Deconstructing “The Idea of India”

Every movement for national liberation has its own dynamics and salient features, which to a large extent shape the basic contours of the nation state that emerges from it. Perry Anderson in his latest book demonstrates this with perfect clarity with reference to India. He shows how the dominant nationalist discourse in this country suppresses certain of those features in the independence movement that are uncomfortable to the self-perception of the nationalist elite, celebrating instead what it projects as grand national achievements and cherished ideals: a stable political democracy, a steadfast secularity and a robust territorial integrity based on multi-cultural unity. He calls this self-righteous discourse “Indian Ideology” and adds, “It is not, of course, the only nationalist ideology of contemporary India. To its right, Hindutva offers a much more aggressive vision of the nation.” (p 3) Though the latter is “more dangerous”, he concentrates on the liberal version, better known as “The Idea of India”, because – he tells us in an e-mail interview to Praful Bidwai in Outlook magazine -- “this is the mainstream discourse of the state, the media and the intelligentsia. The book aims to show its limitations.”

To do this, Anderson focuses the spotlight on certain “inconvenient historical realities” (p 2) that is on issues which the dominant discourse avoids and obscures. There, in those uncomfortable events and trends in the national movement and in the precepts and practices of its foremost leaders, he locates the roots of some of the perennial problems of independent India – the anti-democratic traits of governance, the communal pogroms and caste oppressions, the dubious secularity of the Indian state, the non-inclusive character of economic growth, and so on. A radical reinterpretation of history thus develops into a polemical deconstruction of the current dominant ideology, which is shown to be a false consciousness promoted, protected and propagated by the hegemonic nation state, the otherwise critical mainstream media and the bulk of the best minds among eminent ‘argumentative Indians’.

The septuagenarian historian, currently professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, and veteran editor of New Left Review, presents his case in three sections. In the first, titled Independence, the focus is on “the beliefs and actions of Gandhi, as the central figure of the struggle for independence in the subcontinent”. The second, titled Partition, discusses “the way power was transferred from the Raj to Congress after 1945, amid the catastrophe of partition” (p 2). Anderson shows that Gandhi’s “great achievement” was the transformation of Congress from an elite into a mass organisation, but he did it “by saturating its appeal with a Hindu imaginary” and from here started “the political process that would eventually lead to partition.” (p 54 and 94). Another factor that seriously jeopardised Hindu-Muslim unity and amity was Congress’s craving for monopoly of power, which scuttled several opportunities for fruitful cooperation with the Muslim league – in 1937 for example, when the League proposal for a coalition government in the most important state of UP was rejected and the latter asked to dissolve itself in the Congress. Even in the communally charged atmosphere of 1946, at least the partition of Bengal perhaps could have been avoided but that was not to be. The Forward Bloc among Hindus and the Muslim League led by Suhrawardy among Muslims jointly agitated for a united Bengal as an independent state and Jinnah did not oppose it, but the Congress rallied behind the Hindu Mahasabha movement demanding partition. Nehru knew that in a united independent Bengal the League would be in the helm, which was not acceptable to him. Anderson cites many such cases and comes to the conclusion that the primary responsibility for partition lay not with the Raj but with Congress. To quote,

“Whether or not the Partition was bound to come, the plain truth is that the high command of Congress took scarcely any intelligent steps to avert it, and many crass ones likely to hasten it; and when it came, acted in a way that ensured it would take the cruellest form, with the worst human consequences.” Moreover, this was compounded “with a territorial greed that has poisoned India’s relations with its neighbour down to the nuclear stand-off today.” (pp 100-101).

Regarding the actual course of attaining independence, Anderson points out that Gandhi was no doubt the supreme leader of the independence movement, but eventually freedom came not from his doctrines of passive resistance or sexual abstinence (which he valued as a great moral force that could make the freedom fighters invincible) but from a combination of two other factors in the main. First, the huge electoral achievements in the late 1930s gave Congress a political weight neither the British Raj nor contenders like the Muslim League could ignore; second, the devastating Japanese aggression across the North-eastern and eastern parts of British India and her neighbours drove the panicked Raj into a conciliatory mode. Also there was a third factor: the tremendous pressure exerted on the Raj by the Azad Hind Government in exile founded by Subhas Chandra Bose, which enjoyed great support across all communities in India.

However, one important force Anderson almost ignores was the powerful mass movements which reached volcanic proportions at the end of World War II: Punnapra- Vayalar struggle in Travancore, Tebhaga upsurge in Bengal, Telengana armed revolt in Hyderabad, the movement demanding release of soldiers of Bose’s Indian National Army held captive by the British and the RIN Mutiny in 1945-46, numerous strikes throughout the period (notably the 85-day tram workers’ strike in Calcutta with united Hindu- Muslim participation; the three-month long South Indian Railways strike directed against the Tamil Nadu Congress Ministry with VV Giri as Labour Minister, in which seven strikers were shot dead and hundreds demoted and fired; the all India postal strike involving several lakh participants in July-August 1946) city upheavals in Bombay and Calcutta, the Quit Kashmir movement in 1946 and so on. The peasant rebellions dealt body blows to the feudal props of the Raj, the prolonged strikes agonised the capitalist following of Congress no less than the Raj and the provincial governments. The combined effect of all this was to drive home the point that continuance of British rule had become practically impossible, forcing the British and the Indian parties to speed up the process of negotiated transfer of power. Many of these struggles were led by communists, some by socialists and the omission of their roles, Anderson admits in the Foreword, is “the major lacuna” in his book.

Indeed it is. Because his discussion remains rather incomplete without seriously addressing a very pertinent question: why did not the Indian Ideology face any real challenge from the Left, spreading its spell over large swathes of the Left space instead?

The left-wing historian’s very brief answer is, “the fundamental reason for the relative political weakness of the Indian left… lay in the fusion of nation with religion in the struggle for independence.” (p 4) Well, that really posed a very tough obstacle. But why could not those on the Left, who had distinguished themselves by a relentless effort to combine the struggle for national liberation with the fight for socio-economic emancipation of the downtrodden in the face of brutal repression – right from the days of Peshawar-Kanpur-Meerut conspiracy cases – by the British as well as Congress governments, overcome that obstacle? Essentially because its failure, and Congress’ – in fact Gandhi’s – success, in mobilising the peasantry pushed it to the sidelines in the freedom movement. In China Mao Zedong personified proletarian/communist leadership of peasant masses in the liberation movement; in our country history shaped his mirror image in the person of Gandhi:

“… he is the great peasant, with a peasant’s outlook on affairs, and with a peasant’s blindness to some aspects of life. But India is peasant India, and so he knows his India well and reacts to her slightest tremors and gauges a situation accurately and almost instinctively ...” (Jawaharlal Nehru in Autobiography p 253).

In fact this was why Nehru and other leaders in Congress “… gave him an almost blank cheque, for the time being at least. Often we discussed his fads and peculiarities among ourselves and said, half-humorously, that when swaraj came these fads must not be encouraged.” (ibid, p 73)

Speaking here was a typical representative of the capitalist class (remember Nehru’s declaration in Autobigraphy: “My politics had been those of my own class, the bourgeoisie”) which needed an appropriate agency for mobilizing the peasantry and other petty producers in its bid for power and, finding it in Bapu, propped him up as the supreme leader. Not only Nehru and other leaders but the entire trader-industrialist class – the Birlas and Thakurdases who worked “In the Shadow of the Mahatma” (title of an autobiographical work by Gandhi’s trusted disciple, GD Birla) – most obediently followed him “for the time being”, i.e., until state power was within reach, and then slowly got rid of him with due reverence.

Communists too had built their own models of militant peasant mobilization in certain areas, but on an all India plane that came nowhere near developing a counter-hegemony to defeat the ideological hegemony of Gandhi’s Congress over the multi-class, multi-party mosaic of independence movement. Their marginalization, in which Nehru also played a role complimentary to Gandhi’s by attracting sections of youth with his empty but eloquent socialism, continued into the post-independence phase too, but that is a different story.

Anderson’s near-silence on the interplay of different class forces in the struggle against colonial rule and on the class character of Congress might be a bit disappointing to those who expected from him a more rigorous Marxist analysis, but that has been more than compensated in another way. The German Ideology, to which the title under discussion alludes, is a polemical work written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (not by Marx alone, as Anderson tells us) in their late 20s, directed against the ideological opponents of emerging proletarian socialism in Germany. It never appeared in print in their lifetime but the authors were happy that intense engagement with the dominant discourse in the country had helped them achieve their “main purpose – self clarification”. Indeed, that was the vital prerequisite for the emergence of a mature Marxism in the works that were to follow soon, notably the Communist Manifesto. Sections of Indian Marxists who have yet to settle scores with the dominant ideology in this country in a comprehensive manner can, if they will, benefit immensely from this work.

Anderson deals with the post-independence phase in the third section titled Republic. With a devastating array of facts he exposes the tall claims of democratic credentials, secular commitment and national unity as so many manufactured myths. In all three areas, he depicts the present maladies as continuation and exacerbation of negative trends entrenched in the independence movement itself.

On the question of democracy, he starts with its most prized showpiece – the internationally acclaimed Constitution of India. He points out that the Constituent Assembly itself was not actually representative of popular will, for it was elected in 1946 on a very restricted franchise, with only one out of seven adult subjects of the Raj enjoying the right to vote. In fact it was “dominated by the upper caste and Brahmanic elites within Congress”, as Sunil Khilnanai has written (p 106). But was it not drafted by the great dalit scholar and jurist, Dr Ambedkar? Anderson tells us how Ambedkar himself felt about it. Reacting bitterly to sanctimonious platitudes routinely showered on him for his role in drafting the Constitution, on one occasion he said, “I was a hack. What I was asked to do, I did much against my will.” (p 139) To make amends, partially at least, he as Law Minister introduced in 1951 a Hindu Code Bill striking down the grosser forms of marital inequality the Constitution had sanctioned. The bill was neutered and its author unceremoniously ditched by Prime Minister Nehru. (pp 137-38)

Extending his critique to the coercive apparatus India inherited from the British, Anderson shows how these were continuously bolstered by a battery of new draconian laws right from the PDA (1950) and AFSPA (1958) to more recent ones like the UAPA. He chronicles the instances of gross violation of human rights in Kashmir, the North-East, Punjab; the frequent imposition of President’s rule on state governments – oftener than not as political vendetta – under Nehru (including in Kerala in 1959, when the Namboodiripad government was ousted); the sordid tale of internal emergency and other attacks on democracy in different periods. He criticises the Supreme Court for “rubber-stamping the Emergency” and welcomes its subsequent development into “the principal breakwater in India against threats to liberty, abuses of power and theft of public goods.” At the same time, he warns us that this indicates a very advanced stage of a fatal disease of democracy, quoting legal scholar Upendra Baxi who wrote, it is “chemotherapy for a carcinogenic body politic”. (p 160 – 61).

But how does the political system defend itself against people’s wrath occasioned by oppression and economic deprivation? According to Anderson, in addition to linguistic and other divisions among the working people, a major defence mechanism was found in the divisive system of caste, (which was staunchly defended by Gandhi -- directly at first and in the name of varna later) and its subsequent “mutation into a compartmentalised identity politics [which] has simultaneously deepened parliamentary democracy and debauched it.” (p 171) To put it in another way, as the author does in the e-mail interview referred above, “Indian democracy is not contradicted by caste inequality, but rather enabled by it.”

So on and so forth, the polemical historian goes on, razing to the ground one pillar of the Indian Ideology after another. He cites the findings of Sachar Commission to depict the exceptionally sad plight of Indian Muslims and shows how they are routinely discriminated against in all walks of life. Drawing attention to numerous instances of minority slaughter by activists of ruling parties and the armed forces, he argues that Indian secularism is more a rhetoric than a fact. Turning to national unity, he describes how in several regions in the country it was secured in the first place, and is maintained to this day, not by democratic means but mostly by the power of the gun, with the armed forces now enjoying immunity from legal action thanks to the notorious AFSPA.

Anderson is always straightforward but never unduly harsh on anyone. His command over the subject and his beautiful prose enriched with polemical bite will compel all readers, including those who may find his views unpalatable and unacceptable, to ponder over the vital issues he has raised. The book is a must-read for all who are interested in the history of modern India and its complex socio-political structures today.


An Autobiography by Jawaharlal Nehru, New Delhi, 1962 reprint Outlook, November 12, 2012

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