two of these figures before Anderson went into his own synoptic analysis of the freedom movement, of Partition and then of the operations of the Indian republic. Neither Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (Picador, 2007) nor Desai’s The Rediscovery of India (Bloomsbury, 2009) is, despite their difference in tone, merely a cheerleader for the new India. Their liberalism is much more complex, even nostalgic. Their tour de horizon bemoans the loss of an epoch, looks backwards to seek out lost opportunities for a genuine liberal present. Their relief that India remains a democracy is matched by their disappointment with the lack of deeper democratisation, largely a result of the inherited iron cage of colonial bureaucracy and of the Congress’ vast ambition to maintain its political power through a combination of rhetorical socialism and electoral landlordism. These texts struggle with the contradictions of contemporary India, horrified that there are more acutely poor people in India than in all of sub-Saharan Africa. The ballot box and Bangalore are not sufficient to inoculate India against its ailments.

Religious minorities

Below these large books exists a world of scholarship and activism that tries to focus the gaze of concern on the structural discrimination against religious minorities (largely Muslims), Dalits and other oppressed castes, women, and regions held by what can only be described as military occupation (Kashmir and parts of the north-eastern region). Government reports, such as the one by the Sachar Committee, appear, as do deeply moral protests, such as that of Irom Sharmila in Manipur. They shed light on the statistical evidence of discrimination against Muslims or the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958—but then, after a sigh of concern there is the shrug of indifference. Little happens, the reports gather dust, the media shift from the activists to the celebrities.

In his The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen says in a footnote on Kashmir: “I am not taking up that thorny question here.” It is taken up seriously very rarely, and when it does in the books of Indian liberalism it is often engaged with gingerly. Guha’s history is an exception, for he addresses the Kashmir question head on, but then Guha’s general temperamental alignment with the idea of Indian secularism fails him. It is the three secessionist movements of modern India (Nagaland, Punjab and Kashmir) that he says “affirmed religious and territorial distinctiveness, not a linguistic one”. The latter is the modus of secular division; the religious is the terrain of what Indian liberalism abhors, namely the Hindu Right. But the question is not whether it is to one’s taste that the uprisings in Kashmir, for instance, have an Islamic character. The facts of Kashmir require an acknowledgment of a people deeply alienated from the Indian state project, and, therefore, building first (through the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) a secular resistance, and second when that was thwarted by the Indian state, a religious character. One cannot come to the root of the problem of Kashmir/Mizoram, of caste and of communalism without an acceptance of the grievances that make the problem manifest, and without an acknowledgement that the problem is not simply ephemeral but central to the ideology and institutions of the Indian republic.

Since Anderson spends most of his book rehearsing his own assessment of the freedom movement, Partition and the limitations of the republic, what we do not hear is why the main texts of Indian liberalism fail substantially to engage with the politics of communalism, caste and the disaffection of regions.

Anderson roots this failure in their commitment to the ideals of the republic itself, but this is not sufficient. Guha, Khilnani and Sen, for example, do not skirt the limitations. They take them up, reveal their relevance to the story of Indian democracy, and then bemoan the lack of solutions for them. An entire bookstore of English-language work produced in India (such as Siddharth Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned, Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, Amitava Kumar’s Husband of a Fanatic, and Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night) offers precisely the kind of corps-a-corps with Indian liberalism as Anderson attempts. Most of this work documents the malady, but none of these seek to adjudicate how far the rot has gone: do India’s problems stem from the very nature of the freedom movement (as Anderson avers) or have they a more recent origin? Too few of these accounts sufficiently engage with the deep-rooted institutional problems of India.

Anderson sets the dial to zero: the institutional problems faced by contemporary India are set in the commitments of the leadership of the Indian National Congress, and of the compromises made by its left flank, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, to those obligations. It was Gandhi who injected religion into the arteries of Indian nationalism and forged the Indian state with “the particularist religion of his forebears”, making Muslims “second-class citizens” and creating a “caste-iron democracy”. “What is hidden within India is Hindustan,” Anderson writes. “It is that which tacitly shapes the state and determines the frontiers between freedom and repression, what is allowed and what is forbidden.” Perhaps it is because nationalism is so shop-worn today that Anderson goes back and offers his suffocating assessment of its history, “The social forces [the nationalist leadership] represented formed a conservative coalition, which neither required nor welcomed an awakening of the poor. The Raj was not threatened by any popular upheaval from them.”

It is certainly true that one part, perhaps even the dominant part of the national movement and of the republic’s institutional history, was driven by the hierarchies of religion and caste and the prejudices of the idea of national unity. But Anderson does not say this. His assessment is sweeping. He sees nationalism itself as saturated with caste-Hindu concerns, as if Gandhi were truly in charge and as if the only power blocs in the vast ensemble comprised the Chamber of Commerce (exemplified by G.D. Birla) and the Brahmana Samaj (led by the pontiff of the Kanchi math). The contradictions of the freedom movement dissolve, with the rich tradition of social struggle that asserted itself in different regions and with different degrees of success now severed from the Congress headquarters, the prime driver of Indian history. There is something deeply conservative about this method even as it offers a dissenters’ view of modern India.

The Left

One reason that Anderson’s book appears a little anaemic is that it lacks an engagement with the entire tradition of the Left, which he says at the start is a “major lacuna” in his book. Had Anderson engaged with the writings of the Left he would have to concede an important point, that Indian nationalism was far richer than Gandhi’s contribution and Gandhi was not as sacrosanct as Anderson makes him out to be. Marxist writings such as R.P. Dutt’s India Today (1940), D.D. Kosambi’s An Introduction to the Study of Indian History (1956) and Sumit Sarkar’s Modern India (1983) defined the intellectual assessment of the national movement, with the Congress’ official history, P. Sitaramayya’s The History of the Indian National Congress (1935) and Nehru’s own The Discovery of India (1946) unable to control the narrative. It was the Marxist method that was the foundation of the work of these writers, and it was their keen eye to the social worlds of the working class that allowed them to break from the hegemony of the Congress. Dutt came out of the communist tradition, where there was no hesitancy in offering a full critique of Gandhi (communist leader S.A. Dange’s 1921 book is called Gandhi v. Lenin, with the winner obvious).

Dutt’s assessment of Gandhi was spirited: “Gandhi is recognised as a higher plane of spiritual reasoning: the prophet who by his personal saintliness and selflessness could unlock the door to the hearts of the masses where the moderate bourgeois could not hope for a hearing—and the best guarantee of the shipwreck of any mass movement which had the blessing of his association.” These words were written within the fabric of Indian nationalism, contesting Gandhi’s claim to the whole cloth.

It was this approach that characterised the communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad’s books The Mahatma and the Ism (1958) and A History of the Indian Freedom Struggle (1977) as sharply critical as Dutt but with a more generous attitude towards the culture of struggle and sacrifice that was engendered by the mass campaigns of the 1920s. Namboodiripad’s main line of attack against Gandhi was that the Congress leader feared independent peasant action: “Once they were drawn into the movement, this new class, the peasantry, drew up its own forms of struggle, and its own form of organisation.” Indeed, this is what EMS and his comrades created in the Kisan Sabha (1936).

Kosambi takes this critical attitude to Nehru in his cutting review of The Discovery of India (“The Bourgeoisie Comes of Age in India”, 1946), where he strikes at Nehru’s incipient racialism and failure to come to terms with the social oppression of Muslims. All this takes place as the Communist Party tried to navigate its theory of self-determination for nationalities, first taking a position in favour of Pakistan (Gangadhar Adhikari, “On Pakistan and National Unity”, 1942) and then in favour of Kashmiri independence (Romesh Chandra, “Salute to Kashmir”, 1946), and subsequently (and grudgingly) coming to terms with the facts of Partition. Much the same kind of indictment of Gandhi and the Congress came from Dr B.R. Ambedkar (“What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables”, 1946) and from Jayaprakash Narayan (“Why Socialism”, 1936).

If he had engaged with the work of the Left more fully, Anderson would have been more historically specific about the arrival of this more confident Indian liberalism. The break in the late 1980s and 1990s is very significant—with the Congress setting aside its social democratic commitments, the Hindu Right edging to the mainstream of the political world and the international situation shifting toward the primacy of the United States. This is the context for the emergence of economic liberalisation (1991) and for a caste-Hindu character to the arriviste middle class (emboldened by the Mandal protests of 1990, the Ayodhya events of 1990-92 and the Kargil War of 1999). Following Achin Vanaik, Anderson asserts that the rise of the Hindu Right was mistaken as fascism, with liberals seeking shelter in ideas of Hindu tolerance that simply fed the smugness of the Hindu middle class. Anderson dismisses this break, suggesting that little changes for the long duree of Indian nationalism, since it is already compromised by Gandhi’s religiosity and by Partition. But this is actually insufficient.

Things are worse than that. If he had glanced across the border, Anderson might have observed an uncanny parallel—with the rise of the Hindu Right in India and the jehadi currents in Pakistan, the liberal elite in both countries sought shelter in illiberal state repression and in alliances with U.S. primacy. It is in this context that many of the liberal writers under analysis here were actually not in step with the prevailing current, exemplified by people such as Arun Shourie and C. Raja Mohan (who championed the strategic alliance with the U.S. in Crossing the Rubicon, 2004).

There is an irony in the texts of the liberals that Anderson does not pick up: their confident prose is not matched by the confidence of their vision for India. It is a curious liberalism, whose forward march seems halted. They have no grand plan, no major horizon, only small horizons and a simple wish, as Guha puts it at the end of his major history, so long as the Constitution is not amended beyond recognition and elections are held, “India will survive”. Its survival is sufficient.

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