September 13, 2014 | By Pritam Singh Oxford
The sweeping electoral victory of the Hindu nationalist BJP under the leadership of Narendra Modi has been greeted worldwide with a mixture of euphoria and alarm. Euphoria by the neo-liberal economists and big business. Alarm by the national minorities in and democratic rights activists India. Pritam Singh reviews The Indian Ideology by Perry Anderson, a welcome book in giving a background to politics in India today.
Once in a while in any field of study, a book appears that can be called path breaking in terms of the quality of its critical review of the existing body of knowledge in that field and setting a new research agenda. This is one of those books in the field of Indian/South Asian studies. First published as a set of three essays in the London Review of Books in 2012 and subsequently brought together by a progressive Indian publisher Three Essays Collective, this is a very dense and penetrating reflection on the making of modern India. As would be expected from a Marxist scholar of the stature of Perry Anderson, the book also raises very serious questions for left wing politics in India.
A national and, to a great extent, global consensus on India that has got built over the years is that the post- colonial India is a story of success of democracy in difficult circumstances of a developing capitalist economy. This story of success is garnished with references to a secular constitution in a country of many religions, a free press, an independent judiciary and a thriving intellectual community. To this portrait of India is added the name of Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of India’s national movement for independence, as a man of peace, and that of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, as a towering Third World leader who is credited with laying the foundations of modernising India out of a backward agrarian economy. Many of these claims are grounded in varying degrees of truthful capturing of some aspects of India’s economic and political reality but the problem emerges when the captured images are magnified to a scale that a gloried picture of India emerges and leads to theorisation and celebration of the ‘Idea of India’. It gives birth to what Anderson, using a term Marx had used for Germany, calls Indian Ideology. This Indian Ideology of celebration of the ‘Idea of India’ is shared, in different hues, by a vast majority of Indian intellectuals within India or settled abroad. India’s Hindu nationalist party (BJP) took this celebration many steps further some years ago by coining the slogan of ‘Shining India’. In these essays, Anderson sets up the task of not only unearthing the roots of this ideology but also interrogating the validity of the claims of this ideology and the political implications of this ideology. He accomplishes this task by focusing his lens on Gandhi, the partition of India in 1947 and the formation of the ‘independent republic’ under the leadership of Nehru.
The running thread that Anderson identifies as connecting three phases of modern Indian history- the struggle for independence led by Gandhi, the 1947 partition and the making of the Indian republic under Nehru’s leadership- is Hindu-tainted Indian nationalism. Through a close reading of Gandhi’s collected works (100 volumes) and historical studies of the Indian nationalist movement, Anderson establishes that Gandhi transformed the Congress party from an elite pressure group into a mass movement but did so by injecting ‘a massive dose of religion-mythology, symbology, theology- into the national movement’ (p. 22). Gandhi saturated the Congress’s mass ‘appeal with a Hindu imaginary’ (p.94), and contrary to the Indian historiography’s construction of Jinnah, the Muslim League leader, as the villain behind religious communalisation, Anderson shows that ‘it was not Jinnah who injected religion into the vocabulary and imagery of the national movement, it was Gandhi’ (p.93). In Gandhi’s dictum ‘If religion dies, India dies’ (p.94), religion meant Hindu religion. For him, the Ramayana, the epic on the life of Hindu God Rama, was ‘the greatest devotional work in all literature’ (Gandhi’s original words cited by Anderson, p.24).
No one would believe that Gandhi’s conception of ‘truth’ (he called his life ‘experiments with truth’ as if truth was something to be played with) was not only structurally flawed; it was comical (and of course tragic in consequences) unless one has read Anderson’s devastating critique. Truth for Gandhi was what he felt subjectively at a particular point of time irrespective of whether it was consistent or not what he might have subjectively felt at another time and place. He ludicrously said that ‘since I am called a “Great Soul’’, he need not bother about ‘foolish consistency’ and that ‘I am always true from my point of view’ (Gandhi’s own words cited by Anderson, p.30). Such limitless arrogance and self-righteousness on the part of a man who commanded so much power would make any citizen of a democracy shiver with fear. Whether the Gandhian conception of truth is linked to his Hindu faith is a subject worth exploring, a task beyond the scope of Anderson’s book. However, Gandhi’s flip flop about supporting violence while claiming to be a man of peace, is certainly linked very closely to his Hindu-laced Indian nationalism. Recounting the forcible integration of the Muslim-majority Kashmir into India, Gandhi’s trusted colleague Patel who as the Home Minister led the invasion of Kashmir, reported Gandhi applauding the military action: ‘I feel so proud when I hear the noise of those aeroplanes. At one time I was feeling very miserable and oppressed when I heard this. But when this Kashmir operation began, I began to feel proud of them and every aeroplane that goes with materials and arms and ammunition and requirements of the Army, I feel proud’ (p. 88).
The Hinduisation of the national movement resulted in the Congress party that led the struggle for India’s independence to become a predominantly Hindu party. Anderson points out that during the 1930s; only 3% of the party membership was Muslim (p. 94) in a country where Muslims constituted about 25% of the population. This Hinduisation of the Congress party contained within it the seeds of India’s partition on religious grounds between a Hindu-majority Hindustan and a Muslim-majority Pakistan. The Muslim fears about overwhelming Hindu domination once the Congress becomes the ruling party were not only not addressed, they were dismissed. Jinnah’s attempts to make the Congress agree to a confederal structure of governance that could keep India united were rebuffed, and resulted in Muslim League eventually pushed into seeking an independent Muslim-majority Pakistan (p. 67).
When independence came, to ‘hallow the solemn occasion, Nehru and his colleagues sat cross-legged around a sacred fire in Delhi while Hindu priests-arrived post-haste from Tanjore for the ritual-chanted hymns and sprinkled holy water over them, while women imprinted their forehead with vermilion. Three hours later, on a date and a time stipulated by Hindu astrologers’ (p. 103), Nehru gave his ‘tryst with destiny’ speech at the stroke of midnight on 14 August 1947. The Constitution that was drafted for the new republic was seriously Hindu-tainted. The symbolic insertion of ‘Bharat’ in the opening article naming the country; the provisions for strong centralisation supportive of Hindu nationalism; the active intervention of the state to consolidate Hindu identity through reform of the Hindu religion; the definition of ‘Hindu’ supportive of Hindu assimilation agenda towards Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs; cow protection; pre-eminence status for Hindi in the Devanagari script and special importance for Sanskrit are all features of the constitution which make its secularism seriously Hindu-tainted (for details, see my ‘Hindu Bias in India’s ‘Secular’ Constitution: probing flaws in the instruments of governance’, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 6, pp. 909-926, 2005).
Many secular admirers of India are willing to concede the presence of Hindu religious bias in Gandhian politics but they would not suspect Nehru to harbour any pro-Hindu inclinations. Anderson demolishes this myth of secular Nehru. Anderson recognises that Nehru was not a believer as Gandhi was but his almost romantic notion of India’s oneness since time immemorial meant that he equated the religion with the nation. In his much celebrated bookThe Discovery of India, Nehru writes: ‘Hinduism became the symbol of nationalism. It was indeed a national religion, with all those deep instincts, racial and cultural, which form the basis everywhere of nationalism today’ (cited by Anderson, p. 54). He held contradictory positions on the Hindu institution of caste, praising it as a great historical institution at one point and considering it outdated at another point but avoiding the subject of untouchability all together (p. 54). Nehru’s Hindu bias was not religious per se but was closely entwined with his passion for building a strong united India with a highly centralised power structure. It was this vision of centralised and united India that was behind his ill-fated inflexibility in dealing with Jinnah’s demand for confederation. It was the same centralist vision that was responsible for the use of military power to deny Kashmiri people the right to self-determination. The most gruesome massacre that Anderson brings to light is the one that took place in the process of forcible integration of Hyderabad, a princely state with a Muslim ruler, in 1948. Anderson writes: ‘‘When the Indian Army took over Hyderabad, massive Hindu pogroms against the Muslim population broke out, aided and abetted by its soldiers. On learning something of them, the figurehead Muslim Congressman in Delhi, Maulana Azad, then Minister of Education, prevailed on Nehru to let a team investigate. It reported that at a conservative estimate between twenty-seven to forty thousand Muslims had been slaughtered in the space of a few weeks after the Indian take-over. This was the largest single massacre in the history of the Indian Union (pp. 90-91)…No word about the pogroms, in which his [Nehru’s] troops had taken eager part, could be allowed to leak out. Twenty year later, when news of the report finally surfaced, his daughter [Indira Gandhi] banned any publication of the document as injurious to ‘national interests’, faithful to her father’s definition of them” (p 91). The current Indian state in dealing with insurgencies in Punjab (a Sikh majority state), Nagaland (a Christian majority state) and Kashmir (a Muslim majority state) has been following the Nehruvian vision of defending the ‘national interests’!
Anderson notes, very perceptively, that the Indian intellectuals are unsparing in their scrutiny of India’s social ills: ‘Hunger, misery, illiteracy; inequality of every kind, sexual discrimination, economic exploitation; corruption, commercialization, fanaticism; the spreading of slums, the looting of the environment-a detailed scholarship of anger or disgust covers virtually all (p.168)…Yet compared with social criticism, political critique is typically less comprehensive, and less searching (p. 169)’. The most untouchable topic is the question of the unity of the nation. No dissent is allowed here and the scholastic critique, almost by its own choice, stops at the gate of India’s national unity. Anderson attributes this to ‘the tension of the relationship of so many Indian intellectuals to the traditional faith surrounding them’ (p. 172).
Perhaps, the most provocative of Anderson’s ideas is that the Congress party is the mother of this Hindu-tainted nationalism, and having remained in power for most part of India’s independent history, has frozen Indian politics. He locates the failure of the Indian Left to expand also to this freeze in Indian politics, and hopes that the decay of the dynasty-led Congress will open the gates of new thinking, creativity and initiative. He is willing to gamble on this even if it temporarily leads to the rise to power of the overtly Hindu nationalist BJP. My view on this is that the Indian Left needs to build, as a strategic vision, a Third Alternative beyond Congress and the BJP that is based on carefully worked out alliances with decentralist forces in India represented mainly by multiple regional nationalisms in India (for further elaboration, see my ‘Left and the Third Front’ Economic and Political Weekly, Vol XLIV, No.12, March 21, 2009, pp. 8-11).
While I agree with every word of Anderson’s criticism of Gandhi’s Hindu-saturated Indian nationalism, there is something valuable in Gandhi which is missing in his book perhaps because of the precise scope of the book. The valuable part in Gandhian thinking is the emphasis on environmental sustainability where Gandhi was far ahead of his contemporaries. While Nehru was obsessed with gigantism (dams, steel plants etc.), Gandhi was opposed to excessive materialism that was destructive of nature and laid emphasis on small scale and self-sufficient forms of economic activities. He did not understand the conflict between capitalism’s incessant march towards large scale units of economic activities and environmental destruction but he sensed a danger to nature from large scale forms of economic activities. There is no doubt that there is a link between his adherence to Hinduism and his respect for nature but that may be, ecologically speaking, a positive aspect of the Hindu tradition that need to be valued and celebrated. I will leave this as an unresolved question for the moment along with noting that a prominent Indian intellectual Meera Nanda has strongly argued a link between a variant of Indian environmentalism and sympathy for Hinduism extending into Hindu nationalism.
I wish that this intellectually wonderful book was not marred by so many spelling and grammatical errors in its production which a good copy editing should have taken care of.
This book deserves to be widely read. It has for the first time launched an intellectually powerful frontal attack on the icons of Indian nationalism- Gandhi and Nehru. If this book leads to shifting the intellectual and political interest to B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit leader, and Subhas Bose, a socialist rival of Gandhi, it would have served its purpose in shifting the thinking to a new ‘Idea of India’. The Hindu nationalists are trying to project Sardar Patel, the ‘iron man’ of Indian/Hindu nationalism. I would choose Bhagat Singh, the revolutionary socialist thinker and martyr. Against the Indian nationalist vision of Gandhi, Nehru and Patel, the socialists need to project Ambedkar, Bose and Bhagat Singh as alternatives to construct new narratives of Indian history and politics.
– Pritam Singh,
Oxford Brookes University
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