Book Review: The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson

March 31, 2013

by Latief Dar

The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson is a collection of three essays originally published in the London Review of Books. Perry Anderson is well established name in Western Marxism/New Left and has been editor of New Left Review for twenty years starting 1962. Currently he is Professor of History and Sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles (ULCA). He has written voluminous influential books which include Passages From Antiquity to Feudalism, Lineages of the Absolutist State, The Origins of Postmodernity, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas, among many others. He has written innumerous articles as well. Among his more recent articles include Gandhi Centre Stage, Why Partition, and After Nehru which provide much deeper insight into the partition and aftermath.

As the title suggests, The Indian Ideology through critical engagement delves deep into the set of ideas (or nationalist discourse) that shape the Indian nation – democracy, multicultural unity and secularity – and deals with ‘conditions and events that generated them, and which they both reflect and distort’ (p.2). For Anderson the idea of India as one in its civilizational aspects of evolution and inherent unity is contested by the fact that ‘subcontinent as we know it today never formed a single political or cultural unit in premodern times’ (p.10). Demonstrating the intellectual depth of Perry Anderson, this book is a significant intervention in the direction of constructive criticism – whether this comes through self engagement in nationalist historiography or, through the efforts of the scholars from without (as Perry Anderson does here). We often come across familiar discourses when it comes to the question of independence struggle and partition, putting the burden of blame straight on imperialist rule of Britain through its policy of fanning the communal orientations. But this book has different things to say than the commonly accepted theories of the origin and evolution of the two states of India and Pakistan as seen in the writings of the intellectual pundits on the subject. Against this commonly accepted legacy, Anderson is quite vocal in holding Congress responsible for the partition as the Congress is essentially a Hindu party to him. More to it, Anderson squarely holds Gandhi and Nehru responsible for the ills and wrongs that have followed during the trajectory of the Indian state after partition. The three essays in the book thus deal with these pertinent issues.

The first of these essays is related to the man known for his steel-like commitment to non violence and humanity – M K Gandhi. M.K. Gandhi was an able political leader, ‘a first-class organizer and fund raiser – diligent, efficient, meticulous ……. (p. 17)’. But that doesn’t exempt him from criticism and there is no need to sentimentalize him. (See the author’s interview with Praful Bidwai). M K Gandhi is held to be responsible for injection of religion into politics, (…But it was not Jinnah who injected religion into the vocabulary and imagery of the national movement, it was Gandhi. p. 93), for flirting with non violence like resorting to violence in 2nd non cooperation movement (…. ‘in mid 1918 went out of his way to try and drum up recruits for the imperialist slaughter in Flanders, tramping as far as Bihar in a bid – happily a dismal failure – to round up more villagers for the trenches’ p. 28) and for ambiguity on the question of caste (‘there was no need to adjust balance in this life: Interdrinking, interdining, intermarrying, I hold, are not essential for the promotion of spirit of democracy’ p.37). Infact Gandhi feared the ganging up of untouchables with Muslims (after the communal award) that might have led to the killing of caste Hindus, so he used his weapon of the fast and ultimately Ambedkar ‘yielded to Gandhi’s blackmail’ (p.41). The intoxication of national iconography, according to Anderson has rendered the nationalist opinion of Gandhi intolerant to criticism as shown by the reception of some important works like Kathryn Tidrick’s book on Gandhi.

The second chapter deals with partition of the subcontinent and the gory aftermath of riots associated with it. It reflects on the role of Nehru and the Congress party in bringing about such an outcome. One of the main ideas that Perry Anderson rightly brings out here is that brisk statesmanship on part of the Congress (Had it acted more modestly and wisely, the subcontinent would have avoided the calamity of its division. p.97) and Nehru could have averted the partition. But the things turned otherwise and finally the partition that should have been taken place in the timeframe of a year was hastily brought forth in matter of few weeks that led to the heavy avalanche of massacre and refugees (One could also add here that early partition proved tempting, otherwise Congress would have to counter mass confrontation by the Left according to the historian,-Sumit Sarkar).

Obsessed by the election results of 1937, Nehru considered the British and Congress as the only two political forces considering the Muslim league always as a relic of Muslim feudalism, – ‘a spent force that might now be ignored’ (p.58). And more importantly, Nehru thought that coalition with it was injurious to Congress. . For Muslim league and Jinnah what mattered more was ‘that independence would have to accommodate their coexistence in a form that gave autonomy and sovereignty to those areas where there was a Muslim majority, as constituent units within any future constitution (p.59).’ This for Nehru was worse as it would defeat his aim of a centralized state, and hence he prepared for division. India according to Nehru should get the lion’s share in the partition and for this, time bestowed Mountbatten on him. Two Muslim majority districts were awarded to India: one that was strategic containing the only land route to Kashmir (Gurdaspur) and other containing a large arsenal, Hyderabad, brought in with massacre of about forty thousand Muslims (report on massacre suppressed by Nehru on insistence of Patel) and Bengal divided by Congress rallying behind Hindu Mahasabha so as to fuel division on religious lines. NWFP which had rallied behind Congress through the leadership of Badshah Khan considered partition a betrayal and Nehru’s insistence of keeping the independence option out a double betrayal. Overall the social misperception: that Muslim league could be discounted, electoral architecture (first past the post: that kept minorities at disadvantageous position and paid fruitfully for Congress), historical mythology: impression of oneness of Indian civilization kept Congress away from taking a balanced look into the political situation in the struggle for independence.

The big question in South Asia – Kashmir dispute – is given a very different treatment than the one presented and propagated by the Indian nationalist narratives. It is here that Perry Anderson makes many radical interventions into the much guarded, yet vulnerable, Indian discourse on Kashmir. Anderson is scathing in his critique of the way India handled and has since handled this issue, which has sapped the vitality of Indian intellectual life vis-à-vis Kashmir. Barring Ambedkar, all leaders of the time, Nehru, Gandhi (who felt proud of Indian forces and aeroplanes that went with materials and arms and ammunition requirements for the army fighting in Kashmir) and Patel acted in unison to subdue a population of 5 million as if they were a “lottery ticket”. Kashmir’s ‘intimate personal significance (p.81)’ for Nehru, substantiated by its strategic importance as route to Central Asia, an ideological prize for Indian secularism, made them to take a step that still mars the peace in south Asia. The question of Kashmir in the Indian nationalist discourse is and has been justified on the basis of signing of the Instrument of Accession by Maharaja Hari Singh. But, for Anderson, this is a sham. The fact is that Instrument of Accession brought by V.K. Menon (waving the document in triumph to Manekshaw ‘Sam, we have got it’) was a forged declaration of accession to India by the Maharajah, supposedly brought back by him (Menon) from Srinagar, when in fact he was still in Delhi – a document recently ‘discovered’, but which India was unable to produce for half a century. ……..Congress high command, fearing Srinagar was about to fall, could not wait for this formality (p.83)’. Even if that may be the case, it looks highly unreasonable to argue that 5 million people can be unwillingly held against their wishes on the basis of a single signature or document by a person who hardly had any concern for the same people.

Fearing that India will lose the officially announced plebiscite, it was never conducted. The reality is that when Sheikh Abdullah raised the demand for independent Kashmir, he was jailed and replaced by the corrupt government of Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad commonly called as Bakshi Brothers Corporation (BBC). In the service of national interest New Delhi time and again tolerated and shamelessly encouraged the corrupt governments in Kashmir. As Nehru authoritatively remarked, ‘Till things improve, democracy and morality can wait (p.119)’. The things have in fact moved from bad to worse with no improvement in sight in the near future.

After independence/partition what accompanied the newly-formed Indian state? Raj system bureaucracy, corruption, first-past the-post electoral system, an excuse for strong government that actually helped Congress every time, political subterfuge in Kashmir and the North East, minorities ignored, Congress tuned to needs of rich farmers, traders and urban professionals, poor record in education, health and more. But what then kept India from disintegration. For Anderson, caste has become the enabling condition of democracy. ‘Fixing in hierarchical position and dividing from each other every disadvantaged group, ……… , it struck away any possibility of broad collective action to redress earthly injustice that might otherwise have threatened the stability of the parliamentary order over which Congress serenely presided for two decades after independence, as it became the habitual framework of the nation (p.112)’.

One need not to sideline what happened in North East. The repression in North East is even more appalling if one goes into the brutalities done under the garb of Armed Forces Special Powers Act – a repressive piece of legislation enacted in 1958. Add to it the events of the border dispute with China which according to Anderson was never settled during British Raj. Lack of historical common sense on part of Nehru led to the heavy damage both in territorial and military terms – that completely shattered him. One of the worst legacies that Nehru left was that ‘he injected a further irrational element into political system, blood rather than faith, with the creation of a heredity dynasty that has been an additional curse that lingers without end (p.147).’

On the parameters of secularism, according to Anderson, Indian secularism is actually Hindu confessionalism considering the circumstances the Muslims found themselves in when it came to entitlements and citizens’ rights from the state. This is mainly because the practice and composition of Congress is based in the Hindu community. Under the conditions in which religion and state were not separated, rise of BJP need not be taken with alarm since there was no actual threats to democracy equivalent to inter war Europe. The fallout out of such secularism is blurring of boundaries between ideologies in which Congress is soft on Hindutva and BJP professing the language of secularism.

Under this heavy criticism, only one institution stands laudable in analysis of Perry Anderson – judiciary (rightly so, if one looks at the 95-97 World Values Survey in which 67% Indians showed trust in legal system). The courts in India have taken lead in declaring the laws unconstitutional that contravene the public interest and are against the ideals of constitution. The intervention of courts into body politic for general public interest on account of decay of other institutions is ‘chemotherapy for a carcinogenic body politic’ (p.161).

Towards the end of book, Anderson looks into how intellectuals have tackled the question of Indian ideology or in general the political system. The approach of most of the intellectuals is highly critical, but the approach to the cardinal values of Indian ideology – democracy, secularity, unity – is different. Political critique is less searching and less comprehensive in the context of apparatuses of repression like preventive detention laws. The cultural aspects like practice, belief burden of metaphysics, poetry and mathematics make it highly difficult to engage with a secular criticism of the Hinduism. In this line, Kashmir held as secular image of India, has served as an excuse for Indian expansionism, and response to this from Indian intellectuals has been dismal as they mostly have kept silent/showed lack of moral indignation on the issue, including the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

What is the way out then from this intoxication by the uniqueness of idea of India that harms the national character and interest? First of all, there is aneed to engage in a self-critical manner. Secondly there is need to come out of the burden of the romanticized past. And lastly, exit of the paralytic Congress from the national scène.

Overall the book fulfills the need in the academic and intellectual circles – that ideals and democratic consciousness needs to be backed by democratic practices and if that is not followed, then there is need of self critical engagement to fine tune the ideas to the reality, whether that reality be BJP, or need to move to consociational politics. BJP is a party that has established cadres and programme and so long as Congress plays soft on Hindutva there is no reason to vote for it. Consociational representation for minorities in proportion to population could well serve to protect their interests. The reality thus demands justice to be done to the people at the margins. But there are certain issues that strike the mind while reading the book. It looks apparent at the face that author has focused on Nehru and others as individuals making decisions in ‘individual capacity removed from the context’ in which they lived. The reality however is that pushes and pulls to carry all others in unison, and weigh the decision in terms of national interest bear heavily on decision makers. Take the case of Nehru and his socialistic pattern of economy. His choice for this pattern was countered by conservative clique of Sardar Patel. One could see this when Patel remarked that “We do not need Lenin here”. The sustenance of this conservative clique – that provided niche for Indian Bourgeoisie – was facilitated by particular method of decision making in congress in which Nehru had little room of maneuvering. This is because there was a 3:1 ratio in favour of the Patel-led conservatives in the Congress Working Committee since the mid-1950s and this method maintained the status quo. The structural factors also limited his choice for reform. For example the bureaucratic system was still colonial in its orientation and was averse to change. Similarly, Nehru’s Kashmir policy was conditioned by structural and international factors in addition his personal interest. The correspondence of trio – Patel, Maharajah, Menon – had decisive role in the integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India. One could see this in Patel’s Correspondence with Maharajah:

“I wish to assure you that the interest of Kashmir lies in joining the Indian union without any delay. Its history and tradition demand it and all India looks up to you and expects you to take this decision”. (Patel to Hari Singh as quoted in Victoria Shoefield, Kashmir in conflict; India, Pakistan and the Unending War). Patel also had played spoil sport in the Article 370 during Nehru’s absence from country in October 1949 which greatly restricted the broader vision of Nehru about Kashmiri autonomy. Even when Nehru favored amicable solution to Kashmir issue by authorizing Sheikh Abdullah to travel to Pakistan to discuss with Ayub khan, later considered it as ‘absurd suggestion’ and thus kept Kashmir issue unaddressed. One could thus clearly notice how socio – political factors come to bear on the individual decision makers embedded in the complexities of national interest. Mahatma Gandhi needs to be contextualised as well when it comes to his support for British in conquest of Flanders. This support like others for British, Gandhi will himself mention ‘was actuated by the belief that it was possible by such services to gain a status of full equality in the Empire for my countrymen (Gandhi’s statement in court in 1922 when he was sentenced for six years imprisonment)’ By early 1920’s he was utterly disillusioned with the British policies and experience had proved to him that it acted in unscruplous and unjust manner. Morris Jones will say it brilliantly that ‘Circumstances and temperament caused him to concentrate his attention far more on the duty of the citizen in the imperfect states of the everyday world.’(Jones, Mahatma Gandhi – Political Philosopher).

Moreover, the focus on faltering ideology throughout the book ignores how far India has been successful in sustaining the institutions of parliamentary democracy. Whatever has been the problem with the “Indian ideology” that does not negate what has evolved in course of its progress – power as a sharable good in coalition and parliamentary form (Yogendra Yadav et al, Crafting State Nation: India and other Multinational Democracies).

Relieving British of the responsibility of partition on the note that it ‘played safer divisions’, Anderson ignores the fact that over the course of time British foisted an all India political category of ‘Indian Muslims’ that acquired relevance in the partition. This identification and breach between two communities became politicized, leading to a thoroughly painful course to partition. It is a case that repression has taken a heavy toll on the democratic expression in the many parts but democratic practice in India has given way to multiple identities that are complimentary to the national identity. In this case of multiple identities, Anderson hardly mentions the role of strong regional parties that have cemented such identities. To end, one is reminded of Romila Thapar’s remark that ‘in course of democratic struggle one has to move against the notion of two India’s – the shining India and the other India’. That could be a better thought in reckoning than just focusing on one and keeping the other in suspension.