Nehru and Gandhi.
Nehru and Gandhi.

No saints or miracles

Perry Anderson’s ‘The Indian Ideology’ bores through the orthodoxies of Indian nationalist history.

Namit Arora is a Delhi-based essayist, travel photographer, documentary filmmaker, and former Internet technologist. He is also the author of 'Indians: A Brief History of a Civilization'. (

(This article was first published in our quarterly issue Are We Sure About India? (Vol 26 No 1), January 2013.)
"Nations without a past are contradictions in terms," wrote Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm. Precursors to every modern nation are stories about its past and the present – stories full of invention, exclusion and exaggeration – which help forge a 'national consciousness'. Historians, wrote Hobsbawm, have "always been mixed up in politics" and are "an essential component of nationalism"; they participate in shaping a nation's mythos and self-perception. In his vivid analogy, "Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market." The more nationalist a historian, Hobsbawm held, the weaker his bid to be taken seriously as a historian.
But not all historians are equally complicit. Some are deeply sceptical of dominant national histories and claims of nationhood. "Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation," wrote the scholar Ernst Renan. The sceptical historian may see value in nationalism, but he always sees a pressing need to inspect and critique its claims, assumptions, omissions, myths and heroes. Scrutiny may reveal that a 'cherished tradition' is neither cherished, nor a tradition; likewise supposedly ancient origins and customs, traits and virtues, arts and culture, and other qualities of life and mind said to define the essence of a nation and its people. This approach is especially common among Marxist historians (their analytical orientation defines the genre, not their views on communism). The best of them know that there is no ultimately objective history, but yet seek to write history from below and attempt to expose the actual conditions of social life, including the divisions, conflicts and oppressions that plague any nation.
This, then, is the vantage point of Marxist historian Perry Anderson's magnificent and lucid new work, The Indian Ideology (Three Essays, 2012). What does the title refer to? In his own words, it "is another way of describing what is more popularly known as 'The Idea of India', which celebrates the democratic stability, multi-cultural unity, and impartial secularity of the Indian state as a national miracle". Anderson offers a critique of this idea.

Perhaps his most damning critique is of the lack of intellectual dissent as it relates to the idea of India.

Nationalism in India arose in the 19th century. A native elite, responding to British colonialism, began articulating a consciousness based on a new idea of India. Until then, despite civilisational continuities, the Subcontinent had no sense of itself as 'India', no national feeling based on a shared identity. Rival political units and ethnic groups abounded, divided by language, faith, caste, geography, history and more. There was no historical awareness of the ancient empires of the Mauryas or Guptas, no claim that the Buddha was 'Indian'. This, and much more of the Indian past, would emerge via European scholarship, profoundly shaping 'Hinduism' and Hindu self-knowledge. Anderson surveys the rise of Indian nationalism and offers sharp vignettes of the minds and matters that drove Gandhi, Jinnah, Nehru, Bose, Ambedkar, Mountbatten and others. His analysis of the forces that led to Partition is astute and provocative. He assesses the performance of the independent nation-state and subjects Indian intellectuals to a withering critique for what he diagnoses as their comfort with 'the Indian ideology'. Though not without shortcomings, Anderson has given us a masterwork of critical synthesis – trenchant, original, and bold – that should fuel discussion and debate for some time to come.
Gandhi the Hindu revivalist
A major site of early Indian nationalism was the Indian National Congress, a political party that began with a group of secular-minded professionals – mostly children of Macaulay's English education system – hoping only for more representative colonial rule. Despite some success, it wasn't until after Gandhi's arrival from South Africa that Congress became a popular political force. What distinguished Gandhi from most leaders of nationalist movements, writes Anderson, were three political skills:
However, Anderson writes, Gandhi's success came at a huge cost, mostly due to his religiosity. To him "religion mattered more than politics", more so even than to Ayatollah Khomeini. Anderson presents a fresh portrait of Gandhi, including the peculiar grab-bag of Hindu beliefs, inflected with Christian ones, that he embraced. These would also inspire Gandhi's odd ideas about sexuality and abstinence, which have caused much head-scratching ever since. Would it were that his faith had played out only in the bedroom. Instead, it was part of a worldview that despised the social changes wrought by modernity – machines, railways, hospitals, modern education – and defended all manner of atavisms. To "real intellectual exchange he was a stranger", and he "rarely disavowed directly anything significant he had once said or written". Gandhi, Anderson continues, had "limited knowledge of, or interest in, the outside world", as evident in his extreme misreading of Hitler. Floods and earthquakes were punishments for human failings. Allergic to socialism, his political ideal was a nebulous Ram Rajya.
While Gandhi despised untouchability and even campaigned against it, he naively held that "the caste system is not based on inequality", that discrimination could be removed by transforming minds while preserving castes, and that the "hereditary principle is an eternal principle … To change it is to create disorder". Gandhi believed that Hinduism had a built-in mechanism for social justice since misbehaving Brahmins would be demoted in the next life. Over time, faced with Ambedkar's attacks, he would tone down his views. Anderson observes that Gandhi knew little about Islam, and warned his son to never marry a Muslim for it was against dharma. He claimed to revere the cow, reflexively imagined India as a Hindu nation, and was really a "Hindu revivalist".
The basic facts here are not new; what is striking is Anderson's choice of material and the narrative he weaves from it. One tragic impact of Gandhi's takeover of Congress, writes Anderson, was that he "injected a massive dose of religion – mythology, symbology, theology – into the national movement". Despite his sincere belief in the parity of all religions, Gandhi's was inevitably a Hindu imaginarium. This increased the popular appeal of Congress for Hindus but also sowed the seeds of Muslim alienation in the party, culminating eventually in Partition. Behind the rhetoric, only 3 percent of Congress members were Muslims in the 1930s, when a quarter of the population was Muslim. Gandhi's beliefs inspired his "thoroughly regressive" Khilafat campaign, which was opposed by secular-minded Muslims like Jinnah.
Gandhi's Hindu sensibility also led him to sabotage the British agreement to a separate electorate for the Untouchables, championed by Ambedkar. The Untouchables' leader, Anderson writes, was "intellectually head and shoulders above most of the Congress leaders", and held that, "No matter what the Hindus say, Hinduism is a menace to liberty, equality and fraternity." Gandhi saw things differently. For him, tackling untouchability did not merit a fast unto death. Rather, Gandhi blocked political approaches to empowering the Untouchables. After all, Anderson observes:
More contentiously, Anderson argues that "contrary to legend, [Gandhi's] attitude to violence had always been – and would remain – contingent and ambivalent". Nor did he have much success with Satyagraha – non-violent resistance – for "each time Gandhi had tried it, the British had seen it off". Anderson claims that success in the nationalist struggle came not from the mass mobilisation of Satyagraha, but from Gandhi's rebuilding of Congress, its rise as a popular political force, and the steady expansion of the electoral machinery after 1909.
But even if true, surely Gandhi's Satyagraha amplified the success of the struggle by raising mass consciousness. Moreover, wasn't non-violence still preferable to violent resistance? Anderson seems unconvinced. He admires the secular-leftist leader Bose, with his "fearless militancy and commanding intellectual gifts" and his commitment to inter-communal alliances, and criticises Gandhi's undemocratic eviction of Bose from the Congress. In Anderson's view, the violence that Satyagraha "spared the British was decanted among compatriots" only to show itself later in communalism and Partition. This argument might be more persuasive if it weren't truly an imponderable. Anderson claims that Gandhi's infusion of Congress with Hindu religiosity — of which Satyagraha was a part – "was the origin of the political process that would eventually lead to partition". But did Gandhi's compatriots see Satyagraha as a part of Hindu religiosity? We know that it was adopted and practiced to good effect by oppressed populations in many non-Hindu nations, and even by the Pashtun Muslim leader Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, aka the 'Frontier Gandhi'. It is plausible, however, that in much of India and especially in Congress, Satyagraha, simply by its association with Gandhi, was seen as part of the Hindu political matrix that was alienating and sometimes even threatening to non-Hindus. But what if Gandhi had not transformed Congress in such a way? Anderson writes:
What is lacking in Anderson's portrait of Gandhi? Sharp as it is, it leaves out many non-religious dimensions of his appeal. The cultural critic Vinay Lal has pointed out Gandhi's "extraordinary ability to nurse the wounded, minister to the sick, nurture the young, and bring into the orbit of everyday life those, such as victims of leprosy, who had been shunned by society". Gandhi also led by example, as when he cleaned a public latrine to assert the dignity of labour. A rare and courageous honesty pervades his autobiography. Marxist historian Irfan Habib sees Gandhi as a social reformer and has argued that his worldview was less a defence of tradition than an "assertion of modem values in traditional garb" – as with the parity he accorded men and women – and that his was an ahistorical and creative re-reading of Indian culture, evident in his original take on the Bhagavad Gita. Gandhi was a deeply religious man, yet he wrote, "Every true scripture only gains by criticism. After all we have no other guide but our reason to tell us what may be regarded as revealed and what may not be."

Most Partition narratives are steeped in nationalist posturing, demonisation, and layers of taboo.

Gandhi's voluminous writings, and the open book that his life was, continue to both provoke and resist a definitive assessment. Nonetheless, Anderson's bracing analysis of Gandhi's impact on the nationalist struggle is a singular achievement. It strikes hard at hagiographies of the 'Father of the Nation' and raises unsettling questions about the nation he helped shape, which in turn shaped him and continues to define his legacy today.
The Poisoned Well
Perhaps no single event has had a greater impact on the politics of modern Southasia than Partition, which created the nation-states of India and Pakistan, the latter giving rise to Bangladesh. The violence it triggered forced the migration of 12-18 million people, the largest in world history, a million deaths, and a poisoned well of politics in the region. What were its causes? Which key players deserve more blame than others? Could it have been averted? Not only do perceptions differ sharply but most Partition narratives are steeped in nationalist posturing, demonisation, and layers of taboo.
For instance, Jaswant Singh, a leader of the Indian right-wing party BJP and former defense and foreign minister of India, caused a storm with his 2009 biography of Jinnah. In it Singh assigned greater blame for Partition to Nehru and even praised Jinnah for his sundry qualities. No BJP official attended the book launch, after which Singh was summarily expelled from the BJP and his book banned in Gujarat. So while emotions still run high on the topic, it's also true that at least among scholars today, Singh's interpretation has gained ground. Yet few historians have offered a sharper account of it than Anderson, who humanises many icons of Indian nationalism, restoring to them their rightful share of human follies.
One such icon is Jawaharlal Nehru, a disciple of Gandhi with a crippling psychological dependence on him, but whose "intellectual development [was] not arrested by intense religious belief". He came from a higher social class than Gandhi, was not religious, had extramarital affairs, and "had acquired notions of independence and socialism Gandhi did not share". That said, his "advantages yielded less than might be thought" and he "seems to have learned very little at Cambridge", becoming "a competent orator" but never acquiring "a modicum of literary taste". His Discovery of India, "a steam bath of Schwärmerei" with a "Barbara Cartland streak", reveals "not just Nehru's lack of formal scholarship and addiction to romantic myth, but something deeper … a capacity for self-deception with far-reaching political consequences". He combined qualities like "hard work, ambition, charm, some ruthlessness" with "others that were developmentally ambiguous: petulance, violent outbursts of temper, vanity".
Unwilling to challenge Gandhi's ideas or tactics in Congress, even Nehru reflexively associated Hinduism with the nation. Anderson cites historian Judith Brown's view of Nehru as "an 'utterly reliable' prop of the old guard within the party". Many a time, writes Anderson, Nehru presented the caste system in "a roseate light": a division of labour with advantages, not a division of labourers in a discriminatory hierarchy. "Untouchability, as Ambedkar would note bitterly, Nehru never so much as mentioned." Not only did he stay mum when Gandhi blackmailed Ambedkar on the issue of separate electorates, he would later, with a coldness unbecoming of a chacha, also oppose reservations on the grounds that they would "[lead] to inefficiency and second-rate standards". A poor judge of character, as Prime Minister he surrounded himself with "a court of sycophants" and launched a dynasty with the elevation of his daughter – devoid of any obvious qualifications for the role – to the Congress presidency. Yet he was nevertheless a liberal democrat by conviction. Writes Anderson:
Anderson's portrait of Nehru has omissions, but backed by telling examples from his writing, speeches and actions, it provides a much-needed counterpoint to the paroxysms of adoration more common among liberal Indian historians.
But what key events led to Partition, and what was Nehru's role in them? In 1909, the Minto-Morley Reforms introduced limited self-rule in British India based on a franchise of 2 percent of the population ("aristocratic elements in society and the moderate men," stated the legislation). Those reforms also introduced separate electorates for Hindus and Muslims. This, on one hand, was a progressive safeguard for a minority community in a first-past-the-post voting system. On the other hand, it enthroned religion as the defining element of political identity – a trend that would later take on a life of its own. Anderson recounts how the secular-minded Jinnah, "a member of Congress long before Gandhi" as well as a member of the Muslim League – and hailed by Gopal Krishna Gokhale as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity – left Congress in 1920 in "dismay at the radicalisation of its tactics and disgust at the sacralisation of its appeals, once Gandhi took over". In 1927, Jinnah even "proposed a pact that would reserve Muslims one-third of the seats in a central legislature in exchange for a single rather than separate electorates". Nehru dithered, tried to negotiate down, until Congress scuttled the proposal. "A penultimate chance of unity between the two communities was cast to the winds," writes Anderson.
One might argue that from there on, the exigencies of competitive electoral politics would inevitably have led to Partition. In reality, many more real opportunities to avert it arose and were lost – a story Anderson tells very well. The Muslim League, despite being a national party, had its primary base in the United Provinces. For decades it competed unfavourably with other Muslim parties in Punjab and Bengal, which made it easier for Congress to regard the League with hubris. Meanwhile, Anderson writes, the Congress was "monolithically Hindu" in the 1930s, and it"commanded the loyalty of an overwhelming majority of the Hindu electorate, but had minimal Muslim support". Given the demographics, free elections would grant it absolute control of any future central legislature. Drunk on its position of strength, the party blew every chance to make concessions "to ensure that the quarter of the population that was Muslim would not feel itself a permanently impotent – and potentially vulnerable – minority".
By the late 1930s, the League had increased its following among Muslims and Jinnah was the sole spokesperson of the Muslim parties at round-table conferences. Even then, he "probably aimed at a confederation rather than complete separation". In 1940, he did voice the two-nation theory in Lahore, demanding "autonomy and sovereignty" for Muslim majority areas, but he spoke even then "of constituent 'states' in the plural and did not mention the word 'Pakistan' – which Jinnah subsequently complained was being pinned on him by Congress". As late as 1943, Anderson holds, Jinnah was opposed to the creation of Pakistan. Down to the end, writes Anderson:
Similar accounts have been offered by the historian Ayesha Jalal, and by jurists H M Seervai and A G Noorani. Jinnah was apparently nothing like the glowering scoundrel that bore his name in Attenborough's Gandhi.

Anderson mischievously ponders that, even without Congress, political awakening may have made bloody conflict between the two religious communities inevitable.

If Nehru comes off smelly in Anderson's account, so does Mountbatten. "British imperialism did not favour partition" in Southasia, writes Anderson; Mountbatten, that "mendacious, intellectually limited hustler", gave in when no deal could be reached. For Partition to have a chance of being fair and peaceful, "at least a year – the year London had originally set as the term of the Raj – of orderly administration and preparation was needed. Its conveyance within six weeks was a sentence of death and devastation to millions." Mountbatten, having lit the fuse, "handed over the buildings to their new owners hours before they blew up, in what has a good claim to be the most contemptible single act in the annals of the empire". When the smoke cleared, a genocide had taken place, a "moth-eaten" Pakistan had come into being on little more than a religious identity, and the major goal of building political safeguards for Muslims in Hindu-majority regions – Jinnah's core constituency – had not been realised.
If Congress leaders were largely responsible for Partition, is Anderson too soft on British imperialism? He posits that during the initial phase of imperial rule, the British applied divide-and-rule to "more favourably fragmented political, ethnic and linguistic units" than religion. Only when modern nationalism made Hinduism a source of political identity, "the British accommodated the initial Muslim reaction to it with alacrity, granting separate electorates. But after that, no viceroy stoked religious tensions deliberately." Is this true? It could be; after all, no viceroy wanted a law-and-order problem on his hands. However, was it not in the British interest to at least keep the two communities divided and competing with each other for the master's attention? Was there no element of imperial venality in the decision to create separate electorates – which, arguably, sowed the seeds for Partition before Gandhi even joined Congress? Nor does Anderson go back far enough to consider the role the British idea of religion unwittingly played in shaping the emergent Hindu identity, especially the muscular Hinduism imagined on monotheistic lines. Anderson does, however, consider a more provocative (mischievous?) imponderable – that even without Congress, political awakening may have, sooner or later, made bloody conflict between the two religious communities inevitable. He adds:
Investigating the 'miracles'
Why did democracy survive in India? India famously had none of the conditions thought to be necessary for the flourishing of democracy, such as an egalitarian social order and an ethos of individualism. The elite brown men of Congress followed the white men, inheriting the colonial "machinery of administration and coercion". They made little "effort to meet even quite modest requirements of social equality or justice". Instead, writes Anderson:
The masses voted but didn't organise for collective action due to the deep social stratification of caste, along which lines they would later be mobilised in politics. The caste system, concludes Anderson, combined with a polity that preferred otherworldly explanations for their earthly misery, "is what preserved Hindu democracy from disintegration". There is truth in this observation, if also a serving of reductionism and cultural determinism. Was there no role for other contingent factors, such as the taste for representative self-rule that an elite class of Indians had acquired in the closing decades of the Raj? Is it not possible that India's massive ethnic diversity made democracy a particularly suitable means of resolving conflict among communities with competing claims and ways of life?
Anderson examines in some detail the Indian idea of secularism – in which the state is not presumed separate but is an impartial patron to all religions, at least in theory. In reality, the fortunes of Muslims, which he quantifies, have worsened sharply, even in state institutions. Even the "Indian armed forces are a Hindu preserve, garnished with Sikhs" – only 1 percent of them are Muslim, with practically none in the secret services. Despite official secularism, the state rests, "sociologically speaking, on Hindu caste society", writes Anderson. "The continued dominance of upper castes in public institutions – administration, police, courts, universities, media – belongs to the same matrix." He contextualises the rise of the BJP and sees it more as an inflamed tumescence on a body of Hinduised secularism, which, he correctly notes, exists "by default, not prescription". Many even hold that 'India is secular because it is Hindu'. In other words, the gap between the ideal and the reality of secularism is large. Pride in such feeble secularism, Anderson quotes an Indian critic, is self-congratulation that "overlooks or rationalises the sectarian religious outlook pervading large areas of contemporary social and political practice".
Anderson points out that India's preservation of its territorial unity, often spoken of as a miraculous feat, is far from unique; hardly any post-colonial states have broken up. This unity, often held to be a sacred value, is also a dubious thing since massive coercive force has gone into preserving it. The Indian intelligentsia's self-censorship on this issue, meanwhile, allows for public ignorance of this cost. Anderson's account of Nehru's wily seizure and mishandling of Kashmir is morally astute; even in Indian academia today, any talk of self-determination is "garlic to the vampire", and risks repression by the state. The bureaucracy that rules Kashmir "under military command contains scarcely a Muslim, and jobs in it can be openly advertised for Hindus only". No less astute is Anderson's account of the insurgencies in the Northeast, large parts of which have long been under brutal military repression. He recounts how Nehru's vanity and delusions led to the disastrous war with China. Nehru's regime also "made it a crime to question the territorial integrity of India", and enacted the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – one of a "barrage of liberticide laws", and a "licence to murder … [by which] Indian troops and paramilitaries were guaranteed impunity for atrocities". Indeed, as Anderson points out, the Indian government has since made ample use of the AFSPA against its own citizens in ways that make the British massacre at Jallianwala Bagh look like a mere trifle.
For what is perfectly obvious, but never seen or spoken, is that the hand of AFSPA has fallen where the reach of Hinduism stops. The three great insurgencies against the Indian state have come in Kashmir, Nagaland-Mizoram and Punjab — regions respectively Muslim, Christian and Sikh. There it met popular feeling with tank and truncheon, pogrom and death squad. Today, the same configuration threatens to be repeated [with] pre-Aryan tribal populations with their own forest cults.
Anderson also discusses the Indian Constitution, caste politics, public corruption, activism of the Supreme Court, social welfare schemes, and more. Perhaps his most damning critique is of the lack of intellectual dissent as it relates to the idea of India. He approvingly cites from the work of some Indian scholars, but a clear subtext of The Indian Ideology is that the leading historians and public intellectuals in India – and also the media – are not critical enough, present too sanguine a view of India, and are unable or unwilling to make obvious sociological connections. In "patriotic reveries" they "fall over themselves in tributes to their native land". Anderson cites examples from Ramachandra Guha and Amartya Sen to Sunil Khilnani, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and others. Driven perhaps by the slights of colonial scholarship, they have created new half-truths, silences and evasions in accord with the idea of India – "a late mutant of Indian nationalism" – and are failing in their duty to adequately represent the Third Estate.
One might ask if public intellectuals elsewhere are more responsible, but no answer can dent the validity of Anderson's claim, nor shed light on the ways in which the Indian ideology is different or can be made less toxic. He acknowledges the work of many dissenting, self-critical Indians, but insisted in a recent interview that "as an overarching set of tropes about India, the ideology remains in place, and I believe hasn't yet been the object of a systematic critique. The hope of the book would be to set the ball rolling for less general piety about them."
Such accusations, and the hauteur and irreverence Anderson delivers them with, are bound to cause pain and to provoke angry, defensive reactions. Detractors will claim to find in this work the ghosts of the Raj and Orientalism, or the rants of a Hindu-hating Marxist. Others will latch on to a particular argument or fact in the book and erect a straw man in an attempt to demolish the whole. This would be a grave mistake. The task of the intellectual historian is not to give pleasure or to get every answer right; it is to help clear some cobwebs of the mind, challenge orthodoxies and stimulate debate. All national histories peddle fictions and lies – some more damaging than others – and so does India's. Trying now to get to a better future behooves us to better understand our past. Anderson's dance of destruction has also opened up new avenues of self-knowledge in the Subcontinent. We would do well to engage with it calmly and honestly.
~This article was first published in our quarterly issue Are We Sure About India? (Vol 26 No 1), January 2013.
~ Namit Arora is the creator of Shunya, an online photo journal. He divides his time between San Francisco and New Delhi.
Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian